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Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
There’s a whole lot of college football left to be played this fall, but the College Football Playoff picture is beginning to take shape.
Right now, there are well over a dozen viable candidates to reach the playoff. It’s probably closer to three dozen if you’re of the belief that 1-0 Rutgers, 1-0 Northwestern, 1-0 Purdue and all 12 yet-to-play-a-game Pac-12 teams have a chance.
However, six particular games (plus a set of three games for one team) over the course of the next month will play a major role in whittling that list down to just seven or eight teams for the home stretch.
We aren’t including conference championships on this list, because A) we don’t know the matchups for those games and B) you don’t need us to tell you those games are of the utmost importance. Rather, these are the games between now and mid-December that figure to play the biggest part in setting the stage for championship week.
You’ll probably notice that Alabama does not appear anywhere on this list. That isn’t an oversight, but rather an acknowledgment that it is basically a lock to reach the SEC championship.
The only other team in the SEC West that hasn’t suffered multiple losses is Texas A&M, which already lost to the Crimson Tide. That means they effectively have a 1.5-game lead in the loss column, which might as well be a three-game cushion since they don’t play another game against a currently ranked team. The road game against LSU (Nov. 14) and the home game against Auburn (Nov. 28) are must-watch affairs, but they probably won’t matter in the grand scheme of the playoff picture.
Games are listed in chronological order, aside from the one to-be-determined situation that was saved for the end.
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Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
This one lost some luster after Penn State’s season-opening loss to Indiana, but there’s no question this is still a massive game.
This should be Ohio State’s only moderate challenge until at least the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes drew Illinois and Nebraska in the crossover games—which is about as easy as it gets in the B1G West Division—and they’ll get both Michigan and Indiana at home. Per ESPN FPI win probabilities, if Ohio State wins this game, there’s a better than 75 percent chance it will go 8-0.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s playoff dream isn’t dead just yet. If the Nittany Lions win out, they would still win the B1G East Division so long as Indiana is unable to go 7-1 or 8-0. Should they do that and win the conference championship, they would be 8-1 with quality wins over Ohio State, Michigan (road) and whomever wins the West Division (likely Wisconsin). That’s probably good enough for a spot in a national semifinal.
Given how poorly the Nittany Lions played and managed the endgame against the Hoosiers, the idea of them beating Ohio State—let alone another seven consecutive games after that—feels like a pipe dream. Even playing at home, the formerly AP No. 8 Nittany Lions are underdogs by nearly two touchdowns.
Recent history in this rivalry would suggest anything is possible, though. Three of the last four games in this series were decided by three points or fewer, including the 2016 game in which unranked Penn State upset No. 2 Ohio State as a 17.5-point underdog. Never say never, especially this year.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
BYU’s case for the College Football Playoff is flimsy at best.
The Cougars are a perfect 6-0 with an average margin of victory of 31.0 points. Zach Wilson has been spectacular at quarterback and absolutely belongs in the Heisman conversation. But beating up on middle-tier teams from the AAC, C-USA and Sun Belt can only take you so far with the CFP selection committee. UCF was in a similar boat in both 2017 and 2018 and was never a serious threat to crack the Top Four.
If the Cougars were to trek up to the blue turf in Idaho and beat the living snot out of Boise State, though? Well, the committee would certainly notice that.
In five previous trips to Boise, BYU has never won, let alone emphatically.
It’s typically an awesome game. Three of those five games were decided by a single point, and the most recent meeting in 2018 was a five-point victory for the Broncos.
However, another nail-biter wouldn’t do the Cougars much good, even if they were to win in dramatic fashion. They need to make a statement in this game, and then they need to root for Boise State to win the Mountain West Conference so their lone quality win isn’t delegitimized after the fact.
They would also need to root for a fair amount of chaos in the Power Five leagues. But this road game against Boise State is the one variable in the formula that BYU can control.
