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Andy Wittry | | January 10, 2018

15 games in 2018 that will impact next season's College Football Playoff

College Football: Alabama wins National Championship

As we enter the college football offseason and look ahead at the 2018 season, here are 15 games that will impact the College Football Playoff field next season.

Auburn vs. Washington, Sept. 1 (Atlanta)

The eventual national champion, Alabama, played in one of the two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games last season. Could Auburn or Washington spark a similar run to the College Football Playoff next season following a major non-conference win?

Washington has CFP experience after earning the No. 4 seed in the 2016 season. The Pac-12 was left out of the playoff in the 2017 season but if the Huskies a win the conference, with a win over Auburn in their back pocket, they could have a playoff-worthy resume. Auburn was a win away from making the playoff in 2017 and the Tigers' best non-conference win carried nowhere near the weight of a potential victory over Washington in 2018. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham announced that he's returning for next season, which is huge news for Auburn.

Ohio State at TCU, Sept. 15

Remember what happened the last time Ohio State scheduled a home-and-home series with a Big 12 school? Ohio State and Oklahoma agreed to terms that sent the Buckeyes to Norman in 2016 and the Sooners to Columbus in 2017. The road team won both times and went on to make the College Football Playoff.

Hosting Ohio State is a huge opportunity for TCU to potentially pick up a major non-conference win and establish itself as an early contender for next season's Big 12 title. Ohio State didn't win the Big Ten in 2016 but the Buckeyes' impressive set of victories, including a 45-24 road win at Oklahoma, allowed them to make the playoff.

USC at Texas, Sept. 15

No, this game won't have the importance or star power of the 2005 BCS National Championship, but it features two of the premier programs in college football. In Year 2 of the Tom Herman era at Texas, the Longhorns will host the defending Pac-12 champion Trojans. USC squeaked out a 27-24 victory in double overtime at home over Texas last season.

With Baker Mayfield exhausting his eligibility at Oklahoma, can Texas take a step forward in a Big 12 that's there for the taking? A win over USC would be a step in the right direction. Or will the Trojans pick up a huge road win early in the season, creating a path to their first College Football Playoff appearance? 

Ohio State at Penn State, Sept. 29

Penn State finished the 2017 season with an 11-2 record, suffering a pair of losses on consecutive weekends in Big Ten play by a combined four points. The Nittany Lions took a 7-0 record into the Horseshoe, where they led by as many as 18 points in the first half and by 11 in the final six minutes before J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes mounted a furious comeback for a 39-38 win.

The Big Ten, especially the Big Ten East, should be as competitive as ever and Ohio State's trip to Happy Valley could prove to be its toughest road test of the year. After beating the Nittany Lions last season, the Buckeyes had the inside track for the East division crown (and as a result the Big Ten Championship and a possible CFP berth). This matchup in the last weekend of September could carry a similar weight for two of the Big Ten's top contenders.

Georgia at LSU, Oct. 13

Could LSU be next season's version of Auburn? Last season the Tigers had the benefit of a favorable schedule against their top two competitors in the SEC – Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers hosted the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide in November, when both schools were ranked No. 1 at the time of their respective trips to Auburn. Despite entering the month with two losses, the Tigers knocked off Georgia and Alabama, winning the SEC West and punching their ticket to the SEC Championship.

LSU hosts Georgia and Alabama in 2018, when the Dawgs and Tide could very easily be the top team in their respective divisions in the SEC, if not the top two teams in the polls. While the first three games for the Tigers are a challenge – vs. Miami in Dallas on Sept. 1 and at Auburn two weeks later – they have a major opportunity to pick up big wins at home in the thick of their schedule. If LSU isn't ready to make the College Football Playoff, it could still play the role of spoiler for Georgia or Alabama.

Oklahoma at TCU, Oct. 20

Oklahoma swept the two meetings between the Sooners and Horned Frogs in 2017, winning 38-20 in Norman, then 41-17 in the Big 12 Championship. Both schools will have to replace their former starting quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and Kenny Hill, respectively. With TCU also hosting Ohio State in 2018, one could make the case that the Horned Frogs play their two biggest games at home, which never hurts.

These might be the two best teams in the conference next year, which means the winner could have the inside track at making the Big 12 Championship. The Horned Frogs could try to replicate the Sooners' path to last season's College Football Playoff: beat Ohio State and win the Big 12.

Alabama at LSU, Nov. 3

As mentioned earlier, LSU's 2018 schedule broke in the Tigers' favor by allowing them to host Georgia and Alabama next season. Compared to most schools, LSU has had relative success against Alabama in the last decade. Since the 2008 season, the Tigers are 2-9 against the Crimson Tide, with two of the losses coming in overtime. Once again, emphasis on the word "relative."

If the Tigers can add some firepower to their offense – their average rank nationally in scoring offense in the past 10 seasons is just outside of the top 50 – then maybe they can slay the dragon that is Alabama football.

