Ranking the best games during college football rivalry week

Jim Harbaugh hired former 49ers executive Tom Gamble, according to a report
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College football rivalry week brings a wide selection of outstanding matchups between longtime foes, but 11 games stand out above the rest.

Factors used in deciding the order of the list include College Football Playoff impact and conference championship implications, while the expected competitiveness plays a significant but lesser role.

T-10. Conference USA’s de facto playoff

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No program has a realsitic argument for the College Football Playoff, but that’s not stopping Conference USA from a de facto four-team playoff.

Friday night, Marshall takes on Western Kentucky in a showdown for East Division supremacy. Then Saturday afternoon, Louisiana Tech hosts Southern Miss for a winner-take-all West Division bout. The two victors will then square off in the Conference USA Championship Game.

This two-week stretch might not pique your interest, but it means everything to the kids at these four programs.

9. North Carolina vs. North Carolina State

Marquise Williams North Carolina

North Carolina is one of the biggest longshots to reach the College Football Playoff, but there’s a Dumb & Dumber chance the Tar Heels crash the party.

After a now-embarrassing season-opening loss against South Carolina, UNC has ripped off 10 straight victories. North Carolina State stands in the way of North Carolina’s championship pursuit.

Since the Tar Heels have clinched an opportunity to challenge top-ranked Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, they’re two wins away from posting a strong argument to appear in the CFP or, at worst, a New Year’s Six bowl. Otherwise, UNC is going to the Russell Athletic Bowl.

8. Alabama vs. Auburn

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The 2015 edition of the Iron Bowl is a lackluster matchup. Alabama is probably going to rout Auburn, which is 6-5 on the year and rests at the bottom of the SEC West Division. Odds Shark lists the Crimson Tide as 13-point favorites.

But considering the circumstance, that’s exactly what the Tigers wants to hear: They’ve got no shot. Crazier things have happened—though perhaps not many—and Auburn could destroy Alabama’s aspirations of reaching a second consecutive College Football Playoff.

Ole Miss has the head-to-head victory, so if ‘Bama loses and the Rebels top Mississippi State—another great rivalry in a loaded weekend—they’ll quell the Tide.

7. Florida State vs. Florida

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Florida State will not be making a fourth consecutive appearance in Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game, but the Seminoles can officially ruin their rival’s dreams.

Although Florida has secured a slot in the SEC Championship Game, the Gators are arguably the least impressive 10-1 team. They’ve trudged by Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic in successive weeks.

Nevertheless, while it’s not likely, Florida remains in contention for the College Football Playoff. Wins over No. 14 Florida State and presumably second-ranked Alabama would send the SEC champion into the CFP. Florida State certainly would love to eliminate those hopes on Saturday.

6. Baylor vs. TCU

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TCU made the bold decision to attempt a two-point conversion and beat Oklahoma in regulation, but it didn’t work out. The choice effectively eliminated the Horned Frogs from CFP contention.

Like Florida State, though, TCU can atone for some of the season’s disappointment by instead shattering its rival’s goal. Baylor hammered sixth-ranked Oklahoma State and moved into a three-way tie with OSU and Oklahoma, who will meet in Week 13, too.

An Oklahoma win means Jarrett Stidham and Co. are headed to the Sugar Bowl, while TCU goes to the Russell Athletic Bowl. Should the Bears and Pokes triumph, however, Baylor would present a respectable résumé for the committee’s consideration.

5. Navy vs. Houston

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While Navy vs. Houston isn’t exactly a rivalry, there’s plenty of meaning behind the tilt—despite the series having just one meeting. Navy boasts a 7-0 mark in the American Athletic Conference. Houston 6-1 record, so the winner will seize a place in the AAC title game, likely against a near-ranked Temple squad.

A potential at-large berth in a New Year’s Six bowl is also at stake, because Navy and Houston are the nation’s highest-ranked non-power conference teams.

Keenan Reynolds and (if healthy) Greg Ward Jr. will take center stage in a battle between the nation’s two best running quarterbacks. More popular matchups are above and below Navy vs. Houston, but don’t skim over this one.

4. Ohio State vs. Michigan

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Assuming Michigan State topples a mediocre Penn State team, the Spartans are headed to the Big Ten Championship and probably the College Football Playoff if they beat Iowa. So, the worst-case scenario for the winner of “The Game” is likely the Rose Bowl.

Ohio State has dominated the series since 2003, winning 10 of the last 11 matchups. Nevertheless, a couple average Michigan teams competed with the Buckeyes into the fourth quarter. This Wolverines roster is much more imposing, thanks in part to Jim Harbaugh and an NFL-experienced coaching staff.

Pride and roses are on the line. That’s exactly what made the rivalry so great, and it’s terrific for college football both Ohio State and Michigan are once again playing at this level at the same time.

3. UCLA vs. USC

Josh Rosen

Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen has guided UCLA to the brink of a Pac-12 South Division title, but the program’s biggest rival stands in the way of the accomplishment.

USC has bounced back from two early-season conference losses, and—with a little help from other Pac-12 teams—will enter a winner-take-all contest. Whichever squad earns the victory is headed to Santa Clara, because both UCLA and USC have beaten Utah.

Then, the winning team will have a shot to beat Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game and claim a spot in the Rose Bowl.

2. Notre Dame vs. Stanford

DeShone Kizer Notre Dame

Unless the committee eliminates a team that’s found a slot in the top five each week, Notre Dame is a single win away from securing a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Injuries haven’t been kind to the Fighting Irish, but the roster has managed to survive an unimpressive stretch of games. Notre Dame edged a three-win Boston College squad 19-16 last time out.

Next up is No. 11 Stanford, however. The Cardinal have clinched a Pac-12 title game berth, so the Fighting Irish would earn a signature win over a potential power-conference champion to bolster their already-strong résumé.

1. Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State

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Bedlam can produce the Big 12 champion and potentially a College Football Playoff representative. The Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys each enter the matchup at 10-1, standing atop the conference standings in a three-way tie with Baylor.

If the Sooners win, they’ll claim the program’s first Big 12 title since 2010. While Baylor could also finish with one conference loss, but OU beat Art Briles’ team head-to-head. On the other hand, the Pokes are seeking their third conference crown since 1953, though they need a Baylor loss to TCU.

No matter what happens, the winner will seal its position in a New Year’s Six bowl. With the right developments elsewhere, the victor will have a shot at a national championship.