The One Game Most Likely to Derail Each Top 25 Team's Season

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2014

The One Game Most Likely to Derail Each Top 25 Team's Season

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    Jameis Winston and Florida State are favorites to make the College Football Playoff but still face significant hurdles.
    Jameis Winston and Florida State are favorites to make the College Football Playoff but still face significant hurdles.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    We’re one week into the 2014 college football season, and fans across the nation likely fall into one of four categories. They’re elated, angry, cautiously optimistic or just plain cautious. Or, perhaps a mix of the aforementioned conditions.

    Either way, everyone in college football is looking through their schedules, examining the cupcakes and potential pitfalls ahead. Even if your team took one on the chin this weekend, a special season isn’t out of the question. Every team wants to make the inaugural College Football Playoff, but a number of teams can still consider 2014 special with a conference championship or appearance in a major bowl game.

    We took a look at this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll and examined the remaining schedule for every team in the poll. Here’s a look at the game most likely to derail each Top 25 team’s season.

25. Louisville

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    Bobby Petrino hopes the second time is the charm at Louisville.
    Bobby Petrino hopes the second time is the charm at Louisville.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Bobby Petrino’s second stint in Louisville started with a splash Monday night as his Cardinals whipped Miami 31-13 before a sold-out crowd at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and an ESPN national audience. The Cardinals host Florida State for a Thursday night showdown on Oct. 30, but a trip to Clemson’s raucous Death Valley on Oct. 11 will also be a stiff test.

    Louisville does not face ACC Coastal contenders like North Carolina or Virginia Tech, and the trip to Clemson will be a real litmus test for Louisville’s ACC bonafides. Win there, and a special season could unfold.

    Slip up, and it could become a slippery slope with FSU and a Nov. 22 trip to Notre Dame, among others, on the docket.

24. Missouri

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    Maty Mauk hopes to lead Missouri to a second consecutive SEC East title.
    Maty Mauk hopes to lead Missouri to a second consecutive SEC East title.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Last fall, Missouri's Gary Pinkel and Co. surprised many with 12 wins and an SEC East title in their second season in the league. Serious losses at wide receiver and defensive end (and just eight returning starters) make a repeat performance difficult, but Mizzou avoids Alabama and Auburn from the SEC West schedule rotation.

    The Tigers will travel to South Carolina and then host Georgia Oct. 11, which could be a make-or-break game for their hopes of a second consecutive division title. A year ago, the Tigers surprised UGA in Athens, 41-26, but a healthier, stronger Bulldogs team will be out for revenge.

    Missouri will likely need to beat Mark Richt’s team to win the East, a tall task even in Columbia.

23. Clemson

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    Dabo Swinney and Clemson must defeat South Carolina to call this season a success.
    Dabo Swinney and Clemson must defeat South Carolina to call this season a success.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Clemson entered 2014 hoping to prove there was life after Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins.

    The Tigers’ opener at Georgia didn’t convince anyone: While Clemson was competitive into the fourth quarter of a 45-21 defeat, Chad Morris’ offense gained only 15 yards and no first downs after halftime. Clemson will be focused on a Sept. 20 game at Florida State, but the Tigers will be decided underdogs facing the defending national champions.

    But one team, more than any other, has vexed Dabo Swinney.

    After beating South Carolina in the 2008 regular-season finale, Clemson has lost five consecutive to the Gamecocks, the biggest losing streak to one team in program history. That simply isn’t acceptable to Tiger fans, and with USC visiting for the Nov. 29 regular-season finale, the need to avoid a “six-pack” of losses looms large.

    The Gamecocks certainly look vulnerable following a disastrous opener against Texas A&M, and 2014 simply won’t be complete without a win over Steve Spurrier and Co.

22. North Carolina

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    Larry Fedora and North Carolina hope to show they're real ACC contenders this fall.
    Larry Fedora and North Carolina hope to show they're real ACC contenders this fall.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    North Carolina finished 2014 as one of the nation's hottest teams, winning six of its final seven games including a 39-17 Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati. The Tar Heels hope to carry that momentum into 2014, and they’re part of a wide-open ACC Coastal Division.

    UNC avoids Florida State from the ACC Atlantic but does travel to Clemson on Sept. 27. The Tar Heels have not played there since suffering a blowout loss to the eventual ACC champions in 2011, but this is an entirely new team under Larry Fedora’s watch.

