Every College Football Playoff Contender's Most Difficult 2014 Stretch

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2014

Every College Football Playoff Contender's Most Difficult 2014 Stretch

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    Now that the calendar has turned to July and the U.S. Men’s National Team’s World Cup run is over, it’s time to think about football. American football.

    In less than two weeks, the SEC will kick the hype into high gear when it hosts its annual media days (expanded to a bloated four days this summer) in Hoover, Alabama, where every utterance, no matter how trivial, will be tweeted, blogged and expounded upon by the armada of reporters in attendance.

    The rest of the SEC’s gridiron brethren will follow, building anticipation for the 2014 season’s opening weekend in late August. Eventually, football will actually arrive, and with it speculation about the first College Football Playoff. With the expanded four-team field, the hype will be bigger than ever this season, and schedules will be crucial.

    We decided to take a look at the toughest stretch that every College Football Playoff contender faces: a period where their mettle will be tested like no other on the road to this season’s national title game at AT&T Stadium in north Texas.

    The criteria, initially, is a top-10 preseason ranking: We used the top 10 from Bleacher Report’s most recent top 25 prediction. If your team isn’t included, don’t fret: It’s a long season. As previous years have shown, your group could very well be one of the teams making the most noise come January.

No. 10 Wisconsin

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    The Stretch

    Nov. 1 at Rutgers

    Nov. 8 at Purdue

    Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska

    Nov. 22 at Iowa


    What Makes It Tough

    Let’s be honest: Wisconsin’s 2014 schedule is not the nation’s toughest slate. Following a season-opening date in Houston against LSU, the Badgers play only one FBS team that had a winning record in 2013 (Bowling Green) in their next five games.

    The Big Ten’s scheduling rotation means they’ll miss Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State this fall, giving them a clear path to a West Division title and trip to the Big Ten title game.

    November is the toughest stretch on the slate, and even that is a bit of a stretch. The Badgers begin the month with three of four games on the road, traveling to Rutgers and Purdue. That is followed by two major West Division contenders: Nebraska visits and the Badgers go to an improved Iowa team. Kinnick Stadium is never an easy place to play, especially not in late November.

    November will make or break the Badgers’ season and any hopes they might have of making the first four-team playoff.

No. 9 Ohio State

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    The Stretch

    Nov. 8 at Michigan State

    Nov. 15 at Minnesota

    Nov. 22 vs. Indiana

    Nov. 29 vs. Michigan


    What Makes It Tough

    Ohio State has not lost a regular-season game since 2011. The Buckeyes went 12-0 in 2012 and backed that up with a 12-0 2013 regular season before falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

    Urban Meyer’s bunch wants nothing more than a third consecutive unbeaten regular season and a shot at the first College Football Playoff. To get that chance, the Buckeyes must survive November.

    Ohio State travels to face the Spartans on Nov. 8 and follows that with a trip to an improving Minnesota team. A visit from a down Indiana team follows on Nov. 22 before the Buckeyes finish the regular season by hosting Michigan. No matter the record, Ohio State-Michigan is always intense and always one of the nation’s best rivalry games.

    A year ago, the Buckeyes survived a failed two-point conversion, hanging on for a 42-41 win. November won’t be easy, but if Ohio State makes a playoff appearance, this stretch will be a huge reason why.

No. 8 UCLA

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    The Stretch

    Nov. 1 vs. Arizona

    Nov. 8 at Washington

    Nov. 22 vs. Southern California

    Nov. 28 vs. Stanford


    What Makes It Tough

    Under Jim Mora Jr.’s leadership, the Bruins have emerged as a dark-horse national title contender. They return most of an impressive defense led by sophomore linebacker Myles Jack (who was the Pac-12’s Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year) and an offense led by talented junior quarterback Brett Hundley.

    UCLA actually plays three of its last four games at home, but they won’t be easy. November begins with a visit from Arizona and Rich Rodriguez, and that’s followed by a trip to Washington. Following an off week, Southern California visits for the teams’ annual crosstown grudge match, and the regular season ends with a visit from Pac-12 power Stanford, which has won the last two Pac-12 titles.

    Cementing a College Football Playoff berth in November won’t be easy.

No. 7 Stanford

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    The Stretch

    Nov. 1 at Oregon

    Nov. 15 vs. Utah

    Nov. 22 at California

    Nov. 28 at UCLA


    What Makes It Tough

    Stanford has won two consecutive Pac-12 titles and established itself as a college football power: David Shaw is 34-7 in his three seasons on The Farm. The run to a third Pac-12 title and potential College Football Playoff appearance will run through November.

    The Cardinal play three of four games on the road, two of which will come against league title contenders. The Nov. 1 visit to Oregon should be the league’s game of the year. A year ago, Stanford built a big lead and held on for a 26-20 win over the Ducks. Following a week off, the Cardinal hosts Utah, which handed them an inexplicable loss a year ago.

    That is followed by the annual rivalry showdown against Cal before ending the regular season with a trip to UCLA, a preseason top-10 team and another national title contender. November has a way of testing teams’ mettle, and this should do just that for the Cardinal.

No. 6 Oklahoma

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    The Stretch

    Oct. 11 at Texas

    Oct. 18 vs. Kansas State

    Nov. 1 at Iowa State

    Nov. 8 vs. Baylor


    What Makes It Tough

    The Sooners ended 2013 in dominant fashion, winning six of their final seven games, punctuated by a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, for an 11-2 record. Although Oklahoma lost plenty of talent from that group, plenty remains, and there’s reason to believe 2014 can be special.

