Ten games that impact the CFP, and five that may surprise

The first of six College Football Playoff rankings won’t be released until Halloween, but the jockeying for a coveted semifinal spot begins in September.

“They’re highly motivated because of that opener against Florida State,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said of his players.

The CFP selection committee bases its weekly rankings on the entire season to-date, meaning the value of wins can increase or decrease as the season progresses and teams reveal their true identities. A September win could ultimately translate into much more if that opponent goes on to win its conference title — or it can be rendered moot in the committee meeting room if the opponent goes on a downward spiral out of the ranking.

With a four-team playoff in place for one final year, there is tremendous pressure to finish the season undefeated or with one loss (no two-loss team has made the four-team CFP). That means every game matters — but some will carry more weight on Selection Day.

Here are 10 games that will have the biggest impact on the playoff field, starting with the most significant (plus five that just missed the cut), followed by five more that will surprise you because of how they, too, might influence the top four:

1. Nov. 25: Ohio State at Michigan

Why it will matter to the committee: This game will likely determine the winner in the Big Ten East — or at least impact a potential three-way-tie scenario with Penn State should the Nittany Lions split with Ohio State and Michigan. If Ohio State’s only loss of the regular season is to Michigan, it could be a similar situation to last year, when the Buckeyes finished in the top four without winning their division. They would have what should be CFP top-25 wins against Notre Dame and Penn State, which could be enough to catapult them into the top four again.

Michigan arguably needs the win more because of a nonconference lineup that includes East Carolina and Bowling Green. If the Wolverines don’t beat Ohio State, they would need a Nov. 11 win at Penn State to be compelling enough in the committee meeting room. That would be difficult to justify if Michigan is being compared against Power 5 conference champions and runners-up with more difficult schedules.

2. Nov. 4: LSU at Alabama

Why it will matter to the committee: This game could decide whether the SEC West has one CFP contender or two. Part of that depends on how this game unfolds — is it close? Both LSU (vs. Florida State) and Alabama (vs. Texas) have strong nonconference opponents, so it’s possible the loser of this game is still in CFP contention — assuming it’s a close loss, they beat those nonconference teams, and Texas and FSU are top-25 contenders.

The winner of this game could overcome a September loss in one of those nonconference games. It’s likely this matchup will determine the winner in the SEC West, and any team that has a chance to play for the SEC title has a shot at the top four.

3. Nov. 18: Georgia at Tennessee

Why it will matter to the committee: This could eliminate one team if the game determines the winner of the SEC East — or it could change the three-peat narrative in the SEC and catapult the Vols into the top four if they’re not there already. If Georgia doesn’t beat Tennessee and doesn’t play for the SEC title, it’s going to be difficult for the selection committee to justify a top-four finish — unless it’s a close loss and Georgia has won every other game so easily that those in the room agree the Dawgs are “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country.

That’s going to be difficult, though, because Georgia’s nonconference schedule includes UT Martin, Ball State, UAB and Georgia Tech. The entire East division could be eliminated if Tennessee beats Georgia but loses at Alabama on Oct. 21 and again in the SEC championship game.

4. Oct. 14: USC at Notre Dame

Why it will matter to the committee: The head-to-head result could come into play if both teams are contenders. It would give the Trojans a statement road win on their playoff résumé or the Irish another chance to knock off an opponent that could ultimately be a Power 5 conference champion. This will likely be the first top-25 opponent USC faces, which will reveal to the committee whether the Trojans are as good as their (probably undefeated) record might indicate in mid-October.

If USC loses this game, it could still finish in the top four, but the pressure to win the Pac-12 will be immense and the schedule is backloaded. This could also be a CFP elimination game for Notre Dame, as the Irish will have already played Ohio State and can’t afford to lose both games.

5. Sept. 9: Texas at Alabama

Why it will matter to the committee: There are multiple ways this could impact Selection Day. It’s possible both teams finish near the top four and the head-to-head result could knock one out. This could also help the winning team earn a semifinal spot without winning its conference. Texas is a heavy favorite to win the Big 12 this year, and Alabama was recently picked by the media to win the SEC West.

If Alabama beats the Longhorns but doesn’t win the SEC West and finishes with one loss, a victory over the eventual Big 12 champs could be the statement win they need to finish in the top four. The same could be said for Texas if the Longhorns come up short in the Big 12 title game but earn a win over the eventual SEC champs.

6. Sept. 3: Florida State vs. LSU

Why it will matter to the committee: It won’t — unless both teams are ready for the national stage. They faced each other last September in a thrilling one-point win for FSU, but the Seminoles were unable to parlay it into CFP contention. Instead, Florida State dropped three straight to Wake ForestNC State and Clemson, never getting an opportunity to benefit from a win over the SEC West champs in the committee meeting room. For this game to resonate through Selection Day, both teams have to be in contention to win their conference. The ACC is scrapping divisions this year, so it’s possible FSU and Clemson meet twice — once during the regular season, and again in the ACC championship.

If FSU beats Clemson during the regular season but loses in the ACC title game — and again has a win over the SEC West champs — that bolsters the chances of both Clemson and FSU finishing in the the top four. If LSU wins — and Florida State goes on to win the ACC — the Tigers could wind up losing to Alabama and not winning their division, but still claim a win over the ACC champs. That could make for a very difficult decision for the committee because of the head-to-head result. Would the committee take the SEC champ, LSU and Florida State? It’s certainly a strong possibility but impossible to answer without knowing how the other Power 5 conference races unfold.