    A win would show that the Heels have turned the corner under Fedora. A loss, with road games against Notre Dame and Miami looming? Hey, basketball season starts soon, right?

21. South Carolina

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    Steve Spurrier and South Carolina face a crucial game against Georgia.
    Steve Spurrier and South Carolina face a crucial game against Georgia.Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    Coming off three consecutive 11-win seasons, South Carolina hoped to take the next step towards becoming a bona fide national contender this fall. Those thoughts took a huge hit with last week’s 52-28 season-opening loss to Texas A&M, which ended the Gamecocks’ 18-game home winning streak.

    This week’s visit from East Carolina will be telling, but the most important game left on USC’s schedule is Georgia’s Sept. 13 visit. The Gamecocks still have time to rebound, but with a loss to the Bulldogs, 2014 will turn into a salvage operation. Win, and there’s still hope the season can be special. Lose, and hopes of a College Football Playoff berth and SEC title disappear.

    Must-win games are rare in September, but this could be one.

20. Kansas State

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    Jake Waters and Kansas State will be a tough out for the nation's best teams.
    Jake Waters and Kansas State will be a tough out for the nation's best teams.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    K-State was one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2013. The Wildcats won six of their final seven games, including a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over Michigan. They have an intriguing Sept. 18 Thursday night visit from Auburn, but the two biggest games in Big 12 play are on the road at Oklahoma Oct. 18 and at Baylor Dec. 6.

    With senior quarterback Jake Waters on board, the Wildcats will be a handful for league foes, but the regular-season finale at Baylor could be the difference between a good and great season, possibly between a Big 12 title and a lesser bowl.

    A year ago, Baylor took a 35-25 win. This time, K-State will have to outscore the Bears’ potent offense again. That’s a tough, tough task.

19. Nebraska

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    Bo Pelini and Nebraska face a crucial regular-season finale at Iowa.
    Bo Pelini and Nebraska face a crucial regular-season finale at Iowa.Associated Press

    Nebraska hasn’t won a league title since 1999, and the Huskers hope this is the season they break past the nine-win barrier and toward something far bigger. Their schedule allows that opportunity. Although they travel to Michigan State on Oct. 4, they avoid Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten East.

    November will likely tell the tale of Nebraska’s season, with a Nov. 15 trip to Wisconsin and a Nov. 28 trip to Iowa. With a little luck, the Cornhuskers will be in position to win the Big Ten West in Kinnick Stadium. However, a second consecutive loss to the border-rival Hawkeyes would truly make it a Black Friday for Bo Pelini’s team.

    The battle for the Heroes Trophy will be crucial in how this season is truly perceived in Nebraska.

18. Wisconsin

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    Tanner McEvoy and Wisconsin have a favorable schedule until November.
    Tanner McEvoy and Wisconsin have a favorable schedule until November.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Wisconsin’s season-opening loss to LSU likely eliminates the Badgers from the College Football Playoff picture, but if the offense can gel behind new starting quarterback Tanner McEvoy, the schedule is very forgiving.

    Wisconsin won’t be seriously tested until mid-November, when the Badgers face likely Big Ten West contenders Nebraska and Iowa in back-to-back weeks. The Badgers host Nebraska, and then travel to Iowa to face off against an improved Hawkeyes squad in a hotly contested border battle.

    That game could decide the Big Ten West title, as Iowa will host the Cornhuskers the following week. Beat Iowa, and a trip to the Big Ten title game likely awaits. Lose, and it’s a long, disappointing winter in Madison, in all likelihood.

17. Arizona State

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    Taylor Kelly and Arizona State feature a very potent offense.
    Taylor Kelly and Arizona State feature a very potent offense.Matt York/Associated Press

    Todd Graham’s group has one of the nation’s most potent offenses, thanks to senior quarterback Taylor Kelly and junior tailback D.J. Foster, one of the West Coast’s most dynamic athletes. ASU has a tough schedule with UCLA on the docket Sept. 25, an Oct. 4 trip to USC and a Nov. 8 trip to Notre Dame. But the biggest game might be Stanford’s visit on Oct. 18.

    A year ago, the Sun Devils went 0-2 against the Cardinal, losing 42-28 in the regular season and 38-14 in the Pac-12 title game. Win this one, and the Sun Devils will announce themselves as a Pac-12 contender. Lose, and it could be just another year of a team with a high-powered offense that doesn’t ultimately matter on the national stage.

    So, yeah, the Cardinal’s visit matters.

