8 potentially critical games in College Football Playoff picture

By David Kenyon

The reactions to the first release of the College Football Playoff rankings seem to suggest the poll has a perfectly clear picture, but the top 25 is nothing more than a first draft.

It’s important, sure, but there’s a long way to go before the poll means anything.

Although upsets are bound to happen, the following list assumes the “better” team wins, like Baylor tops Kansas State, LSU beats Arkansas, Ohio State topples Illinois and so on. As long as the favorite continues to win, though, these eight games will play a major role in which programs compete for the title.

Florida State at Clemson

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Clemson’s triumph over Notre Dame is the best win of the season. Plus, the road to the finish is less than daunting, especially if the Tigers dispatch Florida State on Nov. 7. Following that pivotal ACC matchup, Clemson must only deal with Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina—each of which have losing records—and the Coastal Division champion.

On the flip side, maybe Florida State has a miraculous run in store. If the Seminoles manage to spring an upset on Clemson, their season finale against a Florida team currently ranked 10th suddenly becomes a chance for a second quality win.

LSU at Alabama

Leonard Fournette

While Alabama’s inclusion in the initial release incited plenty of negative reactions, the No. 4 ranking will either be justified or irrelevant on Nov. 7. Nick Saban’s team has a 7-1 record, so barring madness, a second loss would spell elimination. Should Alabama earn a victory over LSU, though, it deserves a place in the discussion.

But let’s not forget about the Tigers. They are the No. 2 nation, after all. Leonard Fournette has already led LSU to victories over Mississippi State and Florida, while Ole Miss and Texas A&M remain on the schedule. If the Tigers wash out the Tide, LSU will continue its playoff dream.

Michigan State at Ohio State

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One week before Ohio State plays The Game, this game matters a whole lot. On Nov. 21, the Buckeyes will host Michigan State, which has struggled to dominant opponents yet is 8-0. As long as a power-conference team remains undefeated, it’ll be in the picture—yes, we’ll get to you, Iowa. Promise.

The playoff committee clearly gave Ohio State the benefit of the doubt, since the reigning champions initially secured a No. 3 spot despite a shaky two-month stretch. But the Spartans—who have already topped rival and 17th-ranked Michigan—could shake their own unconvincing season by derailing the Buckeyes.

Memphis at Temple (twice?)

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Spoiler program, thy name is Memphis. Behind a rising coaching star in Justin Fuente and a potential first-round pick in quarterback Paxton Lynch, the No. 13 Tigers might just crash the College Football Playoff party.

Memphis grabbed a win over Ole Miss and has showdowns with Navy, No. 25 Houston and No. 22 Temple still to come. If Lynch and Co. stifle Navy and Houston, a win over a ranked Temple team on Nov. 21 would send the Tigers into their season finale against SMU at 11-0.

Now, if Temple beats South Florida and either SMU or Connecticut as anticipated, Memphis and Temple will square off in the American Athletic Conference title game. Should the Tigers win that game, they’d be 13-0 with wins over four ranked opponents, including a strong Ole Miss squad. Good luck keeping Memphis out.

Baylor at TCU

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If you like defensive battles, turn into the Big 12 showdown between TCU and Baylor on Nov. 27. You will quickly learn that good defense is boring and great offense is captivating.

Last season, the One True Champion found itself out of the playoff. But if either or both of the high-powered programs enter this contest at 11-0 after beating Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, there’s zero chance the committee could ignore the team that emerges undefeated.

Notre Dame at Stanford

Christian McCaffrey Stanford

Following a surprising loss at Northwestern, Stanford has steadily brought itself up the polls. Christian McCaffrey and Co. have reached No. 11, beating USC and UCLA en route to a 7-1 record with a single outing remaining opposite a ranked opponent.

Unfortunately—but at the same time, fortunately—that team is fifth-ranked Notre Dame, whose only loss is to No. 1 Clemson. Both the Cardinal and Irish should be 10-1 heading into this meeting. Notre Dame could seal its place in the playoff with a win, while Stanford would be a victory in the Pac-12 Championship Game away from locking up its spot.

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State

Baker Mayfield

Perhaps the 2015 edition of Bedlam should have a new nickname, like “Don’t Forget About Us.” TCU and Baylor are currently receiving all the attention, but on Nov. 28, 15th-ranked Oklahoma and No. 14 Oklahoma State will do battle in Stillwater.

Now, since both programs from the Sooner State will challenge the teams from the Lone Star State in the coming weeks, Bedlam could have nothing more than pride on the line. On the slim chance either or both OU and OSU survive the gauntlet, though, Bedlam will decide the One True Champion—and the Big 12’s representative in the playoff.

Iowa vs. Big Ten East Champion

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See, Iowa? We kept our promise. The Hawkeyes found themselves at No. 9 in the initial CFP poll, which was generally the expectation but still wasn’t fair because of the team’s résumé. Iowa boasts a trio of respectable victories over 6-2 Pittsburgh, 7-2 Wisconsin and No. 21 Northwestern.

The biggest perceived problems are the lack of respect through the meaningful completed part of the Hawkeyes season as well as the mediocre four outings remaining: Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska.

Beating any of them isn’t going to give Iowa a platform to demand respect, but a 13-0 record including a win in the Big Ten Championship Game over Ohio State or Michigan State would give the Hawkeyes a loud, loud microphone.