The college football calendar is a cruel one. The offseason lasts eight months (nine, if your team isn’t very good), and we try to savor every ounce of the three to four months of action that we get. Only … most of what we end up actually remembering from a given season happens in a single month: November.
The Kick Six happened on Nov. 30. Nebraska-Oklahoma 1971, aka the Game of the Century? Nov. 25. Hail Flutie? Nov. 23. The Flea Kicker: Nov. 9. Michigan beating Ohio State in 1969 to start the Ten Year War: Nov. 22. Wide Right I: Nov. 16. Run, Lindsay, Run: Nov. 8. You get the idea.
It takes a couple of months to set the stakes for a given season, and then November settles them.
Happy Nov. 1, by the way.
To get ready for the biggest month of the college football season, let’s take a look at the most important games and, probably, the biggest arguments we have in store for this glorious month ahead.
What will we be arguing about in a month?
The first College Football Playoff rankings come out on Tuesday, and because there isn’t a whole heck of a lot going on in Week 10 — four of the top five teams in this week’s AP poll are on bye, and the fifth (Clemson) is playing Wofford — we have a decent idea of how the first rankings will look. Alabama, LSU and Ohio State will probably be the top three in some order, Clemson and Penn State will be fourth and fifth, and from there we’ll get a batch of one-loss teams (Oklahoma, Oregon, the Florida-Georgia winner, maybe Utah), then the remaining Power 5 unbeatens (Baylor and Minnesota).
We will argue about this because it’s what we do. The initial rankings won’t matter for all that long, though. All that matters is where we end up. Using the ESPN Stats & Information’s playoff predictor tool (which itself uses FPI), I tried to create a hierarchy of College Football Playoff odds based on potential upcoming results.
Teams in bold win out from here through championship week. For the teams that aren’t in bold, I created specific circumstances in parentheses. Obviously tons of other scenarios exist, but I was aiming to account for all the likeliest ones.
1. 13-0 Alabama: 99.9%
2. 13-0 Ohio State: 99.8%
3. 13-0 LSU: 99.6%
4. 13-0 Penn State: 99.6%
5. 13-0 Clemson: 99.3%
6. 12-1 Alabama (SEC champ with a loss to Auburn): 97.0%
7. 12-1 LSU (SEC champ with loss to Texas A&M): 96.4%
8. 12-1 Penn State (Big Ten champ with regular-season loss to Minnesota): 94.9%
9. 12-1 Ohio State (Big Ten champ with loss to Michigan): 91.7%
10. 12-1 Georgia: 88.6%
11. 12-1 Alabama (loss in SEC championship game): 83.7%
12. 12-1 LSU (loss in SEC championship game): 82.1%
13. 12-1 Penn State (loss in Big Ten championship game): 81.2%
14. 12-1 Ohio State (loss in Big Ten championship game): 79.1%
15. 12-1 Florida: 78.6%
16. 13-0 Minnesota: 78.4%
17. 11-2 Auburn (wins SEC): 73.7%
18. 11-1 LSU (loses to Alabama, doesn’t reach SEC title game): 73.0%
19. 11-1 Alabama (loses to LSU, doesn’t reach SEC title game): 65.3%
20. 11-1 Penn State (loses to Ohio State, doesn’t reach Big Ten title game): 59.2%
21. 13-0 Baylor: 54.7%
22. 11-1 Ohio State (loses to Penn State, doesn’t reach Big Ten title game): 51.8%
23. 12-1 Oregon: 42.7%
24. 12-1 Oklahoma: 29.5%
25. 11-2 Florida (loses to Florida State but wins SEC): 29.2%
26. 12-1 Clemson (ACC champ with a loss to South Carolina): 27.3%
27. 11-2 Georgia (loses to Auburn but wins SEC): 23.3%
28. 12-1 Minnesota (Big Ten champ with regular-season loss to Penn State): 21.5%
29. 12-1 Utah: 18.2%
30. 12-1 Clemson (loses in ACC title game): 13.8%
31. 11-2 Wisconsin: 9.6%
32. 12-1 Baylor (Big 12 champ with regular season loss to Oklahoma): 5.4%
33. 11-2 Iowa: 5.4%
These were the teams and scenarios I could find that produced at least a 5% chance of making the CFP. We can quibble with some of these numbers if you want. If Baylor wins out, for instance, then the only way I think the Bears don’t get a playoff spot is if there are four other unbeaten teams. I think their odds are better than 55%. (Baylor’s odds above do not take into account its win over West Virginia.)
