The first three weeks of the season have provided some clues about the College Football Playoff race, but collectively?
There’s been nothing like this.
Week 4 features what will be the most impactful lineup of games in September, starting with a trio of top-20 matchups: No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 3 Georgia; No. 11 Michigan at No. 13 Wisconsin; and No. 8 Auburn at No. 17 Texas A&M. Be very careful about eliminating anyone on Sunday — the first CFP rankings don’t come out until Nov. 5 — but there’s a harsh reality that some teams could see their bubble burst this weekend.
The 13-member selection committee will be watching all the games, but these have the potential to sway their votes the most on Selection Day:
No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 3 Georgia
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, CBS
No team has the potential to upend the top four more than Notre Dame, and if the Fighting Irish can get past Georgia, it would legitimize the possibility of that happening again. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, this is the only game Notre Dame isn’t favored to win (32.7%). Last season, Big Ten champion Ohio State was left out of the CFP in favor of the undefeated and independent Irish. The minute Note Dame loses, though, two things need to happen: The Irish need to win out and finish with one loss (no pressure), and they need to hope their résumé still stacks up against a Power 5 conference champion.
“I think that all of our players and staff understand that if you look at the enormity of it and take it as we have to win all of our games, that’s not the best way to handle this,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said this offseason. “We’ve focused much more on processing than outcomes. That’s what allowed us to start winning some football games on a much more consistent basis, because if you look at this from a big picture, you’re on a tightrope every week.”
Georgia has more wiggle room — and also a more difficult remaining schedule. Some selection committee members considered the two-loss Bulldogs last year as SEC runner-up. Even if Georgia loses this game, its playoff hopes remain intact because it can still win the SEC.
No. 8 Auburn at No. 17 Texas A&M
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Auburn already had caught the nation’s attention with its season-opening win against Oregon, but a road win against a ranked SEC West opponent would further validate the Tigers as a playoff sleeper — and simultaneously crush whatever (if any) playoff hopes Texas A&M had.
Why still a bubble team with a win? Auburn has the No. 4 remaining strength of schedule in the FBS, according to ESPN’s FPI, which also gives the Tigers less than a 50% chance to beat Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. The only SEC team with a more difficult schedule this year is South Carolina, and the Gamecocks have the toughest lineup in the FBS.
“Who has tougher? How in the world can anybody have tougher?
“It is a big game, but in the big picture, it’s not devastating,” Malzahn said. “With our strength of schedule, we’ve got plenty of games to make up, but it’s important to get this thing started off the right way.”
That’s why a loss — while it wouldn’t eliminate Auburn — would be such a dagger for the Tigers. It probably won’t be the only one.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M could enter the sleeper conversation with a victory. The Aggies have yet to truly put their dreadful performance at Clemson behind them and get their offense going under quarterback Kellen Mond. A road loss to Clemson won’t keep the Aggies out of the playoff, but two September losses likely will.
Fisher called it a “double whammy.”
“It’s an important game because it’s a conference game and an interdivisional game,” he said. “You have to win your own division to have a chance at your goals and aspirations. This is one of the first steps in that process and hopefully we’ll play well.”
According to FPI, the Aggies would have a 1% chance to win the SEC West if they lose, while the Tigers’ chance would drop to 2% if they fall.
No. 11 Michigan at No. 13 Wisconsin
Saturday, Noon ET, FOX
As tempting as it might be, don’t eliminate the loser. What if they face each other again for the Big Ten title and Saturday’s loser wins it all? (See: Oklahoma vs. Texas, 2018).
Yes, at some point, Michigan’s offense needs to find its pulse, and yes, Wisconsin needs to “play somebody,” but teams have a tendency to look dramatically different between now and November.
Wisconsin enters this game with home-field advantage, a Heisman Trophy hopeful at running back and an opportunity to change everything you thought you knew about the Big Ten race. Ohio State remains the league front-runner (49%, according to FPI), but Wisconsin is the only other school with more than a 10% chance to win the conference. With a win on Saturday, that would increase to 30%. The Badgers face both Michigan and Ohio State (Oct. 26) in crossover games, giving them a chance to prove they’re the best in the league even before the Big Ten title game.
Or … Michigan can make a statement that it’s finally ready to contend under Jim Harbaugh.
No. 10 Utah at Southern California
Friday, 9 p.m. ET, FS1
If Utah loses — whether it’s Friday night or somewhere else down the stretch — its nonconference schedule will become a point of discussion in the selection committee meeting room. While the road win against BYU is looking more respectable each week, triumphs against Northern Illinois and Idaho State won’t help separate Utah from other contenders.
Ah, but the transitive property of college football is at work here, right? USC lost to BYU. Utah beat BYU. So naturally, Utah must be better than USC, right?
#Pac12AfterDark would like a word.
ESPN’s FPI gives Utah a 42.1% chance to win, and this Friday night road trip sets the stage for possible chaos. The winner of this game will be the prohibitive favorite in the Pac-12 South. With Utah moving to No. 10 in the latest Associated Press Top 25, the league could use its highest-ranked team to stay undefeated. Expectations were high for Utah entering the season, but the spotlight is now squarely on the Utes after Oregon’s loss to Auburn and the Utes’ strong start.
If Utah loses this game, it would be another big loss for the Pac-12 too. After opening the season at 22%, the Pac-12’s chance to reach the playoff is down to 9%, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor.
Oklahoma State at No. 12 Texas
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App
Until proven otherwise, Oklahoma is the team to beat in the Big 12, but the winner of this game will be best positioned to challenge the Sooners in the conference championship game.
Texas can’t afford to lose again.
The Longhorns already have lost to LSU, and they still have to face their rival on Oct. 12. The Cowboys have won five straight in Austin — the longest winning streak by any school ever at Texas. FPI gives the Longhorns a 61.4% chance to win, but three of their last five games are on the road.
Texas needs to take advantage of every home-field opportunity if it’s going to get another shot at the Sooners in the conference title game.
No. 16 Oregon at Stanford
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
Oregon’s season-opening loss to Auburn was a setback, but not a playoff elimination game. This probably would be, though.
After back-to-back road losses, Stanford has fallen out of the top 25 and the national conversation, looking pedestrian in the process. Now, even with home-field advantage, FPI only gives the Cardinal a 17.9% chance to win.
Oregon, with quarterback Justin Herbert, appears to be the faster and more talented team, but this is the toughest opponent the Ducks have faced since losing to Auburn. Oregon is favored to win each of its remaining games, according to FPI. If it can run the table and the Ducks are a one-loss Pac-12 champ, the conference will be right in the hunt again for a top-four finish.
A second loss for Oregon would be extremely difficult to overcome, though, even with a conference title.
No. 22 Washington at BYU
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2/ESPN App
The Huskies are in a similar position to that of Oregon, and the good news is that No. 23 and undefeated Cal — responsible for their lone loss — is now ranked. The bad news? BYU has been playing well and should be confident at home after last week’s overtime win against USC.
Washington can play itself back into the playoff conversation by running the table, but remember the Huskies still have to face Oregon on Oct. 19 — the only game remaining on their schedule FPI doesn’t favor them to win (39.1%).
Washington needs this win on its résumé. Even though BYU isn’t ranked, it still would be the Huskies’ best nonconference win. A loss would bounce them right off the playoff bubble.
Author: Heather Dinich