Fewer than three months away from kicking off the 2021 college football season, it’s time to start getting excited about star-studded matchups and historic rivalries. Here’s a look at the best games each week to whet your appetite for the upcoming season.
Week 0: Hawaii at UCLA
In a relatively light first week, this West Coast matchup offers some potential to steal the headlines. Hawaii has appeared in three straight bowl games, while UCLA comes off a 3–4 season with all four losses decided by one possession. The Bruins haven’t had a winning record since 2015, but with the 31st-best recruiting class coming in, according to 247Sports, this should be an intriguing showdown to get the ’21 season underway.
Week 1: Georgia vs. Clemson
There are several headliners the first full week but none better than Georgia–Clemson in Charlotte. Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde had the Tigers and Bulldogs second and third, respectively, in his Way-Too Early top 25 rankings for 2021. JT Daniels returns at QB for UGA, and he’ll face D.J. Uiagalelei in Clemson’s first game post–Trevor Lawrence. Daniels had more than 1,200 passing yards and 10 TDs in four games last year. Uiagalelei threw for nearly 800 yards and completed almost 70% of his passes in his two starts in ’20. Expect this game to carry some early College Football Playoff implications, with the winner picking up a résumé-building victory.
Other options: Penn State at Wisconsin—In a matchup between two Big Ten teams coming off disappointing seasons, this could give fans some indication as to how the conference will shape up in 2021. Last year, Penn State lost its season opener in Bloomington with things mostly going downhill from there. Wisconsin, meanwhile, started off on fire before stumbling across the finish line. Miami vs. Alabama (in Atlanta)—Alabama plays its first game since losing Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Jaylen Waddle, etc. How dominant do the Crimson Tide look against a Hurricanes team coming off an 8–3 season? This game should be an early barometer.
Week 2: Oregon at Ohio State
This Pac-12–Big Ten contest looks to be one of the better games on the 2021 docket. Both project to potentially be top 15 programs in ’21, but neither seems to know who its starting quarterback will be. Nevertheless, this game could provide some good indication about each team’s depth at skill positions as well as whether we’re looking at two pretty good teams or two great ones.
Other options: Iowa at Iowa State—The Hawkeyes are on the radar of many because of their dominant close to 2021. They’ll have a tough early-season test in Ames against a Cyclones team that finished ninth in the AP poll last year and didn’t lose a ton of talent. Iowa QB Spencer Petras has the opportunity to show how much he’s developed after an uneven first season. Washington at Michigan—Oregon–Ohio State isn’t the only noteworthy Pac-12–Big Ten matchup this week. Like Oregon, Washington figures to contend for a top 15 ranking, while Michigan will have many questions to answer—including but not limited to who its QB will be. This game presents a stiff early test for the Wolverines at home and will shed some light on whether Jim Harbaugh has this program headed back in the right direction.
Week 3: Cincinnati at Indiana
Both of these teams felt disrespected in 2020; Cincinnati because its then 9–0 team wasn’t good enough for the playoff and Indiana because even after finishing the regular season 6–1, it played sub-.500 Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl. In any case, both teams should be back in contention for a New Year’s Six game. The Bearcats have senior QB Desmond Ridder returning for another year, while the Hoosiers hope to get Michael Penix Jr. back healthy to go along with a new receiving corps.
Other options: Alabama at Florida—This game may not have the same juice as last year’s SEC title game, with both teams having much more inexperienced rosters. Even still, how can you look away from two teams with immense talent, who could both contend for a playoff spot? Nebraska at Oklahoma—Will 2021 finally be the year Scott Frost turns things around in Lincoln? Well, playing one of the top teams in the country certainly won’t help. However, it’s an early-season test for his program in a major rivalry game that could give the Huskers a momentum boost heading into Big Ten play if they show some fight against a top-flight Sooners team.
Week 4: Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin
It’s hard to think of a game more noteworthy than one featuring two historic programs battling it out at a historic venue. That’s what’ll happen in late September when the Fighting Irish and Badgers convene at Soldier Field for what should be an excellent matchup. Notre Dame has some retooling to do after losing nine players in the draft; Wisconsin needs to find out if Graham Mertz is the QB of the future. In spite of these questions, the Badgers’ defense will still be stout and the Fighting Irish offense will likely be led by a former Badger, Jack Coan. The story lines should be endless in Chicago.
Other options: Missouri at Boston College—The Eagles found themselves in some exciting games last year against tough competition, losing to UNC and Clemson by one possession and showing fight against Notre Dame. This early-season contest against an SEC program—albeit one that’s finished .500 each of the last two seasons—could present an intriguing 60 minutes of football. Cal at Washington—The Bears only played four games last year (and won only one of them), but they bring back 14 starters. After finishing their last full season at 8–5, they have an opportunity for a big conference victory over a Washington team that looks to finish high in 2021.