Still, this gives us a solid understanding of both the title hierarchy and the arguments to come.
Imagine scenarios involving some combination of an 11-1 Bama-LSU loser, an 11-1 Penn State/Ohio State loser, a 12-1 Oregon and a 12-1 Oklahoma (or, apparently, 13-0 Baylor) battling for one spot. It’s quite possible at least one of those four candidates will lose another game beyond what’s listed, but this would be one doozy of a debate featuring all the greatest hits — the value of conference titles, which teams didn’t play anybody, etc. And while most races come down to basically choosing one of two teams, it’s not hard to envision this one being a lot more complicated.
Are you mad about this already? Good. I’ve done my job.
Where each conference race stands
Flipping from FPI to my SP+ ratings, let’s take a look at the conference title races. There’s still a lot to be decided between now and Nov. 30.
Using SP+ projections and average projected conference wins, I’m listing everyone projected within a game of each division’s lead.
Atlantic: Clemson (7.9 projected conference wins)
Coastal: Virginia (5.0), UNC (4.4), Pitt (4.4), Miami (4.0), VT (4.0)
Key remaining games: Virginia at UNC (Nov. 2), Wake Forest at Virginia Tech (Nov. 9), North Carolina at Pitt (Nov. 14), Wake Forest at Clemson (Nov. 16), Pitt at Virginia Tech (Nov. 23), Virginia Tech at Virginia (Nov. 29)
I listed Clemson-Wake in the key games because Wake is the only team within even 3.5 projected wins of the Tigers in the Atlantic, but we know who’s winning that division. The fact that four Coastal teams are within easy striking range of that title, however, is delicious.
Baylor (7.5), Oklahoma (7.1), Iowa State (5.4), Texas (4.9)
Key remaining games: Iowa State at Oklahoma (Nov. 9), Oklahoma at Baylor (Nov. 16), Texas at Iowa State (Nov. 16), Texas at Baylor (Nov. 23)
Thanks to Iowa State’s gut-wrenching bad fortune, this race has grown pretty clear. If anyone can muddy up the waters, though, it’s either ISU or Texas, but Baylor probably needs to lose a couple of times at this point.
East: Ohio State (8.5), Penn State (7.6)
West: Minnesota (7.4)
Key remaining games: Penn State at Ohio State (Nov. 23), Wisconsin at Minnesota (Nov. 30)
In the playoff discussion above, I referenced a scenario in which Ohio State loses to Michigan — stop snickering, Michigan will beat the Buckeyes again … at some point … maybe — but that one probably matters only to the national title race. It’s hard to imagine anyone but the winners of the two games above winning this conference. And Minnesota will need to have lost another game before Wisconsin visits for that one to even matter.
North: Oregon (8.1)
South: Utah (7.3), USC (6.6)
Key remaining games: Oregon at USC (Nov. 2), Utah at Washington (Nov. 2)
The North race is just about over, but the South is a little blurrier — USC has the tiebreaker over Utah but is far more likely to lose another game down the stretch. If the Trojans survive Oregon on Saturday, a pothole trip to Arizona State looms.
East: Florida (5.9), Georgia (5.9)
West: Alabama (7.3), LSU (7.1)
Key remaining games: Florida vs. Georgia (Nov. 2), LSU at Alabama (Nov. 9)
The East race will be all but decided this weekend in Jacksonville, Florida, and the West race (plus the race to be the team we use in the “They’re 11-1 and clearly elite but didn’t win their conference title!” scenarios) will probably settle itself in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, next Saturday.
