Any college football coach will tell you that a team doesn't win a national championship in September. But a team can certainly lose a championship before the calendar shifts to Month 2 of the college football season.
Any loss to a team in September can be a near-fatal blow to championship aspirations. An early loss means a team usually will need a little help along the way, while simultaneously avoiding any further stumbles themselves.
That might be why so many powerhouse teams load up on cupcakes early in the season. But try as they might to avoid them, the championship dreams of these programs are in mortal danger—and we're only talking about the early games.
We'll get things started with Stanford. With another season of 11-plus wins, not to mention another BCS invite, we feel comfortable placing the Cardinal amongst the other college football "powerhouses" on this list.
How long Stanford can keep that designation will determine a great deal on its 2013 performance.
While certainly not the most difficult early schedule we've ever seen, Stanford does have one September game that stands out—at least to us. On September 7, Stanford will host San Jose State in the Cardinal's (but not Spartans') season opener.
What's so dangerous about SJSU?
Last season, San Jose State took the Cardinal to the wire before Stanford squeaked out a 20-17 victory. While the Spartans may have sneaked up on the Cardinal in 2012, Stanford should be ready for a test this season.
That being said, SJSU was an impressive 11-2 last season, finishing the season ranked No. 21 in both the final AP and Coaches' polls.
Quarterback David Fales will easily be one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West this season (SJSU moves to the MWC in 2013 after the WAC dropped football as a sport following 2012), and he'll lead one of the nation's most experienced teams.
San Jose State returns 45 lettermen while losing just 19. Offensively, Stanford will need to replace Stepfan Taylor, but defensively, the Cardinal should be primed to take on all comers—experienced though they may be. Ten defensive starters return to a 2012 top-20 defense, and the Pac-12's leading defensive unit.
When the regular season ended, there were just two teams with undefeated, 12-0 records: Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Unfortunately for Ohio State fans, their team was prevented from playing in the Big Ten Championship Game or subsequent bowl game due to the lingering effects of former head coach Jim Tressel lying to the NCAA (once again proving the old adage "it's not the crime, it's the coverup").
That won't be the case this season, and you can bet that there will be a lot of pressure on the Buckeyes to make good on the promise shown from last year's team.
There will be plenty of challenges for Ohio State in 2013, but before anyone can—or should—focus on the season finale against "the school up north," the Buckeyes will have to get through a couple of potentially dangerous September dates.
The first rolls around on September 14, when the Buckeyes make the long journey out to Berkeley to take on the Cal Bears. While this looks like a mismatch on paper, it did last year, too. While Ohio State won that game in Columbus, it was a much closer than anticipated 35-28 battle from start to finish. This time, with the Buckeyes far from home, anything is possible.
The other potential pitfall for Ohio State comes in the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin on September 28. The Badgers travel to Columbus having won at least a share of the last three Big Ten titles. Wisconsin is eager to show the rest of the conference that last season's six loss performance was an aberration, and the best way to do that is to upset the Buckeyes at home in September.
Ohio State hasn't lost a home game in September since September 12, 2009 (to USC, 18-15). But with the Leaders Division title likely on the line in Week 5, expect new Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen to pull out all the stops.
Clemson put together another oh-so-close season in 2012, just missing out on a chance to play for its second-straight ACC title. The Tigers managed to end on a high note, knocking off LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and with 14 starters returning for 2013, Clemson should be able to keep its winning ways humming along.
The one thing that has really kept the Tigers from becoming a national championship contender has been their penchant for early losses. Clemson has started 5-0 or better just once since 2001, and the pollsters seem to relish in the opportunity to punish the Tigers in the polls for every early season loss.
In 2013, just getting past Week 1 unscathed will be a tall order. Clemson will host the Georgia Bulldogs on August 31.
Yes, we know this isn't technically a September game, but with September 1 falling on Sunday this year, the first Saturday of the college football season gets bumped back to August.
Georgia is almost guaranteed a top-10 start to the 2013 season after a near miss against Alabama in the 2012 SEC Championship Game and victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. With Georgia coming to town in Week 1, another early loss for Clemson isn't only a possibility, it might even be likely.
Speaking of Georgia, the Bulldogs might have one of the toughest early schedules we've seen in quite a while. In addition to the season opener at Clemson, the Bulldogs will host conference foes South Carolina and LSU—all before we turn our calendars to October.
Georgia and LSU haven't met since the 2011 SEC Championship Game, a Georgia loss. Georgia and South Carolina's last meeting in 2012 was also a (baffling) Georgia loss. Clearly, there will be some motivation for the Bulldogs early on.
It might also be worth mentioning at this point that, conversely, Georgia hasn't played Clemson since 2003, and the Tigers are 0-5 against Georgia dating back to 1991 (the last Clemson win coming on October 6, 1990 at Clemson).
