What’s Next in Realignment Game?

To almost no one’s surprise, the Big 12 decided to stay put with 10 teams after possibly extracting some extra cash from its television partners.

So does that mean we have peace for our time in college football?

Hardly. As the Big 12’s dog-and-pony show concluded on Monday with a press conference, the most unbelievable statement came from Oklahoma president David Boren. He declared that the the 10 teams from the Big 12 are committed to stay together for the long haul.

If you believe that, I have a bridge on the south end of Manhattan I’d like to sell you.

In many ways, the Big 12 pretty much authored its own demise eight years hence with its decision not to expand. Texas and Oklahoma, about the only two valuable properties in the conference, will be busy flirting elsewhere over the next decade. Monday’s decision merely delays the next round of realignment until the current TV and grant-of-rights agreements run out after the 2024-25 season.

What will happen next?

It’s almost without question that Texas has its eyes set on the Big Ten – and vice versa. It’s a good fit culturally and athletically. The Longhorns will have to ditch their namesake TV network, but since it’s bleeding money annually for ESPN, that’s probably not a deal-breaker by that point.

Oklahoma most likely will end up in the SEC, with Oklahoma State in tow as a package deal. Kansas might join Texas in the Big Ten, even with its weak football program. It has a powerhouse basketball team, can deliver a decent sized market (Kansas City, Mo.) and has the best academic profile after Texas in the Big 12 as a member of the Association of American Universities.

The ACC will probably poach some combination of UConn, Cincinnati and West Virginia, taking one or two of these teams. If independence proves to be a flop in the playoff era, Notre Dame might swallow hard and finally become a full member of the ACC.

That creates three 16-team super conferences, along with the Pac-12. With a floundering network and increasing revenue gap between it and the Big Ten, SEC and ACC, it’s doubtful that the Pac-12 will be in position to create its own 16-team conference, especially considering the slim pickin’s of the leftovers. Likely it’ll stand pat as it is unless it wants to scoop up lower-profile schools such as San Diego State or UNLV.

More probable than not, the remaining Big 12 schools (Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor) as well as BYU will be picked up by either the American Athletic or Mountain West. These two won’t become power conferences, but may have slightly better access to a revamped playoff system after the current CFP deal expires following the 2025 season.

Is your head done spinning yet? It’s OK. It’ll be a few years before the next expansion/realignment show kicks in gear.

Game of the Week

Texas A&M at Alabama (-17.5), 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

This is supposed to be the middle part of Alabama’s three-game “gauntlet” but the truth is that’s just hype. The Crimson Tide are head and shoulders above everyone else in the very mediocre SEC and they probably won’t face much resistance from the unbeaten Aggies on Saturday for more than a half. Until the playoff, it doesn’t appear anyone has a legitimate chance of knocking off the defending national champion.

Also keep an eye on

TCU at West Virginia (-5), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2

The Mountaineers passed their road test with flying colors in Lubbock a week ago, but this will be their sternest challenge to-date in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. WVU is 1-3 against the Frogs and has never beaten them in Morgantown since both teams joined the Big 12 in 2012. But this year the Mountaineers might finally have the defense to squeak one out against a pretty ordinary TCU team.

Upset special

Ole Miss at LSU (-5.5), 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Is there really any reason for either team to be ranked? The SEC has eight ranked team in the latest AP poll but none of them has beaten a single ranked team in a nonconference game. But somehow these SEC teams continue to play and beat each other while staying ranked. Both of these teams’ best games of the season to-date are in fact losses, with Ole Miss losing to Alabama and LSU beaten at Wisconsin.

Player to watch

BYU at Boise State (-7), 10:15 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN

No doubt BYU is crushed by the Big 12’s decision not to expand as it’s easily the most attractive program not currently in a Power 5 conference. The Cougars must put that disappointment aside to face the most formidable team outside of the Power 5. If they want to pull off a victory on the blue turf they will have to ride their senior running back Jamaal Williams, who’s second in FBS with 942 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

Big 12 Expansion Show Finally Ending

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally have some resolution to the absurd Big 12 Expansion Show sometime Monday afternoon.

