It has felt like forever since Alabama knocked off Clemson for the national title. But worry not college football aficionados, it’s getting closer. Spring games are in the books and in just a couple short months, preview magazines will be hitting the shelves. Before we know it we’ll be settling in for another exciting college football season.
I recently listed the best ten games each conference has to offer in 2016, but here I’ve whittled those down to the ten best games to look forward to in 2016. Fans have been looking forward to some of these games for two or three years. Do those games look as exciting now as they did when they were scheduled? Let’s find out.
10. LSU at Wisconsin (Saturday, September 3)
We begin the Top 10 Games of 2016 with the first of four games from the opening weekend (3:30 pm est, ABC). If that doesn’t get you as riled up for college football as spring game attendance numbers do then I don’t know what will. This is the one game where the off-field storylines probably over-shadow the on-field ones. Dave Aranda just became LSU’s defensive coordinator after leaving the same position at Wisconsin. Not only is an SEC team playing north of the Mason-Dixon line a rare occurrence, it’s an SEC team playing a virtual road game, in Wisconsin. Oh, and it’s at Lambeau Field. There have been just a few classic games played there.
9. Oklahoma at Houston (Saturday, September 3)
Oklahoma is getting a lot more than it bargained for, because I’m guessing they didn’t think Houston would be a top 15-type team when this game was announced a couple years ago. A Sooner defense that replaces half of its starters, including its best pass-rushers, will get to face dynamic Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. On the other side, Houston will be starting four new defensive backs and gets to try and limit Heisman contender Baker Mayfield. Expect points, lots of them (ABC, Noon est). And the loser? They leave opening weekend not being able to afford another loss the rest of the way if they want to make the Playoff.
8. Florida State at Ole Miss (Monday, September 5)
The Seminoles and the Rebels doesn’t have quite the same ring to it that some of the other games on this list do, but it could be just as important. The Seminoles will be ranked highly to begin the year, but a loss on opening weekend would leave them no margin for error the rest of the season. The Rebels probably missed their golden opportunity a season ago, but their bid to dispel that notion can get off to a strong start with a win here. A few years of great recruiting classes mean Ole Miss can match up with Florida State talent wise. The Rebels also have a quarterback returning in Chad Kelly,who led the Rebels to wins over Alabama and LSU last year. On an opening weekend that features plenty of intriguing match-ups, this stand-alone game on Labor Day night is the perfect ending.
7. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Saturday, September 17)
These two teams have scheduled tough out-of-conference contests for years, but this one raises the bar. It’s hard to say this game has lost some of its luster when both teams could be ranked in the top 10. As it sits now however, there is a lot more uncertainty between these two programs than fans would have hoped when the game was announced. Having to replace key starters on defense, it will be difficult for Oklahoma to replicate the success it had last year, and it’s hard to know what to expect out of a Buckeye team that brings back just six starting players. All of these factors keep this game from being top five on this list. Both of these teams easily reload, and with Heisman contenders at quarterback in Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett, this match-up is still one of the best non-conferences games we’ll see all year (7:30 pm est on Fox).
6. Baylor at Oklahoma (Saturday, November 12)
The shift in the Big 12 has been amazing the past couple years, with Baylor vs. TCU being the game. Oklahoma took back some of that hold with its Big 12 championship last year. With TCU’s season looking much more like a rebuild, it leaves the Bears and Sooners to battle as the conference favorites. Both teams should have potent offenses, and with questionable defenses, this game should provide an entertaining four hours even if both teams aren’t still in the playoff race.
5. Stanford at Notre Dame (Saturday, October 15)
The Cardinal and Irish played an instant classic last season that Stanford won narrowly, 38-36. It was effectively a playoff elimination game and could be again this season. Stanford will have to replace Kevin Hogan, who won 36 games under center for the Cardinal. That won’t be a huge disadvantage in a 2016 Pac-12 conference that sees a lot of teams having to replace their starting signal-caller as well. Because of this, Stanford will have its sights set on another Pac-12 championship, but this mid-season non-conference game will determine if the conference title or a playoff spot is the Cardinal’s ceiling. On the other side, Notre Dame will be looking to make up for an opportunity lost last year when they came so close to making the Playoff, even after suffering a multitude of injuries at key spots. This game will be their best chance to put a statement win on their resume (7:30 pm est, NBC).
4. Alabama vs. USC (Saturday, September 3)
This is one of the aforementioned games that fans have looked forward to for years, since the day it was announced. Though the Trojans haven’t exactly lived up to their end of the bargain in terms of making this a matchup of playoff contenders, the game is still reason enough to clear your schedule on the season’s opening Saturday night. Alabama may have gotten back to the top of the college football mountain, but the defense was still vulnerable against playmakers, which USC has. Both teams will have a new starting quarterback under center and what a way to break them in. Need one more reason to tune in? These storied programs haven’t played in over 30 years, so who knows when we’ll see it again (ABC at 8:00 pm est).
3. Clemson at Florida State (Saturday, October 29)
It’s the annual “which team is the ACC’s playoff contender” game. Florida State has every starter returning on offense, most important of which is electric running back Dalvin Cook. Clemson has the Heisman favorite in quarterback Deshaun Watson. Both offenses should be great, but this one will be decided by whose defense makes enough plays. The Seminoles’ stop unit has been underwhelming the last couple years considering the talent on hand, and the Tigers’ have to replace five defensive starters who left early for the NFL draft.
2. Michigan at Ohio State (Saturday, November 26)
“The Game” finally returned to national prominence thanks to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh had Michigan ahead of schedule in 2015, but the Buckeyes showed they still had a ways to go, laying the smack down on the Wolverines to end each team’s regular season. This year looks to be different, however. Michigan might be ranked in the top five while Ohio State has just six starters returning. With the Wolverine’s trying to make a playoff push, will it be Urban Meyer’s squad in the spoiler role?
1. Alabama at LSU (Saturday, November 5)
For almost a decade, the winner of this game became an instant front-runner for a spot in the BCS Championship Game or College Football Playoff. This year will be no different. After answering questions about their dynasty potentially falling, the Crimson Tide will have few naysayers this season. With the cupboard as full as it always is for Nick Saban, he’ll be expected to lead Alabama to the Playoff once again. On the other side is LSU, which feels like it’s coming off a disappointing season, even after finishing 10-3. With the most starters in the nation returning (spurring a likely top 10 pre-season ranking), this is Les Miles chance to over-take Saban and get back atop the SEC.