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Pivot-point games: Matchups that will shape the 2014 football season

Pivot-point games: Matchups that will shape the 2014 football season Photo:

It’s usually easy to spot the most important game on a team's schedule. It typically combines history, geography and stakes. For Alabama and Auburn, the Iron Bowl almost always earns that honor. Ditto for Michigan and Ohio State. Since these games normally fall toward the end of the year, they aren’t necessarily the ones upon which a team’s season turns. Those are the pivot-point games.

Pivot-point games tend to happen in September and October, and they either reveal new information or confirm previously held suspicions. These are the games that launch conference and national title runs, and they are the ones that ultimately get coaches fired or retained. SI.com has combed through the 2014 schedule to identify pivot-point games for teams across the country, and there will be plenty of intrigue early. On Oct. 4, fans should move a mini-fridge next to their chairs and tape the remote to their hands. There isn’t a higher stakes day until season’s end.

Sept. 1

Miami at Louisville

Pivot-point game for: Both

Hey, didn’t these two teams just play? As a matter of fact, they did. Louisville whipped Miami 36-9 in the Russell Athletic Bowl to close out a 12-1 campaign and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s stellar career. When the Hurricanes and Cardinals meet again, the teams could look pretty different. Louisville lost Bridgewater, coach Charlie Strong (to Texas) and a host of key contributors. Bobby Petrino, in his second stint at Louisville, will get a good gauge of where his team falls within the ACC against an above-average opponent from the other division. Miami, meanwhile, will have tailback Duke Johnson on the field for the first time since losing him to a broken ankle at Florida State last November. Who will hand Johnson the ball is another question. Ryan Williams was supposed to start at quarterback, but he tore his ACL on April 4. Meanwhile, The Miami Herald and WQAM radio reported on Monday that Kevin Olsen is suspended for the Louisville game. That leaves Jake Heaps -- yes, the one who played at BYU and Kansas -- and true freshmen Brad Kaaya and Malik Rosier in the hunt to start the opener.

Sept. 6

USC at Stanford

Pivot-point game for: Both

The Pac-12 has gotten on board with early-season conference games, and that league’s depth, plus its nine-game conference schedule, means there will be a blockbuster almost every week of the season. Steve Sarkisian inherited a USC offense that improved dramatically after Lane Kiffin was fired last September. Sarkisian kept Clay Helton, the assistant who called the plays during that period of improvement. He also raised the tempo of the offense. Sarkisian’s Washington offense came within a dropped third-down pass of besting Stanford’s defense last year, and the Cardinal have to replace a lot of production in the front seven. Stanford drew USC, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah from the Pac-12 South this fall, so it won’t have many easy weeks. If the Cardinal want a third consecutive Pac-12 title, they’ll have to win plenty of rock fights. This one is only the beginning.

Michigan State at Oregon

Pivot-point game for: Both

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook watched the BCS title game between Florida State and Auburn and stewed. “We felt like we could have been right in there,” Cook said in April. If not for a close loss to Notre Dame last September, the Spartans might have been right in there. Fortunately for them, they’ll have an early opportunity to establish themselves as one of the nation’s top teams in 2014. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s defense has been consistently great for four years, and now the Spartan Dawgs will get to prove themselves against an elite offense led by one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. It should be fun to watch Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush chase Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, and it should be equally fun to watch the Ducks’ havoc-wreaking defense match up with a Michigan State offense that came into its own toward the end of last season. Neither team should be out of the College Football Playoff hunt with a loss, but the winner here will have a signature victory that should impress the selection committee.

BYU at Texas

Pivot-point game for: Texas

If first-year coach Strong wants to show his Longhorns will be tougher than the team was in Mack Brown’s final season, he can start by beating the foe that exposed Bevo’s soft underbelly last fall. BYU destroyed Texas in Provo last September. If he wasn't asked to go home, Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill might still be running. BYU rolled up 550 rushing yards on the Longhorns, and Texas fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz the next day. As the season wore on, it became clear Diaz wasn’t wholly to blame. The entire program had fallen into a pit of complacency. That’s why Texas forced out Brown and hired Strong, who produced units that refused to be pushed around during his time as the defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida and as the head coach at Louisville.