Ten returning offensive starters will be leading the way for the Bulldogs, but a young defense might cause problems—particularly early in the season. Unfortunately, there's a lot of trouble brewing for Georgia in September.
We'll stick with our Georgia theme one last time in mentioning budding national powerhouse South Carolina.
After losing to South Carolina early in 2012, Georgia needed a little help down the stretch in order to make the SEC Championship Game. That help came in the form of South Carolina losses to LSU and Florida, propelling UGA back into the top spot in the East Division.
Georgia will obviously want to avoid a repeat of that scenario in 2013, and the Bulldogs are eager to show that they alone belong at the pinnacle of SEC-East football.
South Carolina, on the other hand, also returns a large enough talent core to be a real threat—again—to win the East Division. South Carolina also avoids Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M in the regular season, meaning a win against Georgia could set the Gamecocks up nicely for a championship run in 2013.
Of course, beating a supremely talented and very motivated Georgia team again this season is a tall, tall order. Jadeveon Clowney only plays on defense.
If you want to try and predict what games Oklahoma is capable of losing, simply take your pick of the biggest games on the schedule.
The Sooners haven't been "big-game" winners dating back as far as their last national championship following the 2000 season. Oklahoma is 2-5 in BCS bowls since that time, and that doesn't even touch on all of the big time regular-season losses.
One of the biggest two losses in recent memory came last season against Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Oklahoma also dropped a decision to Kansas State, and it narrowly escaped Oklahoma State (51-49 in overtime) and West Virginia (50-49).
While Kansas State probably won't provide the same kind of test it did last season, the Sooners will still have to face two teams very capable of beating Oklahoma in September: West Virginia and Notre Dame.
The Mountaineers (September 7 at Oklahoma) are still finding their footing in the Big 12. After a record-breaking start with their offense in 2012, it wasn't long before the nation saw the weak point in WVU's system. Like much of the Big 12, the Mountaineers forgot how to play defense. Still, putting up 49 points on Oklahoma is no small accomplishment.
This season, West Virginia will be without the talents of Geno Smith at quarterback—a big part of the 2012 offensive explosion in Morgantown—but that may not be all bad. Smith was entirely one dimensional. While his passing ability was almost unmatched in the nation, he was never a threat to run the ball.
In fact, Smith had the fewest rushing yards of any quarterback at WVU going all the way back to 2000. The addition of a dual-threat quarterback, possibly FSU transfer Clint Trickett (who can play immediately), could raise the Mountaineers' threat level in the Big 12 this season.
Oklahoma also will have to deal with an early trip to South Bend. The Sooners were beaten at home by Notre Dame last season, and they will look to return the favor in 2013.
But while the Fighting Irish appear to be on the ascendance, Oklahoma looks like a team that is struggling to tread water right now. While it's far too early to determine if Oklahoma will have a successful season or not, by the time Oklahoma's bus pulls away from Notre Dame Stadium on September 28, we'll have a pretty good idea of where things stand for the Sooners.
It seems almost half a lifetime ago that LSU was the team of destiny in the SEC. From improbable trick plays to last-second victories, the Tigers put together a 2011 season that seemed to confirm that God wanted LSU to win.
But when Alabama prevailed in the ensuing BCS National Championship Game, it signaled a change in fortune for the Bayou Bengals. While not quite the collapse of Texas following its own loss to Alabama in a national title game, LSU nonetheless found itself losing three games in 2012.
Tigers fans will swear that their team is ripe for another title run; players with starting experience return as starters at eight offensive positions in 2013, so those predictions might not be so far-fetched.
The real question mark for the Tigers comes on defense. With just four returning starters, we'll just have to wait and see if the new LSU defense can fend off some of the tougher opponents in the SEC.
One such opponent appears on the September slate when the Tigers travel to Athens, Georgia to face the Bulldogs on September 28. While we could go around and around about which team matches up better at each position, suffice it to say that this game will feature the prohibitive favorite in the East Division against a team that is decidedly not the favorite in the West Division.
With a murderous West schedule facing LSU this season, a loss to UGA early on would almost certainly dash any hopes of a return to the SEC Championship Game in December.
Of less concern, but still worth note is the Week 1 "neutral" site game against TCU. LSU again travels to Arlington, Texas—just a few miles from the TCU campus—to face the Horned Frogs in the season kickoff "Cowboys Stadium Classic."
LSU should be a favorite in this game, but TCU is a new, up-and-coming addition to the Big 12. With improved recruiting amongst its conference foes, the Frogs aren't far from emerging as a power in their own right. Beating LSU on national television would be a big step in that direction, and don't think for a second that fact is lost on the TCU staff.
The Michigan Wolverines are emerging from the Dark Ages in Ann Arbor, and finally are beginning to look more like the Michigan team we expect. College football's all-time wins leader has a head coach that was schooled in the Schembechler/Carr style of football, and it's beginning to pay some dividends.
