Big Ten Football: Biggest 2014 Games with Playoff Implications

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 25, 2014

Big Ten Football: Biggest 2014 Games with Playoff Implications

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Every college football game carries some level of importance for every team.  But for those vying for one of the four coveted berths in the new College Football Playoff, the stakes are even higher this season.  There are several Big Ten teams that are contenders in 2014, and there are a number of games that seem to loom on the 2014 schedule when it comes to possible playoff implications.

    In just a few short days, the 2014 college football season gets underway.  Not only are we finally getting back to honest-to-God football, but we're also entering a new era with the introduction of the College Football Playoff this season.  So as teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin (as well as a few others) get geared up to make their cases to the playoff selection committee, we're going to take a look at which games on the upcoming 2014 schedule could have the biggest impact on the decision-making process.

November 28: Nebraska at Iowa

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    There aren't many people in Big Ten circles who aren't giving Nebraska a legitimate shot to win the new West Division title this season, and we'll have plenty of opportunities to talk about the Cornhuskers and their chances a little later.  But what about the Iowa Hawkeyes?

    Iowa is coming off of a quietly impressive 8-5 record from 2013, which included a 5-3 mark in the Big Ten (tied for second in the Legends Division).  Kirk Ferentz, seemingly always rebuilding an Iowa team that falls just shy of really making noise in the Big Ten, is at it once again in 2014.  Iowa has added some impressive recruits over the past couple of seasons, and the Hawkeyes will have just enough returning talent this season to make things very interesting in Iowa City.

    If the Hawkeyes can get through the first half of their schedule that bears a striking resemblance to a frosted, cake-like confection, while getting past potential losses at Pitt and against Wisconsin, it's possible Iowa could be staring a division title squarely in the face when the Cornhuskers come calling on November 28.

    Even if Iowa does manage to trip up at Pitt or at home against Wisconsin—or, more devastatingly, against any of the cream puffs on the 2014 schedule—there's still the option to have an impact on the playoff picture, from the standpoint of a spoiler.

    And if Iowa can't find a way into the Big Ten title game, is there any better consolation prize than to keep Nebraska out, too?

October 4: Nebraska at Michigan State

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    So let's talk about Nebraska.  With the Big Ten's leading rusher from a year ago returning, the Cornhuskers have plenty of reason to be optimistic about their chances in 2014.  They will, of course, have to get past one of the most dangerous East Division teams on the road to really control their own destiny.

    Last season, Michigan State strolled into Lincoln and beat the Cornhuskers for the first time in history.  Nebraska now faces the daunting task of travelling to East Lansing and escaping a very hostile Spartan Stadium with a win.

    The trouble with that plan is how great MSU can be when defending the run.  While Nebraska certainly has the capabilities of throwing the football, it's delusional to believe the running game won't be the overwhelming strength for the Cornhuskers in 2014.

    A loss in this game, for either team, could be disastrous, not only for playoff chances, but for Big Ten title hopes as well.

November 29: Michigan at Ohio State

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    Whenever Michigan and Ohio State get together, it's important.  But from the standpoint of the College Football Playoff, the 2014 edition of The Game could have a whole new set of implications.

    While not generating a ton of national attention, the Michigan Wolverines are the kind of program that should never be underestimated.  Michigan attracts talent like few other programs in the country can, and top to bottom, the Wolverines are dripping with athleticism.

    If only Michigan could figure out how to properly capitalize on it.  Over the past few seasons, the Wolverines have failed to live up to expectations.  Perhaps with less pressure this season, the Wolverines will feel a little more comfortable in their own skin.

    There are still some open questions for Michigan, including the offensive line and whether Devin Gardner or Shane Morris will start under center.  But even so, Michigan might still the top team in the East Division that isn't being labeled a title contender this preseason.

August 30: Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston, Texas)

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    In the long, proud tradition of both Wisconsin and Louisiana State, it's somewhat surprising to learn that this Week 1 meeting in Houston will be just the third time ever the Badgers and Tigers have faced each other.

    And Wisconsin is 0-2.

    LSU traveled to Madison in September 1971, winning 38-28 before hosting the Badgers in Baton Rouge the following September.  The Tigers won that contest, too, by a score of 27-7.  While those games in the '70s might have been fun and interesting for both teams, the game in 2014 has a little more on the line.

    Both Wisconsin and LSU are considered contenders in their respective conferences, and while this game won't have any bearing on conference title hopes, it certainly comes into play considering the committee's stated criteria, namely head-to-head games and games versus common opponents.

