Pick Six: Critical games dot the schedule as 2021 commences

Every weekend in college football, the schedule offers compelling matchups.

Early in the season, some pit Power Five conference blue bloods against each other. Late in the season, there are rivalry showdowns and interconference bragging rights games.

The early ones are the hardest to predict and they’re also the best to lose on the theory that an early stumble can be overcome with success the rest of the way. A late loss? Not so much.

This season’s return to normal scheduling a year after the pandemic threw everything into a state of flux also marks a return to those critical games. Here are some of them.

No. 3 CLEMSON vs No. 5 GEORGIA (Charlotte, N.C), Sept. 4

This is important for both, of course, but it’s spot at the start of the season is more a chance for the winner to add the ‘W’ to its playoff resume than for the loser to get knocked off that list. It’s also the marquee game on each team’s schedule. The Bulldogs aren’t scheduled to play Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M of the SEC West, and Clemson’s dominance in the ACC is clear: The Tigers have won the last four championship games by an average of 34 points.

No. 11 OREGON at No. 4 OHIO STATE, Sept. 11

The Buckeyes have won all nine previous meetings with the Ducks, but the last meeting came in the 2015 national championship game, a 42-20 victory. The Ducks could do the frequently maligned Pac-12 a huge favor and seem to have the weapons to make it happen, especially on an offense stacked with talented, young receivers. But the Buckeyes are no stranger to big early games and while their pass defense was sketchy last year, allowing 304 yards per game, they brought in a freshman pass rusher and two DBs considered among the best secondary gets of last season’s recruiting class.

No. 8 CINCINNATI at No. 9 NOTRE DAME, Oct. 2

In quarterback Desmond Ridder, the Bearcats have a guy who seems to get better with each game, so much so that NFL scouts have noticed. He ran for 12 TDs last season and completed two-thirds of his passes on a team better recognized for its defense. The Bearcats could do wonders for the American Athletic Conference by living up to their advance billing, but will need to have handled No. 17 Indiana two weeks before their trip to South Bend. They are one of five teams the Fighting Irish will face that has had more time to prepare than Brian Kelly’s group. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan has replaced Ian Book at QB for the Irish, but will operate behind a young line.

No. 1 ALABAMA at No. 6 TEXAS A&M, Oct. 9

The Aggies haven’t contended for a national championship since 1939 and hope coach Jimbo Fisher’s fourth season changes that. The winner of a quarterback battle will still have junior Isaiah Spiller carrying the load at tailback, and the defense returns nine starters. The defending national champion Crimson Tide will have a host of new faces on offense, but Nick Saban never seems to struggle with that scenario. He will likely have a freshman quarterback in highly touted Bryce Young, and that can always be a dicey proposition on the road, especially in a place like College Station, but they open at No. 14 Miami and play at No. 13 Florida first.

No. 14 MIAMI at No. 10 NORTH CAROLINA, Oct. 16

If the league’s prognosticators are right, this could become the decisive game in the ACC’s Coastal Division, which earns the winner a likely matchup with No. 3 Clemson in Charlotte in December. The Hurricanes have often been rated too high, but rarely had a quarterback like D’Eriq King, whose decision to return for a second senior season seemed to spark a movement among teammates to do the same. The ‘Canes also have plenty of motivation for this game, having been embarrassed 62-26 at home last season by the Tar Heels. Coach Mack Brown’s third season in his return to Chapel Hill comes with huge expectations, much riding on the arm of Heisman contender QB Sam Howell.

No. 7 IOWA STATE at No. 2 OKLAHOMA, Nov. 20

The Cyclones could be hampered more by their previous three weeks, with two road games at West Virginia and Texas Tech, because they could be looking ahead. Either team could be close to wrapping up a berth in the College Football Playoff. The Sooners, led by preseason All-America QB Spencer Rattler, have won six straight conference titles and could be looking for another Heisman, too.

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