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Ranking the rivalry games by playoff impact

Nov 20, 2018

  • Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer
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    • College football reporter
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
    • Graduate of Indiana University

While the playoff has taken a predictable path this fall, consider just how rare it is that No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame are entering rivalry week undefeated: It’s only the fourth time in the past 20 years that three Power 5 teams (or BCS automatic qualifiers) have started 11-0.

Since the BCS was created in 1998, it has happened three other times, according to ESPN Stats & Information research: in 2013 (Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State), 2009 (Alabama, Florida and Texas) and 2004 (Auburn, Oklahoma and USC).

That’s it.

So here we are, with three undefeated teams holding strong in the top four and only two weeks remaining before the College Football Playoff selection committee announces its final rankings on Dec. 2. Can they all stay undefeated, and if not, then what?

Here’s a look at the rivalry games that will mean the most to the College Football Playoff, listed in order of greatest potential impact to the committee’s final rankings:

1. Michigan at Ohio State (Saturday, noon ET, FOX)

If Michigan wins: It would be the best result for the Big Ten, as the league’s top-ranked team would maintain its hold on the No. 4 spot heading into the conference championship game against Northwestern. If the Wolverines win out, it would be much easier for the selection committee to justify the Big Ten champion’s spot in the playoff because they have played better than Ohio State more consistently all season. Michigan would have the edge over a one-loss Oklahoma team that wins the Big 12 title and a one-loss Washington State, should the Cougars win the Pac-12. Michigan might even be chosen over a one-loss Alabama team that loses to Georgia in the SEC championship, though that would be an extremely difficult decision.

If Ohio State wins: There are no guarantees, other than clinching the East Division title. It’s possible the Big Ten champion could be left out of the playoff a third straight year if Ohio State wins, but the committee would have a difficult decision between the Buckeyes and a one-loss Oklahoma team for the fourth spot. Both have struggled defensively this year (OU is No. 95 in defensive efficiency, Ohio State is No. 46), and yet both keep finding ways to win with talented quarterbacks. If Ohio State beats Michigan, though, the committee would have to weigh that victory against an Oklahoma win over West Virginia in Morgantown on Friday night. Ohio State would probably have the edge, as the Mountaineers are now a two-loss team and Michigan is a top-four, one-loss opponent. An Ohio State win could also impact the SEC. Should Alabama lose to Georgia in the SEC championship, an Ohio State win could increase the chances that both Alabama and Georgia finish in the top four (again) at the expense of the Big Ten champion.

Rooting interests: If you’re an OU, SEC or Washington State fan, cheer for Ohio State to win ugly. Notre Dame fans, cheer for Michigan (the win that just keeps on giving).

2. Oklahoma at West Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

If Oklahoma wins: The Sooners would clinch a spot in the Big 12 conference championship and remain in contention for a top-four finish. If they win on Friday night and Texas beats Kansas, the Longhorns would clinch the other spot in the title game. The Sooners would then have a chance to avenge their regular-season loss to the Longhorns, which would be a strong statement to the selection committee. The question is whether it would be enough to unseat the Big Ten champ for the fourth spot.

If West Virginia wins: The Mountaineers clinch a spot in the Big 12 title game, which means the league’s playoff hopes are likely over. A West Virginia win would guarantee the Big 12 champion has at least two losses — maybe three, if Texas wins the title. Even if Texas loses Saturday, if WVU loses and Iowa State wins, it will create a three-way tie in the standings, and the Longhorns would win the tiebreaker and clinch a spot in the title game.

Rooting interests: Washington State fans should be cheering for the Mountaineers, as the Sooners are still standing in their way in the CFP Top 25 heading into tonight’s rankings. UCF fans should be cheering for WVU, too, as it’s another bit of chaos that could work in their favor.

3. Notre Dame at USC (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)

If Notre Dame wins: The Irish finish undefeated and lock up a spot in the top four, where they can sit comfortably and watch how the conference championship games might change the rest of the playoff picture. With Notre Dame in, at least two Power 5 conference champions will be left out.

If USC wins: While it would be an embarrassing loss for Notre Dame, don’t discount a one-loss Irish team until the rest of the conference championship games play out. If the Big 12 produces a two-loss champion, or there is an upset in the Big Ten or Pac-12 title games, a one-loss Notre Dame is certainly still in the mix. The Irish are currently No. 1 in ESPN’s strength of record metric, which means they have played the most difficult schedule to date, knocking off two division champs in Northwestern and Pitt and possibly a third if Michigan wins the Big Ten East. If Northwestern and Michigan end up playing for the Big Ten championship, Notre Dame would have defeated the league champ regardless.

Rooting interests: UCF fans should cheer for USC (at the very least the Irish need to crash to start a wave of chaos for the Knights to move up into consideration). Washington State should cheer for USC because it needs as many dominoes to fall above it as possible.

