Week 10 storylines: What to watch for in college football's biggest matchups

Can Alabama beat LSU to stake its claim as the SEC's top team? Will TCU survive a tough test at Oklahoma State? Sizing up the top storylines to watch in Week 10.
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The last three weeks reminded us why college football just may be the most exhilarating sport out there. In consecutive Saturdays, we had the Michigan-Michigan State Gift Six, Georgia Tech’s blocked field goal touchdown return against Florida State and Miami’s unbelievable eight-lateral TD against Duke that the ACC admitted shouldn’t have counted. And the best part of all of it is we’re about to enter a final month chock full of games with title implications.

The majority of Power Five divisions (as well as the division-less Big 12) remain up for grabs, and this week’s release of the first College Football Playoff rankings means the national title chase has begun in earnest with the ultimate four-team field still far from settled. The Week 10 Saturday slate boasts two games that promise to have a significant impact on which teams end up in the playoff, as well as several more matchups that will help determine the national and conference races.

Here are five storylines to watch in Week 10:

1. LSU and Alabama meet in the SEC's biggest game of the year

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Ole Miss-LSU will also have huge implications for the SEC West, but LSU-Alabama feels bigger because both are prime playoff contenders and because of the high-profile nature of the programs and coaches involved. Four years after the two teams played for the national championship, it feels right that the national spotlight is again shining on this matchup. Whoever comes out on top Saturday will be a favorite to earn a bid, especially LSU since it controls its destiny in the SEC West. Alabama would surely qualify if it finishes as a one-loss SEC champ, and the only help it needs is for the Rebels to lose one of their remaining games. With Ole Miss yet to play Arkansas, LSU and at Mississippi State, there’s a strong chance that happens.

As is often the case, LSU and Alabama are very similar teams in 2015. Both rely on their defenses and star running backs (Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry, respectively) to help overcome adequate quarterback play. Given that, this game is likely to come down to which QB can better limit his mistakes, or which runner can do a more effective job of taking pressure off the passing game. If that ends up being Fournette, the star sophomore might just put a vice grip on the Heisman race.

2. Florida State tries to spoil Clemson’s year, take control of ACC

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Had the Seminoles not lost to Georgia Tech, this matchup would’ve been just as big as LSU-Alabama, with the winner in great position to go undefeated and earn a playoff bid. But while Florida State’s playoff chances have taken a huge hit, it still controls its destiny in the ACC. A win Saturday and an ensuing win over NC State at home would put the ‘Noles in the ACC title game, where they’d be favored over the Coastal champ. Florida State would also surely take pleasure in ruining Clemson’s dream season. A loss would effectively eliminate the Tigers from the playoff race since they’d be unable to win the conference, leaving them with no hardware to show for a season that began so promisingly.

And as far as the playoff goes, the Seminoles actually might not be dead in the water. The Georgia Tech defeat really hurts, but a one-loss Florida State with wins over Clemson, Florida and the Coastal winner would still have a shot at a bid if enough goes its way elsewhere. After all, Ohio State qualified last year despite losing at home to Virginia Tech. Dalvin Cook will be a huge key: Florida State probably needs a big game from its banged-up star running back in order to pull the upset.

3. Big 12 play finally heats up with TCU-Oklahoma State battle

After weeks of so-so Big 12 matchups thanks to the league’s decision to backload its schedule, Week 10 brings us the first of many intriguing Big 12 games down the stretch. It’s too early to tell if the backloading will help or hurt the league’s playoff chances, but it will definitely result in an exciting finish. Preseason favorites TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma are joined by surprise contender Oklahoma State in battling for the conference crown and a potential playoff spot.

Given the way the Horned Frogs and Cowboys have played this season, the former are likely to emerge unscathed from the first of the Big 12’s key games. An Oklahoma State defense that entered last week with solid numbers on the year was torn up by Texas Tech. That doesn’t bode well for Oklahoma State’s chances of slowing down TCU, let alone Baylor and even Oklahoma. But because the four teams involved have hardly been tested, we really can’t predict with much conviction how the final four weeks will play out, except that there will be plenty of points scored. That uncertainty makes the conference race that much more fascinating.

4. Duke looks to rebound and assert itself vs. UNC in ACC Coastal

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Duke’s last-second defeat to Miami is especially hard to swallow since the ACC essentially admitted that the Blue Devils should have won. But as disappointing as the loss was, it doesn’t change a whole lot for Duke—it’ll still win the ACC Coastal if it wins out. That would give the Blue Devils victories over North Carolina and Pitt, the only other teams in the division with one or fewer ACC losses. Even if Duke had beaten Miami, it’d still probably have needed a win this week anyway because the first-place Tar Heels have a perfect conference record and have already beaten Pitt.

That the Blue Devils’ goals are still in front of them should help mitigate any sort of hangover effect, as should the fact that Saturday brings a rivalry game—even if we’re used to Duke-UNC only mattering in basketball. In case coach David Cutcliffe’s team needed even more motivation, the memory of the Tar Heels vandalizing the road locker room after routing the Blue Devils last year should suffice. Besting a North Carolina team that has improved greatly since its season-opening loss to South Carolina is a daunting task, but Duke is fortunate that, even after its heartbreaking loss, the Coastal is still there for the taking.

5. Houston and Memphis face stiff tests before meeting next week

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Temple’s loss to Notre Dame leaves Houston and Memphis as the AAC’s lone unbeaten teams and thus the conference’s only hopes for crashing the playoff. That possibility becomes more intriguing with each passing week, especially since the Owls helped validate the strength of the trio as a whole with a solid performance against the Irish. The Cougars will host the Tigers next week, and that will clarify which of the two will have a shot at earning a bid. But before that they’ll each have to survive a tough conference game Saturday, with Memphis hosting Navy and Houston welcoming Cincinnati.

The Midshipmen have faced a pretty easy schedule but their 6–1 record is still impressive, and their option offense is difficult to prepare for. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds, fresh off tying the NCAA career record for rushing touchdowns, could cause the Tigers a lot of headaches. The Bearcats are just 5–3 but that includes a win over Miami and near-losses to Temple and Memphis. Their offense is 11th in the country in yards per play and is coming off a 726-yard, 52-point explosion against UCF. Both Houston and Memphis are decided favorites, but their respective opponents are very capable of pulling road upsets if either unbeaten slips at all.