Must-See Games That’ll Decide College Football Playoff Chase
Which 2017 regular season games will decide who participants in this year’s two College Football Playoff semifinal games, the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl?
In the chase for this year’s four berths to the College Football Playoff, every game matters. No two-loss team has ever earned a bid, so regular-season margin for error is tissue thin. But naturally, not every game matters with the same degree of big-picture relevancy and impact. There are a handful of pairings, some of the non-conference variety and others with profound rivalry histories, with so much riding on the outcome that their results will seismically shift the polls. These dozen battles transcend mere entertainment value, rippling throughout the mazes ending at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl.
12. Florida vs. Michigan, Sept. 2 (Arlington, Tex.)
Sure, the Wolverines and the Gators are both playoff longshots. But each program harbors the requisite talent to buck the odds, and this opener in Jerry’s World is liable to provide a catapult to the winner. Both schools are undergoing wholesale changes, especially on D, so Week 1 will provide a key early litmus test for what the ceiling might be in 2017. Assuming he wins the job, QB Malik Zaire’s Florida debut will be against a Michigan defense that returns just one starter, but is flush in D-line potential.
11. Auburn at LSU, Oct. 14
Auburn and LSU won’t see Alabama until November, so this latest edition of the Battle of the Tigers could be a quasi SEC West semifinal pairing. There’ll be no shortage of compelling storylines, headlined by the debuts in this rivalry of Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham and both offensive coordinators, Auburn’s Chip Lindsey and LSU’s Matt Canada. And the running back battle between LSU’s Derrius Guice and Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway will command the undivided attention of the Doak Walker Award committee.
10. Texas at USC, Sept. 16
You want to amass a wicked tailwind in your first season as a Longhorn, Tom Herman? Go out to L.A. and shock the Trojans and their Heisman contender, QB Sam Darnold, in the Coliseum. Since there are few red-letter moments on Troy’s schedule, the visit from Texas provides a rare marquee opportunity to legitimize its lofty early-season ranking. For the Horns, which are more talented than last year’s 5-7 mark, knocking off USC would propel them into the discussion alongside Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as Big 12 playoff threats.
9. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 4
The last two Bedlam matchups have been de facto Big 12 title games. And there’s good evidence to believe this year’s tilt between the Sooners and the Cowboys will again go a long way toward determining the league’s rep in a New Year’s Six bowl game. OU has dominated the series, including winning 12 of the last 14 games. But OSU will be at Boone Pickens, and Mason Rudolph has the arm talent and supporting cast to trade blows with Baker Mayfield in what ought to be an entertaining shootout.
8. Auburn at Clemson, Sept. 9
Auburn and Clemson will be meeting for the fifth time this decade, the latter carrying a three-game winning streak into their pivotal Week 2 battle. After opening with tune-ups against Georgia Southern and Kent State, respectively, Auburn and Clemson will get a much better feel for their 2017 ceiling in Death Valley. All eyes will be on the quarterbacks. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham will want to make a national splash for the SEC’s Tigers, while a yet-to-be-named starter gets his first big audition for the defending champs.
7. Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25
The Buckeyes have won five in a row and 12 of the last 13 in one of college football’s most intense and storied rivalries. And Wolverine head coach Jim Harbaugh wants to stem the tide in the worst possible way. In all likelihood, Michigan will be looking to play playoff spoiler in the regular season finale, though this team is not getting nearly enough credit in the offseason. First-year Buckeye offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson versus venerable Wolverine defensive coordinator Don Brown shapes up as one of the more compelling games within this game.
6. LSU at Alabama, Nov. 4
The Tide and the Tigers has been a defining matchup for the past decade, both inside the SEC West and across the nation. This November’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium could be every bit as consequential as recent ones. The balance of power is currently tilting decidedly toward Tuscaloosa, with Bama owning a six-game winning streak in the series. While LSU has sleeper potential in Ed Orgeron’s first season as the permanent head coach, snapping the skid against the three-time defending conference champs will be a prerequisite to returning to national contention.
5. Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 25
For the first time in four years, the Iron Bowl could have significance beyond just instate bragging rights. However, the onus falls on Auburn, which has been just average over the last three seasons, to match the offseason hype and contend in the SEC. Now that Gus Malzahn’s quarterback situation appears to be solved, the Tigers have been a trendy sleeper pick this offseason. But will a talented backfield be enough to put a dent in yet another Bama defense that’ll send a slew of alums to NFL organizations.
4. Florida State at Clemson, Nov. 11
The last six winners of this battle of the ACC titans have gone on to capture the league title. And two of those teams, 2013 Florida State and Clemson last fall, were national champs. The ACC is hot these days, and the Seminoles and Tigers have been leading the charge. FSU is loaded for a playoff run, particularly now that QB Deondre Francois is a year older. Clemson is stacked, too, but replacing Deshaun Watson behind center will be an epic challenge. By mid-November, Dabo Swinney & Co. should have a better handle on what can be expected from veteran Kelly Bryant or rookie Hunter Johnson.
3. Oklahoma at Ohio State, Sept. 9
The Buckeyes rolled in Norman last September, 45-24, a loss Oklahoma could never quite overcome in its playoff chase. The Sooners get an opportunity to return the favor in Week 2 in another non-conference clash of tremendous national relevance. OU couldn’t stop QB J.T. Barrett and an Ohio State offense that figures to be even more potent now that Kevin Wilson is in charge. An even bigger challenge awaits Lincoln Riley, the 33-year-old heir to Bob Stoops, who’ll go head-to-head with Urban Meyer and one of the premier coaching staffs in college football.
2. Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 28
The Nittany Lions served notice that they were back with last October’s stunner over the unbeaten Buckeyes. Can Penn State prove that its improbable 2016 Big Ten crown was no isolated, one-year incident? Happy Valley is home to arguably the top backfield in America, namely QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley. Revenge-minded Ohio State will counter with J.T. Barrett and Mike Weber, respectively, as well as a ridiculously deep D-line rotation capable of pressuring the pocket and limiting Barkley’s gallops into the second level.
1. Alabama vs. Florida State, Sept. 2 (Atlanta)
Most schools ease into a new campaign with an exhibition equivalent versus an overmatched visitor. The Noles and the Tide, though, will kick off the season with arguably the most compelling matchup of 2017. Both heavyweights will enter Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a top 5 ranking and visions of running the table. And while a loss will certainly not end the playoff dream, it will chip away at margin for error, especially if it’s a lopsided affair. There will be boundless intriguing matchups in Atlanta, headlined by the one between Nick Saban and former disciple Jimbo Fisher.