Forde-Yard Dash: 8 games that will decide the College Football Playoff field

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(Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football – Mean Girl stares sold separately in downtrodden Baton Rouge):

[More Dash: ‘Bama vs. best ever | CFB’s messy reality | 5 disappearing acts]

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FIRST QUARTER

THE GREAT EIGHT GAMES THAT WILL DECIDE THE PLAYOFF

Another weekend of whittling down the College Football Playoff field has left us with eight prime contenders and two more waiting for a lot of help. We said goodbye to LSU and Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference and Texas in the Big 12, and gained greater clarity on the paths of the octet of teams fighting for four spots.

Basically, it should come down to a Great Eight games that will go farthest toward clearing things up over the next four weekends. The Dash runs through the roadmap to Selection Sunday:

Clemson-Boston College (1), Saturday. Where: Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. This is the closest thing to a challenge that remains for the Tigers – and it really shouldn’t be an overly strenuous one. The 7-2 Eagles’ best chance would seem to be some nasty northeast weather, and the current (albeit very early) forecast calls for a high near 50 degrees. Clemson has won its past four games by the combined score of 240-36, a frightful succession of seal clubbings that show a team that hit its stride in the past month. Provided the Tigers bounce out of Boston with their undefeated record intact, they finish with home games against 6-3 Duke and 5-3 South Carolina, then would advance to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game for what could be a real mismatch. Current favorite to win the Coastal Division is 5-4 Pittsburgh, and the line on a Pitt-Clemson game would be somewhere in the 20s.

Ohio State-Michigan State (2), Saturday. Where: East Lansing, Michigan. This is the game that could drain some hype from the rivalry showdown two weeks later when Michigan visits Ohio State. The Spartans (6-3) are back to playing hardcore defense, allowing only 13.5 points over the past four games. They held Purdue to a season-low 13 points on Oct. 27 and Maryland to a season-low 100 yards total offense Saturday. And they’ve been a pain in the Buckeyes’ backsides several times in recent seasons (though certainly not last year). Ohio State’s bounce-back from the Purdue debacle was a sloppy win over Nebraska that did little to inspire a belief that Urban Meyer’s team is on a path to a division title, conference title or playoff berth. This game in Spartan Stadium may end all three of those aspirations.

Notre Dame-Syracuse (3), Nov. 17. Where: New York. The Orange have a good record (7-2) and surprisingly high AP ranking (13th), but it takes some work to figure out a scenario wherein they take down the undefeated Fighting Irish. It would almost certainly have to involve a shootout and several Notre Dame turnovers, since Syracuse can score (eighth nationally at 43.3 points per game) and is fifth nationally in turnover margin at plus-12. But Syracuse also is 98th nationally in total defense and 86th in yards allowed per play. If Ian Book takes care of the football and the Irish defense doesn’t let Syracuse QB Eric Dungey go wild, the Irish should leave Yankee Stadium 11-0 and just 60 minutes away from locking up a playoff berth.

Oklahoma-West Virginia Part I (4), Nov. 23. Where: Morgantown, West Virginia. The Big 12 regular-season title should be on the line when the Sooners go east the night after Thanksgiving. Oklahoma’s path to this game is pretty stress-free: Oklahoma State and Kansas in Norman – two teams that are a combined 1-5 on the road in Big 12 play, and that lone victory was the Cowboys over the Jayhawks in Lawrence. West Virginia has disappointing TCU at home and visits Stillwater in an attempt to break a three-year losing streak to Oklahoma State. Expect both the Sooners and Mountaineers to reach this game with one loss apiece. The loser will be out of the playoff – and still get a rematch with the winner the following week.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines in contention for the College Football Playoff. (AP)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines in contention for the College Football Playoff. (AP)

Michigan-Ohio State (5), Nov. 24. Where: Columbus, Ohio. It would be pretty delicious to have both teams come into their traditional noon donnybrook at 11-1. But even if the Buckeyes don’t live up to their end of the bargain, they would relish the opportunity to play spoiler and severely damage the Wolverines’ playoff chances. Michigan is playing better than anyone not named Alabama or Clemson, having completed a three-game revenge quest against teams that beat it last year – Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State – by a combined score of 101-27. After what should be milk runs against Rutgers and Indiana, this is the ultimate game on what has been a ruthlessly successful Michigan Revenge Tour. A subsequent Big Ten title game (likely against Northwestern) would pose a problem only if the Wolverines are flat coming out of the Horseshoe.