Facing BYU so early should provide an excellent indicator for how much Strong has changed the team’s mentality and how much work he’ll need to do. The adjusted scores from the Cougars’ 2013 schedule resemble the ones from the '12 slates of Oklahoma State or Michigan State. BYU was probably much better than its 8-5 record, but sometimes injuries and plain bad luck can get in the way. The BYU squad Texas faces in Austin will likely be better than the one it faced in Provo, so we should know quite a bit more about the Longhorns after this contest.

Sept. 13

Georgia at South Carolina

Pivot-point game for: Both

By now, fans know South Carolina has beaten the eventual SEC East champ three years in a row without winning the division once during that span. While winning this matchup is a poor indicator of divisional success -- the last time the winner won the East was 2010 -- it certainly makes the remainder of the season look a little bit brighter. Both of these teams draw Auburn from the West, play Clemson out of conference and will have been tested before they meet. The Bulldogs face Clemson in Week 1, while the Gamecocks get Texas A&M on the season’s opening night and follow that with a visit from an East Carolina team that won 10 games in '13. This matchup probably won’t be low scoring, but fans of large men carrying footballs between the tackles will not be disappointed. South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, one of the best in the business, has finally molded a group to his liking. It will challenge coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense with heavy doses of tailback Mike Davis. Meanwhile, Georgia will unleash its stable of backs -- led by Todd Gurley -- on a South Carolina defensive front trying to replace Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. The Gamecocks could become more of an odd-front team this year, as they have more depth and experience at linebacker than they do on the line. Expect Georgia to test that group as much as possible.

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Sept. 20

Clemson at Florida State

Pivot-point game for: Both

The Seminoles play Oklahoma State and Notre Dame out of conference, and Florida should offer a much better challenge during this year's matchup on Nov. 29. Still, Florida State’s most crucial game remains the unofficial ACC Atlantic Division championship. The Seminoles can probably get away with losing a nonconference game and still make the playoff, but a loss to the Tigers and the ACC title is likely out of the question. Under the correct circumstances, an SEC or Pac-12 team that doesn’t win its division can probably make the playoff. It’s tough to imagine an ACC or Big Ten team getting the same treatment -- with the exception of one scenario. If Florida State narrowly beats Clemson and goes undefeated, and then Clemson wins the rest of its games and either Georgia or South Carolina (which both would have lost Clemson in this scenario) wins the SEC, the Tigers would likely also make the four-team field. If that were to happen, it would be further proof that ACC commissioner John Swofford is indeed a ninja.

Sept. 25

UCLA at Arizona State

Pivot-point game for: Both

I wasn’t kidding about there being blockbusters pretty much every week in the Pac-12 this year. This Thursday night meeting of the past two Pac-12 South champs should be a shootout, and it should help establish the pecking order in the division. (It’s also UCLA quarterback and Chandler, Ariz., native Brett Hundley’s last chance to show off in front of his hometown fans.) This game won’t settle anything, but it will set the table for what should be a thrilling divisional race.

Sept. 27

Missouri at South Carolina

Pivot-point game for: Missouri

The Gamecocks haven’t lost at Williams-Brice Stadium since 2011, but with Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia headed there early, that may not be the case by the time the Tigers visit the SEC’s original Columbia. If the streak remains intact, South Carolina would likely be the toughest obstacle between Missouri and a second consecutive SEC East title. After the Gamecocks, Missouri gets an open date before a four-week stretch of SEC East opponents (Georgia, at Florida, Vanderbilt, Kentucky). If quarterback Maty Mauk can handle the defense and the noise, and if defensive end Markus Golden can pressure South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson into making some mistakes, then the Tigers could occupy the driver's seat in the East. On the flip side, if Steve Spurrier's crew can beat Georgia and Missouri before September is out, it might finally be able to break its three-year streak of watching the SEC title game after a double-digit-win regular season.

Oct. 4

Stanford at Notre Dame

Pivot-point game for: Notre Dame

This one starts a tough three-game stretch (Stanford, North Carolina, at Florida State) that should determine whether the Fighting Irish belong in the playoff conversation. Rice and Michigan won’t be pushovers, but Notre Dame should be able to start 4-0. For the Irish to stand any chance of making the four-team field, they’ll have to go 2-1 in this October trio of matchups. Since a win in Tallahassee is perhaps the biggest ask in 2014, Notre Dame will probably need to beat the Cardinal to maintain its playoff chances.

