12 Games to Help Decide the Playoff

Three years ago on this site, after only one year of the playoff era of college football to that point, I wrote of playoff inclusion, "Here's what fans of a major conference top 25 team should be hoping for from their team if they want to be in the playoff: win your conference and have less than two losses overall. That's it."

As we click past the midway point of the fifth season of the College Football Playoff, not much about that statement has changed.

No two-loss team has ever been included in the four-team playoff. Sure, Ohio State in 2016 and Alabama in 2017 made the playoff without winning their conference, but each was included in a semifinal bowl at the expense of a two-loss team.

That unofficial one-loss/two-loss line of demarcation makes the playoff race that much easier to understand six weeks before selection day, and even before the conference championship games.

In chronological order, here are the games before the conference championships that will play the biggest role in deciding the four teams that play in the Orange and Cotton Bowls on Dec. 29,

October 27

Georgia vs. Florida in Jacksonville

With three teams at 4-1 in the SEC and 6-1 overall, the SEC East that was supposed to be Georgia's playground in 2018 is all to play for. And thanks to the Bulldogs' blowout loss at LSU on Oct. 13, it has to play de-facto elimination games from here on out.

Florida is in a bit of a tough spot for a playoff berth since the Gators have a head-to-head home loss against Kentucky on their record in September. However, if Florida can somehow win this game against Georgia, then Georgia beats Kentucky on Nov. 3 (more on that later), the Gators would then find themselves in the drivers' seat for the East after the first week of November.

Iowa @ Penn State

It's about a 98 percent chance neither of these teams make the playoff. But after this weekend, every Big Ten team has a loss, and Iowa is one of the three with only one. So, if we stick to the principle that one-loss teams that win Power 5 leagues are likely playoff teams, we can't discount Iowa yet, even if 2015 Iowa and 2017 Wisconsin showed that the selection committee looks down on the Big Ten West.

But let's be honest here, Penn State, with two losses and no hope of winning the East outside of incredible insanity in Ann Arbor and Columbus, probably wins this game to extinguish the playoff hopes of the Big Ten West yet again.

November 3

Alabama @ LSU

If Alabama wins this game, they can essentially book their playoff tickets for the Cotton Bowl already, regardless of the outcome of the SEC championship. I know that sounds ridiculous a full month before the committee makes its picks, but only home games would remain between the LSU game and Atlanta, and the committee is not leaving out a 12-1 Alabama team that pulverized everyone from September through November.

Meanwhile, an LSU win, although it would be a huge victory, wouldn't guarantee the SEC West for the Tigers quite yet. On the final Saturday before the conference championships, LSU has to travel to College Station to play Texas A&M. We saw in September how tough that game was for Clemson.

There's no doubt that Alabama will be favored in this game, but the past two weeks have shown how ferocious the LSU defense is at the moment. If LSU can't stop 'Bama, or at least hold them under 30 points, there might be no one who can.

West Virginia @ Texas

For a 6-1 team that's in the top 15 of the polls in late October, I'm thoroughly unimpressed with West Virginia so far, and the Mountaineers' one big non-conference statement opportunity at NC State was canceled by Hurricane Florence.

But at 3-1 in the Big 12, owners of a head-to-head win against fellow 3-1 conference team Texas Tech, and both Oklahoma and Texas still on the schedule, West Virginia is the biggest chance the Big 12 has to crash a potential Red River rematch in December for the Big 12 title game.

For Texas, the equation is simple as the Big 12's only undefeated team in conference: win out, and you're in, despite the puzzling first-week loss to Maryland. But after four wins by seven points or less in this winning streak for Texas, I think there's at least one more loss on tap for the Longhorns, and I believe Oklahoma is the most likely Big 12 playoff team.

Georgia @ Kentucky

If Kentucky can get past an erratic Mizzou team that doesn't have a conference win this coming Saturday, it will be November, and the Wildcats will be in playoff contention. And if Georgia beats Florida next Saturday, this game almost certainly decides the SEC East. But the winner might just need a head-to-head win against Alabama in December to make the playoff. Good luck.

