Every Thursday during the season, we take a look at the biggest games of the week that are sure to have a lasting impact on the College Football Playoff chase.
Saturday night's Michigan State-Oregon game is the most important non-conference game of the season, and not just because it could be the only such contest to match two top-six teams.
Michigan State is considered the most likely Big Ten team to make it into the four-team playoff; the same goes for Oregon out of the Pac-12. But while the Pac-12 has some other teams that could take over that mantle, that's not necessarily true in the Big Ten. A case can be made that if the Spartans lose in Eugene on Saturday, the Big Ten will be effectively removed from the playoff discussion.
Once Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, Michigan State became the clear-cut favorite in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes without Miller seem to be a long shot to win the Big Ten and earn a playoff spot. The other preseason contender for the conference crown -- Wisconsin -- has already lost a game. Is Michigan, Nebraska or Iowa good enough to go unbeaten or finish with one loss? Even if that's the case, one loss by any of those teams with tissue-soft schedules probably won't be enough to get it done.
On the other hand, a win by the Spartans makes them a top contender to make the four-team field. Let's look at scenarios for Saturday and possible implications:
» Oregon beats Michigan State: Even if the Spartans run the table the rest of the season and finish 12-1, who exactly will they have beaten? Ohio State without Miller. Michigan. Penn State. But there is no Iowa, Nebraska or Wisconsin on the regular-season schedule, and even beating one of those teams in the Big Ten title game seems unlikely to be enough to propel the Spartans into the top four. (Now, if the champs in the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC have two losses apiece, everything changes). For Oregon, beating Michigan State would be a big achievement because -- right now, at least -- the Spartans look like the best team on Oregon's schedule.
» Michigan State beats Oregon: The Spartans will be expected to win the rest of their games -- in most cases, quite easily -- and an unbeaten Big Ten champ that owns a win in Eugene is going to make the four-team field. For Oregon, and as mentioned above, the schedule would work against them in this scenario. Michigan State is regarded as a better opponent than any team that remains on the Ducks' slate, including games against Arizona, Stanford, UCLA and Washington.
There are a lot of mock playoff brackets already out there, including this one from College Football 24/7. While the four teams projected to make the field likely will change often, this is a for-sure statement: The winner of Saturday's game is going to show up in every bracket next week.
Other games with implications
» USC at Stanford: While Michigan State-Oregon rightly is getting most of the attention this week, don't overlook this Pac-12 showdown. The winner remains on the periphery of the playoff discussion, while the loser might have trouble winning its own Pac-12 division. In addition, the winner can make a case that it is at least the second-best team in the league right now. Still, take a gander at what Stanford has after this contest: at Washington, at Notre Dame, at Arizona State, at Oregon and at UCLA. What did David Shaw do to irk the football gods? And the Trojans still face, among others, Arizona, Arizona State, Notre Dame and UCLA.
» Michigan at Notre Dame: Given the holes on each team, it seems a long shot that either will seriously be in the playoff discussion. But the loser has zero margin for error the rest of the way and basically is removed from the playoff picture.