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Forty observations for 2014: Big House's ugly schedule, Irish's friendly early slate

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

In the Southern Hemisphere the talk is all futbol. And, yes, a fair number of people are watching the proceedings here in the Northern Hemisphere as well.

But football season is approaching here in America. We're four weeks from the Southeastern Conference starting the media days party train, and teams will report to fall camp just a few weeks after that. Games begin in just 72 days.

So it's high time for the annual scrub of the college football schedule. Forty observations on what stands out in the 2014 slate:

1. Notre Dame won't encounter a truly hostile atmosphere until Oct. 18. The fact that it's at defending national champion Florida State partially makes up for the six-game stretch of games that precede it, but this clearly is a schedule set up for success – if the team is good enough to seize the opportunity. The Fighting Irish host Rice and Michigan, then face Purdue and Syracuse in NFL stadium games in Indianapolis and East Rutherford, N.J., respectively. After that are home games against Stanford and North Carolina. Over the previous four seasons, seven different Big Ten teams have started the season with at least five games before a true road contest, with varied results. In 2010 Michigan State reeled off eight straight wins to start the season. In 2011, Michigan and Illinois started 6-0 and Wisconsin 5-0 with home-heavy early schedules. But similar schedules didn't translate to great years for Iowa (4-8) in 2012, or Nebraska (9-4) and Indiana (5-7) in '13. The guess here is that Notre Dame will be 5-1 heading to Tallahassee. (Where the Irish also will play their first game of the year on natural grass, after heretically converting Notre Dame Stadium to FieldTurf.)

2. At Michigan, student ticket-sales projections are way down for 2014, and there may not be a strong enough market among other fans to pick up that slack and fill nearly 110,000 seats. While soft student attendance is a growing national trend, there is a specific reason why Big Blue fans are likely uninterested in shelling out big bucks at the Big House: the home schedule is awful. It consists of Appalachian State (yes, everyone remembers 2007, but that brand of lightning doesn't strike twice), Miami of Ohio (coming off its first winless season since 1940), Utah, Minnesota, depleted Penn State, Indiana and Maryland. How much would you pay for that season-ticket package?

3. The Southeastern Conference has gotten a lot of ribbing over its non-conference scheduling in recent years, some of it justified. But the league at least offers some quality opening-weekend matchups – in addition to two league games, Georgia hosts Clemson, LSU plays Wisconsin in Houston, Alabama plays West Virginia in Atlanta and Mississippi plays Boise State in Atlanta. Fewer than half the 14 SEC teams open by scheduling what should be guaranteed victories: Southern Mississippi at Mississippi State; Idaho at Florida; South Dakota State at Missouri; Utah State at Tennessee (no sure thing); UT-Martin at Kentucky; and Temple at Vanderbilt.

4. The SEC also has taken out some of the garbage on the regular season's penultimate weekend, Nov. 22. There still is plenty of dreck for schools heading into huge rivalry games Nov. 29: Western Carolina at Alabama; Samford at Auburn; Charleston Southern at Georgia; South Alabama at South Carolina; Eastern Kentucky at Florida. But there also are a few league games that could have bowl implications: Mississippi at Arkansas; Vanderbilt at Mississippi State; and Missouri at Tennessee.

5. The SEC has yet to allow Texas A&M to ease into a season. In 2012, the Aggies' SEC debut was a 20-17 loss to a Florida team that would play in the Sugar Bowl. In 2013, the Aggies' first league game was a 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama. Now Texas A&M opens year three in the league at likely preseason Top 10 South Carolina on Thursday, Aug. 28. And there is no Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans or Jake Matthews at Kevin Sumlin's disposal. (Then again, there is no Jadeveon Clowney on the other side, either.)

6. Speaking of not easing in: Tennessee's September opponents were a combined 36-17 last year (Utah State, Arkansas State, Oklahoma, Georgia). Then comes Florida, which has beaten the Volunteers nine straight times. That will be the first meeting between the two outside the month of September since the 2001 game that was postponed to December by 9/11.

7. If you want to go undefeated in a power-five conference, a schedule like Oklahoma's helps. The Sooners' first five opponents all had losing records in 2013, and only two of the final seven are true road games. If Oklahoma is in the four-team playoff mix, expect to hear a lot of chatter about the strength of that schedule – though it could play out to be tougher than it looks on paper, if some of those early opponents rebound from disappointing seasons.

8. Most cowardly non-conference schedule for a power-five team: North Carolina State, which plays Presbyterian (No. 231 in the Sagarin Ratings last year), Georgia Southern (No. 148), Old Dominion (No. 133) and South Florida (No. 143).

