One feature of almost every football schedule is the “if, then” game.
Though it can occur any time during the season, it packs the most punch early in the year, for instance, “if we can beat Arkansas in Week 2, then we’ll be 5-0 by October.”
It’s the one game—often a non-conference affair—that the early season pivots on. A win means a move up the rankings and continued hope, while a loss equals a step back and a struggle to regain championship momentum.
Following are nine such games from the first two weeks of college football. Though all seem fairly obvious, what’s important is the string of games that follow the big victory. In each case, it’s the “if, then” game followed by a run of “should win” contests.
If any of these teams reach pay dirt later in the season, these will be the wins that got the ball rolling—the signature victories necessary for a title run.
Texas A&M over South Carolina
The Aggies were No. 21 coming into their opener at South Carolina, a ranking many considered too high for the young, Manziel-less team. Texas A&M hung up 680 yards of offense on the No. 9 Gamecocks and strutted out of town with a 52-28 win.
The victory gained the Aggies 12 spots in the AP poll and a much different outlook on the season. Rather than approaching the rest of its schedule from a 0-1 foundation, A&M was 1-0 with FCS Lamar, Rice and SMU on tap.
The Aggies spanked Lamar 73-3 last Saturday night, moved up to No. 7 in the AP and have every reason to expect to be 4-0 by the time they meet Arkansas in Arlington on Sept. 27. If A&M can handle the Razorbacks and then take care of Mississippi State in Week 6 and Ole Miss in Week 7, it will be 7-0 coming into its Oct. 18 road trip to Alabama.
LSU over Wisconsin
Though LSU hasn’t lost a season opener since 2002 (remember they’ve knocked off the likes of No. 20 TCU, No. 3 Oregon, No. 18 North Carolina and No. 15 Arizona State), the importance of its win over No. 14 Wisconsin this season can’t be overstated.
If the Tigers wouldn’t have gone on a 15-point fourth-quarter run and rallied to beat the Badgers, they would have cost themselves a 5-0 start and a Top Ten ranking by the time they traveled to Auburn on Oct. 4.
The Tigers are 2-0 and ranked No. 10 after blanking FCS Sam Houston last weekend and have a run of home games with Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State and New Mexico State standing between them and the Auburn game.
Ole Miss over Boise State & Vanderbilt
While playing Boise State and Vanderbilt to open up the season isn’t necessarily squaring off with Alabama and Florida State, it’s not like facing Southern Miss and UAB—Mississippi State’s first two opponents in 2014—either.
Ole Miss was No. 18 in the AP preseason poll and after taking care of Boise State in Atlanta (35-13) and Vanderbilt in Nashville (35-13) are No. 14 and have a far easier path between now and Oct. 4, when it welcomes Alabama to Oxford.
If the Rebels can take care of Louisiana-Lafayette this Saturday and beat Memphis on Sept. 27 after a bye next week, they will be 4-0 and nearing Top Ten status by the time they gird their loins for a run of games with the Crimson Tide, Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn.
Louisville over Miami (Fla.)
Not only was Louisville’s 31-13 win over Miami (Fla.) in the season opener the first-ever ACC action for the Cardinals, it set up a sweet scenario for a team that was unranked in the preseason polls.
Yes, if Louisville could beat the Hurricanes in Week 1, it could engineer a 6-0 start to the season.
The win moved the Cardinals into the No. 25 slot in the AP and the Week 2 victory over FCS Murray State (66-21) took them to No. 21.
Standing between Louisville and its Oct. 11 date at Clemson are Virginia this Saturday in Charlottesville, FIU in Week 4, Wake Forest in Week 5 and Syracuse on the Friday night leading into Week 6.
Virginia Tech over Ohio State
Another ACC team omitted from the preseason AP, Virginia Tech’s 35-21 Week 2 triumph over No. 8 Ohio State secured the Hokies the biggest jump in the polls thus far this season.
After a 34-9 win over FCS William & Maryland, the road trip to Columbus to face the Buckeyes was literally the gateway to the rest of Virginia Tech’s season. Theirs was the case of “win in Week 2 and have a chance to go undefeated.”
Though there are plenty of twists and turns left for the Hokies, they have one of the most compelling opportunities to win out in 2014. Here’s what’s left: East Carolina, Georgia Tech, Western Michigan, at North Carolina, at Pitt, Miami (Fla.), Boston College, at Duke, at Wake Forest and Virginia.
USC over Stanford
The Trojans’ 53-yard field goal with two minutes remaining not only iced No. 13 Stanford last Saturday, it set USC up for what could be a return to the national spotlight via the College Football Playoff.
The truth is, the now No. 9 Trojans have as much work left to do as any team on the list, but they still have a shot of being 10-0 by the time the UCLA game rolls around on Nov. 22.
Making the run will mean wins over Boston College, Oregon State, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah, Washington State and Cal.
It’s a realistic scenario and could mean that USC’s closing games at UCLA and at home with Notre Dame will be “game of the century” material.
Oregon over Michigan State
Oregon is the other Pac-12 team that passed a difficult test in Week 2, another possible gateway to bigger and better things.
The Ducks were No. 3 coming into their clash with No. 7 Michigan State, the 46-27 win earned them the No. 2 slot in the AP, jumping over Alabama which had the much lighter task of facing Florida Atlantic last Saturday.
Though Oregon should have no problem being at 4-0 when it welcomes Arizona to Eugene on Oct. 2 (Wyoming and Washington State), and 5-0 after beating the Wildcats, after that things become more difficult. Yes, were USC will wait until the end of the season to see if No. 12 UCLA is for real, the Ducks will travel to L.A. and find out for themselves on Oct. 11.
After that it’s Washington and Cal followed by another date with pesky Stanford, the team which has used defense to knock Oregon out of its top-two ranking the last two seasons.
Notre Dame over Michigan
Notre Dame is more like Ole Miss than Virginia Tech in that its big early-season win points to a 4-0 start rather than the promise of a 10-0 run.
The Irish began the season ranked No. 17 in the AP and moved up to No. 16 after rolling over Rice 48-17 in the opener. Notre Dame’s 31-0 shutout of Michigan earned it a five-slot climb to No. 11, where it ought to stay or improve upon until a Week 6 visit by Stanford.
The Irish have Purdue this Saturday in Indianapolis, take the next week off and then hook up with Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J. on Sept. 27.
Even if Notre Dame can squash Stanford, it will have to deal with a visit from Florida State on Oct. 18, making its road to a possible College Football Playoff appearance as difficult as that of any power-five team.
BYU over Texas
While the focus of the BYU’s 41-7 triumph over Texas has been on how horrible the Longhorns played, what about the Cougars and what the win does for the rest of their season?
The truth is, Texas may be the closest thing to a ranked opponent that BYU will see all season. While the Longhorns weren’t ranked coming into the game, they did receive 126 votes in the Week 2 AP poll, making them technically the No. 26 team.
What’s left for BYU is a run 10 of opponents it can beat: Houston (tonight at 9:00pm EST on ESPN), Virginia, Utah State, UCF, Nevada, Boise State, Middle Tennessee, UNLV, FCS Savannah State and Cal.
The Cougars running the tables would result in a question nobody thought to ask in the first season of the College Football Playoff: What do we do with a 12-0 independent team that is not Notre Dame?