Nine November games that will shape College Football Playoff race

With a dozen or more teams still in the mix for the national semifinals, November is shaking up to be the most dramatic home stretch of the College Football Playoff era.

This all starts Saturday, with a packed list of impactful games featuring the best teams and conferences in the Bowl Subdivision. That includes perhaps the biggest matchup of the regular season this Saturday: No. 3 Tennessee at No. 1 Georgia.

The games will continue through the month as teams rise and fall in the playoff race. It’s even likely the debate isn’t settled until the first weekend of December, when conference championship games serve as the final tiebreaker in determining which teams round out the top four.   

Nine games stand out from the rest. Touching on each Power Five conference and every team in the top 10 of the debut playoff rankings, these matchups are certain to determine which teams play for the national championship in December and January.

No. 3 Tennessee at No. 1 Georgia, Nov. 5

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The winner has a stranglehold on the SEC East and will be the top seed in the playoff rankings for the foreseeable future. The loser is far from eliminated from playoff contention; both the Volunteers and Bulldogs would be prime contenders for the top four with just one loss, especially if Saturday’s winner goes on to run the table and win the SEC. On an individual level, a Tennessee win with another solid performance would give quarterback Hendon Hooker an almost insurmountable lead for the Heisman Trophy.

No. 5 Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 5

While Louisville is capable of pulling off the upset and South Carolina could get the five or six lucky bounces needed to end a nearly decade-long losing streak in the rivalry, Clemson’s toughest test of November comes in Saturday’s trip to South Bend. The Fighting Irish have turned things around since September — though it’s hard to ignore a horrible loss to Stanford — and have the talent to make things difficult on DJ Uiagalelei and the Tigers.

No. 6 Alabama at No. 17 LSU, Nov. 5

The SEC West is on the line as Alabama takes on an LSU team making rapid improvements in Brian Kelly’s first season. With enough chaos, the Tigers could conceivably make the playoff with a clean run through December, which would include wins against the Crimson Tide and in the SEC championship game. Alabama has no room for error and would land in the New Year’s Six with one loss in November.

No. 7 TCU at Texas, Nov. 12

After barely surviving close calls against No. 18 Oklahoma State, No. 14 Kansas State and West Virginia to remain unblemished, the Horned Frogs turn to a November slate of Texas Tech, Texas, Baylor and Iowa State. Every game looks winnable; every game could also knock TCU from the ranks of the unbeaten. On paper, the toughest test is a trip to Austin to take on Quinn Ewers, Bijan Robinson and the Longhorns.

No. 15 North Carolina at No. 19 Wake Forest, Nov. 12

As in 2015, when North Carolina came out of obscurity during the second half to make a playoff push, the Tar Heels are lurking on the outskirts of the conversation with just one loss. To stay that way and potentially set up an ACC championship game matchup against Clemson that could be a playoff decider, UNC has to get past Sam Hartman and the two-loss Demon Deacons in what will almost certainly be a shootout.

No. 13 Illinois at No. 4 Michigan, Nov. 19

Don’t sleep on Illinois. While not home to the most dynamic offense in the Big Ten, Illinois has the nation’s top-ranked defense and a physical style that matches up with Michigan’s approach. Should they get past Michigan State and Purdue, a win in Ann Arbor would turn the Illini into immediate playoff contenders with a chance to punch their ticket in the Big Ten championship game two weeks later.

No. 12 Utah at No. 8 Oregon, Nov. 19

One of two enormous Pac-12 games on the penultimate weekend of the regular season, Utah and Oregon could even be a preview of the conference championship given how the Utes and Ducks already hold tiebreakers against Southern California and UCLA, respectively. Though two-loss Utah is not on pace for a playoff berth, a win here for Oregon could give the Ducks the ammunition to surge into the top six with two games left before postseason play.

No. 9 Southern California at No. 11 UCLA, Nov. 19

UCLA will sandwich this rivalry game with matchups against Arizona State, Arizona and California. While beating USC won’t be easy, the Bruins have to be considered a very strong playoff option out of the Pac-12, especially if they can avenge an earlier loss to Oregon in the conference championship game. USC follows this with another key game against Notre Dame.

No. 4 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State, Nov. 26

As with Tennessee and Georgia, the loser of this game would still be right in the thick of the playoff conversation — if the Buckeyes and Wolverines can remain unscathed to this point. Given the state of things in the Big Ten West, the winner would be the heavy favorite to win the conference championship and may even land at No. 1 in the final playoff rankings.

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