It’ll probably turn out to be much ado about nothing.

After nearly a year of wringing their hands about adding to the 10-team conference, Big 12 officials most likely will announce in a Monday press conference (6:30 p.m. ET) that their expansion plan has been tabled, for now and indefinitely.

The entire process, through various leaks and public posturing – especially by the conference’s two flagship schools, Oklahoma and Texas – may play out like an elaborate blackmail scheme. At the end, the conference’s TV partners ESPN and Fox probably decided it’s better to ante up to nip expansion in the bud than adding unattractive teams into their inventory.

The only other possibility – though a remote one – is that Houston and BYU are added as football-only members. BYU, once viewed as the frontrunner for expansion with the backing of Oklahoma, saw its prospects took a significant hit when the school’s Honor Code was derided by LGBT groups. Further, BYU’s no-Sunday play policy presents a considerable scheduling issue for all non-football sports.

Even without adding teams, the Big 12 will host a conference title game starting next season, thanks to an NCAA rule change that no longer requires divisions or 12 teams to stage the game. The title game will give the Big 12 an opportunity to be on equal footing with other Power-5 conferences, both as a “13th data point” as per the playoff selection committee and also be part of the conversation on the final Saturday of the regular season.

If the Big 12 decides to table expansion indefinitely, it’s likely that no realignment will take place until at least the middle part of the next decade. All Power-5 conference members (except the SEC) are tied through grant-of-rights agreements for at least the next 10 years and those make it unlikely for anyone to make a move.

This should come as welcome relief for two conferences in particular – the American Athletic and Mountain West, which are the prime targets for Big 12 expansion. Perhaps after Monday, college athletics will finally have some stability for the first time since the late 2000s when the expansion craze began.

Playoff Watch

All 11 undefeated teams remain unbeaten after the weekend though a couple (Ohio State and Clemson) survived close calls. For the most part the playoff picture stays unchanged from last week, with this pecking order:

1. Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska
2. SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida
3. ACC: Clemson, Louisville
4. Pac-12: Washington
5. Michigan-Ohio State loser
6. Big 12: Baylor, West Virginia

For the Group of Five teams, Boise State remains the frontrunner to claim the New Year’s Six automatic bowl berth after surviving a late comeback by Colorado State. Western Michigan is next, followed by a quartet of one-loss AAC teams (Navy, Memphis, Houston and South Florida).

Game of the Week

Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 23 (OT): The top-10 matchup at Camp Randall lived up to the billing as the Buckeyes’ superior athletes finally made the plays in the second half and overtime to overcome an early deficit. But Wisconsin, having lost a pair of close games to Michigan and Ohio State, perhaps isn’t done in having a say in deciding the Big Ten title as it’s still on track to claim the Big Ten West with another shot at the Michigan-Ohio State winner in the conference title game.

Player of the Week

Alabama Defense/Special Teams: For the seventh consecutive game this season, Alabama scored a non-offensive touchdown – in fact, that streak dates back to last year when the Tide scored on defense or special teams in both of their playoff victories. Ronnie Harrison’s pick-six and Eddie Jackson’s punt return opened the floodgates in Alabama’s 49-10 rout of Tennessee. The Tide’s 11 non-offensive touchdowns are more than South Carolina has scored all season.

The Weak

With a chance to upset unbeaten Clemson on the road and etch a signature victory for his program, NC State coach Dave Doeren decided to go conservative at the end of the game, running out the clock to kick a field goal when he had a chance to move closer or perhaps to score a touchdown. Wolfpack kicker Kyle Bambard, who had already missed twice earlier in the game, ended up shanking the potential game-winner from 33 yards out at the end of regulation as the Tigers survived in overtime, 24-17.

The Rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Michigan, 3. Ohio State, 4. Washington, 5. Clemson, 6. Texas A&M, 7. Louisville, 8. Wisconsin, 9. Nebraska, 10. Boise State, 11. West Virginia, 12. Baylor, 13. Utah, 14. Florida, 15. Western Michigan.

Playoff Is Already Better Than BCS

Is the College Football Playoff better than the dearly-departed Bowl Championship Series?

In a word, hell yes!

Do you hear all the jostling and politicking for a playoff spot by the coaches and athletic directors? No? Because it’s not happening, not yet anyway. That in itself is already a huge improvement over the BCS era.

Ten years ago this week, I launched BCSGuru.com because I was frustrated by the media’s and public’s ignorance of the BCS standings formula and how it worked. Over time, I became an expert at projecting the standings, with an overall accuracy of over 95 percent. I correctly predicted the two teams that would meet in the BCS title game every year until the demise of the BCS after the 2013 season.

In latter part of the BCS era, politicking and jockeying were a necessity because two-thirds of the standings were controlled by the voters, who in fact determined the final matchup every year. The computers served as mere distractions and window dressing, as they proved to have no influence over who got picked for the title game.

The smartest thing the CFP, now in its third year of existence, has done is to ditch the polls. While you may have objections to a dozen people sitting in the room deciding who should make the four-team playoff, this model is infinitely better than what essentially became mob rule in the BCS era.

The CFP committee members won’t meet for another three weeks, which also allows them to see the totality of the season’s picture better when they do get together. That’s also a huge upgrade from the BCS era when the voters started their year with preseason polls and stubbornly stuck to them even when facts on the ground no longer aligned with their preconceived notions.

So the best thing about the CFP is that it renders college football (mostly) politics-free. And in this contentious election season, that’s a not-so-small favor we can all be thankful for.

Game of the Week

Alabama (-13) at Tennessee, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

The Third Saturday in October is a rivalry that’s noted for its streaks. After ending a 12-game skid against Florida in The Third Saturday in September, Tennessee hopes to do the same to its nine-game losing streak to Alabama. But this is a much taller order considering that the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide have steamrolled every opposition this season while the Vols are coming off a heartbreaking OT loss to Texas A&M. Tennessee has gone 5-1 and reached its top-10 ranking by rallying from double-digit deficits four times, but don’t expect that to happen against Nick Saban, who’s never lost to the Vols since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

Also keep an eye on

Ohio State (-10.5) at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

By now everyone is expecting the Michigan-Ohio State showdown in late November to decide the Big Ten’s playoff representative, but Wisconsin will have a lot to say about all of that. After hanging close with Michigan in a 14-7 loss, the Badgers represent the only realistic challenge for the Buckeyes before their date with the Wolverines. Wisconsin also most likely will win the Big Ten West, meaning win or lose Saturday, it might get another shot at the Michigan-Ohio State winner in the conference championship game.

Upset special

Nebraska (-3.5) at Indiana, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2

Even though Nebraska is 5-0 and may challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten West title, it can ill afford to look past Indiana. Coming off a 38-17 loss at Ohio State, the Hoosiers are a gritty group that can grind it out with anyone. With games against Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks still coming up, the Cornhuskers must handle all their business against underdogs to have any shot at a trip to the Big Ten title game.

Player to watch

West Virginia (-1) at Texas Tech, noon ET, FS1

Pat Mahome II’s namesake father was a 12-year veteran in Major League Baseball as a pitcher, but even he must have been impressed at how much his kid quarterback is throwing for Texas Tech. In last week’s 44-38 loss to Kansas State, the younger Mahomes aired it out 62 times for 504 yards. He leads the nation in passing yards with 2,274, just ahead of his former teammate Davis Webb (now at Cal). To hand West Virginia its first loss of the season, Texas Tech will need Air Mahomes to chuck it around with all his might.

Houston’s Loss Shakes Up Playoff Race

The happiest people about Navy’s upset of Houston – besides the giddy Midshipmen who get an extra school day off – are probably the members of the College Football Playoff selection committee. A potential giant headache has suddenly vanished into thin air.

