- Labor Day Weekend has plenty of big games, but which ones will have the biggest impact on the playoff picture and the story of the 2017 season?
By the time the College Football Playoff selection committee gets ready to reveal the final four in early December, the opening week of the season will have faded into the rearview. Teams that have plowed through their conference schedules can make a strong final impression by winning their league title games, while at the same time hoping other contenders suffer a late L. But the matchups that take place early in the season can carry just as much weight in the eyes of the committee. Whether it’s two blue bloods squaring off in an NFL dome or a fringe top-10 team welcoming a frisky mid-major to campus, season openers can be the difference between a squad earning a ticket to a national semifinals or settling for a New Year’s Six Bowl with no path to the title game. What you’ll spend hours watching this weekend, in other words, matters a lot.
The reasons it matters, and the degree to which it does, vary on a team-by-team basis. The ranking below reflects a vague assessment of how much a select group of Week 1 bouts matter. Playoff stakes are the guiding principle, but in some cases, they will be overridden by other factors.
1. Alabama vs. Florida State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)
Both the Crimson Tide and the Seminoles could still make the playoff if they drop this game, particularly if it’s by only a few points. It’s even possible that one or both squads could get in after suffering a second loss at a later date. That said, we’ve yet to see a team with two defeats make the field in three years, so don’t count on it happening this year. And besides, the winner would have an inimitable non-conference data point to show the committee on Selection Sunday. A victory over Alabama or Florida State would provide more wiggle room at the CFP cut line if either squad stubs its toe against a weak opponent in league play or comes up short in its conference title game.
2. Tulsa at Oklahoma State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
The Cowboys didn’t have a credible case for the playoff after their 18-point loss at Oklahoma in the Bedlam game last year, but for a while there, it looked like a controversial, three-point defeat to Central Michigan in early September might be the résumé blotch that denied them entry. Oklahoma State should be better this year than it was a year ago, so it risks torpedoing its CFP candidacy by taking a tumble against an inferior opponent before the start of Big 12 play. The Cowboys will probably be fine: Tulsa is a serious threat to win the AAC West division, but it’s going to have a really hard time keeping quarterback Mason Rudolph and his cast of perimeter playmakers out of the end zone with any consistency.
3. Ohio State at Indiana (Thursday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The calculus is similar for the other OSU on this list. Ohio State can’t afford to take on water this early in the season, in a soft spot on the schedule, with daunting tests remaining against Oklahoma, Penn State and Michigan. A tight loss to the Hoosiers wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for the Buckeyes from a CFP perspective. It just would raise the stakes on the rest of their games and potentially make the Big Ten East crown and a conference championship prerequisites for a playoff bid. Indiana’s under no pressure to pull the upset, but it’d be hard to come up with a better way to begin Tom Allen’s coaching regime than with a stunner over the nation’s No. 2 team in the spotlight of a Thursday night primetime matchup.
4. Temple at Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Every game the Fighting Irish play this season will be framed as a referendum on head coach Brian Kelly’s job security. The angst that’s mounted over Kelly’s future won’t go away with a win over a Group of Five opponent, but a loss would turn the flame under his hot seat into a raging inferno. While new Notre Dame starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush won’t benefit from a soft launch against Temple’s stingy defense, this is one of the easier dates on the Fighting Irish’s schedule. With Georgia coming to South Bend in a week and USC, NC State, Miami and Stanford looming on the docket, it may not be long before Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is drafting another public vote of confidence for Kelly. Or showing him the door.
5. Texas A&M at UCLA (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
Kelly has company in the “coaching for his job” club in Week 1. Unlike Notre Dame’s matchup against Temple, however, one of the head coaches in this game is guaranteed to come away from Sunday’s clash at the Rose Bowl having rankled big-money donors and prompted thousands of fans to Google a contract buyout figure. Given the Aggies’ penchant for crashing and burning against the meat of their SEC schedule in October and November, this feels like close to a must-win for Kevin Sumlin. There’s a lot of urgency on UCLA’s side too, though, with Jim Mora Jr. pressed to reverse a worrying trend of declining win totals the past two seasons in what likely will be stud quarterback Josh Rosen’s final college campaign.
6. Appalachian State at Georgia (Saturday, 6:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart’s first tussle with an opponent outside the Power 5 was too close for comfort: Last September Georgia escaped Southland Conference foe Nicholls with a two-point win. The Bulldogs will have to work harder to clear this season’s early small-school hurdle. Appalachian State took fellow SEC East contender Tennessee to overtime on the season’s opening night a year ago, and it’s being picked to win the Sun Belt in 2017. Just as Smart needs to show signs he’s the guy that Georgia needs to finally slay Bama in the SEC, Mountaineers head coach Scott Satterfield could use a signature win to impress Power 5 ADs eyeing the HC job market.
7. Florida vs. Michigan (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Neither the Gators nor the Wolverines enter this season as popular picks to make the playoff. Michigan is undergoing a textbook rebuild after returning only six starters from last season, and Florida has yet to field a top-70 offense, according to Football Outsiders S&P + statistic, in two years under head coach Jim McElwain. The Gators are a good bet to make a run at a third consecutive SEC East title regardless of what happens on Saturday, but the Wolverines are, at best, co-favorites with Penn State to take second place in the Big Ten East (behind Ohio State). An early loss would ratchet up the pressure on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to avoid another third-place finish in the division. Might it convince him to release a depth chart before Week 2?
8. BYU vs. LSU (Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The early reviews on LSU’s decision to strip the interim tag from Ed Orgeron’s title were mixed. The Tigers could have done better, the thinking went, plucking a sitting Power 5 head coach or a hot young assistant instead of settling for an in-house candidate with a shoddy tenure at the helm of a different SEC program on his CV. This is Coach Eaux’s first chance to prove LSU was right to show faith in him. Tigers partisans may beg to differ, but LSU is not ready to dethrone Alabama in the SEC West. What is very much in play for the Tigers is double-digit wins for the first time since 2013. Slip up here, and that total will seem less like a realistic goal than a pipe dream.
9. Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee (Monday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Paul Johnson is a verifiable SEC troll, and his recent track record is bad news both for Tennessee fans and anyone still willing to tout the Southeast-based alliance in those silly conference supremacy debates that take place every offseason. Johnson went 3–0 against the SEC East last season (38–7 over Vanderbilt, 28–27 over Georgia and 33–18 over Kentucky), and his squad has the horses on offense, even without recently dismissed B-back Dedrick Mills, to give Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop fits. Tennessee missed a golden opportunity to claim the SEC East last season, and head coach Butch Jones would do well to make a strong first impression on new athletic director John Currie.
10. Maryland at Texas (Saturday, Noon ET, FS1)
The first game of the Tom Herman era at Texas probably won’t offer much insight into what we can expect from the Longhorns this season or beyond. But as the leader of a powerhouse in hibernation with national championship expectations, Herman will be under some pressure to show his squad is in better shape than the group that lost to woeful Kansas last season. Charlie Strong did a lot of Herman’s roster-building legwork for him. This team is ready to win now, and Herman didn’t waste any time turning Houston into a Group of Five power. He can use the opener against the Terrapins as a test run for tougher upcoming fixtures against Southern Cal (Sept. 16), Kansas State (Oct. 7) and Oklahoma (Oct. 14).