2020 Conference Games That Will Have the Biggest Impact on the CFB Playoff

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 23, 2020

2020 Conference Games That Will Have the Biggest Impact on the CFB Playoff

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    Alabama's DeVonta Smith and LSU's Derek Stingley Jr.
    Alabama's DeVonta Smith and LSU's Derek Stingley Jr.Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Conference showdowns like Alabama vs. LSU and Ohio State vs. Penn State have been critical data points in recent quests to choose the four teams most deserving for the College Football Playoff, but those tilts are even more important than usual in what figures to be a conference-only football season.

    Neither of those games ranks No. 1 on our list, though, as it's a certain SEC East battle that appears it will be most singularly responsible in painting this season's final picture.

    One quick note before we dive in: Rather than trying to include all 10 possible iterations of Alabama vs. Auburn vs. Georgia vs. Florida vs. LSU vs. Texas A&M, we decided on a maximum of two games per team and four games per conference. As a result, you won't find Auburn at Georgia (Oct. 10), LSU at Florida (Oct. 10), LSU at Auburn (Nov. 21), Texas A&M at Alabama (Nov. 21), LSU at Texas A&M (Nov. 28) orthe most painful omissionAuburn at Alabama (Nov. 28).

    With that qualifier out of the way, the following 10 games are ranked in ascending order of perceived importance, based on a combination of both conference and national preseason projections.

10. Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 7

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    Clemson's Trevor Lawrence
    Clemson's Trevor LawrenceGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    You're right. This isn't a conference game. Clemson is in the ACC and Notre Dame is an independent. Because of that technicality, we've decided to slot this colossal showdown at the bottom of our top 10.

    But Notre Dame is basically in the ACC. In every other sport except for men's hockey (Big Ten), the Fighting Irish have been members of the ACC since 2013. Moreover, they play 4-6 games against ACC foes every football season, and the ACC has already said it will try to keep its Notre Dame games on the 2020 calendar even in the event of a decision to play a "conference-only" season.

    Assuming this game does happen, it is probably the most important of the entire season.

    Clemson is probably going to open the season ranked No. 1, and this is its only game against an opponent all but guaranteed to appear in the preseason AP Top 25. Win at Notre Dame and the Tigers at least have one "Hey, look what we accomplished!" victory in what would likely be a third consecutive undefeated regular season. Lose at Notre Dame, though, and Clemson would have to really steamroll every other team on its schedule to have a compelling case for the CFP.

    And now that the Big Ten and Pac-12 have canceled nonconference playeliminating Notre Dame's scheduled games against Wisconsin, USC and Stanford—the Fighting Irish are essentially in the same boat. They'll likely be ranked somewhere in the Nos. 8-12 range to open the season, but Clemson is now the only opponent worth mentioning left on their schedule.

    In theory, Notre Dame could beef up its strength of schedule by tacking on a decent SEC opponent or two. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all play a nine-game league schedule while the ACC and SEC typically play eight games. There hasn't been any official ruling about this, but it would make sense if both the ACC and SEC opt to allow one "bonus" game to get to nine; and Notre Dame could fill some of those voids. There were rumors of a possible Week 1 Alabama vs. Notre Dame showdown, but Alabama AD Greg Byrne tweeted on Saturday that's not happening.

    Unless Notre Dame does add another marquee matchup, this Nov. 7 showdown is basically a "Loser Leaves Town" affair. The winner should be in great shape for the CFP, but it's hard to imagine any scenario in which the loser still finishes in the CFP Top Four.

9. USC at Oregon, Nov. 7

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    USC QB Kedon Slovis
    USC QB Kedon SlovisMatt York/Associated Press

    USC was supposed to open the season against Alabama and end the season against Notre Dame. Aside from poor Kent State's gauntlet (at Penn State, at Kentucky, at Alabama), the Trojans had arguably the most difficult nonconference schedule in the country.