4. Washington at Washington State (Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX)

If Washington wins: The Huskies will win the Pac-12 North, but the conference will lose in the big picture because the league is guaranteed to have a conference champion with three losses. Utah and Washington have three losses each, so the winner of the Pac-12 title would be eliminated.

If Washington State wins: The Pac-12 keeps its slim playoff hopes alive, but Washington State must win the conference championship and get some help. Even if Alabama and Clemson lose to their rivals but win their respective conference titles, they’re likely in ahead of Washington State. A Notre Dame loss would certainly open the door for debate, but a one-loss Big 12 champ in Oklahoma is more likely than Washington State to benefit from the Irish losing because it punctuated its résumé with wins at West Virginia and then likely against Texas. Washington State’s best-case scenario would be for Northwestern to win the Big Ten and for a two-loss team to win the Big 12. The good news for the Cougars is that Washington and Utah have both entered the committee’s top 25, which gives their résumé a much-needed boost.

Rooting interests: UCF needs as much help as it can get, so the Knights should cheer for Washington to eliminate the Pac-12 with a win. Ohio State fans should also cheer for Washington … juuuuust in case they’ve got some competition down the stretch, as right now they’re still trailing the Cougars in the top 25.

5. Auburn at Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

If Auburn wins: Alabama should still have no problem finishing in the top four — as long as it wins the SEC. If the Tide lose this game, though, the SEC’s chances of getting two teams into the playoff are likely over because the committee wouldn’t take a two-loss team this year that didn’t win its league, even if it’s Alabama.

If Alabama wins: The Tide roll into the SEC championship undefeated, in the top four and with a cushion to lose in the title game and possibly still get in.

Rooting interests: UCF, Washington State, Ohio State and Oklahoma should all be rooting for Auburn. If anyone else is going to have a chance to finish in the top four, the last thing it needs is two SEC teams and Notre Dame.

6. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Saturday, noon ET, SEC Network)

If Georgia wins: The Bulldogs stay status quo on the bubble, unless there is some chaos above them during rivalry week (Michigan losing to Ohio State; Notre Dame losing at USC) or they cause the chaos by beating Alabama in the SEC title game.

If Georgia Tech wins: If Georgia loses to Georgia Tech, but beats Alabama to win the SEC title, it could become the first two-loss team to finish in the top four in the playoff era. Or … the SEC could be left out in favor of Clemson, Notre Dame, Michigan and Oklahoma. A Georgia Tech win would also entirely change the perception of an Alabama loss to Georgia in the SEC championship, decreasing the chances that the Tide sneak in as the SEC runner-up. It’s one thing to lose a close game to the No. 5 team in the country, but Georgia wouldn’t be ranked No. 5 heading into the SEC championship game if it lost to an unranked, four-loss Georgia Tech team.

Rooting interests: Anyone with SEC fatigue should cheer for the upset, as its ripple effect could be significant.

7. South Carolina at Clemson (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

If South Carolina wins: Clemson could still finish in the top four if it beats Pitt to win the ACC. If Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan all win out, Clemson would probably still be chosen ahead of a one-loss Oklahoma and a one-loss Washington State. What would happen in this scenario, though, if Alabama lost to a one-loss Georgia team? Georgia, Notre Dame and Michigan would be in, and the debate would then shift to one-loss SEC runner-up Alabama or one-loss ACC champion Clemson.

If Clemson wins: The undefeated Tigers would coast into the ACC championship game and be one win away from finishing in the top four.

Rooting interests: Anyone who needs some chaos (UCF, Oklahoma and Washington State) should cheer for South Carolina, though a loss on Saturday wouldn’t guarantee anything more than a debate between one-loss Power 5 champs.

8. UCF at South Florida (Friday, 4:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

If UCF wins: The Knights have already clinched a berth in the American Athletic Conference championship game and should remain the committee’s highest-ranked Group of 5 team, positioned for a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. With UCF’s win on Saturday and West Virginia’s loss, the Knights should join the top 10 Tuesday night, and even possibly leapfrog Ohio State. Regardless of where they land in the committee’s fourth rankings, the Knights still have to play the winner of Houston-Memphis on Friday, and need to win their conference in order to get to a New Year’s Six bowl. Remember, it’s the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of 5. Even with another undefeated season and a conference title, UCF would still need utter meltdowns in the Power 5 conference championship games to be seriously considered for a top-four finish.

If South Florida wins: UCF would still head to the American title game and have a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl, but with one-loss Utah State now in the rankings (and two-loss Boise State), the American front-runners could have a little bit of competition if they stumble. Utah State and Boise State also play each other Saturday, and the winner will claim the Mountain Division in the MWC.

Rooting interests: Mountain West fans should cheer for South Florida, but it would just be a first step in evening the playing field a bit. Group of 5 fans in general might want to keep rooting for UCF, if only to see how high the Knights can climb this year as their representative.

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