Pick six: critical games dot the calendar in early 2022

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FILE – Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel throws during NCAA college football practice August 8, 2022 in Norman, Okla. Gabriel threw 32 touchdown passes and ranked second among all FBS players with 373.9 total yards of offense per game for UCF in 2020, but he only played three games in 2021 before a broken collarbone won’t knock him out for the rest of the season. Gabriel now takes over at Oklahoma, which has game time available at quarterback. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

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The college football schedule features a weekly selection of marquee games between the top teams, and some will launch quickly this year.

Two matchups on Sept. 3 could quickly shuffle the preseason AP Top 25 as No. 5 Notre Dame, with new coach Marcus Freeman, visits Ohio State No. 2 and No. 3 Georgia — the defending national champion — plays Oregon’s No. 11 at Atlanta.

Reaching the Power Five lines for these matchups seems to have intensified in recent years, but long-standing bitter rivalries take over later in the season as teams fight for championships and bowl positioning. Here are just six of the tantalizing games on the schedule this season:

No. 5 NOTRE DAME at No. 2 OHIO STATE, September 3

Freeman’s debut against his alma mater will set the tone for both teams, of course, and Heisman Trophy contender CJ Stroud will be at center for the Buckeyes. There will be nine preseason AP All-Americans on the field between the two teams. A little extra intrigue: star high school rusher Keon Keeley could be among the approximately 103,000 fans in attendance. Keeley previously signed up with the Irish but then opted out after the coaching change. The Buckeyes and No. 1 Alabama are among the teams vying to bring him into their five-star fold.

No. 11 OREGON vs. No. 3 GEORGIA (Atlanta), Sept. 3

The Bulldogs lost five NFL first-round draft picks from last year’s team on defense, but they’re getting back QB Stetson Bennett, potentially adding to his notable history as a former extra who was the MVP in a national championship game win. The Bulldogs’ tendencies, however, are well known to former defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who will make his debut as Ducks coach after Mario Cristobal left to take the job in Miami.

No. 13 NORTH CAROLINA STATE at No. 4 CLEMSON, Oct. 1

Last year, the Wolfpack ended an eight-game slide against the Tigers by winning 27-21 in double overtime. NC State held Clemson to just 214 yards, their season-low total, and the loss finally allowed Wake Forest to end the Tigers’ six-year stranglehold on the ACC Atlantic Division title. The Wolfpack have 10 defensive starters, so Clemson has his work cut out for him. Programs are selected to finish 1-2 in the division, with Clemson first.

No. 6 TEXAS A&M at No. 1 ALABAMA, Oct. 8

This SEC West showdown might as well be called the “Beef Bowl” after the spicy offseason recruiting comments between Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. More importantly, this could be the deciding game in the division race. Coaches say they buried the hatchet, but the winner could give it a twist. Texas A&M last won the national championship in 1939. The Crimson Tide has six with Saban alone.

No. 14 USC at No. 7 UTAH, Oct. 15

The Trojans’ standings are probably more of a tip for new coach Lincoln Riley after going 4-8 last season. Riley used the transfer portal in hopes of quickly rebuilding the program, bringing in 24 new players. The Utes intend to see QB Cam Rising return to continue pushing their ascent after their first Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance. The speed with which Riley’s new systems take hold will be enormous for USC.

No. 12 OKLAHOMA STATE at No. 9 OKLAHOMA, Nov. 19

The Cowboys are returning 10 offensive starters, including QB Spencer Sanders, to a team that came within an eyelash of the playoffs last season. The defense has always looked like a strength and should remain so with Derek Mason taking over as coordinator from Jim Knowles, who took the same spot at Ohio State. The Sooners got their six-year hold on the Big 12 titles last season with a loss to the Cowboys. They’re hoping former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables can get them back to the top behind QB Dillon Gabriel, who passed for more than 8,000 yards and 70 touchdowns at Central Florida.

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