    With those games no longer on the docket, could Kedon Slovis lead the Trojans to their first College Football Playoff appearance?

    Only if they can avenge last year's embarrassing 56-24 loss to Oregontheir worst margin of defeat in their 60-game history against the Ducks.

    USC is probably going to be the best team in the Pac-12 South, unless Utah can somehow withstand losing a dozen starters to remain atop the division. The Trojans will have an outstanding passing game, and the defense should be better than it was last yearalthough that isn't saying much for a team that allowed nearly 30 points per game in 2019.

    But there's a fine line between "best in the Pac-12 South" and "best in the Pac-12," as Oregon figures to be the king of the North Division for a second straight year. 

    Oregon is certainly a "Final Four" candidate. The Ducks have a great backfield, quality wide receivers, the best offensive lineman in the nation (Penei Sewell) and a damn fine defense. They should open the season ranked in the AP Top 10, and they should run the table in the Pac-12 if projected starting QB Tyler Shough is even 70 percent as good as Justin Herbert was.

    Regardless of what happens in this game, though, there's a good chance Oregon and USC run it back in the Pac-12 championship. That makes it hard to put this one any higher than this, even though it's clearly the most noteworthy conference game west of the Rocky Mountains.

8. Texas A&M at Auburn, Oct. 17

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    Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher
    Texas A&M head coach Jimbo FisherRichard Shiro/Associated Press

    Including this SEC game while excluding the Iron Bowl and the projected preseason Top 10 showdown between LSU and Florida probably makes me seem like a dummy, but allow me to explain.

    If the SEC rearranges its schedule in light of the developing COVID-19 cancellations, there's a good chance Texas A&M at Auburn no longer belongs on this list. But it's the timing of this battle between the projected third-best and fourth-best teams in the SEC West that makes it so intriguing.

    If the SEC doesn't change the order of its schedule, this figures to have colossal CFP implications because it is Texas A&M's only legitimate test until ending the season with back-to-back games against Alabama (road) and LSU (home).

    As is, A&M's first six SEC games are: vs. Arkansas, at Mississippi State, this game at Auburn, at South Carolina, vs. Ole Miss and vs. Vanderbilt. That's either at least a 5-1 record or a long, hard look at the buyout clause in Jimbo Fisher's contract, right?

    If the Aggies are able to win this road game against Bo Nix and Co., they'll likely enter the aforementioned two-game home stretch with a 6-0 (conference) record. That would be huge for all three of Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M, who would likely all be ranked in the CFP Top 10 at that point, each with two big tests remaining prior to the SEC Championship Game.

    Auburn is scheduled to play at Georgia one week before this game against Texas A&M, plus the Tigers end the regular season with the same back-to-back gauntlet as Texas A&M (vs. LSU, at Alabama). Thus, it's unlikely Auburn will win the division or factor into the CFP conversation at the end of the year. But if the Tigers happen to win at Georgia, it becomes very likely that the winner of this game will carry a 6-0 (conference) record into games against Alabama and LSU.

    In that scenario, there's a decent chance the SEC West Division winner makes the College Football Playoff regardless of what happens in the SEC Championship.

7. Penn State at Michigan, Oct. 3

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    Penn State's Micah Parsons
    Penn State's Micah ParsonsBarry Reeger/Associated Press

    For every other game on this list, I could see either team reaching the College Football Playoff. However, I've reached something of a "The Boy Who Cried Wolverines" limit on Michigan after five consecutive seasons with at least three losses. This team clearly has talent, but it never seems to reach its potential. Factor in the uncertainty at quarterback, the regular-season finale at Ohio State and the cross-divisional games against Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I would be surprised if Michigan competes for a Big Ten title.

    (For what it's worth, I hit a similar "At this point, I'll believe when I see it" threshold with Virginia men's basketball a few weeks before it won the 2019 NCAA tournament, so who knows.)

    But Penn State has a real chance at the CFP, provided it wins this game.

