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Top teams can afford September loss

The prognosticators would have you believe it's a four-team race.

Almost every preseason college football poll released this summer has, in some order, Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU and Oregon -- squads that have appeared in each of the last four BCS national championship games -- as the best teams in the nation.

But perhaps that won't be the case for long. What could make this season extremely interesting in a hurry is that all four of those teams have at least one dangerous game away from home in September; LSU has three.

It starts with LSU and Oregon going head-to-head in Arlington, Texas, on the first Saturday of the season. The winner probably won't find itself in any stronger position, but the loser will face the daunting task of needing to respond with 12 consecutive wins just to keep its national championship hopes alive.

Then the pressure shifts to Alabama, which travels to Penn State in Week 2. Very few people are chatting this up as a potential upset, but when you put an inexperienced quarterback (or two) in front of more than 100,000 opposing fans, there is always a chance for a meltdown.

Week 3 gives us a couple more road tests for the preseason elite. On Thursday night, LSU visits Mississippi State, ranked No. 20 in the USA Today Poll. Then, on Saturday (Sept. 17), Oklahoma is in Tallahassee to take on a Florida State team with national title aspirations of its own.

September concludes with Alabama, LSU and Oregon each getting one more challenge. The Tide face a talented Arkansas team (in Tuscaloosa), the Tigers travel to West Virginia, and the Ducks open conference play at Arizona.

Put it all together, and there's opportunity for significant upheaval at the top of the polls in the early weeks of the season. And don't forget that Alabama and LSU still have to play each other in November.

So, if two of those four teams aren't in the driver's seat when October arrives, who could be?

Behind that quartet is a large tier of teams that have mostly been nonfactors in the national championship races of the last nine seasons. None of the 13 teams in the 5 through 17 slots in ESPN.com's Power Rankings has appeared in the top two of the BCS standings at any point since 2002.

This is what happens when Florida, USC, Texas and Michigan are nowhere to be found in the top 20, and Ohio State is reeling from the offseason losses of its coach and star quarterback.

Even still, there are plenty of familiar faces in this second tier of contenders, and one to keep an eye on is Virginia Tech. The Hokies are sitting at No. 14 in ESPN.com's Power Rankings, and they are the only top-25 team without a ranked opponent on its 12-game schedule. Tech would have to go through Florida State in the ACC championship game if the divisions play out as expected, but it's still a very friendly path on paper.

Don't assume, however, that any team -- even from a major conference -- with a weak schedule would be a lock to finish ahead of a one-loss SEC champion in the final BCS standings. Not only has that conference won the last five BCS titles, but the West Division also projects to be incredibly strong in 2011. That probably gives Alabama and LSU the best odds of surviving a loss this season, assuming that setback doesn't ultimately cost them the SEC title.

As Auburn showed last year, you can win the national championship from way back in the preseason rankings if you go undefeated in a strong conference. But in order to capture the title after losing a game, a lofty preseason profile is of the utmost importance.

Over the last 50 years, 16 teams have won the AP national championship with a mark in the loss column, and all but one of them ('83 Miami) began the season ranked in the top eight.

With the tough tests facing Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU and Oregon in September, that has to be somewhat comforting to them.

Brad Edwards analyzes college football for the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is also a co-host of College GameDay on ESPN Radio. He will be contributing a weekly column for ESPN Insider. You can follow him on Twitter