7. Sept. 23: Ohio State at Notre Dame

Why it will matter to the committee: Because it mattered last year — exponentially — and the Buckeyes could be in an almost identical situation if they lose at Michigan in the regular-season finale but win every other game. Ohio State finished in the top four without winning its division last year because the victory against the Irish added another CFP top-25 win (along with its win over No. 13 Penn State). The committee’s perception of wins changes throughout the season, so the Buckeyes will need the Irish to flourish in Marcus Freeman’s second season and finish as a top-25 team.

Of course, this game could also have a huge impact on Notre Dame’s playoff path. The independent Irish don’t have a conference championship game, but they have the opportunity to beat what could be the Big Ten champs (Ohio State), the ACC champs (Clemson), and the Pac-12 champs (USC). If the Irish can finish with one loss or better — and boast a win against Big Ten champion Ohio State — they’d be right back in consideration for the top four.

8. Nov. 11: Michigan at Penn State

Why it will matter to the committee: This is probably the best opportunity for Penn State to create a three-way tie in the Big Ten East, which could mean a major headache for the committee. Head-to-head results are one of several tiebreakers the committee uses when teams are otherwise comparable, and it’s possible Penn State beats Michigan at home, Michigan beats Ohio State at home, and Ohio State beats Penn State at home.

If they each lose to each other, the committee will turn to the game film and the schedule to make the final call. PSU’s nonconference schedule includes West VirginiaDelaware and UMass. Michigan’s isn’t exactly intimidating, either, with East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. Maryland could be a top-25 opponent for them both, and how they fare against common opponents will also be considered.

9. Oct. 21: Penn State at Ohio State

Why it will matter to the committee: This is Penn State’s best opportunity to show the committee it’s top-four material. PSU should be undefeated heading into this game, as Ohio State will likely be the first ranked opponent it will face. Because it’s on the road, it should be more difficult than the Nov. 11 home game against Michigan. Penn State hasn’t won at Ohio State since 2011 and has defeated the Buckeyes only once since 2013.

This game could be equally as valuable, though, for Ohio State. It wasn’t just the win against Notre Dame that earned the Buckeyes a top-four spot without winning their division last year. Ohio State’s 44-31 win against Penn State helped boost the Buckeyes’ playoff résumé, and another win this fall can do the same.

10. Sept. 23: Florida State at Clemson

Why it will matter to the committee: Because it could see this matchup again in the ACC championship game (after the conference scrapped divisions), and it’s possible FSU and Clemson will be top-four teams. The magnitude of this game depends in part on how Florida State fares in its season opener against LSU. If FSU loses to LSU, it’s going to be in must-win mode at Death Valley, because a two-loss ACC champion will be a tough sell in the committee meeting room (assuming in this scenario that Florida State goes on to beat Clemson in the ACC title game).

If FSU wins this game — and every other one — but loses a close game to Clemson in the ACC title game, it’s possible both teams are considered for the top four. The same can be said if Clemson beats FSU during the regular season but loses to the Noles in the conference title game. Bottom line: The loser of this game will need to win the ACC title.

Here are five more games that just missed the cut, but will also influence the selection committee:

1. Nov. 4: Washington at USC

Why it will matter to the committee: These could be the Pac-12’s top two playoff contenders, and it could be a foreshadowing of the conference title game. But don’t forget about Utah …

2. Oct. 21: Utah at USC

Why it will matter to the committee: The committee watched Utah beat USC twice last year — once during the regular season, and again in the Pac-12 title game. If the Trojans are going to convince the committee they’re a better team this year, winning this game would be the way to do it.

3. Oct. 21: Tennessee at Alabama

Why it will matter to the committee: The Vols have a chance to beat Georgia and Alabama during the regular season. What else does the committee need to see?

4. Nov. 11: USC at Oregon

Why it will matter to the committee: It won’t discount the Ducks, and neither should you. Oregon has multiple chances on its schedule to prove it’s a top-four team — or it could just play the role of spoiler.

5. Nov. 4: Notre Dame at Clemson

Why it will matter to the committee: A November loss is going to be a huge setback for one of these teams, and it could be the knockout blow if either of them heads into the matchup with a loss. The winner will likely pad its résumé with a top-25 win.

And five more that will surprise you because of how they factor into Selection Day:

1. Tennessee vs. Virginia (Sept. 2): The Vols could be a CFP contender, but don’t overlook their season opener. They will be facing a very emotional UVA team playing for the first time since the deaths of D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr., who were killed in a campus shooting in November 2022.

2. Oregon at Texas Tech (Sept. 9): There’s a quiet confidence brewing in Lubbock, and this is the kind of nonconference win that can increase in value down the stretch for either team.

3. West Virginia at Penn State (Sept. 2): WVU coach Neal Brown is on the hot seat and will be coaching like it this fall. Penn State could have its best team since 2016 but will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and can’t afford an early upset with Ohio State and Michigan on the schedule.

4. Washington at Oregon State (Nov. 18): The committee will know by now how seriously to take Washington as a top-four contender. If the Huskies head into this game with one loss, it’s a must-win. This was a 24-21 home win for the Huskies last year, and now they have to do it on the road.

5. Ole Miss at Tulane (Sept. 9): This could be a trap game for the Rebels, and a chance for Tulane to show the committee it’s worthy of another New Year’s Six bowl bid. Tulane is the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference with 14 starters returning from last year’s Cotton Bowl team that beat USC.

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