Remaining Games That'll Have the Biggest Impact on the College Football Playoff

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2017

Remaining Games That'll Have the Biggest Impact on the College Football Playoff

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    Nick Saban and Alabama are in excellent shape to make the College Football Playoff. But even the Tide have a few hurdles remaining.
    Nick Saban and Alabama are in excellent shape to make the College Football Playoff. But even the Tide have a few hurdles remaining.Associated Press

    It’s hard to believe, but we’re over halfway through the 2017 college football season. While some things have stayed the same (like Alabama’s dominance), we’ve seen some surprising upsets shake up the College Football Playoff picture and some interesting contenders (like 2016 Liberty Bowl foes Georgia and TCU) emerge as potential playoff teams. The best, however, is yet to come.  

    The final seven weeks of the season feature a number of games that will shape the four-team playoff field and thrill fans across the nation with twists and turns. Here are the 10 remaining games that will have the biggest playoff impact. Games were chosen for their overall star power based on the latest Associated Press Top 25 and how their results will have an impact on league races.

10. Penn State at Michigan State

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    Trace McSorley needs to be sharp to lead Penn State through a tough Big Ten East gauntlet.
    Trace McSorley needs to be sharp to lead Penn State through a tough Big Ten East gauntlet.Chris Knight/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 4 at Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan.

         

    What’s on the line

    Penn State has built on 2016’s breakout season and Big Ten title and looks like the league’s best team. However, the Nittany Lions have a tough three-week gauntlet that started with a 42-13 home win over Michigan and concludes with road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State. If the Lions get past OSU, MSU is the last legit barrier to an unbeaten regular season and likely playoff bid.

    Michigan State has already doubled its win total from 2016’s 3-9 disaster and likes to win ugly, averaging only 22.7 points per game but yielding 16.9. The Spartans are under the radar but look like a tough out for any Big Ten East contender. Lose, and Penn State’s hopes of a College Football Playoff bid will take a big hit, potentially opening the door for another Big Ten team or a second team from the SEC. A Michigan State win would improve the Spartans' chances as well, but they'd also have to defeat Ohio State on Nov. 11 to have any shot at the playoff. 

          

    Prediction

    Michigan State has won all four Big Ten games by eight points or fewer. But the Spartans don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with Penn State’s powerful offense keyed by Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley. Expect the Lions to make the Spartans look mortal in an easy victory.

9. Washington State at Washington

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    Jake Browning hopes to lead another Washington run to a College Football Playoff berth.
    Jake Browning hopes to lead another Washington run to a College Football Playoff berth.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 25 at Husky Stadium, Seattle, Washington.

         

    What’s on the line

    The Pac-12 had a clear playoff choice in Washington last fall, as the one-loss Huskies made the College Football Playoff. In late October, the league’s playoff hopes are fading. The Huskies are one of only two Pac-12 teams with only one loss. That makes a playoff run unlikely, but Washington still has a chance.

    The Huskies face a test from Stanford, but their biggest hurdle to a potential berth will be in the season finale when Washington State visits for the Apple Cup. Washington has won seven of the last eight meetings, including four consecutive by double digits. To make the playoff, the Huskies need to beat the Cougars and hope for some chaos around the nation. With wins over Washington, USC and Stanford, Washington State could also potentially make a case as a one-loss Pac-12 champion. 

         

    Prediction

    Washington has dominated the series and shown no issues handling Mike Leach’s air-it-out passing offense. Luke Falk has thrown for 22 touchdowns against four interceptions, but the Huskies’ balanced offense and stingy defense (allowing 10.6 points per game) will shut down the Air Raid and help Washington clinch a Pac-12 North title while keeping its playoff hopes alive.

8. Clemson at NC State

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    Kelly Bryant has played a huge role in Clemson's offensive success this fall.
    Kelly Bryant has played a huge role in Clemson's offensive success this fall.Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 4 at Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, North Carolina.  

         

    What's on the line

    Clemson suffered a surprising 27-24 loss at Syracuse, but the Tigers are still firmly in the College Football Playoff picture thanks to good wins over Auburn, Virginia Tech and Louisville. It's surprising given recent history, but with the Seminoles suffering through a down season, NC State appears to be the biggest obstacle remaining between the Tigers and another ACC Atlantic title.

    The Wolfpack have broken through under Dave Doeren and look like the second-best team in the Atlantic. A year ago, State pushed Clemson to the brink in Death Valley, missing a last-second field goal that would've won the game before falling 24-17 in overtime. Dabo Swinney's group can't afford another slip-up in Raleigh if it hopes to defend its national championship in the College Football Playoff. Unless NC State can defeat Notre Dame in South Bend on Saturday, the Wolfpack would have no hope at a playoff bid even with a win over Clemson (as a two-loss team), but they can throw a wrench into the ACC's playoff chances. 