9. Highly regarded UCLA is all over the map in September. The Bruins open with a cross-country trip to Virginia, have a JerryWorld game against Texas Sept. 13 and visit Arizona State in a Thursday night game Sept. 25. They play just one home game in the opening month (Memphis, Sept. 6). And once again, the cross-over games against the Pac-12 North are brutal: Oregon, Stanford, at Washington. At least this time the Ducks and Cardinal are not on consecutive weeks, and both must come to Pasadena.

10. In conjunction with ESPN, the Atlantic Coast Conference has done a nice job making Labor Day night a league showcase. For a couple of years it was Miami-Florida State, then last year Pittsburgh and a guy named Jameis Winston both made their ACC debuts. This year Louisville hosts its first-ever ACC game against Miami, in what will be Bobby Petrino's return to relevance post-Harley crash. Worth noting that Petrino is 9-0 in season openers as a head coach.

11. The guy Petrino replaced, Charlie Strong, opens his Texas tenure with a lot of home cooking. The Longhorns only leave the state once before Oct. 25, and that's to visit Big 12 weak sister Kansas. Then again, Mack Brown's last visit to Lawrence was a narrow, 21-17 escape in 2012 that could have ended his tenure a year earlier if the result had been different. Strong's burnt orange opener is against North Texas.

12. Other notable new face/new place debuts: Steve Sarkisian and USC host Fresno State; Chris Petersen and Washington are at Hawaii, a place he visited several times while at Boise State; James Franklin and Penn State play Central Florida in Ireland; Bryan Harsin and Boise State play Mississippi in Atlanta; Dave Clawson and Wake Forest visit Louisiana-Monroe in a Thursday night trap game. (If Wake qualifies as worthy of a trapping.)

13. Notable new face/new place debuts, program version: Rutgers breaks into the Big Ten by hosting old-school Eastern opponent Penn State Sept. 13; Maryland is at Indiana Sept. 27, in a matchup that utterly fails to move the needle. Aside from Louisville to the ACC, that's it in terms of notable conference changes.

14. Half of Central Florida's 12 games are on Saturdays in the United States. Half are not: in addition to the previously mentioned Penn State game in Dublin, there are five games on Thursday or Friday nights. The Mid-American Conference has midweek MACtion, and the American Athletic Conference has AACtion. Yee haw.

15. In a triumph of AAC scheduling, probable preseason favorites UCF and Cincinnati do not meet. For the second year in a row.

16. In another triumph of AAC scheduling, Cincinnati opens the season with the coveted double-bye. The Bearcats' first game is Friday, Sept. 12, against Toledo.

17. Ohio State's series with Wisconsin, which has been highly eventful in recent years, goes on hiatus with the divisional realignment of the Big Ten. But the arrival of Michigan State as an annual opponent should more than compensate for that. This year's meeting is Nov. 8 in East Lansing, and as of now it shapes up as the conference's Game of the Year. You may remember last year's matchup, in the Big Ten title game. Last time Urban Meyer suffered a loss that painful, he wound up in the hospital in Gainesville, Fla., and then retired for about 48 hours.

18. Wisconsin hasn't lost a season opener since 1997, but playing LSU in Houston will severely test that streak. Especially since the Badgers have a rebuilt front seven going up against a Les Miles team that may run the football a thousand times, given the inexperience at quarterback and wide receiver. Among the LSU backs the Badgers must tackle: freshman Leonard Fournette, Rivals.com's No. 1 offensive recruit the country.

19. LSU does not have a bye week until Nov. 1. We'll see how healthy the Tigers are by the last of those nine Saturdays without a break, when they host Mississippi Oct. 25. The Rebels beat LSU in Oxford last year, reigniting the on-again, off-again fan angst with The Hat.

20. Speaking of Ole Miss: the Rebels must visit Vanderbilt for the second straight season, part of the sausage-making the SEC did to churn out a 14-team schedule. Previously, Georgia had to visit Auburn two years in a row – the latter of which featured that tipped-ball miracle bomb that helped propel the Tigers to the BCS Championship Game.

21. As if Will Muschamp weren't battling enough negative momentum, nobody in the SEC had a worse cross-division change from last year to this year than his Florida Gators. Last year, Florida hosted an Arkansas team that would go 0-8 in the league. This year, the Razorbacks are replaced on the schedule by a trip to Alabama. And the Gators' annual crossover opponent is LSU.

22. South Florida gives itself a chance to reverse its alarming slide from relevance early with four straight home games. The Bulls open by hosting Western Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina State and Connecticut – and if the program has made major strides heading into its second year under Willie Taggart, a winning record is not out of the question heading to Wisconsin Sept. 27.

