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.
The first College Football Playoff selection committee top 25 comes out next Tuesday, and as things stand now, the top 10 likely will have four SEC West teams rather highly ranked. Each of the quartet has a game this weekend, though, and all four are on upset watch.
Unbeatens Mississippi and Mississippi State go on the road to face LSU and Kentucky, respectively. One-loss Auburn -- which fell at Mississippi State -- plays host to South Carolina, and one-loss Alabama -- which lost at Mississippi -- plays at Tennessee. Each of the contenders should win, but with three of the teams on the road, things at least have the potential to get interesting.
Here's a closer look at the four teams.
The implications: As with all the one-loss teams harboring playoff hopes, Alabama has zero margin for error. The Tide has four SEC games left, and this week's trip to Knoxville looks to be by far the easiest; the other three are toughies: a road game at LSU and home contests against Mississippi State and archrival Auburn. Alabama's defense should toy with Tennessee's offensive line, and Vols starting QB Justin Worley is banged-up and might not play. While the game is in Neyland Stadium, an Alabama loss seems unfathomable, especially with Worley hurt and the O-line reeling. The games against Mississippi State (Nov. 15) and Auburn (Nov. 29) are the ones that carry some intrigue. A loss to the Vols would end any playoff hopes.
The implications: Before the season, this matchup with the Gamecocks looked as if it would be one of the most important SEC games of the season. Not anymore. South Carolina really is struggling defensively, and it seems likely that the Tigers' offense will be able to do what it wants for much of the day. At the same time, this looks to be the final easy league game for the Tigers, who already have thrashed LSU but lost to Mississippi State. Still to come: a huge trip to Mississippi next week, a visit from Texas A&M on Nov. 8, a trip to Georgia on Nov. 15 and the annual bloodletting/Iron Bowl at Alabama on Nov. 29. That is the toughest closing stretch for any team in the nation. A loss to the Gamecocks essentially would render those other games meaningless for Auburn except as a potential spoiler.
The implications: One issue with QB Bo Wallace and the Rebels (and their in-state archrival) is how they will play when they are expected to win. Often, teams not used to winning have trouble maintaining their consistency, and that is something to watch going forward with the two Mississippi schools. The Rebels look to be in good shape this week; their defense might be the best in the SEC, and LSU's one-dimensional offense -- it's all about the run -- wouldn't seem to be that tough a test. On the other hand, the Rebels' offense has gotten off to some slow starts, and a slow start in front of what is sure to be a well-oiled crowd in Baton Rouge would not be a good thing. There are two tougher league games to come, both at home: next week against Auburn and Nov. 29 against Mississippi State. There's also a Nov. 22 game at Arkansas that comes after a bye week. A one-loss Rebels team still would be in the hunt for a playoff bid, but if you're Ole Miss, you would prefer that any loss comes to another challenger, not LSU.
The implications: This week's visit to Kentucky comes on the heels of three consecutive games against teams that are better than the Wildcats: LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. The Dak Prescott-led Bulldogs had last week off after their win over Auburn, and that should be a plus. Playing at Kentucky a week after beating Auburn could have meant a "trap game," but a trap game after a week off shouldn't happen. Mississippi State has played just three league games, and still has conference contests against Arkansas next week, Alabama on Nov. 15, Vanderbilt on Nov. 22 and Mississippi on Nov. 29. The Arkansas and Vandy games shouldn't cause that much angst. But the road games against Alabama and Ole Miss? Wow. Nothing like your toughest road games of the season coming at the back end of the schedule -- with a potential playoff spot there for the taking. As with Ole Miss, a one-loss Mississippi State team would have a legit shot at a playoff spot. But if the Bulldogs can't win this weekend against UK, chances that they could win at Alabama and Mississippi would seem to be nil.
Other games with playoff implications
» Oregon at California: This Friday-night game features the one-loss Ducks, who looked to have righted themselves after losing at home to Arizona on Oct. 2 (that was a Thursday-night game) and are the Pac-12's best bet for a playoff berth. The return of OT Jake Fisher has stabilized the offensive line. QB Marcus Mariota should be able to put up big numbers, which obviously won't hurt his Heisman campaign. Cal's passing attack (372.1 yards per game, 26 TD passes) gives the Golden Bears a puncher's chance to make things interesting. But will enough (any?) punches land?
» Michigan at Michigan State: One-loss Michigan State -- the Spartans lost by 19 at Oregon in early September -- looks to be the Big Ten's best team, and the Spartans also look to be a heck of a lot better than their in-state rival. Michigan State and Ohio State look to be on a collision course to meet Nov. 8 in East Lansing with the Big Ten East title -- and any potential Big Ten playoff bid -- on the line.
» Ohio State at Penn State: Ohio State is the other one-loss Big Ten team that looks to have a playoff shot. The Buckeyes have piled up at least 50 points and 500 yards in each of their past four games. That shouldn't last because of Penn State's stout defense, but it still should be an easy win for the Buckeyes because the Nittany Lions' offense -- despite the presence of talented sophomore QB Christian Hackenberg -- is bad because the line has struggled.
» Arizona State at Washington: One-loss Arizona State remains at least on the periphery of the playoff hunt. The Sun Devils are expected to have starting QB Taylor Kelly back in the lineup. Washington has a talented defense -- there are four potential first-round picks on that side of the ball for the Huskies (LB Hau'oli Kikaha, CB Marcus Peters, NT Danny Shelton and LB Shaq Thompson) -- but the Huskies lack offensive firepower. One issue with the Sun Devils: They are in the middle of an incredibly tough part of their schedule (they played UCLA, USC and Stanford in their past three games, and have Utah and Notre Dame in their next two after this one), so how much do they have in their tank?
» Arizona at Washington State: One-loss Arizona, which beat Oregon in Eugene, seems to be a somewhat-forgotten team, even in the Pac-12. But the Wildcats squarely are in the hunt in the South Division, and their offense gives them a shot in any game. Their defense is iffy, though, which means this likely will be a shootout with a lot of passing yards and points. Arizona is at UCLA next week, but the Wildcats better not be looking ahead.