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12 games that will shape race for College Football Playoff

Associated Press
Marcus Mariota and Shilique Calhoun will face off when Oregon and Michigan State meet on Sept. 6.

The thought that "every game is created equal" had some merit in the BCS era, and that will carry over into the start of the playoff era (though that phrase will lose some meaning when we inevitably go to an eight- or 12- or 16-team playoff).

Still, there are some games that carry more weight -- games that truly will shape the College Football Playoff picture. We came up with a dozen of those for this season.

We didn't pick conference title games, with the thought being, "Duh. They're obviously important." Instead, we went with games that are true regular-season contests.

The games are listed chronologically.

USC at Stanford, Sept. 6, 3:30 p.m., ABC

This is one of the biggest Pac-12 games of the season, and it comes on the second weekend. Both appear to be the second-best team in their respective divisions, but the winner in this one will be able to stake a claim to being the best in the league. In the bigger picture, the winner gets a big-time conference win under its belt early. And it's always good to have a big-time conference win under your belt early.

Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m., Fox

This is the best non-conference game of the season, matching the Spartans' brute force against the Ducks' speed and finesse. Oregon has struggled beating teams of that ilk of late. The winner stamps itself as a national title contender; the loser resigns itself to knowing that it has zero margin for error the rest of the way if it wants to make the four-team playoff. This also is a huge game for the Big Ten as a whole: A win at what is sure to be a raucous Autzen Stadium by Michigan State would improve the perception of the league.

Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

A Thursday-night game, this is one of three huge road games for Auburn, along with visits to Georgia and Alabama (both of those are in November). This will feature Auburn's speed against K-State's brawn. K-State can move itself into playoff talk with a victory. And a win means K-State almost certainly would be 5-0 when it travels to play Oklahoma in what then could become the Big 12's game of the year.

Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11, TV TBA

These look to be the best teams in their respective Pac-12 divisions; this also could be the first meeting between the two, as they easily could meet again in the league championship game, so the loser very well could get a chance for revenge. Still, the winner will be able to crow that it is the best team in the league. It also will be big for the Heisman hopes of quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA.

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Notre Dame at Florida State, Oct. 18, TV TBA

This is the first of two big back-to-back games for the Seminoles, who might be the most talented team in the nation; they play at Louisville 12 days later. If FSU isn't 6-0 when the Irish come calling, something will have gone terribly wrong. Notre Dame already will have played Michigan and Stanford by the time the Irish go to Tallahassee; if the Irish come in unbeaten, prepare for some "Game of the Year" talk.

South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25, TV TBA

Who's the best team in the SEC East? On paper, it appears to be South Carolina, and this is the Gamecocks' toughest road game of the season. Heck, it might also be the Gamecocks' toughest game overall, meaning a win on the Plains could set up huge things for Steve Spurrier's crew. Auburn has the toughest schedule of any SEC title contender, and this looks to be the Tigers' most difficult home game.

Florida State at Louisville, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

A Thursday-night game, this is also FSU's toughest road contest. Louisville is being overlooked a bit, but if the Cardinals win at Clemson on Oct. 11, they likely will be 8-0 when the Seminoles come to town. In that scenario, the Cardinals would become the ACC's best bet for the playoff with an upset of the defending national champions.

Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 1, TV TBA

This has become the game in the Pac-12. Stanford has won the past two, which have been relatively low-scoring affairs (77 total points in the past two games); those two games came on the heels of two Oregon wins in which there were a total of 166 points scored. Once again, it'll be Oregon's finesse vs. Stanford's toughness; toughness has carried the day the past two seasons. The game-within-a-game featuring quarterbacks Kevin Hogan of Stanford and Mariota will be worthwhile for NFL scouts, too.

Alabama at LSU, Nov. 8, TV TBA

This is the Tide's toughest road test -- but the Tide is 26-9-2 all-time in Baton Rouge and has won five of the past seven overall against the Tigers. Everyone expects the Tide to be unbeaten at kickoff, while LSU seems likely to come in with a loss (or two). Thus, LSU could be in the spoiler role -- and spoiling the Tide's unbeaten season would be cause for a celebration (or two) among Tigers faithful.

The BCS is gone, replaced by the College Football Playoff. It's the dawning of a new and exciting era, with a four-team playoff starting this season. CFB 24/7 presents a primer to get you ready.

More:
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» CFB 24/7 Top 25 Power Rankings | AP Top 25
» Updated bowl projections

Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 8, TV TBA

On paper, this is the Big 12 game of the year. This also will be Baylor's final true road game of the season (the Bears have a neutral-site game in Arlington, Texas, against Texas Tech on Nov. 29). It's not a stretch to see both teams unbeaten at kickoff, which means the winner will be in great shape to go unbeaten -- and earn a playoff spot.

Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8, 8 p.m., ABC

This is the third of three huge conference showdowns on Nov. 8, though it has lost some luster with the season-ending injury to Buckeyes QB Braxton Miller. These are the two most talented teams in the Big Ten, but Michigan State has become the prohibitive favorite to win the league because of Miller's injury. In a way, Miller's absence increases the importance for the Spartans of the non-conference game at Oregon on Sept. 6. If Michigan State wins at Autzen Stadium, it could run the table. And the thought here is that unless Michigan State is unbeaten, the Big Ten has no shot at getting a team into the four-team playoff. Thus, if Michigan State is unbeaten at kickoff of this showdown, it will know it has to win to remain the playoff hunt.

Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29, TV TBA

The winner of the nation's most intense rivalry has gone on to play for the national title in each of the past five seasons. Could it happen again? Auburn has a far tougher schedule than the Crimson Tide. But if both come in unbeaten, it will be safe to call this a playoff play-in game.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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