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Sam Craft/Associated Press
Back in July, I pegged this matchup as the most important game of the entire 2020 season. Even then, it was obvious that it would likely decide which team wins the SEC East, and that the winner would enter the SEC championship with a shot at locking down a spot in the Top Four.
Even though Florida and Georgia have both already suffered one loss, those stakes haven’t changed. If anything, they’re even higher, because we can write the loser of this game out of the playoff conversation.
Before the season began, one could have drawn up scenarios in which the loser of this game still won the division and reached the playoff. For example, Florida could have gone 9-1 with a loss to Georgia, but if the Bulldogs lost at Alabama and dropped one of their home games against Auburn or Tennessee to finish 8-2, the Gators still would have wound up in the SEC championship.
At this point, though, the winner of this game likely won’t pick up two more losses during the regular season. Neither side plays another game against a currently ranked team.
That makes this a de facto CFP elimination game. And it should be a highly entertaining one, pitting Georgia’s excellent defense against Florida’s potent passing attack.
That defense got gashed in the loss to Alabama, but this should be a different story, considering Florida doesn’t have anything close to a Najee Harris in its backfield. That means Georgia can focus more exclusively on stifling Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts. But we’ll see if it slows down that duo enough for Stetson Bennett (or JT Daniels?) to steer UGA to a victory.
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Ken Ruinard/Associated Press
Unlike Florida-Georgia, Clemson-Notre Dame won’t be a CFP elimination game.
These teams could go a combined 21-1, with the lone loss coming in head-to-head fashion in South Bend. If they do, they’ll run it back in Charlotte for the ACC championship, with the winner of that game locking down a spot in the College Football Playoff.
If they split those two games and both finish 11-1, there’s a good chance they’ll both make the playoff. The one that wins in December would likely finish ahead of the one that wins in November.
But there are just so many things liable to go wrong with that plan.
For starters, Notre Dame still has to play a road game against North Carolina over Thanksgiving weekend. That’s far from a guaranteed win for the Fighting Irish.
Miami is also still lurking as a potential spoiler. If Clemson wins this game while both Miami and Notre Dame win every other game left on their schedules, the Hurricanes and Fighting Irish would both finish 10-1 with a loss to Clemson. Per the ACC’s tiebreaking procedures, that tie for second place would be broken by “Team Rating Score metric provided by SportSource Analytics following the conclusion of regular-season games.”
And how about this potential disaster scenario?:
- Oklahoma State and Ohio State both go undefeated
- Clemson wins the regular-season matchup before losing to Notre Dame in the ACC championship
- 9-1 Georgia/Florida beats 10-0 Alabama in the SEC championship
Given the lack of quality wins to be found in the ACC, it’s feasible that the committee leaves both Clemson and Notre Dame out if that happens.
Add it all up, and it’s hard to know how much is actually on the line in this game. But it goes without saying that the winner will be in much better shape than the loser heading into the home stretch.
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Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press
Both the Badgers and the Wolverines should be 3-0 for this game.
Wisconsin draws Nebraska this weekend and Purdue the following weekend, while Michigan gets Michigan State on Saturday and plays at Indiana on Nov. 7. It’s feasible the Hoosiers will upset Michigan, considering they just beat Penn State. But given how strong Michigan looked against Minnesota, it’s unlikely.
For Wisconsin, this game is on par with Ohio State’s game at Penn State. If the Badgers can survive this road test, they should run the table. The subsequent road game against Northwestern is probably the second-toughest game on Wisconsin’s schedule, and it will be expected to win that one.
If the Badgers go 8-0 and then lose to Ohio State in the B1G championship, it probably wouldn’t be enough to reach the playoff. It wasn’t enough three years ago when they went 12-0 prior to a six-point loss to the Buckeyes. Lack of quality wins kept the one-loss Badgers out in 2017 and would likely do the same in 2020. So this game is just the first of two massive hurdles that Wisconsin needs to clear.
Perhaps the more intriguing scenario would be if Michigan wins and improves to 4-0.
