Players and coaches will say every game is must-win, but some college football teams truly have a limited margin for error entering Week 9.
While we’re often highlighting schools competing for conference and national championships, this isn’t simply a list about top-ranked programs. Group of Five teams have an equal shot to be mentioned. Schools seeking bowl eligibility are also considered.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State’s next two games will largely determine the program’s level of success this season. Week 10 features Bedlam with Oklahoma, but a result there will be less important if the Cowboys fail to navigate West Virginia in Week 9. The Mountaineers are 5-2, and both losses were seven-point differences. It’s reasonable to anticipate a close finish. Dropping another Big 12 game would make it unlikely the Pokes can reach the conference championship, and no Big 12 title means no College Football Playoff for an enjoyable Oklahoma State offense.
A season loaded with promise has been filled with frustration for Texas. Not only is the team 3-4, but three of those four losses were by five points or less. The Longhorns are now teetering on the edge of attaining bowl eligibility, considering road trips to TCU and West Virginia remain on the slate. Texas has three winnable games remaining with Baylor, Kansas and Texas Tech, but Tom Herman’s club cannot waste this first chance. Yes, Baylor is 0-7, yet it stayed with Oklahoma into the fourth quarter and nearly completed a crazy comeback against West Virginia. Overlooking the Bears could result in Texas missing a bowl.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Last year, Ohio State represented the Big Ten in the CFP despite losing to Penn State during the regular season. However, the Buckeyes don’t have a marquee nonconference win reinforcing their appeal this time around. Of all teams in action this weekend, Ohio State has the slimmest margin for error. The Nittany Lions are 4-0 in league play and 7-0 overall. With a win Saturday and over Michigan State next week, they could effectively seal the East Division crown. But if the Buckeyes protect home field, they’ll secure a critical tiebreaker heading into a challenging final month.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Following a complete obliteration of USC, 6-1 Notre Dame demanded a place in the College Football Playoff discussion. If the Irish aren’t able to topple North Carolina State, though, they’ll be kicked out as quickly as they arrived. Unless a bit of madness disrupts the rankings and two-loss programs will be considered for the CFP, Notre Dame’s lack of a conference championship will affect its resume. NC State’s defensive strength of stopping the run is exactly what the Irish don’t want to encounter, since Brandon Wimbush and Josh Adams are most dangerous on the ground. But a win keeps Notre Dame in the picture for another week.
On the bright side for Florida, its seniors who didn’t redshirt have never lost to Georgia. “That brings a lot of confidence to us, just knowing that Georgia isn’t a team that we lose to,” Florida receiver Josh Hammond said, per Robbie Andreu of The Gainesville Sun. So, yeah, the Gators better be ready to back up the talk. Georgia, ranked third in the country, is 7-0 with six victories of 21-plus points. Florida, meanwhile, is 3-2 in conference play and trying to snatch a third straight SEC East title. Because the Bulldogs still must travel to Auburn in November, that dream is moderately alive. But a loss Saturday would officially crush it.
Iowa State Cyclones
Over the last three weeks, Iowa State has stunned Oklahoma, shut out Kansas and dominated Texas Tech. How hot, exactly, is this hot streak? The Cyclones will provide that answer when they host No. 4 TCU, which is also the Big 12’s lone remaining unbeaten team both in conference and overall. Since the league brought back a championship game, Iowa State needs to finish in the top two. Tiebreaking victories over both Oklahoma and TCU would be an enormous asset, given that those programs still need to play each other and either Oklahoma State or West Virginia. The Cyclones could create true chaos in the Big 12.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Western Kentucky fell to Louisiana Tech earlier in the season, but upcoming clashes with Florida Atlantic (Saturday) and Marshall (Nov. 11) give the Hilltoppers a chance to defend their throne. Unfortunately for the two-time defending Conference USA champions, a loss in Week 9 could nearly push them out of the conversation. It’s unlikely Western Kentucky can recover from a two-loss deficit while FAU holds the tiebreaker. The 5-2 Hilltoppers aren’t in danger of missing a bowl, but their goal of a third consecutive C-USA title is at stake.
Mike Riley’s job security at Nebraska is tenuous at best, but a bowl appearance — however unspectacular it may be — could fend off a group of naysayers. If that doesn’t happen, even the most optimistic fans will be pushed to their limit. The Cornhuskers’ final month includes Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Penn State and Iowa, so there’s little relief on the horizon for the 3-4 team. Purdue has improved considerably under the direction of Jeff Brohm and is 5.5-point favorites for the clash, per OddsShark. Should Nebraska steal a road victory, though, it’ll take one important step toward sneaking into the postseason — and Riley perhaps keeping his job.
Falling at Syracuse stung Clemson, but it wasn’t a debilitating loss for the team’s College Football Playoff aspirations. However, the Tigers dropped a game behind North Carolina State in the ACC’s Atlantic Division standings. Although the schools are slated to meet in Week 10, it’s uncertain Clemson could make up a two-game deficit even with a tiebreaker. NC State’s remaining ACC schedule is favorable, so the Tigers cannot afford to fall at home to Georgia Tech. Plus, a second loss could doom Clemson in its pursuit of a third straight CFP bid.
At 4-2, Frank Wilson’s squad is in decent shape to earn another bowl appearance. UTSA’s final stretch is just challenging enough to cause some hesitation, though. Three November opponents sport a winning percentage above .500, and the outlier — Louisiana Tech — has three one-possession losses on the year. That is most decidedly not the case for UTEP, which is 0-7 and hasn’t scored more than 21 points in a game this season. The Roadrunners must take advantage of this matchup and move within one victory of bowl eligibility.
Fresno State Bulldogs
In 2016, Fresno State finished 1-11 and only defeated an FCS opponent. The school hired Jeff Tedford, and the one-year turnaround has been remarkable. In fact, the Bulldogs are clear front-runners to win the West Division in the Mountain West thanks to a 27-3 triumph over San Diego State. Yes, Fresno State has a comfortable lead in the division, but a win against 2-5 UNLV would basically seal a spot in the conference title game. The Bulldogs still have road trips to Hawaii and Wyoming precede a contest with Boise State, so a Week 9 win gives Fresno State a little room to mess up later.
An embarrassing loss at Notre Dame severely damaged USC’s pursuit of a national championship, but the Pac-12 title is still a possibility if the Trojans rebound quickly. Granted, they have no choice. Arizona State has played outstanding defense over the last two weeks, holding Washington to seven points and Utah to just 10. Suddenly, the Sun Devils are an unexpected 3-1 in conference compared to 4-1 for USC. If the Trojans don’t earn the tiebreaker with a victory Saturday, they’d need Arizona State to lose at least twice. While possible, that’s certainly not guaranteed.