You know the season is drawing closer when you find yourself poring over your favorite team's schedule figuring out which games are the gimmes, which ones are the lost causes and which ones will make or break the season. You can do the same thing from a national perspective, too.
While we obviously don't know for sure which teams will live up to their reputation as national-title contenders and which ones will come out of nowhere, we can certainly make an educated guess. And for each of those teams, you can usually identify at least one game -- most likely on the road, most likely against a similarly-talented foe -- that will make or break that team's fortune, and in turn, help define the entire course of the coming season. There are also those games that might not necessarily carry title implications but will still prove to be a defining moment, be it as a milestone win for an emerging program or a landmark moment -- positive or negative -- in a coach's tenure.
Here is an early guess at the 10 most important games of 2007:
1. Florida at LSU, Oct. 6
Unbeknownst at the time, last year's 23-10 Gators victory in Gainesville went a long way toward determining the national championship, considering Florida finished the season No. 1, while LSU ended up No. 3. This game could have a similar impact. It will also be the first true road test for new Gators starting QB Tim Tebow.
2. USC at Cal, Nov. 10
If you agree with the prevailing consensus that QB John David Booty and the Trojans are the team to beat in 2007, then it stands to reason their national-title hopes will hinge on this game. USC can afford to lose a game early, but not this one -- a late-season road trip against an explosive, veteran team.
3. Louisville at West Virginia, Nov. 8
Once again, this figures to be the Game of the Year in the Big East, and at least one of the two is likely to enter the contest with its national-title hopes still in tact. ESPN has once again slotted the game for a Thursday night, providing a showcase opportunity for Heisman hopefuls Brian Brohm, Steve Slaton and Pat White.
4. Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 10
Usually, the Big Ten title comes down to the end-of-season Ohio State-Michigan showdown (which takes place a week later), but the Badgers -- whose sole loss last season came in Ann Arbor -- could throw a wrench in those plans. It's not inconceivable that the Wolverines, whose toughest previous games come at home, could be 9-1 or 10-0.
5. LSU at Alabama, Nov. 3
The Tigers' four toughest foes -- Virginia Tech, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas -- all come to Baton Rouge, but this one could be LSU's make-or-break road game. Furthermore, it would be in Tigers coach Les Miles' best interest not to lose his first meeting with new LSU arch-enemy Nick Saban.
6. USC at Nebraska, Sept. 15
There's no early-season mega-showdown this year like Ohio State-Texas was the past two years, but this one carries no shortage of implications, particularly for the Huskers. It's Year 4 for Bill Callahan, and Nebraska fans are thirsting for a return to national prominence. They can't ask for a better measuring stick than this.
7. Texas vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 6
By now, it's no secret how big the Red River Shootout has become -- the winner has played for the national championship three of the past four years. Last year's game served as a breakout for Texas QB Colt McCoy; the Sooners will be hoping for the same out of its as-yet undetermined signal-caller.
8. Florida State vs. Alabama, Sept. 29
The BCS stakes in this one may wind up being minimal, but it still figures to be a significant statement opportunity for either Saban or for Bobby Bowden's revamped coaching staff as both attempt to resurrect fallen powers. Furthermore, it's the 77-year-old Bowden's first-ever meeting against his home-state team.
9. Boise State at Hawaii, Nov. 23
Could a BCS berth and/or Heisman Trophy be on the line in a WAC regular-season contest? Quite possibly. Both teams finished last season ranked in the coaches poll, and the fact that this game is in Honolulu could put Colt Brennan and the Warriors in position to end the Broncos' run of five straight conference titles.
10. Rutgers at Louisville, Nov. 29
In a rematch of one of last season's most thrilling contests, the Cardinals could be playing for a BCS berth. So could Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights, 11-2 a year ago, play all of the other toughest foes on their schedule -- Maryland, Cincinnati, USF, West Virginia and Pittsburgh -- at home.