Critical games dot the calendar as 2022 begins

The college football calendar offers a weekly selection of standout games between top teams, and some will hit the ground running quickly this year.

Two matchups on Sept. 3 could quickly shake up the preseason AP Top 25 as No. 5 Notre Dame, under new coach Marcus Freeman, visits No. 2 Ohio State, and No. 3 Georgia, the defending national champion, plays No. 11 Oregon in Atlanta.

The scope of the Power Five lines for these matchups seems to have increased in recent years, but then long-standing bitter rivalries take over later in the season as teams battle for championships and bowl positioning . Here are just six of the tantalizing games this season:

No. 5 NOTRE DAME at No. 2 OHIO STATE, Sept. 3

Freeman’s debut against his alma mater will set the tone for both teams, of course, and will see Heisman Trophy candidate CJ Stroud under center for the Buckeyes. There will be nine preseason AP All-Americans on the field between the two teams. A little added intrigue: High school star Keon Keeley could be among the 103,000 fans in attendance. Keeley previously committed to the Irish, then decommitted after the coaching change. The Buckeyes and No. 1 Alabama are among the teams vying to land him in their five-star pool.

11 OREGON vs. 3 GEORGIA (Atlanta), September 3

The Bulldogs lost five first-round NFL draft picks from last year’s team on defense, but return QB Stetson Bennett, who could add to his remarkable history as a former walk- where he was the MVP in a national championship win. The Bulldogs’ tendencies, however, are well known to former defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who will make his Ducks coaching debut after Mario Cristobal left to take the Miami job.

No. 13 NORTH CAROLINA STATE at No. 4 CLEMSON, Oct. 1

Last year, the Wolfpack ended an eight-game skid against the Tigers by winning 27-21 in double overtime. NC State held Clemson to just 214 yards, its lowest total of the season, and the loss ultimately helped allow Wake Forest to end the Tigers’ six-year reign in the ACC Atlantic Division title . The Wolfpack have 10 defensive starters back, so Clemson has no work to do. Programs are picked to finish 1-2 in the division, with Clemson first.

No. 6 TEXAS A&M at No. 1 ALABAMA, Oct. 8

This SEC West matchup might as well be called the “Beef Bowl” after the heated offseason comments about recruiting between Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. More importantly, this could be the deciding game in the division race. Coaches say they’ve buried the hatchet, but the winner can give it a twist. Texas A&M last won the national championship in 1939; the Crimson Tide has six with Saban alone.

no. 14 USC at no. 7 UTAH, October 15

The Trojans’ ranking is probably more of a headache for new coach Lincoln Riley after a 4-8 finish last season. Riley used the transfer portal in hopes of rebuilding the program quickly, bringing in 24 new players. The Utes intend to see the return of QB Cam Rising continue to fuel their rise after their first Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance. How quickly Riley’s new systems take hold will be huge for USC.

No. 12 OKLAHOMA STATE at no. 9 OKLAHOMA, November 19

The Cowboys return 10 offensive starters, including QB Spencer Sanders, to a team that missed the playoffs last season. The defense has always looked like a strength and should continue to do so with Derek Mason taking over as coordinator for Jim Knowles, who held the same position at Ohio State. The Sooners ended their six-year run of the Big 12 last season with a loss to the Cowboys. They’re hoping former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables can lead them back behind QB Dillon Gabriel, who passed for more than 8,000 yards and 70 touchdowns at Central Florida.

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