10 college football games that matter

It's a very short list of games that will have an impact on the BCS title game discussion. CFN breaks down the 10 games that really truly matter this season.

The ebb and flow of the season will dictate which games turn out to make a big difference and which games matter, but in one way or another, these are the 10 that will truly matter and they're the ones that will shape the season.

10. Boise State at Michigan State, Aug, 31
All August long, CFN and Scout.com will get you ready for the season with these great features. But that's not all. Check CFN's 2012 preview page for even more coverage.
Aug. 1: Top coaches on the hot seat
Aug. 3: Meet the new coaches
Aug. 6: Teams that might surprise us
Aug. 8: Teams that might disappoint us
Aug. 10: Teams that could ruin your season
Aug. 13: Biggest unanswered questions
Aug. 15: Great programs heading nowhere
Aug. 17: Unknown programs on the rise
Aug. 20: Top Heisman Trophy candidates
Aug. 22: Best games of the regular season
Aug. 24: Toughest stadiums to play in
Aug. 27: Teams most likely to play in BCS
Aug. 29: Title game match-ups we'd love

It's the first meeting between the two programs and it's yet another moment when Boise State is supposed to prove itself. No top 25-caliber team has to do more rebuilding than Boise State, but time and again Chris Petersen and the program have been doubted, and time and again the brand-name BCS team comes away with a loss. Michigan State has a ton of work to do to reload with the passing game, but its toughest early games are at home with the Broncos, Notre Dame and Ohio State all coming to East Lansing, and with only one game outside of the state of Michigan before late October.

Boise State still has BYU and a trip to Southern Miss to deal with, but this is the big game the program lives for. If the Broncos win, it should be smooth sailing through the mediocre Mountain West before closing out the regular season at Nevada. Basically, if you don't want to spend most of the season debating whether or not Boise State deserves to be in the BCS title hunt, root for the Spartans.

9. Alabama at Arkansas, Sept. 15

Remember, Arkansas hasn't been a member of the SEC for that long, so while playing Alabama 22 times might seem like a lot, that's nothing compared to some of the deeply rooted conference rivalries that go back for more than a century. The problem is that the Hogs have lost the last five games against the Tide and are 7-15 overall. This year, nothing would show that Arkansas plans on being a serious player in the national title chase more than beating the defending champ. With tune-up games against Jacksonville State and ULM to get ready, everything should be in place to finally break the losing streak. Alabama should be battle-ready after kicking off the season against Michigan and with a nice scrimmage against a decent Western Kentucky team to stay warm. With road games against Missouri, Tennessee and LSU still to deal with, this is the first game in a long season for the Tide.

8. Clemson at Florida State, Sept. 22

At stake when these two rivals meet at Doak Campbell Stadium will be an enormous head start in the Atlantic Division title chase. The winner keeps its national championship hopes alive, while the loser could be entirely out of the BCS bowl race and will need help just to get back in the ACC title hunt. The subplots of the one-time Bowden Bowl are going to be delicious, highlighted by the Tigers' high-octane offense going against one of the nation's premier defenses. There's also FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel's second crack at coordinator Brent Venables, whose Oklahoma D shut down the Seminoles quarterbacks in Tallahassee last September. For a Clemson defense that fell apart a year ago, this will be a huge test. For the coaches, Florida State's Jumbo Fisher and Clemson's Dabo Swinney, this is a chance to use a win as a launching point for the rest of the season. 

7. Notre Dame at Oklahoma, Oct. 27

Oklahoma went on an epic 47-game winning streak from 1953 to 1957, with a loss to Notre Dame at the beginning of the 1953 season the last in the run, and with a 7-0 loss to the Irish in 1957 ending the fun. The two have faced each other since then, with the Irish winning in South Bend in 1999, and now the battle between the two superpowers is back on.

This is the last game in one of the nation's nastiest schedules, with the Irish dealing with big game after big game after big game until the trip to Norman. While the game against Pitt the week after is still interesting, it's going to be a breather compared to what the Notre Dame has to face over the first eight games.

The game couldn't come at a better time for the Sooners. It might be in the middle of the Big 12 season, but it's sandwiched between two of the of the league's lightweights with Kansas coming the week before and a trip to Iowa State to follow. The other non-conference games are against UTEP and Florida A&M, but OU can be forgiven for the light slate with such a tough conference schedule.
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6. Georgia at South Carolina, Oct. 6

Georgia has a relatively easy SEC schedule with no Arkansas, LSU or Alabama to deal with from the West, but it might take a win over the Gamecocks in Columbia to represent the East for the second year in a row in the conference championship. Unfortunately the bye week comes after the trip, but considering the Dawgs spend the entire month of October without a home game, they might need it. They'll especially need the time to be ready for Florida on Oct. 27 in a must-win situation if they can't beat USC

For South Carolina, the game at Florida could be a problem coming off the road trip to LSU, and kicking off the year at Vanderbilt might be a bit of a landmine, but realistically, forget about winning the East without beating the Dawgs. Last year's 45-42 Gamecock win was one of the most fun games of the SEC season, and while it wasn't enough to determine the East title, it was a big early victory. This year's game could be more important with that game in Death Valley against LSU to follow.

5. Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 20

Michigan State's rivalry with Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten's best over the last few years, but that's an interdivisional match-up. Beating Nebraska would be nice after last year's debacle of a loss, and winning the conference opener against Ohio State would be nice to set the tone. The opener against Boise State is going to be vital, and beating Notre Dame is a must after getting thumped last season. Of course, though, it's all about Michigan, who the Spartans have owned lately. Last year's win might not have mattered in the fight for an at-large BCS bid, but this season the winner should end up in the Big Ten championship as the winner of the Legends.
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For all the bluster about Michigan's rivalry with Ohio State, the game doesn't really matter that much now that the Big Ten is in two divisions. It's the Michigan State rivalry that matters with the Wolverines trying to break the four-game losing streak. With road games at Nebraska and Minnesota to follow, and with an away game against the Buckeyes to close things out, finally getting by the Spartans is a key piece to the puzzle.

4. Alabama vs. Michigan (in Arlington), Sept. 1

In the 2000 Orange Bowl, Tom Brady led Michigan over Shaun Alexander and Alabama in one of the greatest bowl games of all-time. It was thrilling, heartbreaking, and classic. It was also one of just three times the two mega-programs have met, with the Tide winning the 1997 Outback Bowl and the Wolverines winning the 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl.

The stakes are even higher this time around.

Last year, LSU set the tone for its run to the BCS championship with an impressive win over Oregon in Arlington, and this year's game might also have national title implications in one way or another.

Alabama still has the brutal SEC schedule to face, including road trips to Arkansas, Missouri, and LSU, but there's a chance that this might be the toughest game on the lot if Michigan is as good as advertised. The Wolverines are loaded on offense –- led by Denard Robinson and a thrilling group of skill players -– while the defense should be improved just enough to give the tweaked Tide offense a few problems.
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But Alabama is still Alabama, and it's going to be on the short list of preseason favorites for the national title, but it still has to replace a slew of key defensive starters from the 2011 BCS champion, it has to replace RB Trent Richardson, and it has to get used to life with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

Brady Hoke came up with a few big wins in his first year in Ann Arbor -– including a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech -- but beating Alabama would officially signal that the program is back to national title status. If the Wolverines are good enough to beat the Tide, they'll be good enough to beat everyone else on the schedule. For Alabama, beating a BCS-caliber team would prove that it's business as usual and would be yet another big victory for the SEC.

3. Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas), Oct. 20

It has been a little while since Oklahoma vs. Texas was among the be-all-end-all showdowns, and there are more than a few major battles both teams will have to deal with in an even and dangerous Big 12, but the winner here will almost certainly be in the driver's seat. The loser can still win the conference title and go to the Fiesta Bowl, but there won't be any margin for error.
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However, it's not going to be an easy path for the Longhorns leading up to the trip to Dallas with conference games against Oklahoma State and West Virginia in the previous two weeks. On the plus side, if they're good enough to start out the Big 12 season 3-0, they're good enough to roll through the rest of the slate.

The Sooners will be coming off a revenge game against Texas Tech, and after going to Dallas the Big 12 schedule opens up nicely with Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor to follow before going to West Virginia. After winning two straight in the series, the rivalry has shifted to OU. But this isn't the Texas team of last year. 

2. Oregon at USC, Nov. 3

It's the battle of the Pac-12 heavyweights, with BCS national championship implications likely to be hanging in the balance as well. The pair played in a classic at Autzen Stadium last Nov. 19 that was won by the Trojans, 38-35. Oregon will be looking for payback in the Coliseum, while also trying to protect its recent stranglehold on the league championship. USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has designed his defense to stop the spread-option, but that's far easier said than done.
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Oregon has won three straight Pac-12 titles, but USC is finally out of the NCAA's doghouse, setting the stage for a must-see event that'll be dripping with star power and compelling storylines. As big as this might be, it might only be Act One with the two teams likely to play each other in a rematch for the Pac-12 championship, but this game would certainly set the tone for the possible rematch.

1. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 3

Hopefully the regular season matchup will actually mean something this time around. LSU has road games at Auburn, Florida and South Carolina to deal with before facing the Tide, along with a nasty home game against South Carolina, but it gets the huge break of having an extra week off to prepare. Alabama will be coming off a home game against Mississippi State after going on the road to deal with Missouri and Tennessee.
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Making life even harder, the defending national champions have to face Michigan and Arkansas away from home before going to Death Valley, but still, the two national title combatants of last year should be among the best teams in the country all season long and could be on a collision course like they were last year. 

LSU's road games at Auburn and Florida will be dangerous, and emotions will be high at Texas A&M, but if the preseason Coaches' Poll No. 1 team plays as well as it's expected to it should be far better than all three of those teams. The showdown at Arkansas to end the year will be dangerous, but the entire season, if all goes according to plan, should lead up to the date with the Tide. Once again, it might decide the SEC championship and the national title –- oops, that's right. This season, the regular season showdown really and truly should matter.

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