Now the real fun begins.
The next four pressure-packed weeks will determine College Football Playoff participants, conference champions and berths in major bowl games. And with schedules backloaded in many leagues, the best games of the season are still ahead.
Week 11 starts the stretch run with four matchups involving ranked opponents.
The biggest one comes in the Big 12 with No. 4 Oklahoma visiting No. 18 Baylor. The Sooners are one of four unbeatens left in the Bowl Subdivision but face the toughest stretch of the season as they try to improve their standing with the playoff committee. It will be the first road game for freshman quarterback Caleb Williams since the team struggled to win at Kansas and Waco, Texas, is never an easy place to win.
A key matchup in the SEC West will unfold when No. 11 Texas A&M travels to No. 12 Mississippi. Both teams have two losses in the division, one fewer than leader Alabama. The Aggies, which defeated the Crimson Tide, have the most to gain with a win as another Alabama loss would put them in control of their destiny. The high-scoring Rebels still have hope, too, and will put their faith in quarterback Matt Corral to carry their offense.
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The Big Ten East is down to three serious contenders. No. 8 Michigan is one of them and goes on the road to face No. 23 Penn State. A win by the Wolverines would keep them one game behind Ohio State with a game against the Buckeyes at home on the final weekend of the regular season. The Nittany Lions have lost three games by a total of 14 points and are certainly capable of playing spoiler against one of their rivals.
The last matchup of ranked opponents sees No. 13 Wake Forest, the leader in the ACC Atlantic, host No. 19 North Carolina State. The Wolfpack would move into a tie for the division with a win. Can they slow the Wake offense that has scored at least 35 points in every game and 170 in its last three contests?
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After lackluster performances in each of the past three games, Cincinnati finally impresses the playoff committee by blowing out South Florida. Will it help them in the end? Who knows, as the committee members are so inconsistent they can change their logic or reasoning at the drop of a hat as we have seen through the first two rankings. For the Bearcats, as long as they and Notre Dame keep winning, they can sit back and begin the campaign of whining if not selected to be in the final four. But for now, Cincinnati can hope that the teams above them lose.
It was a surprisingly good week for Michigan. The Wolverines cruised to a nice bounce-back victory against Indiana to improve to 8-1 and then found themselves leapfrogging rival Michigan State in the latest College Football Playoff rankings despite losing to the Spartans two weeks ago. Things seem set up nicely for Michigan, its destiny placed back into its own hands. But if we’ve learned anything about Michigan in the Jim Harbaugh era, it’s this: Good times don’t last in Ann Arbor. Penn State will pull a mild upset at Beaver Stadium, where they’ve defeated the Wolverines two straight times, in a game that is low on points and high on angst.
At some point around 2 a.m. ET or later on Sunday morning, Oregon will put the finishing touches on another listless performance and lose to Washington State, tossing the Ducks and the Pac-12 way out of the playoff race. Beating Colorado, UCLA and Washington hasn’t done much to change the feeling that another Oregon loss is coming at some point this month or in early December. Might as well be against the Cougars, who have played well since coach Nick Rolovich was fired.
Georgia is not going to lose to Tennessee. But the idea that the Bulldogs are just going to walk into Knoxville and blow away the Volunteers seems dubious. Tennessee, despite all its warts on defense, has the offensive capability to move the ball on the vaunted Georgia defense that has allowed 49 points in seven SEC games and no more than 13 points to any opponent. It’s worth noting, though, that the Bulldogs haven’t faced a team with the passing offense of the Volunteers. Hendon Hooker has thrown for 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions since taking over. He will find success and the Vols will hit at least 20 on the scoreboard in a game that stays close for at least one half, which would be quite an accomplishment.
Another of the Big Ten’s highly ranked contenders is going to take a loss, but it won’t be thanks to Purdue this time. Well, OK, it might. I went on record last week saying the Boilermakers weren’t going to take down Michigan State, so for all I know they’re going to go into Columbus and upend Ohio State. But I think the more likely upset candidate is Michigan, which has to go to Penn State. It’s an early kickoff, which works in the Wolverines’ favor as a nighttime crowd in State College is usually more intimidating. But Michigan’s most formidable obstacle is the Nittany Lions’ pass defense that has surrendered just six TD tosses and has 10 picks. Yes, the Wolverines can play a little defense themselves. But in a low-scoring affair, one or two big plays could make the difference, and Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson is capable of breaking free at any time.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football picks: Predictions for Top 25 NCAA games in Week 11