The waiting and anticipation are nearly over. The 2014 college football opener is mere days away, and plenty of great matchups dot the schedule to kick off the new year.
With the new four-team playoff, the incentive for Big Five schools to schedule tough nonconference schools has only grown. Playing the Georgia Southerns and Savannah States of the world isn't going to cut it anymore.
As a result, what was arguably the best regular season in American sports gets that much better, and the margin for error is even smaller. The top teams in the country can't afford to use Week 1 to work out the kinks. If they go in with that mindset, their national title hopes will be over before they had a chance to gain steam.
The stakes couldn't be much higher this early in the season for the six teams below.
|AP Poll||Coaches Poll|
|1||Florida State||1496||Florida State||1543|
|8||Michigan State||1080||Michigan State||1050|
|9||South Carolina||1015||South Carolina||1009|
|17||Notre Dame||445||Notre Dame||509|
|18||Ole Miss||424||Arizona State||358|
|19||Arizona State||357||Ole Miss||346|
|20||Kansas State||242||Texas A&M||266|
|21||Texas A&M||238||Kansas State||257|
|23||North Carolina||194||North Carolina||175|
Games to Watch
Texas A&M Aggies at South Carolina Gamecocks
With all due respect to the ability of Kevin Sumlin, it's fair to say that the Texas A&M offense remains a major question mark heading into the season. You can't lose players as talented and important as Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans and not expect some drop-off.
Of course, Jadeveon Clowney is a big loss for South Carolina. Even if he struggled to find consistency in 2013, the attention he demanded from opponents' offensive lines opened up gaps for his teammates.
In total, the Gamecocks are replacing three defensive linemen and two cornerbacks on the defensive side of the ball. That's why it's imperative that Mike Davis and the South Carolina running game eat up the clock and wear down what should be an improved Aggies defense.
Texas A&M will hold its own inside Williams-Brice Stadium, but South Carolina's ability to consistently get positive on the ground will be the difference.
South Carolina 31, Texas A&M 23
Clemson Tigers at Georgia Bulldogs
Speaking of big losses on the offensive side of the ball, Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd combined to throw for 6,926 yards and 60 touchdowns last year.
Clemson won this matchup 38-35 last year, but the Tigers were playing at home and had the duo of Boyd and Sammy Watkins. Boyd threw three touchdowns, and Watkins had six receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown.
Cole Stoudt looks like a good quarterback, but it's a bit unrealistic to expect him to weave the same kind of magic Boyd did against UGA last year.
The good news for the Tigers is that the front seven that constantly pressured Murray will be even stronger. Vic Beasley could have a Clowney-like impact for Clemson's defense.
This year's meeting shouldn't be the shootout that last year's was, with Georgia likely relying more heavily on the running game. And why not? Todd Gurley ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries against the Tigers last year.
"It's a huge challenge," said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables of stopping Gurley, per Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier. "They know what they're doing and they do it well. They're very aggressive in how they run the football—they run it downhill. They attacked us, had us on our heels at times last year. They'll physically try to impose their will on you and they'll be very persistent about it."
Gurley and Keith Marshall will be up to the task. The real question for Georgia is whether Hutson Mason and the passing attack can divert Clemson's attention away from the running game. The absence of Malcolm Mitchell will make that task a bit more difficult.
You could make a strong argument for either team, but Georgia has home-field advantage. Couple that with the departures of Boyd and Watkins, and you get a close Bulldogs win.
Georgia 20, Clemson 17
Wisconsin Badgers vs. LSU Tigers
LSU and Wisconsin are strikingly similar in terms of style. The Tigers and the Badgers will rely on their running games to cover up questionable passing attacks. Neither team is going to beat you through the air.
According to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tanner McEvoy will get the start Saturday, which is arguably the tougher matchup for LSU. His mobility makes him a great fit for Wisconsin's offense and will give the Tigers another headache defensively.
Gary Andersen apparently had McEvoy's speed in mind when opting for the redshirt junior, per ESPN.com's Travis Haney:
LSU's front seven was solid if unspectacular last season, and it will have its hands full against the combination of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Few teams will run the ball better this season than Wisconsin. The Badgers have two very talented running backs and a fantastic offensive line opening holes at the point of attack.
Having Clement and Gordon should also allow McEvoy to ease into the starting role without having to do too much against what will be a tough secondary.
In terms of personnel, LSU arguably gets the edge. The Tigers simply have more talent than Wisconsin. With that said, talent doesn't always win out; otherwise, you'd never see any upsets.
The Badgers will get the surprise victory in a defensive struggle.
Wisconsin 17, LSU 13