    For instance, let's say LSU beats Wisconsin, but the Badgers go on to win the Big Ten.  If LSU wins the SEC, the Badgers are less likely to earn a playoff bid because we've already seen Wisconsin lose to LSU.  Or, if you want to dig a little deeper, even if LSU doesn't win the SEC and loses to a team like Alabama or Auburn, two contenders for "at-large" bids, it's easy to see how the committee might leave out a Big Ten champion Wisconsin in favor of an "at-large" Alabama.

    Any way you slice it, this game could be monumentally important for either team's chances to play in the first College Football Playoff.

November 15: Nebraska at Wisconsin

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    What could be more important from the standpoint of the West Division than the November 15 meeting between the two favorites to win the division in 2014?

    We have quite a while to wait for this matchup, but if everything goes according to plan, the showdown in Madison should be one for the ages.  Both Wisconsin and Nebraska have designs on the Big Ten title, and as long as there aren't any major disasters along the way, that conference championship will likely lead directly to the College Football Playoff in January.

    With the exception of the aforementioned game against LSU, Wisconsin has relatively smooth sailing to November 15.  Nebraska, for its part, will encounter both Michigan State and Miami (FL) before the Cornhuskers travel to Madison.

    Both teams should be well prepared, and both teams will know exactly what is on the line.  That's a recipe for one heck of a football game.

September 6: Michigan State at Oregon

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    If you take the importance of the Wisconsin-LSU game and kick it up a few notches, you'll get the Michigan State-Oregon game.

    Unlike the Wisconsin-LSU meeting, this contest will feature two Top 10 teams from two "power five" conferences in Week 2 (barring a loss by either team to an FCS opponent in Week 1).  This is exactly the kind of game the playoff selection committee will be watching and talking about when it comes time to possibly decide if the Big Ten champion or Pac-12 champion is potentially left out of the "top four."

    Oregon, with its super high-octane offense, will run into an MSU team that prides itself on defense.  While the Spartans are rebuilding a bit on the defensive side of the football, they do return one of the nation's top defensive ends in Shilique Calhoun.

    Add in the depletion of Oregon's offense with the loss of De'Anthony Thomas, Colt Lyerla, Daryle Hawkins and Josh Huff, and we suddenly see a Ducks lineup that doesn't seem quite as daunting as it once was—especially against a defensive giant like Michigan State.

    This game will come down to the quarterbacks, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Michigan State's Connor Cook.  Who can have a better night?  Who will be able to solve the other's defense?

    This game is clearly one of, if not the biggest contest of the first month of the season when it comes to playoff implications.

    And this game also figures into the calculations concerning the top game on our list...

November 8: Ohio State at Michigan State

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The rematch of the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game is set for November 8, and you can bet that this East Division showdown will be one everyone in the nation will be watching.  Both Ohio State and Michigan State have obstacles to overcome before we even get to November, but this game is sure to be incredibly important in the race for the East title.

    Michigan State will need to get past Oregon, Nebraska and Michigan to keep its top-10 ranking secure.  Ohio State, on the other hand, doesn't really have any marquee games—unless you count a visit from Virginia Tech and possibly the October 25 trip to Penn State.

    But Ohio State does have another obstacle to overcome: the lack of Braxton Miller.

    There has been no bigger injury this fall anywhere in the nation than the Buckeyes' loss of their Heisman-contending quarterback.  Miller is out for the season after re-injuring his shoulder, and Ohio State's road to the Big Ten title instantly took a massive body blow.

    So how does this game top our list of playoff implications?

    First, it thrusts Michigan State into a pretty sizable lead as favorites in the Big Ten this season.  Ohio State has the opportunity to upset the apple cart with a win over the Spartans, especially if the Spartans beat Oregon in Week 2.

    It also carries massive implications should Michigan State lose to the Ducks.  Comparing a one-loss Michigan State Big Ten champion to a one-loss Pac-12 champion would swing the direction of the Pac-12 should Michigan State win the Big Ten after losing to the Ducks and Ohio State.

    And if Ohio State wins?

    Luckily for the Buckeyes, their schedule lines up nicely for a relative walk through the other 11 games.  There are some potential pitfalls with Cincinnati, Penn State and Michigan, but even a Miller-less Ohio State should be capable of winning all of those games.

    And what if Ohio State beats a Michigan State team that has already beaten a potential Pac-12 champion Oregon squad?

    Bottom line: Ohio State isn't as out of it as folks outside of Columbus would have you believe.  There's still plenty of talent Urban Meyer can call upon, and the expectations for the Buckeyes is and should still be sky high.

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