In 17 days — 16 if you’re a degenerate like me who counts Abilene Christian at Georgia State the day before — the 2014 college football season kicks off, with all eyes focused on Texas A&M, playing its first game without Johnny Manziel under center since 2011, traveling to Columbia to face what could very well be the best team Steve Spurrier‘s had in what will be his 10th season at South Carolina.
As we have been and will continue doing throughout the month of August, CFT trudges on with previews of the upcoming season, with the 12 games that could have the biggest impact on both key conference races and the national landscape. Said national landscape will include, for the first-time ever, a College Football Playoff. Of course, the reality once we get into the season can change greatly from the preseason perceptions — see: 2013 Auburn Tigers — but the following 12-pack should form some sort of solid guide through what’s certain to be yet another eventful season in the great game of college football.
So, without further ado and for your reading pleasure, here’s a sampling of some of the top games on the 2014 slate. And, as always, you can whine/bitch/moan in the comment section that your team was snubbed…
TEXAS A&M AT SOUTH CAROLINA, AUG. 28
LAST MEETING: First meeting
SERIES RECORD: 0-0
THE SKINNY: This contest has a handful of firsts going for it. Most importantly to the business side of the conference, it will be the first-ever football game televised on the fledgling SEC Network, a network that’s expected to drop tens of millions of dollars annually into the coffers of each conference member. Additionally, as noted above, it’s the first-ever meeting between the two football programs. And finally, both the Aggies and Gamecocks will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks for the first time in two and two-plus years, respectively, with the former going with (Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen) and the latter Dylan Thompson. While neither Hill nor Allen have started a game at the collegiate level, Thompson at least has some experience in that capacity — he’s 3-0 in his career as a starter replacing Connor Shaw, and has thrown passes in 20 of the games in which he’s played the past three years. Even as the Aggies will face a deficit in experience at the most important position on the field, it’s not their most pressing concern as Kevin Sumlin could probably throw you or I in at quarterback and still put up 30-plus per game. Rather, it’s the defense that should cause the most consternation, especially facing a running back as talented as Mike Davis. A defense that was suspect throughout 2013 is even more so in 2014, with attrition via dismissals, graduation, etc. This game could be the beginning of an uneven season in College Station, which would be the first since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: South Carolina 41, Texas A&M 27
WISCONSIN VS. LSU IN HOUSTON, AUG. 30
LAST MEETING: Sept. 30, 1972, a 27-7 LSU win in Baton Rouge
SERIES RECORD: LSU leads 2-0
THE SKINNY: Any time teams from the Big Ten and SEC meet it’s a big deal, especially when it’s two programs that have been at or near the top of their respective conferences for the past few years. At least football-wise, this game is the dictionary definition of unstoppable force vs. immovable object: the Tigers will bring their always-stout run defense ( 35th nationally, third in SEC in 2013) into the neutral site affair against a Badgers football that thrives on running the football (8th in rushing offense) and would much rather take a pair of steel-toed boots to the groin than pass it (93rd in passing offense). Perhaps most importantly, especially as far as fans are concerned, this game will give the winning league bragging rights until bowl season as this marks the only marquee match-up between the Big Ten and SEC during the regular season.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: LSU 24, Wisconsin 17
MICHIGAN STATE AT OREGON, SEPT. 6
LAST MEETING: Sept. 2, 1999, a 27-20 Michigan State win in East Lansing
SERIES RECORD: Tied at 2-2
THE SKINNY: There might not be a game this season featuring a pair of teams that are such extreme polar opposites of one another. The Spartans’ 2013 success was predicated on a physical, dominating defense complemented by a methodical and productive rushing attack, with the passing game managing games and putting up big numbers when necessary. The Ducks are the antithesis of the Spartans. UO is a balls-to-the-wall, pedal-mashed-to-the-floor offense that is equally adept — and deadly — at running or passing the football. Oh, and the Ducks can play some defense as well, as evidenced by the fact that they finished 13th nationally in scoring defense last season (MSU was third). This game has the potential to be one of the more fascinating matchups for the upcoming season, and it’s probably the non-conference game that I’m looking at with the most anticipation — even as I foresee a blowout in Eugene for the East Lansing boys.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Oregon 48, Michigan State 27
GEORGIA AT SOUTH CAROLINA, SEPT. 13
LAST MEETING: Sept,. 7, 2013, a 41-30 Georgia win in Athens
SERIES RECORD: Georgia leads 47-17-2
