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SEC Football: Biggest 2014 Games with Playoff Implications

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 25, 2014

SEC Football: Biggest 2014 Games with Playoff Implications

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    No one knows for sure* how the College Football Playoff selection committee will function, especially with regard to its treatment of the SEC.

    Will what's widely regarded as the nation's best conference be given precedence by these subjective rankings? Will it matter that an SEC athletic director (Arkansas' Jeff Long) is sitting at the head of the table? Will an SEC team with one or two losses rank higher than, say, a Big Ten team with zero or one, respectively?

    There's no way to find out the answers until the first CFP rankings are released in October, but regardless of the new system, we do know that the SEC will play a factor in the national-title discussion—and a big one at that. There are too many good teams for it not to.

    But not every SEC game is created equal. Upsets such as Tennessee over South Carolina last season will inevitably pop up and throw a wrench into the standings, but looking ahead at the schedule, there are games that stick out for having near-certain CFP implications.

    So, in preparation for the upcoming season (two days and counting!) we have ranked these games accordingly. The broad metric we used to determine the rankings was "how certain is this game to affect the playoff picture—regardless of which team wins?"

    Make sure to circle these dates on your calendar.

     

    *No one knows for sure how the committee will work…but of everyone out there guessing, Bleacher Report's Sam Chi probably comes the closest.

7. Alabama at Ole Miss (October 4)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    This is one of the three most plausible losses on Alabama's schedule. Along with a road-trip-to-be-named-later, it is one of just two difficult games Nick Saban's team will play in a true road environment.

    For obvious reasons, that gives it playoff implications on one side. By beating Ole Miss, Alabama would check one of four major obstacles off its to-do list (the fourth being a potential SEC title game). In some ways, it would be, say, 15 percent closer to reaching the final four.

    But also think about what happens if Ole Miss wins this game.

    Assuming they beat Boise State in Week 1 (which shouldn't necessarily be assumed) and Vanderbilt in Week 2 (which is safer to assume), the Rebels should enter this game 4-0. A win would move them to 5-0 with victories over two of the winningest programs of the last decade. They would likely slide into the national top 10—if not higher.

    What more would they have to do to crash the playoff discussion?

     

    Note: Similar things could be said about our top honorable mention, Auburn at Ole Miss. That game was not included because of timing: It is later in the season (November 1) and thus far less likely to feature undefeated teams.

6. LSU at Auburn (October 4)

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    LSU was the only team to beat Auburn in the regular season last year and stands a decent chance of entering this game undefeated.

    The season opener against Wisconsin looks like a coin-flip on paper, but the Tigers have made a habit of winning those games over high-profile teams such as Oregon and (sort of) TCU on neutral fields. From there, only four home games (against three cupcakes and Mississippi State) stand between them and a 5-0 record.

    Auburn, meanwhile, has to overcome a tricky Week 1 game against Arkansas and a difficult road test at Kansas State before playing LSU, but the odds say it will likely be undefeated here as well. But this is where the schedule gets difficult: Starting October 4, half of Auburn's games landed on this list, and a fifth (at Ole Miss) was mentioned on the last slide as the top honorable mention.

    Auburn's difficult schedule actually devalues this game a little bit. Even if it wins, it still has a long way to go to make the playoff.

    This would be one of just many hurdles cleared.

5. Auburn at Georgia (November 15)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This is the last in an insanely difficult six-game stretch for the Tigers, one which includes five games against teams ranked in the top 21 of the AP poll. The one opponent that isn't (Mississippi State) is not far off at No. 36 and gets to play the Tigers in Starkville.

    Are we sure Auburn will still be playing for a spot in the playoff at this point? What would its record need to be? At worst, 8-1, right? Going 7-2 before road trips to Georgia and Alabama (more on that in a bit) would not be auspicious territory.

    The Tigers, however, are too good to count out based on schedule. They can beat any team on any given day. Coming to Athens at 8-1 or even 9-0 is a distinct possibility, and if that's the case, depending on what Georgia's record looks like, this game might prove woefully under-ranked come November.

