Pac-12 Football: Biggest 2014 Games with Playoff Implications
2014 marks the first year that Pac-12 teams will be aiming for the Rose Bowl not simply because of the glory a win in Pasadena provides, but because winning there on Jan. 1 will earn a spot in the national championship game.
The notion of the Rose Bowl as a springboard to something bigger is yet another sign that college football is in the middle of major changes, and fans everywhere are buzzing about the new four-team playoff that will determine the sport's champion.
The top four teams in the country will play for the trophy, but each program's resume will be under the microscope more than ever, and big games will weigh heavily in the mind of the selection committee, which has the ultimate say in which squads belong in the top tier.
It's likely that given the rise of the Pac-12 in recent years, the conference champion will have a spot in the playoff. Which games will have the most say in the race to be among the top four?
Here are five such games that will go a long way in determining which Pac-12 team(s), if any, will make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Michigan State at Oregon, Saturday, Sept. 6
The first game on our list doesn't contain two Pac-12 teams, but it's hard to ignore what is arguably the most anticipated nonconference game of the 2014 season.
The preseason AP Top 25 has Oregon at No. 3 and Michigan State at No. 8, and the two teams couldn't be more different in how they play the game. The one thing they have in common, however, is the potential to reach the College Football Playoff.
After struggling against Stanford the past two seasons, the Ducks will face a foe in the Spartans that also likes to use its physicality in the trenches on both offense and defense. The rushing attack is led by Jeremy Langford, a 1,400-yard back in 2013 who doesn't get nearly enough attention given his play.
Quarterback Connor Cook went from backup to one of the best signal-callers in the Big Ten last fall, and the defense, led by end Shilique Calhoun, is quite simply a dominant unit.
If Oregon wins, it will be the biggest early-season statement of anyone, and it will prove to doubters that the Ducks can line up against a physical, pro-style team with a hard-nosed defense and get the job done. If Michigan State wins, the Spartans will have the inside track to a spot in the playoff if they can get through the Big Ten.
It's the marquee matchup of September, and the victor will be rewarded with a significant notch in its belt and a wave of momentum heading into conference play.
USC at Stanford, Saturday, Sept. 6
After entering the 2012 season with ridiculous amounts of hype and then struggling to a postseason Top 25 ranking of N/A, USC sort of disappeared off the Pac-12 radar.
There was Oregon and Stanford, two heavyweights battling it out in the north, and in the south, UCLA saw a resurgence under coach Jim Mora. Beyond the trio, nobody seemed to make much noise on a national scale, even with Arizona State beating the Bruins to win the division in 2013.
All of that has changed with the arrival of Steve Sarkisian as head coach and the maturation of Cody Kessler at quarterback. There's also the running back stable led by Javorius Allen, a talented group of receivers led by Nelson Agholor and a star-studded defense headlined by defensive end Leonard Williams.
This group came together to top mighty Stanford last November, and while the win didn't knock the Cardinal from their perch (Arizona saw to that by beating Oregon), it signaled to the rest of the league that the Trojans were indeed on their way back. It sure didn't take very long.
In 2014, the team won't have the luxury of playing this contest in front of its own fans, and with the game taking place in Week 2, it should give us a great idea of where USC stands in its attempt to win back the mountain.
If the Trojans knock off Stanford on the road, they'll likely jump into the Top 10 and see their name mentioned as a playoff contender. If the Cardinal come out on top, it will be yet another solid victory in David Shaw's tenure as coach, and it'll give Stanford a leg up early on in the north division race.
Stanford at Oregon, Saturday, Nov. 1
Does Stanford have the answer to solving Oregon? That seems to be the question on everyone's mind as the two teams are once again co-favorites to win the north, with the Ducks perhaps having a slight edge due to the return of quarterback Marcus Mariota.
You could ask the same about Arizona, although the Wildcats' beatdown of Oregon was more a case of the Ducks just flat-out not being ready for the desert. Mark Helfrich and company knew what was at stake when they headed to The Farm last November, and yet the score was 20-0 before Mariota and the offense seemed to even wake up.
The game has become a real rivalry in the college football landscape, and with it taking place at the beginning of November, the victory could give one side an almost-insurmountable lead in the division. Though it will be played in Autzen Stadium, quarterback Kevin Hogan seems like the last player in the country who will get rattled by the environment.
In order to assess how this game might play out, we need to see how the teams fare throughout the season, and more importantly, we need to know who's healthy.
But regardless of what happens in September and October, this is a game that will have meaningful implications in the conference, if not nationally. Can the Cardinal score a hat trick against Oregon, or will the Ducks finally dish up some cold, hard revenge?
Stanford at UCLA, Friday, Nov. 28
The UCLA Bruins are entering the college football season with the highest expectations in recent memory. With superstar quarterback Brett Hundley, a talented receiving corps, an offensive line that could be among the best in the nation by the end of the season and a defense with studs at all three levels, a national championship isn't out of the question.
All of this points toward our first of two conference games featuring UCLA that could have playoff implications. Jim Mora, meet David Shaw, head coach at Stanford. Or rather, Jim Mora, have you found a way to move the ball against the Cardinal defense?
Because while folks around the country label Stanford as an Oregon killer, it's UCLA that has lost three straight games to the Cardinal, including a 24-10 loss in 2013 that was never all that close.
The unique part of this particular matchup is that it takes place on the final weekend of the regular season, so it's almost certain to have conference and national implications along with the eyes of fans everywhere. What kind of shape will both teams be in at the close of November? Will berths in the Pac-12 title game already be clinched, or will there be more at play?
Aside from what effect the result may have on other teams, it should be a thrilling game from a pure entertainment standpoint. Will Hundley cap off a remarkable season by having a great game against the league's best defense, perhaps securing a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony?
Or will we see yet another gutty late-season performance by David Shaw's team? Regardless of how this thing plays out, it's almost certain to have an impact on the four-team playoff at the close of bowl season.
Oregon at UCLA, Saturday, Oct. 11
It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Oregon at UCLA isn't one of the most impactful games of the season, even on a national level. Two Heisman-caliber quarterbacks will be leading two of the best squads in the country. The only question, aside from who wins the matchup, is will there be another one in December?
If Oregon loses to UCLA but otherwise runs the table and then exacts revenge on the Bruins in the league title game, the Ducks will probably have a spot in the playoff. The same can be said for UCLA if the scenario were reversed and Oregon won the first game in Pasadena.
But if the first game may not matter, why does it top our list of games with the most playoff implications?
For starters, it could be the first major test of the season for UCLA, which does travel to both Texas and Arizona State in September. But neither the Longhorns nor the Sun Devils present the same kind of challenge as Oregon, so pollsters everywhere will be anxious to see how the Bruins stack up against one of the best.
That, of course, assumes that the Ducks will have skated by Michigan State, which is anything but assured. In any case, it will be Oregon's first big test on the road, and there are bound to be questions about whether Oregon can avoid another embarrassing loss like the one it suffered in Tucson last November.
If anyone has the potential to embarrass teams, it's UCLA. The offense is explosive and the defense could be suffocating. If the Pac-12 has a representative in the College Football Playoff, there's a decent chance it will be one of the two teams playing in the Rose Bowl on October 11.
All stats via cfbstats.com.