NCF Nation: Key stretch 2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It's never too early to start looking at the key stretches in each team's schedule, those three or four weeks that could make or break a season. So here goes:

Alabama
Sept. 26: Arkansas at home, Oct. 3: Kentucky on the road, Oct. 10: Ole Miss on the road
-- It doesn't look like a menacing stretch on paper, but it's still early enough in the season that the Crimson Tide could be sorting things out on the offensive line. And winning at Ole Miss would put them in commanding position in the Western Division race.

Arkansas
Sept. 26: Alabama on the road, Oct. 3: Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, Oct. 10: Auburn at home, Oct. 17: Florida on the road, Oct. 24: Ole Miss on the road
-- Talk about a killer schedule. If the Hogs are still standing after this stretch, look out. Nobody in the country has a more difficult road schedule.

Auburn
Oct. 3: Tennessee on the road, Oct. 10: Arkansas on the road, Oct. 17: Kentucky at home, Oct. 24: LSU on the road
-- The swing game in this stretch is the one at Tennessee. Coming off four straight home games to start the season, the Tigers could really generate some momentum by winning in Knoxville.

Florida
Oct. 10: LSU on the road, Oct. 17: Arkansas at home, Oct. 24: Mississippi State on the road, Oct. 31: Georgia in Jacksonville
-- Remember, it was at home where the Gators lost last season, and the Arkansas game does fall on the heels of Florida's trip to LSU. If the Gators are going to lose next season, it likely will come during this stretch. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Florida is off the week before the LSU game.

Georgia
Sept. 5: Oklahoma State on the road, Sept. 12: South Carolina at home, Sept. 19: Arkansas on the road, Sept. 26: Arizona State at home
-- There are a bunch of unknowns for the Bulldogs going into the season, and they sure don't ease their way into the schedule. Surviving the first month of the season will be critical. If they do, this could be a team that surprises some people. If they don't, it could be a long year in Athens.

Kentucky
Nov. 14: Vanderbilt on the road, Nov. 21: Georgia on the road, Nov. 28: Tennessee at home
-- The Wildcats are gunning for their fourth straight bowl appearance, and here's betting that it comes down to the last three games of the season to find out if they're bowl eligible. Looking at the Wildcats' early schedule, they might have to win two of their last three to keep their postseason streak alive.

LSU
Sept. 26: Mississippi State on the road, Oct. 3: Georgia on the road, Oct. 10: Florida at home
-- LSU is the only one of the Western Division favorites (Alabama and Ole Miss) that has to face Florida next season, and the Tigers get the Gators coming off back-to- back road games. Winning one of those games against Georgia and Florida is a must if LSU doesn't want to be out of the West race by the middle of October.

Ole Miss
Sept. 24: South Carolina on the road, Oct. 3: Vanderbilt on the road, Oct. 10: Alabama at home
-- Are the Rebels for real? We find out right away. It's never easy to go to Columbia, S.C., and play on Thursday night. That Vanderbilt trip looms as a trap game right before the home showdown with Alabama. All in all, it's a pretty cushy schedule for the Rebels if they make it through this early stretch.

Mississippi State
Sept. 12: Auburn on the road, Sept. 19: Vanderbilt on the road, Sept. 26: LSU at home, Oct. 3: Georgia Tech at home
-- Dan Mullen's first two SEC games as a head coach are on the road, which should tell us a lot about his first Mississippi State team. If the Bulldogs can go 2-2 in this stretch, then a .500 or better record at the end of season remains entirely possible.

South Carolina
Sept. 3: North Carolina State on the road, Sept. 12: Georgia on the road, Sept. 19: Florida Atlantic at home, Sept. 24: Ole Miss at home
-- The start to the season is crucial for the Gamecocks. They have two Thursday night games in the first four weeks, starting with the trip to Raleigh. Anything less than a 2-2 start would be bad news for Steve Spurrier and his ball players.

Tennessee
Oct. 3: Auburn at home, Oct. 10: Georgia at home, Oct. 24: Alabama on the road, Oct. 31: South Carolina at home
-- More than ever, the Vols have to protect their home turf next season. They get a week off in the middle of this particular stretch, which helps. But that Auburn game at home looms as critical if the Vols want to go to a bowl, as does that game on the back end at home against the Gamecocks.