16. Notre Dame

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    Everett Golson and Notre Dame face a difficult schedule this fall.
    Everett Golson and Notre Dame face a difficult schedule this fall.Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    Notre Dame faces its usual difficult schedule, which has been made even tougher by an arrangement with the ACC. This season, the Fighting Irish draw Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina as well as Syracuse, with the toughest game coming at Florida State on Oct. 18.

    Brian Kelly’s team also faces Michigan, Stanford, Arizona State and Southern California, with no real gimmes left on the schedule save Purdue and perhaps Navy.

    But the visit to FSU will test Notre Dame the most. If the Irish have any hopes of making the College Football Playoff or a major bowl game, this is an absolute must-win game.

15. Ole Miss

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    Bo Wallace is the SEC's most experienced quarterback.
    Bo Wallace is the SEC's most experienced quarterback.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Coming off an 8-5 2013 season, Ole Miss brought back 14 starters this fall and built momentum with a dominant Georgia Dome season-opener win over Boise State. The Rebels feature the SEC’s most experienced quarterback in Bo Wallace and have a favorable schedule. They host Alabama and Auburn, though they must travel to LSU and Texas A&M.

    The Crimson Tide’s Oct. 4 visit looms as the season’s most crucial. Win that game and the Rebels have a legit chance at winning the SEC West. Lose, and road games against LSU and the Aggies loom immediately afterward, sandwiched around a home game against Tennessee.

    Beating Alabama won’t be an easy task, but doing so would set up the rest of the season very nicely.

14. USC

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    Steve Sarkisian and USC will face an important November game against UCLA.
    Steve Sarkisian and USC will face an important November game against UCLA.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    This week’s trip to Stanford is big for first-year coach Steve Sarkisian and Southern California, but the Trojans catch a break by avoiding Oregon on the Pac-12 regular season schedule, which could be a positive since they have only 75 players on scholarship.

    A Nov. 22 visit to UCLA will be crucial for the Trojans’ hopes of a division title as well as their local perception. The Trojans have lost two consecutive games to UCLA, and a third would not sit well locally. A year ago, USC won 10 games, and the Trojans might need a win over the Bruins to hit that total again.

13. Stanford

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    Kevin Hogan and Stanford face a major test against Oregon Nov. 1.
    Kevin Hogan and Stanford face a major test against Oregon Nov. 1.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Cardinal faces a significant test when USC visits this week and also travels to Notre Dame, Arizona State and UCLA, but it’s hard to imagine a bigger game on the slate than a trip to Oregon Nov.1.

    Stanford has won two consecutive Pac-12 championships and last fall’s 26-20 win over Oregon was a huge reason why. The Ducks will be hungry for revenge on their own turf this time around, especially if Marcus Mariota is healthy. Stanford’s hopes of another league title and College Football Playoff berth could rest with this game. Lose, and the road gets much, much tougher.

12. LSU

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    Anthony Jennings and other young LSU players must mature quickly this fall.
    Anthony Jennings and other young LSU players must mature quickly this fall.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    LSU emerged from its opener against Wisconsin with a sense of relief.

    The Tigers built themselves a 24-7 third-quarter deficit but scored the game’s final 21 points for a 28-24 victory. It was a positive development for a young team that is breaking in a number of new skill players, including sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings and freshman tailback Leonard Fournette.

    The Tigers must travel to Auburn and host Alabama. Survive those games, and the SEC West title could come down to a Thanksgiving night visit to Texas A&M. If the young players don’t come along as expected, the final regular season game could be the difference between a first- and second-tier bowl game.

    Either way, the trip to College Station should have significant meaning in the Tigers’ 2014 season.

11. UCLA

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    Brett Hundley and UCLA had some shaky moments in a 28-20 win at Virginia.
    Brett Hundley and UCLA had some shaky moments in a 28-20 win at Virginia.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    UCLA was a trendy College Football Playoff pick with Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley but got off to a shaky start last week, needing three defensive touchdowns to survive, 28-20, against a Virginia team that won just two games a year ago.

    The Bruins’ schedule is favorable. Although UCLA must travel to Arizona State, the Bruins host Oregon, crosstown rival USC and Stanford. The Ducks’ visit Oct. 11 could be the game that tells us whether Jim Mora Jr.’s team is ready for national contention or not.

    A year ago, Oregon ripped UCLA 42-14 in Eugene. A similar result would show that the Bruins aren’t ready for prime time just yet.

