As hard as it is to believe, the college football season is a month away. No, that’s not a figure of speech, but actually quite literal: We are now exactly 30 days to the first, full Thursday of college football. Thankfully, it’s finally time to talk about Jim Harbaugh’s actual football team, rather than the Kobe Bryant T-shirt jersey he wore at some obscure satellite camp. Hallelujah! It also means that as we approach the season it’s really time to take a deep dive into the players and teams that will matter in 2016. FOX Sports will be doing plenty of that over the coming weeks, and that includes today, when it’s time to talk big games. Huge games. The games where the results will ultimately determine this year’s champion. That’s right, and that’s exactly what we’re here to do today. Here are the 30 games that will decide the 2016 college football national championship.
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LSU vs. Wisconsin: Saturday, September 3rd (Lambeau Field, Green Bay)
There’s an old saying: "You can’t go undefeated if you don’t win the first one." And there’s no doubt that whether they go undefeated or not, there is a ‘championship or bust’ feel in Baton Rouge this season. The Tigers are built to win a national championship in 2016, but can’t afford to slip up against a good Wisconsin team in its home state.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY SportsThomas Shea
Clemson at Auburn: Saturday, September 3rd
As you probably remember, Clemson wasn’t just last year’s ACC champion, but was one or two plays away from knocking off Alabama in the title game and claiming the school’s first natty in over 30 years. The Tigers are built to get back to the playoff, and once again have a very manageable schedule thanks to the watered-down ACC. The one place they can’t slip up is on the road, in an opener against a tough Auburn squad. Win here, and the road to the playoff goes through Florida State later in the year. Lose here, and Dabo Swinney’s club will be playing catch-up the entire season.
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Oklahoma vs. Houston: Saturday, September 3rd (NRG Stadium, Houston)
From all accounts, Bob Stoops and athletic director Joe Castiglione have an excellent relationship. But Stoops must be cursing his AD for scheduling this game against Houston, in Houston, in this particular year. After all, the Cougars went 13-1 last year, upset Florida State in the Peach Bowl and return enough talent to make the playoff. That’s also what makes this game so darn fascinating: In Week 1, it should have a ‘playoff’ feel. Oklahoma has too tough a schedule (more on that coming) to slip up in this game and have real title hopes, while Houston’s only title hope is to win this game, win out and pray for chaos from the Power 5 conferences. This game is going to be wild, and wildly entertaining. And have big-time ramifications for the entire season.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY SportsThomas Shea
USC vs. Alabama: Saturday, September 3rd (AT&T Stadium, Dallas)
On paper and in Vegas, Alabama is a heavy favorite. But remember, the Crimson Tide have to replace Heisman winner Derrick Henry and a big chunk of their defense, and will also be breaking in their third, first-year quarterback in the last three years. And they’ll be doing it against a team that has the talent to beat them. Remember, USC nearly won the Pac-12 last year, and it was just two years ago that they had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. The Trojans might not have the top-to-bottom depth of Alabama, but can play with them. And if they did pull an upset, it would put the Crimson Tide in a huge hole before the season even really begins. It would also put the Trojans in early pole position for a playoff berth.
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Ole Miss vs. Florida State: Monday, September 5th (Camping World Stadium, Orlando)
By far the most underrated game of the opening weekend is the final game of the opening weekend when Florida State and Ole Miss face off in Orlando. Simply put, this is a battle between two teams that will enter the season with true playoff dreams, and whose dreams could be truly vanquished with a loss here. For Ole Miss it’s just the start of a brutal slate, which includes an always tough run through the SEC West. Meanwhile, Florida State has about as tough a schedule as anyone in the ACC, with games against Clemson, North Carolina and Florida at home, and Louisville and Miami on the road. Point being that neither team can afford to lose this one. Like Houston-Oklahoma, it should have the feel of a playoff game in September.
