The 14 Most Important College Football Games of 2014 Season
Surprise teams emerge every season, and with those surprises, games that appeared merely decent in the spring and summer materialize into amazing ones come the fall.
For an (admittedly flawed) example of this, look no further than the 2013 SEC Championship Game between Missouri and Auburn. Neither of those teams was supposed to achieve much of anything last season; a bowl game would have been considered a success on both fronts. And yet, it is one of the games we will remember the most—and most fondly—from the year that was.
In this regard, picking the 14 most important games of 2014 seems like a doomed exercise. Of the list I have compiled, at least one will almost certainly take on lesser meaning by the time it arrives, while a game I have ignored will turn momentous.
But based on timing, opponent and what they mean to the broader landscape of college football—i.e., this is not just a list rivalry games—here are 14 games for '14 with the best chance of becoming important.
Chime in below, and let me know what I missed.
Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
Michigan State did what Oregon has been unable to do the past few years, beating Stanford, of all teams, in the 2014 Rose Bowl.
But the Ducks will have home-field advantage in Week 2 of the upcoming season, when Sparty travels to Autzen Stadium for a gripping nonconference clash.
The team Mark Dantonio has forged is precisely the type of team Oregon has struggled with—physical at the line, confident defending the pass with just four players—and will be a great early test for Marcus Mariota and the rest of Mark Helfrich's team.
Because it occurs so early, because it does not count toward the conference standings and because both teams are so good, this is not as important as some other games on this list.
Either team could lose and still have a realistic shot at reaching the College Football Playoff.
But the team that wins will get some breathing room.
Georgia at South Carolina (Sept. 13)
Playing in their usual early season contest, Georgia and South Carolina could well decide the fate of the SEC East.
The Bulldogs beat the Gamecocks last season, rebounding well from a Week 1 loss at Clemson to salvage their season (for the time being). This year, they get to host a depleted Clemson team that they'll be favored to beat in Week 1, and this game in Columbia could function more as a rudder to the College Football Playoff than a life raft.
For South Carolina, hosting Georgia will be the first true test of the post-Connor Shaw and -Jadeveon Clowney era.
Dylan Thompson will have to be on his mark against a dangerous pass rush, and a young group of defensive linemen will have its work cut out against a veteran offensive line and Todd Gurley.
UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13)
Think about what Texas has at stake.
Assuming it beats North Texas in Week 1—which should not, necessarily, be assumed—it will either be 1-1 coming off a loss to BYU or 2-0 coming off a much-needed, revenge-fueled win.
In the former case, Charlie Strong would be playing to avoid dropping to 1-2 in his first season with the Longhorns; in the latter, he would be playing to advance to 3-0 with wins over two very good teams.
Now think about what this means to UCLA—a team that rightfully thinks it can make the College Football Playoff. Losing to Texas so early could derail those hopes, especially if the Longhorns are coming off a loss to BYU or struggle down the road in Big 12 play.
It would be putting the Bruins' fate in someone else's hands.
Clemson at Florida State (Sept. 20)
The winner of this game has determined the ACC Champion each year since 2011 and the Atlantic Division champion each year since 2009.
Why should we expect that to change?
Florida State romped over a better Clemson team—or at least a better Clemson offense—in Death Valley last season and now gets to host it in Doak Campbell Stadium. Beating the Tigers for 60 minutes was, in essence, the "Heisman Moment" in Jameis Winston's season.
But weird things tend to happen in this series, and despite the loss of so many offensive weapons, Dabo Swinney and Chad Morris have enough players at their disposal to put up a fight on the road.
Looking down the Seminoles' schedule, this seems like their most realistic potential loss—and that is counting the ACC title game.
Florida at Tennessee (Oct. 4)
Stick with me on this one.
Florida will almost definitely enter this game 3-1. Say what you will about Will Muschamp—he is not losing to Idaho, Eastern Michigan or Kentucky in the first three weeks, and he is not winning at Alabama.
