Ten season-defining games in '08
A year ago this time, no one would have predicted a Thanksgiving weekend game between Missouri and Kansas would wind up one of the most highly viewed of the season. Or that USC's game against Stanford would carry greater implications than its subsequent trip to Cal.
But who are we kidding? We're college football fans. We're still going to circle certain games on the calendar months before their arrival with the anticipation that these showdowns will carry monumental stakes by the time they're played.
Here are 10 potentially season-defining games in 2008:
1. Ohio State at USC, Sept. 13. This showdown of likely top five teams is as much about credibility as anything. After consecutive BCS title game whitewashings, the Buckeyes desperately need a win, or at least a down-to-the-wire finish, to show they're capable of competing at the highest level. New Trojans starting QB Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, will be under the prime-time spotlight.
2. Florida vs. Georgia, Nov. 1. While the annual Cocktail Party in Jacksonville is always a huge deal for Dawgs and Gators fans, rarely has it garnered the type of national attention that will likely surround the game should both teams maintain their hold in the national-title race. Florida has won 15 of the past 18 meetings, but Georgia seemed to break the hex with an emotional 42-30 win last season.
3. Georgia at Arizona State, Sept. 20. Long before the Dawgs get their shot at the Gators, they'll need to survive both the desert heat and a program on the rise in a rare (for Georgia) intersectional matchup. Sun Devils QB Rudy Carpenter is a proven commodity, but he'll need a dramatically improved offensive line to survive Georgia's suffocating defensive front. ASU allowed 55 sacks last season.
4. Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 11. While it's no guarantee the two Red River rivals will make it to their Shootout unscathed -- Oklahoma faces early challenges from Cincinnati, Washington and TCU; Texas faces old nemesis Arkansas -- they're still likely to be vying for no less than a Big 12 championship. Between them, the two schools have won five of the past six crowns (though the Sooners claimed all but one of those).
5. Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 4. While many cynics assume the loaded Buckeyes will once again cruise through the "soft" Big Ten, this game represents an unquestioned challenge. The last time these teams played in Madison, in 2003, the Badgers snapped a 19-game Ohio State winning streak -- and that was before Wisconsin began its current run of four-straight seasons of nine or more victories.
6. LSU at Auburn, Sept. 20. No SEC rivalry has been more intense in recent years than this one. The winner has gone on to claim the West Division title in six of the past eight seasons, and the past four meetings have all been decided by six points or less. Whoever wins will pave the path for even bigger games later on -- both face Georgia and Alabama, while Auburn hosts Tennessee and LSU visits Florida.
7. Texas at Texas Tech, Nov. 1. The schedule sets up favorably for the Red Raiders -- who return QB Graham Harrell, WR Michael Crabtree and eight other starters on offense -- to make a run at their first Big 12 South title, but to do so they'll almost certainly have to snap their five-game losing streak to the Longhorns. The ever-outspoken Mike Leach claims poor officiating contributed to the past two defeats.
8. Missouri vs. Kansas, Nov. 29. It is highly unlikely this year's Border War will carry quite the same gargantuan stakes as last season, particularly for the Jayhawks, who play a much tougher schedule this season. Don't be surprised, however, if Chase Daniel and the Tigers go into this game with multiple title aspirations, especially since they face neither Oklahoma nor Texas Tech during the regular season.
9. Auburn at West Virginia, Oct. 23. While the game has no bearing on the Mountaineers' attempt to repeat as Big East champs, a victory over a respected SEC foe would do wonders for their résumé should they enter the national-title discussion. This Thursday-night showcase is also likely to play a key role in West Virginia QB Pat White's quest for the Heisman.
10. BYU at Utah, Nov. 22. If the pundits are correct, the highly touted Cougars (22-4 over the past two seasons) could go into their season-ending rivalry game with a BCS berth on the line. It's not inconceivable, however, that the Utes could be playing for the same stakes. They return nearly the entire offense after winning eight of their last nine a year ago -- the sole defeat coming on a last-second touchdown by BYU in Provo.