As the college football season gets set to kick off (which in and of itself is a pleasant surprise for fans in 2020), WPTV.com previews some of the most anticipated games of the year.
Brigham Young at Navy
The coronavirus pandemic is mostly notable for tearing things apart, but this is a game that actually came together because of the pandemic. Navy was supposed to play Notre Dame in Ireland, but the college football scheduling shuffle that took place this summer put an end to that happening. The game was then moved to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the first time ever, but with the cancellation of the rivalry came a substitute opponent -- Brigham Young. This will be the first meeting between the teams since 1989, when BYU beat Navy 31-10 in Annapolis. Despite a 7-6 finish last season, the Cougars defeated bowl-bound teams Tennessee, Southern California and Boise State, so they're capable of playing up to their competition. The biggest concern for BYU is in the red zone, where the Cougars ranked 120th nationally in red zone scoring last season. Conversely, the Midshipmen ranked third in red zone scoring. Navy won 11 games last season for the second time under head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who has led the Midshipmen since the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl.
Louisiana at No. 23 Iowa State
Louisiana won 11 games for the first time in school history last season. In two seasons under head coach Billy Napier, the Ragin' Cajuns have played for the Sun Belt Conference championship both years. They'll be tested early with a trip to Iowa State. The late addition to the schedule will serve as a delayed season opener for both teams. The Cyclones and the Cajuns will benefit from having two experienced quarterbacks to begin the season. Iowa State junior Brock Purdy has set 21 school records in just two seasons at the helm, throwing for 6,232 yards and 43 touchdowns. Louisiana senior Levi Lewis became the first Cajuns quarterback to surpass the 3,000-yard mark when he threw for 3,050 yards last season while completing 64.3% of his attempts with 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Virginia at Virginia Tech
This traditional end-of-season commonwealth clash will become the opener for Virginia and Virginia Tech after a COVID-19 outbreak at North Carolina State led the Atlantic Coast Conference to tinker with the schedule (again). The Hokies will be looking to make amends for last season's 39-30 loss to Virginia, snapping a 15-game winning streak in the rivalry. But the roster for both teams is without a single player who was alive the last time the Cavaliers won in Blacksburg. The Hokies have won 10 consecutive home games in the series since a 36-32 loss to Virginia in 1998.
Kansas State at No. 5 Oklahoma
Kansas State has a history of knocking off Oklahoma when it is least expected (see 2003, 2012 and last season). Last year's 48-41 win at Bill Snyder Family Stadium was the lone blemish in Big 12 Conference play for the Sooners, who punched a ticket to the College Football Playoff for the third straight season. Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman surpassed expectations in his debut season by winning eight games, but the Wildcats lose plenty of talent on offense, including the entire offensive line. At least starting quarterback Skylar Thompson isn't one of them. The fourth-year starter completed 177 of 279 passes for 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago.
Florida State at Miami
The Seminoles are 18-20 since 2017 and will enter the 2020 season with their third coach in four years. Mike Norvell was 38-15 in four seasons at Memphis, including an American Athletic Conference championship in 2019, and will be tasked with cleaning up the mess left behind by Willie Taggart. That includes the woeful offensive line, which ranked 126th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams while allowing 48 sacks last season. Florida State is 10-6 against Miami since the Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004, but the Seminoles have lost three in a row in the series. Their 27-10 loss last season cost Taggart his job after 21 games. Meanwhile, Miami is starting over at quarterback with Houston transfer D'Eriq King. Second-year head coach Manny Diaz, who is a graduate of Florida State, named King his starter in July. At least the Seminoles will catch a break with the departure of defensive end Gregory Rousseau, who is skipping the season to prepare for the NFL Draft. Rousseau accounted for four of Miami's season-high nine sacks in last year's game.
No. 11 Auburn at No. 4 Georgia
The "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" moves from its traditional November slot. These cross-divisional Southeastern Conference foes have met continuously since 1944 and every year but three occasions since 1898. The Bulldogs, who led the nation in fewest points allowed last season, have won six of the last seven meetings, including their first-ever rematch for the SEC championship in 2017. The Tigers haven't won in Athens since 2005.
