With the unofficial start of the college football season set to kick off Saturday, WPTV.com takes a look at the most anticipated games of 2021.
No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 5 Georgia
This once-annual border rivalry resumes in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a seven-year absence from the college football calendar. The Bulldogs got the best of Clemson in a 45-21 win in Athens in 2014, but that seems like a lifetime ago for these two programs, both of which have ascended into perennial playoff contenders. Clemson has been a part of every College Football Playoff since the 2015 season, while Georgia played for the national championship as recently as the 2017 season. The Tigers lose quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft (to the Jacksonville Jaguars), all-time leading rusher Travis Etienne (another first-round pick who happens to be reunited with Lawrence in Jacksonville) and their top two receivers from a season ago. But never count Clemson out. D.J. Uiagalelei threw for 914 yards and five touchdowns while starting two games in Lawrence's absence last year, gaining valuable experience along the way. Clemson has averaged more than 43 points per game for three consecutive seasons. That shouldn't change in 2021. Meanwhile, Georgia quarterback JT Daniels is back after passing for 1,231 yards, 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He's one of 14 returning starters for the Bulldogs. Expect the winner of this one to have an early advantage in the playoff race.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami
It's only fitting that the defending national champions will open the 2021 season against a team it hasn't faced since they played for the 1992 national championship. Alabama and Miami will meet in Atlanta for a rematch of the 1993 Sugar Bowl, when the second-ranked Crimson Tide upset the top-ranked Hurricanes 34-13 and ended their 29-game winning streak. Alabama loses its quarterback, running back, top two receivers, tight end, three starting offensive lineman and four assistant coaches on offense from last season's national championship team, but as the Nick Saban-coached Tide have demonstrated time and time again, they never seem to lose their place as the most consistent program in college football. Alabama is 10-0 in neutral-site season openers under Saban, outscoring the opposition 381-128. Miami quarterback D'Eriq King is back for another year after passing for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns while rushing for 538 yards and four scores before suffering a knee injury in a 37-34 loss to Oklahoma State in the Cheez-It Bowl. His decision to return for a sixth season of college eligibility after transferring from Houston in 2020 gives the Hurricanes a fighting chance, but the loss of several key players on defense should be a cause for concern headed into the Labor Day weekend showdown.
No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State
It's been a precipitous decline for a once-proud Florida State program and its fan base, but second-year head coach Mike Norvell appears to be steering the Seminoles in the right direction on the recruiting trail. What remains to be seen is whether it will translate into marked improvement on the football field. To that end, Norvell and his staff took full advantage of the transfer portal this past offseason, bringing in 10 players from other Football Bowl Subdivision schools, most notably former Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton. The crown jewel of the most recent crop of transfers, Milton hasn't played in a game since November 2018, when he suffered a gruesome knee injury that required nine surgeries. Milton was impressive in the spring game, completing six of 11 passing attempts for 96 yards and a touchdown. Prior to the injury, Milton was 27-6 as a starter at UCF. During his three seasons at UCF, Milton accounted for 9,760 yards of total offense and 92 touchdowns. He's won his last 24 starts, including leading the Knights to a 13-0 season in 2017. But can a quarterback who hasn't taken a snap in more than two years keep the streak alive against Notre Dame? The Fighting Irish have made the College Football Playoff in two of the last four seasons, only to run afoul of Clemson both times. Notre Dame returns to independent status in 2021 after using the Atlantic Coast Conference as its coronavirus safe haven last season, so this game won't count in the standings. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan takes over for Ian Book as starting quarterback. Coan started for Wisconsin in 2019, leading the Badgers to a 10-4 record while throwing for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns. If Milton struggles, the Seminoles know they've got an experienced quarterback in redshirt sophomore Jordan Travis, who was 13 of 24 passing for 204 yards with one touchdown and rushed for 96 yards and another score in last season's meeting at Notre Dame.