East: Cincinnati (6.6), UCF (6.4)
West: SMU (6.1), Navy (6.1), Memphis (6.1)
Key remaining games: SMU at Memphis (Nov. 2), SMU at Navy (Nov. 23), Cincinnati at Memphis (Nov. 29)
Cincinnati’s obviously in excellent shape in the East thanks to the home win over UCF, while Memphis already holds the tiebreaker over Navy and could seize control with a win over SMU. But if the Mustangs win, that SMU-Navy game in a few weeks is enormous.
East: FAU (5.8), Western Kentucky (5.6), Marshall (5.5)
West: Louisiana Tech (6.4), UAB (5.6)
Key remaining games: FAU at WKU (Nov. 2), Louisiana Tech at Marshall (Nov. 15), Louisiana Tech at UAB (Nov. 23)
Marshall has become the East favorite, beating FAU by five in Week 8 and WKU via last-second field goal in Week 9. But SP+ forecasts three toss-ups for the Herd down the stretch (Louisiana Tech, at Charlotte, FIU). Either FAU or WKU could take advantage of a misstep.
East: Ohio (6.0), Miami (Ohio) (5.3)
West: Ball State (5.3), WMU (4.7), CMU (4.4)
Key remaining games: Ball State at WMU (Nov. 5), Miami at Ohio (Nov. 6), WMU at Ohio (Nov. 12), CMU at Ball State (Nov. 16), Miami at Ball State (Nov. 29)
This year’s November MACtion slate features some doozies. Next week’s BSU vs. WMU and Miami vs. Ohio games should clear up the title race quite a bit, and if they don’t, then WMU vs. Ohio the next week could settle matters.
Mountain: Boise State (6.9), Air Force (6.4)
West: San Diego State (5.9)
Key remaining games: SDSU at Hawaii (Nov. 23)
Boise State’s win over Air Force, combined with Air Force’s pseudo-elimination-game win over Utah State, has all but handed the Mountain race to Boise State, while SDSU basically stepped back and allowed Fresno State and Hawaii to essentially eliminate themselves in the West. SDSU-Hawaii could still flip things, but it’s doubtful.
East: Appalachian State (6.6)
West: UL-Lafayette (6.2)
Key remaining games: App State at Georgia State (Nov. 16)
App State will have to slip up at least one more time for the East race to go to anyone else, and UL already holds a tiebreaker win over its nearest rival, Arkansas State. An App State loss at Georgia State might make things weird, but the Mountaineers will likely still roll.
The most high-leverage games remaining
With the information above, we can create a list of the most important games of each remaining week, from both national and conference title perspectives. (The games in bold have major CFP implications.)
Florida vs. Georgia
Oregon at USC
Utah at Washington
Virginia at UNC
SMU at Memphis
FAU at WKU
LSU at Alabama
Penn State at Minnesota
Ball State at WMU (Tuesday)
Miami (Ohio) at Ohio (Wednesday)
Iowa State at Oklahoma
Wake Forest at Virginia Tech
Oklahoma at Baylor
Georgia at Auburn
WMU at Ohio (Tuesday)
North Carolina at Pitt (Thursday)
Louisiana Tech at Marshall (Friday)
Texas at Iowa State
Wake Forest at Clemson
Appalachian State at Georgia State
CMU at Ball State
Penn State at Ohio State
Texas at Baylor
Pitt at Virginia Tech
SMU at Navy
San Diego State at Hawaii
Louisiana Tech at UAB
Alabama at Auburn
Ohio State at Michigan
Wisconsin at Minnesota
Cincinnati at Memphis (Friday)
Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday)
Miami (Ohio) at Ball State (Friday)
It’s going to be a pretty fun month, don’t you think?
Week 10 playlist
Here are 10 games — at least one from each weekend time slot — that you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both an information and entertainment perspective.
All times Eastern.
Navy at UConn (8 p.m., ESPN2)
I’m not going to lie: The pickings are slim for a couple of these time slots. But that just means you have a chance to expand your horizons a bit! Have you seen Navy yet this year? The Midshipmen have fully bounced back from a nasty 2017-18 stretch that saw them lose 16 of 21 games, and their new attacking defense is super fun.
