Ten games that will determine which teams make the College Football Playoff field. The college football season is a marathon and not a sprint. Among the upcoming 15 weekends of action, there will be twists and turns with expected title contenders being knocked off and dark horses climbing the polls with surprising upsets.
The journey will conclude on Dec. 8 when the College Football Playoff committee makes its decision on the four teams that have earned the right to compete for the national championship.
Forecasting how it will all shake out is an inexact science. But here’s a look at the 10 games that will determine which teams play their way into the title contention.
LSU at Texas – Sept. 7
The Tigers haven’t been the same since their loss to Alabama in the BCS title game at the end of the 2011 season. The same is true for the Longhorns, who fell to the Tide in the championship game two years prior. Texas proved it can hang with the best in the SEC by knocking off Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in January. A win against LSU would signal the return of the Longhorns as a legitimate Playoff threat and put them as co-favorites with Oklahoma in the Big 12. For the Tigers, a road win against a top 10 team gives them confidence and pads their resume heading toward their showdown against Alabama in November. Two teams looking to regain their status as title contenders will meet in the first major showdown of the season.
Stanford at Central Florida – Sept. 14
The committee pointed to a weaker schedule than other contenders because UCF plays in the American Athletic Conference. But this year they have the chance to allay those concerns. Beating the Cardinal, especially if Stanford goes on to have a strong season, would give the Knighs a legitimate opportunity to be in the mix if they can run through the rest of its games unscathed. The Knights haven’t been close to the top of the final College Football Playoff rankings in the past two years – even after consecutive unbeaten regular seasons.
Notre Dame at Georgia – Sept. 21
There were critics of the Irish making the field last season even though they went unbeaten. None would exist under the same scenario this year because beating the Bulldogs on the road might be the best win for any school come December. Notre Dame also must travel to Michigan and Stanford, so a win in Athens could provide some margin for error even if it slips up once afterwards. For Georgia, a huge non-conference win was lacking from its profile last season when it just missed the field after finishing 11-2. Beating the Irish gives them an opportunity bolster its case as a second team from the conference should the Bulldogs fall again in the SEC title game.
Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas) – Oct. 12
Will this again be the first of two meetings of the Red River rivals? A win by the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl last year didn’t stop the Sooners from reaching the Orange Bowl after they took the second matchup in the Big 12 title game. This will be the first major test of the season for Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has played in his share of big rivalries at Alabama. A big performance would signal the Sooners are again title contenders. For Texas, this is another chance to knock off its rival and prove its ascension to the top of college football is for real this time.
Penn State vs. Michigan – Oct. 19
Expectations are high for the Wolverines as this might be Jim Harbaugh’s best team in his five seasons. However, the schedule is unforgiving with games against Iowa and Wisconsin in September before their trip to Happy Valley. The three games are all winnable, and victories would put Michigan in position to tackle the rest of the schedule that has Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State all visiting Ann Arbor. The Nittany Lions have questions marks, especially at quarterback with sophomore Sean Clifford taking the reins. A defeat of the Wolverines would give them the opportunity to make their own run at a conference title.
Georgia vs. Florida (Jacksonville) – Oct. 26
A strong finish by the Gators in Dan Mullen’s first season has brought optimism to Gainesville. But they not being talked about as possible title contenders. Should quarterback Feleipe Franks continue his development, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Florida arrive here with just one conference loss. A subsequent defeat of the Bulldogs would mean the Gators just need defeats of Vanderbilt and Missouri to reach the SEC title game. The similar circumstance is true for Georgia if it has one or fewer conference losses, though the schedule is a bit more difficult with games against Missouri, Auburn and Texas A&M to follow.
LSU at Alabama – Nov. 9
If the Tigers won their trip to Texas and then got past Auburn and Florida at home, this likely will be a meeting of unbeatens that decides the SEC West winner. Should the Tigers arrive in title contention, it would mean the offensive changes made in the offseason were successful, and quarterback Joe Burrow can be counted on to produce enough points to keep this game interesting. For Alabama, only a road trip to Texas A&M looks to be a possible pitfall before this showdown. And the path to the SEC title game is pretty clear afterwards if the Tide can avoid an upset.
Ohio State at Michigan – Nov. 30
Jim Harbaugh lost all four of his games against Urban Meyer so the departure of the former Buckeyes coach is welcome news for the Wolverines. That said, the domination of Ohio State in this series – 14 wins in the last 15 meetings – means there is an obvious psychological advantage that Michigan must overcome to secure its first Big Ten title game appearance. By the end of the season, new Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields will be comfortable in running Ryan Day’s offense. And if he’s managed to navigate Ohio State into title contention, there’s no reason he can’t take the next step and win in Ann Arbor.
ACC championship game – Dec. 7
Barring an cataclysmic event, this will be the last step on Clemson’s journey to its fifth consecutive College Football Playoff appearance. Yes, the Tigers could get surprised – most likely by Texas A&M or Syracuse – during the regular season. But it is unlikely they suffer more than one defeat, putting them in great shape to make the field as 12-1 conference champions. Who will be their opponent in Charlotte is anyone’s guess. Maybe Virginia Tech, Maybe Miami (Fla.). Maybe Virginia. Whichever one makes it will have its work cut out to stop Trevor Lawrence and company. But an upset would likely knock out the defending champs.
SEC championship game – Dec. 7
Expectations are that Alabama and Georgia will meet up again in Atlanta and stage another classic game that assuredly sends the winner to the Playoff. It’s also possible the loser could make the field. But even if neither the Crimson Tide nor Bulldogs make it to the conference title game – Florida, LSU and Texas A&M will have something to say about it – the winner of this game has made the Playoff for the previous five years. This season should be no exception.