Louisville vs. Mississippi
Scott Satterfield flirting with South Carolina left a sour taste in the mouths of Louisville fans. The third-year Cardinals head coach issued a statement in which he admitted that he had a "conversation" with South Carolina about its vacancy in December. Satterfield apologized for his dalliance with another school, but it was enough to leave Louisville fans understandably uneasy about his commitment to the Cardinals. A season-opening victory in Atlanta would be a good start at making amends. He could take some advice from the coach on the opposing sideline. Lane Kiffin knows a thing or two about leaving for other jobs, bowing out somewhat quickly at Florida Atlantic in December 2019 -- less than an hour after leading the Owls to a second Conference USA championship in three seasons -- and less than gracefully when he spurned Tennessee for Southern California after just one season in January 2010. The quarterback battle will be on display at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Malik Cunningham, Louisville's dual-threat third-year starter, looks to outduel Mississippi's Matt Corral. Cunningham threw for 2,617 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, while Corral flourished in his first season under Kiffin, leading the nation in total offense with 384.9 yards per game.
No. 11 Oregon at No. 4 Ohio State
The Ducks missed out on a chance to host Ohio State last season at Autzen Stadium, but Oregon will get the opportunity this year at "the Horseshoe." The defending champions of the Pacific 12 and Big Ten conferences will meet in an early marquee non-conference game. Ryan Day owns a 23-2 record as head coach of the Buckeyes and has yet to lose a regular-season game, although it's helped having one of the best quarterbacks in college football. Now that Justin Fields has moved on to the NFL, Day must find a new quarterback to helm the offense. None of the QBs competing for the starting job -- redshirt freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller and true freshman Kyle McCord -- has ever completed a collegiate pass. The quarterback outlook is less uncertain for Oregon as sixth-year senior Anthony Brown takes over after splitting time with Tyler Slough in the Fiesta Bowl. Slough has since transferred to Texas Tech, leaving Brown to take all the first-team snaps in spring practice. The Buckeyes are 9-0 all-time against Oregon. Their last meeting was a 42-20 blowout in the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship game to cap the 2014 season.
No. 18 Iowa at No. 7 Iowa State
Just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, Iowa continues to compete at a high level, playing in a bowl game in all but three seasons since 2001. That includes last year's Music City Bowl, which was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns within the Missouri program. But the Cyclones are challenging the Hawkeyes for state supremacy. Iowa State came closest to claiming the Cy-Hawk Trophy in 2019, losing by a point to Iowa in Ames. Last year's game was scrapped because of COVID-19, but the rivalry returns to Jack Trice Stadium in 2021. Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy already owns 25 individual school records in amassing 9,921 yards of total offense, but he has yet to beat the Hawkeyes, who haven't lost to the Cyclones since 2014 and haven't had a losing season since 2012. Iowa, which ended last year on a six-game winning streak, is 51-6 when cracking 100 yards rushing in a game over the last six seasons. Translation: The Cyclones will need to stop the run if they want to win. Defensive end Will McDonald had a school-record 10.5 sacks last season -- tied for the national lead. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz is the longest tenured coach at any one school in the country.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 13 Florida
This early rematch of last year's Southeastern Conference Championship game could be the first of two meetings between Alabama and Florida in 2021. Chances are the Crimson Tide will be back in the SEC title game no matter the outcome, but what about the Gators? Florida loses its key playmakers on offense with the departures of quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, and the defense was historically bad last season, allowing 30.8 points per game -- the most since World War II. A three-game losing streak to end last season is also a cause for concern. But if there are any doubts about his team, fourth-year head coach Dan Mullen isn't showing it. In fact, he touted dual-threat quarterback Emory Jones as being able to make "a lot of throws" that Trask couldn't. Alabama has beaten Florida in seven straight meetings. This will be Alabama's first game in Gainesville since a 38-10 win in 2011. No team from the SEC's Eastern Division has beaten Alabama since South Carolina in 2010.
Auburn at No. 19 Penn State
Auburn and Penn State have split their only two previous meetings, both in bowl games. This is the first true test for new Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin, who comes to the SEC from Boise State, where he went 69-19 in seven seasons. Auburn paid a $21.5 million buyout to get rid of Gus Malzahn, who lost four or more games each season since 2014. Harsin, on the other hand, never lost more than four games in a single season at Boise State. Not bad, but it'll take more than that to win over the Auburn faithful. Winning at Penn State would make for an early good impression. The Nittany Lions started last year 0-5 before reeling off four consecutive wins to conclude the 2020 campaign. This will be the first time Auburn has played a Big Ten team in the regular season since tying Wisconsin 7-7 at Camp Randall Stadium in 1931.
