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Athlon looks ahead at the biggest and best games that will shape the college football playoff.
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BCS executive director Bill Hancock could not have asked for a better capper to his beloved Bowl Championship Series. Now, college football moves into a new era of playoff football. Many believe that adding two extra teams to the playoff scenario at season’s end will take some of the luster off what most agree is the best regular season in sports.
That simply isn’t true. Only four of 125 teams will get compete in the playoff structure (for now) and so the battle to be in the top three percent (3.2 to be exact) of college football will still be as cutthroat as it has ever been.
The bottom line is still very straight forward for all college teams: Win all of your games and you will play for a national championship. And since it's never too early to look ahead to the 2014 season — which is 232 days away, by the way — Athlon has pinpointed the 25 games that will impact the first season of the College Football Playoff the most.
1. Stanford at Oregon (TBD)
For the first time in years, the SEC may not be the best league in the nation. And it has nothing to do with Florida State. The Pac-12 returns more elite talent than any other league and the winner of this game has gone on to win the last five conference titles. Stanford has won two straight over Oregon and the Ducks, something returning Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota won’t soon forget. This is likely two top five teams playing for a conference crown — or maybe more.
2. Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 29)
The juice of the Iron Bowl is electric every year but after what took place in 2013, all bets are off in this one. On the season’s final weekend the SEC West — and possible overall SEC — championship could hang in the balance once again between these two likely preseason top 10 teams. Bama must replace more than Auburn but still boasts the better overall roster — and the game is in Tuscaloosa this time around.
3. Alabama at LSU (Nov. 8)
The nation stops to watch when these two SEC behemoths collide every year. And while Bama pulled away from LSU in the final period this season, the Tigers expect to close the gap on the Tide this offseason. Both teams will feature new quarterbacks but both teams will carry national championship aspirations into the yearly bout of physicality to start November. And anytime Bama visits the Bayou, it’s must-see TV.
4. Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 29)
Many believe that the 2013 version of The Game was the best in the history of the long Big Ten rivalry. Now, the two move into the same division and a trip to the Big Ten title game could easily hang in the balance when these two get together in the Horseshoe at season’s end. Michigan is expected to be better next season while Ohio State should maintain national status quo.
5. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Nov. 29 or Dec. 6)
The Bedlam Series is one of the best rivalries in the nation and, much like the Iron Bowl, the ’13 version took it to another level. The Sooners crushed the Pokes' Big 12 and Fiesta Bowl hopes with one swift, last-minute drive. With Oklahoma the likely conference favorite next fall, Oklahoma State may have the chance to play the role of spoiler. This should once again feature two double-digit win teams with a potential Big 12 title on the line.
6. Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 8)
A rematch of the Big Ten title game could be the most important division game in the league next year. With Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State all landing in the Big Ten East Division, the round robin with these four college football blue bloods makes this division as intriguing as any in the nation. So when Urban Meyer goes on the road in early November, the reigning Big Ten champs should be ready for them in East Lansing.
7. Oklahoma vs. Texas (Oct. 11, Cotton Bowl)
Charlie Strong sent some not so subtle shots across the bow of the Big 12 during his introductory press conference, letting the rest of the league know he is coming into town six shooters blazing. Bob Stoops has made a living crushing the Longhorns and it falls to Strong to change that in his first Red River Rivalry. With the Crimson and Cream as the current preseason favorite, Strong knows he has a chance to upset the status quo in the Heartland in Year One.
8. Baylor at Oklahoma (Nov. 8)
The Sooners were embarrassed in Waco on a Thursday night this year and Stoops and company will be out for revenge at home this time around. The Sooners are a preseason top 10 team while Baylor is the top challenger in the Big 12 and could also be a preseason top 10 with Art Briles and Bryce Petty returning. Look for a dramatically more competitive game in 2014 than fans in Waco saw in ’13.
9. LSU at Auburn (Oct. 4)
The only game Auburn lost in the regular season was against LSU in Baton Rouge early in the year. The two Tigers will battle in Jordan-Hare early in the 2014 campaign as well, with SEC West supremacy likely on the line. Alabama still has a great shot to be the preseason pick in the division, so this game will probably determine who will be the top challenger to the Crimson Tide next fall.
10. USC at UCLA (TBD)
UCLA is likely a preseason top 10 team with the return of Brett Hundley at quarterback. USC, under new coach Steve Sarkisian, should have loads of momentum after a 10-win season in 2013 and could easily be a top 15 team heading into the season. These two are the top two picks in the Pac-12 South at the moment and the long-standing, intra-city rivalry should be more important than ever before in ’14.
11. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 13)
No, you didn’t miss read that. The Spartans will visit the Ducks early in the season next year in what could be a Rose Bowl preview matchup. The Michigan State defense will be rebuilt to some degree but will be as salty as ever while the Oregon offense returns for another season of up-tempo dominance. These two have split in the only four times they have played, two home-and-homes in 1998-99 and 1979-80, with the home team winning all four.
12. Auburn at Georgia (Nov. 15)
It was one of the great games of the 2013 season and could once again be an important and electric showdown in 2014. Georgia is the preseason favorite in the East while Auburn is the defending SEC champs — and the Tigers have to go on the road in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. How much roster turnover Auburn must deal with remains to be seen, so this game could be a meeting of two top-10 teams should all the big names return.
