Though the preseason polls aren’t all-knowing, they do give insight into which Saturdays we should plan on being firmly planted in front of a high-definition television.
Of the Top 10 teams listed in last year’s AP preseason poll, only two—Florida and Georgia—finished the season ranked out of the Top 20. Four of these squads—Alabama, Oregon, South Carolina and Clemson—all finished where they started, in the Top 10.
So while the early voters aren’t entirely accurate, they aren’t as far off the mark as we’re sometimes led to believe.
Here’s a look at the six blockbuster Top 10 matchups in 2014—listed in chronological order—according to the preseason AP poll. Even if these teams trickle down the rankings, these are the games that will be the headliners this season—clashes you need to plan on not missing.
When: Saturday, Sept. 6
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Ore.
Based on the AP rankings, this is the biggest early-season, non-conference game of 2014. The Ducks will host the Spartans after playing FCS South Dakota at Autzen in the season opener, while Michigan State will have kicked off the season at home against FCS Jacksonville State.
Though on paper this game pits the No. 3-ranked Oregon scoring offense from last season against the No. 3-ranked Michigan State scoring defense, there’s more to the story. Where the Ducks bring back nine starters to their offense from last season, the Spartans return a mere four to its stellar defense.
When: Saturday, Oct. 11
Where: Rose Bowl, Los Angeles, Calif.
In what might be a preview of the Pac-12 title game, in Week 7 the Ducks will travel to L.A. to face their second preseason Top Ten ranked foe of 2014.
Oregon follows its Week 2 clash with No. 8 Michigan State with a home game vs. Wyoming, a road trip to Washington State, a bye week and a home game with Arizona. UCLA, on the other hand, will have opened at Virginia, played Memphis at home, faced Texas in Arlington, taken a week off, traveled to Arizona State and hosted Utah.
Both teams have an excellent opportunity to be at one-loss or better by the time this game rolls around.
What will be interesting about this one is watching UCLA’s No. 72-ranked rush defense from last season try and contain Oregon’s No. 9 ranked rushing attack. The matchup looks even more intriguing given that the Bruins return eight starters on defense this season while the Ducks bring back their top three rushers and all but one starting member from their O-line (they lost left tackle Tyler Johnstone to an ACL injury).
When: Saturday, Oct. 25
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
By the time South Carolina travels to Auburn in Week 9, the Gamecocks will have already faced three preseason Top 25 teams (No. 21 Texas A&M, No. 12 Georgia and No. 24 Missouri) while the Tigers will have faced two (No. 20 K-State and No. 13 LSU).
If both teams are as good as they look on paper, they’ll have taken care of business up until this point making this a realistic preview of the SEC title game.
Even though South Carolina finished last season with the No. 12 scoring defense in college football, it ranked No. 51 vs. the run, giving up 153 yards per game. The Gamecocks will need everything they’ve got on that side of the ball to try and keep up with Auburn’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense from last season.
While the Tigers did bid farewell to its top rusher Tre Mason, it welcomes back three members of its stellar offensive line and the three rushers behind Mason—quarterback Nick Marshall and running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne who combined for 2,325 ground yards in 2013.
When: Saturday, Nov. 8
Where: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
While on one hand you’ve got to wonder—with the loss of starting quarterback Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury—if Ohio State will even still be ranked by November, remember that for now Michigan State is the only Top 25 opponent on the Buckeyes’ entire schedule.
So, while they’ll have to play the eight games prior to this one with a young team and a rookie quarterback, they won’t necessarily be facing a Murder’s Row of opponents.
The bottom line is that both these successful programs are short on experience in 2014: Ohio State ranks No. 87 in the FBS in returning starters this season, while Michigan State comes in at No. 100. That said, by Week 11 both squads—which have also recruited well—should be settled in and playing the best football they can.
Keep in mind that both Ohio State and Michigan State are in the new Big Ten East division, so while this won’t be a preview of the conference championship game, it may decide which team gets to go.
When: Saturday, Nov. 8
Where: Gaylord Family OK Memorial Stadium, Norman, Okla.
Though Baylor’s offense had a lot to do with it capturing its first conference title in almost 20 years, its improvements on defense are what put it over the top.
Take a look at the numbers: The Bears’ scoring defense ranked No. 113 in both 2011 and 2012, giving up an average of 37 points per game each season. In 2013, Baylor improved all the way to No. 36 in the FBS, giving up only 23.5 points, or almost two touchdowns fewer per game.
Speeding forward to this season, and their game with Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma, the Bears return a mere four starters to their solid defense from a year ago. Add in that the Sooners are a maturing offense, not one that is starting over, and you get the picture.
Keep in mind that Baylor has only beaten Oklahoma twice in 23 tries (the Bears won in 2011 and 2013) and has never won in Norman.
When: Saturday, Nov. 29
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Being that this is the final regular season game for both these teams, anything could happen between now and Saturday, Nov. 29.
What we do know is where Alabama will have faced three preseason ranked teams coming into this game (No. 18 Ole Miss, No. 21 Texas A&M and No. 13 LSU), Auburn will have squared off with six (No. 20 Kansas State, No. 13 LSU, No. 9 South Carolina, No. 18 Ole Miss, No. 21 Texas A&M and No. 12 Georgia).
If both teams have run the gauntlet successfully, this game will, as it did last season, decide which team moves on to the SEC title game and the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Remember that though Auburn beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2010, its other two visits to Bryant-Denny since 2008 resulted in a combined 85-0 shutout at the hands of the Crimson Tide.