Virginia at No. 1 Clemson
Both teams could be undefeated headed into this rematch of last season's ACC title game. The Cavaliers won the ACC Coastal Division for the first time in 2019 and represented the conference in the Orange Bowl, but only because Clemson took it to Virginia 62-17 on the way to a fifth straight playoff berth and fourth national championship game in five seasons. The Tigers still have Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and remain the favorites to win it all this year with the return of two-time ACC player of the year Travis Etienne. Clemson's all-time leading rusher decided to stick around for his senior year after rushing for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Virginia replaces dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins with redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong, who has spent the past two seasons backing up Perkins. Oh, and the game will be played at "Death Valley," where Clemson hasn't lost since 2016. Tough break, Virginia.
No. 8 Florida at No. 13 Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher was 7-1 against Florida during his time at Florida State. He'll get the chance to improve upon that record when the Gators travel to College Station as part of a tack-on game with the shift to a conference-only schedule. The teams are 1-1 since Texas A&M joined the SEC. The Gators narrowly escaped their last trip to Kyle Field with a 20-17 victory in A&M's SEC debut in 2012.
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Texas
Lincoln Riley owns a 36-6 record in three seasons and as many trips to the College Football Playoff. Now, the Sooners just have to get over the hump. That starts with the annual grudge match against Texas in the "Red River Showdown" at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Two years ago, the Longhorns shocked Oklahoma in the regular season, but the Sooners downed Texas in a rematch to claim the Big 12 championship. Could this be the first of two meetings again this season? Texas took a step in the wrong direction last season after a 10-win campaign in 2018, but the Longhorns appear to be the biggest threat to dethroning Oklahoma's five-year reign as Big 12 champions with seven returning starters on offense, led by quarterback Sam Ehlinger, and nine starters back on defense.
No. 3 Alabama at Mississippi
Lane Kiffin is back in the SEC and will get a crack at his old boss. Here's a quick history lesson: the end of Kiffin's tenure at Alabama didn't go so well. Kiffin was Alabama's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Saban from 2014-16. But he was relieved of play-calling duties after accepting the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic and didn't get to coach during the Crimson Tide's run to the national championship game in 2017. After winning two Conference USA championships in three seasons at FAU, Kiffin was lured away from sunny South Florida to take over a struggling Mississippi program. He faces a tall task inheriting the only SEC Western Division team to never play in the conference championship game.
Florida State at No. 10 Notre Dame Only on WPTV, 7:30 p.m.
This game will count in the ACC standings. That's because Notre Dame, breaking with more than 100 years of tradition, is forgoing its independence and playing a conference schedule for the first time in history. Florida State is unexpectedly returning to Notre Dame Stadium for the second time in three seasons after the ACC shuffled the schedules to include the Fighting Irish. Two years ago, the Taggart-coached Seminoles were stampeded 42-13, but they still own a 6-3 overall record against Notre Dame. Legendary former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden was 4-2 against the Irish, while his successor, Jimbo Fisher, was 2-0. Norvell will have an opportunity to show if his Seminoles can be competitive. It'll help having defensive tackle Marvin Wilson (44 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, and a team-high five sacks through nine games before a season-ending hand injury last year) and wide receiver Tamorrion Terry (60 catches for 1,188 yards and nine touchdowns) back for another season. Wilson is widely considered the top defensive tackle in the country, while Terry's six touchdown receptions of at least 60 yards last season tied for the highest total in the country since 2010. Notre Dame hasn't lost at home since September 2017.