13. Georgia at South Carolina (Sept. 14)
If the Dawgs are, in fact, the preseason pick in the SEC East, then South Carolina is likely the top challenger. And in 2014, the game is being played in Columbia — where UGA got hammered the last time it visited in 2012. Both teams are breaking in new full-time quarterbacks with limited experience, which makes the early season timing of this game that much more interesting for fans in the SEC.
14. Stanford at Washington (TBD)
This has been one of the best Pac-12 games of the year in each of the last two seasons. The Huskies have to replace some pieces but should be in great shape with new head coach Chris Petersen. Both teams are preseason top 20 squads with Stanford possibly cracking the top five. The Huskies won in Seattle two years ago and outplayed the Cardinal in Palo Alto this fall. This could be a critical and epically physical battle out West next fall.
15. UCLA at Arizona State (TBD)
It was a critical showdown that was one of the best Pac-12 games of the 2013 season and nothing should change next fall. Taylor Kelly and Brett Hundley will do battle for the third straight season in what is turning into an excellent offensive rivalry out West. The Pac-12 South could be determined when the Bruins head East into the desert.
16. USC at Stanford (TBD)
The Trojans pulled a dramatic and memorable upset in 2013 — which was only the latest in what has developed into one of the great modern Pac-12 rivalries. In 2014, however, the game could carry even more importance for both teams as USC must head North to Palo Alto. Each has eyes on the Pac-12 title game and this bout could play a role in determining home-field advantage in the conference championship game.
17. Georgia at Missouri (Oct. 11)
Missouri isn’t far behind the Bulldogs and Gamecocks when it comes to projecting the SEC East in 2014. And getting to host the Dawgs in Columbia could be pivotal in deciding if the Tigers can maintain their status atop the SEC East next season. Maty Mauk got plenty of playing time for the Tigers' offense this season and should be one of the SEC’s top passers next fall.
18. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
These two have a long and storied tradition of great games and big-time moments. See the last time the Cardinal went to South Bend (although, Stanford fans probably will want to avert their eyes). With Everett Golson back for the Irish, Brian Kelly could have Notre Dame back in contention for a major (formerly known as “BCS”) bowl bid.
19. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30, Reliant Stadium)
The Tigers have eyes on returning to the national championship equation and Wisconsin is in desperate need of a signature regular season win over an elite non-conference opponent. If Gary Andersen and the Badgers want to be considered a national power, this type of showcase is as good an opportunity to prove it as they will ever have in Madison.
20. Oklahoma State vs. Florida State (Aug. 30, AT&T Stadium)
One of the great first weekend matchups will feature the defending national champions playing deep in the heart of Texas. The Cowboys are a fringe top 25 team but have eyes on returning to the top of the Big 12. An early strong showing (even in defeat) against the Noles could go a long way in proving that Mike Gundy’s program reloads rather than rebuilds.
21. Oregon at UCLA (TBD)
The Bruins had it rough in 2013, having to visit Oregon and Stanford in back-to-back games. Luck gives Jim Mora and his team a chance to win the league by hosting both the Ducks and Cardinal in Los Angeles in 2014. The Ducks come to town after boat-racing the Bruins in Eugene this season. A Mariota-Hundley matchup at quarterback could be a Heisman elimination game while also potentially deciding home field in the Pac-12 title game.
22. Stanford at UCLA (TBD)
Most everything said above about Oregon visiting UCLA applies to the Cardinal’s trip South to Westwood as well. UCLA lost by only two touchdowns to Stanford in 2013 but the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated, so revenge will be on the mind of Hundley and company when David Shaw's squad rolls into town.
23. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15)
The Big Ten West is the easier division but two Big Reds will enter the season as the frontrunners to win the crown. Iowa will host both Wisconsin and Nebraska but this game is much more likely to determine the West Division representative in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2014. Each team has holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but have plenty of returning weaponry and could be preseason top 25 teams.
24. Missouri at South Carolina (Sept. 27)
The round robin in the SEC East may not be as dramatic or intense or important as that of the SEC West, but Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri will do battle all season long in 2014. South Carolina has the benefit of hosting both the Dawgs and the Tigers in Williams-Brice Stadium. Should Carolina win both of those games, the Gamecocks could easily be Atlanta-bound.
25. South Carolina at Auburn (Oct. 25)
As two of the better programs in the SEC, it feels strange that these two have only met twice in the regular season since 2006. But when they do meet, strange things happen. The Tigers knocked the 2011 Gamecocks out of the SEC title game and crushed the Gamecocks 56-17 in the title game in Atlanta in '10 — their second meeting that year. Steve Spurrier should be well aware that his Gamecocks have beaten the Tigers only once in school history — and that came in 1933.
The best of the rest:
26. Alabama at Ole Miss (Oct. 4)
27. Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18)
28. Arizona State at USC (TBD)
29. Baylor at Texas (Oct. 4)
30. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, AT&T Stadium)
31. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8)
32. Ole Miss at Auburn (Nov. 1)
33. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)
34. Ohio State at Penn State (Oct. 25)
35. Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 25)
Other non-conference games to watch:
Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 20)
Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)
Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6)
Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)
Boise State vs. Ole Miss (Aug. 28, Georgia Dome)
Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 13)
North Carolina at Notre Dame (Oct. 11)
Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)
Virginia Tech at Ohio State (Sept. 6)
BYU at Texas (Sept. 6)