Vanderbilt
Oct. 31: Georgia Tech at home, Nov. 7: Florida on the road, Nov. 14: Kentucky at home, Nov. 21: Tennessee on the road
-- There's nothing easy about having a tough nonconference game like Georgia Tech thrown in right before you go to Florida and then it comes down to the two games it always comes down to for the Commodores if they're going to be bowl eligible -- Kentucky and Tennessee.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Every game matters, of course, but some stretches seem to present more opportunity than others.

USC is eyeballing perfection. Teams at the top of the conference are eyeballing USC. Teams in the lower-middle are eyeballing six wins and bowl eligibility. Teams at the bottom are eyeballing any potential victory.

Here are the schedule stretches that appear most important to each team.

Arizona (at Iowa, Sept. 19; at Oregon State, Sept. 26; at Washington Oct. 10): Arizona should start 2-0 -- though the Wildcats would be wise to not take a good Central Michigan team lightly -- and then they play three consecutive road games. A 5-0 start is not unreasonable, but neither is 2-3, which would make the fans in Tucson grumpy again.

Arizona State (Oregon State, Oct. 3; at Washington State, Oct. 10; Washington, Oct. 17, at Stanford, Oct. 24): The Sun Devils will start 2-1, losing at Georgia. Then comes this stretch. Go 3-1 or even 4-0, and they are bowl eligible or close to it before Halloween. Go 2-2 or (horrors) 1-3, and the backloaded schedule will suggest another losing season in Tempe.

California (at Minnesota, Sept. 19; at Oregon, Sept. 26; USC, Oct. 3): If California manages to start 2-0, beating Maryland and Eastern Washington at home, then this stretch could be special. Go 3-0, and the Bears become: 1. Overwhelming Pac-10 front-runners; 2. National title contenders. In fact, Cal at 5-0 should be ranked No. 2 in the nation, behind Florida. Of course, 5-0 is a steep hill to climb.

Oregon (at Boise State, Sept. 3; Purdue, Sept. 12; Utah, Sept. 19; California, Sept. 26): Oregon will know if its season is going to be special before the schedule moves out of September. This is one of the nation's most interesting four-game stretches: two marquee non-BCS powers, a visitor from the Big Ten, and California -- the team, other than the Ducks, most likely to unseat USC atop the conference. It's hard to win on the blue turf in Boise, but three of these games are in Autzen Stadium.

Oregon State (at California, Nov. 7; Washington, Nov. 14; at Washington State, Nov. 21; at Oregon, Dec. 3): The Beavers schedule sets up for a fast start, which they haven't been able to get during their recent run of success -- see 2-3 starts in 2006, 2007 and 2008. So what about their finish? Visits to California and Oregon -- can you say revenge? -- likely will decide whether Oregon State finishes in the top-third or middle of the conference.

Stanford (UCLA, Oct. 3; at Oregon State, Oct. 10; at Arizona, Oct. 17; Arizona State, Oct. 24): These four weeks determine whether Stanford earns its first bowl berth since 2001. The Cardinal should start no worse than 3-1. And they will be underdogs in their final four games. So this patch in the middle of the season is a battle for position between teams in the middle of the conference, with little margin between each.

UCLA (San Diego State, Sept. 5; at Tennessee, Sept. 12; Kansas State, Sept. 19; at Stanford, Oct. 3): The Bruins have an interesting schedule. The toughest part is in the middle. If they manage to win three of these first four games, they'd almost certainly get to six wins and earn bowl eligibility. And none of these four looks too daunting, even the visit to Tennessee, which is breaking in a new coach and system. But a slow start could be a disaster, considering UCLA will be an underdog in its next four games winding down October.

USC (at California, Oct. 3; at Notre Dame, Oct. 17; Oregon State, Oct. 24; at Oregon, Oct. 31): The Trojans will have to be road warriors this year if they hope to win an eighth consecutive Pac-10 title. And if they win at Ohio State on Sept. 12, obviously the national title becomes a possibility. This stretch of four -- three road games wrapped around a revenge meeting with Oregon State -- features a desperate rival and the Trojans' main Pac-10 competition.

Washington (at Stanford, Sept. 26; at Notre Dame, Oct. 3; Arizona, Oct. 10; at Arizona State, Oct. 17): Washington has two must-win games on the schedule: game two at home vs. Idaho and the Nov. 28 Apple Cup. Win those two after an 0-12 season, and 2009 won't be a complete disaster. The problem with their overall schedule is nearly all of the tough games -- LSU, USC, Oregon, California, Arizona -- are at home, while the closer matchups are on the road. This four-game stretch comes right after what is certain to be a 1-2 start. Will the Huskies lose confidence after being pushed around by LSU and USC, or will they steal one, two or, heck, even three of these games?

