Circle these dates: Ten underrated early games to key in on

Dak Prescott and Mississippi State can boost their chances in the SEC West on Sept. 20 against LSU, a matchup they have yet to win in the Dan Mullen era.

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The biggest games of the opening month are clear.

Texas A&M and South Carolina kick things off on Thursday, Aug. 28 in Columbia, while the first Saturday sees Georgia host Clemson and LSU face Wisconsin in Houston. A week later, USC and Stanford clash, while Michigan State meets Oregon. Then Sept. 13, it’s Georgia and the Gamecocks.

But there are hidden gems throughout that opening month of the season. Here are the 10 underrated matchups to circle on your calendar:

Aug. 30: Penn State vs. UCF (in Dublin, Ireland)

The Knights are without current Jacksonville Jaguars teammates Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson, but there are still a number of weapons from that Fiesta Bowl team, including receivers Rannell Hall and J.J. Worton. But it’s the defense that makes this a strong test for the Nittany Lions as James Franklin looks to set the tone in his debut. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg will be going against a D that was 17th in scoring defense and returns nine starters — and he’s looking for a top WR to emerge.

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Aug. 31: Utah State at Tennessee

Aggies QB Chuckie Keeton is back after a season-ending injury a year ago to stage another fringe Heisman Trophy campaign. It could either be jump-started or derailed in a prime time game on opening weekend against a Volunteers team that was 83rd in total defense a year ago and one that simply can’t afford a bad start with Oklahoma and Georgia on the schedule in September.

Sept. 6: Missouri at Toledo

Tigers coach Gary Pinkel knows the Glass Bowl all too well, having coached the Rockets from 1991-2000, and it’s where he once beat a Big Ten team (Purdue in ’97). He’ll try to avoid the upset against a Toledo squad that has 17 starters back, including one of the nation’s most experienced offensive lines with 100 combined starts. It’s also a homecoming of sorts for Tigers QB Maty Mauk, an Ohio product, who is looking to prove he’s a rising star in the SEC after showing promise when he was thrust into the starting role a year ago.

Sept. 13: Arkansas at Texas Tech

It’s a contrast of styles — and coaching personalities — as Bret Bielema’s button-downed, smash-mouth Razorbacks face Kliff Kingsbury and his Air Raid offense. Arkansas was bad against the pass last year (72nd) and the Red Raiders woeful vs. the run (98th), so this could have shootout potential. In a strange subplot, an Arkansas fan sent Kingsbury a breakup letter and a mix tape — and Kingsbury responded, along with a critique of that collection of songs.

Sept. 13: Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech

New coach Willie Fritz has tweaked the Eagles offensive scheme, but they’ll still have the triple option that current Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson used to win back-to-back national titles with Georgia Southern. Remember, it was the FCS’s Eagles who gained plenty of attention for knocking off Florida in the Swamp a year ago. Can they do the same in Atlanta against their former coach?

Sept. 20: Bowling Green at Wisconsin

The Badgers’ schedule is a relative cakewalk, ranked 87th per Phil Steele with an opponents’ collective 74-78 record, and while it does include that season-opening date with LSU and Nebraska in November, its devoid of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. Wisconsin shouldn’t have many tests from September until lthat game vs. the Cornhuskers, but QB Matt Johnson and the Falcons could give the Badgers trouble with an offense that averaged 34.8 points and 459.4 yards per game in ’13.

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Sept. 20: Mississippi State at LSU

Can Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs contend for an SEC West title? It’s going to take going through the division’s top tier, beginning with the Tigers, a team Dan Mullen has yet to beat in five years in Starkville. Should the Bulldogs stumble it could be the start of a big fall as they follow with Texas A&M and Auburn in the next two games. This also stands as the SEC debut of LSU’s hyped RB Leonard Fournette and he’s in for a test vs. a deep Bulldogs D that includes eight linemen who played at least 10 games last year.

Sept. 20: Florida at Alabama

Will Muschamp is under pressure to return the Gators to elite status in the SEC after going 4-8 a year ago and the Crimson Tide stand as a conference debut that should answer any doubters — or leave Florida that much more frustrated. This will be a early test for Alabama’s yet-to-be-decided-upon QB, and while the Tide have more weapons like Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon, the defense led by Vernon Hargreaves III could keep the Gators in the game. More than anything, this clash in Tuscaloosa is going to show us just how much of an impact Florida’s new-look offense can have.

Sept. 27: Cincinnati at Ohio State

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The Ohio State defense will be strong up front behind Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington, but the offense isn’t going to be the same without Braxton Miller at the helm, leaving us with an expectedly button-downed version of Urban Meyer’s spread option. If Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel, a former five-star recruit, can live up to the hype, this could stand as a difficult matchup for the Buckeyes and put even more pressure on that reworked J.T. Barrett-led offense ahead of the Big Ten schedule.

Sept. 27: Oregon State at USC

The Beavers lost Biletnikoff Award-winning WR Brandin Cooks to the NFL, but still have Sean Mannion back following his Pac-12 single-season record 4,662 passing yards in 2013. They’ll have their hands full against a strong USC defensive front, but the flip side is that the Trojans enter the Steve Sarkisian era with a shaky offensive front. Can they provide enough consistency should Mannion and the Beavers hit their rhythm against the Trojans secondary, which stood as their weak spot last year (ranking 32nd vs. the pass)?