Notre Dame @ Northwestern

I'm including this game to show you how much things have opened up for Notre Dame this season. Before the season, November was set to be a gauntlet with Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse, and USC being the last four games for the Irish before bowls. Now, with Florida State and USC each in a lean year, you could make an argument that this road game in Evanston is the toughest test left for undefeated Notre Dame.

November 10

Ohio State @ Michigan State

Ohio State's defense finally broke late after a lot of bending at Purdue, and the offense couldn't finish in the red zone despite another amazing performance from Dwayne Haskins. Despite that loss that saw Ohio State fall from the unbeaten ranks, a playoff spot is still there for the Buckeyes if they can beat Michigan and then win the Big Ten against a lesser West opponent.

But the margin for error is zero now for Ohio State, and this the main chance for a slip up between now and Michigan on Nov. 24. Even though Michigan State probably comes into this game unranked, we've already seen the Spartans play spoiler at Penn State a few weeks ago.

Clemson @ Boston College

That whole possibility of there being legitimate challengers to Clemson in the ACC hasn't really panned out, has it? With all due respect to Florida State, this is probably Clemson's biggest road test left on the schedule, and the Tigers will be massive favorites in home games against Duke, Louisville, and South Carolina. And it's pretty unlikely that whoever comes out of the ACC Coastal muck will have much for Clemson, either.

Oklahoma State @ Oklahoma

It's Bedlam! Oklahoma does have a couple road tests left at Texas Tech on Nov. 3 and at West Virginia on Nov. 23, but I include this game because it's always a blast to watch, even if the defenses sometimes leave a lot to be desired.

However, history generally shows that when this game is in Norman, and Oklahoma is in title contention, the Sooners usually win. And if Oklahoma can sweep through the next five weeks of Big 12 play without a loss, a rematch with Texas could await.

November 23

UCF @ South Florida

So, I'm skipping all of Nov. 17's games, because that's everyone's favorite week, where many teams play overmatched Group of 5 or FCS schools. Among the playoff contenders, you could (maybe) talk yourself into Ohio State looking past Maryland prior to Michigan week? Syracuse giving Notre Dame a contest at Yankee Stadium? That's about it, though.

We pick back up after Thanksgiving with the only possible game between unbeatens before the playoff. There's been some talk after UCF broke into the top 10 in the polls that there could be some chance of them making the playoff, and I'd love to see it. However, the Knights don't even have a win over a team with a winning record yet, so I'm not even sure the Selection Committee will have them in the top 20 when the first rankings come out on Oct. 30.

The Knights get chances to beat good teams when they play Temple, Cincinnati, and South Florida in November, but I can't see it being good for anything more than the allotted Group of 5 spot in the New Year's Six.

Washington @ Washington State

The Pac-12 is all but finished for the playoffs after Washington State beat Oregon this past weekend, but the Cougars are sitting on just the one loss with games at Stanford and Colorado prior to this one to try to build a resume. It's a huge long-shot, but if Washington State comes into this game at 10-1, and Washington could keep Rose Bowl hopes alive with a Pac-12 North crown, this could be the biggest Apple Cup game to date.

November 24

Michigan @ Ohio State

The best saved for last. To me, of any of these games, this is as close as it gets to being a pure play-in game, and it's arguably the biggest rivalry in the history of the sport.

Since both teams have one loss now, each needs to win out to get to this potential game of maximum leverage, but each will be favored to do so. The winner of this game will also be heavily favored to win the conference title the next weekend in Indianapolis.

Michigan has been pretty dominant since the Notre Dame loss in Week 1, and Ohio State was lucky to scrape by Penn State at the end of September. But the stakes couldn't be higher for Michigan here should it come into the game with one loss. Since 2004, Ohio State has won 13 of 14 games against Michigan. The last time Michigan won a game of this potential magnitude against Ohio State was 1997.

I didn't include any conference championships in this article, since every conference now has one, the significance of those games is obvious, and we won't know the teams competing in them for another month. However, those will also obviously be huge in determining the four playoff teams.

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