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Ranking 10 games that will shape the College Football Playoff race

Playing a strong schedule is more important than ever before in the College Football Playoff era.

The committee places a strong emphasis on quality opponents, and how well potential semifinal teams play against them is a major part of the selection process.

While most fans expect the usual teams to be in consideration for the final four again this season, those teams will face some unique challenges on the schedule.

And in turn, potential newcomers to the playoff can take advantage.

Ranking 10 games that will shape the College Football Playoff race

10. Cincinnati at Arkansas

arkansas football bumper pool

When: Sept. 3

We'll know right away if Cincinnati has any business being in the conversation by how the team looks in this early season tilt.

Cincy made history as the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff last season, but lost a ton of the talent that got this team there.

Now it lines up against an Arkansas club that turned heads last fall, winning nine games, including a home date against Texas.

Winning this game, on the road against a likely ranked SEC team, is crucial for Cincinnati to remain anywhere near the playoff debate. UC wants to show it can beat a Power 5 team before it joins the Big 12 next year.

9. Miami at Texas A&M

Texas A&M has a chance to get into the College Football Playoff rankings conversation with a strong recruiting class.

When: Sept. 17

An interesting non-conference opponent for the Aggies as they fight for national recognition, against a Miami team that was eight combined points away from going undefeated in the ACC last fall.

Given how unlikely it is that A&M will run the table in the SEC schedule, winning this game is absolutely paramount. The Ags have three straight road games in October, at Mississippi State, at Alabama, and at South Carolina after an idle week. A loss early to the Canes, and their playoff hopes could be shot.

How important this game figures in the College Football Playoff selection process will be determined by how the Hurricanes look under first-year coach Mario Cristobal and what looks like a much-improved assistant coaching staff.

Miami has a fighter's chance in the ACC Coastal this year, especially as it brings back quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, and a solid performance in this game could be the overture to a shift in the balance of power in the ACC going forward.

8. USC at Utah

Utah has a chance to get the Pac-12 back into the College Football Playoff rankings.

When: Oct. 15

You could easily include Utah's opener at Florida on this list, but the selectors will be more interested in how the Utes perform against conference teams.

Likewise, this game will be the major measuring stick by which the committee will be able to determine if USC deserves inclusion in the debate.

Southern Cal can easily be 6-0 coming into this game behind what should be a vastly improved offense led by two major transfers in quarterback Caleb Williams and receiver Jordan Addison, among others.

By winning this game, on the road against the likely highest ranked team in the Pac-12 at the time, the Trojans can make some real headway with the College Football Playoff pickers. Given that they could keep it going the rest of the season, of course.

7. Clemson at Notre Dame

Notre Dame football quarterback Tyler Buchner has a chance to bring the Irish closer to a College Football Playoff berth.

When: Nov. 8

Last time these teams met within sight of Touchdown Jesus, the Irish knocked off No. 1 Clemson, who then got revenge in the ACC title, and both made the College Football Playoff.

If we assume Clemson recovers from last season, it should be undefeated at 8-0 coming into this game and within sight of another ACC crown.

Oddsmakers expect Notre Dame will be at one loss (at Ohio State), but if both are perfect, the winner naturally adds another important building block to its playoff resume.

A win for Clemson here looks better if Notre Dame beats Ohio State in Week 1, and a Notre Dame win here, even with a loss at OSU in Week 1, looks better if Clemson is perfect coming in.

6. Oklahoma State at Baylor


When: Oct. 1

They say it's a game of inches, and it certainly was last season when Baylor's defense held OSU just out of the end zone in the Big 12 Championship.

Those inches kept the Cowboys from a potential College Football Playoff berth, and coming into this season, how these two teams perform will determine the Big 12 standings again.

OSU has some surgery to do on its elite defense, but should be perfect through three games coming into Waco. Baylor has a tougher road, going to BYU and Iowa State early.

Baylor lost this game a year ago and still won the conference, but the loser of this matchup will have less leverage that the winner, who will be in better position to earn playoff consideration, provided there are no other slip ups along the way.

5. NC State at Clemson

thayer thomas nc state

When: Oct. 1

This game could determine who eventually wins the ACC Atlantic, and when looking at these teams' strength of schedules, it's clear NC State will need it more.

Not that it's their fault, but the Wolfpack aren't playing a tough non-conference slate (Texas Tech at home should be a win), and only really have a home date with Wake to further impress the committee aside from this game.

NC State beat Clemson last fall, was four combined points away from a perfect ACC record, and will bring back 19 expected starters. This team can do some work. Beating the likes of Clemson again is rocket fuel to any playoff resume.

Clemson can still make the College Football Playoff as a one-loss ACC champion, provided that one loss is early enough and the team has time to recover.

4. Oregon vs. Georgia

Stetson Bennett led Georgia to a College Football Playoff national championship and a No. 1 spot in the rankings in the 2021 season.

When: Sept. 3

Talk about making a first impression for Dan Lanning. The former Georgia defensive coordinator, who coached that historic unit to a national title last year, is now the head man at Oregon, drawing as tough an opener as you can.

Oregon brings on some strong defensive pieces and can move the ball downfield. Needless to say, a win here is about as good a resume booster as a team can have.

But only if the Ducks were able to keep winning: remember, they beat Ohio State on the road last year, only to lose soon after to an unranked Stanford team and to Utah.

Georgia should win every other game on its schedule, but clearly needs to beat Oregon to impress the College Football Playoff if it doesn't win the SEC title, which is a real possibility when looking ahead to a date against likely West champion Alabama.

3. Michigan at Ohio State

jj mccarthy michigan

When: Nov. 26

Last season, this game had a direct effect on the final College Football Playoff rankings. Michigan made the final four after winning this game, and Ohio State didn't after losing it.

This game should determine who wins the East Division this season, and whoever wins the East wins the Big Ten title: the division has won all eight conference championship games during the playoff era.

Ohio State missed out on the playoff because it lost to both Oregon and Michigan a year ago. It can't afford to lose two marquee games like that again, making this matchup and the opener against Notre Dame absolutely crucial.

2. Texas A&M at Alabama

Alabama linebacker Will Anderson is arguably the single greatest player in college football, at any position.

When: Oct. 8

Even without all the offseason business between Jimbo and Saban, this game is must-see TV loaded with playoff implication just looking at these teams.

A&M is coming off signing arguably the greatest recruiting haul in modern college football history and is on the precipice of finally forcing a changing of the guard in the SEC.

Alabama is Alabama, still the consensus No. 1 team in the sport, armed to the teeth with the nation's premier roster, and will likely be undefeated coming into this game.

You still get the feeling that the Aggies can go either way: in 2020, they nearly made the playoff, and last season, they beat the No. 1 Tide at home, but still lost four other games. This has to be the year Fisher finally puts it all together.

1. Notre Dame at Ohio State

Ohio State has been a regular feature of the college football Top 25 rankings in the playoff era.

When: Sept. 3

If we're being honest, the selection committee is grading Notre Dame on more of a curve than it does teams that can play for conference titles.

To get attention, the Irish have to play and win marquee games, hence the trip to Columbus. Talk about an opportunity: right off the bat, Notre Dame can make a statement against one of the top teams in college football on the road.

Even a close loss could help the Irish during the end-of-the-season shake-ups in the rankings, provided it's very close, they don't lose again, and Ohio State wins its other games and the Big Ten.

OSU can make the playoff if this game is its only loss and it wins the conference title. If both the Buckeyes and Irish finish with one loss, and OSU loses this game, the selectors could still put them ahead of ND, owing to the conference title.

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