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By Matthew Postins/College Football America Editor-in-Chief
In a stunning development, an early-season SEC contest will have a bearing on just about everything. The Crimson Tide go to College Station trying to avenge their one loss from last season’s BCS title run. The Aggies host the Crimson Tide trying to prove they’re a legitimate threat to win a national championship. Alabama QB AJ McCarron vs. A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Nick Saban vs. Kevin Sumlin. Old-school SEC vs. nouveau-riche SEC. The possibilities are endless.
LSU at Georgia, Sept. 28
Another SEC game? Sure, why not. But this one is vital to Georgia, which for the past few years has, by the grace of the SEC’s eight-game schedule, managed to avoid both Alabama and LSU. Not this year. The Bulldogs — who weren’t far away from beating Alabama in the SEC title game — have legitimate title hopes. With South Carolina and Florida on the docket, the Bulldogs cannot afford a slip here because they’re bound to slip up against the Gamecocks or the Gators.
Wisconsin at Ohio State, Sept. 28
Ohio State is everyone’s favorite to win the Leaders Division and, in some circles, the Big Ten. But let’s not forget that Wisconsin has won the Big Ten championship the past three seasons. Head coach Bret Bielema (Arkansas) and running back Montee Ball (NFL) are gone, but the Badgers still have plenty of firepower and a new coach, Gary Andersen, who values what the Badgers value. After the usual soft schedule, the Buckeyes get their first big test of 2013 in the Horseshoe in Columbus.
Florida State at Clemson, Oct. 19
The Seminoles and the Tigers can’t avoid each other. They’re clearly the best two teams in the Atlantic Division, so this game could serve as a de facto division championship game. On paper the Tigers have a clear advantage at quarterback, where the experience of Tajh Boyd looms over the potential of FSU’s Jameis Winston. If the rest of the two teams match up evenly, then Boyd or Winston could be the difference in competing for the ACC’s BCS bowl berth.
Northwestern at Nebraska, Nov. 2
Hear me out. Pat Fitzgerald has a piping hot program in Evanston, with a dark horse Heisman candidate in RB Venric Mark, an experienced offense and a defense that, while possessing some holes, still has top-end talent. Sure, it must beat either Ohio State or Wisconsin, but if the Wildcats go to Lincoln and beat Nebraska, they get two weeks to prep for Legends frontrunner Michigan. If Nebraska wins, they get Michigan the next week. It’s a gateway game for the winner.
Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7
You can set your watch by this game. The first Saturday in November the Ducks and the Cardinal tangle to see who wins the Pac-12 North. This year Stanford has stability at quarterback and head coach. Oregon, while still talented and potent, has a new head coach in Mark Helfrich. Stanford needs this game more than the Ducks, as the Cardinal has both USC and UCLA on their Pac-12 schedule, while the Ducks only get UCLA in Pac-12 action. That makes the road harder for Stanford.
Florida at South Carolina, Nov. 16
South Carolina has a clear edge in the SEC East race and it’s not Jadeveon Clowney. It’s the fact that the Gamecocks managed to get a pass on playing Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M. So the Gamecocks just need to manage their divisional slate, and the Gators will be the last hurdle to winning the SEC East. Florida will be two weeks removed from the game against Georgia, and should the Gators win that game and the Gamecocks are undefeated in the SEC, this likely settles the East.
UCLA at USC, Nov. 30
Many people have their eyes on Arizona or Arizona State in the Pac-12 South. Hogwash. This is the game that should decide who plays in the Pac-12 title game. UCLA has momentum with the experienced quarterback in Brett Hundley and a burgeoning defense that should be more physical in 2013. USC has to find a new quarterback and it may not be nearly as good as usual, but the Trojans have enough to throw a wrench in UCLA’s hopes if given the chance.
Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30
This rivalry really means something now. Ohio State is back on the field and off probation. The Buckeyes are the favorite to win the Leaders Division. The Wolverines lost Denard Robinson, but gain a quarterback in Devin Gardner better suited to the pro-style offense the Wolverines want to run. Plus, Taylor Lewan took a pass on the NFL. This game might mean less if they play each other again the following week in the Big Ten title game, but we shouldn’t let that put a damper on this one.
SEC Championship Game, Dec. 7
We don’t know which two teams will play in this game, but given the fact that the last seven BCS national championships have been claimed by the SEC, it’s a good bet the winner of this game will be on its way to Pasadena. Can Alabama do it again? Could Texas A&M put a damper on the Tide and stake their own claim? What about South Carolina? LSU? Georgia? Florida? With a half-dozen legit contenders, it should be a wild and woolly race to Atlanta.