The season-defining games for college football's top 25 teams

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Last week, we looked at the biggest strengths of every Way-Too-Early Top 25 team. This week, we'll break down the most defining matchups of the 2024 season, from Texas vs. Oklahoma in Week 7 to, of course, Michigan vs. Ohio State in Week 14.

Any regular-season matchup between SEC heavyweights Georgia and Alabama would be circled on fans' calendars for months. But with the Crimson Tide retooling after Nick Saban's retirement, Georgia fans will spend the summer dreaming about the Bulldogs' Oct. 19 trip to Texas. The Longhorns might be the most difficult opponent this season after winning a Big 12 title and reaching the CFP for the first time in 2023, and it will also be Georgia's first trip to Austin in 66 years. Georgia hasn't played at Texas since a 13-8 loss on Sept. 20, 1958. In fact, the teams have only played once since 1984, when the Longhorns won 28-21 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl following the 2018 season. -- Mark Schlabach

As with every year, all eyes will be focused on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. Three straight losses against Michigan has Ohio State wanting to prove itself. With Jim Harbaugh having won a national title at Michigan and back in the NFL with theLos Angeles Chargers, Ryan Day is under pressure to restore order in the sport's biggest rivalry. An 11-0 start wasn't good enough in 2023. If the Buckeyes are fortunate enough to enjoy similar success in 2024, it won't matter if they come up short against the Wolverines on Nov. 30. -- Blake Baumgartner

On Oct. 12, Autzen Stadium will get its first true test of Big Ten football when Ohio State visits. Dan Lanning's goal of turning Oregon into one of the nation's top teams will have to go through two of the sport's most storied programs in the Buckeyes and Michigan. Sure, the Ducks will travel to Ann Arbor in early November to face the defending national champions, but their matchup against Ohio State could set the tone for their season. -- Paolo Uggetti

Texas' matchup against Oklahoma on Oct. 12 will be a key measuring stick game. The Longhorns will already have faced Michigan in the Big House on Sept. 7 and have Georgia at home on Oct. 19, the week after the intense rivalry clash with the Sooners in Dallas. Most Texas seasons are defined by how it fares against OU, but in the first season in the SEC, there will be a higher degree of difficulty. -- Dave Wilson

Schedule strength can certainly vary from year to year, but Notre Dame's slate for 2024 sets up nicely on paper. Six of its first eight opponents finished 6-6 or worse in the last regular season and a seventh -- Miami (Ohio) -- will be a heavy underdog, while the eighth (Louisville) is at home. So, if the Irish start 8-0, the stage will be set for what figures to be a major showdown in South Bend against Florida State. A win vs. the Seminoles would almost certainly give the Irish an inside track on a spot in the expanded playoff and could leave only a road trip to USC on Nov. 30 as a true obstacle to an undefeated regular season. -- David Hale

As SEC schedules go next season, Ole Miss got one of the more favorable ones. The Rebels don't have to face Alabama or Texas, and they get two of their toughest opponents at home -- Oklahoma on Oct. 26 and Georgia on Nov. 9. The game, though, that may go the longest way toward shaping Ole Miss' season is the Oct. 12 trip to LSU, but it will get a bye the week beforehand. Looking at the first half of the Rebels' schedule, they have a good chance of being 6-0 going into that game. Ole Miss has won two of its past three games against LSU. A third in four games would put the Rebels in excellent position to make their first College Football Playoff appearance. -- Chris Low

Missouri is looking for its second straight double-digit win season after winning 11 games a year ago, and the 2024 schedule sets up nicely. The game that immediately jumps out is the Oct. 26 road game at Alabama. Missouri is 0-5 against Alabama since joining the SEC in 2012. The game against the Crimson Tide comes during a stretch where the Tigers play three of their four games (all against SEC opponents) on the road, although they get a bye between Alabama and the home game against Oklahoma on Nov. 9. Winning in Tuscaloosa to close out October would set up one of the most important Novembers for Missouri in recent history. -- Low

There's been frequent discussion on how Penn State can find ways to close the deal against the best teams on its schedule. Its Nov. 2 matchup against Ohio State will provide another opportunity to change that narrative. With Oregon and Michigan not on the slate this fall, a lot of emphasis will be placed on the Buckeyes' visit to State College as the program looks to reach the CFP for the first time. And last season's 20-12 loss in Columbus, where the offense managed just 240 total yards, will be fresh on the Nittany Lions' minds. --Baumgartner