    Led by linebacker Micah Parsons, the Nittany Lions should have one of the best defenses in the nation. They also have a stockpile of quality running backs, a respectable quarterback in Sean Clifford and a solid track record with 11 wins in three of the past four seasons.

    Penn State also has just about the most favorable schedule possible for a team in the Big Ten East. The Nittany Lions get both Ohio State and Michigan State at home, they face neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin in cross-divisional game and they get Iowa at home in their toughest game against the Big Ten West.

    Frankly, this game and the one against Ohio State (which ranks higher on this list) should be the only legitimate threats to ruin Penn State's perfect season.

    If the Nittany Lions win at Michigan and proceed to lose a close game to Ohio State, they will become the 2020 version of 2017 Alabamaor "2019 Alabama if it had won the Iron Bowl." Penn State would almost certainly fall short of winning its division, but it could have a compelling case for sneaking in at No. 4 as a one-loss non-champion in its conference, depending on how things shake out in the other four Power Five leagues.

    However, be sure to note that Penn State lost 42-7 at Michigan two years ago, lost 49-10 in 2016 and have just a 1-8 record at Michigan dating back to 1998. The Nittany Lions have some serious Big House demons to exorcise before they can start dreaming about the College Football Playoff.

6. Minnesota at Wisconsin, Oct. 10

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    Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck
    Minnesota head coach P.J. FleckChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Both the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Wisconsin Badgers are on the outer fringe of CFP contention. According to Caesars Palace lines collected on Sunday, Wisconsin has 40-1 national championship odds and Minnesota is listed at 100-1both in the top 20, neither in the top 15.

    But someone has to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship, where that team could be one win over Ohio State or Penn State away from locking up a spot in the national semifinals.

    Most likely, that team will be the 2020 winner of Paul Bunyan's Axe.

    Neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin has to face either Ohio State or Penn State during the regular season, so it's feasible that the victor runs the table in what otherwise looks like a mediocre division. Maybe one or both loses to Michigan. Each one also has a regular-season finaleMinnesota at Nebraska; Wisconsin at Iowathat could prove difficult. Certainly not a guaranteed loss anywhere on either slate, though.

    Dating back to 1892, this rivalry has basically been a draw. Wisconsin holds a slim 61-58-8 edge over Minnesota in 127 all-time meetings. But dating back to 2004 is a much different story, as the Badgers have won 15 of the last 16 meetings, including a surprisingly comfortable 38-17 road win over an AP Top 10 Golden Gophers squad last November.

    Can P.J. Fleck's guys return the favor now that the Badgers no longer have Jonathan Taylor in the backfield? Minnesota's QB-RB-WR trio of Tanner Morgan, Mohamed Ibrahim and Rashod Bateman should be one of the best in the country, but we'll have to see how well the defensewhich wasn't that great to begin withwithstands the loss of seven starters, including second-round draft pick Antoine Winfield Jr.

5. Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 10

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    Texas QB Sam Ehlinger
    Texas QB Sam EhlingerAustin Gay/Associated Press

    Much like the previously discussed USC-Oregon game, there's a reasonable expectation this won't be the only time these two Big 12 schools clash in 2020. Oklahoma State, Iowa State or Baylor might have something to say about it, but Oklahoma and Texas are expected to finish atop the standings of the only league that plays a true round-robin schedule.

    If that's the case, then, obviously, the second meeting will be the much more important one for College Football Playoff purposes.

    Still, this should be a big game, and if recent history holds to form, a great one.

    Six of the last seven installments of the Red River Rivalry were decided by seven points or fewer. And in the lone outlier, they were knotted up at 27 apiece heading into the fourth quarter of the 2018 Big 12 Championship before the Sooners won by a dozen.

    Whether Texas is back or not, these teams always seem to deliver when they get together. Moreover, Oklahoma has participated in four of the last five College Football Playoffs, so we almost have to expect to see the Sooners near the top of the final CFP rankings at this point.

