(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS) — Naming the biggest game on Alabama’s 2018 schedule is easy: It’s Auburn, since the biggest game of the Tide’s season is annually the Iron Bowl.
Figuring out the same for the rest of college football’s strongest title contenders isn’t as simple. This week’s Top 10 list tries to tackle the topic by asking: Which regular-season game looms largest for the 10 teams atop the USA TODAY Sports’ post-spring Top 25 for 2018?
at Florida State, Oct. 27
FSU still looks like the Tigers’ biggest threat in the Atlantic Division, even if the Seminoles finished last season below .500 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Clemson has won three in a row in the series, with last fall’s 17-point win the program’s largest margin of victory against FSU since a 35-14 victory in 2005.
vs. Auburn, Nov. 24
You might be able to make the case that Alabama’s biggest game is actually one of LSU, Mississippi State or Texas A&M and not the Iron Bowl. Why? Because recent history has shown that Alabama can lose to Auburn and still win the national title — as in 2017, for example. But the Tide’s biggest game is nonetheless against the Tigers.
at Michigan, Oct. 13
The road to the College Football Playoff isn’t complicated: Wisconsin needs to win the West Division and reach the Big Ten Conference title game with no more than one loss. Then the Badgers need to beat Ohio State, of course. The team’s biggest game could be a few in-division matchups — maybe Iowa, Purdue or Nebraska — but beating Michigan on the road in October would be a tone-setter for Wisconsin entering the second half of the regular season.
vs. Auburn (in Atlanta), Sept. 1
Not often does a team’s opener double as its biggest game. But that’s the case for Washington, which needs a jolt of national recognition to fuel its push for the Playoff. You won’t get a much better chance than by beating Auburn in Atlanta on the first Saturday of September. A win there would solidify the Huskies’ place as one the elite teams in the country and the team to beat in the Pac-12.
vs. Michigan, Nov. 24
Don’t forget that this game has been close in recent years despite Michigan’s inability to get over the hump. Though Ohio State has won all six tries under Urban Meyer, only one came by more than two scores; four of the six were decided by a single possession, including an overtime thriller in 2016. So is the Wolverines’ year? If could be, but only if Shea Patterson is as good as advertised.
vs. Auburn, Nov. 10
There’s a case to be made for South Carolina and Florida, the two perceived rivals to Georgia’s ownership of the East Division, and maybe even a case for LSU, should the Tigers be better than expected. But the only game on Georgia’s regular-season schedule against a fellow team with title aspirations comes in the annual tilt against Auburn in November.
at TCU, Oct. 20
Oklahoma’s year starts with a bang: Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic first and then Chip Kelly and UCLA, with both games coming at home. We’ll know by the end of September whether Kyler Murray is up to the task at quarterback. The Sooners’ most important game might be Texas, since the Longhorns should be better in Tom Herman’s second season. But it’s TCU that figures to be OU’s biggest threat in the Big 12 Conference.
vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 20
And vice versa for TCU. The Sooners have fewer holes to fill than do the Horned Frogs, who have questions to address on the offensive line and a new starting quarterback on their own under center. But TCU resembles one of those all-too-common Gary Patterson teams with talent to spare on defense and young skill players set to blossom in 2018. Despite the result of this October matchup, these two could meet again in the conference championship game.
vs. Ohio State, Sept. 29
On paper, Penn State’s schedule is a monster. Rival Pittsburgh in September. Michigan State and Iowa in October. Michigan and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks to open November. But those second-half games will have far less meaning should the Nittany Lions stumble at home against Ohio State, which would give the Buckeyes a huge head-to-head tiebreaker in the East Division race.
vs. LSU (at AT&T Stadium), Sept. 2
Much like Washington against Auburn, Miami’s date with LSU presents an opportunity to make a statement. A neutral-site win would put wind in the Hurricanes’ sails, even if the rest of the regular season might reveal LSU to be a national pretender. And knocking off the Tigers would vault Miami through a schedule that isn’t too difficult, all things considered. Though Virginia Tech comes on the road — and we don’t know yet about the Hokies’ quarterback situation — the Hurricanes get Florida State at home to open October.