         

    Prediction

    This is a tough game to handicap given Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant's uncertain status after leaving the Syracuse game with a sprained ankle and concussion. He is the engine that drives Clemson's offense, which was apparent after his departure. The Tigers' open week should have given him time to heal up, and assuming that he's healthy by next week, the combination of Bryant, an improving run game and an imposing defense should give Clemson enough to survive the 'Pack. 

7. Virginia Tech at Miami

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    Malik Rosier has made a seamless transition to becoming Miami's starting quarterback.
    Malik Rosier has made a seamless transition to becoming Miami's starting quarterback.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 4, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida. 

         

    What's on the line

    The ACC Coastal Division has long been considered the weaker of the league's divisions, but it has shown signs of life in 2017. Miami and Virginia Tech look highly competent, with one loss between the two entering this week, and that's Tech's no-shame 31-17 home loss to Clemson. Tech's visit to Miami should decide the Coastal and determine the division's rep in Charlotte for the ACC title game.

    The Hokies are an outside contender for a playoff bid, while Miami will be a legit candidate as long as it remains unbeaten. The ACC also wants the best candidate possible to face off against a potential one-loss Clemson team in Charlotte and improve the Tigers' schedule for their own playoff bid, and this game will have plenty to say about that.

         

    Prediction

    Virginia Tech has looked impressive despite significant offensive turnover, and freshman quarterback Josh Jackson has been a revelation with 16 touchdowns against four interceptions. But the Hokies haven't faced a road test like they will in Miami. Malik Rosier and the Hurricanes offense will make more big plays and emerge with a key ACC victory that keeps their name in the playoff mix.

6. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State

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    Baker Mayfield makes Oklahoma's potent offense hum.
    Baker Mayfield makes Oklahoma's potent offense hum.Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 4 at Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, Oklahoma.

                     

    What’s on the line

    The Bedlam Series is one of the biggest spotlight games in the state of Oklahoma and the Big 12 slate, and this year it matters nationally. Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have been consistent presences around the Top 10 this fall, and with the revamped Big 12 title game (which will match the league’s top two finishers), this is a crucial matchup.

    Both teams already have one league defeat and are in a pack behind league-leading TCU with Iowa State and West Virginia. This could be an elimination game from the Big 12 title game and the College Football Playoff for the loser.

         

    Prediction

    Picking a winner here comes down to which quarterback you trust more: Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph. Plenty of points will be scored on both sides, but this game could hinge on which offense performs best in the clutch. Give us Mayfield, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, to make a big play late and win a wild one in Stillwater.

5. Georgia at Auburn

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    Jake Fromm has been excellent in seizing Georgia's starting quarterback role and leading the Bulldogs to national prominence.
    Jake Fromm has been excellent in seizing Georgia's starting quarterback role and leading the Bulldogs to national prominence.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 11 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Alabama.

         

    What's on the line

    Georgia-Auburn is always one of the nation's best rivalries, but this meeting could mean more than most. The Bulldogs have emerged as the top team in the SEC East and one of the nation's best in Kirby Smart's second season, with Jake Fromm supplanting Jacob Eason at quarterback and winning games behind a defense allowing just 12.6 points per game, No. 4 nationally.

    A win at Notre Dame was impressive, but Jordan-Hare Stadium will be an even more hostile environment for the Dawgs. A win would all but assure a spot in the SEC title game for UGA and extend the possibility of two SEC teams in the College Football Playoff. Auburn is likely out of the playoff chase but can still play spoiler and stay in contention to win the SEC West with a victory. Plenty of eyes will be on Auburn on Nov. 11.

         

    Prediction

    The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has been one-sided in recent years, with Georgia winning nine of the teams' last 11 meetings. Auburn has a potent running game led by Kerryon Johnson, but transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham has just eight touchdowns against three interceptions. Expect Georgia's balanced offense to wear down a good Auburn defense and take a hard-fought win in Jordan-Hare.

4. Alabama at Auburn

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    Damien Harris is a key cog in Alabama's impressive offense.
    Damien Harris is a key cog in Alabama's impressive offense.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 25 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Alabama.

                  

    What’s on the line

    The Iron Bowl is always a highlight of the college football season, and this year will be no different. Alabama is the clear No. 1 team in America, steamrolling foe after foe while averaging 43.0 points per game and allowing just 9.8. While pundits will point toward a potential SEC title game against Georgia, that’s a hypothetical at this point.