    One intriguing dynamic in this year's R.R.R. is the gigantic edge Texas holds in the "QB Experience" department.

    Entering his fourth and final year as the Longhorns starter, Sam Ehlinger has accounted for 93 combined passing and rushing touchdowns, attempting more than 1,100 passes in his college career. There are only four quarterbacks who attempted more passes than Ehlinger since the beginning of 2017, and each of those players exhausted his final year of eligibility in 2019.

    Meanwhile, Oklahoma's presumed starter, redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler, has only attempted 11 career passes. He was the highest-rated quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class, but who knows how well he'll fare in what will be just his second career startassuming no nonconference play and no other changes to the Big 12 schedule.

4. Georgia at Alabama, Sept. 19

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    Alabama's Najee Harris
    Alabama's Najee HarrisButch Dill/Associated Press

    At long last, it's Alabama vs. Georgia during the regular season for the first time since 2015 and for just the second time in more than a decade. The SEC's 6-1-1 schedule sure is annoying, but hallelujah to getting this game when both teams figure to open the year in the AP Top Five.

    But it's not quite the most important game of the season becauselike USC-Oregon and Oklahoma-Texasthe loser still controls its own destiny. If the Bulldogs get smoked by the Crimson Tide in September and bounce back for October wins over Auburn and Florida en route to a 7-1 conference record, they still got a shot at redemption in the SEC Championship Game. Same goes for Alabama, though it has a tougher slate with home games against Auburn and Texas A&M and a road game against LSU.

    Where this game might become critical, however, is if the victor slips up and fails to win its division.

    Both Alabama-LSU and Georgia-Florida rank higher on this list because those two games should determine who plays for the SEC title. Even if Alabama beats Georgia, a loss to LSU would mean the Crimson Tide need the Tigers to lose at least two other games to have a shot at winning the SEC West. Ditto for Georgia in regard to Florida in the SEC East.

    But let's pull at that thread a bit and say Alabama wins this game, proceeds to lose at LSU, but rallies for season-ending wins over Texas A&M and Auburn. The Crimson Tide would finish 7-1, failing to win their division and forced to sit at home while LSU faces Georgia/Florida in the SEC title game. Despite being left out of that critical game, the selection committee would be looking at an Alabama resume with three great wins and just the one, forgivable road loss to a potentially undefeated LSU. In that scenario, Alabama still has a strong chance of finishing in the CFP Top Four.

    Alternatively, perhaps Alabama and Georgia both go undefeated aside from this game, they meet in the conference championship and the September loser emerges victorious in December. In that world, both teams finish with one loss and both teams probably make the playoff.

    So, yes, major implications here, even though most analysts are projecting an eventual rematch.

3. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 7

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    LSU head coach Ed Orgeron
    LSU head coach Ed OrgeronGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    As just discussed, this game likely determines who wins the SEC West. That has been the case in seven of the last nine seasons with Auburn edging out Alabama because of the Iron Bowl in the other two seasons. This division has sent one team to each of the six College Football Playoffs, and also placed (at least) one team in each of the final five BCS championships.

    It's kind of a big deal.

    But the overall difficulty of schedule for both teams leaves open the possibility of both a loss in this game and a spot in the playoff, which limits this game to just the No. 3 spoteven though it has become the most highly anticipated regular-season game on an annual basis. (Sorry, Michigan vs. Ohio State, but it's true.)

    We already addressed the Alabama scenario, and LSU is in an even more challenging predicament. Assuming the nonconference tilt against Texas gets canceled in a conference-only season, the Tigers still have a hellacious schedule featuring road games against Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M. If they lose to Alabama but win those other three, it'll be impossible to argue that they don't deserve a shot at the national championship.