Michigan is 19-7 under Brady Hoke, and for the first time since taking over in 2011, his Wolverines are actually favored to win their division before the season even gets underway.
Michigan has a fairly simple early schedule, save for one game on September 7. Even though this game has no bearing on conference standings, it is still an important stepping stone for Michigan that could provide momentum before the Big Ten season starts in Week 6. It's also a major, prime-time, nationally-televised showdown against an old rival: Notre Dame.
The game is important to both teams, and we'll get to Notre Dame in a bit. But for Michigan, a win over a top-10 Irish team could finally convince the rest of the nation that the Wolverines are indeed back to their winning ways.
Michigan has 12 total returning starters, six on each side, for 2013. Leading the way is All-American tackle Taylor Lewan and returning starting quarterback Devin Gardner. Unlike his predecessor, Gardner is a true quarterback. While he doesn't possess Denard Robinson's running ability, Gardner more than makes up for any lost ground yardage with his arm: No more wounded duck throws out of Michigan's backfield in 2013.
Michigan also has multiple All-Big Ten selections returning on defense, and the six returning starters are spread around the field sufficiently so that no one grouping has any glaring holes.
Still, we are talking about a Notre Dame team that finished the regular season 12-0 in 2012, en route to an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game.
At this point, there probably isn't anyone in the nation—outside of oddsmakers and Alabama fans—that are hoping for Alabama not to lose a game in September.
The Crimson Tide have been sitting atop the college football world for quite some time now, and while the folks in Tuscaloosa are having a grand old time, the rest of the nation is eager for someone else—anyone else—to win a title.
Success breeds contempt. The Tide, like the New York Yankees, Miami Heat or Detroit Red Wings, have fans all across the country. But like those almost annually successful pro teams, those who aren't fans would rather see almost any other team win.
Those haters will get an early opportunity to root for the "other guys," and in 2013, the other guys are the same guys who handed Alabama its only loss of 2012: The Aggies of Texas A&M.
Johnny Manziel and company waltzed into Bryant-Denny Stadium last year and shocked the Tide in their own building. This year, Alabama will be the visitors against what is sure to be a much-improved Aggies team.
On top of A&M's on-field skill, Kyle Field is one of the most hostile environments in all of college football; it's not called "Home of the 12th Man" for nothing. This year, Alabama will meet up with Texas A&M on September 14.
And you can bet the entire nation will be watching.
After last season's successful run through the regular season, it's probably safe to say that Notre Dame is back to being a relevant college football program these days. But all that could come crashing down before the month of September is finished.
Notre Dame usually manages to put together one of the nation's most entertaining, not to mention difficult schedules. The 2013 season is no different, and September again looks to be a gauntlet of potential landmines for the Irish.
After hosting Temple on August 31, the Irish travel to Ann Arbor for another clash at the Big House with the Wolverines under the lights. In just the second-ever scheduled night game at Michigan Stadium, the 2013 edition is shaping up to be just as thrilling as the first edition back in 2011.
Both teams will be chasing BCS berths this season, and a Week 2 battle between Michigan and Notre Dame—a soon-to-end annual rivalry—will be a major boost towards that goal of whichever team emerges with a victory.
Brady Hoke's comments this summer about Notre Dame's decision to not renew the contract should also provide a little fuel to the fire.
But even if Notre Dame is the team that wins, the September struggle isn't over. The rivalry with Michigan State—which will continue on an annual basis—will see it's typical late September meeting when the Spartans come to South Bend.
While Notre Dame certainly got the better of an over-matched MSU squad last season, the history of this series has seen the visiting team win eight of the last 13 meetings. There's also an argument to be made that Michigan State isn't quite as bad as its 7-6 record bore out last season. Five of those losses were by a combined 13 points, none of which was by more than four.
The lone other loss? A 17-point loss in East Lansing to Notre Dame.
Finally, Notre Dame finishes up September with a visit from Oklahoma. After embarrassing the Sooners on their home field last fall, you can bet Oklahoma is going to be out for some revenge. Oklahoma, however, returns just five defensive starters to a team that had trouble stopping Notre Dame last year.
The Irish have their own offensive holes to fill. Quarterback Everett Golson was dismissed from Notre Dame for undisclosed academic reasons. Golson has since admitted to "poor academic judgment," but has consistently vowed a return to Notre Dame—a vow that has notably not been dismissed by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly—leaving open the possibility of Golson's return in 2014.
Kelly does have experience in Tommy Rees, who will take over the starting job once again come this fall. Rees, a senior, once held the starting job and saw plenty of relief action in 2012 during Notre Dame's run to the BCS National Championship Game.
Speaking of which, if Notre Dame managed somehow to finish September with a 5-0 record, another run to the BCS title game isn't out of the question.
But with a pair of rivalry games and a visit from Oklahoma all popping up in September, Notre Dame leads our list of powerhouses in danger of losing at least one game in September.
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