Week 5: Cincinnati at Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish appear on the list for the second straight week with another enticing matchup against the Bearcats. After frustration with the CFP committee last year, Cincinnati plays back-to-back games against Indiana and Notre Dame, looking to bolster its case as a playoff team. The Bearcats may have a slight edge, playing this matchup following a bye week, whereas Notre Dame will likely have to grind out a game against Wisconsin the week before.
Other options: Ole Miss at Alabama—Ole Miss may have only finished 5–5 last season, but that wasn’t for a lack of offense. Lane Kiffin’s group averaged nearly 40 points per game. In their 2020 matchup, the Crimson Tide took the win 63–48 in what was a four-point game with just more than seven minutes to play. Ole Miss might not be as talented as Alabama, but its explosive offense will make for another back-and-forth slugfest. Indiana at Penn State—Like Ole Miss–Alabama, these two teams played a thriller last season, with the Hoosiers shocking the Nittany Lions with a 36–35 overtime victory. Both teams, particularly Penn State, should be reloaded and ready to have at it again, this time in State College in a matchup between two of the three best teams in the Big Ten East.
Week 6: Oklahoma vs. Texas
Last year’s annual rivalry game produced a four-overtime thriller, with the Sooners winning 53–45. Oklahoma looks to be back in playoff contention in 2021, while Texas’s starting QB situation is a bit murky after the departure of Sam Ehlinger for the NFL. Whomever first-year Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian decides his signal-caller is, that shouldn’t take away from the pomp and circumstance that is the Red River Showdown.
Other options: Alabama at Texas A&M—Like Texas, both Alabama and Texas A&M will be replacing their starting quarterback. However, that shouldn’t take away from the excitement behind this matchup. The Aggies still have their top-three pass-catchers from last season (Ainias Smith, Jalen Wydermyer and Chase Lane) and a defense that ranked first in the SEC and returns nine starters. On the other side, Nick Saban will assuredly have his offense figured out at this point in the season, making this another top SEC contest. Memphis at Tulsa—The last time these two teams played in 2019, the Tigers eked out a 42–41 victory. With the winner of this matchup potentially putting itself in the driver’s seat to play in the AAC championship game, this should be a high-level football game. Tulsa returns nine starters on offense (despite losing QB Zach Smith) and 10 on defense from a team that finished 6–0 in the conference last year. Meanwhile, Memphis enters ’21 with a chip on its shoulder after missing out on the AAC title game for the first time since ’16.
Week 7: Miami at North Carolina
Sam Howell’s return puts the Tar Heels in contention to be a top 20 program yet again. In a matchup against Miami (and potentially D’Eriq King, if he returns from his ACL injury), we could see two strong offenses battle it out for the top spot in the ACC Coastal division. UNC absolutely demolished Miami last year (62–26), so expect the Hurricanes to be ready for some revenge.
Other options: UCF at Cincinnati—In another enticing AAC matchup, new Knights coach Gus Malzahn gets his first crack at the defending conference champions. This could be UCF’s first real test in 2021, and it should give some indicator as to how deep this conference is. With Cincinnati, Memphis and Tulsa all hoping to contend, this is a prime opportunity for UCF to assert itself. Florida at LSU—Two wild cards in the SEC, this game has potential to be a headline grabber. Both the Gators and Tigers have strong pools of talent at their disposal; the big question for both is how quickly can that talent develop? If LSU takes a big step forward from last year and Florida doesn’t fall too far from where it was in ’20, this might be one of the more exciting games on the Week 7 docket.
Week 8: USC at Notre Dame
Notre Dame returning to its independent status means a number of top-tier games on the schedule. Against a Trojans team that finished 2020 at 5–1 and returns Kedon Slovis at QB, the Irish face another tough matchup on the heels of games against Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. For USC, this is an opportunity for a statement game; last year’s record looks good, but three of its five wins came by five points or fewer. The Trojans can do away with any luck-skill debate with a win in South Bend.
Other options: Ohio State at Indiana—In what could become a new Big Ten rivalry, the Hoosiers will look for an emphatic victory over the Buckeyes. Ohio State led 35–7 in last year’s game, to only squeak out a 42–35 win. Both teams will have new faces on offense (especially OSU with a new QB), but this still should be an exciting Big Ten football game. Memphis at UCF—Third week in a row with an AAC football game to highlight? Well, as mentioned for UCF–Cincinnati, this could be a deep conference, so each game matters that much more. The Knights have an opportunity at home for a big win against the Tigers a week after playing in Cincinnati.
Week 9: Penn State at Ohio State
The schedule-makers didn’t do the Buckeyes any favors, giving them Indiana and Penn State in consecutive weeks. Both teams have questions entering 2021, though Penn State might have more. The team won four in a row to close out ’20, but those were games against the four worst teams in the conference. This will be a big year for James Franklin; playing well against the Buckeyes could quell many fears in Happy Valley.