The Gators would be playing this game at Neyland Stadium (against a team they should beat) with a chance to advance to 4-1. If they pull off that feat, they would be staring down the barrel of back-to-back home games against LSU and Missouri, and winning those would push them to 6-1 and make them the story of the early part of the season.
Likewise, this game could be huge for Tennessee, which will be favored to lose at Oklahoma in Week 3 and at Georgia in Week 5.
With a tricky Week 1 game against Utah State also on the schedule, the Vols would then be playing this game to avoid going either 2-3 or 1-4 on the young season—a season that began with such promise.
How would that type of start derail recruiting momentum?
Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18)
To my knowledge—and please, correct me if I'm wrong—only two active quarterbacks have started 10 or more regular-season games without a loss: Everett Golson and Jameis Winston.
So what happens when you put them on the same field?
Assuming Golson holds off Malik Zaire and keeps the starting job at the start of next season, there is a distinct possibility Notre Dame enters this game 6-0—with Golson's perfect regular-season record intact. It would need to beat Michigan, Stanford and North Carolina to get there, but all three of those games are in South Bend.
Florida State is the more talented team, but this represents one of its most likely falling spots next season. Perhaps more importantly, it gives Notre Dame a chance to prove it can hang with the best. That is, after all, what Jeff Long and the selection committee are looking for.
"We don't think in terms of most deserving on the resume," said Long, according to Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News. "We're focused on the best four teams and the best ranking in the [playoff] top 25. Again, our focus is the best, not deserving."
If Notre Dame finishes the season with one or two losses and plays Florida State down to the wire (or beats it), what, exactly, would be keeping it out of the College Football Playoff? Not much.
And that makes this game a huge one.
Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)
People like to say that Stanford is Oregon's kryptonite, but that might be oversimplifying things.
What if it wasn't David Shaw or the culture of the program that slowed down Oregon these past two seasons? What if it was the historically big, physical and dominant class of players that just departed?
Trent Murphy? Gone. Shayne Skov? Gone. Ben Gardner, Ed Reynolds, Josh Mauro? Gone, gone, gone. Important pieces such as A.J. Tarpley, Henry Anderson and James Vaughters return, but for the most part, this Stanford defense will have to reload—and it will have to do so without coordinator Derek Mason on the sideline.
Washington seems plucky, and any team coached by Chris Petersen will be a threat. But let's get real: The winner of this game should capture the Pac-12 North. And that makes it mighty important.
Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 8)
Michigan State beat Ohio State on a neutral field last season, ending Urban Meyer's 24-game win streak to start his career in Columbus.
This year, Sparty gets the Buckeyes on its home field in East Lansing. And even though Spartan Stadium is not known as the most daunting facility—the Breslin Center it is not—that should be enough to make them slight favorites to beat OSU again in 2014.
These are the two best teams in the new Big Ten East and probably the Big Ten at large. Whoever wins will gain valuable ground toward making the conference championship game, being favored to win the league and (in all likelihood) making the College Football Playoff.
Circle November 8 on your calendar.
Baylor at Oklahoma (Nov. 8)
The second of three massive games on November 8, Baylor at Oklahoma—much like Ohio State at Michigan State—will have a large say in who wins one of the five power conferences.
Oklahoma State loses a lot of talent and seems poised for a down year, and who knows what we'll get from Texas. These appear like the two most viable contenders for the College Football Playoff in the Big 12. And after getting shellacked at Baylor, 41-12, last season, you know the Sooners will be game for revenge.
That final score, however, might have been a bit misleading. Oklahoma's defense did a good job shutting down Baylor's offense for the first quarter and a half, ceding ground only when the OU offense kept forcing it back on the field with little rest.
"I don't want to say we got tired," said linebacker Frank Shannon, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), "but you could tell that stuff was taking a toll on us because we kept going back out there. It showed in our play when we went back out there on the field."
