It’s finally here — college football’s long-awaited opening weekend, that glorious time of year when grown men entrust their happiness and well-being to teenagers they don’t know and will likely never meet.
We’ll be forced to plod through two more seasons under the current BCS format before a four-team playoff changes the landscape in 2014, but the game’s quaint and increasingly reviled postseason doesn’t dampen the passion attached to college football’s regular season, which remains the most meaningful and emotion-charged in all of sports.
Here’s a short list of the season’s key games, many of which will help decide the last team standing on Jan. 7, 2013, the date of the BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
Sept. 1 — Michigan vs. Alabama (at Arlington, Texas)
Arguably the best intersectional matchup of the year, this game will get the season off to a rollicking start. Both teams harbor national title hopes, but this one is especially big for the Wolverines. A win against the defending national champs would boost the Big Ten’s stock against the SEC and affirm that Michigan is back. A win would be an incalculable boost to UM quarterback Denard Robinson’s Heisman stock as well.
Sept. 15 — Alabama at Arkansas
The Hogs endured an offseason of chaos that included the removal of highly successful coach Bobby Petrino, who was replaced by John L. Smith. Still, Arkansas has a chance to erase all that uncertainty and state for the nation they are a legitimate threat to win the SEC West. For the second time in three weeks, the Tide will receive the best shot from a hungry contender eager to prove itself on a national stage.
Oct. 13 — Oklahoma vs. Texas (at Arlington, Texas)
This is a critical season for both teams. Texas wants to prove that it isn’t suffering from a prolonged decline that could spell the end of the Mack Brown era in Austin. And Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops needs to shed his program’s growing reputation for losing the biggest games. The latest renewal of the Red River Rivalry marks the end of a brutal three-game stretch for Texas, which could give the edge to the Sooners.
Nov. 3 — Alabama at LSU
To recall a game as big as this, we need only to look back to the 2011 season, when these two college football titans squared off twice in matchups that ultimately decided the national title. This time around, the results could be just as important. The Tide will lean more than ever on steady quarterback A. J. McCarron, while the Tigers will look to their defense, still stocked with playmakers even after the offseason dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu.
Nov. 3 — Oregon at USC
The other half of the titanic Nov. 3 doubleheader features the two teams that will be battling for West Coast supremacy, not to mention a spot in the BCS Championship game. The offensive star power in this one, including Heisman front-runner Matt Barkley, of USC, is off the charts, but the key might be the USC defense. The last time Ducks running back De’Anthony Thomas played in his hometown, he ran for TDs of 91 and 64 yards in the Ducks’ Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. USC won’t be so generous.
Nov. 8 — Florida State at Virginia Tech
These two ACC kingpins will tell a national audience, “Don’t forget about us.” This could be the game of the year in the conference, as well as a preview of the ACC Championship Game. Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., will be wild on a prime time Thursday night for a game that should feature two of the nation’s top defenses.
Nov. 17 — Oklahoma at West Virginia
This hotly anticipated clash could shape the Big 12, national-title, and Heisman Trophy races in one mighty showdown. The respective quarterbacks — Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and West Virginia’s Geno Smith — are both legitimate Heisman contenders, and they’re surrounded by playmakers who will help them state their case.
Nov. 24 — Michigan at Ohio State
Seems like old times — Michigan and Ohio State are once again the Big Two of the Big Ten. The Wolverines likely will have plenty at stake against a probation-laden Ohio State team that will treat this showdown as its bowl game and try to ruin the Wolverines’ title hopes in the Horseshoe.
Nov. 24 — Notre Dame at USC
The nation’s oldest and most prestigious intersectional rivalry will have plenty of significance attached to it. As usual, the atmosphere will resemble that of a big-time bowl game. The Trojans’ national-title hopes will be tested, and Irish linebacker Manti Te’o would love to put a dent in Matt Barkley’s Heisman Express.
— Rob Doster is senior editor for Athlon Sports.