Week-by-week guide to biggest games
The 2011 college football season kicks off Thursday, and we won't have to wait long for a couple of games with major consequences.
The first weekend offers two games between ranked opponents, with No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 LSU playing in Arlington, Texas, and No. 5 Boise State and No. 19 Georgia playing in Atlanta.
Here's a week-by-week schedule of games to watch. Set your DVRs.
Week 1: Saturday, Sept. 3
No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU (ABC, 8 p.m. ET)
A top-five matchup at Jerry's World in Arlington, Texas, provides an early test for Oregon, which must rebuild its front seven on defense. The Tigers probably will be without star quarterback Jordan Jefferson and receiver Russell Shepard, who have been suspended indefinitely.
No. 5 Boise State vs. No. 19 Georgia (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
The Broncos will travel more than 2,000 miles to play what essentially will be a road game against UGA in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The Bulldogs hope that freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell can boost their running game, which was inconsistent during a dismal 6-7 finish last season.
Week 2: Saturday, Sept. 10
No. 2 Alabama at Penn State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Neither team has chosen a starting quarterback, and the Crimson Tide might use two quarterbacks -- A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims -- early in the season. Alabama beat PSU 24-3 in Tuscaloosa last season.
No. 12 South Carolina at No. 19 Georgia (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET)
A week after playing the Broncos, the Bulldogs continue their brutal two-game stretch against the Gamecocks, the defending SEC East champions. The loser of this game is rarely a factor in the SEC East race.
No. 16 Notre Dame at Michigan
(ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
New Michigan coach Brady Hoke leads his first big game against the Fighting Irish, who dropped a 28-24 loss to the Wolverines in South Bend, Ind., last season. Notre Dame's defense is supposed to be much-improved.
Week 3: Saturday, Sept. 17
No. 1 Oklahoma at No. 6 Florida State
The Sooners are a popular pick to contend for a BCS national championship, while the Seminoles are probably a year ahead of schedule under second-year coach Jimbo Fisher. The winner of this game will jump into the driver's seat of the BCS title race.
No. 18 Ohio State at Miami
Insert your NCAA violations joke here. Both teams have been ravaged by off-the-field scandals and will start the season with new coaches. The Buckeyes lost quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who entered the NFL supplemental draft instead of facing a season-long suspension. Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris' future also is in jeopardy because of impermissible benefits.
Week 4: Saturday, Sept. 24
No. 9 Oklahoma State at No. 8 Texas A&M (7 p.m. ET)
The Cowboys, led by quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, will be a great test for Texas A&M's defense, which should be better in Year 2 of coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme.
No. 25 USC at Arizona State (10:15 p.m. ET)
The Trojans aren't eligible to play for a Pac-12 championship because of NCAA sanctions, but they could spoil the Sun Devils' title hopes by knocking them off in the desert.
Week 5: Saturday, Oct. 1
No. 2 Alabama at No. 22 Florida
It will be the first matchup between Alabama coach Nick Saban and his former defensive coordinator, new Gators coach Will Muschamp. The Crimson Tide have won the past two meetings by a combined score of 63-19.
No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 15 Arkansas
The old Southwest Conference rivals have renewed their series in Arlington, Texas, where the Hogs have won the past two seasons. This game also might be a preview of a future SEC West rivalry.
No. 10 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin (8 p.m. ET)
The Cornhuskers will play their first Big Ten game in one of the country's most intimidating venues -- Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium. It also might be a preview of the first Big Ten championship game.
Week 6: Saturday, Oct. 8
No. 1 Oklahoma vs. Texas (ABC, noon ET)
The teams have split the past four meetings in the Red River Rivalry, but they seem headed in opposite directions. Oklahoma is No. 1 in the country, while the Longhorns are coming off a 5-7 season.
No. 18 Ohio State at No. 10 Nebraska (8 p.m. ET)
The Cornhuskers' first Big Ten home game is against the Buckeyes, who have owned the Big Ten by winning at least a share of the past six titles (before vacating their 2010 share).
