Joel Klatt’s 10 games most likely to shape the 2024 college football season

The start of the 2024 college football season is still a few months away, but as kickoff times are being set for some top matchups this season, it’s easy to sense which games will be the biggest of the year.

Conference realignment and the expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams will add several more intriguing matchups to the calendar, along with a handful of intriguing out-of-conference games. 

As we usher in this new era of college football, there are 10 games that I believe will most likely shape the season (and possibly the sport). Let’s take a look at those 10 games in chronological order. 

Week 1 – USC vs. LSU (in Las Vegas), Sept. 1

An early Big TenSEC matchup that could have huge ramifications between the two super conferences as they battle for spots in the 12-team CFP. 

USC and LSU are similarly positioned in their conferences entering 2024, with each being a bit of an unknown. We believe in their coaches; they’ve got great track records and histories. We believe in their locations; they’ve got great track records and histories at each of those schools. 

Yet, we don’t know in the new iterations of these conferences where each school will be. Will they be a top-three team in their respective conference or will they be more of a top-six team? 

If USC goes out and wins this game, then you start to think that it changes the complexion of the Big Ten race. You start thinking of the Big Ten as a four-, five- or even six-team league. That would make it a deep conference and all of a sudden, the perception would start to build toward a positive manner for the Big Ten. It would have a key win in the non-conference schedule that could be really important come playoff selection time.

If Lincoln Riley gets a defense, how good can he be? I know USC is losing Caleb Williams, but it hasn’t mattered who Riley’s quarterback is. That player has always been one of the best in the country. Miller Moss was pretty good in the Holiday Bowl, and he’s got excellent players, like Zachariah Branch, around him. So, it’s going to come down to D’Anton Lynn, the defensive coordinator USC brought in this offseason who has that Baltimore Ravens background and was excellent at UCLA last season. If USC gets any bit of defense, it’ll be a tough out.

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LSU has also dealt with change this offseason. It had to replace Jayden Daniels, two first-round receivers and its offensive coordinator. Like USC, LSU also had a horrible defense last season, promoting Blake Baker to defensive coordinator to replace Matt House. 

If LSU wins, you start to play out its schedule and it should be 5-0 when Ole Miss comes to Death Valley in October. Its toughest games after USC are all at home, with Alabama and Oklahoma also making trips to Death Valley. So, LSU would have that path to an at-large spot if it can beat USC.

Week 2 – Texas vs. Michigan, Sept. 7, (FOX)

Steve Sarkisian and Texas head up to Ann Arbor to take on the defending champion that barely resembles itself, at least as the personnel goes. 

After Jim Harbaugh left, Michigan is hoping that the mantra, “Everyone’s different, but nothing has changed” rings true in Year 1 of the Sherrone Moore era. This game will help us figure out if that is the case. I really like Moore, I’ve known him for a long time and there’s no doubt he’s the right guy for this job. But Michigan has to replace so many great leaders from last year’s squad, such as Mike Sainristil, Blake Corum and others. The Wolverines have recruited pretty well, but their development has been even better. Can they continue that? 

We’ll also get a sense of what Michigan’s offense can do in this game. We don’t know who’ll be its quarterback, but it’s a tough challenge for Alex Orji or whoever wins the job. 

This won’t be easy for Texas, though. Donovan Edwards and Kalel Mullings are back in the run game while Colston Loveland returns at tight end for the Wolverines. Michigan’s defense has one of the best defensive lines in the country, with Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant being the two best combined defensive tackles in the sport. 

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So, as I get the sense that many think Texas will roll up to there and win with Quinn Ewers back, what if Michigan wins this game? What happens if the boa constrictor is still around and Michigan continues to do the things it has done so well in the last few years? That would reshape the college football year because as of right now, I don’t have Michigan in my top four. If Michigan beats Texas, that changes immediately.

If Texas defeats Michigan, this would be similar to its win over Alabama last season. Instead of announcing its status as a contender though, Texas would be announcing that it’s here to stay. The Longhorns should have one of the best offensive lines in the country with great players at the skill positions to go with Ewers. I do have some questions about their defense, which could be a problem if the Wolverines run the ball an excessive amount. 

This is the second Big Ten-SEC matchup in the non-conference slate this season, with four taking place this year (Alabama-Wisconsin, LSU-UCLA are the other two). But this game and USC-LSU will likely be the games that carry the weight in the perceptions of each conference. 

