There is a simple compelling reason to hold out hope for college football to start on time in 2020: the big games.
“Talkin’ season” — the annual rite of passage every summer — tends to focus on those circle-the-date-games on the calendar. Those are the games that shape the nonconference schedule, the conference races and in, November, the College Football Playoff.
For a sport that values the regular season that much, the games are what define the season. Sporting News looks at the best games in 2020 by category:
Best Week 1 game
Alabama vs. USC (Sept. 5)
Alabama beat USC 52-6 the last time the teams met at Jerry World in 2016, and that was a season in which the Trojans still found a way to win the Rose Bowl. The Crimson Tide are 10-0 in neutral-site games under Nick Saban and typically use those opportunities to flex on the national stage.
Best nonconference game
Ohio State at Oregon (Sept. 12)
This is most likely the first top-10 showdown of the season. Ohio State is 16-1 under Ryan Day, a former Oregon assistant who will take one of the nation’s most talented teams cross-country to face a resurgent Oregon program coming off a Rose Bowl victory. This is a chance for Mario Cristobal to flash what could be one of the best defenses in the FBS led by Preseason All-American Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Texas at LSU (Sept. 12)
This should be a hot ticket in Death Valley, and new quarterback Myles Brennan will be in his first big start. Last year’s national championship team found its footing in a 45-38 shootout at Texas last season. The Longhorns have four September losses in three seasons with Tom Herman, but Sam Ehlinger is back for his senior season.
Best September conference game
Georgia at Alabama (Sept. 19)
The Bulldogs return to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time since 2007, and that is the school’s last victory against the Crimson Tide. Georgia also hired longtime Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran this offseason. Alabama has won the past five meetings, and that includes a CFP championship and SEC championship game. The winner here will have a leg up on the SEC and College Football Playoff race.
Best October conference game
Ohio State vs. Penn State (Oct. 24)
We’re hoping fans are allowed in stadiums for the spectacle of the “Whiteout” in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes have combined to win the past four Big Ten championships, and Penn State has been the best competition on the field for the three-time defending Big Ten champions in that stretch. There are huge conference implications here.
Best neutral site game
Florida vs. Georgia (Oct. 31)
Georgia has won the past three SEC East division titles, but the Bulldogs have not won four in a row in this rivalry since a six-game streak from 1978 to 1983. The Gators have reached the New Year’s Day Six each of the past two seasons, but to take that next step Dan Mullen must lead Florida past Georgia on the big stage.
Best November conference game
Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 30)
All the pressure is on Michigan here. The Wolverines are 0-5 against the Buckeyes under Jim Harbaugh, and they have not won at The Shoe since 2000. Blowout losses to Ohio State the past two seasons have amplified the pressure, too. The Buckeyes are looking for a ninth straight victory in The Game, too. This game still produces the most storylines on rivalry week, but when will Michigan change the narrative?
Best bet for Game of Century
Alabama at LSU (Nov. 7)
The Crimson Tide and Tigers have played in the past two regular-season Game of the Century matchups, and last year’s shootout between Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa lived up to expectations. LSU coach Ed Orgeron has helped restore this game as the most significant regular-season contest on the schedule, and that makes it the best bet for another regular-season No. 1 vs. No. 2 blockbuster.
SN’s Game of the Year
Clemson vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 7)
Looking at the schedule, it’s a decent bet that both teams have matching 8-0 records when they meet in South Bend, and that would create the backdrop for one of those games that lives on forever. Notre Dame is 2-5 all time when the No. 1 team in the country visits South Bend, and that includes victories against Miami in “Catholics vs. Convicts” and the upset against Florida State in 1993. This game — a rematch of the 2018 Cotton Bowl Classic that would feature Trevor Lawrence and Ian Book in a rematch — could have that kind of heat on it if the Tigers are the top team in the country.