Forde-Yard Dash: These October games will shape College Football Playoff race

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (crisis counseling available in Lincoln):

[More Dash: 10 key developments | Bad coaching hires | NCAA on the clock]

SECOND QUARTER

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OCTOBER GAMES THAT WILL SHAPE THE PLAYOFF RACE

Looking at the month ahead, The Dash has identified the most important matchups between now and Halloween:

The Auburn-Florida-LSU round robin (11). Three of the five Southeastern Conference unbeatens will knock heads with each other in October: Auburn at Florida on Saturday; Florida at LSU on Oct. 12; and Auburn at LSU on Oct. 26. Give the advantage to LSU, which plays the other two at home, and send condolences to Auburn for having to make two road trips (and then face Georgia and Alabama in November). The Gators have the toughest turnaround, going from Auburn in The Swamp one weekend to visiting Baton Rouge the next. Predicted outcome: LSU 2-0, Auburn 1-1, Florida 0-2.

The Big 12 championship preview game (12). That would be, once again, Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas on Oct. 12. The Longhorns upset the Sooners last October, then were beaten when it mattered most in the Big 12 title game. Texas didn’t have much luck stopping LSU’s offense in Austin on Sept. 7; will it do any better against an offense that is producing 100 more yards per game? On the flip side, Texas will be, by far, the best team Oklahoma has seen at that point.

The Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns meet on Oct. 12 in the Red River Showdown with plenty on the line. (Getty file photo)
The Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns meet on Oct. 12 in the Red River Showdown with plenty on the line. (Getty file photo)

The Big Ten championship preview game (13). Wisconsin, best thus far in the West, faces Ohio State, beast of the East, in Columbus on Oct. 26. Urban Meyer never lost to Wisconsin, though he came close the last two times he played the Badgers — a 27-21 win in the 2017 conference title game, and a 30-23 win in overtime the year before. So far, Ryan Day hasn’t come close to losing to anyone. He’s also not faced an opponent of Wisconsin’s caliber yet. Conversely, does Wisconsin first-year starting quarterback Jack Coan have what it takes to succeed against an Ohio State defense that leads the Big Ten in both sacks and interceptions?

The Big Ten championship preview game, alternate version (14). Before everyone fast-forwards Ohio State and Wisconsin to Indianapolis in December, don’t forget about Penn State and Iowa. They’re also unbeaten, also playing well, and they meet in Iowa City on Oct. 12. The Nittany Lions narrowly beat the Hawkeyes each of the past two seasons, with a goal-line interception late in the 2018 game and a touchdown on the final play in ’17.

Harbaugh Credibility Month (15). Jim Harbaugh’s status as a big-time coach is in need of repair after being pummeled in Madison on Sept. 21 — the third straight rout of his Wolverines against quality competition. Coach Khakis has three opportunities to rebuild his rep (or further tear it down) in October. Michigan hosts Iowa on Saturday, is at Penn State on Oct. 19, then hosts Notre Dame on Oct. 26. Are the Wolverines good enough to stay on the field (much less beat) three opponents with a combined record of 11-1?

TEAMS WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO STILL BE UNBEATEN ON NOV. 1

While some teams are slogging through a difficult month, others have a pretty clear path and figure to be in enhanced playoff position by Halloween. The five best positioned to remain undefeated through October:

Georgia (16). Current record: 4-0. The schedule: at Tennessee on Saturday; hosting South Carolina on Oct. 12; hosting Kentucky on Oct. 19; off Oct. 26. Combined record of October opponents: 5-9. This trio of games completes the Bulldogs’ tour of SEC East softies — they already played Vanderbilt, and have more difficult challenges against Florida and Missouri yet to come in November. Kirby Smart has won 13 straight against SEC East competition (or lack thereof).

Clemson (17). Current record: 5-0. The schedule: off Saturday; hosting Florida State on Oct. 12; at Louisville on Oct. 19; hosting Boston College on Oct. 26. Combined record of October opponents: 8-6. Expect the Tigers’ schedule — and, by extension, the sorry shape of the ACC — to be a major talking point as we get closer to the first CFP selection committee rankings on Nov. 5. The challenges ahead are few for the defending national champions, and October offers almost none. (Florida State might be showing some signs of increasing competence with Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook taking the majority of the snaps at quarterback the last two games, but it remains difficult to trust that the Seminoles can hang with a team as talented as Clemson.)

Alabama (18). Current record: 5-0. The schedule: off Saturday; at Texas A&M on Oct. 12; hosting Tennessee on Oct. 19; hosting Arkansas on Oct. 26. Combined record of October opponents: 6-8. The two games in Tuscaloosa will be woodshed whippings. The game in College Station might be as well, but A&M did play Alabama more competitively than anyone else in the 2018 regular season. (Odd dynamic with Kellen Mond at QB for A&M: The Aggies might lead the nation in late, window-dressing touchdowns. He threw a TD with 17 seconds left in a loss to Alabama in 2017 and another in the fourth quarter last year while trailing by 29; and there were TDs with six seconds left against Clemson and 2:12 left against Auburn this year.)

Wake Forest (19). Current record: 5-0. The schedule: off Saturday; hosting Louisville on Oct. 12; hosting Florida State on Oct. 19; off Oct. 26. Combined record of October opponents: 5-4. In theory, the best way to stay unbeaten is to play rarely and play at home. Check those two boxes for the 5-0 Demon Deacons, who lead the nation in offensive snaps per game (410 and counting). That said, even sweeping a limited schedule won’t be easy for a program that hasn’t beaten Florida State since 2011.

Minnesota (20). Current record: 4-0. The schedule: hosting Illinois on Saturday; hosting Nebraska on Oct. 12; at Rutgers on Oct. 19; hosting Maryland on Oct. 26. Combined record of October opponents: 8-7. The Dash called an 8-0 Golden Gophers start in August (along with a couple other predictions that didn’t work out so well). Still, Minnesota has gotten to 4-0 the extremely hard way, needing late rallies to beat South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. The Boat Rowers did handle their business more authoritatively Saturday at Purdue, racing to a 38-17 lead through three quarters and then giving up a couple of late TDs. It will be tough to sweep October for a team with little margin for error, but three home games plus a trip to Rutgers is a nice setup.

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