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  • Once Halloween comes and goes, there are frightening matchups ahead for every team in the selection committee's first top 10.
By Will Ragatz
October 31, 2018

In honor of Halloween and the release of the initial College Football Playoff Top 25, we decided to take a look at the scariest remaining regular season game for each of the Top 10 teams in the selection committee’s initial rankings. These games don’t necessarily signify the best opponent each team will face because as every college football stretch run reminds us, season-defining losses can come from the most unexpected sources.

No. 1 Alabama: at No. 3 LSU (Nov. 3)

It’s finally time to see what Alabama can do against some worthy competition. Nick Saban’s team hasn’t been challenged once in rolling to an 8–0 record; you’ve probably heard that Tua Tagovailoa still hasn’t thrown a fourth-quarter pass. There’s an excellent chance that changes on Saturday. LSU is coming off impressive wins over Georgia and Mississippi State and has the playmakers on defense—safeties Grant Delpit and John Battle have combined for eight interceptions—to make Tagovailoa’s life somewhat difficult. Both teams have been preparing for this game for two weeks, and the rambunctious crowd in Death Valley could play a role if the Tigers score early.

If LSU can avoid getting blasted in the first half, Devin White’s second-half return from a targeting suspension will help immensely. Alabama also plays Mississippi State and Auburn later in November, but those are less scary since they’ll be in the confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium. LSU at night could prove to be more trick than treat for the Crimson Tide.

No. 2 Clemson: at No. 22 Boston College (Nov. 10)

The unbeaten Tigers haven’t been as flawlessly dominant as Alabama in 2018. The Crimson Tide’s lone win by fewer than four touchdowns was a 22-point victory over a Texas A&M team that Clemson beat by two (Clemson had to play the Aggies on the road and Alabama did not, but still). Clemson also narrowly escaped Syracuse at home on an afternoon when quarterback Trevor Lawrence left with an injury.

What Dabo Swinney’s team does have over Alabama is a much easier path to an undefeated season. While Alabama faces three top-15 teams in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings in its last four games and potentially a fourth in the SEC championship game, Clemson could roll to 13–0 without seeing anyone in the top 30. With that said, a trip to Chestnut Hill to face Boston College is a spooky journey that could derail the Tigers’ season. Clemson’s last six road games against BC include two losses and two one-score wins, and this is the best team the Eagles have had since 2008. BC is led by stud running back AJ Dillon and a playmaking defense that leads the ACC in sacks and interceptions.

No. 3 LSU: at No. 20 Texas A&M (Nov. 24)

There’s no scarier opponent in the country (and maybe the last decade) than the 2018 version of Alabama. For the sake of not talking about the same game twice, let’s focus on another formidable opponent for LSU. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, the Tigers should breeze through their next two opponents (Arkansas and Rice), setting up a tough road game to end the year. A&M is 4–1 at home this year with the lone loss coming on a failed two-point conversion against Clemson. Quarterback Kellen Mond and running back Trayveon Williams form a potent backfield duo for Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies, and Jace Sternberger might be the nation’s best tight end. If LSU beats Alabama, this becomes a classic letdown spot. If LSU loses, A&M might be playing for second place in the SEC West. Either way, this is an imposing road outing for the Tigers.

No. 4 Notre Dame: at Northwestern (Nov. 3)

The Irish are four wins away from locking up a playoff berth. They’re also one slip-up away from likely being on the outside looking in. That makes every game scary for Notre Dame and its fans, especially road tests against Northwestern and USC. The Trojans are the tougher of those teams by S&P+, but they’re reeling right now with two straight losses and a play-calling change, so it’s tough to project what their Nov. 24 meeting with the Irish will look like.

Several factors make Northwestern the choice here. The Wildcats have won four in a row heading into Saturday, including wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin. They’re leading the Big Ten West and have emphasized that they can play loose this week with no conference ramifications on the line. Put another way: Notre Dame will be the only team with something to lose at Ryan Field. Finally, Northwestern has won two straight against Notre Dame, beating the Irish as 27-point underdogs in 1995 and 17-point dogs in 2014. It sets up for a potentially frightening night for the Irish, who are 4–11 against Power 5 opponents over the past five Novembers.

No. 5 Michigan: at No. 10 Ohio State (Nov. 24)

Outside of a slow start at Northwestern a month ago, Michigan has been outstanding since coming up short in South Bend to open the season. If the Wolverines win out, they’ll be in an excellent spot to be selected to their first playoff. Two challenges remain before a possible Big Ten title game test: a visit from a dangerous Penn State team this weekend and a trip to Columbus to take on the hated rivals. Michigan should be able to handle the Nittany Lions at home, setting up a massive opportunity against Ohio State.