23. Strangest road game of the year: Baylor at Buffalo on Friday, Sept. 12. Could be the only time in 2014 that a Top 25 team visits a MAC school. That begins a stretch of three straight on the road for the Bears, and four of five between Sept. 12-Oct. 18. Opening with three of its first five on the road is far different from last year, when Baylor played five of its first six at home en route to a 9-0 start. (Runner-up for weirdest road game: Arizona at UT-San Antonio Sept. 4.)

24. Toughest travel stretch in the country may belong to Army, which goes cross-country to play Stanford Sept. 13, then travels to Wake Forest Sept. 20, then plays at Yale Sept. 27. At least the last of those three games is a short commute.

25. Congratulations to the Virginia Cavaliers. Per Phil Steele's yearbook, you are the only team in America to keep it real – all 12 games are on natural grass.

26. The teams that are straight fake, playing every game on artificial turf, per Phil Steele: Indiana, New Mexico, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Miami (Ohio), Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Florida International, North Texas, UTEP, Louisiana-Lafayette. (I'd love to hear why FIU has artificial turf, and I'd love to find out how hot it gets on that field in September.)

27. Sept. 13: watch out for the traps. Among the potential upsets on the third week of the season: Boston College over USC, which makes the long trek East after playing at Stanford the previous week; East Carolina over Virginia Tech, which is coming off a game at Ohio State Sept. 6; Louisiana-Lafayette over Ole Miss, as the Rebels rebound from opening against Boise State in Atlanta and playing at Vandy; and Connecticut over Boise, which has a tough commute to New England after plaing Ole Miss and Colorado State in the first two weeks.

28. Other hangover-game scenarios: Ohio State and Michigan State play on Nov. 8, then both are on the road the next week – the Buckeyes at Minnesota and the Spartans at Maryland. On Sept. 27, Florida State visits its house of horrors, Raleigh, one week after playing Clemson; the Tigers host North Carolina that day in another dangerous matchup.

29. Power Five teams potentially walking into a September ambush against teams from lesser leagues: Missouri at Toledo, Sept. 6; Towson at West Virginia a week after the Mountaineers play Alabama and a week before rivalry game with Maryland, Sept. 6; Penn State hosting Akron a week after playing in Ireland, Sept. 6; Nebraska at Fresno State, Sept. 13; Mississippi State at South Alabama, Sept. 13; Arkansas hosting Northern Illinois, Sept. 20.

30. Biggest potential humidity meltdown: Idaho at Florida, Aug. 30.

31. Biggest potential cold-weather culture shock: SMU traveling to UConn, Dec. 6.

32. Biggest potential temperature inversion: Kentucky-Louisville game, an annual sweat bath on the season's opening weekend, has been moved to the back end of the schedule, Nov. 29. That will place it in line with the other ACC-SEC matchups traditionally played that day (Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida Florida-State).

33. Biggest potential fan interest inversion: Kentucky-Louisville. With the game as the season opener, fans from both sides talked football much of the summer. With it moved to late November, there is a strong chance both fan bases will have emotionally moved on to the schools' flagship sport of basketball.

34. In searching for the toughest six-week stretch of the season, I gave the edge to what Stanford has to endure from Sept. 27-Nov. 1. The gauntlet: at Washington, at Notre Dame, home against Washington State on a six-day turnaround, at Arizona State, home against Oregon State, at Oregon. The four road games are against teams that were 39-14 last year.

35. The single worst team on the schedule of any putative power team is Savannah State, No. 242 last year in the Sagarin Ratings, which visits BYU Nov. 22. The Tigers were 1-11 last year, losing to Georgia Southern 77-9, Troy 66-3 and Miami 77-7.

36. Best Saturday of the season not including Nov. 29 (rivalry weekend) or Dec. 6 (conference championship weekend): Nov. 8. That's the annual Alabama-LSU toughman contest, but that's not all. That's also Ohio State-Michigan State, quite possibly with the Big Ten East Division title on the line. And Baylor-Oklahoma, with potential Big 12 title ramifications. And UCLA-Washington. (Runner-up best Saturday: Sept. 6, with Michigan State-Oregon, Stanford-USC, Michigan-Notre Dame, Virginia Tech-Ohio State.)

37. Best Thursday doubleheader of the season not including Nov. 27 (Thanksgiving): Oct. 2. UCF at Houston, Arizona at Oregon. Don't tune in expecting a lot of huddling.

38. Best Saturday to pretend you like your family and do something with them instead of spending all day watching football: Nov. 22. (Runner-up: Nov. 15. Just not much happening between Nov. 8 and Thanksgiving.)

39. Leading candidate to, in hindsight, be the most overrated Saturday of the season: Sept. 13. UCLA-Texas, Tennessee-Oklahoma, Georgia-South Carolina. Big names, but perhaps not good games. Or games that ultimately will make an impact on who wins the national title.

40. Abilene Christian at Georgia State Wednesday, Aug. 27. It begins.

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