Washington State (Stanford, Sept. 5; Hawaii (in Seattle), Sept. 12; SMU, Sept. 19): Three home games to start the season, each winnable. And a 2-1 start means the Cougars equal their 2008 win total before October. With five of the next six away from Pullman -- and against heavy favorites -- the Cougars will need a fast start to get through a midseason gauntlet.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

In every season there's always a tough stretch of games that makes or breaks a conference title or a major bowl berth. The following are some rough schedule stretches for teams who won their conferences last year and are expected to challenge for their conference titles and/or a possible BCS berth this year.

TCU
Nov. 14 Utah
Nov. 21 at Wyoming
Nov. 28 New Mexico

Utah at TCU was one of the best games of the Mountain West season last year because it more or less sent Utah on its way to the BCS and TCU fighting for a share of the conference title, which it didn't get. That game should have similar meaning for both teams this year. The Wyoming game is intriguing because the last time TCU went to Laramie it came away with a 24-21 loss. And no one knows what to make of New Mexico this year. Because the two teams meet late, the Lobos could put up more of a fight than they did in the early season game last year.

BYU
Sept. 5 vs. Oklahoma @Arlington, Texas
Sept. 12 at Tulane
Sept. 19 Florida State

No one expects BYU to defeat Oklahoma, which is exactly why it could be the most important game on the Cougars schedule. BYU ended last season with a two-game losing streak and it was clear that it mentally affected the team. The high expectations are going to be there again, but this stretch of games, in which they could easily come out 1-2, will make or break the confidence of the Cougars for the early part of the season and might affect their chances of winning the Mountain West.

UTAH
Nov. 14 at TCU
Nov. 21 San Diego State
Nov. 28 at Brigham Young

It's probably safe to assume that with a tough nonconference schedule, a new quarterback and a slew of new players, that Utah isn't going to have another undefeated campaign. But that doesn't mean the Utes won't challenge for the conference crown. The stretch to end the regular season will determine whether the Utes can defend the Mountain West title. It's also good that they get a respite with San Diego State.

BOISE STATE
Oct. 14 at Tulsa (Wed.)
Oct. 24 at Hawai'i
Oct. 31 San Jose State
Nov. 6 at Louisiana Tech (Fri.)

Yes, the Oregon game on Sept. 3 is huge and will undoubtedly make or break the Broncos BCS chances. But this is also a team that prides itself on winning the WAC and this is the stretch where the Broncos can make the most strides. I added Tulsa in here because that has the potential to be a shootout game with Tulsa's style, and could put a strain on a team that then has to turn around and travel to Hawaii, which is not an easy place to play. San Jose State will be much better this year with a stiff defense and an improved offense and Boise State and Louisiana Tech will be a much better game this year than it was last year. The biggest thing here is all the travel the Broncos have to do during the four-game span.

TROY
Sept. 26 at Arkansas State
Oct. 6 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 17 at Florida International

One could look at the Troy schedule and argue that the toughest games are at the end of the schedule with Florida Atlantic and Louisiana, but I think these three games, the first three of the Sun Belt season, will set the tone for the Trojans. All three teams will be better than they were a year ago, especially Middle Tennessee, which now has Tony Franklin, former Troy offensive coordinator, as its offensive coordinator. And I've been saying all offseason that no one in the Sun Belt should sleep on Florida International.

EAST CAROLINA
Oct. 27 at Memphis (Tue.)
Nov. 5 Virginia Tech (Thur.)
Nov. 15 at Tulsa (Sun.)

Yes, ECU opens the season with a tough set against West Virginia and North Carolina, but this stretch of games is absolutely brutal for not only ECU's hopes of defending their conference title, but also achieving an undefeated season. Memphis will be one of the chief challengers for C-USA East and playing on the road in that game won't be easy especially with Virginia Tech, a team the Pirates beat dramatically last season, looming. Then the Pirates have to travel to Tulsa, the team they beat to win Conference USA last year.

TULSA
Nov. 7 Houston
Nov. 15 East Carolina (Sun.)
Nov. 21 at Southern Miss
Nov. 28 Memphis

This might be one of the most brutal stretches of all that are listed here. Not only will Houston be looking to repeat its 70-30 shellacking of the Golden Hurricane last year, Tulsa will have to fend off the potential top three teams in C-USA East. Tulsa doesn't have to sweep this stretch to win C-USA West, but it would help.

BUFFALO
Oct. 24 at Western Michigan
Nov. 3 Bowling Green (Tue.)
Nov. 10 Ohio (Tue.)

Buffalo probably isn't the favorite to win the MAC East, but the Bulls weren't the favorite last year either. Playing at Western Michigan is going to be a tough task especially with two of the top East teams waiting on the horizon. Both Bowling Green and Ohio will be tough this year since both return several key players and both made strides this spring.

BALL STATE
Nov. 12 at Northern Illinois (Thur.)
Nov. 18 Central Michigan (Wed.)
Nov. 24 at Western Michigan (Tue.)

There's no doubt that this isn't last year's Ball State team, but it could be in the hunt for the MAC West as it hits this stretch at the end of the season. These four teams will all be vying for the MAC West and it's unfortunate for Ball State that two of the games are on the road. Getting Central Michigan, who will be the MAC favorite heading into the season, at home will help.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN
Oct. 10     Eastern Michigan
Oct. 17     at Western Michigan
Oct. 24     at Bowling Green

The Chippewas have a couple tough two-game stretches in the beginning and at the end of the year, but this little stretch might be pivotal in Central Michigan trying to win its third MAC title in the past four seasons. The Chippewas lost to Eastern Michigan each of the past two seasons and played close games with Western Michigan each of the past two seasons. Bowling Green figures to be in the hunt for the MAC East and though the Chippewas defeated BGSU in the last meeting in 2006, the Falcons had won the five meetings before that.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Football coaches will tell you that you've got to take it one game at a time, try to win each week and then add 'em up in the end.

Forget those clichés, though. Each team usually has a make-or-break point on their schedule. Today we identify the most crucial stretches for each Big East school in 2009:

Cincinnati: The Bearcats open the season at Rutgers, but their most important stretch comes at the end. They close the season with Connecticut, West Virginia and Illinois at home, followed by the finale at Pittsburgh. Their chances of repeating as Big East champs will be determined here.

Connecticut: In a three-week span from Oct. 24 to Nov. 7, the Huskies travel to West Virginia, play Rutgers at home and go to Cincinnati. We'll find out then if UConn is a contender or a pretender.

Louisville: A young team like the Cardinals needs some confidence early. That's why Games 2, 3 and 4 -- at Kentucky, at Utah and home against Pittsburgh -- could either be crushing or uplifting.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers' final three games -- Notre Dame, at West Virginia and Cincinnati -- could go a long way in determining what kind of bowl game they will play in this season.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights' soft schedule doesn't feature too many potential potholes in the nonconference portion. They should be right in contention until the end, when they get South Florida at home, travel to Syracuse and Louisville and then welcome West Virginia to Piscataway on Dec. 5.

South Florida: The Bulls' season likely will be made or broken in a four-game stretch between Oct. 15 and Nov. 12. That's when they play Cincinnati, go to Pittsburgh, host West Virginia and travel to Rutgers. South Florida will hope to reverse the midseason swoon that has plagued it the past two years.

Syracuse: With a new coaching staff that fans are ready to embrace, the Orange need to show some respectability at the beginning. The opening three contests -- Minnesota, at Penn State and Northwestern -- don't offer many breaks. Competing in those games at the very least and possibly winning one would do wonders for the program.

West Virginia: No surprise that the Big East backloads important games for its marquee teams. The Mountaineers finish up at Cincinnati, home in the Backyard Brawl versus Pitt and then at Rutgers to end the season. That's the definition of make-or-break time.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Only 99 days remain until the 2009 season kicks off, and this is a perfect time to delve a bit deeper into the Big Ten schedule. All 11 teams have a stretch of games that likely will make or break its season.

Last year, Wisconsin became the first team to open Big Ten play against league powers Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. The stretch took the Badgers out of BCS bowl consideration, as they went 0-3 and spiraled out of the rankings after entering the top 10.

Here's a look at the key stretches for each Big Ten squad.

ILLINOIS -- at Ohio State (Sept. 26), Penn State (Oct. 3), Michigan State (Oct. 10)

The overall schedule doesn't favor Illinois this year, but things could change with a promising start to Big Ten play. None of these games are easy, but Illinois gets Penn State and Michigan State at home and won its last game at Ohio Stadium in 2007. A 2-1 performance would set up the Illini for a decent bowl push.

INDIANA -- Western Michigan (Sept. 12), at Akron (Sept. 19), at Michigan (Sept. 26)

Forget about the Big Ten slate. If Indiana doesn't start off strong and ease the pressure on head coach Bill Lynch, what happens in October and November might not matter. All three of these games are winnable, and Indiana likely needs to win at least two to have any shot at making a bowl.

IOWA -- Michigan (Oct. 10), at Wisconsin (Oct. 17), at Michigan State (Oct. 24)

Don't get me wrong, the Penn State game (Sept. 26) is huge and could put Iowa in the league title mix. But the Hawkeyes must take care of business in October to be a serious contender. Iowa has dropped 10 of its last 12 meetings against Michigan, and trips to rival Wisconsin and on-the-rise Michigan State won't be easy. The four conference road games will make or break Iowa's season.

MICHIGAN -- at Michigan State (Oct. 3), at Iowa (Oct. 10), Delaware State (Oct. 17), Penn State (Oct. 24)

Michigan wants to regain its place among the Big Ten's elite, and winning a tough road game will be a key step. Trips to rival Michigan State and Iowa provide major opportunities for Rich Rodriguez's team. The Delaware State game doesn't really belong, though Michigan has suffered a shocking nonconference loss in each of the last two seasons. The Wolverines then host defending Big Ten co-champ Penn State, a team it dominated until last year.

MICHIGAN STATE -- at Wisconsin (Sept. 26), Michigan (Oct. 3), at Illinois (Oct. 10), Northwestern (Oct. 17), Iowa (Oct. 24)

The Spartans skip Ohio State on the slate this fall, but their opening stretch to Big Ten play offers little margin for error. Much will hinge on the Wisconsin game, as a win could catapult Michigan State to another surprise run at the league title. Michigan State's new starting quarterback will be tested, but four or more wins during the stretch could mean another New Year's Day bowl run.

MINNESOTA -- California (Sept. 19), at Northwestern (Sept. 26), Wisconsin (Oct. 3)

If Minnesota has, in fact, taken a step forward, it will show during these three games. Cal should be a top 20 team when it visits TCF Bank Stadium, and Jahvid Best provides a huge test for the Golden Gophers' defense. Minnesota has lost back-to-back heartbreakers to Northwestern, and the Wisconsin game always stirs up emotions for both teams. Other tests follow in late October, but Minnesota needs to show it's for real early on.

NORTHWESTERN -- Penn State (Oct. 31), at Iowa (Nov. 7), at Illinois (Nov. 14), Wisconsin (Nov. 21)

A fairly easy opening schedule should put Northwestern in bowl contention, but the Wildcats need a strong finish against top competition to ensure a desirable postseason destination. Northwestern might get Penn State at a good time -- sandwiched between Michigan and Ohio State -- and has won its last two games at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium. But all four of these teams will test Corey Wootton and the Wildcats' defense.

OHIO STATE -- at Penn State (Nov. 7), Iowa (Nov. 14), at Michigan (Nov. 21)

The USC game (Sept. 12) will do more to make or break Ohio State's national reputation than any other this fall. But a win against the Trojans won't matter if the Buckeyes don't do what they do best in Big Ten play. The Penn State game likely will decide the league title, and Ohio State will have its hands full at home against Iowa. Then it's off to Michigan, where Justin Boren and co. try to win an unprecedented sixth straight game against the Wolverines.

PENN STATE -- at Michigan (Oct. 24), at Northwestern (Oct. 31), Ohio State (Nov. 7)

The temptation will be to look ahead to Ohio State, which once again should be the Big Ten's premier game this fall. But Penn State hasn't won at the Big House since 1996 and Michigan should have its act together by then. The Lions then travel to Northwestern, which boasts a solid defense and usually plays well under the lights at home. If Penn State survives the stretch 3-0, it should be in excellent shape for another trip to Pasadena.

PURDUE -- Northwestern (Oct. 3), at Minnesota (Oct. 10), Ohio State (Oct. 17), Illinois (Oct. 24)

If the Boilers make any kind of run in Danny Hope's first season, they'll need to defend their home turf. It helps to have three of the first four league games at Ross-Ade Stadium, where Purdue's defense played well for the most part in 2008. A win against Northwestern could really swing things in Purdue's favor, especially if Minnesota is still trying to find its way.

