The college football bowl schedule was released earlier this month. Television dates and times are beginning to be determined for the 2017 college football season. No, it's too early to dive into game keys and centrally important players, but it's not premature to frame the stakes and the significance of the big games on the 2017 slate.
Why not dive into Week 1's important SEC showdowns? It's a free country.
BYU vs. LSU
The LSU Tigers placed three 2016 players in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The Bayou Bengals landed six players in the first 107 picks of the draft, a sign not only of their quality, but of their depth.
How, again, did this team lose four games last season?
With the past as prelude, LSU knows it can't continue to travel that path. The first year under new head coach Ed Orgeron will give the Bayou Bengals an ever-so-slight allowance for slow progress this season, but in 2018, there's no question that the engine has to be roaring in order for Orgeron to feel safe in his position.
The full measure of LSU's impatience in the pursuit of victory is found in the fact that the Tigers fired Les Miles in the middle of the 2016 season. Say what you want about Miles and his limitations as a head coach who couldn't cultivate enough of a passing game to make LSU thrive; the bigger reality in Baton Rouge is that Miles won one national championship and made a second championship game appearance with the Tigers. He won a lot of games, and generally succeeded in taking the baton from Nick Saban. Nevertheless, as the years went by and LSU wasn't able to return to major bowls, Miles took a hit. He lost both the cushion and the goodwill afforded him by the 2007 national championship and the 2011 runner-up finish.
LSU is doing something very daring this year: entrusting its program to a man who has never previously been a coordinator, and who has never succeeded as a head coach. Coaches almost always fall into at least one of those two boxes, not both, but LSU is charting a different course by hoping that the quality of coordinators Dave Aranda (defense) and Matt Canada (offense) will enable Coach O to handle the recruiting and public relations... and not sweat the Xs and Os. This game against BYU and young coach Kalane Sitake will offer the nation the first glimpse of how the Orgeron Experiment (capital-E, it feels that weighty) will work.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE vs. SOUTH CAROLINA
Few coaches in the country face more pressure in 2017 than Dave Doeren at North Carolina State. He has a loaded veteran roster which is supposed to put the pieces together, giving this long-suffering ACC program a chance to achieve at a high level. If Doeren can't win eight regular-season games, he will probably be fired. If he can't win seven, he definitely will be sacked.
This is the team Will Muschamp and South Carolina will face in a hugely fascinating -- and immensely consequential -- season opener.
North Carolina State thinks it has Cadillac talent, but South Carolina has its own driver -- a Bentley -- on offense. Jake Bentley gave pundits legitimate reasons to think that he's better than Jacob Eason of Georgia, and that he can transcend the limitations of a Muschamp-and-Kurt-Roper offense. If Bentley shows that he's the real deal, South Carolina has a defense which should be good enough to make his performances translate into wins. We'll begin to find out if Muschamp has been underestimated as a head coach... or if the prevailing wisdom does not need to be overturned.
TEXAS A&M at UCLA
The best part of a college football regular season is, for many, the rivalry games. For others, it's the conference championship crescendo which also punches tickets to the College Football Playoff. For others, it's simply the chance to tailgate or channel-surf and have a string of Saturdays when the cares of the world melt away.
One other very delicious part of college football season is this: the Week 1 double-hot seat game. That's what we have in Pasadena on Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M and Jim Mora of UCLA are sitting on flames, and need their own version of an "ice bucket challenge" to relieve the withering pressure they face.
Sumlin has become "Mr. 8-5" in College Station, which is not why he was hired. Mora still hasn't been able to win a single Pac-12 title despite the fact that crosstown rival USC had been dormant before a resurgent 2016 season. Mora has to translate ostensibly strong recruiting into high-level results, just as Sumlin must do. If neither coach can deliver, a pink slip will arrive. Sumlin has to win at least nine regular season games if he expects to remain on the job at A&M. A loss here -- with Alabama, LSU and Auburn looming later in the season -- will remove any margin for error the Aggies might possess.
GEORGIA TECH at TENNESSEE
What makes this game spicy is the fact that Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson loves to attack the SEC and SEC teams whenever he gets the chance. Tech's TaxSlayer Bowl (read: Gator Bowl) against Kentucky was marked by fights, shouting matches, and a level of animosity not typically belonging to a third- or fourth-tier bowl game. Johnson's program has not been able to sustain what the 2014 Orange Bowl champions managed to do, so this game takes on added importance in the attempt to rebuild confidence.
Speaking of rebuilding confidence, Butch Jones faces a very tall task in terms of trying to do just that in Knoxville. Without Joshua Dobbs, Jones must cultivate a higher level of offensive performance with a new coordinator and a retooled offensive staff. Jones whiffed on the chance to finally win the SEC East last year. If he can't win the East this year, he'll probably get fired. Beating Georgia Tech would give the Vols the belief they can go into Gainesville a few weeks later and take down two-time defending East champion Florida.
Speaking of Florida...
FLORIDA vs. MICHIGAN
These two programs occupy the same patch of ground.
Florida has won division titles while Michigan has not, but both the Gators and Wolverines have recruited lots of high-end defensive talent, only for their offenses -- especially the passing game -- to fall short of hopes and needs. These programs have lived in a "close but not quite" realm in recent seasons. A few added ingredients would enable them to become 11-win teams and College Football Playoff contenders. Their Week 1 meeting in Arlington, Texas, is soaked with pressure... and a profound sense of opportunity.
That's a huge game in Week 1, but one game towers above it... and every other game on the first Saturday of the season:
ALABAMA vs. FLORIDA STATE
Nick Saban versus protege Jimbo Fisher.
The 2011, 2012 and 2015 national champion versus the 2013 national champion.
One 2014 semifinalist versus another 2014 semifinalist.
These are two of the three schools to make the New Year's Six all three times since the Bowl Championship Series system ended. Ohio State is the other.
Neither program has missed a BCS or New Year's Six bowl over the past five seasons.
Oh, and this is the first showcase event at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta... which will then host the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in January of 2018.
Other than that, this game isn't a big deal...