The Cougars’ defeat eliminated them from the playoff race as well as any possibility of a Group of Five team crashing the four-team party. Louisville also became collateral damage of Houston’s 46-40 loss at Annapolis, as the Cardinals are now robbed of any signature victory on their resume.

With that, the playoff pecking order seems pretty clear now. The Big 12 has virtually eliminated itself from the race, leaving conference champions from the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC vying for the four spots. One other team is also lurking – the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game. With both teams steamrolling toward their Nov. 26 showdown, it’s highly likely that neither will be defeated except in that one game.

So, to recap, this is where the playoff race stands, by conference:

  1. Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska
  2. SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Florida
  3. ACC: Clemson, Louisville, Virginia Tech
  4. Pac-12: Washington
  5. Michigan-Ohio State loser
  6. Big 12: Baylor, West Virginia

For all intents and purposes, these are the only 14 teams still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Houston’s loss has made the selection committee’s job that much easier.

As for the Cougars, not only are they completely out of the playoff picture, they’re in danger of missing a berth in the New Year’s Six bowl game. Remember, the Group of Five automatic entry is guaranteed only to the highest-ranked G5 conference champion, and right now Houston needs Navy to lose twice just to win its division.

Houston’s demise makes Boise State the frontrunner for that G5 automatic berth as the Broncos are 5-0, with a pair of victories over Pac-12 teams. Western Michigan would be right behind Boise, as those Broncos are 6-0 with a pair of victories over Big Ten teams.

Game of the Week

Texas A&M 45, Tennessee 38 (OT): Butch Jones’ Vols finally ran out of miracles after trailing big and then rallying for a third straight game. Tennessee came back from 21- and 17-point deficits to beat Florida and Georgia and was down 21 to the Aggies and looked out of it. But the Vols got a late fumble that went for a touchback to mount a drive to tie and survived regulation when A&M missed its game-winning field goal attempt. But they couldn’t carry on in overtime and must move on fast as Alabama is next.

Player of the Week

JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC: Forget his five catches for a game-high 113 yards, the best play was the yards that Smith-Schuster didn’t get after catching a pass for 25 yards with 1:15 remaining that allowed USC to seal its 21-17 victory over Colorado. JuJu could’ve walked into the end zone for a touchdown to put the Trojans up by 10, but that would’ve allowed the Buffs to get the ball back – and even if it’s unlikely – to have a chance to get back in the game. It was both an unselfish and smart play and deserve our highest praise.

The Weak I

A day after the 100-year anniversary of Georgia Tech’s 222-0 pasting of Cumberland, a game of equal absurdity took place in Michigan’s 78-0 rout of Rutgers. This is supposed to be a Big Ten conference matchup, but it was a mismatch more resembling of an FCS “body bag” blowout. Michigan outgained Rutgers in yards, 600-39, with the Knights getting 29 of those in the final two drives against the Wolverines’ third- and fourth-stringers. Or put it this way, Michigan had twice as many points as Rutgers had yards.

The Weak II

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey now has to scramble to figure out how he may reschedule the LSU-Florida game that was supposed to be played Saturday in the Swamp. But in a true display of master statecraft, outgoing Florida AD Jeremy Foley outmaneuvered Sankey to force a postponement that now looks like an outright cancellation, which serves to Florida’s advantage. There’s no easy solution to get the game made up, and likely Sankey will just have to pray that this unplayed game won’t affect SEC conference races.

The rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Michigan, 3. Ohio State, 4. Clemson, 5. Washington, 6. Texas A&M, 7. Louisville, 8. Wisconsin, 9. Nebraska, 10. Boise State, 11. Baylor, 12. Tennessee, 13. Virginia Tech, 14. West Virginia, 15. Florida State.