The pressure will be on both teams, considering the loser is eliminated from playoff contention (assuming neither slips up earlier). But this is an especially terrifying game for Michigan, which figures to come in with a one-game lead in the Big Ten East and the higher ranking. The Wolverines haven’t won in Columbus since 2000. There are a lot of demons to conquer if Michigan is to secure a spot in the top four.

No. 6 Georgia: vs. Auburn (Nov. 10)

This Saturday’s game in Lexington is a huge one on paper. It’s No. 6 against No. 9 with the winner taking the SEC East crown. But how scary is it really for Georgia? Kentucky barely survived Missouri last weekend and was unimpressive against Vandy the week prior. Georgia, meanwhile, looked like its 2017 self in a romp over Florida. Their offense won’t put up huge numbers on Kentucky’s fantastic defense, but Kentucky’s 109th-ranked offense (according to S&P+) will struggle to score at all on the Bulldogs.

The slightly more daunting matchup lies a week later, when Auburn comes to Athens for the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. A top-10 preseason ranking has turned into a disappointing season for Auburn after three losses. If there were ever a time to get it together, it would be against Georgia (or Alabama) with the chance to knock the Bulldogs out of playoff contention. Auburn wreaked SEC havoc in 2017, beating Georgia and Alabama in November after two early losses. The Tigers’ defense is good enough to keep it close against Georgia in ’18.

No. 7 Oklahoma: at No. 13 West Virginia (Nov. 23)

Oklahoma still has a few tough games to get through to make the Big 12 championship game and each one of them is important, given that a single loss likely eliminates the Sooners from the final four conversation. This Saturday’s game in Lubbock and a visit from rival Oklahoma State the following week are possible trap games, but the big test comes in the final week of the regular season. That’s when Oklahoma travels to Morgantown for a Friday night, Thanksgiving weekend matchup with Will Grier and West Virginia. The Mountaineers are one of the few teams in the country with the offense to hang with Kyler Murray and will be fired up to snap a six-game losing streak against the Sooners.

No. 8 Washington State: vs. Washington (Nov. 23)

Washington State is the only Pac-12 team still alive in the playoff race. To get there, it needs to win out and have the teams it trails in the initial rankings drop games in November. That first part won’t be easy in a conference that is seemingly full of land mines. The Cougars first have to survive games against Cal and Arizona, which last weekend beat Washington and Oregon, respectively. Assuming they can do that, a visit from the Huskies is a scary way to end the regular season. Washington’s stout defense has the defensive backs to pose a challenge for Gardnew Minshew and the high-flying Wazzu passing attack. The Cougars haven’t won the Apple Cup since 2012.

No. 9 Kentucky: vs. No. 6 Georgia (Nov. 3)

Kentucky has an opportunity this weekend to show that it’s the real deal. If the Wildcats can beat the defending national runner-ups, it will show that they truly belong among the nation’s elite. They’d have the SEC East in hand and would add a great win to their good ones against Florida and Mississippi State earlier in the year. It will take Kentucky’s best performance of the year. Georgia is terrifying when it’s playing like it did against Florida, with Jake Fromm taking care of the ball, D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield running effectively and the defense making plays. Top pass rusher Josh Allen and the Kentucky defense should hold their own against Fromm & Co., but running back Benny Snell will need to have an incredible afternoon for the Wildcats’ offense to do enough to win.

No. 10 Ohio State: at Michigan State (Nov. 10)

Despite its embarrassing loss to Purdue, Ohio State has everything it needs to win out and make the playoff. The Buckeyes just can’t get caught looking ahead to Nov. 24 and the Michigan game. The most likely letdown spot is at Michigan State, where a solid Spartans team with a new quarterback could cause some trouble for OSU. Mark Dantonio’s decision to bench Brian Lewerke in favor of freshman Rocky Lombardi worked out perfectly against Purdue, with Lombardi throwing for 318 yards and two touchdowns in a Spartans win. There’s plenty of talent on the MSU roster, even with leading wideout Felton Davis III out for the season. Plus, two of the Buckeyes’ last three visits to East Lansing have resulted in Ohio State victories by the same 17–16 score. Outside of last season’s blowout loss, Mark Dantonio always seems to get his team ready for Ohio State.

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