As we near the end of March Madness, college sports fans are coming up on the long summer stretch between basketball ending and football beginning. Other sports like college baseball, lacrosse, and softball are big for some fan bases, and of course, there's the MLB, but we're all going to be itching for football season by June. And with college football comes a slew of amazing rivalry games. Virtually every week, there is a game between two power programs that helps define the sport, and because of what is at stake in college football, may go a long way towards deciding whether a team can play for a national championship.
It is still March, but we're putting on our swami hats and predicting the winners of some of the biggest rivalry games in college football. Does Jim Harbaugh knock off Ohio State in year two at Michigan? Will Auburn pull off another miracle, or will the Alabama Crimson Tide roll en route to another SEC West title? Check back in when November rolls around, and see how we did.
Florida State vs. Clemson:
This game has decided the ACC Atlantic Division the past few seasons, and the winner always seems to factor into the national title picture. Clemson took down FSU in Death Valley in 2015 en route to the College Football Playoff.
We project both of these squads to be 7-0 on Oct. 29 when they meet at Doak Campbell Stadium. Notice how Oct. 29 keeps popping up on this list. That's going to be an unreal day of college football action.
Clemson, led by Deshaun Watson, and FSU, paced by Dalvin Cook, will engage in another instant classic. In the end, it will be Watson who will make just enough plays to propel the Tigers to a 31-27 win.
Alabama vs. Tennessee:
After three years playing one week later than normal, Alabama and Tennessee returns to its rightful place on The Third Saturday in October. This rivalry has been incredibly one-sided of late, with the Crimson Tide winning the last nine meetings.
The Tide will enter this game undefeated and ranked No. 1, while Tennessee will be 5-1 and trying to shake off the sting of a loss at Texas A&M the week before.
They'll do more than shake off the A&M loss. They'll erase nine years of painful memories in 60 minutes. Josh Dobbs throws for two scores and rushes for another, proving once again that mobile quarterbacks can be the Tide's kryptonite. A raucous, orange-clad crowd will be on the edge of its seat when Aaron Medley lines up a 43-yard field goal on the game' s final play.
Medley buries the kick, and the Vols celebrate a 27-24 win.
The Egg Bowl:
An underrated rivalry game, the Egg Bowl is set for Thanksgiving weekend as usual. The Rebels have won the past two meetings, including a 38-27 victory in Starkville last season.
This season, the 8-3 Rebels will host the 6-5 Bulldogs on Nov. 26. Both teams are bowl-bound, but in this case, we go with the more established quarterback.
Led by Chad Kelly's 360 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, Ole Miss makes it three in a row against its in-state rivals, winning 31-23.
Oregon vs. Stanford:
The Ducks and Cardinal have been the most consistent programs in the Pac-12 the past five years. The two teams have repeatedly duked it out for North division and conference supremacy, and the winner of this game usually has a leg up in the Pac-12 race.
Last year, the Ducks surprised Stanford, 38-36 in Palo Alto.
This year, the 8-1 Ducks will play the 7-2 Cardinal up at Autzen. Led by the all-around play of Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey, Stanford jumps out to an early 17-3 lead.
But the Ducks rally behind FCS grad transfer Dakota Prukop, and a back-and-forth game is decided with 50 seconds remaining. It is then that Prukop finds a fully-recovered Pharaoh Brown in the end zone for the game-winning score. Oregon wins 44-41.
It wasn't long ago that South Carolina had complete control of this rivalry, with five straight wins over the rival Tigers from 2009-2014. The Head Ball Coach is gone now, though, and Clemson has taken the program to another level, coming a few plays shy of its first national championship since 1981 in January. Even so, Clemson struggled to put away a very weak South Carolina side last November, edging the Gamecocks 37-32 in Columbia.
Will Muschamp has done a nice job re-energizing the Gamecocks thus far as the program's new head coach, but spurring a massive upset in year one is too much to ask, especially with Deshaun Watson still under center for Dabo Swinney's club. This one may still be a bit closer than people think, but with the rivalry moving back to Death Valley, Clemson won't have much trouble putting South Carolina away, 27-10.