10. Baylor

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    Bryce Petty and Baylor face a serious test against Oklahoma in November.
    Bryce Petty and Baylor face a serious test against Oklahoma in November.LM Otero/Associated Press

    Baylor is coming off its first league championship in 33 years and has a high-powered offense led by senior quarterback Bryce Petty, a Heisman Trophy candidate.

    Petty is working through a fractured transverse process in his back but should be available going forward, keeping the Bears in the College Football Playoff mix. Baylor's schedule is very manageable, but it faces one huge hurdle on Nov. 8.

    Baylor must travel to Oklahoma in what will likely be the Big 12’s game of the year. With a nonconference slate of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo, Art Briles’ bunch has no room for error on its schedule, meaning a loss to the Sooners would be very damaging to its playoff hopes.

    A year ago, BU ripped the Sooners 41-12, but Bob Stoops’ squad returns eight defensive starters and will have revenge on its mind. It’ll be an interesting day in Norman, no doubt.

9. Texas A&M

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    Kenny Hill and Texas A&M will face a number of tests, but the biggest could come in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
    Kenny Hill and Texas A&M will face a number of tests, but the biggest could come in Tuscaloosa, Ala.Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    Life after Johnny Manziel?

    No problem. 

    Sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill wrecked South Carolina’s defense in the 2014 season opener, setting an A&M single-game passing record in a 52-28 rout that propelled the Aggies into the Top 10. A&M shouldn’t be seriously challenged again until October, when it hosts Ole Miss and travels to Alabama in consecutive weeks.

    Two years ago, Manziel announced himself to America with a spectacular performance that keyed the Aggies upset of the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban likely hasn’t forgotten about that moment, and neither have the 100,000 who’ll pack Bryant-Denny Stadium for one of the most anticipated games of the season.

    Winning at South Carolina is one thing; winning at Alabama is another entirely. This game could determine whether A&M is a contender or pretender in the SEC West and nationally.

8. Ohio State

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    Freshman J.T. Barrett must mature quickly to help Ohio State fulfill its goals this fall.
    Freshman J.T. Barrett must mature quickly to help Ohio State fulfill its goals this fall.Associated Press

    Even after a shoulder injury that sidelined senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller for the season, the Buckeyes still have a manageable schedule that could allow them to make a run at the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff if freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett matures quickly.

    The toughest games between now and November are this week’s visit from Virginia Tech and an Oct. 25 visit to Penn State. But the game that will make or break Ohio State’s season is a Nov. 8 trip to Michigan State, which should be the Big Ten’s game of the year.

    The Spartans have a physical offense led by quarterback Connor Cook and a nasty defense which specializes in hard knocks. The winner of this game should have the inside track on the Big Ten East division and a trip to the league title game while staying alive in the playoff hunt.

    It is easily the toughest game left on Ohio State’s schedule.

7. Michigan State

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    Connor Cook and Michigan State will face an Ohio State team with revenge on its mind in November.
    Connor Cook and Michigan State will face an Ohio State team with revenge on its mind in November.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Michigan State faces one of the toughest challenges in the nonconference season this week when it travels to Eugene for a Top-10 showdown with Oregon. But win or lose, the Spartans should still be in the College Football Playoff conversation if they can run the table the rest of the way. That won’t be easy.

    The biggest pitfall? A Nov. 8 visit from an Ohio State team that will be intent on avenging its Big Ten title-game loss from a year ago. The Buckeyes won’t have Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller (sidelined for the season by a shoulder injury) and will have a freshman quarterback in J.T. Barrett, but they possess one of the nation’s nastiest defensive lines.

    This will likely determine the Big Ten East title and be the biggest hurdle for Michigan State between a good season and a great season.

6. Georgia

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    Todd Gurley and Georgia look like a power, but a visit from Auburn looms in November.
    Todd Gurley and Georgia look like a power, but a visit from Auburn looms in November.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Georgia showed it is a force to be reckoned with thanks to its opening-week bashing of Clemson, highlighted by Todd Gurley’s four-touchdown performance. The Bulldogs travel to South Carolina in two weeks, but the Gamecocks suddenly look far more vulnerable following last week’s 52-28 blowout at Texas A&M’s hands.

    Georgia avoids LSU and Alabama from the SEC West, but it will face Auburn in Athens on Nov. 15. UGA was on the verge of upsetting the Tigers last fall before AU’s tip-drill touchdown, and Auburn could be all that stands between them and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game.

    It won’t be an easy test.

