College football's leaders struggled this past week in a number of near upsets, including TCU hanging on in the Little Apple, and Michigan State sealing the deal late against Rutgers in High Point Solutions Stadium (thanks to the infamous fourth down spike). This coming week however will be much more helpful in sorting out the current College Football Playoff field.
Nine games will be played next Thursday and Saturday which will clear the fog. They will do so, not by creating more hypotheticals or gut feelings, but by actually eliminating teams from feasible berths to Dallas and Miami at the end of the year. Unfortunately for some teams, judgment week has come early this year.
We kick of judgment week in Palo Alto, CA on Thursday night. Stanford meets UCLA elimination game style. The Pac-12 is perhaps the most uncertain conference currently because its reigning king, Oregon, is suffering an identity crisis, and the current favorite, Utah, is the newest, and least blue-chip member.
This Thursday, the Cardinal hosts Josh Rosen and the UCLA Bruins, who are also playing to keep their heads above water in the playoff race. This matchup featuring two highly regarded one loss Pac-12 foes, will almost certainly eliminate the loser, and boost the winner into prime position to compete during the last five weeks to make the Pac-12 championship game, and perhaps, subsequently, the College Football Playoff. Stanford has won 24 straight night games at home, which is the longest streak in college football; expect the Cardinal to make it 25.
Saturday's slate is rich with further elimination opportunities, but also features two more matchup varieties; reality checks, and upset alerts. To start with the other two elimination games, we look to College Station, and Ann Arbor.
In Alabama's first visit back to A&M since Johnny's last stand in 2013, the undefeated Aggies will have their first real chance to prove themselves. The Crimson Tide come into this matchup knowing that they cannot afford to lose another game en route to Atlanta if they hope to stay alive in the College Football Playoff hunt. The Aggies, on the other hand, have not lost and do not face near-outright elimination as Alabama does. This game will serve as a good benchmark for where A&M stands nationally, and whether they are serious contenders or are just on an early season flight of fancy. This matchup could be decided by how Texas A&M quarterback play is against a scary Alabama defense, and whether Myles Garrett and the A&M defense have an answer for Derrick Henry.
Now for the elimination game we have all been waiting for: Michigan State at Michigan. Big Ten fans had no idea earlier in the season what a treat this matchup would turn out to be. The Spartans and Wolverines, seemingly set on polar opposite trajectories, will take their respective playoff hopes to the Big House Saturday, and after sixty minutes, one of the teams will be likely out.
Michigan's resume is impressive, and with their only loss coming in Week 1 to a top five ranked Utah squad, a win Saturday would place them squarely in the midst of the playoff chase. With a favorable schedule until Nov. 28 when the Buckeyes visit, the Wolverines would have a legitimate shot at setting up a de facto Big Ten East championship game Thanksgiving weekend.
The Spartans however come into Saturday with a less encouraging narrative. Their signature Oregon win looks less and less impressive every passing week, and their close call with Big Ten bottom feeder, Rutgers, has many worried. However, bright spots exist. Michigan State's running back duo of talented freshmen LJ Scott and Madre London has been punishing. Just thinking about Michigan makes Mark Dantonio physically ill, and he will have the Spartans focused on Saturday no matter the spread in Vegas.
Typically when things seem too good to be true, they are, and that is how I think the energy and hype surrounding Michigan is currently. I admit it, the fact that in five weeks Michigan has jumped from 100/1 odds to 10/1 odds to win the College Football Playoff is crazy, but that is exactly why you shouldn't click the buy button just yet. Michigan is improved, but their blinding confidence is arrogant. Expect a poised and focused Connor Cook to march into Ann Arbor, play like a senior, and bring Dantonio's squad home with yet another win over That Team Up North.
The reality check games are often times the most fun to watch, and this Saturday we have a good one: Florida at LSU. The surprise Gators visit Death Valley this weekend to put their perfect 6-0 record on the line against the undefeated Tigers. This should be a classic Florida-LSU low scoring matchup as LSU's offense is fairly one dimensional while Florida sports one of the finest defenses in the country. This may finally be the game where Heisman favorite Leonard Fournette gets made to look human. Florida's 12th ranked rushing defense will be a test for the run game of LSU even with a world beater in the backfield.
