We’re rounding into the season, which means it’s time to let you in on the very best games for every Power 5 conference. I’ve plumbed the depths of the upcoming season and pulled up the tastiest morsels from the ocean of content headed your way this coming fall.
This list is in no way exhaustive, and I tried to balance between obviously excellent matchups and hidden gems. If you want the best non-conference games, I published something about that last week. Check it out here.
No time to waste! Let’s start with . . .
Clemson at Wake Forest
NC State at Clemson
North Carolina at Miami
Pitt at Virginia
North Carolina at Wake Forest
Ohio State at Michigan State
Sparty really showed out last year, after transfer running back Kenneth Walker took their rushing attack from zero to hero. Mel Tucker’s trying to do the same thing again, bringing in Jarek Broussard from Colorado and Jalen Berger from Wisconsin to fill Walker’s cleats. But the offensive line is a big question mark, Payton Thorne needs to become a bit more reliable, and the pass defense has nowhere to go but up. But the Buckeyes want back on top of the mountain after missing out on the Big Ten title last year. Back comes CJ Stroud, the offense has reloaded out wide, and last year’s defense should get better. THE Ohio State is a major contender for the Playoff. Can the Spartans trip them up?
Wisconsin at Purdue
This is an intriguing matchup. The Badgers are hoping Graham Mertz improves and takes full command of the offense. The run offense should be solid as usual. But the defense has to reload after losing six starters to the NFL. Thankfully, blue chip recruits should help. Then there’s the Boilermakers, who relied on the pass a ton last year. Gunslinger Aidan O’Connell returns, which makes the Boilers somewhat dangerous. The defense has a new look that should befuddle offenses. Purdue’s the underdog here, but at home, they might be able to steal one.
Michigan State at Michigan
This rivalry has energy it hasn’t had for years, mostly thanks to Sparty’s resurgence. I’ve covered them above, but in sum: a strong running game with notable flaws that can be filled with experience. By the time MSU meets the Wolverines, they’d better be ready. Harbaugh’s boys won the Big Ten last season, but their one regular season loss was to Michigan State. Their offense returns a bunch of talent, and Blake Corum now features as the primary running back. Is there an issue at quarterback? Cade McNamara doesn’t think so. The defense loses big name talent; however recruiting has been strong and the Wolverines still figure to be ferocious.
Wisconsin at Iowa
Sconnie’s late season challenge should be brisk and cold. The Hawkeyes were frustratingly bad on offense last year, and with another quarterback battle afoot, no one really knows how they’ll look. They still run the ball decently, but they’ve lost a few crucial interior line pieces. But Iowa’s defense keeps opponents in low-scoring, close games with takeaways and stops. And this year should be no different. If Phil Parker’s defensive scheme can tie up Graham Mertz in knots, Iowa might be able to capitalize on home field advantage.
Michigan at Ohio State
This epic rivalry has real bad blood this season. In recent times, it’s been all Buckeyes, until Michigan overwhelmed Ohio State last season with power running and offensive strength. Ohio State will want revenge, and after Ryan Day hired an almost entirely new defensive staff, they’ll be focused on not repeating their mistakes. No idea who comes out on top, but if motivation is a factor, Ohio State’s got my vote, having reloaded with a singular focus on beating the Wolverines.
Oklahoma State at Baylor
Early in the season we’re blessed with last year’s conference championship squads running it back. Baylor’s strength is undoubtably their offensive line and . . . well, their entire defense, but especially Siaki Ika, a hulking behemoth anchoring the front three. They’re hoping to repeat last year’s meteoric rise with a hot start, but there’s a ton of questions at skill positions on offense. And after missing out on the College Football Playoff last year by a literal inch, Spencer Sanders leads a newly formed offense with intriguing incoming talent to Waco for vengeance. The big issue is lost talent from last year’s stellar defense, including coordinator Jim Knowles who left for Ohio State.
Texas vs. Oklahoma
Call it the Shootout, call it the Rivalry, call it whatever . . . as long as it’s preceded by “Red River,” it’s bound to be a classic. Lately, it seems these squads put on a classic every year. But the Sooners would like to avoid the need for the same Herculean comeback effort showcased in last year’s game. Brent Venables takes over after Lincoln Riley hightailed it for USC, and his offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is reunited with Dillon Gabriel. The new regime has attracted a stable of offensive skill talent, but the defense is vulnerable, entering a rebuild. Then there’s the Horns. I promise, I won’t make a joke about them being back. Quinn Ewers is the probable starter at quarterback, but he lacks game experience (let alone big game experience). And on the other side of the ball, well . . . let’s just hope this year’s Texas defensive unit gels more quickly.