Week 7: Saturday, Oct. 15
Arizona State at No. 3 Oregon
If the Sun Devils are really ready to make a move in the Pac-12 South, they'll have to find a way to play well at noisy Autzen Stadium.
Michigan at No. 17 Michigan State
Hoke can win over a lot of Michigan fans by guiding the Wolverines to a victory over the Spartans, who have won three straight games in the series for the first time since 1965-67.
Week 8: Saturday, Oct. 22
No. 23 Auburn at No. 4 LSU (8 p.m. ET)
Auburn, the defending BCS national champions, embarrassed LSU's defense by running for 440 yards in a 24-17 victory last season.
No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 17 Michigan State (8 p.m. ET)
The Spartans are probably still steamed that the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl last season even though won a share of the Big Ten title and defeated Wisconsin 34-24 in East Lansing, Mich.
No. 25 USC at No. 16 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET)
Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly defeated USC in his first try last season, winning 20-16 at the Coliseum in Notre Dame's first win in the series since 2001.
Week 9: Saturday, Oct. 29
No. 7 Stanford at No. 25 USC (ABC, 8 p.m. ET)
Former Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh loved nothing more than beating the Trojans -- then telling them about it afterward. New Stanford coach David Shaw gets his first try in Week 9.
No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 18 Ohio State (8 p.m. ET)
With the addition of former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson, the Badgers might be favorites to win the Big Ten. They might have to go through Columbus to do it.
Week 10: Saturday, Nov. 5
No. 8 Texas A&M at No. 1 Oklahoma
This late-season clash between the Aggies and Sooners might decide which team stays in the BCS title hunt. The Sooners probably would like to stick it to the Aggies one last time as Big 12 opponents.
No. 4 LSU at No. 2 Alabama
If LSU can get its off-the-field problems cleaned up, this SEC West contest might be the most anticipated game of the season. If nothing else, it might decide which team wins the SEC West.
Week 11: Saturday, Nov. 12No. 3 Oregon at No. 7 Stanford
Two great quarterbacks -- Oregon's Darron Thomas and Stanford's Andrew Luck -- face off in a game that might decide the Pac-12 North title.
No. 14 TCU at No. 5 Boise State
The Horned Frogs and Broncos, who played in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, play once as Mountain West foes. The Broncos move from the WAC to the MWC this season; the Horned Frogs will shift to the Big East in 2012.
Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 24
Texas at No. 8 Texas A&M (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
The Aggies are so tired of being in the Longhorns' shadows that they're threatening to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. Texas probably would love to kick the Aggies on their way out the door.
Week 13: Friday, Nov. 25
No. 15 Arkansas at No. 4 LSU (2:30 p.m. ET)
It's another potential SEC West roadblock for the Tigers. This post-Thanksgiving Day game always seems include plenty of points and drama.
Pittsburgh at No. 24 West Virginia
Two new coaches -- Pittsburgh's Todd Graham and West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen -- will get their first taste of the only game that really matters to their respective fan bases.
Week 13: Saturday, Nov. 26
No. 2 Alabama at No. 23 Auburn
The Crimson Tide will be looking for a lot of revenge after blowing a 24-point lead in last season's 28-27 loss in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers might have a chance to do what the Tide couldn't do -- spoil their hated rivals' championship hopes.
No. 6 Florida State at No. 22 Florida
If the Seminoles can get past Oklahoma in Week 3, they might have a lot riding on their trip to the Swamp. Fisher and Muschamp spent time together on Saban's LSU staff and are very close friends.
No. 16 Notre Dame at No. 7 Stanford (8 p.m. ET)
Luck threw two interceptions and wasn't particularly sharp in last season's 37-14 victory over the Irish. He might be looking for a late Heisman Trophy moment this time.
No. 18 Ohio State at Michigan
By the time this game arrives, the Wolverines will have gone more than 2,900 days without beating the Buckeyes. Hoke could run for governor if he wins "The Game" in his first try.
Week 14: Saturday, Dec. 3
No. 1 Oklahoma at No. 9 Oklahoma State
The Big 12 won't play a championship game this season, but the Bedlam Series game might be a nice replacement. Both offenses should be very explosive, and a BCS bowl bid might be at stake.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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