A breakdown of 10 big conference showdowns in September
This is Week One of the season and we’re already getting three huge Big Ten games right off the bat. That’s right: This is the first real weekend of the season and three of the most important Big Ten games of 2021 are on tap.
And those aren’t the only important conference games nationally in September. There are 10 games that will shape — and could even determine — division and league races in the first month of the season.
Here are the 10.
10. Missouri at Kentucky, September 11
The buzz: No, neither of these teams is going to win the SEC East over Georgia. But there are those who believe Florida is overrated this season, which means the winner of this contest could have a leg up on finishing second in the division. Both open the season with overmatched opponents, so this will be the first real test for quarterbacks Connor Bazelak of Mizzou and Will Levis of Kentucky. It also will be the first test for the new coordinators at each school: Mizzou DC Steve Wilks, the former coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and Kentucky OC Liam Coen, who was hired off the staff of the Los Angeles Rams.
9. Colorado at Arizona State, September 25
The buzz: Colorado was a pleasant surprise last season, while ASU played just four games as COVID wreaked havoc with the Sun Devils’ schedule. This is a Pac-12 South game, and if you’re one of those who doesn’t believe in USC (there seem to be a lot of you, by the way), this game is worth a close look. On paper, Arizona State might be the best team in the division, but, man, there are a lot of NCAA-related distractions in Tempe these days. Can Colorado recapture its magic from 2020? RB Jarek Broussard is the key.
8. California at Washington, September 25
The buzz: Last season’s game was canceled, but the Bears upset the Huskies in both 2018 and ’19, thanks to sterling defensive efforts; the Huskies totaled 29 points in the two contests. Oregon is supposed to win the Pac-12 North, with Washington right behind, but another upset by the Bears would make things interesting in the division. Both will have been tested already: Washington plays at Michigan on September 11, while Cal has Mountain West favorite Nevada this weekend and TCU on September 11.
7. Stanford at USC, September 11
The buzz: How good is Stanford? The Cardinal might be the biggest mystery team in the Pac-12. Stanford prides itself on being physical, but it hasn’t been all that tough the past two seasons. This is the first of three conference games in September for the Trojans, and they should win all three. If there’s one they might lose, this is it. And if that happens, woe be to Clay Helton.
6. Ohio State at Minnesota, Thursday
The buzz: We’ve mentioned this before, so one more time isn’t going to hurt: Ohio State, the best program in the Big Ten, is opening its season on the road on a Thursday night. Man. Minnesota’s offensive backfield of QB Tanner Morgan and RB Mohamed Ibrahim is the key to its upset hopes; Ibrahim has to be productive or the Gophers have no shot. Ohio State is breaking in a new starting quarterback, but J.T. Stroud has weapons galore on the outside. It would be surprising if Minnesota won, but a strong showing by the Golden Gophers could mean interesting things could happen in the Big Ten West.
5. Clemson at NC State, September 25
The buzz: Clemson is the best team in the ACC, which also means the Tigers are the best team in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. But NC State might be the second-best team in the division — and the second-best team in the conference overall. There are high hopes for Wolfpack QB Devin Leary, and RBs Zonovan “Bam” Knight and Ricky Person are a big-time 1-2 punch. They’ll be running behind a line that returns four starters. But Clemson is loaded on defense and at wide receiver, and the Tigers have won eight in a row in the series; in the past two meetings (the teams didn’t meet last season), Clemson has outscored NCSU 96-17.
4. Toledo at Ball State, September 25
The buzz: These are the two best teams in the MAC West; they also might be the two best teams in the conference overall, so this is a huge early-season showdown. Ball State’s win at Toledo was the key victory in the Cardinals’ march to the conference title last season, and the Rockets will be looking to flip the script. Both should have high-powered offenses, with Ball State having the edge. But Toledo has the better defense. Toledo returns 21 starters, Ball State 17.
3. Indiana at Iowa, Saturday
The buzz: A matchup of two top-20 teams and the first of two monster games to open the season for the Hawkeyes, who play Iowa State on September 11. Indiana’s early-season schedule also is tough; IU’s second Big Ten game is against Penn State on October 2 and there’s also a non-conference matchup with Cincinnati on September 18. Is Indiana the second-best team in the Big Ten East? Is Iowa the second-best team (or even the best) in the Big Ten West? We should have a better idea after this one.
2. Alabama at Florida, September 18
The buzz: On paper, this matches the best team in the SEC West (and the best team in the league, period) against the second-best team in the SEC East. But we mentioned earlier that there are those who think the Gators are overrated; well, this game should give us an idea if that is true. Last season, Florida played Alabama closer than anyone else, but the Gators lost a ton of firepower. So did Alabama, but the Tide just reloads and there are questions about UF’s ability to do that. Alabama’s defense is a lot better than Florida’s. How much will the home-field advantage help the Gators?
1. Penn State at Wisconsin, Saturday
The buzz: Conventional wisdom has Wisconsin as the best team in the Big Ten West and Penn State as the second-best team in the Big Ten East. Both are in the preseason top 20: Wisconsin at 12 and Penn State at 19. Both are coming off at least mildly disappointing seasons. And both need more consistency from their quarterbacks. A big-time subplot: How does new Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich choose to attack what should be an elite unit led by Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard?