Commentary

Games that will test playoff hopes

Originally Published: August 18, 2014
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

Got your four teams picked for the inaugural College Football Playoff?

Beware before you turn in your final list, because teams always come out of nowhere. For instance, Auburn, Michigan State and Missouri all finished in the top five of the final polls last season -- and weren't even ranked to start the season.

Conversely, the team starting the season ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason poll hasn't finished higher than No. 7 the past four years.

None of us has a crystal ball, but we do have a road map of sorts -- the games that will shape who gets in and who gets left out this season when the selection committee unveils the first football version of the Final Four.

Here are 10 games to mark on your calendar:

LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Houston, Aug. 30

Right out of the gate, we get a game between two teams just outside the top 10 in the preseason polls who are talented enough to state their case come selection time for the College Football Playoff. And check out Wisconsin's schedule. If Melvin Gordon and the Badgers can get past the Tigers in the opener, the only other nationally ranked team (in the preseason) they face is Nebraska at home on Nov. 15. They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season.

Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6

The Spartans were stifling on defense last season in their stampede to the Big Ten championship, but didn't get a chance to play for the national title. So consider this a résumé game for Mark Dantonio's bunch. A win on the road at Oregon would be pure gold, the kind that could be the difference in getting in and not getting in when the selection committee makes its picks. This is also the lone nonconference matchup of two teams ranked in the preseason top 10.

Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18

It was just two years ago that the Wildcats swept to a 10-0 start and had visions of playing for the national title before stumbling against Baylor. If they're going to make that kind of run again, taking down Auburn at home would be a good way to punctuate September. It's a dangerous game for the Tigers all the way around, a Thursday night game in a tough place to play and against a Kansas State team that's probably underrated coming into the season.

UCLA at Arizona State, Sept. 25

There hasn't been this much buzz in Westwood surrounding the start of a UCLA football season in a long time. Jim Mora has the Bruins perched in the top 10 entering the season. Are they for real? We'll find out soon enough. Three of their first four games are away from home, culminating with a Thursday night contest against No. 19 Arizona State in Tempe. The Sun Devils were the only team to beat the Bruins last season after the calendar flipped to November.

Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 4

It will be Alabama's first true road game of the season, and the Rebels employ the kind of fast-paced, no-huddle offense that has given the Crimson Tide trouble under Nick Saban. That said, the Rebels were shut out a year ago in Bryant-Denny Stadium. They have one of the most talented groups of true sophomores in the SEC and a veteran quarterback in Bo Wallace. If you're looking for a game the Tide could potentially slip up in, this is one to circle.

Baylor at Texas, Oct. 4

This first edition of the Charlie Strong-coached Longhorns might not be a legitimate threat to nab one of those four spots in the College Football Playoff, but the Longhorns are certainly talented enough to have a say. They get to play at home on the first weekend in October against a Baylor team that's likely to be unbeaten, and it will also be the Bears' third straight road game.

Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 25

The Buckeyes haven't lost a Big Ten regular-season game since the end of the 2011 season, meaning Urban Meyer has yet to lose one since taking over. Even without Braxton Miller, chances are good they will roll into Happy Valley unbeaten. It may not be the most anticipated game in the Big Ten this season. That will come two weeks later, when Ohio State visits Michigan State, but the Nittany Lions will be a tough out at home under first-year coach James Franklin.

Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 1

Think Oregon is tired of hearing about Stanford having its number? Sometimes the truth hurts. The Cardinal have won each of the past two years over the Ducks, and in the process, ruined any chances the Ducks had of winning a national championship. The game's in Eugene this season and figures to once again provide some captivating November drama. The loser will be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Florida at Florida State, Nov. 29

The Seminoles will start the 2014 season right where they finished it a year ago -- on top. They're still ridiculously talented and have Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returning. But the target will be bigger than ever on the Seminoles and on Winston. Imagine if they run the table again and get to that game against the Gators unbeaten. Talk about pressure.

Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29

Nobody's suggesting the Iron Bowl will come close to matching last season's finish. How could it? Chris Davis' kick-six will go down as one of the most memorable college football plays in history. But the stakes for this game will never wane. There's a reason the winner has either played for or won the national championship each of the past five years.

Chris Low | email

College Football

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