THE SKINNY: After being unceremoniously shoved to the side by Missouri last season, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks are once again expected to be the cream of the SEC East crop. And, because of that, this game will go a long way in determining just who will represent the division in the SEC championship game against their West counterparts. USC has won three of the last four in the series, with the lone blemish being the 11-point loss in Athens last season. This year, and as is the case throughout the conference, both teams will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks. The Gamecocks’ situation is a little different from most, though, as Dylan Thompson is a very seasoned backup with nearly two dozen games played and three starts. Hutson Mason, meanwhile, got a taste of what it’s like to be a starter in the SEC as he took over under center for the injured Aaron Murray the last two and a half games and performed well, throwing for over 800 yards and four touchdowns in that stretch. The good news for both is that they will have very talented and accomplished running backs at their disposal, Mike Davis for the Gamecocks and Todd Gurley for the Bulldogs. How those two go, so should their respective teams as this game could be a rarity these days: one that’s determined in large part by the running game.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: South Carolina 34, Georgia 21
UCLA AT ARIZONA STATE, SEPT. 27
LAST MEETING: Nov. 23, 2013, a 38-33 Arizona State win in Tempe
SERIES RECORD: UCLA 18-11-1
THE SKINNY: For everything that Oregon-Stanford is as far as the Pac-12 North is concerned, Arizona State-UCLA is fast becoming the same for the South. Like 2013 when ASU tripped up UCLA to help stake its claim to a spot in the conference championship game, 2014 should be no different. Both teams will feature very experienced and extremely talented quarterbacks, Taylor Kelly for the Sun Devils and Brett Hundley. Both could, or even should, be in the thick of the Heisman chase when this game rolls around, which would be a testament to both their individual performances and their team’s success. The Bruins, though, easily return the most talent with 18 starters (eight each on offense and defense to go along with both kickers) coming back while the Sun Devils return just 10, including a paltry two on the defensive side of the ball. Is that advantage, along with being at home this around, be enough to put the Bruins back in the title game? Time will tell, although USC may have a little something to say about the latter before it’s all said and done.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: UCLA 48, Arizona State 38
OREGON AT UCLA, OCT. 11
LAST MEETING: Oct. 26, 2013, a 42-14 Oregon win in Eugene
SERIES RECORD: UCLA leads 39-27
THE SKINNY: Depending on how things play out, this very well could be a preview of the Pac-12 championship game. The Bruins’ loss to the Ducks last year, the second of back-to-back conference losses, all but handed the South division to Arizona State. Getting UO in Los Angeles should make the task a little less treacherous, but not much as the Ducks are expected to be the class of the league and the odds-on favorite to represent the Pac-12 in the College Football Playoff. Last season’s win was Oregon’s fifth straight in the series; a sixth straight could further push the Ducks toward their ultimate postseason goal, while snapping that skein would go a long way in helping the Bruins get back to the top of the conference — and perhaps climbing back on to the national stage for the first time in a very, very long time.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Oregon 49, UCLA 31
STANFORD AT OREGON, NOV. 1
LAST MEETING: Nov. 7, 2013, a 26-20 Oregon win in Stanford
SERIES RECORD: Stanford leads 43-30-1
THE SKINNY: In all three years of the Pac-12 championship game, either the Cardinal or the Ducks have been the North’s representative — 2012 and 2013 for the former, 2011 for the latter. That’s not expected to change in Year 4 as both teams are, once again, the class of the division. UO, in fact, may end up being the class of college football at year’s end. Both teams return a ton of starters, 15 (nine on offense) coming back for the Ducks and 14 (seven on defense) for the Cardinal. Four of the starters who don’t return to The Farm, however, come from the offensive line, so David Shaw and his offensive staff have to hope the new players plugged in have gelled into a cohesive unit by the time this game rolls around. Even if that happens, can the Cardinal keep pace with a high-powered offense triggered by Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota? The answer was resounding “hell yes!!!” in 2013; whether that’s the case in 2014 will go a long way in determining which team takes this game — and which team likely punches its ticket to another conference championship game.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Oregon 41, Stanford 27
ALABAMA AT LSU, NOV. 8
LAST MEETING: Nov. 9, 2013, a 38-17 Alabama win in Tuscaloosa
SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 48-25-5
THE SKINNY: This one of those games where, when the schedule comes out, you always check to see when it will be played. For all of the hype it receives, however, it’s been a bit lopsided of sorts of late, at least results-wise. The Tide was won three straight in the series, including the BCS title game following the 2012 season and a blowout win last year. There are very few certainties in college football, but here’s one you can just about chisel in stone: there won’t be many points scored when the two teams clash in Tuscaloosa in early November. Thanks to what’s ofttimes a pair of suffocating defenses, just once has a team scored more than 30 points — the Tide in its 38-17 win last year — in the last eight meetings. In the last thirteen meetings, one or both of the teams failed to score at least 20 points a whopping 10 times. The microcosm of the series? The 9-6 Battle of the Kickers in 2011 that was the epitome of the defensive duels between the two SEC West programs. As both teams reload their respective defenses the way most people change their underwear, and both offenses will be manned by first-year starters at quarterback, it should be lather, rinse, repeat on the defensive front once again.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Alabama 24, LSU 14
OHIO STATE AT MICHIGAN STATE, NOV. 8
LAST MEETING: Dec. 7, 2013, a 34-24 Michigan State win in Indianapolis (Big Ten title game)
