Eight September Games That Will Shape the CFB Season

Photo credit - Steve Dykes - Getty Images
Last season, Ohio State proved the old adage that if you’re going to lose a game, lose it early. They stumbled at home in September, falling to Virginia Tech by two touchdowns, but come December, they still managed to impress the CFP committee enough to grab a spot in the playoff. You know the rest.

There’s another old adage though, that might be more fitting in the new playoff era of college football. It’s the one that says you can’t win a championship in September, but you can lose one. The committee looks at all 12 or 13 games on your schedule, and (unless you’re Baylor) the elite programs have learned that the days of playing four cupcakes in September are necessarily over.

Change comes slowly, and the 2015 slate doesn’t have nearly enough compelling September matchups, but I’ve identified six non-conference games and two crucial Week 3 conference contests that college football watchers should still be talking about when the snow flies.


Thursday, Sept. 3 - Michigan at Utah

Okay, neither team is in the preseason Top 25 Coaches Poll, but if you’ve figured out where Fox Sports 1 is on your channel guide, this is the first college football game you are likely to watch this season. The Utes want a fast start as they compete in the rugged PAC-12 South, but the game is even bigger for the Wolverines and their quest to return to elite status under new coach Jim Harbaugh. Few observers doubt that Harbaugh will get them there...the only question is how soon. Last year the Utes visited the Big House and came away with a solid 26-10 win in a bizarre game that was delayed two hours by lightning. The Utes return 14 starters from a team that beat USC, UCLA and Stanford a year ago. Michigan avoids the best teams in the B1G West this year, so some are calling for a 9 or 10-win season for them, and that will be hard to do if they can’t get past this tough road opener unscathed. But this game makes the season-shaping list basically for just two reasons. Jim and Harbaugh.


Saturday, Sept. 5 - Wisconsin vs Alabama (at AT&T Stadium)

Alabama has opted for a series of lucrative, neutral site openers rather than play a true non-conference road game outside the southeast anytime soon, and the Badgers, the early favorites in the B1G West, make the trip to Arlington this season. Wisconsin was last seen upsetting Auburn in the Outback Bowl, so they won’t be intimidated by a tough SEC opponent. But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for new Badgers coach Paul Chryst, who has to head south without Melvin Gordon to face a Crimson Tide team still smarting from their semifinal playoff loss to Ohio State. Alabama will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and replacing early round draft picks Amari Cooper and Landon Collins among others, but Nick Saban’s young talent pool is bottomless. This one has blowout potential, but the Badgers usually hang around even against teams with superior talent, and a loss here could doom the Tide’s playoff chances.


Saturday., Sept 5 - Texas A&M at Arizona State

The Sun Devils are coming off a 10-3 season, and are dead serious about winning the PAC-12. Ranked #16 in the preseason, ASU faces both USC and UCLA in their first five games, so this primetime, ESPN Week One tilt in Tempe will test their mettle in front of a national TV audience. The Aggies aren’t ranked, because their path to a bounce back season from 8-5 runs through the SEC West. But they do get Alabama and Auburn at home, and if new coordinator  John Chavis can put a defense on the field, they will be dangerous in every game they play. Sophomore QB Kyle Allen and a great young receiving corps will join a couple of transfer running backs for the Aggies to provide a real test for Todd Graham’s highly-regarded Sun Devil defense. ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici is an experienced leader on offense, but that’s where the question marks are for this team. The early line favors the visiting Aggies by about 3. The winners should become instant contenders in their conference.


Saturday, Sept. 12 - Oregon at Michigan State

This Week Two matchup in East Lansing of the preseason #5 Ducks and the #6 Spartans is a rematch of last year’s 46-27 Oregon win in Eugene. MSU returns one of the nation’s best QBs in Connor Cook, and Oregon replaces Heisman winner Marcus Mariota with transfer student Vernon Adams, who threw for over 10,000 yards in three seasons at (FCS) Eastern Washington. The Spartans only losses in 2014 were to the two CFP finalists, and they are very strong in the trenches, with two preseason All-American offensive linemen in center Jack Allen and tackle Jack Conklin, and a defensive front led by Shilique Calhoun. Stanford is Oregon’s best (only?) competition in a relatively tame PAC-12 North so the MSU game represents the best chance of an Oregon “L” before a tough closing stretch that includes @ASU, @Stanford, USC. It’s hard to imagine the loser of this game making it to the 4-team playoff.  


