College Football Blue Bloods with the Hardest Path to the Playoffs
We know a little but not much about the due process that will determine which teams play in the College Football Playoff.
Which isn't to say the selection committee has not been forthright. They have been. It is only to say that because the system is so new, and because there are pieces of the process that seem more subjective than the BCS, we will need to wait and see before we fully understand how it works.
Specifically, we will have to see how the committee balances on-field merit with on-paper resume. Committee head Jeff Long made waves in May when he told the media, "We don’t think in terms of most deserving on the resume. 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.”
This seems to open the door for potential biases.
The SEC is, in many peoples' opinion, the best conference in America, and this statute of "best, not most-deserving" could make it possible for a two- or three-loss team from that league to make it over a two- or one-loss team from another.
Which is why, for the purposes of this list, the SEC teams included were not all ranked at the front. They probably have the hardest schedules in America—i.e. the ones with the most SEC opponents—but because they might be granted slack for an extra loss here and there, they do not necessarily have a harder track to the CFP.
Furthermore, the only teams included on this list were ones with a realistic chance—as deemed by the writer—of making the CFP.
Teams with difficult opponents that never would have made it anyway were ignored. Tennessee, for example, probably has the toughest schedule in America, but it was not considered a modern "blue-blood" after posting four consecutive losing seasons.
This list is a group of teams that have found success the past few years, that are good enough—on paper—to make the College Football Playoff in 2014 but might have trouble because of whom they face and where they face them.
Sound off below if you disagree.
Notable Games: vs. Michigan State, at UCLA, vs. Washington, vs. Stanford, at Utah, at Oregon State
Oregon is lucky to play three of its four hardest opponents at home.
That includes one team, Stanford, that has proven to be its kryptonite, and another, Michigan State, that plays a similar style to the Cardinal.
The road schedule includes a trip to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl, which should be one of the best games of the college football season. And even though Utah and Oregon State aren't great opponents, they both pose a legitimate threat on their respective home fields.
Utah beat Stanford and nearly upset UCLA and Arizona State in Rice-Eccles Stadium last season. Oregon State, meanwhile, always plays Oregon well in the Civil War, having nearly won in Eugene in 2013.
7. South Carolina
Notable Games: vs. Texas A&M, vs. Georgia, vs. Missouri, at Auburn, at Florida, at Clemson
South Carolina's schedule is front-loaded with home games and back-loaded with dangerous road trips.
The Gamecocks will host Texas A&M and Georgia in the first three weeks of the season—two SEC games that are separated by a tricky matchup with East Carolina in Week 2.
Those and the game against Missouri in Week 5 all come in Columbia, but it remains a difficult way to start the year.
The schedule mellows out for most of October but picks up again with a road trip to play Auburn on the last Saturday of the month. Two weeks later comes a trip to play Florida in the Swamp, and two weeks after that comes a trip to play Clemson in Death Valley.
Notable Games: at Georgia, at Florida State, vs. North Carolina, vs. Louisville, at Georgia Tech, vs. South Carolina
Because it plays in the ACC, Clemson will have a slim margin for error if it plans to make the College Football Playoff.
It is almost unfathomable to think a team with three losses from this conference will be included; even two might be pushing it.
Which is scary because, unlike last year's schedule, the 2014 schedule includes road trips to Georgia and Florida State.
The Tigers will be heavy underdogs in both of those contests, and given the recent series history, they will probably give some points to South Carolina despite playing the Gamecocks in Death Valley.
Dabo Swinney's team will have to pull at least one—and probably two—upsets in those three games and avoid Clemsoning during the rest of a fairly difficult schedule. And that could prove tough.
Notable Games: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Mississippi State, at Auburn, at Florida, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Alabama, at Texas A&M
LSU could theoretically start a true freshman at each of its skill positions next season: Brandon Harris at quarterback, Leonard Fournette at running back and Malachi Dupre at wide receiver.
Each of those players is uniquely talented, but their prominence might mean some growing pains at the start of the season. Which is why a nonconference battle against Wisconsin in Week 1 is so scary—despite LSU's impressive record in similar situations.
From there, the SEC schedule presents difficult road games at Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M and losable home games against Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama.
Not an easy group of opponents.
4. Texas A&M
Notable Games: at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, vs. Ole Miss, at Alabama, at Auburn, vs. Missouri, vs. LSU
Let's start with the road games.
From the very first week of the season, Kevin Sumlin's young Aggies roster will be tested in hostile environs. The season opener at South Carolina gives way to very difficult games at Mississippi State and (especially) Auburn and Alabama later in the season.
The home schedule isn't a piece of cake, either. Ole Miss and Missouri both played Texas A&M well in 2013, and LSU is the only team with a 2-0 record against the Aggies since they moved to the SEC.
This might have to be a learning year in College Station.
Notable Games: vs. USC, at Washington, at Notre Dame, at Arizona State, at Oregon, at UCLA
David Shaw's team is not the veteran outfit it was last season, which might make winning away from Palo Alto a little more difficult. Which is bad news because—man, what a brutal stretch of road games.
In late September and early October, the Cardinal play at Washington, Notre Dame and Arizona State in a span of four weeks.
November doesn't get any easier, featuring road games at Oregon and UCLA—the two best non-Stanford teams in the conference.
And a home game against USC, which beat Stanford last season, is far from a guaranteed win for a young-ish team in Week 2.
2. Notre Dame
Notable Games: vs. Michigan, vs. Stanford, vs. North Carolina, at Florida State, at Arizona State, vs. Louisville, at USC
Notre Dame's schedule has been a talking point all offseason.
Head coach Brian Kelly mentioned (once again) on Bruce Feldman's podcast that he wants to schedule an SEC team in the future, and he's also talked about rebooking Michigan and Michigan State, according to Adam Rittenberg and Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com.
Taking one glance at the teams he'll face in 2014, it is not hard to see why he would want some change. The Irish have seven games against teams that could easily beat them—and that is not even counting a home date with Northwestern (which should be better in 2014) and a sneaky-hard "neutral-field" game against Navy in Lanover, Maryland.
Notre Dame's first year of partial ACC membership includes a road game at the defending national champion and a home date with a North Carolina team that will probably be favored to win its division.
This is difficult from top to bottom.
Notable Games: at Kansas State, vs. LSU, at Mississippi State, vs. South Carolina, at Ole Miss, vs. Texas A&M, at Georgia, at Alabama
Even before an all-road version of "Amen Corner"—and trust me, we'll get to that—Auburn has a brutal 2014 schedule.
Weird things tend to happen in Manhattan, Kansas, so an early road game against the Wildcats is no gimme. Neither are road games against the two upstart Mississippi schools and home games against LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
But the real hazard of this schedule comes at the very end. Here's what Bleacher Report's Justin Ferguson had to say about the Tigers' final two conference games at Georgia and at Alabama:
Auburn's last win at Bryant-Denny Stadium came in 2010 with the famous Cam Newton-led comeback. Although the Tigers have won seven of the nine Iron Bowls played in Tuscaloosa, they have not had recent success in Athens, where Georgia has won four of the last five meetings.
Home-field advantage played an important role in Auburn's big rivalry wins last season, but Malzahn's squad will not have that luxury this season. Road games in the SEC are never easy, and the two biggest games on the Tigers' schedule will undoubtedly be the two toughest challenges in 2014.
Cynics and trolls like to say that Auburn was more lucky than good last season. But if the Tigers make a return trip to the summit of the SEC in 2014, no one will be able to deny that they earned it.
(Even if there's more last-second magic along the way.)
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