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What the CFP committee will remember about September

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

Exactly one month from now, on Oct. 30, the College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first ranking of the season. The 13 committee members will have plenty of data to review, keeping in mind that each week tells only part of the story. Here’s a look back at how the month of September could influence their votes, and what to watch between now and then:

Four games that will influence the committee

1. Ohio State 27, Penn State 26: The Buckeyes took the lead in the Big Ten East race, affirmed their role as the league’s top playoff contender and won the most difficult game on their schedule — on the road. Ohio State is favored to win each of its remaining games, including at Michigan State and versus Michigan. PSU will need help to get back into the Big Ten East race, and it has a difficult remaining schedule that includes a crossover game against Wisconsin.

2. Notre Dame 38, Stanford 17: The Irish needed this win desperately, as the Cardinal could be the last ranked opponent Notre Dame faces all season. It also put pressure on Stanford to run the table, as the Cardinal now need a statement win and can still get it — if they can beat Washington on Nov. 3.

3. Clemson 28, Texas A&M 26: This could be the biggest regular-season win on Clemson’s résumé, as Duke will probably drop out of the Top 25 following its convincing home loss to Virginia Tech. Should Clemson stumble before winning an ACC title, the win over A&M will be critical to the debate.

4. Auburn 21, Washington 16: This win is one of the most impressive of the nonconference season, especially considering how strong the Huskies looked Saturday night against BYU. The committee members will also consider how far Washington traveled and how close the loss was if evaluating the Huskies as a potential one-loss conference champ.

Four biggest games of October

1. Georgia at LSU, Oct. 13: This could be a matchup of two top-five teams and is the most difficult remaining game on the Bulldogs’ schedule, according to FPI. LSU’s remaining strength of schedule is No. 14 in the country, according to FPI, but if the Tigers can survive October, they will head into the Nov. 3 game against Alabama in a really good spot.

2. Texas vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 6: The Longhorns have won four straight since losing the season opener to Maryland, and Oklahoma remains undefeated and shouldering the playoff hopes of the entire league. The Sooners looked vulnerable in their overtime win against Army and have yet to beat a ranked opponent.

3. Wisconsin at Michigan, Oct. 13: The Wolverines keep finding ways to win with their defense and have won four straight since losing at Notre Dame in the season opener. If they pick up a second loss before they face the gauntlet of the East, though, the Wolverines are again an afterthought nationally. If Wisconsin’s home loss to BYU didn’t already eliminate the Badgers, a second loss would.

4. Michigan at Michigan State, Oct. 20: Both of these teams have already suffered nonconference losses, but if both can remain undefeated in league play heading into this game, it will carry enormous consequences because one of them will be eliminated. The winner, however, could emerge as a legitimate challenger to Ohio State in the East — or at the very least play the role of spoiler.

Four lessons learned

1. Alabama is the undisputed heavyweight. The Tide have looked so thoroughly dominant, it’s not even a question who owns the No. 1 on the last day of September. Granted, the most difficult portion of its schedule is in November, but Alabama enters October with an 81.3 percent chance to make the playoff, according to ESPN’s playoff predictor.

2. Ohio State is the Big Ten leader. Even without Nick Bosa, the Ohio State defense got the fourth-down stop it needed against Penn State, thanks to Chase Young, who stepped in for the injured Bosa. With the exception of Penn State, no team has looked as impressive in the league. The Buckeyes don’t have to play Wisconsin, and they get rival Michigan at home. Their only job? Don’t screw it up.

3. Notre Dame has a quarterback. The Irish made the switch from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book in the win at Wake Forest two weeks ago, and it has given Notre Dame the offensive spark it desperately needed to be a legitimate playoff contender. Book further validated himself in Saturday’s statement win over Stanford, when he threw for 278 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.

4. The Pac-12 will have a one-loss conference champion. Unless, of course, undefeated Colorado defies all odds and wins the league. With Stanford’s loss to Notre Dame and Washington’s loss to Auburn, the league’s two top-ranked teams now have a nonconference loss apiece. And they still have to play each other on Nov. 3. Every other Power 5 conference still has at least one undefeated ranked team: Oklahoma and West Virginia in the Big 12; Ohio State in the Big Ten; Clemson and NC State in the ACC; and the SEC still has four undefeated teams (Alabama, LSU, Kentucky and Georgia).

Four remaining questions

1. Can undefeated LSU keep it up? LSU is No. 1 in ESPN’s strength of record metric, which measures the chance an average Top 25 team could achieve the same record, given the schedule. With wins over Miami and Auburn, LSU has arguably already exceeded expectations. How long will it last? LSU is staring down a three-game stretch in October at Florida and at home against Georgia and Mississippi State.

2. Washington or Stanford, whoyagot? The Pac-12 race appears to have already boiled down to the Nov. 3 game between the two best teams in the North Division. ESPN’s FPI favors the Huskies to win all of their remaining games, including a 68.2 percent chance to beat Stanford at home.

3. Can Clemson lose? Its strength of schedule is an issue, its secondary has been exposed by both Texas A&M and Syracuse, and now the Tigers have seen how heavily they need to rely on their running game if starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence is out with an injury. Backup quarterback Chase Brice helped them avoid the upset on Saturday, but can Clemson avoid stumbling elsewhere along the way? And if it does, how will its résumé stack up against other one-loss Power 5 champs? Or Notre Dame?

4. Can West Virginia challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12? The Mountaineers are projected by FPI to win all three of their October games, which would have them undefeated heading into the Nov. 3 game at Texas. The Big 12’s entire storyline has revolved around Oklahoma — and it could come down to the Friday night regular-season finale between the Sooners and Mountaineers. The question is if WVU will be a contender by then — or simply a spoiler.

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