5 Make-or-Break Games for College Football's Perennial Powers in 2014
The college football season is a long one, but championships often come down to moments. Those moments add up to wins and losses, some of which weigh more heavily than others.
For college football's blue-blood programs, the ones with their eyes fixed on a national championship, there are games that could set the tone for the rest of the year. Or, in some cases, there are games that could could put an official stamp on the direction of the season.
In other words, they usually begin a tough stretch of the season or fall on the tail end. In any case, they're important for playoff hopes.
Which games fall under the make-or-break category for college football's perennial programs? The answers, as always, are in the following slides.
Oregon: vs. Michigan State (Sept. 6)
With Stanford reloading, 2014 is the year for Oregon to take back the Pac-12 North. But the tone for the Ducks' season could be decided by a non-conference game.
Michigan State's trip to Eugene on Sept. 6 is an important game for both sides. That said, Oregon has an interesting stretch in October not long after the Spartans come to town. The Ducks get Arizona at home (Oct. 2), then travel to UCLA on Oct. 11 before hosting Washington on Oct. 18.
There's pressure on Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich to maintain the machine Chip Kelly created. Even though Oregon finished 11-2 in Helfrich's first year, the 42-16 loss to Arizona was something the program never experienced under Kelly.
Ultimately, the question is whether Oregon will keep its edge under Helfrich. If the Ducks drop an early-season game to Michigan State, it will have to show a lot of determination to rebound in a tough stretch of games.
Texas: vs. UCLA (Sept. 13)
Head coach Charlie Strong's first year in Austin could get off to a disastrous start if the Longhorns lose two games in September.
Texas will try to atone for last season's 40-21 debacle against BYU on Sept. 6 before facing UCLA the following weekend. If Texas can't win either, it likely heads into a brutal stretch of the schedule at 2-2.
The Horns will get Baylor and Oklahoma in consecutive weeks and road games at Kansas State and Texas Tech in late October/early November.
Last year's Texas squad was able to bounce back from two horrific losses, and this is still a veteran team. With a new coaching staff that has a lot to prove, however, the worst-case scenario would be sliding before the second half of the season gets underway. As Max Olson of ESPN.com notes, once the Horns enter conference play, they don't have a bye week until Nov. 22.
If Texas is 1-1 heading into its game against UCLA, the Bruins could set the tone for the rest of the season.
Georgia: at South Carolina (Sept. 13)
B/R colleague Barrett Sallee likes Georgia as a national title contender this season. However, we may know the state of the Bulldogs' championship hopes before the end of September.
The Sept. 13 game at South Carolina is gut-check time for the Dawgs, who have a season opener against Clemson. Starting 0-2 and trailing a game behind the Gamecocks in the SEC East is no way to start things off. As ESPN.com's David Ching writes, South Carolina and Georgia "could be one of the most important games in the SEC East."
That's been a recurring theme for the two sides in recent years.
The schedule affords few stretches for breathers, too. A late-September game against what should be an improved Tennessee team could really get things going south if Georgia is 1-2. There's also a road game against Missouri on Oct. 11, the annual rivalry with Florida and a Nov. 15 game against Auburn.
The losses could begin to spiral out of control if Georgia doesn't get out of September relatively unscathed.
Auburn: vs. LSU (Oct. 4)
For myriad reasons, LSU has had Auburn's number in recent years, winning six of the last seven meetings.
If Auburn wants another crack at a national championship, the road may start by beating LSU at home on Oct. 4.
Auburn has an interesting non-conference game against Kansas State on Sept. 18 that could theoretically set the tone for the season, but the schedule gets really interesting the following month. Auburn gets LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia in consecutive weeks. Then, it gets a breather against Samford before ending the year against Alabama.
That's a heck of a stretch, and things could go south quickly. There simply isn't a lot of room for error for the Tigers there. That's why it's important for Auburn to get off to a good start by beating LSU.
Because the last thing head coach Gus Malzahn would want is for Auburn to spiral out of control.
Florida State: vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 18)
This game could go both ways. It's important for both Florida State and Notre Dame, both of which could be in the playoff discussion by mid-October.
But let's say things go off the rails a bit for the Seminoles, who are looking to repeat as national champions. A season opener against Oklahoma State provides an interesting matchup, but one that FSU can likely handle. A loss at home to Clemson on Sept. 20? That may be tough to swallow, but it might not be a deal-breaker playoff-wise.
A loss to Notre Dame, however, could put Florida State out of the picture for good. With roughly six weeks between that game and the end of the season, the Seminoles would have to bounce back in a big way against Miami (Nov. 15) and Florida (Nov. 29).
There simply may not be enough time to do it.