At that point, the Wolverines would have road wins over Minnesota and Indiana and a home win over Wisconsin, with games remaining against Penn State (home) and Ohio State (road). If they also proceed to protect the Big House against the Nittany Lions and enter The Game with a 7-0 record, they could mess around and reach the CFP without even winning their division.
It would be nice if they at least showed up to face the Buckeyes for a change, but a road loss to Ohio State would be a small blemish on a resume with four wins over ranked teams—and the possibility of adding a fifth against the second-place finisher in the Big Ten West.
The Wolverines aren’t likely to get to 7-0, though, nor are they likely to win that road game against the Buckeyes, so we decided not to include that game on this list. That doesn’t mean we’re unenthused about watching it; it just isn’t that likely to move the CFP needle.
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Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press
As previously mentioned, BYU’s playoff case isn’t great. Cincinnati, though?
Oh, that could happen.
And wouldn’t it be fitting if it was a road win over UCF that pushed a Group of Five team through the glass ceiling, considering the Knights laid that foundation a few years ago?
Cincinnati already has wins over then-ranked Army and still-ranked SMU. The latter victory (by a 42-13 margin) pushed the Bearcats up to No. 7 in the AP poll. The Week 9 game against Memphis will be another opportunity to make a statement against a quality foe.
But it’s the game against UCF—three days before the first CFP rankings release of the 2020 season—that will determine how realistic Cincy’s playoff aspirations are.
UCF’s Dillon Gabriel has thrown for more than 400 yards and four or more touchdowns in four of five games. Not surprisingly, he is leading the nation in both passing yards and touchdowns. The Knights are also averaging 211.2 rushing yards and 2.2 rushing touchdowns per game, so Cincinnati can’t afford to put all of its eggs into the basket that slows down Gabriel.
The Bearcats have one of the best defenses in the nation, though. They have more than twice as many forced turnovers (nine) as touchdowns allowed (four). The only team thus far to reach 300 total yards against Cincinnati was Austin Peay, and the Governors got both of their touchdowns and nearly half of their yards in the fourth quarter after the Bearcats had already taken a 48-6 lead and loosened up a bit.
Cincinnati did completely shut down SMU, which was averaging 42.6 points and 563.2 total yards per game. If the Bearcats were to do something like that to UCF, it could provide the style points they’ll likely need to rank ahead of the second-best teams out of the ACC, Big Ten and SEC.
Alternatively, if Cincinnati loses this game (or one before it), we could officially eliminate the Group of Five from the CFP conversation.
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Brody Schmidt/Associated Press
It may happen this Saturday against Texas. It might be next weekend at Kansas State. Perhaps it will be at Oklahoma on Nov. 21. Maybe it doesn’t happen at all.
But if and when Oklahoma State suffers its first loss of the 2020 season, that’s when the race for the No. 4 seed officially begins. Because as things currently stand, the Cowboys control their own destiny.
If the ACC and Big Ten both produce an undefeated champion while 9-1 Georgia defeats 10-0 Alabama in the SEC championship, an 11-0 Oklahoma State could miss the playoff. Things could also get messy if Ohio State goes 8-0 with eight blowouts before a close loss to 8-0 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.
In either of those scenarios, OK State’s playoff case will hinge on whether any other Big 12 teams are even ranked at the end of the year.
However, if the Cowboys run the table, there’s no question they would rank ahead of Cincinnati, BYU, the ACC runner-up and whichever team wins the Pac-12’s truncated season.
We’re talking about something that has about a 1-in-60 chance of happening, though.
Both the home game against Texas and the road game against Kansas State are coin flips. Oklahoma State will probably be an underdog at Oklahoma. Either one of the season-ending road games against TCU and Baylor could result in a loss. And even if they successfully walk that tightrope, the Cowboys would still need to win a neutral-site rematch with likely Iowa State or Kansas State.
A loss is likely coming; it’s just hard to pinpoint when.