5. Auburn

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    Nick Marshall and Auburn face a deceptively tough test Sept. 18 at Kansas State.
    Nick Marshall and Auburn face a deceptively tough test Sept. 18 at Kansas State.Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    Auburn lost an SEC game last year (falling at LSU) and still made the BCS National Championship Game, so it is entirely possible that the Tigers could do so again this season and make the College Football Playoff.

    Auburn’s league schedule isn’t easy: The Tigers draw South Carolina and Georgia from the SEC East, and they host LSU and Texas A&M before going to Alabama for the Iron Bowl in the final game of the regular season.

    But perhaps the biggest pitfall on the slate comes on Sept. 18 at Kansas State. This is a Thursday night game that will be televised nationally by ESPN, and the Wildcats were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2013. They’re led by senior quarterback Jake Waters and will be tough to beat at home.

    This is a winnable game, but one that the Tigers could look back on later this fall and ask, “Why did we agree to play in Manhattan?”

4. Oklahoma

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    Trevor Knight and Oklahoma will face a significant challenge from Baylor.
    Trevor Knight and Oklahoma will face a significant challenge from Baylor.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Oklahoma looks like a national title contender, although the Sooners do face a difficult stretch of games from mid-October to early November.

    A year ago, Texas whipped OU, 36-20, in the Red River Rivalry at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl, and Charlie Strong will surely have his team fired up for his first meeting with the Sooners and Bob Stoops.

    A good Kansas State team visits Oct. 18, and following a visit to Iowa State, Baylor visits on Nov. 8. A year ago, the Bears razed OU, 41-12, on their way to the Big 12 title. That looks like the toughest game on the Sooners slate, although OU does return eight defensive starters.

3. Oregon

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    Marcus Mariota and Oregon will face a stiff test from Stanford.
    Marcus Mariota and Oregon will face a stiff test from Stanford.Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    This week, Oregon hosts Big Ten title favorite Michigan State in what will be one of the biggest nonconference games of the season. But the Ducks will be favored in that game and could potentially make the College Football Playoff with one loss, so while the game is important, it isn’t a season-maker or breaker.

    The biggest game is likely a Nov. 1 visit from two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford. A year ago, quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered a sprained knee ligament and just wasn't the same in a 26-20 defeat that ended the Ducks’ national championship hopes.

    This time around, the Cardinal’s visit will likely be another must-win if Oregon has playoff dreams.

2. Alabama

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    Blake Sims and Alabama will be challenged by a Nov. 8 visit to LSU.
    Blake Sims and Alabama will be challenged by a Nov. 8 visit to LSU.Martin Rose/Getty Images

    Alabama did enough to win its Georgia Dome opener against West Virginia, escaping with a 33-23 victory.

    The Crimson Tide’s schedule gets tougher in October with a visit to Ole Miss on Oct. 4. Two weeks later, Kenny Hill and Texas A&M come to town.

    Just don’t try to talk to Nick Saban about any of this: He’s focused only on what lies immediately ahead of him. AL.com's Michael Casagrande notes that Alabama begins each season with a marquee opponent to improve its roster's overall focus, but don't get Saban looking down the road any further than he has to.

    Nov. 29’s Iron Bowl visit from Auburn will be hotly anticipated, especially after last year’s Kick Six, but the most troublesome game could be a Nov. 8 showdown at LSU. By then, the Tigers’ young players will have had two full months of experience, with quarterback Anthony Jennings and tailback Leonard Fournette getting a chance to get their legs underneath them.

    Two years ago, Alabama needed a late touchdown drive to escape Baton Rouge with a victory. This season could be similarly challenging.

     

1. Florida State

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    Jameis Winston and Florida State will face a major challenge at Louisville.
    Jameis Winston and Florida State will face a major challenge at Louisville.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The defending national champion Seminoles were pushed harder than many expected in their north Texas neutral-site opener against Oklahoma State, pulling out a hard-fought 37-31 win. Still, after watching Clemson’s 45-21 loss at Georgia, Florida State is the clear ACC favorite and a strong favorite to make the College Football Playoff. 

    Although Clemson’s Sept. 20 visit will be a challenge (as will Notre Dame’s Oct. 18 visit), the most dangerous game left on the slate is an Oct. 30 road game at Louisville. It’s an ESPN nationally televised Thursday night game, and if Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium looks anything like it did Monday night in a 31-13 stomping of Miami, the Seminoles could be in for a serious challenge.