No more than a dozen or two of the FBS’ 128 members have a legitimate chance of copping one of the four playoff berths that’ll be handed out once the Dec. 6 slate of games is played. The following 20 regular season matchups warrant extra scrutiny, both for their entertainment value and for their impact on the race to this year’s semifinal games on New Year’s Day.
10. LSU at Auburn , Oct. 4
Ever since the advent of divisional play in 1992, the battle of these two Tigers has been one of the most anticipated—and relevant—SEC games each season. This October won’t deviate from the usual script. Both teams will be jockeying for position in a West Division loaded with playoff contenders. For a young LSU team, especially the quarterbacks, this will be its first true road game of the season. Auburn, on the other hand, will be looking for payback for getting dumped by LSU, 35-21, in its only regular season loss of 2013.
9. Georgia at South Carolina , Sept. 13
The annual pivot game pitting the Dawgs against the Gamecocks will once again go a long way to determining the SEC East winner. Yeah, Florida and Mizzou cannot be counted out in 2014, but there’s a very good chance that the victor of this growing rivalry at Williams-Brice Stadium will earn a bonus game in Atlanta on Dec. 6. Georgia won last year’s edition in Athens, 41-30, to snap a three-game losing streak to Steve Spurrier. And making it two straight could propel Mark Richt’s team near the top of the rankings. But playing in Columbia is always hellacious for visiting teams.
8. Stanford at Oregon , Nov. 1
The Cardinal and the Ducks have been the Pac-12’s most crucial matchup the past few seasons. While that may not be the case in 2014, thanks to the emergence of UCLA, the early November meeting in Eugene will still be significant. At a minimum, the matchup will likely decide who the Bruins—or the Trojans or the Sun Devils—meet in the league championship game a month later. Stanford is the two-time defending Pac-12 champ in part because it’s been able to solve the Quack Attack. But can that trend continue now that the D is being revamped, coordinator Derek Mason is coaching Vandy and QB Marcus Mariota is back for his junior year?
7. Alabama at LSU , Nov. 8
The Tide and the Tigers will always be a huge deal—for the SEC chase, for recruiting, for NFL scouts … and for playoff contention. Few, if any, perennial meetings can be counted on to move so many different needles, year-in and year-out, the way Bama-LSU does. The refurbished Tigers are the longer shot this season, but they still represent the Crimson Tide’s toughest road game of the 2014 campaign. Bama expects to be undefeated when they arrive in Baton Rouge, so an LSU upset could turn the SEC West and the playoff races upside down with four weeks left in the regular season.
6. Oregon at UCLA , Oct. 11
The Ducks are a top 10 team favored to win the Pac-12 North. The Bruins are a top 10 team favored to win the Pac-12 South. When they meet in Week 7, there’ll be a ton riding on the outcome, including the head-to-head quarterback duel between Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley. In all likelihood, the Pac-12 champ will earn a spot in the playoff, and this matchup in the Rose Bowl will be the first critical step in the vetting out process. The winner will carry a head of steam into the second half of the year. The loser, though, won’t suffer a death sentence. There’ll be time to rebound, provided it qualifies for—and captures—the Dec. 5 rematch at Levi’s Stadium.
5. Auburn at Georgia , Nov. 15
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry added a new chapter to the annals with last November’s miraculous game-winning heave that kept the Tigers on track for an SEC title and a BCS National Championship Game appearance. This fall, the Dawgs will be out for revenge in a meeting that’ll impact both divisional races. With the committee now scrutinizing every pivotal game with laser-like focus, the Auburn-Georgia loser probably falls out of contention for a playoff spot. The winner, though, is going to earn a timely boost in the rankings, and a tailwind for the stretch run.
4. Ohio State at Michigan State , Nov. 8
As the Buckeyes and the Spartans have risen to the top rung of the Big Ten ladder, their meeting becomes the league’s most important game of the regular season. Now that both programs are members of the East Division, there’ll be no postseason rematch of last December’s Big Ten title game. But the winner in East Lansing on the second Saturday of November is likely to fill one spot in the finale opposite the West champion. Ohio State and Michigan State are both serious contenders for a playoff bid, with their meeting having the potential of being a knockout game.
3. Baylor at Oklahoma , Nov. 8
For the fourth straight year, the Big 12 won’t host a championship game. In its place will be the Bears and the Sooners in Norman. No, they’re not the only two contenders for the crown, but they will be the highest ranked teams when the season begins. Baylor zoomed past Oklahoma last year behind five Bryce Petty touchdowns and a great defensive effort. But Sooner QB Trevor Knight didn’t start that game, and the D figures to be a lot tougher this season. While the survivor of this clash remains alive in the playoff hunt, the loser goes on life support, especially without the luxury of a conference title game to make one final statement on the first Saturday in December.
2. Michigan State at Oregon , Sept. 6
Of all the compelling non-conference games this season, none will be more impactful than the Week 2 clash of contrasts between the Spartans and the Ducks. In every year preceding 2014, this would have been labelled a potential Rose Bowl preview. In the new era of a College Football Playoff, it’s a chance for both schools to beef up their strength and schedule, and land an early salvo in the quest for national prominence. A blowout aside, neither team can be eliminated by a loss this early, but a quality win of this magnitude is going to really pop on a resume.
1. Auburn at Alabama , Nov. 29
In the state of Alabama, it’s the Iron Bowl. To the rest of the country, it might as well be a playoff elimination game. The Tide and the Tigers will begin 2014 as two of the top five teams in America. And both are deep and talented enough to still be ranked that high when they meet in the regular season finale. Bama wants payback since last year’s improbable finish at Jordan-Hare cost it a crack at a third straight national championship. Auburn has designs on back-to-back SEC crowns. If the loser suffers its first loss in Tuscaloosa, brace for the possibility of that school still landing one of the playoff openings.