There’s a big game this weekend in Alabama. You may have heard about it. President Trump is going to be there and other celebrities—like Alex Rodriguez and Spike Lee—have attended in the past. It’s No. 2 LSU vs. No. 3 Alabama (going by College Football Playoff rankings) and it’s the game we’ve been anxiously waiting for literally all season. The playoff implications couldn’t be higher, although we could potentially see both of these SEC West teams among the final four, no matter the outcome.
But for as excited as all of us are for this epic showdown between two explosive offenses, and for how interested we all are to analyze Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s health for ourselves, there are other important games with CFP significance this weekend.
Let’s start in the Big Ten with No. 4 Penn State heading to No. 17 Minnesota. It’s probably the biggest game at Minnesota since Bernie Bierman was head coach. The Golden Gophers are 8-0 for the first time since 1941, when they won a national championship, and the selection committee put them in the bottom half of its rankings due to a poor strength of schedule. P.J. Fleck, who this week signed a new seven-year contract extension, leads a team that has only beaten one conference opponent with a winning record this year (5-4 Illinois), but it has outscored its last four opponents (Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland) by a 168-41 margin. Their non-conference slate against North Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern won’t help. But should Minnesota win out, it would have victories over four top-25 teams in Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and most likely Ohio State in the Big Ten championship.
Its path into the selection committee’s hearts, though, begins with its toughest game to date. Saturday will come down to the running game: with Penn State trying to stop it and Minnesota trying to get it going. The Gophers have the Big Ten’s third-best attack, averaging 204.5 rushing yards per game on 4.35 yards per carry with 21 touchdowns. Senior Rodney Smith is the premier back who only needs 111 more yards to get to 1,000 this season. He’s posted 100-yard performances in Minnesota’s last five games, including a 211-yard day vs. Illinois on Oct. 5.
This should make for a must-see matchup against a Nittany Lions defense that can stuff the run. James Franklin’s team leads the conference in rushing defense and is allowing just 68.4 yards per game on 1.99 per carry. And they’ve only allowed five rushing touchdowns this season.
In another critical matchup, No. 13 Wisconsin hosts No. 18 Iowa in a battle to stay relevant in the Big Ten West race. Should Penn State beat Minnesota, the winner has a chance to seize the division and make its way to Indianapolis.
This one will come down to which team can actually score some points. Iowa has only given up 10.1 points per game and nine touchdowns this season, while Wisconsin, which is coming off two straight road losses, isn’t far behind with 11.4 points and 12 touchdowns. It doesn’t help that these offenses aren’t the flashiest. Iowa is ranked 97th nationally scoring just 24.4 points per game, while Wisconsin, largely thanks to running back Jonathan Taylor, is ranked 27th by scoring 35.6 ppg. And speaking of Taylor, who leads the country with 19 touchdowns and ranks fifth in rushing yards per game with 126.1, he was quiet in Wisconsin’s 38-7 loss to Ohio State. The Buckeyes controlled the line of scrimmage and Taylor was held to 52 yards on 20 carries without a touchdown. Iowa could pose a similar defensive threat, as it ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 87.8 ypg on 3.1 ypc and hasn’t allowed a run of 20 yards or more at all this fall. Taylor has had six of those. Can he get back to punishing defenses with some eye-popping numbers and a bunch of points? He’s done that the last two times he’s faced the Hawkeyes, tallying a total of 54 carries for 270 yards.
The other 8-0 team getting some disrespect in the initial CFP ranking is No. 12 Baylor, ranked this way for its lack of schedule strength. The Big 12’s lone undefeated team has impressive wins against Iowa State, at Kansas State and at Oklahoma State, but has a tough slate coming up in November. That begins with a road trip to TCU on Saturday before hosting Oklahoma and Texas in back-to-back weekends. If the Bears can win the Big 12 as an undefeated team, however, they will make the playoff field.
Baylor is fresh off a narrow 17-14 win over West Virginia, in which it found a way to win despite four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception). The Bears have lost seven fumbles this year, but luckily for them, TCU has yet to capitalize on that stat by somehow not recovering a single fumble all year. The Horned Frogs also rank in the bottom half of the Big 12 in sacks (15) and tackles for loss (44), while Baylor is thriving in both areas (leads the Big 12 with 26 sacks and has 60 TFL).
TCU is coming off a loss at Oklahoma State where it surrendered 223 rushing yards to the nation’s leading rusher Chuba Hubbard. The Frogs, who went 1-3 in October with an upset over Texas, also gave up four turnovers and freshman QB Max Duggan injured his throwing hand in the final minutes. Coach Gary Patterson did not have a status update about his starter this week. His backup is Michael Collins, who also took a hard hit at the end of that game.
Is a loss coming for the Bears? Can TCU cobble together a performance like it had against the Longhorns and pull off another upset? The Frogs picked off Sam Ehlinger four times that day, while Duggan had 345 total yards with three touchdowns. Regardless, it should be a close game between rivals angling to cause more conference chaos.
So just remember, while you’re waiting for LSU-Alabama kickoff, there are still other important games to fill up your Saturday.