Huskies and Ducks Ships Passing at Night

Once upon a time, the Washington Huskies and Oregon Ducks had one of the best rivalries in college football. It was the most anticipated matchup of the year in the Pacific Northwest, more than the Apple Cup or the Civil War.

All that changed in the last decade as Oregon ascended to a national power while Washington languished as a Pac-10/12 also-ran. The Ducks have won 12 straight in the series, dating back to 2004.

On Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX), however, Washington is ready to flip the script. Maybe for a good while.

The Huskies will invade Autzen Stadium ranked No. 5 (in the AP poll) and as the only remaining unbeaten team in the Pac-12. Fresh off a walloping of Stanford on national TV and they’re now the conference’s best (maybe the only) positioned team to contest for a College Football Playoff spot.

They’ll find an Oregon team in complete disarray, with speculations swirling about the job security of coach Mark Helfrich, who only two years ago took the Ducks to the inaugural CFP title game. But this season the Ducks are 2-3, having been drubbed back-to-back by Colorado and Washington State and giving up 92 points in those two losses.

There might not be a quick short-term fix for Oregon’s sudden decline. The program has had some bright moments, notably under Rich Brooks in the ’90s, Mike Bellotti in the early 2000s and of course, the current run started by Chip Kelly in 2009. But does Oregon have what it takes to sustain success?

Perhaps not. Even in the best of times, Oregon almost never reeled in top talent. Neither Kelly nor Helfrich ever had a top 10 recruiting class. In the past five years, Oregon’s recruiting classes ranked somewhere between 16th and 28th. The Ducks have neglected defense for the most part – and hiring Brady Hoke as the new defensive coordinator this past offseason has failed to arrest the continued defensive slide.

From 2009 to 2014, when the Ducks played for the national title twice (and lost both times), they gave up an average of around 20-24 points per game. That number went up alarmingly last year to an average of 38 and this year they’re at 36 points per through five games.

This is exactly the same reason why Washington has suddenly become a national power again.

While most remember Chris Petersen’s Boise State teams for the statue-of-liberty type of trick plays, his Broncos were able to compete with college football’s big boys even with lesser talent because they wouldn’t get pushed around. When he came to Washington, he brought the same philosophy and now he can do it with better players.

While Washington gave up an average of 28 points per game under Steve Sarkisian from 2009-13, it has become much stingier under Petersen. The Huskies allowed just 19 points per game in 2015 and only 13 per this year. Against Stanford last week, Washington absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in a 44-6 rout.

As a result, the Huskies may very well return to their previous status as the bully on the block. Under the legendary Don James, Washington was a perennial powerhouse, winning six Pac-10 titles, four Rose Bowls and shared the 1991 national championship with Miami. In his 18 seasons in Seattle, James was 15-3 against Oregon.

Washington is poised to end its current 12-game losing streak against the Ducks and start a new era of dominance. This Saturday’s game has the feel of two ships passing each other at night, heading in opposite directions.

Game of the Week

Tennessee at Texas A&M (-7), 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Will the cardiac kids of Tennessee finally run out of miracles? After absolutely stealing one from Between the Hedges against Georgia last week, the Vols must take on an SEC foe equally apt at second-half comebacks. This unexpected top 10 showdown between two undefeated teams may very well shake up SEC races in both divisions.

Also keep an eye on

Alabama (-14) at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Nearly every year in the Nick Saban era, the Crimson Tide would lose an SEC game unexpectedly, whether it’s Johnny Football (2012), Kick Six (2013) or back-to-back to Ole Miss (2014-15). The visit to Fayetteville just might be Alabama’s trap game of the year as it will face Tennessee and Texas A&M in the next two weeks. Bret Bielema is in his fourth season at the helm of the Hogs and must prove he can truly compete in the SEC.

Upset special

Texas vs. Oklahoma (-10.5) at Dallas, noon ET, FS1

Charlie Strong’s seat is red hot after Texas’ back-to-back losses to Cal and Oklahoma State, and as a quick fix he has taken back defensive calls from DC Vance Bedford. With their backs against the wall, the Longhorns just might show up and play their best game of the year as they did last season against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry showdown.