Baylor at Oklahoma
This matchup often produces gritty, physical, high-flying competitions. Lincoln Riley may not be there to avenge last season’s premature field-rushing by Baylor’s overeager student body (or the cheeky field goal Dave Aranda had his team tack on directly afterwards), but I bet there’s still Sooner players who remember. What makes this game interesting is the multiple question marks within every unit of both teams. Can the Oklahoma line protect Dillon Gabriel well enough to give him time to throw? Will Blake Shapen have the weapons to march down the field in Norman? Will the Sooner defense have learned enough from guru Brent Venables to hold firm? That’s just for starters. Intrigue is what I hunt for when putting these lists together, and boy, does this game have a ton.
Texas Tech at TCU
Call me crazy. I do not care. As I said, I look for intrigue, and this is a sneaky good matchup in the making. TCU brings in Sonny Dykes from SMU to replace long-tenured coach Gary Patterson, and with Dykes comes a likely shift to high-powered offense, with Garrett Riley (Lincoln’s bro!) as offensive coordinator. Max Duggan returns with veteran chops, but Chandler Morris also showed promise under center last year, so it’s unclear who will run things for the Frogs. The bigger issues exist on the other side of the ball, where the defense has nowhere to go but up after a disastrous 2021. TCU hosts Texas Tech, whose new coach Joey McGuire (formerly from Baylor) has leveraged his Texas high school connections to put together a top 20 class in the 2023 recruiting cycle. But that’s a year off. How do they look now? Well, with three potential quarterbackss to command the offense (Tyler Shough or Donovan Smith are the likeliest starters) and a need to replace receiving and blocking talent, I’m not sure about the offense. The defensive front was surprisingly OK and should be again, with Tim DeRuyter bringing in unique pressure schemes from Oregon.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
BEDLAAAAAAAAAM!!! For many years, this showdown has had conference title (and sometimes Playoff) implications. At most, this should be another play-in game to postseason glory. At the very least, it’ll be full of salt, anger, and rusty barbed wire. The uber-talented Sooners and experience-laden Pokes should make it another one for the ages. Given all I’ve said about both squads, I don’t think I need to repeat myself. The matchup to watch for me is Dillon Gabriel against a Cowboys defense that needs to replace eight starters after a banner year.
USC at Utah
In the stunner of the offseason, the Trojans nabbed Lincoln Riley. He brought with him a treasure trove of transfers and coaching talent, and the USC faithful are likely hoping for plug-and-play success. Phenom Caleb Williams followed his coach from OU, brought in Oregon’s Travis Dye and Stanford’s Austin Jones for handoffs, and roped in Mario Williams out wide – his most notable target with the Sooners. Oh, and don’t forget that he swiped Jordan Addison from Pitt. Seems like the offense is, to understate things, alright (save some question marks on the line). Alex Grinch is trying to install a new system on defense focused on speed. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, Utah would like to steal Lincoln Riley’s spotlight back. Cam Rising, engineer of the Utes’ Pac-12 title last season, returns to lead a balanced offense with plenty of returning talent in the backfield, and on the line. The defense is a different story, losing important players across the board, including the four leading tacklers from last year.
Oregon State at Washington
Hear me now, believe me later: The Beavs are back. After what seemed like forever in the wilderness, Oregon State went to a bowl last year. Jonathan Smith finally has the orange and black in fighting shape, and the offense returns a strong rushing attack that should reload fine despite the departure of BJ Baylor, with gashes opened by a veteran, nasty offensive line. The defense still has room for improvement, but especially in the secondary, things are looking up. Meanwhile, the Cougs have to improve after a disastrous tenure under Jimmy Lake. He’s been replaced by Kalen DeBoer, and under his tutelage the offense should improve. Michael Penix transfers in from Indiana, but the run game will need to step up, as will the line. Bright side is, the defense should be fine, even with a switch in systems. It has talent in spades.
Utah at Oregon
The Utes, with their balanced and solid squad, should be within striking distance of a Pac-12 title by this point in the season. But not so fast. Oregon should give them fits in what could be a conference title game preview. Bo Nix comes to Eugene and has the benefit of a solid offensive line to keep him upright. Byron Cardwell has some big shoes to fill at runningback but seems up to the task. If the Ducks can mesh under new coach Dan Lanning, they should prove a formidable foe for Utah this late in the year.
USC at UCLA
As I mentioned, the Trojans are gearing up, loaded with incoming talent, to take over the Pac-12 before abandoning its husk for greener, Big-Ten-ier pastures. They’ll be ready for this rivalry tilt, no matter what the season brings. On the other sideline, UCLA looked improved last year, especially on offense. But even though they retained gunslinger Dorian Thompson-Robinson and star runner Zach Charbonnet, they lost a ton of talent. Especially up front. And their defense remains all over the place. No idea what happens here, because you know what you have to do in rivalries like this? That’s right. THROW THOSE RECORDS OUT.
