This time last year, opponents of the new College Football Playoff argued that a four-team bracket would water down the regular season. Today most of those people have gone silent.
The 2014 regular season was one of the most entertaining in recent history, and that was a direct result of the playoff. This season the four-team bracket will again enhance the intrigue surrounding a number of regular-season matchups. Which games have the best chance to shake up the playoff picture in 2015? SI.com offers a week-by-week look:
Wisconsin vs. Alabama, Sept. 5 (Arlington)
New Badgers coach Paul Chryst inherits a team known for running, but it might have trouble against the Crimson Tide’s front seven. A strong showing by Wisconsin would serve as a feather in its playoff cap. Meanwhile, how will a new starting quarterback fare for Alabama?
Ohio State at Virginia Tech, Sept. 7
The Buckeyes’ schedule doesn’t feature many traps, so a Labor Day trip to Blacksburg won’t be overlooked. Plus, everyone knows what Virginia Tech did to Ohio State last season. This time Urban Meyer’s crew will be without defensive end Joey Bosa, one of four players suspended for the opener. Expect the Hokies to come out firing in a game that could provide momentum heading into ACC play.
Oregon at Michigan State, Sept. 12
Oregon won the nonconference matchup of the season against Michigan State in 2014, and used that as a launching pad to win the Pac-12 and reach the national title game. Now Mark Helfrich’s squad must venture to East Lansing with a new starting quarterback and prove its worth without Marcus Mariota. If the Spartans win, the path is clear for them to enter an Oct. 17 meeting with in-state rival Michigan with a 6–0 record.
Oklahoma at Tennessee, Sept. 12
If the Vols are truly ready to contend in the SEC East, we’ll know after this early visit from Oklahoma. The Sooners, meanwhile aren’t getting much respect in the Big 12 race, and a loss on this road trip won’t help their case.
Stanford at USC, Sept. 19
The Trojans face Arkansas State and Idaho in their first two games, so Stanford serves as Steve Sarkisian’s first true test of the year. Cody Kessler and company must handle a Stanford squad looking to put last year’s lackluster eight-win campaign in the rearview mirror.
Ole Miss at Alabama, Sept. 19
Think Ole Miss won’t be looking ahead to Alabama? The Rebels, who return 16 starters, play only UT-Martin and Fresno State before venturing to Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s one regular-season loss last year came against Ole Miss, so Nick Saban’s team will be looking for revenge.
USC at Arizona State, Sept. 26
The Sun Devils draw the Trojans at home one week after Sarkisian’s squad plays Stanford. That makes for an intriguing matchup for Arizona State, which beat USC in Los Angeles last year and returns 12 starters.
Mississippi State at Auburn, Sept. 26
Coach Dan Mullen and company might’ve won 10 games in 2014, but they’re picked last in the SEC West this fall. Auburn is expected to contend for a playoff berth, and the last thing the Tigers need is a loss to the inexperienced Bulldogs on the Plains.
Alabama at Georgia, Oct. 3
Georgia’s quest to return to the SEC title game includes the unenviable task of facing both Alabama and Auburn from the SEC West. The Dawgs should have a 4–0 record when they welcome the Crimson Tide to Athens, and both teams will feature new starting quarterbacks.
Notre Dame at Clemson, Oct. 3
Clemson enters the year as the preseason ACC favorite, and its first premier home game is a meeting with Notre Dame. The Irish, who return 17 starters, could use a win in Death Valley on their résumé. But quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Tigers might not be legit playoff threats if they can’t get by Notre Dame.
Others to watch: Arizona State at UCLA
Georgia Tech at Clemson, Oct. 10
The toughest game on Georgia Tech’s schedule should prove whether the reigning Orange Bowl champions can build off an 11-win season. Win against the Tigers, and the Yellow Jackets, who play in the weaker Coastal Division, could be in good position for a return to the ACC title game.
Arkansas at Alabama, Oct. 10
Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema nearly notched his first SEC win against Alabama last year in a tight 14–13 loss. Don’t be surprised if the resurgent Hogs, who are flying under the radar in the SEC West, mix up the division race against the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 17
The Wolverines aren’t likely to impact the Big Ten race in Jim Harbaugh’s first year in Ann Arbor. But Sparty’s trip to the Big House will be the first major home game of the Harbaugh era. Michigan State’s defense, which will be without departed coordinator Pat Narduzzi, better prepare for an unfriendly welcome.
USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 17
At the halfway point of the season, this will be just the second road game for USC. Notre Dame wants to avenge last year’s embarrassing 49–14 loss as the Pac-12 favorites take a long road trip to South Bend. Can the Trojans handle a potentially chilly October matchup?
Others to watch: UCLA at Stanford
Auburn at Arkansas, Oct. 24
The last time Arkansas hosted a team favored to win the SEC title—last season against Alabama—it nearly pulled off an upset. This task might be tougher, as Auburn makes the trip on the heels of easy games against San Jose State and Kentucky. But the Tigers better hope their defense can handle the Hogs’ run game.
Utah at USC, Oct. 24
The Utes will have three weeks at home before trekking to face USC in the Coliseum, while the Trojans will be fresh off a cross-country jaunt to Notre Dame. Quarterback Travis Wilson, running back Devontae Booker and Utah could have a trap waiting for USC’s return.
Others to watch: Ohio State at Rutgers
West Virginia at TCU, Oct. 29
Some Big 12 fans would blame West Virginia for keeping Baylor out of the first playoff with last season’s 41–27 upset in Morgantown. Could the Mountaineers’ defense, which returns nine starters, shake up the league again on a Thursday-night trip to TCU?
Florida vs. Georgia, Oct. 31
No one expects Florida to contend for a spot in the SEC title game in Jim McElwain’s first season. But the Gators weren’t contenders last year when they shockingly upended Georgia, 38–20, and helped sink the Dawgs’ shot at reaching Atlanta. A Bulldogs loss this season could turn the SEC East into a hot mess.
Others to watch: Ole Miss at Auburn, Oct. 31
Baylor at Kansas State, Nov. 5
Baylor proved last year it can’t afford an untimely loss in Big 12 play. That’s why the Bears’ Thursday-night trip to Manhattan should be fascinating, as both teams have bye weeks right before this matchup. Bill Snyder with extra time to prepare is a scary thing.
TCU at Oklahoma State, Nov. 7
Baylor and TCU get all the talk about Big 12 title favorites, but Oklahoma State has the look of a conference dark horse. Talented quarterback Mason Rudolph and 14 starters will be back. If Rudolph lives up to his billing, TCU could be in trouble on the road.
Others to watch: Michigan State at Nebraska, LSU at Alabama, Minnesota at Ohio State, Arizona at USC, Nov. 7
Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Nov. 12
This Thursday-night matchup at Bobby Dodd Stadium likely will determine who wins the ACC’s Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets squeaked out a 27–24 win last year in Blacksburg, and they should be tougher at home with 13 returning starters. Bud Foster’s Hokie defense faces a tall task.
Georgia at Auburn, Nov. 14
This season the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry could be a preview of the SEC title game. Georgia defended its home turf last year with a 34–7 win in Athens, but expectations will be higher on the Plains this season. Will Muschamp’s defense should have its hands full with Nick Chubb.
Others to watch: Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 14
Michigan State at Ohio State, Nov. 21
The biggest game of the Big Ten’s season should feature two teams with legit shots at playoff berths. J.T. Barrett reeled off five total touchdowns in last season’s 49–37 Buckeyes’ win. Which Ohio State quarterback faces off against Sparty’s defense this time?
USC at Oregon, Nov. 21
If USC beats Oregon—last season’s Pac-12 champs—in Eugene, that result could signify a changing of the guard atop the league. The Ducks are tough in Autzen Stadium, but the Trojans catch them one week after playing what could be an improved Stanford squad.
Others to watch: TCU at Oklahoma, Baylor at Oklahoma State, Arizona at Arizona State
Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 28
The last time these SEC rivals met at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Chris Davis spoiled Alabama’s shot at a title-game berth with the “Kick Six.” The home team has won the last three Iron Bowls and, perhaps not coincidentally, taken the SEC title a week later.
Baylor at TCU, Nov. 27
Had Baylor not ended last year’s meeting with TCU on a 24–0 run to win the game, the Horned Frogs would’ve been playoff-bound. The same reward could be on the line for this season’s installment. Can new Bears’ quarterback Seth Russell stay in step with Heisman-caliber passer Trevone Boykin at TCU?
Others to watch: Notre Dame at Stanford, Ohio State at Michigan, Clemson at South Carolina, Georgia at Georgia Tech, UCLA at USC
Week 14 (Championship Saturday)
Texas at Baylor, Dec. 5
With TCU idle in the season’s final Saturday, Baylor should have the final say atop the Big 12 standings. The last thing the Bears need is an improved Texas squad crushing their dreams.