Nebraska at No. 2 Oklahoma
This game is a far cry from the days of legendary coaches Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer. Osborne's Cornhuskers and Switzer's Sooners combined to win six national championships between 1973 and 1997. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said he was "bitterly disappointed" with the early kickoff time for the 50th anniversary of the 1971 meeting between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma, which the Cornhuskers won 35-31. Osborne and Switzer were the offensive coordinators in that game, but they'll merely be spectators when these once-bitter rivals meet for the first time since the Sooners outlasted Nebraska 23-20 in the 2010 Big 12 Conference Championship game. The 'Huskers bolted for the Big Ten the next season. Also looming over this game was the March admission by Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos that he explored adding another home game amid reports the school was trying to get out of playing Oklahoma.
No. 9 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Wisconsin
Last season was rather forgettable by Wisconsin standards, but a win against Notre Dame at historic Soldier Field in Chicago would surely get Badgers fans excited. Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz returns for his second season as the starter after throwing for 1,238 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions in seven games. Eight defensive starters return from a unit that ranked ninth in scoring defense, fifth in rushing defense and fifth in overall defense. This is the first meeting since the Badgers handed the Irish a 31-7 beatdown at Camp Randall Stadium in 1964.
Tennessee at No. 13 Florida
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired in January amid an investigation that revealed rampant NCAA recruiting violations. Athletic director Phil Fulmer, who coached Tennessee to its last national championship in 1998, stepped aside shortly thereafter. Taking Fulmer's place was Danny White, who once refused a two-for-one series with the Gators during his time as Central Florida's athletic director. After a national search, White brought Josh Heupel -- his UCF hire -- with him. Heupel, who was quarterback of Oklahoma's national championship team in 2000, was 28-8 in three seasons at UCF. There was promise for Tennessee after the Volunteers started the 2020 season 2-0 and led Georgia 21-17 at halftime, but they imploded in the second half and seemingly never recovered, losing seven of their next eight games. The result was Tennessee's worst record in 97 years. This once must-watch SEC East rivalry has fallen on hard times, mostly because of Tennessee's irrelevancy. Florida has won 15 of the last 16 meetings since 2005 and hasn't lost to Tennessee at home since 2003 -- back when Ron Zook was still coaching the Gators.
Mississippi at No. 1 Alabama
Kiffin returns to Tuscaloosa for the first time since his awkward separation from Alabama at the conclusion of the 2016 season. Kiffin spent three seasons as offensive coordinator under Saban and, after accepting the head coaching job at FAU in December 2016, had aspirations of remaining with the team through the national championship game. But Saban had other ideas, announcing that Kiffin's successor, Steve Sarkisian, would instead coach the game. No hard feelings, right? Last year's shootout -- a 63-48 loss in Oxford -- was the most points Alabama has ever surrendered to an unranked opponent in the poll era.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M
There were plenty of people who felt that Texas A&M should have earned the fourth and final spot in last season's College Football Playoff. After all, Texas A&M's only loss was to Alabama. Instead, the Aggies settled for their first Orange Bowl appearance since 1944. Fourth-year head coach Jimbo Fisher has had A&M fans dreaming of championships since his arrival, but he has yet to deliver. Standing in the way, naturally, is Alabama. During an appearance at the Houston Touchdown Club in May, Fisher claimed the Aggies would "beat his ass" when asked what it would take to beat Saban's team. "I respect everything they do and how they do it, but we can do it just as good and be just as good or better, and we will," Fisher said. He may eat his words come October. Saban's Crimson Tide are 3-0 against the Fisher-led Aggies.