No. 4 Georgia at No. 3 Alabama
There seems to be a recurring trend in the SEC when it comes to hiring head coaches. Here's how it works: top assistant finds employment under Nick Saban, has immediate success at Alabama and parlays that into a head coaching job at another SEC school. The goal seems obvious enough: hire the next-best to beat the best. Yet Saban has a flawless 18-0 record against his former assistants. He's got to lose eventually, doesn't he? Alabama's SEC opener against Georgia will be the first of four games against his one-time proteges. Georgia's Kirby Smart actually came the closest to getting the job done, but the Bulldogs blew a 13-0 halftime lead and lost to Alabama 26-23 in overtime of the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship game. Last season proved that the Crimson Tide are not invincible. Alabama missed out on the four-team playoff for the first time since the format began during the 2014 season. National championships have become the standard for the Saban-led Tide, who have won five and played in four consecutive national title games prior to last season. This will be Georgia's first trip to Tuscaloosa since 2007, when the Bulldogs beat the Tide (coincidentally, 26-23 in overtime) in Saban's first season.
No. 6 Louisiana State at No. 8 Florida
Florida won't have to worry about Joe Burrow anymore. The record-setting Louisiana State quarterback and Heisman Memorial Trophy winner went on to become the top overall pick in the NFL Draft. In his place is redshirt junior Myles Brennan, who has played in 17 games over the past three seasons but has yet to throw a touchdown or more than nine passes in his career. LSU lost a national record-tying 14 players to the draft, along with its passing game coordinator (Joe Brady was hired as Carolina's offensive coordinator) and defensive coordinator (Aranda). In Brady's place is former St. Louis Rams head coach Scott Linehan, who will work with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger to carry on the spread offense introduced last season. Taking over for Aranda is former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, who returns for his second stint as defensive coordinator. He helped LSU win the 2007 national championship during his earlier three-year tenure. The Gators actually led LSU midway through the third quarter before the Tigers scored three straight touchdowns to snatch victory from the clutches of defeat. It was one of Florida's only two losses last season.
No. 18 North Carolina at Florida State
Mack Brown gets his first crack at his alma mater since Bowden was still roaming the sideline at Florida State. Brown's debut season in his second stint at North Carolina was a smashing success, even though the Tar Heels lost six games by a combined 26 points in 2019. Brown's Tar Heels finished with a winning record for the first time since 2016 and blew out Temple in the Military Bowl, but they were also 3-6 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Brown, who played for the Seminoles in the 1970s and got his coaching start while he was a student, is 0-6 against FSU in his career. Not so for UNC, which has had recent success against the Seminoles. In fact, the Tar Heels have won each of the last two meetings in Tallahassee (2010 and 2016) by an identical score of 37-35. Adding insult to injury, UNC quarterback Sam Howell was named ACC rookie of the year in 2019 after throwing for a school-record 38 touchdown passes. Florida State fans aren't likely to forget how the four-star recruit spurned FSU in December 2018, reneging on his commitment to the Seminoles and instead staying close to home to play for the Tar Heels.
No. 3 Alabama at No. 25 Tennessee
Could Tennessee be on the verge of challenging Florida and Georgia for the SEC Eastern Division? There's a case to be made after Tennessee went 5-3 in the SEC last season -- only their second winning record in conference play since 2007, which, coincidentally, was the same year Saban found his way to Tuscaloosa. It's not easy taking on the likes of the Gators, Bulldogs and cross-divisional rival Alabama year after year. On the "Third Saturday in October" last season, the Volunteers were once again hammered by Alabama 35-13, dropping their overall record to 2-5. Then a funny thing happened: Tennessee reeled off six straight wins to finish with a winning record, culminating with a Gator Bowl trophy. Saban is a perfect 13-0 against the Volunteers, so until Tennessee proves it, this game remains Alabama's to lose. But don't sleep on Saban protégé Jeremy Pruitt and the program he is quietly building in Knoxville.
No. 6 Louisiana State at No. 11 Auburn
Every national championship team seems to have a close call throughout the course of its season. This was that game for LSU last year. The Tigers of the bayou beat the Tigers of the plains 23-20 in 2019. The three-point win was the closest margin of victory for LSU all season. The Tigers averaged 26.5 points per game during their 15-0 campaign.
