As college football scheduling announcements are made public for the 2021 season, it’s easy to get caught up in perusing the week-by-week slates, circling in red those games that just feel different from the others. And with so many from which to choose, there’s a good chance some marquee games on paper will live up to the hype while others will come out of nowhere to surprise.
While we slowly approach Week 0, our college football team has put together its picks for the game of the year in 2021. Some are no surprise and feature preseason top-five teams that will jockey for College Football Playoff positioning. Others are a bit more under the radar. Either way, with a full season finally on the horizon, the quality of football should be fantastic.
Here are our selections for the game of the year, and be sure to give us your predictions over at our Cover 3 Podcast Twitter handle.
Clemson vs. Georgia (Sept. 4, Charlotte, NC)
Any top-five matchup in Week 1 is going to receive unique treatment in the game of the year consideration, but the fact that it will be at a neutral site, easily within driving distance for most fans of both schools, sets up for an epic weekend in the Queen City. While all four College Football Playoff teams from 2020 are turning to a new starting quarterback this fall, the Bulldogs found theirs late in the year with JT Daniels. But while Clemson technically is in the same boat as Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame following the loss of Trevor Lawrence, there’s less concern and arguably even more hype for the transition given what D.J. Uiagalelei was able to accomplish in starts against Boston College and Notre Dame.
Both teams have defenses that can claim to be among the best in the country and carry national championship expectations with the path to the playoff pivoting on the result of this game. Neutral-site games can be a divisive issue among college football fans, but I tend to enjoy the way they bring fan bases together in hotels, restaurants and bars both before and after the game. The atmosphere should be electric for the prime-time kick, setting the perfect backdrop for one of the biggest games of the year. — Chip Patterson
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell has done wonders for the Cyclones in his five seasons on the job, but the 41-year-old rising star has yet to knock off Iowa. After two particularly crushing home losses to the Hawkeyes in 2017 and 2019, he’ll get another home crack at Iowa on Sept. 11 in what could be a matchup between top-15 teams.
Last year’s game was wiped out by the Big Ten’s conference-only scheduling, marking the first time since 1976 that the series was not contested. Missing a game in the Cy-Hawk series was a real downer since it ended up being the first time that both simultaneously finished a season in the top 20. The game’s absence from last year’s slate should make anticipation even higher on both sides as Iowa and Iowa State each enter with conference title and College Football Playoff aspirations.
The last two in the series played at ISU’s Jack Trice Stadium were decided by a total of four points, both going in Iowa’s favor. It would be no surprise if this one is similarly close as these fierce rivals square off in the national spotlight. — David Cobb
Ole Miss at Alabama (Oct. 2)
When it comes to the game of the year, the tendency is to look for the games between the teams expected to compete for national titles. In that aspect, maybe a game between Alabama and Ole Miss comes as a surprise. I mean, considering that Alabama opens the season with Miami, makes an early-season trip to Florida and has standard division games against Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn, you could argue that Ole Miss is the sixth “biggest” game on its schedule.
But it might prove to be one of the most challenging, too. You’ll remember last season when the Rebels put up 647 yards of offense against Alabama in a 63-48 loss. While Alabama has few weaknesses defensively, its most significant problems have been explosive offenses like the one Lane Kiffin has put on the field in Oxford, Mississippi. You have to outscore Alabama to beat it, and Ole Miss is one of the few offenses in the country capable of making the Tide sweat. That provides the opportunity for chaos and the potential for one of the more exciting games of the season, no matter the result. — Tom Fornelli
I am a big believer that “game of the year” often has very little to do with who’s in the running for the national championship. I want 10 lead changes, big plays and an exciting fourth quarter. Kent State at Western Michigan has that written all over it — to the point that, I think, it could have first-screen priority on a big, but not huge, weekend of college football.
Two of the MAC’s best quarterbacks — Dustin Crum from Kent State and Kaleb Eleby from Western Michigan — will face off. And don’t ignore the pass catchers. Wide receiver Nykeim Johnson, a transfer from Syracuse, should be an impact transfer for a loaded Golden Flashes passing attack. The Broncos have a bit more to replace with WR D’Wayne Eskridge off to the NFL, but Eleby is a sleeper and there’s plenty of firepower remaining on offense to at least make games interesting.
Kent State might be the best team in the MAC and Western Michigan is an intriguing potential home dog. This under-the-radar game should go full #MACtion for some midseason drama. — Ben Kercheval