    To fulfill that promise, OU must survive a tough stretch from mid-October to early November. The Red River Rivalry in the Cotton Bowl is always emotional, and Texas ripped OU 36-20 a year ago.

    That’s followed by a visit from an improving K-State team, and after a week off, a trip to Iowa State (which has a history of playing Big 12 powers tough at home) looms. The stretch finishes with a visit from Baylor, which blasted the Sooners 41-12 a year ago. If Bob Stoops’ group is a national title contender, this stretch will show it.

No. 5 Oregon

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    The Stretch

    Oct. 11 at UCLA

    Oct. 18 vs. Washington

    Oct. 24 at California

    Nov. 1 vs. Stanford


    What Makes It Tough

    Oregon’s 11-2 2013 was somewhat disappointing given the lofty standards that the Ducks had established for themselves. However, the Ducks enter 2014 as a prime contender for the College Football Playoff after returning 13 starters, led by junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, who chose another college season over the lure of the NFL draft.

    Can the Ducks make the leap back to national title contender status? A stretch spanning October and early November will decide that. Oct. 11 brings a trip to Pac-12 and dark-horse national title contender UCLA, followed by a visit from Washington and new coach Chris Petersen.

    A game in the Bay Area against Cal (in Santa Clara, California) is followed by a visit from Stanford in what could be the Pac-12’s game of the year. By November, we should have a better idea of whether these Ducks can stay afloat in the national title race.

No. 4 Alabama

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    The Stretch

    Nov. 8 at LSU

    Nov. 15 vs. Mississippi State

    Nov. 22 vs. Western Carolina

    Nov. 29 vs. Auburn


    What Makes It Tough

    Alabama’s 2013 season ended in ugly fashion. In late November, the Crimson Tide were on track to challenge for their third consecutive BCS National Championship. Instead, thanks to the Iron Bowl’s Kick Six and a flat Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, Nick Saban’s bunch enters 2014 riding a rare two-game losing streak.

    A deep roster means Alabama will again be a contender in the first College Football Playoff, but the Tide must survive a tough November. It begins with a Nov. 8 visit to LSU, one of the most hostile environments for visiting college football teams. Two years ago, ‘Bama needed a late touchdown drive to escape with a victory.

    A week later, Alabama hosts Mississippi State, which would love to make a name for itself with an upset of its more prominent SEC West rival.

    Following a “breather” against FCS foe Western Carolina, Alabama will host Auburn for the Iron Bowl, which should be one of the best games of the 2014 season. Survive that stretch, and Saban and Co. stand an excellent chance of making a playoff run.

No. 3 Michigan State

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    The Stretch

    Oct. 18 at Indiana

    Oct. 25 vs. Michigan

    Nov. 8 vs. Ohio State

    Nov. 15 at Maryland


    What Makes It Tough

    A powerful run game and a nasty defense (which ranked in the top three nationally in run defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense) fueled a breakthrough 2013 for Michigan State. The Spartans finished 13-1 with a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win over Stanford, with the season’s only loss a 17-13 decision at Notre Dame’s hands on Sept. 21.

    Ten starters return from that team, led by junior quarterback Connor Cook and talented defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush.

    While the Spartans’ biggest early test will be a Sept. 6 trip to Oregon, a stretch from mid-October to mid-November should test them most. Michigan State plays three of five away from home. The toughest four-game stretch begins with an Oct. 18 trip to Indiana and is followed by a visit from archrival Michigan. After an off week, Ohio State visits for what should be the Big Ten’s game of the year.

    The Spartans follow that with a possible trap game at new league member Maryland, which will be fired up to prove its Big Ten mettle. Michigan State is the Big Ten favorite, but this stretch will show what Sparty is made of.

No. 2 Auburn

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    The Stretch

    Nov. 8 vs. Texas A&M

    Nov. 15 at Georgia

    Nov. 22 vs. Samford

    Nov. 29 at Alabama


    What Makes It Tough

    Last fall, Auburn’s unlikely run to the BCS National Championship Game was fueled by last-second miraculous wins over Georgia and Alabama. This fall, November will test Gus Malzahn’s team again.

    On Nov. 8, Texas A&M visits, looking for revenge following the Tigers’ 2013 shootout win in College Station. That’s followed by a trip to Georgia. If the Bulldogs are healthy, it should be a huge test for the Tigers.

    A visit from FCS sacrificial lamb Samford is followed by a much tougher in-state test: the Iron Bowl at Alabama. It should be one of college football’s best games of 2014, and there’s an excellent chance that the road to the SEC West title (and all that title unlocks) runs through Tuscaloosa. By late November, we’ll learn whether the Tigers have the look of a College Football Playoff contender.

No. 1 Florida State

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    The Stretch

    Oct. 18 vs. Notre Dame

    Oct. 30 at Louisville

    Nov. 8 vs. Virginia

    Nov. 15 at Miami


    What Makes It Tough

    A year ago, many believed that Florida State arrived a year ahead of schedule, blowing through the ACC en route to the program’s first national title since 2000 (which was also the last time the ACC won a national championship). Now, the challenge is motivating a deep roster that returns 13 starters, headlined by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, for a run at the first College Football Playoff.

    While facing Oklahoma State (in a neutral-site game) and hosting Clemson in the first three games won’t be easy, the most taxing stretch could come from mid-October to mid-November. FSU hosts Notre Dame on Oct. 18, and following a week off, travels to new ACC member Louisville for what should be a raucous Thursday night ESPN environment.

    ACC doormat Virginia visits on Nov. 8, but the following week brings a visit to Miami for an always intense rivalry game. Survive this stretch unscathed, and it’s hard to imagine the first four-team playoff without the Seminoles.