Georgia vs. Florida:
This rivalry is no longer The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, but it still plays a big role in determining the SEC East champion.Florida has won the last two meetings in blowout fashion, 38-20 in 2014 and 27-3 last year.
When these two teams meet in Jacksonville on Oct. 29, both will be 5-2 and in the thick of the Eastern division race. Kirby Smart will be looking for his first marquee victory as Georgia's head coach after his Bulldogs fell just short against Tennessee two weeks earlier.
Led by freshman quarterback Jacob Eason and the running duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, Georgia snaps its skid against the Gators, winning 27-21.
LSU vs. Alabama:
The Tigers haven't beaten Alabama in five years. In that time frame, the Tide has won three national championships, with one those title game victories coming against LSU. So yes, fans on the Bayou are getting a bit restless.
If there was ever a time for LSU to beat the Tide, it is probably this year. The Tigers return 10 of their top 11 tacklers and Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette on offense. They will also be at home on Nov. 5, and Death Valley will be an inhospitable environment for 'Bama.
The Tigers will be 8-0 and ranked first in the country when the Tide rolls in. Alabama will have suffered its only loss of the season two weeks earlier at Tennessee. The scene will be set for a changing of the guard in the SEC West.
But then Nick Saban's bunch will say, "Not so fast." The Tide bottles up Fournette again, and picks off a pair of Brandon Harris passes. On offense, Bo Scarbrough bullies his way to 110 yards and a pair of scores. Alabama prevails in a slug fest, 20-13.
Michigan vs. Michigan State:
This rivalry was revived last fall, producing one of the most memorable moments of the season. The Spartan's miracle victory dramatically altered the Big Ten East race and set the tone for a College Football Playoff berth.
Michigan fans and players are still stewing over how things ended in the Big House in 2015. They'll have a chance for revenge in East Lansing on Oct. 29. Both teams will enter the game at 6-1 after the Wolverines dropped a tight home game to Wisconsin four weeks earlier and the Spartans fell in week two at Notre Dame.
This year's game will come down to the wire again. However, this time it will be the Wolverines who come up with the big special teams play. Mr. Everything Jabrill Peppers takes a punt 70 yards to pay dirt, and Jourdan Lewis intercepts Tyler O'Connor on the game's final drive to clinch the victory. Michigan wins, 24-20.
Red River Showdown:
Oklahoma finished the 2015 regular season on an absolute tear, which makes its mid-season loss to a mediocre Texas team even more puzzling. The Longhorns got on Oklahoma from the jump, and finished the afternoon with a 24-17 win that wasn't as close as the score would indicate. It looked like a breakout moment for head coach Charlie Strong.
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Instead, Texas finished 3-3 down the stretch, and 5-7 overall. Oklahoma did not lose another game until it faced Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Texas is very talented, so we hate to call the win a fluke, but everything that we learned about the two teams from October 11 on would indicate that it was something along those lines.
Texas should improve on its poor 2015 record, but Oklahoma will be a favorite to win the Big 12 again, with Baker Mayfield back at quarterback, and the duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in the backfield. Expect a course correction in this one, with OU bringing home a 37-21 win.
Notre Dame vs. USC:
For the second straight season, Notre Dame has some uncertainty at the quarterback position. Malik Zaire began 2015 as the starter and performed well, but missed most of the season due to injury. DeShone Kizer stepped in and was magnificent down the stretch for the Fighting Irish, including a 227 yard, two touchdown performance in a 41-31 win over rival USC.
USC filled its high-profile opening at head coach with offensive coordinator Clay Helton. He wasn't the flashy, big-name hire that many Trojan fans wanted, especially given the stature of the program, but he should provide some stability to a talent-rich program that has needed it since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.
