Rivalry week, college football’s cancel-all-plans showcase in late November, is perennially viewed as having top billing on the sport’s calendar — chock-full of postseason implications in addition to bragging rights. But this year, there might be a challenger to rivalry week’s throne: There may be no more pivotal slate of games this season than that of Week 10, with three games on the Nov. 3 docket with critical consequences for the College Football Playoff.
Our playoff model simulates every game of the season, extracting the likelihood of each outcome as well as the probability of every team to reach the final four. To help you prepare for Week 10, here are the games that matter most, as defined by their potential cumulative effect on the entire nation’s playoff chances.
No. 1 Alabama (8-0) at No. 3 LSU (7-1)
Favorite: Alabama (69.4 percent)
Total potential CFP swing: 43.6 points
The stakes: With both programs having two weeks to prepare, the Crimson Tide and Tigers will clash in a matchup that has often decided the SEC West division. This year’s installment pits one of the best LSU defenses in recent years against potentially the best offense Alabama has ever fielded.
After losing to then-No. 22 Florida in Gainesville, LSU rebounded with consecutive wins over ranked opponents: a 36-16 disposal of then-No. 2 Georgia and a 19-3 thrashing of then-No. 22 Mississippi State. Four wins over ranked opponents charmed the College Football Playoff committee into putting the Tigers third in the first iteration of its rankings.1
Behind Heisman front-runner Tua Tagovailoa and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s run-pass option attack, Alabama’s point margin is plus-252 in first halves this season, nearly 100 points better than any other team, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. In most seasons, it would be absurd to label a team as two-touchdown favorites against the third-ranked team in the nation, a team with a 1-in-5 chance of reaching the playoff — but that’s how good Alabama is. It’s been 21 years since LSU was this big of a home underdog.
Even though the Tide have been unquestionably the most dominant team this season, a loss would still hurt — dropping their likelihood of reaching the playoff by nearly 30 points. An LSU win would give the Tigers nearly coin-flip odds (49.8 percent) of reaching the playoff, and it would provide a bump for Georgia (from 32.2 percent to 35.9 percent) and Kentucky (from 6.8 percent to 8.1 percent) because it would likely mean that neither of those SEC East leaders would face Alabama in the conference championship game. Should Alabama win, the Tide’s odds of reaching the playoff would spike to 79 percent. A loss for LSU would drop the Tigers’ chances to 7.1 percent, effectively removing the team from contention.
How Alabama-LSU swings the playoff picture
Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Alabama-LSU game
|Change in odds if Alabama…|
|Team||Current Playoff %||wins||loses||Weighted Difference*|
No. 6 Georgia (7-1) at No. 9 Kentucky (7-1)
Favorite: Georgia (70.8 percent)
Total potential CFP swing: 36 points
The stakes: For the better part of three decades, Kentucky has served as the doormat of the SEC East, while Georgia has routinely contended for conference championships. So while it’s no surprise that the loaded Bulldogs have a 1-in-3 chance of returning to the playoff, few preseason prognosticators would have guessed that the Wildcats would be relevant this late in the season. But here we are, with coach Mark Stoops crowd-surfing in locker rooms as his team rattles off victories. The winner of Saturday’s ground-and-pound clash is guaranteed a spot in the SEC title game.
Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm, who last season led Georgia to the national championship game as a true freshman, has withstood ample criticism and an eye-gouging in his sophomore campaign. As it stands, the Justin Fields experience is on hiatus. Across the field, Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson is largely tasked with getting the ball to Benny Snell Jr. ad nauseam. The sophomore has attempted only 153 passes this season — one more than Tagovailoa, who largely sits the second half of games.
Saturday should be a blistering defensive fight. Kentucky has held seven consecutive opponents to fewer than 20 points, a feat last accomplished by the Wildcats nearly six decades ago. Both teams rank in the top 20 in opponent adjusted quarterback rating and in the top eight in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Whoever loses this game will see the near-annihilation of its playoff hopes: Kentucky’s odds would drop to 0.1 percent, and Georgia’s odds would drop to 2.1 percent. A win would improve the Wildcats’ odds to 16.2 percent, while Georgia’s odds would spike by 12.4 points to 44.5 percent. Kentucky toppling Georgia would greatly benefit just about every other team in the running: Alabama’s odds would jump to 73.2 percent, Notre Dame’s to 51.1 percent, Oklahoma’s to 36.7 percent, Ohio State’s to 25 percent and LSU’s to 22 percent.
How Georgia-Kentucky swings the playoff picture
Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Georgia-Kentucky game
|Change in odds if Georgia…|
|Team||Current Playoff %||Wins||Loses||Weighted Difference*|
No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) at Northwestern (5-3)
Favorite: Notre Dame (70.7 percent)
Total potential CFP swing: 31.4 points
The stakes: Few teams can challenge Northwestern for the national lead in inconsistency. The Wildcats have pirouetted to double-digit victories over two ranked opponents and come within fourth-quarter scoring drives of losses to upset-minded-but-inferior Nebraska and Rutgers. After dropping three of its first four games — including home losses to Duke and Akron — Northwestern responded by winning four straight Big Ten contests to occupy the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West.
Notre Dame has handled its business — and still had to watch as one-loss LSU was ranked ahead of it on Tuesday night. Through no fault of its own, Notre Dame’s victories over then-No. 7 Stanford and then-No. 24 Virginia Tech haven’t exactly aged well. Now under the guidance of dual-threat quarterback Ian Book, Notre Dame’s offense has improved substantially, and Brian Kelly is shepherding one of his top defenses since his arrival in 2010.
Considering that no team with three losses has qualified for the College Football Playoff in its four-year history, Northwestern faces long odds. But because of the imbalance in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have a clear path to the Big Ten championship and a resume-boosting opportunity to play a top-tier opponent, likely either Michigan or Ohio State, at the end of the season. So a loss this weekend would serve as a death knell, but a win keeps those slim hopes alive at 1.4 percent.
Every team on the outside looking in is pulling for Northwestern, who could provide a huge odds boost to the other contenders with a win. Notre Dame controls its destiny, with a win improving its odds to 61.1 percent. But a loss would drop the Irish’s chances to 23.3 percent, suggesting that even with only one loss, it would need serious help to maintain its spot in the top four.
How Notre Dame-Northwestern swings the playoff picture
Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Notre Dame-Northwestern game
|Change in odds if Notre Dame …|
|Team||Current Playoff %||Wins||Loses||Weighted Difference|
Neil Paine contributed research.
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