Tuesday, July 23, 2024

College football realignment 2024: Five new conference games this fall that could blossom into rivalries

The upcoming weeks on the college football calendar include media days, preseason camp and all of the festivities that surround the final countdown to the start of the 2024 season. But they also include a few notable dates that make official what has been in the works for, in some cases, years. The beginnings of July and August will mark the start date for more than a dozen schools debuting as a new member of a power conference. This nation-wide summer of conference expansion has been unsettling for the traditionalists, but it’s also set up some enticing matchups on the field for the fall. 

Focusing on these matchups can be a good way to get excited for this new era of college football. Programs that may have only faced off in a bowl game now go toe-to-toe with the stakes of competing for a conference title. We can’t fabricate history that doesn’t exist, but we can celebrate the competition and relish the results of these new high-stakes showdowns. 

We’ve taken a look at the 2024 schedule to identify some of the best and most anticipated games that will take place between new conference foes. Some of these programs have recent series history to draw on, while others will truly be establishing the beginning of a rivalry for the modern era. In both cases, the matchup as a “conference game” may require a double take, but once we get to kickoff and start seeing results in the standings, it shouldn’t take too long to get adjusted. 

An important note of clarification before we get started: Texas-Texas A&M does not count. The restarting of the rivalry between the Longhorns and Aggies after a 13-year hiatus is clearly one of the games of the year, and when we prepare for that Nov. 30 showdown in College Station, there are expected to be SEC title race stakes involved. But considering it is a rivalry with 118 previous meetings, it did not fit the mold here. 

With that settled, let’s get into the top games between new conference foes on the 2024 schedule. With any luck, these massive showdowns will be more common in the future. 

5. Michigan vs. Washington

Date: Oct. 5

With the matchups already set, one deep-cut storyline from last season’s College Football Playoff National Championship was that Michigan and Washington would meet again on the field in the fall. What we didn’t know then was that both programs would enter the rematch with a wildly different look on the field — and especially on the sideline. 

Jim Harbaugh’s exit to the NFL, paired with the departure of 13 NFL Draft picks from the national championship-winning Wolverines, is a lot to replace; however, there are plenty of familiar faces ready to suit up in the Maize and Blue, and new coach Sherrone Moore already boasts a 4-0 record from last year that includes wins over Penn State and Ohio State. 

The transition is a little more jarring for Washington, which got hit hard by NFL Draft exits, expired eligibility for their sixth-year seniors and a wave of transfer portal departures after Kalen DeBoer left to take the Alabama job. New coach Jedd Fisch brings a ton of momentum after a quick turnaround at Arizona, but the Washington side of things is more removed from where the Huskies were when they played for it all in January. 

In terms of the game itself, it’s arguably one of the biggest games of the year in Husky Stadium, where Washington has won its last three games against ranked opponents. It will also be the first true road game of the season for Michigan, which will have already hosted both Texas and USC in the Big House during its September residency in Ann Arbor. 

4. Alabama vs. Oklahoma 

Date: Nov. 23

This pair of Crimson-colored powers have combined for 25 national championships and 84 conference titles in their respective histories, winning at both the conference and national levels in multiple decades throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet, they’ve only played six times ever and only twice in the regular season, a home-and-home series in 2003 and 2004. 

They also were some of the most consistent programs of the four-team CFP era: every season from 2014-21 finished with either the Crimson Tide or the Sooners in the playoff, and three times it included both (2015, 2017, 2018). The most recent meeting was in the Orange Bowl semifinal in 2018, a game that featured future NFL stars Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray trading paint in a 45-34 Alabama win. The fact that this rare matchup will become more regular is a bonus of the SEC’s upcoming expansion. 

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma

Alabama won the most recent matchup in the limited all-time series against Oklahoma. Getty Images

Because of their respective histories, both Alabama and Oklahoma are going to view themselves as conference title contenders in almost any given season. Yet heading into 2024, there are other programs who have found favor in the eyes of the prognosticators and oddsmakers. When Alabama and Oklahoma clash in Norman on Nov. 23, it will be in the context of an SEC title race that could be led the Sooners’ biggest rival (Texas) and the program (Georgia) that Kirby Smart is building in the blueprint of Nick Saban’s success at Alabama. A win for either team in this late-season tilt could go a long way in driving the narrative for how the 2024 season went, and those kind of stakes will bring plenty of interest for two passionate fan bases who expect conference title contention on an annual basis. 