OU thinks it is good enough to slow down Bryce Petty and the high-flying Bears attack. It thinks it should have done so last season, and now, with Norman at its back, it thinks it will in earnest in 2014.
We shall see if its confidence gets rewarded.
Alabama at LSU (Nov. 8)
An annual treat on the college football calendar, Alabama at LSU will again have a large say in who wins the SEC West.
Yes, Auburn has emerged as the Crimson Tide's new biggest threat in the division, but Les Miles and LSU have always given Nick Saban's team fits. Even last season, when the Tigers were comparatively "down," they were able to hang tough for three quarters before eventually losing steam and falling in Tuscaloosa, 38-17.
This year's matchup will feature a pair of new starting quarterbacks. If Brandon Harris starts for LSU and Jacob Coker starts for Alabama, it will be two quarterbacks who are new to their respective programs.
By this point, ostensibly, Coker will have been seasoned and tested and ready to go. But there is something unique about Tiger Stadium in prime time—when this game is almost certain to be played.
Watch out for a season-changing upset.
Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15)
Newly minted rivals in the Big Ten West, Nebraska and Wisconsin will challenge Iowa and Northwestern—but mostly each other—for a spot in the Big Ten Football Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Neither of these teams is being mentioned as a threat to make the College Football Playoff, but both are realistic-enough sleepers. More likely, though, the winner of this game will have a chance to play spoiler against Michigan State or Ohio State.
Nebraska hasn't been to Wisconsin since its Big Ten debut in 2011. That game was a shining triumph for traditionalists of Big Ten football, as the Badgers romped the Huskers, 48-17, on national TV (ABC).
Bo Pelini's team got revenge with a home win in 2012, and the sides did not meet last season. In what should be a top-of-the-division rivalry for years to come, someone must eventually learn how to beat the other on the road. But will 2014 be that year?
Auburn at Georgia (Nov. 15)
Georgia has been waiting all year for another shot at Auburn.
The Tigers' magical run to the BCS National Championship Game began, in earnest, with the "Prayer at Jordan-Hare," when Ricardo Louis caught a Hail Mary with 25 seconds on the clock to beat UGA.
But this is about more than just revenge.
Take a close look at Georgia's 2014 schedule. After season-opening games against Clemson and South Carolina, there might not be another potential loss until this matchup with the Tigers.
Depending on how UGA navigates those early obstacles, it could, quite plausibly, be playing this game with an SEC East title and trip to the College Football Playoff on the line. Auburn will almost definitely be playing this game under similar circumstances.
And you guys wanted to abolish cross-division rivalries...
USC at UCLA (Nov. 22)
UCLA has had USC's number the past couple of seasons—quarterback Brett Hundley in particular.
Hundley has been spectacular (and error-free) in leading the Bruins to a pair of double-digit wins, combining to throw for 442 yards on 70 percent passing and rushing for nearly 100 yards and two scores.
This year, the Bruins and Trojans enter the season with a role reversal of sorts. The former is a favorite to win the division and make the College Football Playoff while the latter is a plucky upstart.
But neither would surprise by accomplishing the feat, and both are talented and physical enough to make for an entertaining affair.
With the Pac-12 South most likely on the line, this in-state and -city rivalry will take on even newer importance.
Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 29)
Does this really need to be explained?
Alabama at Auburn was the game that defined last season—even more than the BCS National Championship Game. Seriously.
Who's to say what would have happened had the Crimson Tide pulled this one out; if Nick Marshall hadn't found Sammie Coates streaking wide open down the field; if Cade Foster could hit a chip-shot field goal; if Nick Saban hadn't kicked with one second left on the clock?
The teams should be even more closely matched in 2014, and with the venue shifting from Jordan-Hare to Bryant-Denny, Alabama is likely to be favored. But the margin will be short, and the stakes should be incomparably high. The winner has a good shot to make the College Football Playoff; the loser almost definitely will not.
It doesn't get much better than this.