Alabama v. Michigan
Arlington - Saturday, September 1
Hard to think of a better way to start the season with two traditional powers that haven't faced one another since Tom Brady and Shaun Alexander did battle in the 2000 Orange Bowl. Alabama must replace a handful of first round draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, but don't think Alabama lacks front seven talent.
Three Tide defenders - Jesse Williams, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley - are on the Rotary Lombardi Award Watch list, while safety Robert Lester patrols the secondary. I can't wait to see what Nick Saban and that defense cook up to slow down Michigan's star QB Denard Robinson.
The Crimson Tide hasn't seen a quarterback of that ability in quite some time, but Alabama has also had all off-season to prepare for Robinson's offensive repertoire. Michigan's defense must find a way to get off the field early against Alabama's powerful offensive line and hard-charging RB Eddie Lacy. Arlington is in for a good one on the opening Saturday of the season.
Boise State v. Michigan State
Friday, August 31
With Kellen Moore and Kirk Cousins under center, I would have put this as the co-headline game for the opening weekend. But, with Moore and Cousins off to the NFL and Joe Southwick (Boise) and Andrew Maxwell (MSU) taking snaps, the game, honestly, is all the more intriguing.
Furthermore, the fact that Boise State is going to East Lansing with perhaps its most inexperienced team in quite some time as a huge underdog adds more flavor. Boise State is a great test for Maxwell in his first start as a Spartan. The Broncos don't have near the pass rush that they had last year, but that just amps up the creativity on that side of the ball.
So, there's no telling the number of different looks Maxwell will see throughout this Friday night matchup and how he responds will go a long way in determining this game's outcome.
Florida at Texas A&M / Georgia at Missouri
The SEC's two newest members open SEC play at home with SEC East opponents that could eventually win that half of the league. Gator head coach Will Muschamp knows full well what his Gators are in for going to College Station having been an assistant at the University of Texas, but questions still surround both teams as it relates to the quarterback position.
Florida never figured it out last year after John Brantley got injured and Texas A&M has to replace Ryan Tannehill. If the quarterbacks in the other matchup are both healthy, it'll be a stark contrast to the matchup in College Station.
Missouri's James Franklin and Georgia's Aaron Murray can light it up, in different ways. Franklin's dual threat skills are a great test for Georgia's physical defense, led by All-American Jarvis Jones. Obviously, Franklin's health could be a concern this early in the season. However, Murray's ability to pitch and catch will put the Mizzou secondary under fire for a full 60 minutes.
Air Force at Michigan
After starting the season in Arlington against Alabama with what should be Michigan's most physical game of the year, the Wolverines get a visit from the gritty Air Force Falcons. If Alabama thumps Michigan and the hangover lingers, the Crimson Tide could beat the Wolverines twice if Michigan isn't disciplined enough to stop the Falcons varied option attack.
Air Force returns only five starters, combined, on both sides of the ball, but lack of returning starters has never stopped them from being a thorn in major conference teams' sides.
Alabama at Arkansas
The Razorbacks were embarrassed by Alabama and LSU last season. As such, in opening SEC play with the Crimson Tide in Fayetteville under new coach John L. Smith, the Hogs have all the pressure in the world on their shoulders.
QB Tyler Wilson got knocked around last year by one of the most ferocious defenses in recent SEC history. He threw for the least amount of yards against Alabama last year, his only performance under 200 yards (185 yards and a pick). However, this isn't quite the same defense that he faced last season and this one is in Fayetteville.
All eyes will be on the Hogs and the question of whether Arkansas can be a top three team in 2012 will be answered after these 60 minutes in week 3.
USC at Stanford
Stanford came from behind in the fourth quarter last year to tie USC and win a triple overtime thriller. However, that Stanford team had an offense led by Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. Given the star power that the Cardinal have lost, this could be a rude wake up call facing a loaded USC team coming to the Farm.