SERIES RECORD: Ohio State leads 28-14
THE SKINNY: This will easily be the most anticipated Big Ten game of the year, with the Buckeyes looking to avenge a double-digit “upset” loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game. A loss, incidentally, that both ended No. 2 OSU’s 24-game losing streak and knocked the Buckeyes out of a likely spot in the BCS title game against Florida State. As was the case last season, one key in this year’s game will be MSU’s stifling defense’s ability to contain Braxton Miller. While the OSU quarterback did rush for 142 and a pair of touchdowns, he was held to a paltry 8-of-21 passing for just 101 yards. Connor Cook, on the other hand, riddled a porous Buckeyes pass defense for 304 yards and three touchdowns. Throw in Jeremy Langford‘s 128 yards rushing, and MSU was able to flip a 24-17 deficit late in the third quarter to a 10-point win that propelled the Spartans into the Rose Bowl. So, yes, “revenge” will be a key storyline heading into this game — along with MSU looking to prove yet again that it belongs on the national stage. And one more tidbit: thanks to the additions of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten and subsequent shifts in the divisions, this game will now likely be a contest for East supremacy and a spot in the conference championship game. Just a little bit on the line in this game, in other words.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24
BAYLOR AT OKLAHOMA, NOV. 8
LAST MEETING: Nov. 7, 2013, a 41-12 Baylor win in Waco
SERIES RECORD: Oklahoma leads 20-2
THE SKINNY: The Sooners have absolutely owned the Bears for the whole of the series, but the tide is certainly shifting. After losing the first 17 meetings to OU — all but three by 12 points or more, and 11 by 20-plus points — BU has won two of the last three. Included in that total was last year’s evisceration, a 29-point beatdown in early November that signaled the Bears were the team to beat in the Big 12. Can that trend continue? If it does, it’ll do so with some new pieces in place. The Bears must replace seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, including a pair of first-team All-Big 12 performers and three members of its secondary. Bryce Petty is still Bryce Petty and Art Briles‘ offense is still Art Briles’ offense, so the Bears will maintain the ability to outscore most of the defensive liabilities it may possess. On the flip side, the Sooners return 14 starters, including quarterback Trevor Knight. Whether that’s a positive or a negative remains to be seen as no one knows which Knight will show up: the one who struggled to hold on to his job throughout the season or the one who strafed Alabama’s defense in the Sugar Bowl. The answer to that question will go a long way in determining who wins this game and, as a result, who controls the Big 12 and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Baylor 38, Oklahoma 35
AUBURN AT ALABAMA, NOV. 29
LAST MEETING: Nov. 30, 2013, a 34-28 Auburn win in Auburn
SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 42-35-1
THE SKINNY: The annual Iron Bowl grudge/hate match would make this type of list year-in and year-out. After last year? This one comes in at or near the top of the 2014 version of these lists. Of course, I’m referring to the most memorable play of the 2013 season, “The Kick-Six” at Jordan-Hare that stunned the Tide and propelled the Tigers into the SEC championship game and, ultimately, the BCS title game. The questions entering the season for AU are twofold: one, can they replace 1,800-yard rusher Tre’ Mason and, two, how many more miracles does Gus Malzahn & Company have tucked into their hip pockets? The Tide has its own questions to answer as well, not the least of which is just who will replace three-year starter AJ McCarron under center. The knowns, though are that AU will have Nick Marshall, who’s expected to do nothing but get better in his second season as a starting quarterback, while UA will have what’s become an annual twin tradition under Nick Saban: a punishing rushing attack with its stable of backs to go along with a physical, suffocating defense. This year’s version may not match the drama of last year’s, but it’s still compelling, must-see TV.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Alabama 38, Auburn 31
MICHIGAN AT OHIO STATE, NOV. 29
LAST MEETING: Nov. 30, 2013, a 42-41 Ohio State win in Ann Arbor
SERIES RECORD: Michigan leads 58-45-6
THE SKINNY: Regardless of the records or prospects of either or both teams, The Game is and always will be a destination event for college football viewers. While the Wolverines have owned the overall series, it’s the Buckeyes who’ve owned That School Up North this century as OSU has won (on the field) nine of the last 10 and 11 of the last 13. Both teams will enter the season with question marks littering the offensive line, with the Buckeyes needing to replace four starters while the Wolverines, which had significant issues in that group last year, must replace an All-American tackle and the starter on the other side as well. Where this game may be won or lost is at the quarterback position, which bodes well for OSU. Braxton Miller, the reigning two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, returns and looks to take his game to the next level as a senior, while the Wolverines will go with either the inconsistent, turnover-prone Devin Gardner or the unproven Shane Morris. Decided advantage, OSU. If the Buckeyes can cure its secondary woes, woes that are directly to blame for its two-game losing streak to end last season, they should have little problem in dispatching their bitter rivals and possibly continuing on a Big Ten/CFP title run.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 45, Michigan 31
(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)