The stretch drive in college football is remarkably short on head-to-head clashes between playoff contenders. As such, any actual impact on the standings among the top teams will be the result of something unexpected.
Though years of watching this sport have taught us to always expect the unexpected, some outcomes can still be, well, less unexpected than others. Alabama and Clemson, with all due respect to Mississippi State and Pittsburgh, are unlikely to lose at home this weekend. Some teams still in the mix are on the road, but Maryland doesn’t appear quite ready to challenge Ohio State given the Terrapins’ struggles at Michigan last week.
With all that out of the way then, here are the games with the most potential to shake up the playoff race.
Southern California at No. 4 Washington
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox | Pregame.com line: Washington by 8½
As long as the Huskies maintain that 0 in the loss column, they’ll make the four-team lineup. But a loss, even if they go on to win the Pac-12 title, would introduce a degree of uncertainty to the equation. Enter the Trojans, among the hottest teams in the conference since their 1-3 start who could still, with some help, win the Pac-12 South.
Much of USC’s reversal of fortune has been attributed to the switch to Sam Darnold at QB. That’s part of it, of course, but the defense has done its part as well holding every opponent to 24 points or fewer during the five-game run. That could prove more difficult against UW. QB Jake Browning has a dazzling array of weapons, most notably WRs John Ross III and Dante Pettis and RB Myles Gaskin. Darnold is going to need help from RB Ronald Jones to keep the chains moving.
No. 8 Auburn at Georgia
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS | Pregame.com line: Auburn by 10½
It’s all there for the Tigers. A win here between the hedges sets up that dream winner-take-all Iron Bowl showdown with the Crimson Tide for the SEC West crown. A Georgia upset would effectively render that game in a couple of weeks meaningless. It would also restore a modicum of credibility to the beleaguered SEC East.
Auburn enters the contest with a huge question mark in the backfield. Leading rusher Kamryn Pettway sustained an apparent leg injury late in the hard-fought victory against Vanderbilt last week and is day-to-day. The news is better for QB Sean White, who only played the second half against the Commodores due to a sore shoulder, but will be back in the starting lineup in Athens. The young Bulldogs are growing accustomed to fourth-quarter drama. It worked out for them at Kentucky when freshman QB Jacob Eason delivered a final drive, but his 60-minute consistency will have to be better if Georgia is to stay in range of the Tigers.
No. 3 Michigan at Iowa
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC | Pregame.com line: Michigan by 21½
To repeat, a Michigan loss would most assuredly qualify as unexpected. It wouldn’t be a title killer for the Wolverines, but it would expand the picture in the Big Ten East a bit (see below). Strange things can happen in night games in hostile environs, although the Hawkeyes haven’t demonstrated much punch in conference competition.
Iowa has scored 14 points or fewer in four of its Big Ten games. The Hawkeyes managed to win two of them, but there’s only so much the defense can do against teams with numerous playmakers — like Michigan. Wolverines’ QB Wilton Speight has been efficient and accurate all season with a 64.5% completion rate. He also has deep touch, allowing WR Amara Darboh to stretch the field to give TE Jake Butt room to operate underneath.
No. 12 Penn State at Indiana
Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN2 | Pregame.com line: Penn State by 7
The Big Ten East title isn’t completely out of the question for the Nittany Lions. OK, they need a couple of Michigan losses, so it’s a long shot. But they must take care of their business first. The Hoosiers still need a win for bowl eligibility and would prefer to sew it up now.
The one-two punch of QB Trace McSorley and TB Saquon Barkley have made the Penn State offense quite formidable during their current five-game winning streak. The Hoosiers aren’t as versatile, tending to sink or swim with QB Richard Lagow. But when he’s accurate, it creates more opportunities for RB Devine Redding.
No. 25 Baylor at No. 9 Oklahoma
Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN2 | Pregame.com line: Oklahoma by 15½
Remember that scenario we mentioned in the first item? Though Oklahoma has two losses, a clean sweep of the Big 12 along with the Sooners’ overall schedule strength might just be enough to get them into the top four ahead of a one-loss Washington. A few other factors would have to go their way, of course, like Houston upending Louisville a few days from now, but it can’t be ruled out. Unless, that is, OU should stumble in the conference. The Bears have almost certainly excused themselves from the league race thanks to their two-game skid, but OU must not overlook them just the same.
Baylor, which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late, now has issues on the field as well. They could have even more this week with RB Shock Linwood suspended for the week by interim coach Jim Grobe. The Bears’ defense is an even greater concern after being torched for 62 points by TCU last week, a bad sign as they prepare to face Sooners QB Baker Mayfield and WR Dede Westbrook. The Sooners also hope to regain the services of RB Samaje Perine, who has missed the last three games with a leg injury.