The first rankings from the College Football Playoff committee are set to be released next Tuesday, November 1st. As always, let me remind you not to freak out if your favorite team is outside of the Top 4. Each of the first two years of the playoff system has featured multiple teams in the top four spots that ended up not in the final rankings. Last year, LSU (#2) and Ohio State (#3) were both featured in the rankings and neither made it. In 2014, three teams, Mississippi State (#1), Auburn (#3), and Ole Miss (#4) were in the first set of rankings and obviously, none made it to the inaugural playoff.
That means of the eight teams that found themselves in the top four spots in the first rankings of the year, only three ended up in the actual playoff. Small sample size, but I feel comfortable saying: relax. There’s still a ton of football to be played, which means these rankings will likely change radically by the end of the year.
Now that we’ve gotten past that, there are some big match-ups this weekend likely to have an effect on conference championship dynamics down the road, so here are the games to watch.
#10 West Virginia (6-0) at Oklahoma State (5-2) 12 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Mountaineers have pretty quietly flown under-the-radar as an undefeated team in the Big 12. That may be due to the fact that they haven’t played any of the conference’s big dogs yet and their first test will come in Stillwater on Saturday. The Mountaineers are led by quarterback Skyler Howard and own the nation’s 15th most efficient passing attack and will be facing a Cowboys squad that gives up passing yards in bunches allowing 267 yards per game (8 yards per attempt).
However, the Cowboys are 21st in red zone defense this year allowing their opponents to score at a 73% clip. The Cowboys are no slouches themselves on offense ranking right behind the Mountaineers in passing efficiency at 16th. Overall, this game, as with every one in the Big 12, looks like a good old-fashioned shootout that could go either way. If the Mountaineers win and move to 7-0, they’re in a prime position to challenge for the Big 12 title with both Oklahoma and Baylor having to come to Morgantown later in the season.
#4 Washington (7-0) at #17 Utah (7-1) 3:30 p.m. ET (FS1)
The Pac-12 is like the Big 12 in the sense that we’re not really sure who to expect to come out as the conference champion at the end of the year. As we’ve experienced in the first two years of the playoffs, conference championships are kind of important to a team’s resume come December. For Washington, this game doesn’t directly affect their conference championship bid as the Utes are in the South division while the Huskies are in the North.
However, if the Huskies lose this game, they could fall behind their rival, Washington State, for first place in the North. That would put the Huskies in a precarious spot with games still to come against USC (yes, the Trojans are actually playing to potential now), at Cal (who upset Utah), and at the aforementioned Washington State still on the schedule.
The Huskies main advantage in this game comes in their ability to stop the run. The Huskies allow opponents to rush for just 3.7 yards per carry while allowing 145 yards per game. Utah likes to run the football, averaging 214.4 yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry. If the Huskies can stop the run, they force the Utes to pass, which has been a hit-or-miss proposition this year. Quarterback Troy Williams is completing just 55% of his passes for 1,725 yards with a 7-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If the Huskies force Williams to beat them through the air, I’m not exactly sure that he can.
#7 Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-0) at #11 Wisconsin Badgers (5-2) 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Cornhuskers are currently in control of the Big Ten West division with a 4-0 record in conference. The Badgers (2-2), in theory, are one of their biggest competitors for the division crown along with Iowa (3-2), and Northwestern (3-1). A win against the Badgers would virtually knock Wisconsin out of the division race and strengthen the Huskers position with tough games still to play against Ohio State and the Hawkeyes on the road.
Nebraska’s strength is in the running game, where they average 211.4 yards per game on 4.64 yards per carry. That plays directly against the Badgers strength: stopping the run. The Badgers have allowed opponents just 102.3 yards per game on the ground (3.32 average) this season. The other big key to watch in this game is third down conversions. Nebraska is 12th in the nation converting third downs at a 49% clip, while the Badgers allow their opponents to convert on just 27% of their third downs. What looks to be a slugfest in Madison will help us gain a better idea of what the Big Ten West will look like.
#3 Clemson Tigers (7-0) at #12 Florida State Seminoles (5-2) 8 p.m. ET (ABC)
The layout for the Tigers is pretty clear at this point. If the Tigers win this game against Florida State on Saturday, they’ve most likely ensured themselves a spot in the ACC title game. They’ve already beaten Louisville, and their games after this week are: home vs. Syracuse, home vs. Pitt, and at Wake Forest. Those are three eminently beatable teams. However, even if the Tigers were to lose one of those games, or even lose against Florida State they are still likely to make it to the ACC title game by virtue of their head-to-head win over Louisville. That all said, beating the Seminoles in Tallahassee would be a pretty surefire way to ensure a spot in the title game come December.
The best news for the Tigers is that the open week they had last week has allowed running back Wayne Gallman to get healthy. This team is vastly different with Gallman at running back versus any of the other options. Go back and look at the NC State tape or the first few games of the season when Gallman wasn’t running well. The Tigers offense completely sputters when they don’t have him to offer that consistent in-between-the-tackles threat.
They will have to contend with Dalvin Cook, who has combined for 89 carries for 405 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games. The Tigers defense has allowed opponents to average just 3.32 yards per carry this year and 132.4 yards per game overall. Stopping the run would force the Seminoles to pass and when they’ve been in passing situations this year, the offensive line has nearly gotten Deondre Francois killed. The Tigers front four is a rotating group of terrifying pass rushers, so having Cook get going would definitely help the Seminoles pull the upset.
These four games’ results should give us a better idea of how these conferences will shake out heading into the back stretch of the year.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.