Player to watch

Washington State at Stanford (-7.5), 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

For the second year in a row, the Cougars opened the season 2-2, losing the season opener to an FCS team. But just like last year, Washington State didn’t go into the tank, but got better and quickly, thanks to its fearless junior quarterback Luke Falk. Through four games, Falk is averaging over 370 passing yards per game with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Last year, Falk aired it out 61 times for 354 yards in a 30-28 loss to Stanford when WSU missed a field goal at the gun. He is posed to to end Wazzu’s eight-game losing streak to the Cardinal.

Selection Committee’s Tough Task Ahead

The College Football Playoff selection committee may have a more difficult job than it did in the format’s first two years. And this after only the first October weekend of 2016.

Clemson and Louisville played a thriller Saturday, a loss that did little to diminish the losing Cardinals’ bona fides. Meanwhile Michigan and Ohio State seem destined to hurtle toward each other for the post-Thanksgiving collision as top-five unbeatens.

Will the committee, for the first time, pick more than one team from the same conference for the four-team playoff?

Let’s consider this scenario: Both Louisville and the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game finish the regular season with just one loss each, to their rival in a close game that wasn’t decided in the waning seconds. But because they reside in the same division as the lone team they lost to, they wouldn’t be able to play for their respective conference championship.

Does the committee select an “at-large” team (or even two) for the playoff field? In the CFP’s first two years, each of the eight participants were Power 5 conference champions. But would that precedent be ignored in 2016?

Even though we’re only five games into the season, that possibility is very real. The Big 12 has virtually played itself out of the playoff already. The Pac-12 has just one undefeated team left in Washington and its strength of schedule might precludes it from making a case. And there’s still Houston, but if it can’t beat Louisville in a November showdown, it will be instantly eliminated.

So that leaves us with candidates only from the ACC, Big Ten and SEC. Each conference still has multiple undefeated teams currently ranked in the top 10 (AP poll) and at this point the winner of those conferences seemingly are assured of a spot in the playoff.

That leaves us with at least one more spot up for grabs. That means the committee will have to decide if it will, for the first time, invite a team that failed to win its conference (or even its own division) to participate in the playoff. And if it does pick two teams from the same conference, would it force them to face each other in the semifinals as to avoid the potential of an all-(insert your conference) championship game as we did in 2011 with LSU and Alabama in the BCS title game?

It’s still a long way until decision day on Dec. 4. But the committee would be wise to consider its options even now.

Game of the Week

Clemson 42, Louisville 36: This top-5 clash between ACC Atlantic rivals certainly lived up to the hype, and then some. The Cardinals fell behind early and then made a furious comeback to take the lead before the Tigers made their own rally. The game came down to Louisville receiver James Quick’s bonehead decision to make a wrong cut inside the Clemson 5 that denied his team a chance for the winning touchdown.

Despite the loss, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson remains the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, with Clemson QB Deshaun Watson not far behind.

Player of the Week

Jourdan Lewis, Michigan: The Wolverines cornerback missed the season’s first three games because of injury but he returned just in time when his team really could use him. In a top-10 tussle against Wisconsin, Lewis was exactly the shutdown corner Michigan needed, recording four tackles and making this insane interception to seal the victory. The Wolverines held the Badgers to only 159 total yards and a single touchdown.

The Weak

Brent Musburger, one of the best broadcasters to ever call college football, has been relegated to the SEC Network since 2014 because ESPN decided to promote its younger “talent.” So during the biggest games on Fall Saturdays, instead of Brent and his enthusiastic colorful calls, you get middling announcers such as Chris Fowler, Dave Fleming and Steve Levy instead.

