Sure, it’s the first year of the College Football Playoff, and much of the talk at the start of the season is about which four teams will be playing at the end.
But there are plenty of important games on the schedule before the leaves turn colors that could play a role in helping the selection committee decide which teams go to the national semifinals.
Here are the best early nonconference games:
MICHIGAN STATE at OREGON, Sept. 6: These opposites, no doubt, will attract a lot of eyeballs. Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota is back to lead an Oregon offense that rolled up better than 45 points and 560 yards a game last season against a Michigan State defense that held opponents to 13 points and 250 yards. The Ducks’ defense will be tested by Connor Cook, who elevated himself to elite status by passing for more than 300 yards against both Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
WISCONSIN vs. LSU, at Houston, Aug. 30: Both are traditionally strong teams in their conferences, and both have lots of questions. The Badgers need to find a quarterback, and they have to replace six of their front seven on defense. They won’t see a faster opponent before bowl season. LSU sustained huge losses at the skilled positions. Even though the Tigers have rattled off back-to-back 10-win seasons and beat SEC champ Auburn by two TDs last year, there’s some uneasiness in Baton Rouge. A win here could help LSU regain its mojo.
UCLA at TEXAS, at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 13: Everything is trending up in Westwood. Coach Jim Mora already has 19 wins, most ever in the first two years by a UCLA coach, and he brings back one of the country’s most dangerous QBs in Brett Hundley. First-year coach Charlie Strong is trying to keep Texas fans’ expectations in check, but the Longhorns might be pretty good. Yes, they have issues at QB, but the defense could keep them in a lot of games. This will be a springboard for the winner.
MIAMI at NEBRASKA, Sept. 20: For all those times Tom Osborne lamented the home-field advantage Miami held in those Orange Bowl meetings of the 1980s and ’90s, the Hurricanes go to Lincoln for the first time since 1976. These teams played five games between 1984 and 2002, and four decided national championships. This meeting is important for two programs looking to re-establish themselves in the national hierarchy, but it also will appeal to fans’ sense of nostalgia.
CLEMSON at GEORGIA, Aug. 30: These teams have a history of playing down-to-the-wire games against each other. With both teams breaking in new QBs, don’t expect it to be as high scoring. The key matchup is Georgia’s electrifying running back, Todd Gurley, against a Tigers’ defensive front that might be the nation’s best. No matter the outcome, it’s great preparation for Georgia’s SEC opener against South Carolina on Sept. 13 and Clemson’s ACC opener against defending national champ Florida State on Sept. 20.
MICHIGAN at NOTRE DAME, Sept. 6: The series between two of the hallowed names in college football will go on hiatus after this season. The Wolverines upset the Irish last year, but they lost six of their last eight, and coach Brady Hoke is in dire need of a turnaround. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be calling the plays for returning QB Devin Gardner. For Notre Dame, QB Everett Golson is back after being suspended for the 2013 fall semester for academic impropriety. He led the Irish to the national championship game the year before.