Other options: UNC at Notre Dame—Another great matchup between two potential top 20 teams, and the Tar Heels will look for payback against the Irish after the latter’s 31–17 victory last season. Georgia vs. Florida—In a game between what could be the two best teams in the SEC East, the winner could punch its ticket to an SEC championship date with Alabama. Georgia has national title aspirations; Florida might be a tier or two below that, but either way, this rivalry game should be filled with fireworks.
Week 10: Oregon at Washington
This early-November Pac-12 rivalry game headlines the action in Week 10. The Huskies return most of their talent from a roster that won three of its four games played in 2020. Meanwhile, Oregon played in a New Year’s Six game after beating USC in the conference championship. The Ducks have welcomed in top recruiting classes the last two years (seventh in 2021 per SI All-American, 11th in ’20 per 247Sports). Both teams are top 20 in Forde’s early projections, and this matchup could very well decide the winner of the Pac-12 North.
Other options: Texas at Iowa State—The Cyclones pulled off a win in last year’s matchup on a Breece Hall touchdown with 1:25 remaining in the fourth quarter. This year’s game shouldn’t be any less dramatic, with both teams—especially Iowa State—vying for top bowl games in January. LSU at Alabama—How will the Tigers fare against the defending national champs after losing 55–17 last year? Well, it might help that LSU returns 16 starters who remember the feeling of losing like that to a rival and also have more on-field experience that could help make the 2021 edition more competitive. In an important season for Ed Orgeron, a win in this game isn’t a must, but a competitive effort might be.
Week 11: Texas A&M at Ole Miss
In a week without many must-watch games, this SEC battle is intriguing for several reasons, not least of which is how as mentioned earlier, the Aggies had the best defense in the SEC last season, while Ole Miss averaged nearly 40 points per game. This contest might not decide the SEC West winner, but it still should be an exciting one to watch.
Other options: Northwestern at Wisconsin—Since 2016, one of these two teams has won the Big Ten West each year. The home team has won each of the last four matchups, which might give the Badgers an edge. However, the Wildcats’ defense could still be giving Mertz nightmares after he threw three interceptions against it last season. This won’t be the prettiest game to watch, but it should go right down to the wire. Arizona State at Washington—In four games last season, the Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in scoring offense (40.2 ppg) and scoring defense (23.2 ppg). They return 15 starters and are poised to make some noise in the Grand Canyon State. This opportunity against a strong Huskies team could define how good Arizona State really is in 2021.
Week 12: Iowa State at Oklahoma
What could be better than two potential top-10 teams from the Big 12 going at it in late November? Sure, Iowa State isn’t your traditional Big 12 powerhouse, but this game could have massive playoff implications. These two programs finished first and second in the conference last year and split the season series (with the Sooners winning the Big 12 championship game). This year’s showdown in the penultimate week of the regular season should be just as riveting.
Other options: Louisiana at Liberty—Both of these teams were really good last season and both have much of their talent returning. Billy Napier’s Cajuns’ defense was the best in the Sun Belt, while Hugh Freeze’s offense averaged 38 points per game. With Louisiana looking for its fourth straight appearance in the Sun Belt championship game and Liberty hoping to maintain its momentum from last year’s 10–1 season, this should be an appetizing nonconference matchup late in the season. Oregon at Utah—The last time these teams faced off was the 2019 Pac-12 championship game, which the Ducks won 37–15. Utah has Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer coming in to presumably take the reins at QB, which should keep it competitive in a tough Pac-12 South. This game presents a great opportunity for Brewer to prove himself and take down a strong Ducks team.
Week 13: Ohio State at Michigan
The fact that this is only Michigan’s second appearance in this story isn’t a good sign—the Wolverines just don’t look to be very good, particularly because of all their uncertainty at quarterback. So why is this the game of the week? Well, Ohio State has absolutely dominated this rivalry lately, winning eight straight and outscoring Michigan 331–216. This game is more must-see because of how out of hand it could get and what that could mean for Harbaugh. Michigan just signed him to a four-year extension in January, but if the Wolverines struggle again in 2021 and end their season with a blowout loss at home, that could lead to a lot of eyebrow-raising in Ann Arbor.
Other options: Alabama at Auburn—Since 2017, the Iron Bowl has alternated victors each year. The Tigers’ development under first-year coach Bryan Harsin will go a long way in determining whether that trend holds true in 2021. Bo Nix should be the starting QB, but this is a program that lost several key players on both sides of the ball, including Eli Stove, Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams at receiver and Daquan Newkirk and Big Kat Bryant on the defensive side. It will be an uphill battle to take down the Crimson Tide. Notre Dame at Stanford—The Cardinal lost the first two games of their 2020 season before reeling off four straight victories to close out the year. Coach David Shaw also brought in a top-25 recruiting class last year, so with some more development from the younger players, this could be a strong Pac-12 team yet again, posing a test for the Fighting Irish in the final game of the regular season.
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