Stanford at Washington, Nov. 3

The Huskies and Cardinal both finished 7-2 in Pac-12 play last season but Stanford won the head-to-head matchup 30-22, propelling it to the Pac-12 Championship. Stanford or Washington has won the Pac-12 North in five of the last six seasons, meaning this game could decide half of the conference championship game picture.

The Pac-12 has been left out in two of the four years of the College Football Playoff, and Washington and Stanford are two programs that are on the short list of schools that should be able to vie for a playoff berth when they're at their best.

Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 10

The Bulldogs and Tigers split their two meetings in 2017 but Georgia ultimately won the matchup that mattered more – the SEC Championship. Auburn dominated at home last year, winning 40-17. This year the game is in Athens.

Georgia's path to the SEC Championship and potentially the College Football Playoff next season is manageable. The team's final three regular season games – starting with Auburn – are at home. Last year's regular season meeting between Georgia and Auburn knocked the Bulldogs out of the No. 1 spot in the rankings and it allowed the Tigers to jump into the playoff conversation. Could next season's game have a similar impact?

Wisconsin at Penn State, Nov. 10

Despite finishing the regular season with an undefeated record, Wisconsin didn't crack the playoff selection committee's top four until Week 14, after the Badgers improved to 12-0. Wisconsin's schedule was likely a contributing factor, if not the main reason, as to why the Badgers were ranked behind as many as six one-loss teams in the playoff rankings.

There likely won't be as many questions about Wisconsin's place among the best teams in college football if the Badgers can replicate their 2017 success next season. Their schedule takes them to Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue, which combined for a 44-21 record in the 2017 season, compared to the 20-41 combined record of their 2017 road opponents. The game in State College might be their toughest of the season. This could even be a preview of the Big Ten Championship, depending on how the rest of the conference plays out.

Oklahoma vs. West Virginia, Nov. 23

Four of the Big 12's top five passers in terms of passing yards per game last season were seniors. The only quarterback from that group who returns next season is West Virginia's Will Grier, who threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in 11 games before being sidelined with a broken finger. The Mountaineers were one of four teams to finish with a 5-4 record in conference play but they could take a step forward with the return of a healthy Grier. The Sooners appear to have Baker Mayfield's replacement in former Texas A&M quarterback Kyler Murray, who was 18-of-21 for 359 yards and three touchdowns in limited action last season.

This game takes place on a Friday night on the last weekend of the regular season and there could be a Big 12 Championship berth on the line.

Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 24

Consider this: In seven of the last nine years, the winner of the Iron Bowl has played in the national championship game. So of course this game should be on this list. (The two years when the winner didn't play for the title? Last season when Auburn beat Alabama but the Crimson Tide won the national championship and the 2014 season, when Alabama won and earned the No. 1 seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff, but the Tide lost to Ohio State in the semifinals.)

After losing 26-14 at Auburn last November and finishing second in the SEC West as a result, you can bet the Crimson Tide will be out for revenge. If the last decade has taught us anything about college football, it's that there's a pretty good chance one of these teams will play for the national championship next season.

Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24

It's probably fair to say that USC's 49-14 loss at Notre Dame last October proved to be the ultimate nail in the coffin of the Trojans' playoff hopes. It was the team's second loss – and an ugly one at that – and that proved to be too much to overcome, despite USC winning its next five games, including the Pac-12 Championship.

This matchup is the final regular season game for both teams, meaning USC could add a major non-conference win to its resume late in the season, and this will be the selection committee's final look at Notre Dame, if the Irish are potentially in position to claim a spot in the playoff.

Clemson at Florida State, TBD

Yes, Florida State's 2017 season was disappointing and yes, there is still talent on the Seminoles' roster. Who knows what kind of difference a healthy Deondre Francois can make at quarterback, after he was lost for the remainder of the season during FSU's season opener against Alabama. It's hard to imagine the Seminoles finishing sixth in the ACC Atlantic division again next season and Clemson's road trip to Tallahassee could be the Tigers' toughest game of the season, depending on where Texas A&M is at in Year 1 under Jimbo Fisher.

Clemson certainly missed former national championship-winning quarterback Deshaun Watson when the Tigers played Alabama in last season's playoff but the Tigers have become a postseason staple in the College Football Playoff era.

Miami (Fla.) at Virginia Tech, TBD

The top two finishers in the ACC Coastal division last season appear to be more than a flash in the pan. The turnover-forcing Hurricanes took the nation by storm with their "turnover chain" and questions of "Is the U back?" Virginia Tech's defense was just as imposing, if not more so, finishing fourth nationally in scoring defense at 14.8 points allowed per game.

The winner of this game could be Clemson's biggest threat in the ACC, fighting to keep the Tigers from a fourth consecutive conference title and playoff appearance.

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