Oregon at Oregon State
I forget what folks call this rivalry game now, since “Civil War” is now decidedly out the window. Dan and Ty have settled on the “Platypus Cup.” Regardless, with a hungry Duck squad facing resurgent Beavers, it might be the best tilt in a good while. Two big questions for me: can the Ducks take advantage of what should still be a rising (but not quite there yet) Oregon State front 7? And if they can’t, does Oregon’s D, with Noah Sewell anchoring it at linebacker, have the talent to keep the Beavs in front of them and get them off the field? I expect a hard-hitting game with some big plays.
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M
Aside from embarrassing Texas early on, Arkansas’s marquee win came against the Aggies, who they face off against in Dallas at JerryWorld this season to kick off SEC play. KJ Jefferson is back to passing, but who will he pass to? It’s a bunch of newbies out wide, but they’ve got raw talent, and Sam Pittman’s even trying backup quarterback Malik Hornsby, a speedster, out there. The running back stable is a terrifying monster that goes five-deep, and the line should be better than fine. On defense, there are questions. The Hogs replace their front three, but the secondary should be good in short-to-medium passing situations. The Aggies, meanwhile? They beat Bama last year and then eked them out in recruiting. It’s a good time to be at Texas A&M, at least on paper. Zach Calzada transferred out, which means either Haynes King or LSU transfer Max Johnson at quarterback. Devon Achane and a stout rushing attack will likely anchor things, as the receiving corps struggled last year and incoming talent might take a sec to get up to speed. The defense was really good last year, but they’ve lost their coordinator and some really notable pieces in the front seven.
Texas A&M at Alabama
If I’m picking one single game this year that’s absolutely unmissable, that I am beyond hyped to witness, this is it. Not only is it Alabama looking for revenge after last season’s loss, but the war of words between Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher over recruiting and NIL has been . . . testy. Testy is a good word. Look, Jimbo may have just landed the single best recruiting class in college football history, but what do both teams put on the field this year? The Aggies should get better where they need to, but this probably isn’t the year where they put it all together. Bama, though? Well, only seven starters left, so it’s mostly the same folks who almost won the national title last year. There’s room for improvement in the backfield, but top transfer Jahmyr Gibbs should fill in nicely for Brian Robinson. Will Anderson leads the best pass rush in America on defense. The battle this game should be the Aggies’ Achane against Bama’s big defensive front.
Tennessee at LSU
Another secret banger here. Tennessee’s legit good this year. I promise this time. Josh Heupel crafted an astonishing 7-5 season last year out of probably the worst possible situation. This year Hendon Hooker returns to sling it around, and is getting early Heisman chatter. The receiving room isn’t terribly deep, but the line returns four of five starters to protect Hooker. The defense also brings back a number of starters and should be better at stifling the pass. But what about the Tigahs? Well, no longer do they have a coach who pronounces it that way. Brian Kelly pulled in Mike Denbrock to lead an offense with a serious need to rebuild its line. With news of Myles Brennan’s retirement, Kelly’s quarterback contest will come down to Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels or Garrett Nussmeier. The defense? Well, a former NFL coordinator (Matt House) is trying to replace five NFL Draft picks and an All-American who jumped ship for Alabama, so you tell me.
Florida vs. Georgia
It’s the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, hosted in Jacksonville. One of the weirdest rivalry games every year. This one features a national champion too! Georgia’s sixth-year veteran starter Stetson Bennett IV has an embrarrassment of riches surrounding him, and the offense has no clear weaknesses. The defense lost a lot to the draft, so it might take a second to get into fighting shape, but by this game the talent should show itself. Florida, on the other hand, has a new coach in Billy Napier, who will rely on young gun Anthony Richardson to command the offense. Once again the rushing attack should anchor the Gators, with five-stars and transfers filling the unit and a burly line opening things up. The defense is balanced and dangerous, with experience up front and in coverage.
Ole Miss at Mississippi State
This rivalry game, man. It always produces weirdness. From a sheer entertainment standpoint, the Egg Bowl is always must-watch TV. Even more so this year, as the Rebs and Bulldogs are closely matched. Let’s start with Ole Miss. Lane Kiffin landed transfer quarterback (and all-time name) Jaxson Dart in the portal, and loaded up on yet more talent to complete a formidable, even-keeled, and explosive offense for this season. The offensive line is questionable and will need to step up. They’ll need to contend with a hungry MSU team that runs the classic Mike Leach Air Raid, with Will Rogers returning to pitch it around. The Bulldogs need to get more production out of the skill talent, though. Let’s hope replacements on the line work out. The defense was all over the place last season too, but the strength should be a punishing defensive line that returns literally everyone.