5 Nonconference Games That Will Make or Break College Football Playoff Chances
Hopefully, strength of schedule will be a heavily weighted factor in determining which four teams are selected to the first College Football Playoff.
But, as with most things involving the selection committee, no one really knows for sure if that's going to be the case. For that matter, does the committee know what its selection requirements will be?
Anyway, we'll find out how important scheduling is and whether losing to quality nonconference opponents is weighted differently. In other words, is it a make-or-break game?
The criteria for a make-or-break game is relatively simple. It has to either significantly boost a team's resume with a win, or breaks a team's playoff chances if it loses—likely as a result of a difficult schedule elsewhere.
Which nonconference games could make or break a team's playoff hopes? The answers are in the following slides.
LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30)
LSU and Wisconsin aren't filling up on cupcakes in Week 1.
The Tigers and Badgers will face off in Houston for a game that has playoff implications right from the start.
Since Wisconsin doesn't face Ohio State or Michigan State, its toughest games are probably against Nebraska at home and a road trip to Iowa in back-to-back weeks. Beating the Tigers would be a statement win that would not only boost the Badgers' resume, but potentially act as a buffer of sorts if there's a loss down the stretch.
LSU has the opposite situation. The Tigers play in the loaded SEC West, so they have Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and what should be an improved Florida team on the schedule.
Going unscathed through that schedule would be a miracle. A win over the Badgers would help, especially if they make it to the Big Ten title game. Conversely, a loss in Week 1 could hurt if ends up being one of two or three.
Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)
Clemson and Georgia will open the season against one another for the second straight year. If it's anything like the 2013 version, it will one of the best ways to start of the season.
It could also set the tone for each side's playoff hopes.
The Bulldogs are among the favorites to win the SEC East, so beating South Carolina and/or Missouri (and even Florida) will be challenges. Losing to Clemson may not be the be-all, end-all by itself, but it could impact the Bulldogs' tone heading into the following week against the Gamecocks.
Clemson has two more high-quality games against Florida State and South Carolina. It's going to be tough for both teams to get through their schedules without a scratch. That's why winning Week 1 is so important.
Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
Admittedly, this game has some cushion for both sides.
Michigan State and Oregon will play in two of the tougher divisions in college football—the Big Ten East and the Pac-12 North, respectively. Thus, each won't be the other team's only tough opponent on the schedule.
In theory, that should lessen the blow of losing. If it's a close game—say, a 31-27 win for Oregon—should the Spartans really be punished heavily for losing to a quality opponent toward the beginning of the year?
But the opposite could be true as well. If Oregon wins by three touchdowns, it's clear Michigan State isn't one of the four best teams in the country and probably won't be by the end of the season. Furthermore, the difference between one loss and two in selecting the playoff field can be huge.
Even if the loss is a quality one.
BYU at Texas (Sept. 6)
There's an argument to be made that Texas' game vs. UCLA later in September is a bigger nonconference game for the Longhorns. Similarly, playing Texas is the highlight of the Bruins' schedule outside the Pac-12.
But BYU's trip to Austin on Sept. 6 has make-or-break potential for both sides even though neither seem necessarily playoff-bound in 2014.
In a way, that heightens the stakes. The room for error is even smaller.
The Cougars are at a natural disadvantage in the playoff era as a football independent. The ACC reportedly doesn't consider BYU to be a so-called Power Five-level opponent, so playoff access is already at a premium. Lose to Texas and chances of a playoff appearance get slim right from the get-go.
For Texas, things can't start off on a bad foot against a team that blew out the Longhorns last season. In a perfect world, the 'Horns may be able to survive a close loss to the Bruins, a preseason playoff favorite in their own right, if they run the table elsewhere. The same may not hold true for a loss to the Cougars.
Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
After winning the last two Pac-12 championships, Stanford is playing more of the underdog role in the Pac-12 North this season. Oregon, which last appeared in the Pac-12 title in 2011, should be the preseason favorite.
In any case, the Cardinal have one heck of a schedule with USC, UCLA and Arizona State all on it. There's also the Oct. 4 non-conference game at Notre Dame. There's not a lot of room for error with a schedule like that, but wins against those teams would look good.
The same thing could be said for Notre Dame, which, unlike BYU, has a good chance of making the four-team playoff as an independent.
Notre Dame has a common opponent with Stanford: Arizona State. That's somewhat unique for a high-profile, nonconference game. The Sun Devils will be a good measuring stick for both teams and could be a deciding factor if the Cardinal and Irish are jockeying for a playoff spot at year's end.
Notre Dame's toughest game comes on Oct. 18 against Florida State. In theory, the Irish could survive a loss to the Seminoles—and vice versa—provided that was the sole defeat.
But the Oct. 4 game between Stanford and Notre Dame is probably a must-win for both sides.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football.
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