Killing time until the return college football is as easy as counting to 10, and then continuing to count out the rest of the roughly 7,500,000 seconds until the first Saturday of the 2018 season. It’s that easy!
From there, it’s another countdown of about 100 days until the real action begins: College Football Playoff national semifinals – held in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl – will be held on Dec. 29, with the title game coming on Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
This week’s Top 10 list takes the long view to ask: Which teams will populate the biggest bowl games of the 2018 season? Listed chronologically, the group includes the two semifinals, the championship game, the four remaining New Year’s Six bowls, the Citrus Bowl, the Alamo Bowl and the Outback Bowl.
1. Alamo Bowl (Dec. 28)
Southern California vs. West Virginia
I’ve got Washington in a semifinal and Stanford then slotting into the Rose Bowl, meaning the third-place team from the Pac-12 would land in the Alamo Bowl. That’d be USC, which would take on the third-place team from the Big 12, West Virginia, after both Oklahoma and TCU make the New Year’s Six.
2. Peach Bowl (Dec. 29)
Miami (Fla.) vs. Penn State
The first New Year’s Six game pits two at-large bids. This projection picks Miami as the second-place team from the ACC, meaning the Hurricanes put together a great regular season but fall to Clemson in the conference title game. Penn State would be the third Big Ten team in a high-profile bowl, following Wisconsin and Ohio State.
3. Cotton Bowl (Dec. 29)
Alabama vs. Wisconsin
It might not be the Orange Bowl, but Alabama has made AT&T Stadium its home away from home in non-conference play. I’ve got Wisconsin winning the Big Ten and landing here, but it could very well be Ohio State. Or Penn State. Or Michigan State. Or Michigan.
4. Orange Bowl (Dec. 29)
Clemson vs. Washington
Clemson would be the beneficiary of playing its semifinal with a relative home-field advantage as the top seed in the Playoff field. Washington would need to travel across the country to meet the Tigers, but at least the Huskies are back in the final four.
5. Outback Bowl (Jan. 1)
Michigan State vs. Mississippi State
On paper, Michigan is a very strong contender for one of the top bowl games given to the best team from the Big Ten not in a New Year’s Six or a national semifinal. But because the Wolverines just played in this past January’s Outback Bowl essentially eliminates them from contention; likewise with South Carolina from the SEC. So let’s settle instead for Michigan State’s defense against Mississippi State’s new offense.
6. Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1)
Auburn vs. Michigan
Here’s a good spot for Michigan, which last played in the Citrus following the 2015 regular season. Notre Dame may have the record needed to be in contention for this spot, but the Irish just topped LSU in the Citrus this past January. In this projection, Auburn is just on the outside of a New Year’s Six berth.
7. Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1)
Boise State vs. TCU
These two programs haven’t met in the postseason since the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, when the powers that be decided to pit the two unbeaten programs – both then in non-major conferences – against one another rather than opponents from the Power Five.
8. Rose Bowl (Jan. 1)
Ohio State vs. Stanford
Ohio State’s easily in play for the Orange or Cotton. Better yet, the Buckeyes may end up being the best team in all of college football should Dwayne Haskins get the job done at quarterback, to name one position that will carry a question mark heading into September. But a spot in the Rose Bowl seems almost like the worst-case scenario for Urban Meyer and OSU, which says something about the team’s potential.
9. Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1)
Georgia vs. Oklahoma
This wouldn’t be the preferred destination for either program – both the Bulldogs and Sooners have eyes on a return to the Playoff – but the idea of these two powers holding a rematch of last year’s Rose Bowl should be intoxicating for college football fans.
10. College Football Playoff championship game (Jan. 7)
Alabama vs. Clemson
A fourth postseason matchup in as many years might be overkill. But the Tigers and Crimson Tide top the USA TODAY Sports post-spring Top 25 rankings – so another meeting doesn’t seem too hard to imagine in a postseason format that conceivably recognizes the top teams in the country.