    Auburn is the toughest game remaining on Alabama's regular-season schedule, with inconsistent No. 24 LSU at home. The Tigers have a potent running game and have taken a step forward this fall with new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Alabama will be favored going into Auburn, but funny things happen in this rivalry, especially at Jordan-Hare (see: Kick Six). The Crimson Tide might be able to absorb a loss and still make the College Football Playoff, but we wouldn’t advise it. And the Tigers have the best shot at giving them that defeat in the Iron Bowl.

         

    Prediction

    Alabama chews opponents up like a remorseless machine; the Tide have a balanced offense led by tailback Damien Harris and quarterback Jalen Hurts, and a nasty defense that has allowed only one SEC foe to crack the 10-point barrier. Auburn will offer excellent opposition, but it’s hard to pick against Nick Saban’s group at this point. Alabama wins and rolls into the SEC Championship Game.

3. Notre Dame at Miami

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    Brandon Wimbush has thrived as Notre Dame's starting quarterback.
    Brandon Wimbush has thrived as Notre Dame's starting quarterback.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida. 

         

    What’s on the line

    Miami has been one of the nation’s most pleasant surprises in Mark Richt’s second season. The Hurricanes are 7-0 and back in the Top 10 nationally, winning hard-fought games with quarterback Malik Rosier emerging as a legit successor to Brad Kaaya. But the 'Canes have yet to defeat a ranked foe, which should change when Virginia Tech and Notre Dame come to town in successive weeks.

    No. 8 Miami is one of six remaining Power Five unbeaten teams and is firmly in the playoff picture. So is No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1), whose 20-19 loss to Georgia looks better by the week. The winner should stay in playoff contention. Miami would still have a chance as a one-loss team, but the Hurricanes would miss out on a true marquee win that the selection committee values. It’s not a league game, but it’s vitally important for both sides.

         

    Prediction

    Miami has been no stranger to pressure-filled games this fall, winning its last three ACC games by a combined 13 points. The Hurricanes are a confident but untested bunch. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has shown improvement over the course of the season, with the biggest example a 49-14 rout of Southern California. Brandon Wimbush has looked like one of the nation’s top young quarterbacks, effectively leading the Irish offense. He’ll poke enough holes in the 'Canes defense for Notre Dame to take an important win that boosts its playoff chances. 

2. TCU at Oklahoma

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    Kenny Hill is enjoying an excellent senior season running TCU's offense.
    Kenny Hill is enjoying an excellent senior season running TCU's offense.Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Game info

    Nov. 11 at Memorial Stadium, Norman, Oklahoma.

         

    What’s on the line

    The Big 12's biggest surprise is that TCU is the only remaining unbeaten as November approaches. The No. 4 Horned Frogs have rebounded from a 6-7 season thanks to excellent defense (14.9 PPG) and capable play from senior quarterback Kenny Hill (15 TD, 3 INT). They have a road test at No. 25 Iowa State, but their biggest task will be a Nov. 11 trip to Oklahoma.

    With a win, the Frogs could all but cement a spot in the revamped Big 12 title game (and take a big step toward the College Football Playoff), while Oklahoma needs the win to stay alive for the second spot and a potential rematch with TCU in AT&T Stadium.

          

    Prediction

    The Horned Frogs rank in the Top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and defense and own an impressive win at Oklahoma State, but Oklahoma will be their biggest test. The Sooners and Mayfield can score with anyone, and expect their defense to harass Hill while the passing game makes enough big plays to pull out a hard-fought victory that puts OU right at the edge of the Top Four. 

1. Penn State at Ohio State

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    Saquon Barkley and Penn State face a huge hurdle at Ohio State.
    Saquon Barkley and Penn State face a huge hurdle at Ohio State.Chris Knight/Associated Press

    Game info

    3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio.

         

    What’s on the line

    Plenty. A year ago, Penn State announced it was back as an elite program by using a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown to stun Ohio State and take a 24-21 win in Happy Valley that wound up being the difference in a Big Ten East title. A year later, the No. 2 Nittany Lions look like the class of the East after whipping Michigan 42-13. But they still must face No. 6 Ohio State, which hasn’t been challenged since dropping a 31-16 home decision to Oklahoma.

    Ohio State can’t afford another defeat and still make the College Football Playoff, while Penn State was left out last season as a one-loss team despite a Big Ten title and win over the playoff-qualifying Buckeyes. With a win over OSU, Penn State’s path to an East title (and potential playoff bid) would be relatively clear, with Michigan State its toughest remaining game.

         

    Prediction

    Ohio State hasn’t been challenged since its loss to Oklahoma, averaging 56.2 points per game in a five-game win streak. But the Buckeyes haven’t faced a team with a stingy defense like Penn State or do-everything back Saquon Barkley. J.T. Barrett and the offense will dent Penn State’s D, but the Lions will leave no doubt with a resounding win in the Horseshoe as Barkley runs wild in a Heisman-worthy moment.