Somehow, someway we’ve hit Week 11 of the college football season. The playoff picture is slowly starting to narrow, but that doesn’t mean the pressure isn’t heating up at other schools. And a couple of teams are facing real disaster this weekend.
For those who are new here, it’s important to note that “disaster” means something different for every team on this list. For some, a loss would knock them out of a national or conference title chase; for others, it would eliminate them from bowl eligibility or have other long-lasting effects. We try to avoid the obvious: Clemson losing to Pitt is so disastrous it isn’t worth mentioning. Same with the unexpected: No one expects Mississippi State to lose Alabama, so it can’t be disastrous if the Bulldogs lose.
Here are 7 teams facing real disaster in Week 11:
Tennessee vs. Kentucky (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET)
The past month has basically been a disaster for Tennessee, but the Vols finally got good news last week: Florida lost one of its final two SEC games, opening the door for the Vols to win the SEC East title. If the Gators lose next week to LSU, the division is Tennessee’s.
Well, the division is Tennessee’s if it wins out, something that shouldn’t be an issue. The Vols' final three games are against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. And while the Wildcats are good, there’s a reason Tennessee is a two-touchdown favorite this weekend. The Vols are much, much better.
Of course, with Butch Jones, you never know. Tennessee had better not lose this game.
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Texas vs. West Virginia (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, FS1)
For the first time in seemingly the entire Charlie Strong era, the Longhorns have real momentum after back-to-back wins over Baylor and Texas Tech. But you know what would crush that momentum? A home loss to West Virginia.
Admittedly, it’s probably not fair to call a hypothetical loss to a Top 20 West Virginia team a “disaster,” but Strong needs every win he can get. Plus, this game is at home, and it’s not like West Virginia is the typical one-loss team. The Mountaineers' schedule has been laughably easy to date, with their best win against 5-4 TCU.
Therefore, this is a game Strong can win. If he does, it could be further proof that maybe he’s righting the ship. If he loses – especially if it is bad – it might be proof that he isn’t the right guy for the job.
Michigan State vs. Rutgers (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET)
This whole season has been a disaster for Michigan State, but could you imagine going from making the College Football Playoff in 2015 to losing to Rutgers?
It sounds awful, but not impossible. With games left against Ohio State and Penn State, Sparty will almost certainly finish the year at 2-10 and on a 10-game losing streak if it loses this weekend.
Again, I know the season has been bad. But, man, Michigan State has to win this game.
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NC State at Syracuse (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET)
Quickly, I need you to do me a favor: Close your eyes and imagine a magical place called “mid-October.” In that dream world, NC State would be a solid 4-1 team and coming off a win over Notre Dame. The Wolfpack were within a missed field goal of beating Clemson in what would have been the upset of the season. Even with the loss, it felt like the Wolfpack had turned a corner.
Now, open your eyes to this sad reality: Since that missed field goal, NC State’s season has fallen apart. The Wolfpack have lost four straight, including an unspeakable gaffe at Boston College (the Eagles’ first ACC win since 2014). And if the Wolfpack lose this game, they’ll sit at 4-6 and almost certainly miss a bowl game this year (their remaining games remaining are against Miami and North Carolina).
No one expected the Wolfpack to be unbeatable this season, but after winning 15 games over the past two years, nobody thought they’d miss the postseason either. They need to win this game.
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Notre Dame vs. Army (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)
There might not be a dumber conversation in college football than any time the words “Brian Kelly” and “hot seat” are used in the same sentence. I stand by that, even after last week’s debacle against Navy, and even as the Fighting Irish sit on the brink of missing bowl eligibility.
But it’s one thing to have a disappointing year –- and it’s another to lose to Army. Even as Army sits at 5-4 (and is better than anyone realizes), this is still a team that has had just one winning season in the past 20 years. A loss here would eliminate the Irish from bowl eligibility and with Virginia Tech and and USC remaining, a 3-9 finish is possible.
Plus, think about the simple optics of Notre Dame – NOTRE DAME!! – losing to Army? If that happens, even I might have to admit I was wrong on Brian Kelly.
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Texas A&M vs. Ole Miss (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.)
Poor Texas A&M. A week ago, the Aggies were No. 4 in the country with real dreams of playing in the College Football Playoff. Flash-forward one week, and they are coming off a loss to Mississippi State, star quarterback Trevor Knight is out for the rest of the regular season, and all they are playing for is respectability.
Or are they? If they were to lose this game, it would open up an entirely new can of worms in Aggieland. That’s because after Kevin Sumlin had coached himself off the hot seat earlier this season, well, the Aggies would be sitting at 7-3 with a game remaining against LSU. An 8-4 finish would be possible, and an 8-5 finish (if they lose a bowl game) would be in the cards. For all the progress Sumlin made over the first nine weeks of the season, would finishing a third straight 8-5 season be progress at all?
Again, it’s a wild hypothetical, but it is in play after last week’s loss to Mississippi State. A&M should take care of business this weekend, or Sumlin could be on the hot seat again going into the 2017 season.
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USC vs. Washington (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
In a sport full of negativity, the USC Trojans are one of the few “good” stories in college football. This is a team that started 1-3 before turning around its season with five straight wins. And even a loss to Washington this week likely wouldn’t be disastrous.
Well, unless the Trojans get blown out. For all the talk of the turnaround, there are still questions about the quality of the competition. So if, in theory, USC were to get blown out Saturday, it would again call into question whether this team is really improved or simply a hot team that got lucky with a bunch of easy games scheduled consecutively.
For the Trojans, it’s not about winning Saturday, but playing well. Do that, and they’ll be fine. If not, the questions will continue to mount about whether Clay Helton is the right man for the job.