Every Thursday during the season, we'll take a look at the big game(s) during the upcoming weekend that will have the biggest impact on the playoff chase.
Conventional wisdom is that Oregon is the Pac-12 team most likely to make the four-team playoff. But there's a Pac-12 game Thursday night involving two teams with at least a modicum of hope of making the playoff.
Unbeaten Arizona State plays host to unbeaten UCLA, with the winner becoming the team to beat in the Pac-12 South race. Despite being on the road, UCLA looks to have a big advantage: Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley seems likely to play despite a minor elbow injury while Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly definitely is out with a foot injury.
The Pac-12 and SEC are the only leagues deep enough to potentially get two teams into the playoff, but it obviously will be tough for a second team from one of those leagues to get in with two losses, so tonight's loser will play the rest of the season with zero margin for error.
This is the start of a huge four-game stretch for the Sun Devils, who are hopeful of getting Kelly back next week. They have UCLA on Thursday night, followed by USC, Stanford and Washington, with the USC and Washington games on the road. They also have Notre Dame and Arizona later in the season.
UCLA also has a tough schedule, with games remaining against, among others, Oregon, Arizona, Washington, USC and Stanford.
If either can get through that type of schedule with just one loss, it would have a resume that definitely will impress the selection committee. Thus, for both teams, the whole "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" thing starts Thursday night.
(Given the potential Armageddon that is next Saturday -- in the SEC West alone, it's LSU at Auburn, Alabama at Mississippi and Texas A&M at Mississippi State, and there's also Notre Dame-Stanford and Michigan State-Nebraska -- we can understand fans already being antsy for Oct. 4 to hurry up and get here. Trust us, though: Something will happen this weekend that will end up having a huge bearing on the playoff picture.)
Other games with implications
» Stanford at Washington: This is another important game in the Pac-12. The Huskies are unbeaten, but they have been far from impressive in getting to that 4-0 mark. A win in this one, though, and they become Oregon's main challenger in the Pac-12 North. Stanford, meanwhile, already has lost once in league play, and its slight playoff hopes would be extinguished by another loss. Chris Petersen vs. David Shaw is an intriguing coaching matchup, too.
» Florida State at North Carolina State: NCSU has beaten FSU the past two times and three of the past four times the Seminoles have traveled to Raleigh, and there are some who would have you believe that is a reason for the Seminoles to be worried. Plus, those folks say, NCSU is 4-0. Yeah, OK. Take a look at who the Wolfpack have beaten (Presbyterian, USF, Old Dominion and Georgia Southern). If FSU is fully engaged, it wins easily and remains the ACC's only hope for the playoff.
» Cincinnati at Ohio State: Cincinnati bears watching because it has a chance -- especially if it beats Ohio State -- to gain the non-Power Five leagues' "automatic bid" into one of the so-called "playoff bowls." Neither team has a legit shot at a playoff bid, though.