WISCONSIN -- Michigan State (Sept. 26), at Minnesota (Oct. 3), at Ohio State (Oct. 10), Iowa (Oct. 17)

It's not quite the gauntlet the Badgers faced last year, but a poor start to Big Ten play could once again doom Bret Bielema's team. You can't understate the importance of the Michigan State game. A win gives the Badgers some confidence heading into a stretch of two rivalry games (Minnesota and Iowa) and an always difficult trip to Columbus. A loss to the Spartans could increase the pressure on Bielema.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Like the guys who write copy for the commercials like to say, every game matters.

But some are more important than others, and a specific stretch can be found for each Big 12 team that will determine their relative success during the upcoming season.

Here's a look at the most important parts of the schedule for each Big 12 team during the 2009 season:

Baylor (Sept. 5, at Wake Forest; Sept. 19, Connecticut; Sept. 26, Northwestern State; Oct. 3, Kent State): The first four games of the season will determine if the Bears are legitimate bowl contenders. The first two games are particularly big, considering that Baylor will be playing two teams that beat them last season. It's hard to imagine Baylor making a bowl trip unless it wins three of its first four games. But if the Bears shoot out of the starting blocks and go to a 4-0 start, which would be their best start since 1991, then bowl hopes would seem legitimate. Just as important would be how Art Briles could coax his team back from the ledge if it loses the first two games of the season.

Colorado (Oct. 17, Kansas; Oct. 24, at Kansas State; Oct. 31, Missouri): These three games will likely determine if the Buffaloes can realistically challenge for the Big 12 North title. Kansas will be going for an unprecedented four-game winning streak against Colorado. Coming into the season, the Buffaloes have lost 12 of their last 14 conference road games. And their 58-0 shutout loss last season against Missouri snapped a 242-game scoring streak. If the Buffaloes can win two of three, they likely will go bowling. If they can win all of them, a North title challenge isn't out of the question.

Iowa State (Sept. 12, Iowa, Sept. 19, at Kent State; Sept. 26, Army; Oct. 3 Kansas State (at Kansas City, Mo.): Paul Rhoads' team will need to prove its mettle early. It doesn't get any bigger for ISU than the Cy-Hawk Rivalry against Iowa, especially since the Cyclones have won seven of the last 11 in the series. In their next game, the Cyclones will be attempting to snap a 17-game road losing streak when they visit Kent State. Army has played Big 12 teams tough in recent seasons, losing four of its last five games against the conference by a combined total of 18 points. And the Kansas State game could determine which team finishes the season in the Big 12 North cellar. A fast early start is imperative for the Cyclones.

Kansas (Oct. 17, at Colorado; Oct. 24, Oklahoma; Oct. 31, at Texas Tech; Nov. 7, at Kansas State): The Jayhawks' hopes of making their first Big 12 title game appearance will depend on navigating a tough four-game stretch in the middle of the season. Todd Reesing has beaten Colorado three straight times, but before Kansas' 2007 victory in Boulder, the Buffaloes had won five straight and 10 of their last 11 against the Jayhawks there. Mark Mangino has never beaten Bob Stoops, losing all three games against his old team. Revenge will be big in the Texas Tech game after the Red Raiders' stunning 63-21 victory in Lawrence last season. And Bill Snyder beat Kansas eight straight times at the end of his first stop in Manhattan, allowing an average of 8.5 points in those games. The Jayhawks likely need a split in these four games to contend for a championship. A 3-1 record might cement their title chances.

Kansas State (Oct. 3, Iowa State at Kansas City, Mo.; Oct. 10, at Texas Tech, Oct. 17, Texas A&M; Oct. 24, Colorado): Success in their first four conference games will determine if the Wildcats can shock pundits and challenge for a bowl berth. The Iowa State game will set the tone for both teams in a series where the Cyclones have won three of the last five games. The Red Raiders have beaten them four straight times since 2000. The KSU defense was torched for 544 yards against A&M last season. And after a four-game winning streak against Colorado from 1996-2000, Snyder lost four of his last five games against the Buffaloes. The Wildcats desperately need a fast start considering their last four games are against Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. These games will set the tone for their bowl hopes.