SMALL SCHOOL GRAB BAG. It might take creativity to draw too much enjoyment out of this early slate, but thanks to the miracles of the internet, we’re going to find something. At least one of the following games will be a spectacular watch. So fire up UCF-Houston or Wake Forest-NC State on TV, and flip open the laptop.
* Holy Cross at Lehigh (12:30 p.m., Stadium): This one could decide the Patriot League.
* Northern Iowa at Illinois State (1 p.m., ESPN+): No. 10 vs. No. 7 in the FCS polls. This one will have FCS playoff seeding implications. (It’ll also be a super-high-quality game.)
* Dartmouth at Harvard (1 p.m., ESPN+). This game pits the No. 6 and No. 12 teams in FCS, per my experimental small-school SP+ ratings. Major conference title implications here.
* Notre Dame College at Frostburg State (1 p.m., MountainEast.tv)
Notre Dame is a major D2 contender with maybe the best offense in D2, and Frostburg is a borderline playoff team.
*NC A&T at SC State (1:30 p.m., ESPN3). A&T lost to Florida A&M a couple of weeks ago, and SC State ranks higher than FAMU in SP+. Celebration Bowl implications!
Did I just list five games and count them as one for this list? Indeed I did! And if you’re surprised, you don’t know me very well.
The early television slate may be sketchy, but the afternoon slot is loaded.
No. 6 Florida vs. No. 8 Georgia (3:30 p.m., CBS)
You probably don’t need me to tell you why this one’s big. The loser’s all but out of the national title race, the winner’s the likely East champ, this is a great rivalry, etc. All apply.
SP+ projection: Georgia 29, Florida 23
No. 9 Utah at Washington (4 p.m., Fox)
Utah’s waiting for USC to cede control of the Pac-12 South, but the Utes still have to win this toss-up. Washington’s as dangerous (and randomly no-show-prone) as ever, and the best version of Utah needs to make the trip north.
SP+ projection: Utes 29, Huskies 28
No. 22 Kansas State at Kansas (3:30 p.m., FS1)
The Jayhawks scoring a combined 84 points against Texas and Texas Tech under a new offensive coordinator makes this rivalry game more interesting than it’s been in years, especially if KSU experiences any sort of post-OU letdown.
SP+ projection: Kansas State 35, Kansas 25
FAU at Western Kentucky (4 p.m., ESPN+)
Hey, your laptop’s already open — might as well tune into this one. Conference USA has no real standout teams, but that means the title race could have some plot twists left. Plus, every dang game is seemingly decided in the final minute.
SP+ projection: FAU 26, WKU 24
No. 15 SMU at No. 24 Memphis (7:30 p.m., ABC)
I love that this game is getting the prime-time/GameDay treatment. The AAC West has been absolutely dynamite this year, and from running backs Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis) and Xavier Jones (SMU) on down, there’s major athleticism wherever you look.
SP+ projection: Memphis 36, SMU 24 (I’ll be shocked if it’s that low-scoring)
Virginia at North Carolina (7:30 p.m., ACCN)
The Coastal race could remain a mess well into November, but the winner of this one will be the favorite. Plus, you should watch this one because it’s a UNC game and bylaws dictate that every UNC game go down to the final minute.
SP+ projection: UVA 25, UNC 24
No. 7 Oregon at USC (8 p.m., Fox)
Oregon’s already won at Washington this year, and the run game’s recent explosion has offset a little bit of defensive regression. But this young USC team has been outstanding at home and has its own division title hopes to uphold.
SP+ projection: Oregon 31, USC 27
No. 21 Boise State at San Jose State (10:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Here’s a prime opportunity to both see how Boise State responds to disappointment (the Broncos lost to BYU in their last outing) and catch a glimpse of an explosive — and not at all consistent — SJSU team threatening to reach its first bowl under Brent Brennan.
SP+ projection: Boise State 39, SJSU 21