While College Football Playoff teams will ebb and flow all season long, these 10 games will decide the sport’s postseason.
It’s college football, so every contest is a playoff game in its own way. That said, some are obviously much more important than others. Which 10 games are the most important in deciding who’s going to get into the fun tournament?
This goes beyond just the fun and exciting matchups like LSU vs. Wisconsin or Clemson at Auburn. First, the goal is to figure out which teams might be playing for a conference title, which ones could win a conference championship, and which games along the way could decide that in the regular season.
Obviously, all four Power 5 championship games matter the most, so they’re off the list, but to kick this off as a wacky projection, one of the key games that could decide your 2017 College Football Playoff field is …
10. Dec. 3, Mountain West Championship
Work with me here.
Boise State and San Diego State are by far the two best teams in the Mountain West this season. The Broncos get non-conference games against Washington State and Oregon State, while the Aztecs – and their wonderful defense – have to face Cal. If they win those, and they roll through the rest of their respective Mountain West slates – they’ll almost certainly be favored in every game – there’s a chance they could meet in the MWC Championship game unbeaten.
Of course there won’t be a titanic showdown of 12-0 Boise State vs. 12-0 San Diego State, but if one of them is unbeaten, and if there are a two or more Power 5 conference champions with two losses or more, an undefeated Mountain West winner might just earn its way into the College Football Playoff.
9. Nov. 12, Stanford at Oregon
There just aren’t enough truly scintillating Pac-12 matchups this year. You know, the ones that can all but guarantee the winner going 12-1 with a conference title. This isn’t one, either, with a rebuilding Stanford team almost certain to lose one game along the way – probably a lot more – but Oregon might just sneak up on everyone.
The Ducks have three road games in the last four, and four in their last six, but if they’re unbeaten – or have just one loss – going into this, a win might just get them to the Pac-12 Championship 11-1 with a shot at the College Football Playoff.
8. Nov. 17, Louisville at Houston
Again, please work with indulge me for a moment, and then I’ll step back into the land of the real.
I’ve made the call from Day 1 this offseason that Louisville will beat Florida State at home and lose to Clemson on the way to the ACC Atlantic title. Let’s say that actually does happen, then this game at Houston on a Thursday night in mid-November could be a make-or-break moment for the College Football Playoff.
If Houston beats Oklahoma in the opener – which probably won’t happen, but let’s just say it does – the Cougars will roar through their American Athletic Conference schedule on the way to 10-0 before hosting Louisville. They’ll have to go 13-0 to be in the College Football Playoff discussion, but if they lose to Oklahoma in a close battle, and the Sooners roar on the way to a Big 12 title, that might be forgivable.
7. Oct. 1, Tennessee at Georgia
Florida will have plenty of say in the matter, and the Bulldogs have to go to Ole Miss while the Vols have a few killers on the slate. However, if all goes according to form, this should be for the SEC East title – or at least go a long way to solving the puzzle.
The loser might be out of the CFP picture, or might have a really, really tough time going 11-1. Tennessee could do it, but a loss here would mean it would have to win …
6. Oct. 15, Alabama at Tennessee
This could be the first of two meetings – it would hardly be a shocking SEC Championship matchup. Tennessee gets Florida at home and has road games against Georgia and Texas A&M, but the rest of the slate is relatively manageable – other than this. A loss isn’t the end of the world, but a win puts the Vols into a whole different strata.
Alabama has to go to Arkansas the week before, and LSU two weeks later, but the rest of the schedule isn’t awful, at least after opening up against USC. A loss in Knoxville, though, puts all the pressure on the date in Baton Rouge. More on that in a moment.
5. Nov. 26, Notre Dame at USC
I’m making the call that Texas beats Notre Dame to start the season, but let’s say that doesn’t happen.
Michigan State, Stanford and Miami all have to come to South Bend, and the only two true road games – Navy and Army are being played on neutral sites – are at Syracuse and NC State. Yippee.
That means, for all intents and purposes, if the Irish can hold serve at home, or beat Texas and lose to a Michigan State along the way, 10-1 is more than possible going into the rivalry showdown at USC.
4. Nov. 26, Ohio State vs. Michigan
I think Michigan loses at least once before this – probably at Michigan State – but it’s certainly a strong enough team to pull that off and come into Columbus with a shot at winning the East.
Ohio State will go to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State, but it’s going to be good enough to win any and all of those. In one way or another, the Michigan game will almost certainly decide the division, and likely the Big Ten title. Whether or not the College Football Playoff is still in play probably depends on …
3. Sept. 17, Ohio State at Oklahoma
Ohio State can lose this game, run the table, and get into the College Football Playoff, but with all its tough road games to face in the Big Ten, that’s asking a whole bunch. It’s a statement moment for the Buckeyes, as well as the Big Ten – a win like this on the road gives the league a gigantic boost in terms of CFP street cred.
On the other side, a home loss to Oklahoma would be a complete and utter disaster. There’s no Big 12 championship game, and there aren’t a whole lot of statement moments to be had in the conference this year – even if the league is better overall.
2. Oct. 29, Clemson at Florida State
I’m still not jumping off my Louisville love train, but just in case that might be a little off, of course Clemson vs. Florida State will be gigantic.
Both teams have a slew of other tough games to deal with – Clemson faces Auburn and Georgia Tech on the road and Louisville, Pitt and South Carolina at home, and Florida State opens with Ole Miss, has to go to Louisville, and Miami, and finishes with Florida – but this is really it. The loser is all but out of the CFP chase, while the winner will have everything there for the taking.
Assuming the winner beats Louisville.
1. Nov. 5, Alabama at LSU
Alabama should beat USC to start the season, and it should revenge-up at Ole Miss and be able to get by Arkansas on the road. The Tennessee game? That’s a problem, but a loss isn’t that big a deal if the Tide beat everyone else – and that, obviously, includes LSU.
The Tigers have been close, but they haven’t been able to get by Bama the last five times. There’s a trip to Florida a month before this, and going to Texas A&M to finish won’t be easy, but this is effectively it. This is as close to being a playoff game as it gets.
However, don’t discount the idea that the winner goes 13-0, the loser goes 11-1, and we party like it’s 2011 and both teams are in the mix at the end.