This game is really important for the Big 12. With the Big Ten and SEC expected to vie for most of the at-large bids in the new 12-team CFP, this game could improve the Big 12’s path to getting a second team in the field. 

If Colorado wins, we’ll be right back where we were in the first few weeks of last year with Deion-Mania. But this year’s Colorado squad might have more staying power if it beats Nebraska. If the Buffaloes can protect Shedeur Sanders, they will be really good. He’s a heck of a player. 

If Nebraska wins, this will likely be its toughest test on the road to being 7-0 before its big game against Ohio State. Remember, the Cornhuskers were much better than their record indicated last year. They were decimated by injuries and turnovers. What if Dylan Raiola comes out, fixes the turnover problems and shows out to start his college career to beat Colorado? Then, the Big Ten can think it has six legitimate teams that could be in the playoff hunt. 

We’re either going to be dialing up Coach Prime Mania again or thinking Nebraska is for real after this game. 

Can Deion Sanders and Colorado capture interest with an early non-conference win?

We’ll get to find out everything we need to know about the new Alabama in this game. 

Georgia is likely going to be ranked No. 1 or 2 in the preseason poll and will be playing Alabama for the first time since it ended its 29-game winning streak last year. While Alabama won the most recent battle, Georgia has won the two more recent titles and the legend has stepped down. This is no longer the protege trying to beat the master, which is why this game is so interesting.

At this point, Kirby Smart is the standard in college football. Georgia is still intact, getting so close to the CFP for a possible three-peat last year. Kalen DeBoer isn’t the mentee like Smart was to Nick Saban, but his squad will be measuring itself up to Georgia as the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide flip roles. 

This is a huge test for DeBoer. That fan base is going to expect Alabama to be competitive in this game. DeBoer is a helluva coach and if he went anywhere except Alabama, I would be calling it a home run hire. But he’s replacing the best of all time, a tall task.

This game might not just shape the 2024 season, but it might also shape the sport and who holds the standard.

The ACC is also going to be fighting for a second CFP spot, and the winner of this game will likely put itself on a firm path to the ACC Championship Game. It gives them some cushion to play for the conference title, which would get them the automatic berth into the CFP.

Both the ACC and Big 12 shouldn’t expect to get two teams each into the CFP. They can’t rely on that happening. So, whoever wins this game will likely be on a path where they just need to win the ACC title game to make the CFP.

Florida State finally beat Clemson last year after losing seven straight to its old division rival. Would another win against the Tigers make the Seminoles the new leaders of the ACC? I’m not sure. I’m also not sure what to expect out of Clemson just yet.

This is a massive game.

Ohio State will likely be No. 1 or No. 2 entering the year (I think I’ll have them at No. 1) because of the value of the veteran players it was able to keep, namely on defense. The Buckeyes could have the best defense in college football. You look at what Michigan did last year with a veteran-laden team, this Ohio State team should be incredible. 

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But Ohio State has to travel to Eugene to face an Oregon team that I believe is one of the four great teams in college football entering the year. Obviously, things can change, but this will stand as Oregon’s first major test in its new conference. In order to win the Big Ten, you’re going to have to beat one or both of Ohio State and Michigan, who Oregon faces later in the season. It’ll find out if it can stack up with the class of the Big Ten right away, though there’s no young coach I’d rather have more than Dan Lanning. 

These teams have their sights beyond making the CFP. They have championship aspirations, so securing a top-four seed to earn a bye would help a lot. The only way you can get a top-four seed is by winning your conference though, and both teams will likely need to win this game in order to reach the Big Ten title game. We might think that Ohio State and Oregon are likely to battle again in the Big Ten title game, but it’s not a guarantee that the loser of this game makes it there. 

Week 8 – Georgia vs. Texas, Oct. 19

The Longhorns move into a conference after being in the playoff, thinking that they’ve put themselves at the upper echelon of college football. Steve Sarkisian has done an incredible job, and now, bam, you get the standard in college football. Georgia has won two national championships in the last three years, Kirby Smart is there, no one has recruited better, and now Texas is going to host the Bulldogs.

Now, because of the schedules that these two teams play vs. the schedule that a team like Missouri plays, there’s a chance you’re going to get Missouri in the SEC Championship Game based on who they play and when, and then the loser of this game is going to have a very difficult road to get back in and qualify for the SEC Championship Game, which makes this a monster matchup between two national title contenders.