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 21 Texas
Welcome to the SEC. Just not yet. These usually bitter rivals showed a bit of unity in July with a joint announcement that the schools would not extend their media grant of rights with the Big 12 after 2025. The Longhorns and Sooners then quickly sought and accepted an invitation to join the SEC. Last season's "Red River Showdown" in Dallas was a four-overtime affair that Oklahoma won 53-45. But overtime will look different in 2021. Beginning this year, the NCAA will require teams to attempt a two-point conversion starting with the second overtime instead of the third. If a game reaches a third overtime, it's all alternating two-point plays until a winner is decided. Oklahoma rallied from a 0-2 conference start to win its sixth straight Big 12 crown and demolish Florida in the Cotton Bowl, finishing the season on an eight-game winning streak. Texas, on the other hand, is hoping for more under former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Florida State at No. 10 North Carolina
North Carolina will welcome Florida State to Chapel Hill for the first time since 2009 looking for payback after last year's stunning upset in Tallahassee. The Seminoles got off to a 24-0 start -- which included an interception by North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell that was returned for a touchdown -- and took a 31-7 lead into halftime before a second-half surge by the Tar Heels fell just short as FSU prevailed 31-28. It was arguably Florida State's finest defensive performance for a defense that was just plain bad in 2020, ranking 105th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. But there should be marked improvement this year thanks to a pair of transfers at defensive end. Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson shone for the defense in the spring and will be expected to get to the quarterback more frequently than the Seminoles did last season. Johnson had five sacks in seven games with the Bulldogs last season. FSU's defense had nine in nine games. On the other end of the defensive line will be South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas, who racked up 18.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks while starting 32 games for the Gamecocks before coming to FSU. The Seminoles are 7-1 all-time at Kenan Memorial Stadium.
No. 14 Miami at No. 10 North Carolina
Arguably the best two quarterbacks in the ACC will showcase their talents when Miami's King and North Carolina's Howell meet in a key divisional matchup. Howell threw for a score, ran for a score and caught a touchdown pass for the Tar Heels while King threw for 239 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last season's 62-26 blowout win for the Tar Heels. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams set an NCAA record by combining for 544 rushing yards in what was the regular-season finale for both teams. The Tar Heels finished the day with 778 yards -- the most ever allowed by Miami in a single game. The good news for Miami is that both running backs have since moved on to the NFL, so not even another embarrassing performance would yield the same outcome. The Tar Heels are 9-8 against Miami since the Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004.
No. 15 Southern California at No. 9 Notre Dame
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Can Southern California get back to being USC under Clay Helton? It appeared that way through much of the shortened 2020 season, but then came the loss to Oregon at the Los Angeles Coliseum that gave the Ducks the Pac-12 championship. The Trojans will try to reestablish themselves as a national power with a trip to Notre Dame. USC didn't get a chance to win back the Jeweled Shillelagh last year after COVID-19 disrupted the series, which had been played annually since 1946. The Irish have won three in a row and haven't lost to USC at Notre Dame Stadium since 2011.
No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 13 Florida
This border feud in Jacksonville, Florida, has decided the SEC East each of the last four years. Not coincidentally, that timeline also matches the arrival of head coach Kirby Smart at Georgia. The Bulldogs have had a double-digit first-quarter lead each of the last four meetings, but Florida had enough offensive weapons to overcome it last season, battling back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat Georgia 44-28 and snap a three-game losing streak in the series. Although the Bulldogs have won six against their intrastate rival over the last decade, Florida still owns a dominating 22-9 record since 1990 -- the same year Steve Spurrier took over and transformed the Gators into a national power.
Florida State at No. 2 Clemson
Last year's game was postponed at the 11th hour and then eventually canceled, with Florida State citing coronavirus concerns. But that wasn't the way Clemson coach Dabo Swinney saw it, accusing the Seminoles of trying to skirt his team. What ensued was a bunch of jawing from Swinney, who felt the Seminoles forfeited the game. Under the ACC's revised COVID-19 protocols, that's exactly what would happen this year. It was the first time the teams hadn't played each other since 1991 -- the season before FSU joined the ACC. After 40 consecutive winning seasons from 1977-2017, FSU has now endured three straight losing seasons, including last year's 3-6 record -- the fewest wins since 1975. The winner of this game has gone on to represent the ACC Atlantic Division each year since 2011. Aside from last year's one-off arrangement that made Notre Dame a conference game, Clemson hasn't dropped a game to an ACC opponent since October 2017.