Baylor at Texas

Pivot-point game for: Baylor

Baylor coach Art Briles was pretty diplomatic when presented with Texas linebacker Steve Edmond’s complaints about the Bears. For those who need a recap, Edmond brought up the Bears following the Longhorns' 2014 spring game. He wasn’t particularly thrilled with the way Baylor players acted after their win over Texas on Dec. 1, which clinched the Big 12 title and sent Floyd Casey Stadium out in historic fashion. “I’m mad as I can be. I knew we were a better team than they were,” Edmond told the Dallas Morning News in April. “And then … Baylor gets the win and acts like they had never won before. Even in high school, you know how to react when you win a game. It’s not like you never won a game. I’m like, ‘They won it, so what?’ They still suck to me.”

On a teleconference a few days later, Briles said, “Shoot. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion.” The Big 12 made Edmond apologize, but expect Briles to try to make him very, very sorry when the Bears travel to Austin. Briles may have publicly downplayed the statement, but expect the coach and his players to bring it up among themselves plenty in the week leading up to the Texas game. The irony of Edmond’s statement is that none of the current Longhorns have won anything of significance at the college level, so they wouldn’t be the best people to provide etiquette lessons for how to celebrate a conference crown. Baylor’s players have won a Big 12 title, and they don’t want to cede their place atop the league. No one involved here is blind or dumb. Strong’s hiring at Texas means the Longhorns probably won't underachieve on the field or the recruiting trail anymore. Briles and the other Big 12 coaches who benefited from the recent decline in Austin know Texas is going to start recruiting better. The best way to offer a counterargument to Strong’s pitch is to win. So, aside from the obvious effect on this year's conference standings, the Bears would like to prove a point with a victory here.

Nebraska at Michigan State

Pivot-point game for: Nebraska

Among the teams in the Big Ten West, the Cornhuskers drew the short straw and got a trip to East Lansing. The good news for Nebraska is the rest of its conference schedule is quite manageable. The bad news? Iowa and Wisconsin -- the other two programs that should compete for the West title -- play neither Michigan State nor Ohio State in the regular season, so their Big Ten slates are even more manageable. A loss to the Spartans leaves the Huskers little breathing room in the West race. A win, however, would prove Nebraska can play with anyone.

Florida at Tennessee

Pivot-point game for: Both

No one expects Florida to win at Alabama on Sept. 20. If the Gators do, we’re having a completely different conversation about their team and about this game. But if that Bama game goes chalk, it sets up an intriguing matchup in Knoxville two weeks later. Florida will be fresh off an open date. Tennessee, which must replace all five offensive line and all four defensive line starters, will be coming off a visit to Georgia. There will be no excuses for the Gators to lose this game. But if they do, the stretch that follows (LSU, Missouri, Georgia in Jacksonville) looks awfully daunting. It would be difficult to imagine Will Muschamp making it out of the season still employed by Florida if the Gators can’t beat the Volunteers. Yet if they can and they’re competitive against Alabama, they’ll have momentum heading into a very tough stretch that happens to take place within 75 miles of campus.

For Tennessee, a win over the Gators would offer tangible proof that Butch Jones and his staff have the program headed in the proper direction. Conventional wisdom says no matter how good Jones and his staff are, the Vols will struggle this fall. A win at this point in the season might help inspire the patience Tennessee administrators and fans will need to endure the rebuilding without panicking.

LSU at Auburn

Pivot-point game for: Both

It was during the second half of a loss in Baton Rouge last September that Auburn coaches realized what they had in quarterback Nick Marshall and began crafting the specific version of the offense that dominated the SEC late last season. Now, Auburn will have had a full offseason -- and a nonconference schedule that includes a visit to Kansas State -- to perfect its scheme. Meanwhile, LSU’s freshman skill players will have played a quality opponent in Wisconsin to open the year, but they will not have played in a truly hostile SEC environment just yet. Jordan-Hare Stadium at full throat is deafening. If the Tigers’ youngsters can handle it, they can handle any opposing stadium. Auburn faces a potential top-25 team in five of the subsequent six weeks (at Mississippi State, South Carolina, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M, at Georgia), so it’s critical for the team from the Plains to start its SEC slate with some momentum.