Missouri (Oct. 8, Nebraska; Oct. 17, at Oklahoma State; Oct. 24, Texas; Oct. 31, at Colorado): The Tigers start their conference play after a week off. They'll need it. Missouri has caught Bo Pelini's attention by outscoring the Cornhuskers by a combined 93-23 margin in the past two seasons. The Oklahoma State game is a revenge game after OSU snapped Missouri's unbeaten streak last season. Texas has won the last five games against Missouri and 14 of the last 15 since 1931. And Colorado will be pumped about Missouri's visit after 55-10 and 58-0 losses to the Tigers in the last two seasons. Obviously, this stretch will not be very forgiving for a team with a sophomore quarterback like Blaine Gabbert.

Nebraska (Nov. 14, at Kansas; Nov. 21, Kansas State; Nov. 27, at Colorado): The Cornhuskers could be putting the finishing touches on their first Big 12 title game appearance since 2006 with a fast finish. It will be tough, considering the Cornhuskers allowed a school record 76 points in their last trip to Lawrence. Nebraska has toyed with Kansas State in recent seasons, averaging 64.5 points in their last two games. Additionally, this will be the first head-coaching matchup between old rivals Bo Pelini and Bill Snyder. And the Cornhuskers should bring confidence into the Colorado game considering they have won six of their last eight games there. A 2-1 record or better in these games likely will push the Cornhuskers into the championship game.

Oklahoma (Oct. 17, Texas at Dallas; Oct. 24, at Kansas; Oct. 31, Kansas State; Nov. 7, at Nebraska): As usual, the Texas game will play a huge role in determining the South title. Bob Stoops is 5-0 against Kansas in his coaching tenure. Stoops is 6-1 against his old boss, Bill Snyder, with his only loss coming in the 2003 Big 12 title game. And before Oklahoma's 2005 victory at Nebraska, the Sooners had lost six straight there in a streak that dated to 1987 -- Barry Switzer's next-to-last season. The Sooners have overcome losses to Texas in two of the last three seasons and still won the Big 12 title. It would be hard to imagine them pulling off that feat again.

Oklahoma State (Nov. 14, Texas Tech; Nov. 19, Colorado; Nov. 28, at Oklahoma): The Cowboys could be putting the final touches on their first Big 12 South title with a fast finish against these teams this year. The Red Raiders have averaged 673.5 yards per game in the last two games against Oklahoma State. It will be trying to turn around some bad recent karma in the Colorado game as the Cowboys have lost their last three home finales. And coach Mike Gundy is 0-8 against Oklahoma during his career as a head coach and starting quarterback. The Cowboys need at least two victories in this finish if they are to contend for the South title, if not three.

Texas (Oct. 17, Oklahoma at Dallas; Oct. 24, at Missouri; Oct. 31, at Oklahoma State): The Longhorns' hopes for their first Big 12 title game berth since 2005 will depend on these three games. Mack Brown has quietly taken control of the Oklahoma series in recent seasons, winning three of his last four against Bob Stoops after losing five straight games against the Sooners from 2000-04. Some of the achievement of that streak has been diminished because the Sooners have claimed an unprecedented three straight Big 12 titles. The Longhorns have won five of their last six games in Columbia. And Texas has won 11 straight against Oklahoma State, although it has needed comebacks to win several of the rece
nt games, including climbing out of a 21-0 hole on the last trip there in 2007. These three games likely will determine if the Longhorns are national title contenders.

Texas A&M (Oct. 3, Arkansas at Arlington; Oct. 10, Oklahoma State; Oct. 17, at Kansas State): The Aggies' bowl hopes and their chance of climbing out of the Big 12 cellar will depend on these three games. Arkansas has won 10 of the last 15 games in the series that will be resumed for the first time since 1991. A&M has won five of the last six games against Oklahoma State in Kyle Field -- a place where OSU coach Mike Gundy has never won before. And the Aggies had won five straight games against Kansas State before their loss last season against the Wildcats. With some luck, the Aggies could go 3-0 in these games. If they lose one game, they still might have bowl hopes. But 1-2 or worse will mean it could be a long season for coach Mike Sherman.

