For the third year in a row, I’ve ranked all 77 of this season’s college football games involving Division I-A state teams. And for the first time, the decision at No. 1 was not easy, based on my two consistent, highly subjective criteria: How exciting is the matchup, and how important do I think this game will be?
Here are this year’s rankings, with noteworthy nuggets on some of the more interesting games:
77. Tennessee-Martin at Florida, Sept. 7
Good thing the Gators get a week off after the Miami opener to prepare for the mighty Division I-AA Skyhawks, who won two whole games last season.
76. Wagner at Florida Atlantic, Sept. 21
Wagner almost stayed within 50 points of Syracuse last year, so this one should be a real barn burner.
75. Towson at Florida, Sept. 28
Sandwiched between Tennessee and Auburn, this game’s only redeeming quality is Towson quarterback is Tom Flacco, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Joe Flacco.
74. Alabama State at Florida State, Nov. 16
Unless the Hornets have another talent like first-round offensive lineman Tytus Howard on their roster, the Seminoles’ home finale won’t have much buzz.
73. South Carolina State at USF, Sept. 14
UCF beat South Carolina State 38-0 last year. Can the Bulls top that?
72. Texas-El Paso at Florida International, Oct. 19
UTEP has one win over the past two seasons and might be the worst Division I-A team in the country this fall.
71. New Hampshire at FIU, Sept. 14
Don’t ignore New Hampshire, where Chip Kelly got his start. The Wildcats have beaten six I-A teams over the last 15 years, including Northwestern, Marshall and Rutgers.
70. Bethune-Cookman at Miami, Sept. 14
Manny Diaz’s first home game as head coach comes against a I-AA team. At least it’s an overmatched team from Florida?
69. Florida A&M at UCF, Aug. 31
The Knights’ opener is the best of the I-AA bunch because of the intrigue at quarterback. How will Notre Dame grad transfer Brandon Wimbush, and presumptive starter, fare with the Knights?
68. FAU at Ball State, Sept. 14
The coaches are interesting, at least. Lane Kiffin is still Lane Kiffin, and Ball State’s Mike Neu used to face the Tampa Bay Storm as the head coach of the Carolina Cobras and New Orleans VooDoo.
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67. UMass at FIU, Oct. 5
A trip back to the state for UMass coach Walt Bell, who struggled as FSU’s offensive coordinator last season before taking over the Minutemen’s rebuilding project.
66. Old Dominion at FIU, Nov. 2
A reunion of Gaither High teammates (Panthers starting offensive lineman Shane McGough against Royals defensive end Estefano Feliciano).
65. FAU at Old Dominion, Oct. 26
64. USF at UConn, Oct. 5
63. FAU at Charlotte, Sept. 28
62. Charlotte at FIU, Oct. 12
Former ’Canes backup quarterback Evan Shirreffs returns to Miami as the starter of a promising Conference USA program.
61. FIU at Tulane, Aug. 29
60. Middle Tennessee at FAU, Oct. 12
59. FIU at Middle Tennessee, Oct. 26
58. East Carolina at UCF, Oct. 19
57. USF at East Carolina, Oct. 26
56. FAU at Texas-San Antonio, Nov. 23
A few years ago, a coaching matchup between Lane Kiffin and UTSA’s Frank Wilson would have seemed like a battle between two future major-program leaders. Maybe both will still get there, eventually.
55. FAU at Western Kentucky, Nov. 2
54. Western Kentucky at FIU, Sept. 7
53. Louisiana-Monroe at FSU, Sept. 7
How bad will the reception (and crowd) be for Willie Taggart at the Seminoles’ home opener if FSU drops its opener to Boise State?
52. Marshall at FAU, Oct. 18
51. FIU at Louisiana Tech, Sept. 20
50. Southern Miss at FAU, Nov. 30
49. Central Michigan at Miami, Sept. 21
The game should be a dud, but it’s a Florida homecoming for former Gators coach Jim McElwain, who’s starting his first season with the Chippewas.
48. UCF at Tulsa, Nov. 8
47. FIU at Marshall, Nov. 30
The regular-season finale could decide Conference USA’s East Division.
46. UConn at UCF, Sept. 28
Bring a few boxes of tissues for the final edition of the Civil ConFLiCT. Or just watch for the train-wreck potential of a prolific UCF offense against a Huskies defense that was, without hyperbole, one of the worst in college football history last season.
45. UCF at Tulane, Nov. 23
44. Vanderbilt at UF, Nov. 9
43. UCF at FAU, Sept. 7
42. FAU at FIU, Nov. 9
Seven of the last eight Shula Bowls have been decided by at least 10 points, but I’m still intrigued by Butch Davis vs. Lane Kiffin.
41. Louisville at FSU, Sept. 21
40. Louisville at Miami, Nov. 9
39. BYU at USF, Oct. 12
38. FAU at Ohio State, Aug. 31
The near-certain blowout will likely be the first career start for Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields, the former superstar recruit who transferred from Georgia after one season.
37. SMU at USF, Sept. 28
36. FSU at Wake Forest, Oct. 19
35. Miami at Pitt, Oct. 26
34. Miami vs. FIU, Nov. 23 (Marlins Park)
Although I’m usually not high on football being played at baseball stadiums, the ’Canes returning to the site of the old Orange Bowl is pretty cool, especially considering this weekend’s lame slate.
