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September Stumbling Blocks for 2019's College Football Playoff Hopefuls

Losing in the first month of the season isn't the end of the world for a preseason playoff hopeful, but it can make the climb back into the top four extremely difficult. Here's an early look at this year's early potential traps.

In early September, the College Football Playoff can seem eons away, but by the end of the month, it might feel like it’s just around the corner. That’s in part due to the constant prognosticating, even before the CFP committee releases its first rankings following Week 10 action’s, and in part because early-season craziness can easily eliminate and elevate teams.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the September games that might trip up the most talented playoff contenders or elevate fringe hopefuls, broken down by the tier of opponent faced.

Playoff Contender vs. Playoff Contender

Notre Dame at Georgia, Sept. 21, Time TBD: As usual, Notre Dame will have a tough time making a solid playoff case if it doesn’t go undefeated, and this will be its biggest stumbling block on that quest. A win over Georgia would go a long way toward redeeming the Irish after their playoff evisceration at the hands of Clemson last year—and a blowout loss would do the exact opposite, reinforcing the argument that Notre Dame doesn’t belong among the game’s best. On the other side of the coin, Georgia would be in an enviable position entering the meat of its SEC schedule with a win, and a close loss (assuming Notre Dame looks like the real deal) might not ruin things, either. The Bulldogs used a September win in South Bend to bolster their 2017 playoff credentials; there will be similar stakes this time around.

Playoff Contender vs. Fringe Contender

Oregon vs. Auburn (at AT&T Stadium in Arlington), Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET: Here, I’m considering Oregon the more legitimate contender. Auburn has a tougher path to the playoff, and after a tumultuous three-year stretch, the Ducks look ready to compete in the Pac-12 again. From 2016 to ’18, Oregon had a new coach every year, and last season, Mario Cristobal won nine games thanks to strong play from quarterback Justin Herbert, who will have an experienced and talented offensive line backing him up this fall. Beating Auburn on a neutral field would be a statement for the Ducks, while a loss would put them in a hole potentially too deep for the rest of their schedule to dig them out of. For Auburn, a win would put Gus Malzahn’s team on a different level after last year’s Music City Bowl demolition of Purdue offered a peek at the Tigers’ ceiling.

Michigan vs. Army, Sept. 7, Noon ET: Army, which should be a top-25 team in preseason polls, almost complicate the playoff picture a year ago when it took future Big 12 champ Oklahoma to overtime in Norman. This year, it’ll look to trip up Michigan in Ann Arbor, which is a real possibility thanks to the Black Knights’ clock-chewing option attack, led by quarterback Kelvin Hopkins. Michigan’s defense will have its hands full as it looks to replace several key contributors from last year’s squad. The game might hinge on the Army defense, which lost coordinator Jay Bateman to North Carolina.

Clemson vs. Texas A&M, Sept. 7, 3:30 p.m. ET: Clemson is once again expected to be either the best or second-best team in the country, despite losing the core of its vaunted defensive line to graduation and the NFL draft. Meanwhile, Texas A&M is on the upswing; a year ago it won nine games, the most of any Aggies team since 2013, and logged a bowl victory for the first time in four years. Thanks to quarterback Kellen Mond, a dominant offensive line and a ton of promise on the defensive front, Texas A&M looks like it has the makings of a top-10 team—and after taking the Tigers to overtime at Kyle Field last year, the Aggies might be able to take Clemson’s reloading defense by surprise early.

Michigan at Wisconsin, Sept. 21, Noon ET: The Wolverines’ tough September continues on the road at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers had their worst season under Paul Chryst last year, and in 2019, they face a ton of questions: Who will play quarterback? Can the special teams improve? Will the young talent on defense yield a new crop of reliable starters? Both the Badgers and Wolverines will be coming off of byes before this game, and if Wisconsin has identified its quarterback and running back Jonathan Taylor goes wild, an upset isn’t outside of the realm of possibility. A Wisconsin win would trip up Michigan’s playoff hopes, and it would change the narrative surrounding the Badgers’ bounceback year in the process.

Ohio State at Nebraska, Sept. 28, Time TBD: Sure, Nebraska had a terrible start to 2018, but coach Scott Frost turned things around in the second half and then pulled in a whopper of a recruiting class. That’s enough to give the Cornhuskers momentum as a Big Ten sleeper and a decent chance at a preseason ranking, and the Ohio State game will be their first real test. It’ll also be the Buckeyes’ toughest September game, and let’s not forget last November, when 2–6 Nebraska nearly topped Ohio State.

Playoff Contender vs. Underdog

Clemson vs. Georgia Tech, Aug. 29, 8 p.m. ET: This game is interesting thanks to the uncertainty surrounding Georgia Tech under new coach Geoff Collins. From early reports, the Yellow Jackets are going to look really, really odd, with players getting looks on both sides of the ball as the new coaching staff tries to make the best use of recruiting classes constructed with Paul Johnson’s triple option system in mind. It’s probably going to be messy at times, but there will be no better time to catch Clemson off-guard than a Week 1 conference game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one be close at halftime.

Oklahoma vs. Houston, Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m. ET: This is the second half of the “home-and-home” series that began in 2016, when Oklahoma lost to Houston at NRG Stadium in Week 1. Now the Sooners are coming off two consecutive playoff berths, and Houston has a new coach whom Lincoln Riley knows quite well. It’ll be Dana Holgorsen’s first game leading the Cougars, Jalen Hurts’s first as Oklahoma’s quarterback. Is Oklahoma the better team? Certainly. But if dynamic dual-threat quarterback D’Eriq King is healthy, Houston might be able to put up points on an inconsistent Sooners defense.

Ohio State vs. Cincinnati, Sept. 7, Noon ET: Cincinnati was one of the surprise teams of 2018, winning 11 games under coach Luke Fickell, the former Ohio State interim who’s now in his third year leading the Bearcats. Don’t let that storyline distract from the fact that Cincinnati should be pretty good again, with two great running backs, dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder and a defense that was one of the country’s best last year. It’s hard to imagine Ohio State losing in Week 2 at home, but Cincinnati will be a test for coach Ryan Day.

Oklahoma vs. Texas Tech, Sept. 28, Time TBD: Texas Tech has a new coach this fall, former Utah State head man Matt Wells, who will preserve the identity if not the exact scheme of Kliff Kingsbury’s high-powered offenses. And although the Red Raiders’ 5–7 finish a year ago doesn’t inspire much fear, the team did play its tough opponents close: Its losses to ranked teams (Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas) came by an average of 6.7 points. It also beat Oklahoma State handily. If Tech’s offense gets going early, a so-so Oklahoma defense could struggle.