USC won't be tested in games against Hawaii and Syracuse to start the season, so regardless of the holes the Cardinal must fill on offense, it'll be the Trojans' biggest test of September. Likewise, USC isn't without some questions on offense, especially at left tackle and potentially at receiver if star Robert Woods is not 100% healthy to start the season.
Clemson at Florida State
The Atlantic's best two teams meet in Tallahassee in a game that'll put more pressure on FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher than any other he's coached at FSU. If Florida State is truly all the way back, then this is a game they MUST win.
There's no question about the defensive talent on campus, but offensively, the questions remain including the lack of a big-time offensive playmaker, a QB who hasn't started for a full season and an offensive line that must replace a number of departed seniors. Clemson isn't far from being in the same boat. An ACC championship in 2011 will only resonate so long with the Tiger faithful, especially after the Tigers got hammered by West Virginia in last year's Orange Bowl.
So, this is a massive test for Dabo Swinney and the rest of the coaching staff as well. But, by this time, the Tigers should have WR Sammy Watkins free and clear of any and all game suspensions due to his offseason arrest. Given the importance of a win in this game, the result could send each team in completely divergent directions.
Virginia at TCU
TCU last played Virginia in Charlottesville as a member of the Mountain West Conference, but in the return trip of the home and home the Wahoos now visit Fort Worth to take on the Big 12's newest member... or one of the newest members.
Virginia's Mike London has rebuilt his program, brick by brick, but took a massively important step with 8 wins last year and a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2011. Without questions, beating TCU would do nothing but hasten the rebuilding process. Moreover, it's a tough "trap" game for the Horned Frogs.
They'll go to Kansas for its Big 12 opener the prior week and after Virginia, TCU goes over to Dallas to take on SMU, which beat TCU 40-33 last year. Virginia's running game, with Perry Jones running behind hulking tackles Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, could give TCU some issues in a possible upset spot.
Ohio State at Michigan State
Now, I'm projecting a bit on this one, because if I were to go on recent history, we'd be calling this the most boring game of the 2012 season. Yeah, I'm looking right at that 2011 matchup (a snooze inducing 10-7 game).
Don't expect that to happen again in this one, although there will be as many as 6 or 7 first team All-Big 10 defensive team candidates taking the field in East Lansing.
Given so much defensive talent on the field, the offenses will be under the microscope to move the football effectively, albeit in different ways. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller will be in his fifth game under Urban Meyer's new offensive scheme, which he fits hand in glove. Michigan State will answer with a boatload of RB Le'Veon Bell, who I love as a next level prospect.
Alas, it'll be the only time these two do battle in 2012 as Ohio State serves a one-year championship/bowl suspension. So, expect Ohio State to make a statement against the team that many feel is the best of the Big 10 in 2012. Michigan State hasn't lost in East Lansing since 2009 and isn't looking to let the Buckeyes give MSU its first L in a while (if Boise State or Notre Dame haven't done that prior to this game).
Wisconsin at Nebraska
These two teams play four games each prior to the matchup in Lincoln Other than games against Oregon State (Wisconsin) and UCLA (Nebraska), neither team is preparing for Big 10 play by taking on a BCS AQ conference foe (can we still use that nomenclature?).
What makes this matchup intriguing is that we'll know pretty much nothing about these two teams heading into this tilt. Last year, Wisconsin made mincemeat of the Huskers in Madison, namely on the broad shoulders of former NC State transfer Russell Wilson.
By this last Saturday in September Wisconsin must find out if Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien will be more Russell Wilson or Jim Sorgi? Nebraska will pound the rock at the middle of the Wisconsin defense, led by linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland.
RB Rex Burkhead and QB Taylor Martinez need to run it well for Nebraska to send Wisconsin back to Madison a loser. Due to the fact that both should be undefeated going into this one, even though those records won't tell us truly anything about these teams, it'll be one heck of an interesting way to spend a Saturday.