2014 schedule guide: Which games will determine the playoff race?
Playoff team. That has a pretty nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
For the first time in the history of major college football, a playoff will determine this season's national champion. Yet, no one knows exactly how the four-team College Football Playoff will unfold. The BCS motto was “every game counts.” That might be true under the new system. Or it might not be.
One prediction seems certain: Strength of schedule should play a critical role in the selection committee's decision-making process. Which big-time matchups have the best chance of setting the eventual field? We break down each week's games that could help shape the postseason.
LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston), Aug. 30
The Badgers and Tigers have similar projections: Both could win double-digit games, but neither is listed among the favorites in its respective conference. With a relatively weak Big Ten slate, Wisconsin might be hard-pressed to snag a playoff berth with a loss to LSU. A Tigers' win would mean LSU has a chance to be 5-0 entering a showdown with Auburn on Oct. 4.
Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30
Georgia never fully recovered from its opening loss at Clemson last season. A similar fate could befall the loser of this matchup in Athens. Both programs will break in new starting quarterbacks -- Cole Stoudt for Clemson and Hutson Mason for Georgia -- adding intrigue to an already high-profile game. The Bulldogs need this before a brutal SEC stretch. The Tigers want momentum before facing Florida State Sept. 20.
Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6
This is arguably the most anticipated nonconference game of the season, and there’s plenty to love from an Xs-and-Os standpoint. Michigan State won the Rose Bowl behind a dominating defense, while Oregon has become a powerhouse with a high-flying offense. This is exactly the kind of contest that the selection committee will take into consideration when ranking the ultimate field.
UCLA vs. Texas (in Arlington), Sept. 13
UCLA hasn’t won the Pac-12 since 1998, but the Bruins are considered conference frontrunners in 2014. A neutral-site victory over Texas could further boost them in the selection committee's view. Meanwhile, the Longhorns could use a win here before embarking on their Big 12 slate. An upset isn't out of the question; Texas beat 11-win Oklahoma last fall.
South Carolina at Georgia, Sept. 13
Many expect the SEC East to be a two-team race between Georgia and South Carolina. If this game ultimately decides the division, then it will also have an impact on how the playoff shakes out. Both the Bulldogs and Gamecocks will be coming off difficult openers, against Clemson and Texas A&M, respectively. If either emerges from this game undefeated, the selection committee shouldn’t forget it.
Others to watch: None
Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18
A Thursday night clash in Manhattan is just the kind of trap game Auburn doesn’t need. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is known for engineering surprises, and a loss to the Wildcats could linger over the remainder of the Tigers’ season.
Oklahoma at West Virginia, Sept. 20
The Mountaineers shocked Oklahoma State in Morgantown last fall. Dana Holgorsen’s crew could crack open the Big 12 race by stunning the Sooners.
UCLA at Arizona State, Sept. 25
The Bruins’ Pac-12 opener comes on a Thursday night in Tempe. Sure, there’s a bye week after UCLA's game against Texas. But Jim Mora's squad lost to these Sun Devils last year in Westwood.
Others to watch: Missouri at South Carolina
LSU at Auburn, Oct. 4
Other than BCS champion Florida State, LSU was the only team to beat Auburn last season. Gus Malzahn’s squad managed to absorb that loss, but Auburn’s daunting 2014 schedule might not allow for early-season mistakes.
Texas vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas), Oct. 11
The Longhorns spoiled the Sooners’ then-unbeaten season last year. Oklahoma enters this fall as a legitimate playoff contender, but that might not last if it can’t stave off Charlie Strong and Texas.
Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11
Perhaps the Pac-12’s top two playoff threats, Oregon and UCLA will seek a major leg-up in the conference race. The Ducks crushed the Bruins during last year's meeting in Eugene.
Others to watch: Auburn at Mississippi State
Notre Dame at Florida State, Oct. 18
Just like last season, the Seminoles are expected to steamroll ACC competition. Florida State gets Clemson at home. Its biggest other tests? A rivalry tilt against Florida in the finale and this matchup with a dangerous Notre Dame team.
Others to watch: Baylor at West Virginia; Washington at Oregon
Michigan at Michigan State, Oct. 25
South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25
Could this be a preview of the SEC title game? Both the Gamecocks and Tigers have playoff-caliber rosters. A victory in this cross-divisional matchup would help prove either team's postseason worth.
Others to watch: Ohio State at Penn State
Florida State at Louisville, Oct. 30
Louisville is new to the ACC, but that doesn’t mean Bobby Petrino’s team should be taken lightly. The Cardinals have plenty of depth on their roster and could give the Seminoles a challenge on a Thursday night at home.
Others to watch: Stanford at Oregon; Auburn at Ole Miss
Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 8
The Big 12 title will likely go through Norman or Waco, but a one-loss league champ won’t be guaranteed anything. These two have the talent to potentially run the table. Depending on how the rest of the league unfolds, this could be the closest thing the conference gets to a championship game.
Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8
Ohio State could be 8-0 when it meets Michigan State in November. A road win over the Spartans should have Ohio State in position for a Big Ten title. Of course, the same could be said for Michigan State. The Spartans could punch their playoff tickets if they top Oregon and Ohio State in the same campaign.
Others to watch: UCLA at Washington; Alabama at LSU
Auburn at Georgia
Auburn’s trip to Athens comes toward the end of a brutal stretch: The Tigers will have played LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M in consecutive games before this matchup.
Others to watch: Ohio State at Minnesota; Nebraska at Wisconsin; Mississippi State at Alabama
USC at UCLA, Nov. 22
First-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian is plenty familiar with his program’s rivalry with UCLA. If the Bruins remain playoff contenders at this point, the Trojans will want nothing more than to spoil their neighbor’s championship hopes.
Others to watch: Oklahoma State at Baylor
Florida at Florida State, Nov. 29
What should fans make of Florida this year? That question alone makes this regular-season finale intriguing. The Gators are retooling their offense in hopes of turning around a program that won a paltry four games in 2013. Upsetting Florida State in Tallahassee is likely too much to ask, but if Will Muschamp's squad suddenly morphs into an SEC threat, this could have an impact on the Seminoles' repeat title aspirations.
Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29
Auburn’s Kick-Six last November shattered Alabama’s championship hopes in a matter of seconds. With sky-high expectations surrounding both programs, the Iron Bowl should again shape the postseason picture.
Others to watch: Stanford at UCLA; South Carolina at Clemson; Michigan State at Penn State