This is an easy one. Even before Nick Saban retired, the 2024 SEC opener for Alabama was circled in crimson. Georgia visits Tuscaloosa on Sept. 28, only the fifth time in the past 20 years the two SEC powerhouses have met in the regular season. Of course, this time it will be without Saban on the sideline. Saban owned Georgia and Kirby Smart with a 5-1 record since Smart arrived in 2016. This will be Kalen DeBoer's SEC debut and a chance to set the tone against a Georgia program that's won two of the past three national championships. It will be especially important in front of the home fans at Alabama. -- Low

With Cameron Rising back and fully healthy, all eyes will be on Utah's trip to Stillwater on Sept. 21 to face Oklahoma State, where the Utes will be hoping their stout defense can begin a rebound campaign after an uncharacteristically down one in 2023. The Utes and Cowboys could be vying for Big 12 supremacy in the wake of Oklahoma and Texas departing for the SEC, and this matchup could set up the Utes for success. The back half of the schedule sets up well for Utah, making this game against Oklahoma State an early key result.-- Uggetti

Under new head coach Brent Brennan, the Wildcats first big test -- and likely the tone-setter for their first season in the Big 12 -- will be their road trip to Kansas State. The floor is open for either Wildcats team to become one of the Big 12's major forces. Kansas State is coming off a nine-win campaign and two years removed from battling for the Big 12 title, while Arizona is hoping to build on Noah Fifita's standout 10-win freshman season. The Sept. 14 matchup could be a high-scoring affair and a measuring stick for just how Arizona will fare in its new conference. -- Uggetti

LSU coach Brian Kelly hopes to restore LSU's reputation on defense this season, as the Tigers will get tested early against USC in the Vegas Kickoff Classic at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Sept. 1. The Trojans won't have Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, tailback MarShawn Lloyd and leading receivers Brenden Rice and Tahj Washington, who helped them rank third in the FBS in scoring (41.8 points) and fifth in passing (333 yards) last season. Lincoln Riley's offenses will always be capable of piling up yards and points, but naturally USC has had its own problems on defense. Slowing down LSU's prolific attack will be a test of its own. -- Schlabach

Michigan's ability to change the narrative against Ohio State has been as big of a reason as any for its dominance over the past three seasons, accumulating a 30-3 record (26-1 in the Big Ten). Yes, the Wolverines welcome Texas in the Big House in September as its nonconference slate gets a much-needed jolt, but things annually revolve around what occurs on Thanksgiving weekend. With an opportunity to possibly put another stain on Ryan Day's tenure, Michigan vs. Ohio State on Nov. 30 will be fascinating to watch -- no matter what happens in the season's first 11 weeks. -- Baumgartner

We're going to go out on a limb and say Texas on Oct. 12. But it's not just because it's always the make-or-break game on the Sooners' schedule. It's because OU will be two games deep into the SEC slate, after Tennessee (in Norman) and Auburn (on the road). When the Sooners head to Dallas to face the Longhorns, they'll be coming off a bye and beginning the stretch run of the season, with South Carolina and Ole Miss following, and a final killer one-two punch to end the season with Alabama in Norman and LSU in Baton Rouge. The Texas game could be a see-saw contest for Oklahoma, with either a huge confidence boost or the vultures starting to circle. --Wilson

The answer shifted to LSU the past few seasons, but we will go back to an old standby -- Clemson. Both teams are expected to be among the favorites to win the ACC championship, and they play in Tallahassee on Oct. 5. The obvious (juicy) storyline is DJ Uiagalelei facing his old team and the quarterback who took his starting job in Cade Klubnik. But at this point in the season, Florida State will have already played four conference games in a true quirk of its schedule. What happens against Clemson could truly determine whether it has a shot at back-to-back ACC championships. Two other huge games loom -- a road contest at rival Miami and then two weeks later, a big matchup at Notre Dame. -- Andrea Adelson

The trip to Oklahoma on Sept. 21 to kick off the SEC season will garner a lot of publicity, especially with Josh Heupel returning to his alma mater. But the must-win game for the Vols if they're going to make a push for the College Football Playoff is the home contest against Florida on Oct. 12. Alabama comes to Knoxville the following week, a two-game stretch that will shape Tennessee's season. Yes, the third Saturday in October is always an important date in Tennessee football lore, but it won't mean nearly as much next season unless the Vols can figure out a way to exercise their demons against the Gators. Florida has won 17 of the past 19 meetings in the series. -- Low