We're not sure that will be enough to close the gap with Notre Dame, though. While the Irish have failed to break through as a true national championship contender in the last few years, Brian Kelly has the program rolling along. His offense will have a very capable signal caller, whether it is Zaire or Kizer, as well as a stable of very dynamic running backs, including late-season breakout star Josh Adams. Meanwhile, USC has to fill in for highly effective quarterback Cody Kessler.
USC has plenty of talent and should be competitive, but we like Notre Dame to head out West and steal this one, 37-34.
Florida vs. Florida State:
Considering where Florida was in 2013 and 2014, Jim McElwain's first year in Gainesville was an unquestioned success. The new head coach, who came over from Colorado State prior to last season, elevated a team that went 7-5 the year before, and lost to an FCS squad in 2013, to 10 wins and an SEC East title.
Florida's limitations were revealed against the top teams that it faced, however. LSU, led by Heisman contender Leonard Fournette, handed UF its first loss on October 17, and the Gators lost their final three games to Alabama, Florida State, and Michigan. The 27-2 loss to the Seminoles stands out in particular. The Gators only managed one score—a safety—and 262 total yards of offense. A good Florida defense did not allow a ton of yardage either—the 'Noles only managed 304—but star running back Dalvin Cook was absolutely dominant, with 183 yards and two touchdowns.
Cook will be back, and gunning for a Heisman Trophy after flying under the radar during a fantastic sophomore season. Meanwhile, Florida will have a new quarterback, with Treon Harris' status being up in the air (and moving to wide receiver a few months ago), and Will Grier leaving the program. Florida State is the more established program, and has the edge once again in 2016. Cook will flash his elite speed again, compiling over 200 yards of total offense en route to a 24-14 win for the Seminoles.
The Iron Bowl:
Alabama has won two straight in this rivalry, and handled the Tigers pretty easily in 2015, winning 29-13. Of course, if we've learned anything over the last few years, it is that anything can happen in a college football rivalry game—ESPECIALLY the Iron Bowl. Neither set of fans is going to forget the Kick Six anytime soon, and no matter what has transpired for the Tide and Tigers leading into the game, the Iron Bowl can get crazy.
With all of that being said, on paper at least, Alabama should make this three straight over Auburn. The Tide will once again be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but with a running game and offensive line that reloads every single year, and some dangerous receiving options like Calvin Ridley and Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter, we're not worried about Lane Kiffin's offense. Defensively, Alabama returns plenty of talent, and has ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense every year going back to 2008, per CFBStats. Even with former coordinator Kirby Smart at Georgia, we wouldn't worry about that side of the ball with Nick Saban at the helm.
This isn't to totally count out Auburn. Gus Malzahn has made magic happen before, and we don't think he'll fail to rebuild the program after a very shaky 2015. The Tide are just a stronger football program right now, and will win the Iron Bowl once again this fall, 28-17.
Last year's Michigan-Ohio State game began with a ton of hype, with the Wolverines' sudden resurgence under Jim Harbaugh. It didn't last long, however, as the Buckeyes jumped on their hated rival and never looked back, winning 42-13.
While that definitely left a sour taste in the mouths of Michigan fans, it shouldn't take too much away from what Harbaugh achieved in a very short period of time in Ann Arbor. Michigan went from joke to legitimate Big Ten contender in a year, and Harbaugh didn't even have a full recruiting cycle to work with. Eventually, we believe he will build his alma mater into a program that can compete with Ohio State on a regular basis.
2016 won't be that year, though. After losing to Michigan State, Ohio State found its late-2015 form behind quarterback J.T. Barrett, who won his job back from Cardale Jones at mid-season. Barring injury or another unforeseen circumstance, Barrett will be the unquestioned starter from day one, and despite a big loss of talent, the Buckeyes may very well click early on in a way that it didn't last September. Michigan should be better as well, as Harbaugh continues to build the roster and recruit superstar talent, but he won't quite catch Urban Meyer this fall. Luckily for us, he'll definitely find a way to keep things interesting until then.
We'll takeOhio State with a comfortable 31-21 win this fall.