3. USC vs. Michigan

Date: Sept. 21

Though both Michigan and USC are among the most iconic programs in college football history, they have played just 10 times with eight of those 10 meetings in the Rose Bowl. The two programs played a home-and-home in 1957 and 1958 (Michigan won both) and have not played in the regular season since. In terms of the scoreboard, USC holds a 6-4 edge in the series, but there hasn’t been a meeting since a 32-18 Trojans win in the Rose Bowl to cap the 2006 season. This game will be the Big Ten opener for both teams, whom will have shown their hands a bit already given the quality their early season nonconference matchups: USC opens the year against LSU in Las Vegas on Sunday, Sept. 1, while Michigan gets a visit from Texas on Sept. 7. And while the reigning national champions are projected to be the betting favorite in this game — currently 8.5 points — it’s worth noting that underdog Trojans will enter the matchup coming out of an early season bye week. 

Much like Alabama-Oklahoma, this is a matchup of programs that believe they should be in the mix to win conference titles almost every season; however, they enter 2024 looking up at rivals. Ohio State and Oregon (more on those two later) have better odds to win the Big Ten, yet the winner of this matchup will move forward as one of the teams to beat in the conference. This is also the kind of matchup that the Big Ten envisioned when it made the initial push west, which at the time included just USC and UCLA. Michigan and USC have national appeal in college football, and now the conference can host these kind of nationally relevant matchups on a more frequent basis. In terms of scripting the best Big Ten opener for both teams, it’s hard to think of a better setting than the Big House. 

2. Georgia vs. Texas

Date: Oct. 19

Getting a handle on the power that’s packed into a matchup between Georgia and Texas in Austin requires zooming out from the SEC-specific viewpoint and realizing that this a matchup of two legitimate national title contenders. We’ve only had 16 regular-season meetings between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the AP Top 25 poll since 1969, and there’s a chance that’s exactly what we get in Austin when Georgia and Texas go head to head. And like so many of these new conference rivalries that have us excited for the upcoming season, Georgia and Texas do not carry with them a long series history. The Longhorns beat the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2018 season — you may remember Sam Ehlinger’s “We’re baaaack” after the win — but you have to go all the way back to the Cotton Bowl at the end of the 1983 season to find the next recent matchup. In total, they’ve played just five times, with Texas winning four, but now they are set for a collision course in a game that will define the SEC title race in 2024. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Sugar Bowl - Texas v Georgia

Georgia’s trip to Austin to face Texas marks one of the biggest games in college football this fall. Getty Images

Austin on a big college football weekend is already a scene, but adding to the overall mystique of this game is the fact that Formula 1’s United States Grand Prix will be held that weekend in town; the Sunday race will have plenty of practice round-related festivities on Friday and Saturday. Sometimes, these outside-the-lines distractions don’t have any impact on the players and coaches, but it undoubtedly raises the energy for the 100,000-plus fans that will be in the building for this showdown between SEC title hopefuls. 

1. Ohio State vs. Oregon

Date: Oct. 12

The Big Ten version of the Georgia-Texas matchup features the entrenched conference title contender going on the road to a hostile environment against the newcomer most likely to win the league upon arrival. Considering the opportunity that awaits the Ducks in 2024, this could be one of the biggest games in Autzen Stadium history, and I think the environment will reflect that when we get to Oct. 12. 

The hunger felt by the Buckeyes and Ducks after falling just short of their goals in 2023 creates an interesting wrinkle. The Buckeyes were 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation as they entered Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a Big Ten Championship Game spot on the line and fell one score short (30-24) in a third-straight loss to their most hated rival. Oregon suffered a similarly frustrating end, losing not just one but two one-score decisions against rival Washington, with the second being in the Pac-12 Championship Game. A few different bounces and both of these teams could have been in the College Football Playoff, but instead they enter 2024 with a huge chip on their shoulder looking to bounce Michigan from its spot atop the Big Ten. 

The Buckeyes are heavier on star power at the top not only thanks transfer portal additions like Caleb Downs, Quinshon Judkins and Will Howard, but also because potential 2024 NFL Draft picks (JT Tuimoloau, Denzel Burke, Jack Sawyer, TreVeyon Henderson, Emeka Egbuka) decided to return to for another year in Columbus. But Oregon has future pros, too. Lanning has built out the roster with a combination of top-notch high school recruiting and portal additions to address needs and built out depth. The Ducks don’t have a lot of holes or areas of concern on paper, which is why 2024 is the time for this program to take the next step. Both teams will still have challenging games left on the schedule — both play Michigan, for example — but in the case of both Ohio State and Oregon, they have the squad to be able to run the table, even in the event of a midseason loss. 

Honorable Mention 

  • Penn State at USC (Oct. 12) 
  • Oregon at Michigan (Nov. 2) 
  • Oklahoma at LSU (Nov. 30) 
  • Utah at Oklahoma State (Sept. 21) 
  • Arizona at Kansas State (Sept. 13)

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