    A rematch of last year's "Prayer in Jordan-Hare," this game will qualify as must-see television no matter the state of each team. If they're both still fighting for a division championship, however, it might be one of the five most important of the season.

4. South Carolina at Auburn (October 25)

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    We've talked a lot about Auburn already, so let's start with South Carolina. Why would this game be so important?

    Well, depending on what happens in Week 2 against Georgia (more on that to come), this outcome could sort of lock up the SEC East. If the Gamecocks own the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs, a win here would go a long way in winning the division; if the Bulldogs own the tiebreaker over the Gamecocks, a loss here would go a long way in losing it.

    South Carolina's only other tough conference road game is at Florida. If it holds serve at home and splits games on The Plains and in the Swamp, it will almost definitely make the SEC title game.

    At that point, even a season-ending nonconference loss at Clemson might not alter the playoff picture. Even at 11-2, do we really think the SEC champion won't make the final four?

    For Auburn, obviously, this game matters for reasons we've already discussed. Realistically, it can't afford to lose more than once before road trips to Georgia and Alabama, and this game sticks out as one of its biggest potential defeats.

3. Alabama at LSU (November 8)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It doesn't feel right ranking this game so low. This is Alabama-LSU, for heaven's sake; how could it not crack the top two!?

    But this is the SEC we're talking about: a conference whose No. 3 game with playoff implications probably registers among the five or six biggest nationally. Be honest: What besides Oregon-UCLA, Baylor-Oklahoma and Ohio State-Michigan State stands out as more important regardless of outcome? Maybe Clemson-Florida State?

    During Alabama's recent pseudo-dynasty, no team has played it tough on a more consistent basis than LSU. Last year's game was lopsided on the bottom line (38-17) but closer on the field of play. It was actually tied at 17 apiece with 20 minutes remaining.

    This season, whatever advantage LSU loses from another year of personnel attrition is compensated for with a return to Baton Rouge. Its freshman offensive contributors should ostensibly have their feet by early November, and Tiger Stadium is the ultimate equalizer.

    Last year being an important exception, the winner of this game typically wins the division—and often the conference, too.

    This year shouldn't be too different.

2. Georgia at South Carolina (September 13)

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Missouri should remain competitive but take a step back this season. Florida should take a step forward but remain a cut behind. 

    In essence, the SEC East should come down to South Carolina and Georgia.

    Thus, the Gamecocks will host the Bulldogs in the second week of the season for a game with huge playoff implications. Whoever wins gets a buffer over the other in the race to win the division: The loser would likely need to win all of its other seven conference games and see the winner fall twice during league play.

    Good luck with that.

    South Carolina and Georgia are both ranked in the top 12 of the AP poll, and although both are coming off Week 1 games against ranked opponents—Texas A&M and Clemson, respectively—they have been gearing up for this pivotal game all offseason.

    "No," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt when asked if he agreed with his team being picked second in the East behind the Gamecocks, per Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald"I'd have us first."

    Translation: "My team is gonna win in Williams-Brice."

1. Auburn at Alabama (November 29)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The winner of this game has played for the national title in each of the past five seasons.

    The defense rests.

    Seriously, because of Auburn's difficult schedule, consideration was given to not ranking the Iron Bowl No. 1 on this list. It's so late in the season that it might not ultimately decide the SEC West.

    But how could it not be No. 1? If both teams play up to their potential in the first 11 weeks of the season, they could both realistically be 11-0. Even if Auburn has one conference loss to Alabama's zero (or two to Alabama's one), this could still be a de facto SEC semifinal.

    Even in Bryant-Denny Stadium, Auburn has the horses to beat Alabama. Not because of the myth that Nick Saban can't stop an uptempo offense—something Bleacher Report's Marc Torrence tidily debunked earlier this offseason—but simply because it can.

    Alabama's weakest in the secondary? Here comes Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams. Alabama has questions at quarterback? Here comes a defense that made Jameis Winston look half-human.

    Of course, it is rarely any use to predict what two teams' records might be after 11 games, but if there's anything we've learned the past half-decade, it's that the Iron Bowl will always matter nationally.

    Why should we expect that to change?

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