It’s only February, but who’s kidding whom here? It has been a month since the CFP National Championship and we’re already looking ahead to the start of the 2020 season, circling the most compelling games on the calendar.
The criteria here is more games of interest than of importance. That’s why you won’t see the annual Texas-Oklahoma, Michigan-Ohio State and Auburn-Alabama rivalries. We’ve all come to expect those games to matter, so we’re looking for a different mix of matchups that will draw people in for other reasons.
With that said, here’s a way-too-early look at the games we’re most looking forward to, listed in order of appearance:
Michigan at Washington, Sept. 5
Set aside the abrupt retirement of Chris Petersen and the ascension of Jimmy Lake to head coach at Washington. With all due respect, this game really isn’t about that — or those picturesque views of Husky Stadium, which looks out over the bay in Seattle, either. Rather, the focus will be squarely on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who finds himself squarely on the hot seat and can’t afford starting the season off with a loss.
North Dakota State at Oregon, Sept. 5
A 12-win season and a Rose Bowl win was great and all, but now what? With quarterback Justin Herbert gone, who will Oregon turn to behind center? Coach Mario Cristobal has a lot of questions to answer, and not much time to do it. North Dakota State is no ordinary cupcake FCS season-opening opponent. The Bison are a powerhouse, having won three consecutive FCS National Championships and riding a 37-game winning streak.
Texas at LSU, Sept. 12
Welcome to the A/C Bowl, Part II. The first installment last year in Austin was a wild ride, and not just the pre-game DBU debate and the game itself when LSU quarterback Joe Burrow began his Heisman Trophy campaign with a bang. The real fireworks came afterward when LSU coach Ed Orgeron claimed that the air conditioning in the visitor’s locker room wasn’t working, which Texas denied. When asked about returning the favor, Oregon laughed and said, “I’m sure we have a plan or two to make them as comfortable as they can possibly be.”
Auburn vs. UNC, Sept. 12
The ACC is in desperate need of a team other than Clemson to step up. Could it be UNC in Year 2 of the Mack Brown Era? Beating Auburn in Atlanta would be a start. UNC returns its stellar freshman quarterback Sam Howell, while Auburn’s defense will be without standout defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.
Georgia at Alabama, Sept. 19
Nick Saban is bound to lose to one of his former assistant coaches someday, right? I mean, we’re at 19 wins and counting, and the streak is bordering on ridiculous. So maybe with Georgia coach Kirby Smart coming back to Tuscaloosa for the first time since he left his post as defensive coordinator, it’s time for it to end. Alabama will be breaking in an inexperienced starting quarterback, and Georgia’s defense is loaded. The loss of longtime starting quarterback Jake Fromm hurts, of course, but replacing him with Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman and bringing in Todd Monken to overhaul the offense means the Bulldogs are dangerous.
Florida State at Boise State, Sept. 19
Last year’s second-half meltdown against Boise State was the beginning of the end of Willie Taggart’s short-lived run as head coach at Florida State. But that doesn’t mean the pain is coming to an end for Seminole fans just because Taggart is gone. Going on the road to the blue turf of Boise, where the Broncos are primed for a huge season, will be a tough task for a team looking to regain respectability under new coach Mike Norvell.
Oklahoma at Army, Sept. 26
How often do we see legacy programs like Oklahoma go on the road to play a service academy? Most schools avoid Army and its triple-option offense at all cost. But the Sooners are making the risky, albeit scenic, trip to West Point, New York, early in the season and with a young quarterback (Spencer Rattler) in tow.
Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 3
Something tells me the reunion of Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin won’t feature a lot of hugs at midfield. Kiffin certainly cherished his time as offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2014-16, when Saban essentially threw him a lifeline and helped turn around his career, but now that he’s back in the SEC at Ole Miss, don’t be surprised if he takes aim at his old boss. The talent disparity is obvious but Kiffin is nothing if not creative and he’ll have one of the most electric quarterbacks in the conference (John Rhys Plumlee) to work with.
Texas A&M at Auburn, Oct. 17
It feels like every story about Jimbo Fisher begins or ends with a note about the eye-popping $75 million guaranteed contract Texas A&M gave him back in December 2017. And now it’s time, in his third year leading the program and with veteran quarterback Kellen Mond back for his senior season, for the Aggies to get their return on investment. They should be undefeated heading into the trip to Auburn, after all, coming off games against Abilene Christian, North Texas, Colorado, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Fresno State. Beating the Tigers would signal a step forward. Losing would raise serious questions and start the hot-seat talk right away.
Alabama at LSU, Nov. 7
Man oh man did LSU enjoy beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa last year, celebrating on the field as if it had won a national championship. Joe Burrow was carried away on his teammates’ shoulders, for goodness sake. And that very public celebration would have been enough to light a fire under Alabama for the rematch of bitter SEC rivals. Strength coach Scott Cochran has been known to make a motivational mountain out of a mole hill, after all. But then a clip of Ed Orgeron shouting, “Roll Tide, what? F- you!” in the locker room was leaked and it sparked what will surely be one of the most intense games in the rivalry when Alabama goes into Death Valley.
Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 7
Cover your ears, Dabo Swinney. This isn’t meant to be disrespectful to you or your conference. We all know how you feel about that. But look at your schedule and find the playoff-caliber test. Whether it’s a weak ACC (not your fault, of course) or an out-of-conference schedule that includes Akron, Citadel and South Carolina (kind of your fault) there’s just not a lot there. So it will all come down to one game: a trip to South Bend against a Notre Dame team that has high expectations and a senior quarterback in Ian Book. Win and you’re in. Lose and the dream of taking back the national championship might be over in November.
Mississippi State at Ole Miss, Nov. 26
Who can forget the end of last year’s Egg Bowl, when a pretend dog urination gesture led to a missed extra point and an Ole Miss loss? In an already storied and colorful rivalry, that was one for the ages. But then the dominoes started to fall. Ole Miss fired coach Matt Luke and replaced him with the brash and enigmatic Lane Kiffin. Not to be outdone, Mississippi State then fired Joe Moorhead a month later and stole back the spotlight by replacing him with the always eccentric Mike Leach. It’s fitting then that their first meeting will have center stage as the lone FBS game on Thanksgiving night.
Others to watch
Ohio State at Oregon, Sept. 12: The beginning of a great home-and-home series serves as a rematch for the inaugural CFP National Championship Game in 2015.
Tennessee at Oklahoma, Sept. 12: Two storied programs will meet, but the first big test for Sooners’ quarterback Spencer Rattler will be the biggest draw.
Penn State at Virginia Tech, Sept. 12: Can Penn State take the next step as a program? It starts here.
Washington at Washington State, Sept. 27: The Apple Cup will have new coaches on both sides with Jimmy Lake taking over the Huskies’ program and Nick Rolovich leading the Coogs.
Nevada at UNLV, Nov. 28: A fight broke out after the game-winning touchdown in overtime last year. Don’t be surprised if emotions are running high in the rematch.