College football has reached its halfway point, and entering a crucial Week 8, more teams are on the brink of disaster than at any point this season.
For those of you who are new to the premise, think of this column as “upset alert” meets the show “Survivor,” where we point out the teams that absolutely need to win this weekend.
It’s important to add a few important notes. First, “disaster” means something different for every team on this list. For some, a loss would kill their national championship hopes, while it would mean the end of conference title dreams or bowl eligibility for others. For a few, winning is simply a matter of garnering a little national respect. Also, please note that we avoid the obvious; we all know Washington losing to Oregon State would be disastrous, so there’s no need to mention it. We also avoid the unrealistic; no one expects Penn State to beat Ohio State, so it won’t be disastrous if the Nittany Lions lose.
But these seven teams are facing real disaster.
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
Oregon at Cal (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET)
The entire season has been a disaster for Oregon, which has become a regular on this list. But the Ducks’ most disastrous loss of the season -- and of the entire Mark Helfrich era -- could come in Berkley.
If the Ducks were to lose the game to a below-average Golden Bears team, they would fall to 2-5. Even worse, it would almost certainly guarantee that Oregon would miss a bowl game -- with games remaining at USC, at Utah and vs. Stanford. It’s not an overstatement to call this the most important game of Helfrich’s career.
Louisville vs. NC State (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET)
For Louisville, “disaster” means something completely different than it would for anyone else on this list. The Cardinals wouldn’t lose bowl eligibility or respectability with a loss here. But it would be disastrous.
The Cardinals still have an outside shot at making the College Football Playoff. While they’ll need help, they also need to win out. If last Friday’s narrow victory over Duke showed us anything, however, it’s that this team isn’t upset-proof. Even with Lamar Jackson under center.
NC State proved last week in its near-upset of Clemson that it can play with anyone in college football. And if the Wolfpack can come within a missed field goal of winning in Death Valley, they have the talent to upset Louisville. The Cardinals cannot overlook the Wolfpack. If they do, it could cost them a shot at the national title.
Getty ImagesLance King
Wisconsin at Iowa (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET)
Like Louisville, Wisconsin is a really good team with a lot to play for. But the Badgers also could see their season-long goals go up in smoke with a loss Saturday.
The Badgers have proven to be a brutally tough club and are probably the Big Ten West team best-suited to upset either Michigan or Ohio State in the conference title game. But Wisconsin must win out and get some help in order to get there.
A win over Iowa could set up a massive game next weekend against Nebraska to decide the Big Ten West. The Cornhuskers play Ohio State later this season; if Wisconsin can beat Nebraska next weekend (and if the Cornhuskers lose to the Buckeyes) it would put the Badgers in the driver’s seat for the division title.
A win over Iowa keeps the Badgers’ division and conference title hopes alive. A loss means they’re playing the next five games for a trip to a second-tier bowl.
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Texas at Kansas State (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET)
Texas might be a mainstay on this list until the end of the season. Each Longhorns game is an individual indictment on Charlie Strong’s future at the school. Nothing that’s happened in the past matters, only what happens this week.
Texas is coming off a dominant win over Iowa State. But do you think anyone in Austin will care if the Longhorns don’t take care of business against Kansas State? The answer is of course, no.
For Strong, it’s not just about winning games; it's about winning them in convincing fashion. If he doesn’t, it might not be enough to appease Texas' hyper-aggressive, impossible-to-please fan base.
Maryland vs. Michigan State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
At 4-2, the Maryland has overachieved by every tangible measurement this year. And even though Michigan State is struggling, no one will consider it a failure if the Terrapins don't beat the Spartans.
After that 4-0 start, however, the folks in Maryland really believed they could do enough to get bowl-eligible this year. After two consecutive losses and with Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State remaining, it doesn’t look like there are many sure wins in the Terrapins' future.
If the Terps win Saturday, well, to quote Ted Wells, it looks “more probable than not” that they will be bowl- eligible. If they lose, it will probably be another winter home for the holidays in College Park.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY SportsRich Barnes
Mississippi State at Kentucky (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Like Oregon, this entire season has pretty much been a disaster for Mississippi State. It started with a loss to South Alabama and continued through last weekend, when a double-overtime loss to BYU led to a field-storming in Provo. Hey, at least State fans can enjoy Dak Prescott on Sundays, right?
The Bulldogs are playing for pride, but even in a down year, this is a game they cannot lose. If they do lose, it appears -- with FCS school Samford on the schedule next week and four ranked teams after that -- that the Bulldogs will almost certainly finish the year 3-9. Even worse, they’ll almost certainly finish with just one win in the SEC (Week 2 over South Carolina).
No one is doubting Dan Mullen’s coaching ability, but perception is everything in the SEC. It’s one thing to lose to Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M. It’s quite another to lose to Kentucky.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY SporJohn David Mercer
Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Congratulations to Derek Mason, who appears to have coached himself off the hot seat with last week’s stunning win over Georgia -- one that sent the Internet into a frenzy. But do you know what would almost certainly get him right back in Vandy fans' bad graces? A loss to Tennessee State.
The Commodores are 3-4, and with games remaining against Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee, it seems like getting to a bowl game this season is a long shot at best. But to guarantee that Mason gets a fourth season at Vanderbilt and the opportunity to get to a bowl game in 2017, he better win Saturday.