No. 8 Florida vs. No. 4 Georgia
Georgia has beaten Florida for three consecutive seasons and advanced to the SEC Championship game each year. In other words, the winner of this border war is in prime position to represent the Eastern Division in Atlanta. The outcome of this year's game could come down to quarterback play. Georgia's Jamie Newman was supposed to take over for Jake Fromm, who left early for the NFL, but the Wake Forest transfer opted out in early September without playing a game for the Bulldogs. Southern California transfer JT Daniels, who joined the team in the offseason and was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, becomes the favorite to start at quarterback, but he's coming off an ACL tear and has only been with the Bulldogs since May. Meanwhile, Florida's Kyle Trask threw for 25 touchdowns and ran for another four. His 2,941 yards are the most of any returning quarterback in the SEC. In Dan Mullen the Gators trust. Mullen is 21-5 in two years, including back-to-back double-digit-win seasons and a 2-0 record in New Year's Six bowl games. The Gators averaged 300 passing yards last season for the first time since Steve Spurrier's swan song in 2001. But Smart is still greater than Mullen in Jacksonville. Each game has gotten progressively closer (42-7 in 2017, 36-17 in 2018 and 24-17 in 2019). Will this be Florida's year?
No. 1 Clemson at No. 10 Notre Dame Only on WPTV, 7:30 p.m.
The Irish are 33-6 over the past three seasons. That's the most wins at Notre Dame in a three-year span since Lou Holtz was at the helm. Still, he remains the last Notre Dame coach to win a national championship. Through 10 seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has led the Irish to two undefeated regular seasons, a national championship game appearance in the old Bowl Championship Series era and a berth in the College Football Playoff. This is a rematch of Clemson's 30-3 victory in the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the 2018 Cotton Bowl. Lawrence lit up the Irish in that game, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book was on the opposite sideline as the Tigers held the Irish to a single field goal. Book attempted as many passes that game (34) as he threw touchdowns last season. The game will mark Clemson's first trip to Notre Dame Stadium since 1979. The Tigers took that one 16-10.
No. 3 Alabama at No. 6 Louisiana State
The Tigers ended Alabama's 31-game home winning streak last season, defeating the Tide for the first time since 2011. LSU built a 33-13 lead and then held off a fourth-quarter rally to snap an eight-game losing streak to Alabama. Since taking over in Tuscaloosa, Saban is 10-4 against the team he once coached to a national championship. Now the setting shifts to Baton Rouge, where the Tigers have just one win on their resume (in 2010) against a Saban-coached Alabama squad. Mac Jones is the frontrunner to be Alabama's starting quarterback. Jones filled in for eventual first-round draft pick Tua Tagovailoa after his season-ending injury and finished 97 of 141 for 1,503 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. His 186.8 passing efficiency rating was third in the SEC, behind Tagovailoa, who set the NCAA career record in that category, and Burrow. Alabama's defense was tested by injuries a season ago, forcing many young players into action. Now all those young players are back and with plenty of game experience, along with linebacker Dylan Moses, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. That's not the case for LSU. The Tigers lose several notable playmakers, including Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's most outstanding receiver last year but opted out of the 2020 season. Chase set SEC records with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns last season.
Arkansas at No. 8 Florida
Winless in SEC play a season ago, the Razorbacks will get an immediate upgrade at quarterback with Florida graduate transfer Feliepe Franks, who led the Gators to a 10-3 season and a Peach Bowl victory over Michigan during the 2018 season. He suffered a season-ending injury in the third game last year, ushering in the Trask era earlier than expected. Now Franks will be back in a place he knows well, but this time with a lesser supporting cast. Arkansas is coming off back-to-back two-win seasons and begins the season on a 19-game SEC losing streak dating to 2017. Blowout losses in nonconference games (44-17 to North Texas in 2018 and 45-19 to Western Kentucky in 2019) sealed the fate of former head coach Chad Morris. New coach Sam Pittman doesn't have to beat Florida for job security, but losing respectably would be a good start.