33. USF at Navy, Oct. 19
32. UCF at Pitt, Sept. 21
31. Georgia Tech at Miami, Oct. 19
One former Temple coach (Geoff Collins) against another (Manny Diaz, technically).
30. UCF at Temple, Oct. 26
29. Temple at USF, Nov. 7
28. Miami at North Carolina, Sept. 7
Manny Diaz’s ACC opener comes against Mack Brown … who fired Diaz as his defensive coordinator at Texas two games into the 2013 season. Awkward.
27. FSU at Boston College, Nov. 9
The Eagles have beaten Florida teams in two consecutive Red Bandana games, including a 32-point stomping of the ’Noles in 2017. The Bucs should be watching running back AJ Dillon, a potential first-round pick.
26. Syracuse at FSU, Oct. 26
25. Miami at Duke, Nov. 30
24. North Carolina State at FSU, Sept. 28
A potential revenge spot for quarterback Bailey Hockman. The former four-star lefty transferred after finishing third in FSU’s quarterback competition last year and is contending for the Wolfpack’s starting job this season.
23. UF at Missouri, Nov. 16
22. Wisconsin at USF, Aug. 30
Although it’s the debut of Kerwin Bell’s offense, I’m equally interested in how the Bulls’ defense fares. Good luck stopping Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, who has more rushing yards (4,171) through his sophomore season than any player in Division I-A history.
21. Cincinnati at USF, Nov. 16
20. FSU at Virginia, Sept. 14
The Seminoles’ ACC opener comes away from home, in primetime, against a Cavaliers team that won eight games last season, could challenge for the Coastal Division this year and has a potential first-round cornerback (Bryce Hall). That makes this a tricky road trip.
19. Virginia Tech at Miami, Oct. 5
18. USF at Georgia Tech, Sept. 7
The Yellow Jackets are fascinating as they transition from the old-school triple option to the new-school swag embodied by new coach Geoff Collins (a former UF assistant). The Bulls, then, provide an early, interesting test for Collins’ rebuilding project.
17. Memphis at USF, Nov. 23
16. Virginia at Miami, Oct. 11
This Friday night game at Hard Rock Stadium could decide the Coastal.
15. Houston at UCF, Nov. 2
I’m excited to see what ex-West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen does with dynamic quarterback D’Eriq King. First team to 50 wins.
14. UCF at Cincinnati, Oct. 4
Friday night at Nippert Stadium between the top two teams in the AAC East? Smells like trouble for the Knights.
13. Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 21
12. UF at South Carolina, Oct. 19
Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks have top-20 potential, and this one comes at the end of a tough three-game stretch for UF (vs. Auburn, at LSU, at South Carolina).
11. Stanford at UCF, Sept. 14
The good-not-great Cardinal should be the Knights’ best Power Five opponent in years. This one will also have an outsized impact on how we view the slipping Pac-12.
10. UF at Kentucky, Sept. 14
I never thought Florida-Kentucky would be so high on this list, but the Wildcats’ historic streak-snapping win last year makes this one intriguing. The Gators haven’t lost two in a row to Kentucky since 1976-77.
9. USF at UCF, Nov. 29
Only one of the last five meetings has been decided by one score. Not sure this one is, either, but the rivalry still belongs in the top 10.
8. Auburn at UF, Oct. 5
The hot seat never cools off at Auburn. Would it shock you if the Tigers struggled early, lost at UF and then fired Gus Malzahn heading into their open date?
7. FSU at Clemson, Oct. 12
The lasting image of 2018 FSU was a shirtless professor reading a book during the Tigers’ 49-point blowout. Hopefully the on-field product provides enough entertainment this time.
6. FSU at UF, Nov. 30
We’re at least two years away from this becoming a must-see national game again, but it’s still a bitter rivalry with enormous in-state bragging rights.
5. Miami at FSU, Nov. 2
Higher than UF-FSU because it should be more competitive. The relatively late date also gives Manny Diaz’s transfer portal army enough time to figure itself out.
4. UF at LSU, Oct. 12
The Gators’ first trip back to Baton Rouge since the Hurricane Matthew kerfuffle could be a top-10 showdown. The Tigers might not have another top linebacker for the Bucs to draft, but they do have a pair of potential first rounders in the secondary (safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Kristian Fulton).
3. FSU vs. Boise State, Aug. 31 (Jacksonville)
A neutral-site opener against the good but rebuilding Broncos is enormous for Willie Taggart’s perception. A repeat of last year’s big-name opener (a 24-3 home loss to Virginia Tech) would increase the doubts about his future in Tallahassee. But if the ’Noles beat Boise, I can see a 5-0 start that would help show Taggart is on the right track.
2. UF vs. Miami, Aug. 24 (Orlando)
I initially put this at No. 1 because it’s their first meeting since 2013, and Manny Diaz’s head coaching debut against his former Mississippi State boss (Dan Mullen), and it’s at a cool neutral-site venue to kick off the 150th anniversary of college football. But the Week 0 stakes aren’t quite as high as…
1. UF vs. Georgia, Nov. 2 (Jacksonville)
The Gators and their fans have been taking shots (some subtle, some not) at the SEC East’s big Dawgs. Georgia should start the season in the top three and has won the last two games in the rivalry by a combined 54 points. If UF wants to return to national prominence, it has to knock off Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs. That makes this game the measuring stick for the Gators’ rise under Mullen and the biggest one in the state this season.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.