Man, where did the college football season go? It seems like only yesterday that it was Labor Day weekend and the season was full of so much promise. But here we are three full months later, and so much has changed. The playoff picture has narrowed, just as the coaching carousel is about to spin off its axis.
So as we head into Rivalry Weekend, which are the most important games? The games that could irrevocably shake the college football landscape -- whether it’s the playoff picture, conference title chases or coaching searches?
We rank the nine most important games of rivalry weekend.
“The Civil War” (Oregon at Oregon State, Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET)
“The Civil War” might as well be known as “Helfrich’s last stand.” With a 4-7 record, Oregon is unquestionably one of the two or three most disappointing teams in the country. After a season to forget, is this the final game of the Mark Helfrich era in Eugene?
If the Ducks lose, it feels like he’s almost certainly a goner. But if Oregon pulls off the win, Helfrich could claim two victories in the final two games of the season, including last week’s stunner against Utah. Would it be enough to erase an awful season? More importantly, would it be enough for Helfrich to convince the Oregon brass – including uber-booster Phil Knight – that he turned things around just in time for the offseason?
Getty ImagesOtto Greule Jr
Florida at Florida State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET)
It sounds impossible, but after last week’s win over LSU, Florida has a tiny, miniscule, microscopic possibility to make the playoff. In this bizarro world scenario, Alabama would have to lose the Iron Bowl this week, and Florida would have to beat Florida State this weekend and then upset the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game next weekend. If that happened, the Gators would have the same record as the Crimson Tide, with a head-to-head win over Alabama. How would they not be in the playoff at that point?
It’s possible, even if the odds of Florida winning the next two games are about the same as Jim Harbaugh putting his khakis aside and coaching against Ohio State in leather pants (sorry for the visual). Still, the Gators’ playoff scenario adds extra stakes to an already heated rivalry.
TCU at Texas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
On paper, a matchup between a 5-5 TCU squad and 5-6 Texas team doesn’t feel huge, but you and I both know that it is. And, no, it has nothing to do with one team becoming bowl eligible with a victory.
Instead, it’s all about the future of Charlie Strong, with the soap opera taking a new twist Thursday night. As you’ve probably heard, Tom Herman is set to become the next head coach at LSU … as long as the Texas job doesn’t open up. Because it sounds like if Charlie Strong were to (hypothetically speaking, of course) be fired after the TCU game, Herman would be willing to listen to an offer from the Longhorns, and likely take it.
It also means that this game features the weirdest stakes possible. Even if Texas wins, it provides no guarantee that Strong keeps the job. But even if the Longhorns lose – and Herman chooses LSU – that doesn’t necessarily mean that Strong will be fired.
God bless college football. No other sport gives us drama quite like this one. And the Herman-Strong-Texas love triangle is just the latest example.
Michael C. JohnsonMichael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Spo
“The Palmetto Bowl” (South Carolina at Clemson, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
While all of the doomsday playoff scenarios this weekend are centered in the Big Ten, here’s one no one is accounting for: What is Clemson somehow loses this weekend or next? Would the Tigers be eliminated from the playoff? And what would it mean for everyone else?
Don’t put it past Clemson – one of the most inconsistent teams in college football all season – to give away a game it shouldn’t. Remember, Clemson has won five of its 10 games by a touchdown or less, and easily could have lost two or three games that it somehow pulled out. Therefore, Will Muschamp’s club does have at least a puncher’s chance to pull off the upset -- and potentially knock Clemson out of the College Football Playoff picture.
“The Iron Bowl” (Auburn at Alabama, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)
The Iron Bowl is always one of the must-see games of Rivalry Weekend, but with Alabama having already clinched the SEC West title, it feels a little less significant than usual.
However, the game remains important for Auburn. With a win, the Tigers would likely do enough to clinch a berth in the Sugar Bowl. In the process, they would also put Alabama in a very precarious spot heading into the SEC Championship game next weekend.
The Tide couldn’t possibly lose two in a row and cost themselves a shot at the playoff, could they? It can happen only if Auburn somehow pulls off a shocker this weekend.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
“The Rumble in the Rockies” (Utah at Colorado, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
Given that these two teams didn’t play for close to 50 years (because they weren’t in the same conference), this is a relatively new rivalry on the college football landscape. But to quote Verne Lundquist, “My goodness!” does it have a lot of importance.
Utah lost its shot at a spot in the Pac-12 title game with a loss last weekend to Oregon, but it can still play spoiler for a Colorado club that could clinch the division with a win.
As for Colorado, well, its season has already been a success that no one could have seen coming. But the Buffaloes still have an outside shot at the playoff -- if they win out. That would include a victory Saturday.
Getty ImagesSteve Dykes/Getty Images
“The Land Grant Trophy” (Michigan State at Penn State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)
By the time these two teams take the field, Penn State will know whether it has a shot to win the Big Ten East. If Ohio State beats Michigan earlier in the day, that means the Nittany Lions control their own destiny in the division. Beat Michigan State, and they’re headed to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.
It’s also why this game is so darn important. It is literally is the crossroads of about a dozen different playoff scenarios. Could the Big Ten get two teams in the playoff? If Penn State wins the Big Ten, would it get the nod over a one-loss Ohio State? Would the Nittany Lions get in as an at-large team if Michigan beats Ohio State?
These are all questions that will begin to be answered on Saturday --as long as Penn State wins, of course.
“The Apple Cup” (Washington at Washington State, Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
Earlier this week, I asked my buddy Dave ‘Softy’ Mahler, a Seattle radio host and die-hard Washington fan, where this Apple Cup ranks all time. His answer: It is unquestionably the biggest of his life. For a guy who is 43 years old and has experienced this rivalry since he was a kid, that is no small deal.
It isn’t hyperbole, either. For both teams, a spot in the Pac-12 title game is on the line; the winner will be the North champion. If Wazzu wins out, it would go to the Rose Bowl for the first time 14 years. Washington, meanwhile, could clinch its first Rose Bowl berth since the 2000 season (so long ago that the Huskies faced Drew Brees and Purdue in Pasadena). But the stakes are so much higher for the Huskies. If Washington wins out, it very well could find itself in the College Football Playoff.
There aren’t many games all season – let alone this weekend – where the stakes are so high for both teams. Well, except for one other game.
“The Game” (Michigan at Ohio State, Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, ABC)
An already incredible rivalry game has even bigger stakes this weekend in Columbus, with the winner of this game grabbing the inside track for a College Football Playoff berth.
For Michigan, the road to the playoff is easy: Win out, and it's in. That would include a win over Ohio State Saturday and a victory in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, would have no guarantee, even with a win. They would need Penn State to lose in order to clinch a spot in the Big Ten championship game. But even if the Nittany Lions did win, Ohio State would have a pretty compelling resume to make the playoff. How could the committee possibly leave out an 11-1 club with wins over Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Oklahoma?
But it starts Saturday in Columbus in what is undoubtedly the biggest game of Rivalry Weekend.