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Oct. 11

Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas)

Pivot-point game for: Oklahoma

The Sooners are the Big 12 favorites this season thanks to a phenomenal Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama, but they’ll need to prove they can play that way on a week-to-week basis. This is, after all, the same team that got whipped in Dallas by a very average Texas team last October. For this year’s edition of the Red River Rivalry, the Sooners will be coming off a game at TCU. The Horned Frogs haven’t broken through in the Big 12 yet, but they’ve been competitive in almost every game since joining the league. They tend to beat up opponents even when they lose, so Oklahoma could be bruised going into the Texas game. Meanwhile, Strong’s history suggests he’ll have the same Longhorns players who got pushed around toward the end of last season playing with a much harder edge. Oklahoma will have the superior athletes, but the Sooners should be in for a fight.

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State

Pivot-point game for: Ohio State

The Buckeyes should get out-of-conference tests against Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, and Ohio State’s first trip to Maryland for a Big Ten clash might not be as easy as everyone seems to think. Still, the Buckeyes could face their most dangerous game in State College. Even with NCAA sanctions still hampering them, James Franklin and his staff have probably made Urban Meyer feel like he’s back in the SEC. Ohio State won’t be able to simply scoop up the best recruits in Big Ten country with Franklin at Penn State, and Franklin would love to further state his case by beating the Buckeyes in prime time. Unless something happens at NCAA headquarters, the Nittany Lions remain banned from postseason play. That will make this game even bigger. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg should force Ohio State’s secondary to prove that it has improved under new defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes have national championship aspirations, but a loss here would put the Big Ten East title in doubt.

Nov. 1

Indiana at Michigan

Pivot-point game for: Both

I was tempted to make Michigan’s pivot-point game its visit from Utah on Sept. 20. The Utes might be a little better than they were last year, and last year Utah beat Stanford. A team that can beat Stanford can beat Michigan, especially when it hasn’t been banged up by a trip through the Pac-12. However, even if Michigan loses to Utah, it doesn’t mean that the season is over or that the Brady Hoke administration is a lost cause. The Big Ten schedule remains.

The Indiana game jumps out first because it is the homecoming game on a lackluster home slate that has the Wolverines looking for creative ways to fill the Big House. More importantly, it comes a week after the Wolverines visit Michigan State. Obviously, if Michigan beats the Spartans, this season will take on a different tone. But if the Wolverines get dominated the way they did last year -- fans who sat on their couch on Nov. 2 gained 48 more rushing yards than Michigan did -- then optimism in Ann Arbor will cease to exist. Into that pall would come Indiana, which keeps making incremental strides under Kevin Wilson. The Hoosiers broke through with a win over Penn State last October, but they lost a close contest to Minnesota and fell apart in the fourth quarter against Michigan. Indiana's offense will produce, and if its defense is even slightly functional, it should be competitive in most of its Big Ten games. If Michigan is reeling when the Hoosiers come to Ann Arbor, this game has all the ingredients for a program pivot point. (Think Florida at Mississippi State in 2004, or USC at Arizona State in '13.) An explosive opponent against a struggling team in front of a comatose crowd is not a recipe for success for the home squad. If Michigan’s season plays out as expected before this one, it could become make-or-break for Hoke and company.

Nov. 8

Alabama at LSU

Pivot-point game for: Alabama

Alabama’s schedule is spaced out about as well as it can be for an SEC West team. The Crimson Tide’s toughest first-half games are a visit from Florida and a trip to Ole Miss. The Gators are a mystery at the moment, and Bama has an open date before its trip to Oxford. So, for the Tide, the biggest challenge before the Iron Bowl is a trip to Baton Rouge, where AJ McCarron had to engineer a last-minute drive to beat the Tigers in 2012. LSU’s young skill position players will have some seasoning by this point. The Tigers’ defense should be prepared to face a downhill, power-running offense after an open date -- plus a summer spent preparing for a season opener against Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin. Fans will know exactly what these teams are by November, and this game should clarify the SEC West race.

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