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Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech: Saturday, September 10th (Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, TN)
This might not be the ‘best’ game of the season, but it might be the most intriguing as it will be the first-ever college football game played at Bristol Motor Speedway. It is also expected to attract 150,000+ fans, which would be an NCAA record. More importantly, it’s also our first look at the Tennessee Vols, which enter 2016 in a make-or-break year under Butch Jones. After all the positive momentum following last year’s nine-win season, losing here to the Hokies (under new coach Justin Fuente) would be absolutely devastating.
TCU at Arkansas: Saturday, September 10th
In a year where the Big 12 is wacky (there isn’t much separating TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor at the top), the league really is anyone’s. And no one has a more advantageous schedule than the Horned Frogs, who get Oklahoma and Oklahoma State both at home. Still long before the Horned Frogs can worry about conference play, they first have to get through a big game, against a physical, nasty Arkansas team. The Razorbacks probably aren’t quite a college football playoff contender, but they can ensure that TCU isn’t, either, with a win in Week 2.
Alabama at Ole Miss: Saturday, September 17th
It doesn’t take a college football diehard to know that the Crimson Tide have lost their last two against the Rebels. It also doesn’t take a genius to know that whoever loses this game will quickly fall behind the eight-ball in the SEC West title race, and be playing catch-up the rest of the year. The fact that both teams have huge openers -- and could already have one loss on their schedule by the time they meet -- only adds to the stakes here. Neither team wants to be eliminated from the college football playoff chase by Week 3 of the season. One might be with a loss here.
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Ohio State at Oklahoma: Saturday, September 17th
Again, in a year where Oklahoma has all the pieces to make another playoff run, Joe Castiglione did his coach no favors with a brutal out-of-conference schedule. That includes this game, against a young but talented Buckeyes team led by J.T. Barrett. A loss here (or against Houston), and mark my words, those joking, mocking ‘Big Game Bob Stoops’ comments that get under the skin of every Oklahoma fan in the country will be out in full force. As for Ohio State, it quietly enters the season without a lot of hype, but enough talent (in a weak conference) to make a run at a college football playoff berth. Stoops vs. Meyer. Mayfield vs. Barrett. This one should be really good.
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LSU at Auburn: Saturday, September 24th
Again, LSU is good, really good, and has a schedule that plays to its favor with home games against Alabama and Ole Miss. But of all the Tigers' tough road games, the most difficult may be at Auburn, a place where LSU has struggled through the years. While LSU has won eight straight over the (other) Tigers in Baton Rouge, it is just 2-6 against Auburn at Jordan-Hare since 2000. If Les Miles’ club truly wants to compete for a title, this is a game it simply has to win.
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Florida at Tennessee: Saturday, September 24th
Another huge SEC game, and the first time we should truly find out if Tennessee is ‘for real’ or not. Yes, there is a lot of real buzz around the Vols program, but remember, it’s Florida that is the defending SEC East champ, and the team that has owned the Vols. Can you believe that in this once-great rivalry, the Gators have now won 11 straight? Get this: That streak is so long, the last time Tennessee beat Florida was the year before Urban Meyer arrived as head coach … at Florida. That feels like a lifetime ago, and also raises this question: If Tennessee can’t beat the Gators this year, will it ever?
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Oklahoma State at Baylor: Saturday, September 24th
Again, there isn’t much disparity between the top four teams in the Big 12, making this a sneaky big game for both the Bears and Pokes. For Baylor, this will be its first, true test in the post-Art Briles era, while it will be Oklahoma State's chance to prove it can beat one of the Big 12’s elite teams. The Cowboys lost their final two games of the season to Baylor and Oklahoma last year, by a combined 45 points.
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Stanford at Washington: Friday, September 30th
Stanford might be the favorite in the Pac-12, but the schedule makers did it no favors with a brutal three-game stretch to open conference play, where the Cardinal play USC at home, followed by UCLA and Washington on the road. This is the third game of the stretch, and (assuming the Cardinal win the first two) the most important, where the Huskies might just be the second-best team in the Pac-12 overall. Remember, you can’t win the conference if you don’t win your division, and you can’t win the national championship if you don’t win your conference (at least in theory). And this my friends, might very well be a de-facto Pac-12 title game. If Stanford really has playoff hopes, it better win this one.
