While media days don’t begin until July, Memorial Day is — for many college football fans — the first time to really dig into the season ahead. The time to grab a preview magazine, head to the beach, and (with a drink in hand) start breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of your favorite team and its opponents.
And with Memorial Day on its way this weekend, it’s never too early to look ahead to the games which could play a pivotal role in deciding next year’s conference champions, which in turn will help decide next year’s College Football Playoff participants.
For Auburn, there’s an even bigger game than this one a few weeks later (we’ll get to it momentarily), so instead let’s focus on Georgia. Kirby Smart has one of the most loaded rosters in all of college football entering this season, and if the Bulldogs can get through a trip to Notre Dame in Week 2, they should be favored in every game for the rest of the season right up until their trip to the Plains.
This is the second to last conference game for the Bulldogs (the final one is at home against Kentucky the following week), meaning that this one could help them seal an SEC East title. It could also put them one step closer to playing the SEC West champ for a spot in the playoff a few weeks later. Think Atlanta would be jumping if that happened?
Michigan at Wisconsin: Nov. 18
While the immediate assumption here is to focus on Michigan, let’s instead look at the Badgers. A victory here might not only push Wisconsin closer to another Big Ten West title, but — as crazy as it sounds — a playoff berth as well.
As brutal as the Badgers’ schedule was last year — it featured three games in four weeks against Top 10 opponents — this year’s is that much easier. They don’t play two of the Big Ten East’s three heavyweights (Penn State and Ohio State), and there is no tough out-of-conference game like LSU last year. Outside of a trip to Nebraska in early October, Wisconsin could be favored in every game they play. The Badgers could also be undefeated coming into this one.
Even if they aren’t undefeated, the Michigan game could determine not only the Badgers’ division hopes, but whether they might be playing for a College Football Playoff berth in the Big Ten title game.
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Washington at Stanford: Nov. 10
Last year this was the game that announced Washington’s return as a national power and arrival as a College Football Playoff contender. A 44-6 victory in September left no doubt, and pushed the Huskies to a Pac-12 North title and eventual final four berth. And to the conference’s credit, they know the stakes could be just as high this season. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that they scheduled this game for a Friday night in November where all the college football world can turn their attention to it.
Both teams will be heavy favorites in the Pac-12 North; each was ranked in the Top 15 of Stewart Mandel's post-spring Top 25. And when it comes to the Huskies, they certainly have an advantageous schedule that should put them in position to play for another division and league title, which would of course put them in position for a playoff berth. That is, if they can get by Stanford in Palo Alto first.
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Penn State at Ohio State: Oct. 28
Last year, this was the game that sent the college football world into a two-month frenzy: The Nittany Lions stunned the Buckeyes, which led to a “who should end up in the playoff” debate that didn’t end until the final four was officially announced the first weekend in December.
And it could mean even more in 2017. With Michigan taking what appears to be a step back this year after losing 18 starters, these two clubs are unquestionably the two best teams on paper entering the season. And neither faces Big Ten heavyweight Wisconsin, meaning that for both these teams, this is the most likely conference loss on the schedule.
Add it up and it appears — at least in late May — that whoever wins this game will be in the driver’s seat into the Big Ten title game. And that could mean a driver’s seat into the College Football Playoff as well.
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State: Nov. 4
For the last two years this rivalry has ultimately decided the Big 12 title, and while the stakes are a bit different this year (since the Big 12 has reinstituted its title game) this one should once again go a long way in shaping the league’s conference title chase, and a potential playoff berth.
Once again both squads are loaded (the Sooners rank No. 8 in our post-spring poll, and the Cowboys No. 12) and both have quarterbacks good enough to win the Heisman. Meaning that this might be the only game all college football season that has major conference title, playoff berth and Heisman Trophy implications. In 2017 “Bedlam” very well could live up to its nickname.
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Pac-12 title game: Dec. 1
It’s not technically fair to call this a “regular-season game,” but considering that we’re discussing matchups which could impact the playoff, no conference title game appears more important. Or more evenly balanced.
While every other power conference is imbalanced by division (the SEC West is stronger than the East, the ACC Atlantic is stronger than the Coastal and the Big Ten East is better than the West) there is no obvious divide in the Pac-12. The North will have Stanford and Washington dueling things out, while the South will have the league’s overall favorite, USC.
This year’s favorites, Washington and USC, don’t face each other in the regular season. So if the Huskies can get by Stanford (as mentioned above) it could make for a one-game, winner-take-all matchup between the two schools. Not only for the Pac-12 title, but for a trip to the playoff as well.
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Alabama at Auburn: Nov. 25
The Iron Bowl is always massive, but this year it could be even bigger. Both Alabama and Auburn appear to be Top 10 squads entering 2017, and they’re two of the most talented teams anywhere in the country. Therefore, this game could ultimately determine the SEC West title, and could put the winner one step closer to a playoff berth.
It could also be doomsday for Auburn. Their schedule looks to be as tough as anyone’s this season, meaning that for all the talent they have, this could be Gus Malzahn’s last chance to prove he belongs as the Tigers' coach. Which will be no easy task, considering that he’s one “Kick-Six” away from potentially being 0-4 against the Crimson Tide as Auburn’s head coach.
It’s not often you can say that the stakes in one game range from “division title and shot at the playoff” to “coach fighting for his job.” But that’s exactly what we could have for Auburn, while Alabama looks to win its fourth straight SEC West title.
Florida State at Clemson: Nov. 11
The stakes of Clemson-Florida State are absolutely insane. Understand that the winner of this game has gone on to win the ACC Atlantic eight straight times, the conference the last four years and produced a participant in the College Football Playoff all three years the event has been played. It has also produced two of the last four champions.
So yeah, this one is huge. Right now it looks like the biggest conference game on the entire college football calendar for 2017.