Georgia has a beast of a schedule, so in a lot of ways, I think the Bulldogs have to win this game. They play the three toughest teams in the SEC all on the road: at Alabama, at Texas and at Ole Miss. That makes this game very important.

Georgia and Texas are favorites to be in that SEC Championship Game, but it’s not a guarantee. So, if you want a first-round bye and you want to make your path to a national championship game as easy as possible, winning this game is going to be important.

Week 9 – Missouri vs. Alabama, Oct. 26

Missouri is the team that could take advantage of Georgia or Texas dropping a game or two in the SEC. The Tigers are in a perfect position. They bring back Brady Cook as a third-year starter and one of the best wide receivers in the country, Luther Burden. He’s fantastic.

Missouri’s schedule is set up for it to find a way to that championship game. The Tigers do not play Georgia, Texas, Ole Miss, LSU or Tennessee. This is their toughest SEC game. If they can beat Alabama, they are going to be in Atlanta. Wrap your minds around that.

If they beat Texas A&M, they should be 7-0 when they go to Tuscaloosa. A win against Alabama would put them at 8-0 and in a good position to be ranked third, or even second, in the country. And then their final four games after Alabama are the following: at home against Oklahoma, at South Carolina, at Mississippi State and then Arkansas at home. That is an incredibly manageable schedule, and that’s why I think Missouri could be a sneaky team that gets to Atlanta, and that’s why this game against Alabama is going to be so important.

Week 10 – Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Penn State, Nov. 2

This has been the hurdle for Penn State – trying to beat Ohio State … and Michigan, to be fair. The Nittany Lions get Ohio State at home, and I think this is one of the great home environments in all of college football. A win in Happy Valley over Ohio State would put Penn State in the absolute prime spot to go play for the Big Ten title.

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The 2022 class are all now juniors: Drew Allar, Nick Singleton, Kaytron Allen, Abdul Carter. This is a really talented class, and this is a good football team.

Andy Kotelnicki comes in as their offensive coordinator and Tom Allen, the former head coach at Indiana, is now the defensive coordinator. Their schedule at Penn State is manageable. Maybe not quite as manageable as Missouri, but Penn State is similar, although not quite as smooth. They open with a really tricky game against West Virginia, a team that won nine games last year.

There are three games that will go a long way in determining the Nittany Lions’ season: at USC, at Wisconsin and vs. Ohio State. That three-game stretch right there is going to tell you everything you need to know about James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.

Week 14 – Michigan vs. Ohio State, Nov. 28 (FOX)

This game, in so many ways, is going to shape the sport for the foreseeable future. Like Alabama now trying to measure themselves against Georgia and Kirby Smart, now, all of a sudden, Ohio State is trying to measure up against Michigan.

Michigan is the one that has won the national championship and been 15-0. Michigan is the one that is 3-0 in the last three years against Ohio State. Michigan is the one that is the three-time defending Big Ten champion. Ryan Day and the Buckeyes have to win this game. They are hosting this game. They have lost three straight and they need it … they need it badly. And I think their activity this offseason signals that.

Ryan Day gave up playcalling duties. He brings in Chip Kelly. He went out and raised a ton of money and they retained a veteran roster, in particular on defense, and great players on the offensive side.

Can Ohio State snap their three-game losing streak to Michigan?

Emeka Egbuka is back. TreVeyon Henderson is back. JT Tuimoloau is back. Jack Sawyer is back. They get premium transfers: Quinshon Judkins is now a running back for them. Caleb Downs is now a safety for them. The roster is incredible. The defense is incredible. There is a ton of pressure on the coaching staff in Columbus right now.

This could be a rematch for the following week in Indianapolis, and Ohio State could be looking to spoil a potential playoff berth for Michigan. The Wolverines have a really tough schedule, with USC, Texas, Ohio State and Oregon on their slate. You’re not getting into the playoff with four losses, so, depending on how quickly Sherrone Moore gets these new players going, Ohio State could be playing to knock Michigan out of the playoff.

When you talk about shaping the season, that game is about as important as any game in college football this year.

Joel Klatt is FOX Sports’ lead college football game analyst and the host of the podcast “The Joel Klatt Show.” Follow him on X/Twitter at @joelklatt and subscribe to the “Joel Klatt Show” on YouTube.

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