A loaded Saturday schedule will bring clarity to key races in every Power Five league and clear up what remains a hazy College Football Playoff picture.
Over in the Group of Five, Cincinnati puts an unbeaten record on the line against SMU, which sits third in the American standings behind one of the top passing offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
There’s the most important game of the year to date in the Big Ten. A crucial meeting between longstanding ACC powerhouse Clemson and upstart Wake Forest. An SEC West matchup with major postseason implications. Later on, the Pac-12 will take centerstage in prime time in a possible preview of the conference championship game.
These are the key games and the potential playoff fallout from the biggest weekend of the year — until next week, at least:
No. 8 Michigan State at No. 4 Ohio State (Noon ET, ABC)
One of the marquee games of the regular season, this is a winner-take-all matchup of two teams near the top of the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and the playoff rankings. Michigan State’s physical style, embodied in the play of running back Kenneth Walker III, has the Spartans in the mix for what would be a wildly unexpected Big Ten championship. But they’ll have to win on Saturday as heavy underdogs: Ohio State is favored by almost three touchdowns.
If Michigan State wins: Beating OSU would vault Michigan State ahead of Michigan in the playoff rankings and potentially back into the No. 3 spot the Spartans held before losing to Purdue earlier this month. A win next weekend against Penn State would then hand MSU the Big Ten East; the Spartans could also win the division with a loss to PSU should Michigan lose to Maryland on Saturday and then knock off the Buckeyes.
If Ohio State wins: The Buckeyes pass the first of three big tests to end the regular season. It doesn’t get easier: Michigan is next, followed by one of Wisconsin or Iowa in the conference championship game. Combined with a Michigan loss to the Terrapins, a win on Saturday would make OSU the division champions. But with a loss to Oregon already on the books, the Buckeyes have to run the table to reach the national semifinals.
No. 12 Wake Forest at Clemson (Noon ET, ESPN)
Wake Forest has been one of the great success stories of the season, turning coach Dave Clawson into a hot commodity for openings in multiple Power Five conferences. Driven by quarterback Sam Hartman, who is nearing program records in almost every major category, the Demon Deacons’ potent offense stands in contrast to Clemson, which ranks 112th nationally in yards per play and is assured of not reaching the playoff for the first time since the 2014 season.
If Wake Forest wins: The Demon Deacons would become the surprising winners of the ACC Atlantic and reach the conference championship game for the first time since 2006. To factor into the playoff, Wake would need to add a win against Boston College to end November and then beat the winners of the Coastal, likely Pittsburgh, to take home the ACC. Even then, Wake needs some help. But it all starts against Clemson, which has won 12 straight in the series.
If Clemson wins: Wake would be eliminated from playoff contention, meaning the ACC would not send a team into the semifinals for the first time in the format’s history. If the Demon Deacons then lose to Boston College and North Carolina State drops one of two against Syracuse and North Carolina, the Tigers would reach the conference championship game and have a shot at reaching a New Year’s Six bowl. That wouldn’t be a bad finish for a team struggling through an uncharacteristically poor season.
No. 22 Arkansas at No. 2 Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Recent history doesn’t favor Arkansas, losers of 13 in a row in this series. The last five have been particularly ugly: Alabama has outscored the Razorbacks 255-80 during this span. Behind a very good season from redshirt freshman quarterback Bryce Young, the Crimson Tide have rebounded from an earlier loss to Texas A&M and are pointed toward a hotly anticipated SEC championship game matchup with Georgia.
If Arkansas wins: There is the possibility that all hell breaks loose in the SEC West. The scenario where six teams tie for first in the division starts with Arkansas beating Alabama and the Crimson Tide then losing to Auburn. The Tigers would first need to defeat South Carolina. Texas A&M needs to beat LSU. Ole Miss needs to beat Vanderbilt and then lose the Egg Bowl to the Bulldogs. That would leave all six teams at 5-3 in conference play, with Auburn the division champion by virtue of a 3-2 record against the tied teams.
If Alabama wins: The Tide clinch the SEC West, get set for the Iron Bowl and remain locked in at No. 2 in the playoff rankings.
SMU at No. 3 Cincinnati (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Cincinnati has only three wins against teams with winning records — Miami (Ohio), Central Florida and Notre Dame — which makes this matchup with SMU one of the key games on the Bearcats’ schedule. A run of unexpectedly close games in American play has raised questions about the team’s place in the playoff conversation but hasn’t done anything to impact the bottom line: Cincinnati is still No. 5 in the latest rankings and poised to pounce should one of the top four lose.
If SMU wins: There would be a spot waiting in the Coaches Poll and likely a place in the playoff rankings, though the committee was hesitant to reward Houston and may do the same with two-loss SMU. If the Bearcats lose again next weekend to East Carolina and SMU beats Tulsa, the Mustangs would reach the conference championship game. A win there against Houston would very well send the team into the New Year’s Six.
If Cincinnati wins: The Bearcats will have passed the schedule’s biggest test since defeating Notre Dame in non-conference play and will be in position to move into the top four of the playoff rankings should one of Oregon or Ohio State stumble. While SMU is not ranked by the playoff committee, this is also a win that will resonate in this Tuesday’s rankings and look even more impressive should the Mustangs beat Tulsa on Nov. 27 to end the regular season with nine wins.
No. 5 Oregon at No. 25 Utah (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
This is likely the first of two meetings between these two teams, should Utah win on Saturday or beat Colorado next weekend to lock down the Pac-12 South. The Utes are the first ranked opponent Oregon has faced since Ohio State in September and just Oregon’s third Power Five opponent currently with a winning record, joining the Buckeyes and UCLA. You begin to understand why a loss would toss the Ducks out of the mix for the semifinals.
If Oregon wins: The Ducks might be able to keep Ohio State at bay and remain No. 3 in the playoff rankings. At worst, Oregon would fall to No. 4. Winning out should get the Ducks into the playoff, especially if Ohio State runs the table and takes the Big Ten.
If Utah wins: It would make five years in a row without a playoff bid for the Pac-12, extending the most painful dry streak in the Power Five. For Utah, topping the Ducks would secure a spot in the conference championship game; the Utes have reached the game twice before but have not won the Pac-12 since joining the conference in 2011.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football Week 12 matchups could produce playoff fallout