It was no different on this past Saturday, when Musburger was assigned the awful blowout of LSU-Missouri while Fowler, who’s a good tennis anchor but ill-suited for college football, had the marquee matchup of Louisville-Clemson. This season, Musburger has been assigned to duds such as Arkansas State-Auburn, Georgia-Missouri and South Carolina-Kentucky. How ESPN is treating this broadcasting icon and Hall of Famer should be considered a crime against college football.

Our Rankings

1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Michigan, 4. Ohio State, 5. Louisville, 6. Washington, 7. Houston, 8. Texas A&M, 9. Wisconsin, 10. Tennessee, 11. Nebraska, 12. Miami, 13. Baylor, 14. Stanford, 15. Ole Miss.

Process of Elimination Has Begun

In the College Football Playoff era, one loss need not be a death sentence to a team’s playoff hopes. The CFP’s first two champions both suffered a September loss and still managed to come all the way back to win the national title.

Contrast that to the BCS era, when every champion that came outside of the SEC finished the season undefeated. (The SEC managed to claim five titles with one-loss teams and another with a two-loss team – but that’s a story for another day.) With four teams having a chance to vie for the national championship, a September loss isn’t necessarily catastrophic.

But it’s just about October now.

This weekend, three games will match up top 10 opponents (in the AP poll), each with playoff consequences. Two of those are intra-divisional showdowns, meaning the loser could be barred from playing for its conference title, therefore any hopes of getting into the playoff field. This is what befell Ohio State last year, when its lone loss to Michigan State denied it the chance to repeat as national champions.

The flip of the calendar also means that each one of the Power 5 is now playing conference games, so the stakes are higher for every team with an aspiration to get into the playoff field. Every week from now on there’s a potential for the winners to move on and losers to go home.

Let the elimination games begin …

Game of the Week

Louisville (-2) at Clemson, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

The ACC quarterback everyone touted as the Heisman frontrunner entering this season was Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, yet the one that everyone is talking about now is Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. And for good reason – Jackson has led the Cardinals to No. 3 in the AP poll after a stunning rout of Florida State. But Watson, who took the Tigers to CFP title game last season, will have a lot to say about who wins this game and therefore the ACC Atlantic championship.

Also keep an eye on

Wisconsin at Michigan (-10.5), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Perhaps the surprise team of the early season, Wisconsin has already scored two huge upset wins over LSU and Michigan State. With redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook now starting at quarterback, the Badgers have become much more dynamic offensively to complement their suffocating defense. Michigan has a nasty defensive unit of its own, which has recorded 17 sacks through four games. Because they’re in different divisions, a loss in this showdown might not be fatal to either team’s playoff hopes as they may meet again in the Big Ten championship game.

Upset special

Stanford at Washington (-3), 9 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN

After two ho-hum seasons, Chris Petersen has returned Washington to be among the elite of the Pac-12. Now comes the test to see if the Huskies are truly a national powerhouse as this North division showdown might prove to be a winner-take-all. Both Stanford and Washington struggled offensively last week and needed a last-minute TD and overtime, respectively, to escape with wins. Expect this to be a low-scoring affair as well with the Cardinal – more accustomed to play in pressure-packed big games – trying to eke out a fourth straight win over the Huskies.

Player to watch

San Diego State (-19.5) at South Alabama, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNews

Who, you ask, is Donnel Pumphrey? Let’s see, he only leads the nation in rushing with 599 yards (in just three games), seven touchdowns and an 8.2-yard per carry average. He’s now the all-time leading rusher in the history of San Diego State, breaking the record set by Marshall Faulk (perhaps you’ve heard of him?)

Pumphrey, a senior who’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, is a dynamo and a workhorse. He rushed for 281 yards in a 45-40 victory over Cal and has led the Aztecs to a 3-0 record and No. 19 ranking in the latest AP poll. Like Faulk in 1992, Pumphrey has a large hurdle to clear in the Heisman race as most of his games are against non-Power 5 opposition and aired on non-major networks. Faulk eventually finished second to Miami’s Geno Torretta in that year’s Heisman race and Pumphrey should get at least an invitation to New York if he keeps up his production.