Saturday, Sept. 19 - Stanford at USC

The PAC-12 gets right down to it in Week 3, in a game with CFP implications for both schools. The conventional wisdom is that USC is all the way back...sanctions endured...roster beefed up...a Heisman candidate at quarterback in Cody Kessler. They are ranked #10 by the coaches this preseason, while others (i.e. Phil Steele’s #3) think even more highly of them. Steele has the Cardinal at #7, the coaches poll at #21, so this key conference game playing out before the leaves fall is something to watch. Stanford has perhaps the easier path to the PAC-12 title game, getting Oregon at home and competing in the weaker North division, so a road win against the South favorites would be a sign that the Cardinal are legitimate playoff contenders. Easier said than done, however...because the Trojans are loaded. Returning Kessler (39 TD, 5 INT), an intact O-line, 7 defensive starters, and the usual complement of skill position players, USC has the talent, and finally the depth to reach the playoff. But...they are at Arizona State the following week, and they must at least win one of those two games even to survive September.


Monday, Sept. 8 - Ohio State at Virginia Tech

This is a season-shaping game because it involves the nation’s preseason #1 team and its defending national champion….just as every subsequent Ohio State game will be until they lose one. But it’s way more than that. It’s a national TV night game in Blacksburg on Labor Day...a rematch of the Buckeyes’ only loss in 2014. Ohio State faces the prospect of having to play down a quart, with suspensions to four key contributors against a very solid and confident Hokies squad backed by their legendary fans at Lane Stadium. There’s plenty of drama, in other words. We’ll also answer the biggest offseason question in college football: Who will play quarterback for Ohio State? I expect all three candidates to take snaps from center against the Hokies. Meanwhile, VT quarterback Michael Brewer is back to try to reprise his winning performance (23/36, 199 yds, 2 TD, 2 INT) of a year ago. The Bucks are early double-digit favorites, but a closer game wouldn’t surprise.


Saturday, Sept 19 - Auburn at LSU

Like the USC-Stanford affair, this early season clash of two SEC West heavyweights matches preseason favorites in a crucial conference game. The (#7 Auburn) Tigers and the (#13 LSU) Tigers join Alabama as the top three teams in the grueling West, where one loss can be overlooked, but two will probably rule a team out of playoff contention.  Auburn’s schedule is favorable after this early road trip (home for Bama, Georgia, Ole Miss and Miss St) but they’ll be bringing first-year starter Jeremy Johnson at quarterback into a very hostile venue in his third game. Auburn drilled LSU 41-7 a year ago, but the Baton Rouge bunch returns 15 starters, a more experienced Brandon Harris at QB, and a star in the making in Leonard Fournette at running back. Then there’s that crowd. A lot of pundits think this is the year that Auburn unseats Alabama at the top of the SEC. But if LSU can top Auburn at home in Week 3, don’t be surprised to see Les Miles’ squad in the playoff conversation well into November.


Thursday, Sept 3 - TCU at Minnesota

Jerry Kill’s Minnesota Gophers would probably prefer to host the team from Ft. Worth, Texas in mid-November, but instead it’s coming up opposite the Michigan-Utah game on the season’s opening Thursday night. This game is important in part because Minnesota is playing at home and they made some noise last year as a coming program in the Big Ten West. But mostly, it’s because the TCU Horned Frogs are ranked #2 in the preseason polls, and their every move will be scrutinized, right up through their Nov. 27 showdown with Baylor. Gary Patterson’s Frogs look to be on a mission in 2015. After being snubbed in favor of Ohio State by the playoff committee a year ago, they took out their frustration on a good Ole Miss team, 42-3 in their bowl game. They’ll arrive in the Twin Cities with the preseason Heisman favorite Trevone Boykin behind center, and 14 other returning starters to back him up. Patterson’s swarming defense held the Gophers’ star back David Cobb to 41 yards on 15 carries as the Frogs pounded Minnesota 30-7 a year ago. And David Cobb is gone. TCU is an early 2-touchdown favorite. That might not be enough, but anything can happen on the road.


Let’s get on with it, shall we?


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