Death Valley is perhaps the toughest place to play in college football and with a late start, I expect the atmosphere to be electric. That being said, Florida's offense will most likely struggle with LSU's top 15 ranked defense, especially with Will Grier suspended for the rest of the season. Good news for the Gators is that Treon Harris has played quite a bit, and the underdog mentality may be a positive. However, the cumulative effect of all these factors could create a dynamic where the Gator's defense is on the field way too long, causing fatigue, and leaving just enough of a window for Fournette to 'get his', and the Tigers to stay unbeaten.
Three upset alerts jump off this Saturday's schedule, and they cover three conferences. West Virginia at Baylor, Ole Miss at Memphis, and Arizona State at Utah all strike me as games which could get a little weird.
We all remember Baylor's lone regular season loss last year to the Mountaineers, and with Baylor possibly looking ahead to its bigger matchup down the road, this game could get interesting. With the No. 1 and No. 18 ranked offenses nationally this game could be a shootout, and that is a dangerous proposition. While national eyes may be on bigger games this week, keep this in the peripheral, it could be quite the shocker with a few wrong bounces for the Bears.
Ole Miss, the early season cinderella, has fallen on slightly harder times ever since their implosion in Gainesville two weeks ago. They visit undefeated Memphis in what should be circled on everyone's viewing guides as a serious upset alert. While my gut says Ole Miss is still in the playoff hunt, little evidence exists to say that they have the capacity to win out. Nonetheless, this game could be a good padding to their resume. Memphis has everything to play for as they try to start 6-0 for the first time since 1961. Inquire with a magic eight ball on this one.
The last upset alert this weekend will take us out to Salt Lake City for the Utes' matchup with the Sun Devils. The Pac-12 "after dark" has been known to create serious shakeups and a shakeup is definitely possible with this matchup. The Sun Devils, coming off a huge win over UCLA two weeks ago, are poised to play the spoiler this weekend, as Utah comes off an emotional win last week to Cal. I am not sure you could find a more Pac-12-after-dark type game if you tried, and the best part about this game? You can watch the end of it after the Penn State and Ohio State game ends because it doesn't kick off till 10 p.m. ET.
As I conclude our look into this weekend's glorious slate of games, it would be rash to passover two meaningful Big Ten games gliding under the radar nationally: Penn State at Ohio State, and Iowa at Northwestern.
We can start with the black-out of Penn State in Columbus. Ohio State looked alive on Saturday with a new offensive strategy and a more balanced attack. Urban Meyer said Monday in his press conference that he believes the Buckeyes will stick with the J.T. Barrett-led red zone approach, but obviously thought highly of Cardale's play against Maryland too giving him the co-offensive player of the week award with Barrett. Penn State enters Saturday with a deceiving 5-1 record and an improving defense. Although Penn State has improved since their loss to Temple, there is little reason to believe they can hang offensively with the Buckeyes.
Saturday at the 'Shoe will be a wild atmosphere and without a white out to energize their efforts, Penn State may be in over their heads this week. One of the major benefits for Ohio State that no one is talking about as they slip them out of their playoff projections is that the Buckeye's judgment day(s) do not come until the last two weeks of the season, leaving them an extra 3-5 weeks for improvement.
Ohio State needs to use this scheduling advantage to improve week-in and week-out, and hopefully with their wealth of talent, all the pieces will come together against the Spartans and Wolverines in weeks 11 and 12. Let Michigan State and Michigan be judged now; the Buckeyes will just sit back and observe as all kings do.
Northwestern and Iowa is another Big Ten game to watch due to its Big Ten Championship implications. As many of us have realized, this may be Iowa's biggest shot at a slip up. They were graced with a schedule so favorable that the Hawkeyes missed Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Call it luck or see it as karma for being financially tied to Kirk Ferentz for so long, but the Hawkeyes have a shot to declare themselves the team to beat in the West with a win Saturday. Northwestern, still a ranked ball club, has plenty to play for though and is still in good position to compete for a spot in Indianapolis with a win. Lets just hope that last Saturday's loss to Michigan doesn't have the same effect on the Wildcat's football program that their 2013 loss to Ohio State did. Expect the Hawkeyes to prevail in something that barely looks like football.
I saw a set of three College Football Playoff projections recently which had Michigan, Utah, and Baylor all featured unanimously, with Florida, Alabama, and LSU each getting the nod in one analyst's bracket. Lets hope and pray that after judgment week, these three unnamed analysts all are ashamed of what they've done.