No. 1 Clemson at Florida State
Remember when this ACC rivalry used to matter? It's been more than a decade since a team other than Clemson or Florida State has represented the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship game, although this de facto divisional playoff has been a rather lopsided affair in recent years, with the Tigers outscoring the Seminoles 104-24 in each of the last two meetings. The Seminoles have lost five consecutive games to Clemson. When Lawrence and the Tigers last came to Tallahassee, they dealt FSU its worst home loss in school history. The 59 points scored were the most ever allowed by the Seminoles on their own turf. The winner of this game has gone on to claim the ACC championship each year since 2011. In fact, the last time neither team won the division was in 2008.
No. 15 Oklahoma State at No. 5 Oklahoma
The best two teams in the Big 12 might just play in the same state. Oklahoma State has arguably the best running back in the country in Chuba Hubbard, who was the nation's leading rusher last season. Mike Gundy enters his 16th season in Stillwater -- the longest tenure of any coach in the conference -- but his record in the "Bedlam Series" is an unimpressive 2-13. The Cowboys are in the midst of a five-game losing streak to the Sooners. That needs to change if Oklahoma State expects to win its first Big 12 championship since 2011.
No. 11 Auburn at No. 3 Alabama
The "Iron Bowl" is keeping its traditional Saturday after Thanksgiving slot, a rarity in the midst of a pandemic, but it won't be the final regular-season game for either team. Alabama has won eight of the last 12 meetings since Auburn reeled off six in a row from 2002-07, although the Tigers have upset the Tide twice in the last three years, including a 48-45 victory in 2019. Both games shut Alabama out of the SEC Championship game. Auburn may have some momentum headed into the intrastate rivalry, but one advantage for the Tide is the fact that the game is being played in Tuscaloosa, where the Tigers haven't won in a decade.
Mississippi State at Mississippi
The "Egg Bowl" has never been more interesting with Kiffin and Mike Leach making their debut seasons in the Magnolia State. A Leach-led Washington State beat a Kiffin-coached USC 10-7 in their only previous head-to-head meeting in September 2013. By the end of the month, Kiffin was out of a job. That's not likely to happen to Kiffin or Leach, no matter whose team wins this time. The veteran coaches actually have a lot in common. Both have homes in Florida -- Leach in Key West, fitting for a pirate, and Kiffin in Boca Raton. But they've also got bravado and a way with words. Last year's ending was one of the more memorable finishes of the 2019 season. Mississippi receiver Elijah Moore mimicked a dog urinating after scoring in the final seconds. The result was an ensuing 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty that cost the Rebels a chance at overtime when the penalty turned what should have been a chip-shot extra point into a 35-yard attempt that sailed to the right of the goal posts, giving the Bulldogs a 21-20 victory.
No. 13 Texas A&M at No. 11 Auburn
Fisher, who left Florida State in December 2017 for a 10-year, $75 million contract at Texas A&M, beat Auburn to win a national championship with the Seminoles, but his Aggies have yet to defeat the team where he first earned his SEC chops. Auburn is 2-0 against Texas A&M since Fisher's arrival in Aggieland. Texas A&M isn't paying Fisher the big bucks to play second-fiddle in the Western Division. Fisher, who was quarterbacks coach at Auburn from 1993-98, will need to start proving his worth, much like he did in his third year at Florida State.
Baylor at No. 5 Oklahoma
Baylor lost two games during the 2019 calendar year. Both of them were to Oklahoma. The Sooners rallied from a 28-3 deficit in the second quarter and a 31-10 lead at halftime to beat Baylor 34-31 in the regular season. Then they beat the Bears again 30-23 in overtime to claim their fifth straight Big 12 Conference championship. Baylor head coach Matt Rhule bolted for the NFL's Carolina Panthers after a 26-14 loss to Georgia in the New Year's Day Sugar Bowl and was replaced by former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. He'll be tasked with keeping the program trending upward after Baylor went from 1-11 in 2017 to 11-3 in 2019. It helps that he'll have senior quarterback Charlie Brewer back. Brewer threw for 3,161 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. He's just 2,624 yards shy of the school record set by Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.