    While it's possible the loser of this game still sneaks into the playoff, there's no question that the winner has a substantially better chance of getting there. Totally just spitballing numbers here, but without knowing the outcomes of any games prior to this one, it's probably something like 80 percent CFP probability for the winner and less than 10 percent for the loser.

    Of course, this is all assuming LSU lives up to the preseason hype as a top-10 team in spite of losing 14 starters from last year's juggernaut. If the Tigers can do that and win this game against their loathed rival, that six-year, $42 million extension Ed Orgeron signed in January is going to look like a steal.

2. Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 24

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    Ohio State QB Justin Fields
    Ohio State QB Justin FieldsRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    In all six seasons of the College Football Playoff's brief history, Ohio State has at least been in the conversation. The Buckeyes won the national championship at the end of the 2014 season, made the playoff in 2016 and 2019 and finished in the Nos. 5-7 range of the rankings in 2015, 2017 and 2018. And the expectations are certainly that they'll be back in the mix again this year. Ohio State is probably even going to receive first-place votes when the preseason AP poll comes out next month.

    And recently, Penn State has at least been knocking at the CFP door. The Nittany Lions finished at No. 10 last year, No. 12 in 2018, No. 9 in 2017 and just barely missed the cut at No. 5 in 2016. Many believe this could be the year Penn State finally breaks through for a shot at a national championship, but winning this home game against the Buckeyes is pretty much a prerequisite for that to happen.

    Over the past four years, this game has been awesome.

    That stretch began in 2016 with Penn State erasing a 21-7 fourth-quarter deficit with 17 unanswered points punctuated by a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. That was the turning point for this program. It was unranked for that game but has been ranked in each and every AP poll since pulling off that upset.

    Ohio State has won three in a row since then, but none of those victories was easy. Penn State led 21-3 in the second quarter in 2017 and was up 26-14 in the fourth quarter in 2018 before the Buckeyes stormed back for one-point wins in each contest. And in last year's tilt, it was Ohio State jumping out to a 21-0 lead before the Nittany Lions made things interesting with 17 points in the span of four minutes in the third quarter.

    Ohio State is arguably the better team this year, but playing the game in Happy Valley balances the scales. This may well be another instant classic that gives the winner a gigantic leg up in the race for the Big Ten East crown.

1. Florida vs. Georgia, Oct. 31

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    Florida QB Kyle Trask
    Florida QB Kyle TraskLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    It's usually an SEC West team that competes for a national championship, but these two titans of the SEC East have as good of a chance as Alabama, LSU or Auburn does this year.

    Per Caesars Palace, Georgia has the fourth-best odds of winning the national championship at 7-1 with Florida checking in with the fifth-best odds at 12-1. Both squads will certainly open the season ranked in the AP Top 10. And the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Partyor whatever we're calling this game in a social-distancing environment—will almost certainly determine which of these great teams doesn't get a chance to play for all the marbles.

    With the Alabama-LSU game, there's at least some uncertainty as to whether the victor actually goes on to win the West Division. It's feasible LSU could win that home game, lose its road games against Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M and not even sniff the SEC Championship Game. Alabama also has three difficult conference games in addition to that tilt with LSU, so multiple losses is within the realm of possibility.

    It's harderbut not impossibleto imagine the winner of Georgia-Florida will find two other losses on its schedule, though, which makes this game that much more important.

    Aside from the W.L.O.C.P., Florida's only particularly concerning league game is the one at home against LSU. ESPN's FPI gives the Gators a 45.6 percent chance of victory there, but at least a 75 percent chance in each of their other six SEC games. Likewise, Georgia will be an underdog at Alabama, has a 66.2 percent chance of victory at home against Auburn and at least an 82 percent chance in each of its other five games.

    In other words, it's unlikely the Florida-Georgia winner will lose at least two league games, and it's probably just as unlikely that the Florida-Georgia loser will go 7-0 in its other league games anyway. Thus, this game should decide who wins the SEC East, earning a spot in the only conference championship game where the winner will be a lock for the CFP.