Texas Tech (Oct. 24, Texas A&M; Oct. 31, Kansas; Nov. 14, at Oklahoma State; Nov. 21, Oklahoma): These four games will determine whether the Red Raiders can make a surprise charge into contention in the South Division. Tech coach Mike Leach has never lost to A&M at home, fashioning a 4-0 record. Kansas players remember a humiliating 63-21 loss at Lawrence last season that pushed Tech's margin to 10-1 in that series. Tech hasn't won at OSU since 2001. And the Red Raiders will be looking to hang a third straight victory in Lubbock over Bob Stoops after last season's 65-21 loss that spoiled the Red Raiders' 10-0 season start. Tech likely won't be challenging for the South title this season, but success in this four-game stretch should point them on a rewarding bowl trip. An 0-4 finish might keep Tech out of a bowl trip for the first time under Leach.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

There is usually a point during the season that makes or breaks a team's chances at contending for the conference title. Here's a look at what that key stretch in the schedule might be for each team in the ACC:

BOSTON COLLEGE: A three-game swing against Atlantic Division opponents that begins Sept. 19 at Clemson, includes a Sept. 26 home game against Wake Forest and ends Oct. 3 against Florida State will go a long way in determining if the Eagles have a prayer of ending up in the ACC title game for the third straight season.

CLEMSON: The back-to-back games against Atlantic Division opponents to start the month of November could either push the Tigers into the race or spoil it for the two preseason frontrunners, Florida State and NC State.

DUKE: The Blue Devils have a tough four-game stretch against all Coastal Division opponents late in the season, and three of the four games are on the road at Virginia, North Carolina and Miami. Duke hosts Georgia Tech on Nov. 14.

FLORIDA STATE: Yes, the opener against Miami will be important, but it won't carry as much weight in the conference race as the Noles' November schedule. It actually begins on Oct. 31 with a home game against NC State -- a game that could determine the division winner - and continues with back-to-back road trips to Clemson and Wake Forest before finishing the conference schedule against Maryland. Considering four of FSU's five Atlantic Division opponents aren't played until the second half of the season, that's when their fate will be determined -- not on Labor Day.

GEORGIA TECH: If the Yellow Jackets are going to push Virginia Tech for the Coastal Division title, they first have to put themselves in contention to win it, and that starts in September with back-to-back games against Miami and North Carolina. The game at Miami is on a Thursday night, and the Canes will want to redeem themselves from last year's poor performance on defense.

MARYLAND: The Terps have a tendency to wait until the final two games of the season to let Florida State and Boston College determine their fate for them. This year, though, Maryland has four straight games at home that could put them at 4-1 heading into a critical Atlantic Division game at Wake Forest. Factoring in a possible loss at Cal, the Terps have to take care of business at home early.

MIAMI: The Hurricanes have no choice but to play November football in September. Their first three games are conference games, including a Thursday night matchup against Georgia Tech and a trip to Blacksburg. Best case scenario? The Canes are 3-0 heading into a showdown with Oklahoma. Worst case scenario? They're 0-4 and heading into trap games against Florida A&M and Central Florida. Even if Miami is 1-3 out of the gate, though, and beats their in-state opponents, that sets up for a huge game against Clemson.

NORTH CAROLINA: Yes, the road trip to Georgia Tech will be critical, but back-to-back Thursday night games -- including the first Thursday night game ever in Chapel Hill -- is where it begins or ends for the Heels. An upset in Blacksburg would be huge, and a preceding home win over FSU would give them the momentum and confidence to do it. A 2-0 Thursday night record heading into home Coastal Division games against Duke and Miami would help outweigh whatever happened earlier in the season in Atlanta.

NC STATE: The Wolfpack has a bye week to prepare for a trip to Florida State, and a win in Tallahassee would go a long way. That momentum could set up two more home wins against Maryland and Clemson, both Atlantic Division opponents, and possibly have NC State on a significant win streak heading into Blacksburg.

VIRGINIA: The Cavaliers have four weeks to prepare for their first ACC opponent, and it's not until Oct. 24 against Georgia Tech that they'll start to figure out where their place is in the Coastal Division standings. Consecutive home game wins against Georgia Tech and Duke could lead to an upset win at Miami and shake things up drastically in that race.

VIRGINIA TECH: Yes, the Alabama game is big-time, but it doesn't do diddly when it comes to the ACC race. The Hokies Oct. 17 game at Georgia Tech is followed by a bye week to prepare for a Thursday night home game against UNC. Those two games will be a huge factor in determining the Hokies' fate.

WAKE FOREST: This one is interesting. Why? Because the Demon Deacons aren't facing the highest of expectations, yet their schedule is very favorable with five of their first six games at home. The potential is there for Wake Forest to be 6-0 and bowl eligible before hoops practice starts. You know the last time that happened? The year they won the league, 2006. Wake became bowl eligible on 10/14/2006, but if they accomplish that feat this year, it would be by Oct. 10. And they've never started out 6-0. The 5-0 start in 2006 was their best.

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