Matchups for conference championships and national title contenders will be determined down the stretch of the 2017 college football season.
Of the 100-plus games remaining, a specific set of contests will provide the insight we need to have those categories finalized. We’ve highlighted the clashes with the largest impacts on power-conference races and the New Year’s Six bowl games.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18
Even though the Badgers have already secured a place in the Big Ten Championship Game, a victory over Michigan is a necessity. A 13-0 record seems like UW’s only path to the playoff, but navigating this defense will be tough. When the teams squared off in 2016, Michigan limited the Badgers to just 159 yards of offense and picked off three passes.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown at least one interception in seven straight games, so a couple of turnovers could shift this contest in Michigan’s favor and end the Badgers’ national title hopes.
TCU at Texas Tech, Nov. 18
Despite the loss to Oklahoma in Week 11, TCU remains in excellent position to reach the Big 12 Championship Game. Previous head-to-head victories over Oklahoma State and West Virginia would propel the Horned Frogs if they finish 7-2 in conference.
They close the campaign against now 1-9 Baylor, so surviving a road trip to Texas Tech should just about wrap up that spot. However, the team is dealing with several injuries, including one to quarterback Kenny Hill. Falling at Texas Tech would allow Oklahoma State or West Virginia to jump ahead in the race to oppose Oklahoma for the league crown.
Miami at Pitt, Nov. 24
By virtue of its 33-point smackdown against Notre Dame, Miami has earned itself a margin for error. The Hurricanes will be heavy favorites in both of their last two games, but the second tilt won’t feature as friendly circumstances. After hosting Virginia for the regular-season home finale, Miami travels to Pitt. While some opponents aren’t prepared for the heat of South Florida, adjusting to the lack of heat in Pennsylvania is no easy task, either. Throw in the Panthers’ desire to cap a frustrating 2017 with a victory over a top-five team, and Miami must be ready for unfavorable circumstances.
South Florida at Central Florida, Nov. 24
Barring a USF loss in Week 12, this in-state showdown will determine which school represents the East Division in the American Athletic Conference title game. Led by Scott Frost — arguably the biggest name on the coaching market — UCF has cruised through its hurricane-affected schedule. Just one of the Knights’ nine wins included a seven-point margin of victory or less. South Florida hasn’t been as dominant, but the Bulls are still 8-1. As long as USF doesn’t lose to Tulsa, the winner of this matchup would be a conference championship away from appearing in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 25
No upcoming game has a greater national impact than the Iron Bowl. Not only will it decide the winner of the SEC East, the rivalry will either put Alabama at risk of missing the College Football Playoff or eliminate Auburn from the national title conversation. The Crimson Tide have knocked off the Tigers in three straight years and will probably be favored. However, the combination of Auburn smashing Georgia and Alabama struggling with Mississippi State suggests this will be the most evenly matched clash since 2014. A win doesn’t secure a CFP berth, but it would guarantee a chance to earn one in the SEC title.
Washington State at Washington, Nov. 25
Washington needs Cal to upset Stanford in order to reach the Pac-12 championship, but Washington State’s route is simple: Beat the Dawgs. Unfortunately for the Cougs, that hasn’t happened since 2012. And in each of the last two years, Washington triumphed by no fewer than 28 points.
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk — who missed the 2015 meeting and threw a trio of interceptions last season — must deal with the nation’s most efficient pass defense. To date, UW has surrendered an FBS-low 5.3 yards per attempt. If Stanford defeats Cal and Falk cannot lift Wazzu to a win, Stanford will steal the North Division.
West Virginia at Oklahoma, Nov. 25
The scenario requires a bunch of assistance, but West Virginia is still alive in the Big 12. Excluding an improbable string of chaotic results, reaching the conference championship is entirely dependent on upsetting Oklahoma. Conversely, the Sooners might not officially clinch a spot with a win over Kansas, so this game is important anyway. But a second loss would make the College Football Playoff a real stretch for Oklahoma. Since there’s no guarantee the committee would prefer the Sooners over a potential one-loss squad like Alabama or Miami, they must finish with three straight wins to remove any doubt.
Georgia at Georgia Tech, Nov. 25
Due to the embarrassment at Auburn, Georgia dropped from No. 1 nationally to No. 7. But the Dawgs are fine. They’ll unquestionably be in the championship tournament with three more wins. Looking too far ahead can be dangerous, though. Miami needed a late field goal to clip Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech didn’t survive its trip to Atlanta. The Bulldogs head there to close the regular season. Provided UGA knocks off Kentucky in Week 12, “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” will dictate whether Kirby Smart’s team is a title contender or pretender.
Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25
While possible, it’s improbable Ohio State won’t appear in the conference championship game. With a victory over Illinois — the only Big Ten program without a league win in 2017 — the Buckeyes would hold an advantage in most of the top tiebreaker scenarios. Urban Meyer’s club still has a slight chance for something more, though. If Alabama wins out, Miami takes the ACC and Oklahoma claims the Big 12, Ohio State would have a reasonable argument to steal the final playoff spot if it defeats Wisconsin. That possibility disappears if Michigan executes the spoiler role at home.
Clemson at South Carolina, Nov. 25
Despite knowing it will be in the ACC Championship Game, Clemson cannot afford a misstep prior to the contest. While the selection committee has granted the Tigers a pass for their Syracuse loss because of Kelly Bryant’s injury at the time, falling at South Carolina would probably eliminate that grace. Clemson would need a healthy dose of chaos elsewhere to receive a playoff bid as a two-loss team, especially if Alabama wins the Iron Bowl but loses to Georgia. The simplest way to avoid that uncertainty is to reach the ACC title at 11-1.