No. 16 Louisiana State at No. 1 Alabama
This game will always mean more so long as Saban is roaming the sideline. With a contract extension through the 2028 season, the 69-year-old Alabama coach doesn't appear close to doing so for at least another eight years. Saban is 11-4 against his former team, but three of those four losses were in Tuscaloosa, including a 46-41 loss the last time the Tigers visited Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2019. Louisiana State quarterback Max Johnson, who is the son of former Florida State and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson, started the final two games of last season, leading the Tigers to a 2-0 finish with victories against Florida and Mississippi. He'll have all five starting linemen returning this year, which should come in handy against Alabama's defensive line.
No. 11 Oregon at No. 20 Washington
It's payback time in Seattle. COVID-19 disrupted plenty in 2020, but the Huskies still must feel slighted about the circumstances that led to Oregon being crowned Pac-12 champions. Two days after the game between Washington and Oregon was called off because the Huskies failed to have the minimum number of players required by the conference, the decision was made to replace the Huskies with the Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship game. The game at Autzen Stadium would have decided the North Division representative, but it didn't really matter. Even though Washington finished atop the division standings at the conclusion of the truncated regular season, Oregon went on to upset USC (the only team with an undefeated conference record) in the Pac-12 Championship game. Washington head coach Jimmy Lake only got four games in his debut season with the Huskies after taking over for Chris Petersen, who retired after the 2019 season.
No. 14 Miami at Florida State
Norvell didn't get any taste of his team's biggest rivalry games in his first year at Florida State, missing last season's Miami game after testing positive for coronavirus and forcing him to watch from home while tight ends coach and deputy head coach Chris Thomsen led the Seminoles from the sideline. The 52-10 beatdown by the Hurricanes was Florida State's most lopsided loss in the series since a 47-0 rout in 1976. Miami's four-game winning streak is the longest since the Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004.
No. 7 Iowa State at No. 2 Oklahoma
The Cyclones took down Oklahoma in the regular season but lost to the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship game rematch. This could once again be the game to decide the conference representatives in Arlington, Texas. The Sooners seemed to play their best in 2020 as the season progressed. Over his final 188 passes last season, Rattler had just two picked off. He ended with 28 touchdown passes and the 11th-best passing efficiency mark in the country (172.6). Oklahoma returns 19 starters in all, plus three opt outs from 2020 and three transfers from Tennessee. Not to be overlooked, Iowa State tied a single-season record for wins and earned its first top-10 final ranking in school history.
No. 1 Alabama at Auburn
There was nothing particularly memorable from last year's "Iron Bowl," but it was who wasn't on the sideline that probably stood out. Saban watched his team's 42-13 victory from home after testing positive for coronavirus. Sarkisian coached the team in Saban's absence. Barring another COVID-19 disruption, Saban should be back opposite Bryan Harsin, who left Boise State after seven seasons to take the Auburn job. "You've got a team up north doing a great job," Harsin said of Auburn's hated rival. "Well, someone has to come here and figure out how to compete with them." That's why Auburn paid a $21.5 million buyout to send Gus Malzahn packing. Saban is 9-5 against the Tigers at Alabama, but Auburn's last three wins in the rivalry have all taken place at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Florida State at No. 13 Florida
For the first time since 1957, Florida and Florida State did not face each other in 2020, despite a push by Gov. Ron DeSantis to ensure that the rivalry wouldn't be disrupted. That may have been just as well for the Seminoles, who have dropped consecutive games against the Gators for the first time since 2009. Not coincidentally, the shift in the rivalry has as much to do with coaching as anything. Mullen's Gators snapped a five-game losing streak in 2018, routing Florida State 41-14 in Willie Taggart's lone opportunity. Taggart was fired after just 21 games, leaving interim coach Odell Haggins in a bad spot during Florida's 40-17 victory the last time they played in 2019. Now it's Norvell's turn.
No. 4 Ohio State at Michigan
Did Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh save his job by dodging Ohio State last year? Maybe, but there will be no such luck in 2021 now that the Big Ten will divvy out forfeits to teams that are unable to participate because of COVID-19. Michigan's coronavirus concerns led to the cancellation of last year's game, nixing a rivalry that had been played every year since 1918. The Buckeyes are 15-1 against the Wolverines since 2004. Worse, Harbaugh is 0-6 in the rivalry. He likely won't be welcome in Ann Arbor if the digit to the left of the dash doesn't change.