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Tennessee at Georgia: Saturday, October 1
A week after they face Florida, things don’t get any easier for the Vols when they visit Georgia. Remember, the Dawgs lost an emotional game to Tennessee last year, where they not only blew a 24-3 lead, but also lost Nick Chubb for the season. Between the hedges, Georgia will be looking for revenge, while Tennessee would be in great shape to win the watered-down SEC East if it can take down the Dawgs and Gators in back-to-back weeks.
North Carolina at Florida State: Saturday, October 1
In theory, this looks like another cakewalk for Florida State on its way to an inevitable collision course with Clemson later in the year, right? Sure, but if you dig deeper, you see something else altogether: The game that could springboard North Carolina right back into the college football playoff discussion. Remember, the Tar Heels nearly ended up in the playoff last year, before falling late in the ACC Championship Game to Clemson. And if you look at their schedule in 2016, they could be in the same spot this year. They don’t play Clemson or Louisville, meaning if the Tar Heels could somehow pull off the upset in Tallahassee, they could very well be playing for a playoff berth in the final week of the season. Again.
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Oklahoma vs. Texas: Saturday, October 8th (Cotton Bowl, Dallas)
The Longhorns are probably still a year away from being a real contender, but remember, they almost knocked Oklahoma out of the college football playoff discussion with an early season upset of the Sooners last year. Could they do the same this year? Even worse (depending on how those early season games with Houston and Ohio State go), could they ruin the Sooners’ season altogether, by handing them a second (or even third) loss before Halloween?
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Alabama at Tennessee: Saturday, October 15th
The third Saturday in October is one of the great traditions in all of college football, and could be even greater this year, if both teams play up to their capabilities. What’s even better is that this game comes at a crucial time for both teams. For Tennessee, it’s at the end of a four-game stretch that includes Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, while Alabama has a brutal road game against Arkansas the week before, and a visit from A&M after. Both teams will be battered, bruised and in need of a win to keep their respective division hopes alive. Incredibly, the Vols haven’t beaten Alabama since Nick Saban showed up in 2007. Could this be the year things change?
Stanford at Notre Dame: Saturday, October 15th
As easy as it is to forget, Notre Dame was right in the mix for a playoff berth last year … until Stanford beat it on the final weekend of the regular season. While it won’t be the final weekend this year, could the Fighting Irish do the same, and offer up a crippling loss for the Cardinal?
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Ole Miss at LSU: Saturday, October 22nd
On a relatively quiet weekend in college football, this is the one game that could have truly monstrous national championship implications. By this point in the year, the tough part of the Rebels schedule (including games against Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas) is done, and a win here -- coupled with victories earlier in the season -- could make them the leader in the SEC West clubhouse entering the closing stretch of the season. As for LSU, well, a victory here could do the same, and more importantly could set it up for a monster showdown two weeks later, when it hosts some team named ‘Alabama.’
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Michigan at Michigan State: Saturday, October 29th
Ah yes, after seven straight months of non-stop Jim Harbaugh talk, you thought we forgot about him, didn’t you? Actually, it’s the exact opposite as the Wolverines’ schedule is back-loaded with big-time road games, starting with this matchup with their cross-state rivals. After a devastating, disappointing, stunning (literal) last-second loss in Ann Arbor last year, can the Wolverines pull off the win here? Do that, and they’d be in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten East going forward.
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Clemson at Florida State: Saturday, October 29th
Honestly, at this point, you could make the case that this is the single-most important game of the entire college football regular season. We all know what’s at stake when these two teams play, and what it means in the bigger picture of things. The winner of Clemson-Florida State has gone on to win the ACC the last five years, and play for the national championship in two of the last three. There aren’t many games all year where a conference title and college football playoff is almost guaranteed to be on the line, but this is one of them. Enjoy.
