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Kirk Herbstreit keeping an eye on top college football teams on the road vs. lesser opponents

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit on the

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit on the set of the "College GameDay" for its preview show on Aug. 24, 2017. Credit: ESPN Images / Nick Caito

Saturday night’s game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State will have quite a bit of historical significance. It’s the first college football game at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but more importantly, it marks the first time two preseason top-three teams meet in a season opener since the creation of the AP poll in 1950.

But don’t be too quick in saying it’s a make-or-break game for either team’s College Football Playoff hopes, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit says. That’ll come later, in games with much fewer eyeballs on them.

“Sometimes you have to look beyond the heavyweight matchups to really find the potential pitfall,” Herbstreit told Newsday on Thursday during a call to promote Allstate’s All Hands In program. “I think with Alabama, you look at Alabama and you think, ‘Man, I can’t believe Alabama has to play Florida State, and they’ve got Auburn at the end of the year.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Man, Nov. 11, they go to Starkville, Mississippi [to face Mississippi State], and they better be ready to play in that game.’ Because those games test your leadership and your maturity more than anything.”

That maturity, Herbstreit said, is something fans tend to underestimate when they’re picking games.

“Fans look at games on paper,” he said. “They see games and think, ‘Well, this team is better than this team, so this team should win.’ And what’s very different about college football is these are 18- to 22-year-old kids, they go to class, they deal with stress of a girlfriend or stress of not doing well on an exam or whatever it is. There’s a lot of ebb and flow emotionally with these guys.”

Herbstreit said to keep an eye on when a powerhouse team goes on the road to face a lesser opponent. Games such as the Crimson Tide’s game against Mississippi State.

“What has a tendency to happen is you don’t have the fastball working that day, next thing you know you look up and late in the third quarter, you’re down by three and you’re thinking, ‘Man, we just don’t have it today, what’s going on?’” he said. “And that happens every year in college football. And those to me are the games that are more dangerous than looking at Alabama playing Auburn, or Ohio State playing Oklahoma or Michigan.”

One such case happened last year, when Iowa, sitting just a game above .500 at 5-4, stunned then-No. 3 Michigan, 14-13, in Iowa City on Nov. 13. The loss ended the Wolverines’ unbeaten season and all but knocked them out of the playoff hunt.

“If you remember the week before, the worst thing that could have ever happened to Michigan was Iowa went to Penn State and lost, 41-14, and it was an embarrassing, embarrassing loss,” Herbstreit said. “And then they come back home the next week and here comes big, bad Michigan, everybody all week is like, ‘Oh my gosh, Iowa is going to get killed by Michigan, they’ve got no chance,’ and it just kind of set itself up perfectly.”

And then there are the teams that come from nowhere and jump into the playoff discussion. Scroll through the preseason picks across the internet, and you’ll likely see the same four names pop up: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and USC.

But outside of their own practices, there’s very little preseason exposure for each team, so it’s anyone’s guess whether or not August picks will shake out. And sometimes, Herbstreit said, there’s even some projection on the coach’s part.

“If you’re a fan of NFL football, you’ve seen your team now two or three times, and you’re starting to get a feel – even if it’s preseason – about just what the team looks like, and that new rookie looks pretty good, and you at least have seen them,” he said. “And my kids play high school football, it’s the same thing with high school football. College football, you’ve got a Phil Steele magazine and you’ve talked to a few coaches on the phone, but even they don’t know how freshmen -- or redshirt freshmen, or a sophomore who’s never played -- are going to play until they get out there in front of 80,000, 100,000, millions of people watching at home.

“It’s impossible for them to know, and so it’s impossible for us to know if the coaches don’t even know about their own players. So that’s, to me, the beauty of college football and what makes it so compelling, is we think we know, but you really don’t know until you see them play.”

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