Notre Dame-USC (6), Nov. 24. Where: Los Angeles. This might be the worst Trojans team since the 6-6 edition in 2001, Pete Carrol’s first year. But even an injured, inexperienced and ineffective USC team could cause problems for the Fighting Irish as it seeks to wrap up a playoff spot. For one thing, this is the final stop in Notre Dame’s nomadic final month, a San Diego-Chicago-South Bend-New York-Los Angeles stretch that figures to be taxing by the end. For another, there is USC’s history of delivering late-November heartbreak to good Irish teams: in 1964, USC took down No. 1 Notre Dame to halt a national championship bid; 10 years later USC surprisingly blew out No. 5 Notre Dame in the Coliseum; in 1980 there was an upset of No. 2 ND; and in 2006 the Trojans smashed the Irish by 31 in a matchup of top 10 teams.

Oklahoma-West Virginia Part II (7), Dec. 1. Where: Arlington, Texas. This is the only matchup of the Great Eight that isn’t guaranteed to happen. There are other teams in contention to make the Big 12 title game, most notably Texas (which owns a head-to-head win over Oklahoma) and Iowa State (which owns a head-to-head win over West Virginia). But two games in eight days between the Sooners and Mountaineers seems like the most Big 12 way imaginable to decide a champion, given the league’s past travails in this area. This much is sure: The Big 12 will hate itself if the loser in Morgantown is the winner in JerryWorld, thus guaranteeing that everyone finishes with at least two losses.

Alabama-Georgia (8), Dec. 1. Where: Atlanta. The Southeastern Conference is basically down to a 2017 national championship rematch that results in one or two playoff bids. The matchup is set after the Crimson Tide crushed LSU to win the West and the Bulldogs pummeled Kentucky to win the East. Georgia’s remaining three regular-season games are all in Athens, where it has won 10 straight by an average margin of 28.6 points. Alabama’s three remaining regular-season games are all in Tuscaloosa – not that it matters, because the Tide could play in wetsuits in the Gulf of Mexico and beat anyone by 30. If Georgia gets to Atlanta 11-1 and somehow beats ‘Bama, both teams could make the bracket. If the Tide rolls unimpeded through this game, it will be the No. 1 playoff seed and prohibitive favorite to win a repeat national title.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

The Dash’s weekly playoff picture, if today were Selection Sunday:

Cotton Bowl (9): Top seed Alabama (9-0) vs. fourth seed Michigan (8-1). There will be more data in the Second Quarter on the Crimson Tide’s extraordinary season to date, but suffice to say atomizing the No. 3 team in the CFP rankings on the road by 29 solidified their place atop the Dash pecking order. For the Wolverines, this is their debut in the Dash Fab Four. Don Brown’s defense leads the nation in yards allowed per play and yards allowed per game – and hasn’t even had a chance to beat up on Rutgers yet (that happens Saturday).

Orange Bowl (10): Second seed Clemson (9-0) vs. third seed Notre Dame (9-0). The 77-point bomb the Tigers dropped on nosediving Louisville Saturday was their most in a game since 1981. After a couple of unspectacular games, star Clemson running back Travis Etienne averaging an absurd 19.1 yards per carry against the Cardinals, gaining 153 yards on just eight attempts. Clemson really didn’t even have to try to throw the ball, so freshman QB Trevor Lawrence’s stats weren’t much (8 of 12 for 59 yards and two touchdowns). For Notre Dame, getting past a Northwestern team that had been playing well was a big step. Beating the Wildcats by 10 on the road further distances the Irish from Michigan, which it beat head-to-head and which had to come from 17 points down for a three-point win in Evanston earlier in the season.

Dropped out: LSU.

Also considered: Georgia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Ohio State, Washington State, Central Florida.

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