It feels like the pressure seems to mount every single week as we continue to progress through the 2016 college football season. Each Saturday it feels like the stakes are higher for everyone, whether it’s teams still fighting to make the college football playoff, trying to get bowl eligible or just trying to keep their coach from being fired.
That’s also why “7 teams facing disaster” has never felt bigger.
For those who are new to this column: Every Thursday FOX Sports reminds fans which teams have something big to play for — and big to lose — this weekend. We try to avoid the obvious (we all know Baylor losing to Kansas would be a disaster) and the unlikely (no one expects Wake Forest to beat Florida State). But for some teams, there is real trouble on the horizon looming this week if things don’t go right.
Here are 7 teams we’ve picked for the weekend ahead.
APNam Y. Huh
Mississippi State at BYU (Friday, 10:15 p.m. ET)
Actually, Mississippi State's whole season has been a disaster, starting with a loss to South Alabama in Week 1 and continuing straight through last week’s beat down against Auburn. Frankly, outside of checking Dallas Cowboys’ box scores for Dak Prescott updates, there hasn’t been much for Miss State fans to get excited about the entire season.
Which is why this game is so important: A victory here gives the Bulldogs something to play for the second half of the season. If Mississippi State were to win, it would set up a manageable path to bowl eligibility; they’d be 3-3 with games remaining against Kentucky and Samford (leading to a 5-3 record in theory) and would need to upset either Arkansas or Ole Miss to get to 6-6. If they lose, well, it would mean they would probably have to beat two ranked teams to find a way to the postseason.
This is the ultimate “swing” game for the Bulldogs. Win here and there’s plenty to play for. Lose, and it might be time to start projecting next season’s depth chart.
Illinois at Rutgers (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET)
It’s safe to say that things haven’t gone quite to plan for Illinois in Year 1 of the Lovie Smith era. The Fighting Illini are just 1-4, and are coming off (gulp) a loss to Purdue. Their only win of the season is over FCS opponent Murray State. Yikes.
Not hard to see that Illinois has to win here. At this point it’s not about playing for anything more than respectability — and there is no way to lose that respectability faster than losing to Purdue and Rutgers in back-to-back weeks. Especially when Rutgers got beat by 78 points just the week before. I mean seriously, can you imagine the optics of losing to a team which just lost by 78 points last week (and by 58 the week before that)? It could be, quite literally, the most embarrassing thing any team does all season.
For Lovie Smith, rebuilding Illinois football is going to be a process. But you need to show signs of progress, and losing to Rutgers would definitely be a step in the wrong direction.
USC at Arizona (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
USC has quietly rebounded nicely after their 1-3 start, winning back-to-back games, and looking good as Sam Darnold transitions in at quarterback. Still, you know what would kill all the positive energy around the program? Losing to a 2-4 Arizona team.
As a matter of fact, this game has a big “swing” feel to it for the Trojans. If they win they’d be 4-3, would be looking at a 6-3 start (with home games against Cal and Oregon the next two weeks). An 8-4 finish could be possible, with only one truly difficult game remaining being at Washington.
But lose this game and you’re 3-4 with a fifth loss looming against Washington. Even worse, there’d be no confidence entering winnable games later in the season, like Cal next week or UCLA down the road. Clay Helton could take a lot of heat off his back by getting a win here.
Getty ImagesHarry How
Michigan State vs. Northwestern (3:30 p.m. ET)
Maybe the most underreported story in all of college football right now is this: What the heck is going on at Michigan State? After dominating the college football landscape for most of the last decade, they’re just 2-3 and coming off losses to Indiana and BYU at home. Safe to say, these aren’t your older brother’s Spartans.
At this point, the Spartans' Big Ten title dreams are out the window. But if you lose here, getting bowl eligible isn’t a slam dunk either. Ohio State and Michigan still loom (good luck with that), and with Maryland and Penn State playing better in recent weeks, those don’t look like guaranteed wins either.
Obviously a loss here isn’t a disaster personally for Mark Dantonio, who is about as solidly locked into his job as any coach in America. But a young team needs to get bowl eligible, if only to get a couple extra weeks of practice and get ready for next year. That almost certainly won’t happen with a loss Saturday.
Texas vs. Iowa State (7:00 p.m. ET)
At this point, we’re not even going to throw out the possibility that Texas lose this game. Do that, and it’s grounds for immediate firing for Charlie Strong. Seriously. But even a win here might not be enough to get folks to calm down.
Instead, Texas needs to win and show something in the process. They need to show that after giving up roughly 6,000 yards and 820 points the last two weeks that they can put together a competent defensive game plan. And they need to show that they can absolutely crush an inferior opponent. Yes, Iowa State has played better the last few weeks. But there are no excuses. Texas needs to not only get a victory — they have to look good doing it.
But say the Longhorns win in the 45-30 range, and give up another 450 yards of offense? It won’t do anything to quiet those Strong hot seat rumors.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY SportsSoobum Im
Notre Dame vs. Stanford (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Very much like some of the other teams on this list, Notre Dame's whole season has been a disaster. From an opening week loss at Texas to the departure of Brian VanGorder all the way through last week’s loss to NC State, played in the eye of a hurricane, everything that could go wrong for the Fighting Irish this season has. And you know what would make it worse? Another loss, this time to a disappointing Stanford team.
Ultimately, it’s not just because Stanford is struggling, but how they’re doing it. The Cardinal’s offense has been practically non-existent, and ultimately, if Notre Dame can’t stop this Stanford team, they seemingly have no hope against Miami, Virginia Tech or even USC later in the season.
Frankly, this feels like the biggest regular season game of Brian Kelly’s time in South Bend.
Colorado vs. Arizona State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
At the midway point of the season, Colorado has been one of college football’s best stories. A program which has struggled for a decade started out the year 4-1, and was ranked for the first time since 2005. What’s not to love?
Well, a week after seemingly being a lock for bowl eligibility, the Buffs would be making things really uncomfortable for their fans with a loss here. Challenging games still await, with a game at Stanford later in the year and with UCLA, Wazzu and Utah all at home. Just about the only game which seems like a stone-cold lock to win would be at Arizona.
We’re not saying Colorado has to win here. But for all those fans who were already making plans to take a postseason bowl trip, a loss here would be devastating.