The 2024 season brings about change in the Big 12, where Oklahoma State will have an early test against Utah on Sept. 21 that will let us know early how ready the Pokes are to contend for the conference championship. Multiple ESPN reporters have the Utes making the playoff field in the new 12-team format. This matchup features teams that had the fourth (Oklahoma State) and 16th (Utah) most returning production in college football. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

NC State will either prove its bona fides in September or be an afterthought before the calendar turns to October. The Sept. 7 neutral-site game against Tennessee will set the stage for the Wolfpack, but their ACC title hopes rest almost entirely with a conference opener at Clemson on Sept. 21. The Wolfpack haven't won in Death Valley since 2002. The back half of the schedule is inviting, but the shine will be all but gone if NC State can't make the most of the biggest stages in September. -- Hale

Clemson's three toughest games are likely all in the first five weeks, including the season opener against Georgia, a home date against NC State and a trip to Tallahassee. But if we're forced to pick one, let's put the spotlight on Georgia. Clemson's three worst seasons during Swinney's run of success at the school have come in 2014, 2021 and 2023. The common thread? The Tigers lost their opener in all three years, including two to the Bulldogs. Georgia won't define the Tigers' ACC or playoff hopes, but it will be the ultimate litmus test to decide if Clemson is capable of getting back to contending for a national title. -- Hale

The game perhaps lost some of the shine it had before Jedd Fisch left Arizona for the Washington head-coach position, but the Sept. 14 game against fellow Wildcats is a big one. It's the first conference game of the season for Kansas State, where it'll face one of the better quarterbacks in all of college football in Noah Fifita, who will have his No. 1 target back in Tetairoa McMillan. As there is with all head-coaching departures, there was an exodus of talent at Arizona, but it should be a fun game, nonetheless. -- Lyles

Somehow, we have managed to pick Clemson for multiple teams here on this top 25 list. There is a reason for that, especially for Louisville. Last season, the Cards made their first ACC championship game appearance since joining the conference in 2014. It just so happened last year, the first year without divisions, meant Louisville did not have to play Clemson for the first time as an ACC member. Well, Clemson is back on the schedule this year -- and the game is at Clemson on Nov. 2. Louisville is 0-8 all time against the Tigers. So now you see why this is most definitely a season-defining game. -- Adelson

This year's game between Kansas and Kansas State will be a road contest for the Jayhawks. Last season, in the first ranked matchup in 28 years, the Wildcats rallied from an 11-point deficit to win in Lawrence and celebrated on the Jayhawks logo at midfield, extending their Sunshine Showdown winning streak to 15 games. There's a solid chance this is a ranked matchup again, and Jalon Daniels could boost his profile as a Jayhawk legend with a victory, especially if it helps the Jayhawks make the new 12-team playoff along the way. -- Lyles

The Wildcats open the 2024 season with four straight games at Kroger Field and need to take advantage of it by winning at least three of them. After opening the season against Southern Miss on Aug. 31, the Wildcats will play back-to-back SEC contests against South Carolina and Georgia. The Bulldogs are going to be heavy favorites to win, even on the road, so Kentucky needs to take care of business against the Gamecocks on Sept. 7. Kentucky has won seven of the past 10 games in the series, but South Carolina won back-to-back contests, including a 17-14 victory in Columbia last season. The Wildcats had just 293 yards of offense with three turnovers in that loss. With SEC road contests at Ole Miss, Florida, Tennessee and Texas remaining on the schedule, Kentucky needs to make its mark early. -- Schlabach

It is hard to call any opener a season-defining game, but it fits in this case. Miami opens at Florida in a game that both coaches desperately need to win to show their respective fan bases that things will be different this year. For the Hurricanes, a win would help set the tone for what comes next -- a manageable schedule that features only two teams expected to be ranked in the preseason top 25. Miami coach Mario Cristobal has a 12-13 record his first two years taking over at his alma mater. He has stacked exceptional recruiting classes and effectively used the portal. This is the year the Hurricanes must take the next step. Beating Florida can help get them there. --Adelson

There is enough talent on hand that the Aggies can make a statement in Year 1 under Mike Elko. There will be huge interest in A&M's Week 1 home game against Notre Dame. But the Texas rivalry returns this year for the first time since 2011, and it carries massive implications on and off the field. The Longhorns are coming off a CFP appearance, have recruited very well under Sarkisian and everything about this rivalry has been judged through transitive property for the past decade-plus. Now, the Aggies can try to claim some momentum in the heavyweight battle by getting the Longhorns at Kyle Field to end the season on Nov. 30, and they'll expect Elko to end his first campaign on the right foot. --Wilson