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TCU at Baylor: Saturday, November 5th
There’s no way to measure how much this game has meant through the years -- not just to these two teams but to the entire sport of college football as a whole. Two years ago this game completely shook up the Big 12 title race and college football playoff, and inadvertently led directly to the new Big 12 championship game, and another (likely) round of expansion. Last year these two teams played one of the most memorable games of the season, in a damn monsoon in Ft. Worth. So what will they have in store in 2016? Only time will tell, but like two years ago, this could very well be the game that determines the Big 12 title.
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Alabama at LSU: Saturday, November 5th
If Clemson-Florida State is the single-most important game of the regular season, this one could very well be a close second. As mentioned LSU could very well be a national championship contender this year, but remember, it was last year, too, starting the season 7-0 and getting to No. 2 in the country before losing to Alabama. And ultimately, that’s the conundrum of this entire season for Les Miles: It doesn’t matter what the Tigers do before the Alabama game, only what he does against them, and afterward. The Tigers have lost five in a row to ‘Bama, and a sixth straight could cost Miles his job. A win here could push the Tigers straight through to the college football playoff.
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Baylor at Oklahoma: Saturday, November 12th
Just like last year, the Big 12 has back-loaded its schedule with all the big games late. And like last year, this one could ultimately decide who wins the conference title. In terms of this game specifically, the Bears were down to their second-string quarterback by the time these two teams played last year, and the Sooners used a victory in Waco to push themselves smack dab into the playoff conversation. No one knows if the stakes will be that high here, but this very well could be the game that decides the ultimate Big 12 champion.
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Stanford at Oregon: Saturday, November 12th
One team that has been conspicuously absent from this list is Oregon, which saw it’s streak of seven straight seasons with 10+ wins come to an end last year. The Ducks aren’t expected to be a true contender in 2016, either, but they do hold one trump card entering the year: They have given Stanford fits the last two years. That included a stunning upset on the Farm last year, that ultimately gave the Cardinal a second loss, and cost them a shot at the playoff. Could the Ducks knock Stanford out of the playoff picture for a second straight season this year?
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Michigan at Iowa: Saturday, November 12th
Again, Michigan has a brutal Big Ten schedule with its three toughest conference games on the road, but this one is really about Iowa. The Hawkeyes avoid Ohio State and Michigan State this year, meaning that if they can knock off Michigan at home, it could set them up in the same position they were last year: As the undefeated, Big Ten West champs, playing in the conference title game with a trip to the college football playoff on the line. Hey, stranger things have happened, right?
Ohio State at Michigan State: Saturday, November 19th
Jim Harbaugh may have spent the summer stealing headlines, but remember that the winner of this game has gone on to win the Big Ten title each of the last two seasons. And it could be three in a row this year. Yes, both of these teams lost big-time talent from last year. But in a watered-down Big Ten, both teams have enough talent left over to make serious runs at a conference crown, and a playoff berth as well.
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Auburn at Alabama: Saturday, November 26th
The case has been made throughout this article for LSU to win the SEC, but remember that the winner of this game has gone on to play for the national championship six seasons in a row (and win five of them). Both teams have the talent to make that number seven for seven, if they can survive the gauntlet that is SEC West play. And each other in Tuscaloosa.
Michigan at Ohio State: Saturday, November 26th
For the second year in a row, the Big Ten schedule makers did the Buckeyes no favors, with the Spartans and Wolverines in back-to-back weeks, but don’t expect the Buckeyes to overlook the Wolverines in this one. Ohio State and its fans are tired of hearing about Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, and would love nothing more than to shut up the Wolverines and their fans for a 12th time in 13 years. In the bigger picture, this game could also decide the Big Ten East title.
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Oklahoma State at Oklahoma: Saturday, December 3rd
Oklahoma may be the defending conference champion, but no one returns more starters in the conference than Mike Gundy’s club. This game decided the Big 12 title in 2015, and don’t be surprised if it does the same this year.