August 02, 2006

The Double Dog Dare


It can be early in the year or late in the year, but eventually each team that is serious about a national championship or conference title will face the “make or break” game. One, two, or several games on everyone’s schedule will define their season to come or it can reside at the end of the year – a showdown waiting to happen.

Below is a list of teams, by conference, that will decide their fate, when and where. You could also double this list as my conference contenders.

Ohio State’s mea culpa is definitely in Austin, Texas on September 9. Win that game and the Buckeyes will stay #1 all year long to the National Championship Game in Phoenix, er Tempe, er Glendale. Michigan spreads things out, having one proving game a month, albeit all on the road. Michigan has Notre Dame on September 16, Penn State in October (14th), and Ohio State in November (18th). The Wolverines would have to prove themselves to be road warriors even to win their conference. For Lloyd Carr a win in one of these games might ease the pressure, but I would recommend that it’s Ohio State (see John Cooper). Iowa for me has their crucial test at home on September 16 against Iowa State. The Hawks are 2-3 against the Cyclones since 2001. Lose this game and Iowa could move themselves into a contender for implosion. Win and then they can think about Ohio State two weeks later. The Hawks also have a trip to Ann Arbor (Oct. 21) on the horizon, so I will believe the championship talk when I see it.

USC is the prime example of not one game that will define them but a whole string of games when put together form the hurdle that could derail the Trojans from even getting back to the BCS for a fourth straight year. The good part for SC fans is that it’s the last four games of the year. By then they will have the kinks worked out and should be at their top form. The question is whether the top form of what is left is good enough to run through Oregon (Nov. 11), Cal (Nov. 18), Notre Dame (Nov. 25), and then UCLA (Dec. 2) at the Rose Bowl. Each one of those teams will be well motivated due to last year’s results against the Trojans. For each of them it’s their game of the year. The other positive is three of four in L.A. for that stretch. All other programs in the Pac-10 will have their day against the Trojans. For the other nine it’s the only way for me to take you seriously.

Texas is two-fold. Beat Ohio State early in the season then the Oklahoma showdown is the last hurdle to getting back to the title game. A lot of prognosticators want to write off a team when replacing a quarterback, but I find it interesting when more people are writing off Texas than USC. Oklahoma is another likely title contender but the Sooner program is still reeling from the USC Orange Bowl loss. The natural inclination is to go with their annual Red River Shootout with Texas (Oct. 7) but Oklahoma also scheduled a game at Oregon (Sept. 16). Lose in Eugene in September and Oklahoma could have its fragile psyche crushed. For now, that is their game, then worry about Dallas. Nebraska is getting some play, but they’ll have to perform awfully well at USC (Sept. 16) for me to start believing. At Kansas State (Oct. 14) then home against Texas (Oct. 21) will be their chance to make a conference statement.

Louisville and West Virginia define each other’s seasons on November 2nd. True, Louisville plays Miami earlier in the year (Sept. 16), but even a loss to the Canes won’t affect the Cards’ BCS hopes. This game will decide your rep from the Big East, likely to the Orange Bowl.

Florida State and Miami also set the tone for each other on Labor Day. Winner keeps thinking national championship while the loser has their work cut out for them to get back to the ACC title game. (I still say it’s a shame that this game is played on Labor Day. I’ll have more on that another day.) Clemson has the two-step road bender in Boston (Sept. 9) and Tallahassee (Sept. 16). Win that and we’ll talk because after that it’s a trip to Blacksburg on a Thursday standing between them and being undefeated.

Mentioned before, Florida is setting the table for 2007. Their crucial game is either at Tennessee (Sept. 16), LSU at home (Oct. 7), at Auburn (Oct. 14), the Cocktail Party (Oct. 28), or at Florida State (Nov. 25). Take your pick. If this team were to somehow get to 12-0 then cue up ESPN because this would be the greatest team of all time. LSU could also enter the discussion having beat Auburn (Sept. 16), Florida (Oct. 7), Tennessee (Nov. 4), and Arkansas (Nov. 24) on the road if they’re undefeated. BCS-wise, Auburn and LSU will define each other. However, Auburn won’t prove anything to me until their 11-0. Alabama is their hardest road game and they would be undefeated headed to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 18th. Not good. Georgia always will have their prove it moment at the Cocktail Party on Oct. 28th. This year is no different.
Notre Dame has several turning points in their season, while any game can be considered huge for a national title run it’s the back-to-back games with Penn State (Sept. 9) and Michigan (Sept. 16) that will launch the Notre Dame title run. Win these two and then we Irish fans can start to begin thinking national championship.

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Heavenly time period: College football season until the championship game of March Madness.