While theoretically every team begins the season with a shot at making the College Football Playoff, not all matchups are created equal. Some team will inevitably make an unexpected run to put itself in playoff contention, but it’s not difficult to envision that a few teams will be in the thick of the race. And when those teams clash, well, those are the games that we already can’t wait to watch.
It’s impossible to fully predict how the battle for playoff bids will shape up, but these eight games appear certain to impact the race and should already be circled on your calendar.
Houston vs. Oklahoma (Sept. 3)
Houston is one of the pundits’ favorites of 2016 (trust me, we’re just as responsible for the hype as anybody else), and the Cougars are thrust into the national spotlight in their opening game. The reason this matchup matters? If the Cougars win this game (or keep it competitive), beat Louisville later in the season and eventually finish undefeated, they’ll offer the first significant test for the playoff selection committee on whether a Group of Five team should make the semifinals. Head coach Tom Herman is already one of the hottest coaching candidates in the nation (he’ll probably be coaching a blue blooded program by 2018 at the latest) and is responsible for the electric offense that galvanized the nation last season and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
The issue? Houston gets Oklahoma to open the season after losing its best defensive player (William Jackson) to the NFL. The game may be good for strength of schedule, but it’s not a warmup for either team. The Cougars’ defense is designed to turn teams over, which leaves the unit susceptible to big plays. Between Heisman candidates Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon (yes, they all have legitimate shot), Oklahoma stands a good chance of flying past an overmatched Houston defense.
The Cougars’ offense, shepherded by quarterback Greg Ward Jr., will put up points. The question is if their defense can limit the Sooners’ attack, which will likely be one of the most prolific in the nation.
If Houston loses, it’s all but out of the playoff race. If Oklahoma wins, it has a hallmark victory to boost its résumé come December.
Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)
Because it actually takes place in a college stadium, this is the highlight non-conference game of the 2016 season. The Sooners will have already received their early-season test against Houston, while the Buckeyes should be a comfortable 2–0 after home tilts against Bowling Green and Tulsa.
Urban Meyer has stocked his program so thoroughly that it’s hard to discount them as a possible title contender even after losing 12 players to the NFL draft this off-season. But having to travel to one of the nation’s most difficult venues with few known quantities on defense will likely spell trouble against one of college football’s most fearsome offenses.
If the Buckeyes defense shows little regression despite the departures of Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, Darron Lee, Vonn Bell, Adolphus Washington and Josh Perry (all of whom were picked in the first four rounds of the draft), then the Buckeyes should instantly be considered title contenders. If the new defensive leaders don’t respond, this may be the game where Ohio State is ruled out of the playoff conversation entirely.
Stanford at UCLA (Sept. 24)
This matchup has morphed into a kind of mockery since Jim Mora took over the UCLA program in 2012. Outside of the 2012 Pac-12 championship that Stanford eked out 27–24, the Cardinal have beaten the Bruins by double digits in every game, and most of the matchups weren’t even as close as the final score indicated.
Despite some glaring issues at receiver and an overhaul of the offense (Kennedy Polamalu’s pro-style offense will replace Noel Mazzone’s spread attack), UCLA is equipped to finally beat Stanford. The Bruins boast one of the nation’s best players (Josh Rosen) and get one of the nation’s premier run-stuffers (Eddie Vanderdoes) back from an ACL injury. The question is whether Mora and his team can overcome the mental block of getting routed by Stanford every year.
The Cardinal start the season with six consecutive difficult games, and the UCLA game comes one week after facing USC at home and a week before a trip to Pac-12 North rival Washington. Those three games could determine whether Stanford can repeat as Pac-12 champions, and to make the playoff, the Cardinal can’t afford more than one loss.
In a muddled Pac-12 South, the Bruins have the talent to win the division and the quarterback to lift them to their best season in recent memory. The question is whether they can overcome the poor performances in big games that have hounded them under the Mora regime.
Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 29)
Both teams are legitimate top-10 squads, and unless you’ve been out of the country or don’t like college football, you know how last season’s game ended. If either or both of these teams enter the game with one loss or fewer, it may be the most anticipated college football game of the season.
Michigan’s impenetrable secondary coupled with a newly aggressive gameplan from defensive coordinator Don Brown is bound to give Michigan State issues. The Spartans’ fearsome defensive line anchored by Malik McDowell will hound whomever Michigan’s starting quarterback is (likely either John O’Korn or Wilton Speight). This is a must-see game that will almost certainly dictate which Big Ten team shows up in the playoff or in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Clemson at Florida State (Oct. 29)
This game is now second to only Alabama-LSU in regards to playoff importance. Take Florida State’s maniacally athletic defense anchored by Derwin James and Matthew Thomas and clash it against a Clemson offense led by Deshaun Watson; the results will be outstanding.
Both teams have to survive a tough bout against Louisville (Sept. 17 for the Seminoles, Oct. 1 for the Tigers), but that shouldn’t take any of the shine off of this game. There’s no point overwriting it; these are two of the nation’s best teams, and whomever wins this game will have the inside track to win the ACC and earn a playoff spot.
Alabama at LSU (Nov. 5)
There’s no matchup whose inclusion on this list is more obvious. It’s a game that has playoff implications every season. Even though Alabama has won the last five matchups, LSU enters this season with a more proven offense and 18 total returning starters.
Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson tossed Leonard Fournette around like an inflatable pool toy last season, but now the game heads to Baton Rouge. Fournette is again the most feared offensive player in the nation, but his 31-yard performance against the Crimson Tide was one of last season’s most baffling displays.
The Tigers have to survive road tilts at Auburn and Florida before hosting back-to-back home games against Ole Miss and Alabama (separated by a bye week). Still, they have the talent to make a push for the SEC West title should quarterback Brandon Harris improve on a mediocre 2015.
Oklahoma State at TCU (Nov. 19)
Perhaps I am too high on Oklahoma State, but this is the unlikely game that could decide the Big 12. The Horned Frogs will likely boast the conference’s best defense, and Oklahoma State has a veteran core on offense that will allow it to compete for the conference title. More importantly, the Cowboys have the schedule to push them into the discussion. Outside of a tricky trip to Kansas State on Nov. 5, Oklahoma State should be favored in every game it plays.
Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield has been routinely mentioned as a Heisman frontrunner, but he may not even be the best quarterback in his own state. Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph should break most (if not all) school passing records by the end of the season, and the Cowboys’ most explosive offensive threat, wide receiver James Washington, returns.
TCU has two of the most inventive offensive coordinators in the game in Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie but still must replace two of its best players in recent memory in quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson. It’s possible the Horned Frogs could already have two losses by this game (Arkansas and Oklahoma), but there’s a strong chance this matchup will have serious ramifications on the Big 12 race.
Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 19)
This game earns the nod over Michigan-Ohio State primarily because of last year’s rain-soaked bog that barely featured Ezekiel Elliott and knocked the Buckeyes out of playoff contention. The Spartans are the only Big Ten team to reliably give Ohio State problems since Urban Meyer entered the conference. Perhaps Ohio State will have been long since eliminated from playoff contention, but this game promises to alter the Big Ten landscape.