College football playoff contenders final chance to make a strong first impression with the selection committee

Perhaps no team in the country has a better opportunity than Penn State to impress the selection committee before it announces its first College Football Playoff ranking on Tuesday.

The Nittany Lions will be in Columbus, playing right in front of one of the 13 committee members, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. Though Smith, one of three new committee members, has to recuse himself from all discussions and voting pertaining to the Buckeyes, he can certainly weigh in on Penn State.

Committee chair and Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt saw Oklahoma State live on Sept. 30 when the Cowboys beat his Red Raiders 41-34. And you better believe new committee member Frank Beamer saw Clemson in person last month when the Tigers went into Lane Stadium and beat Virginia Tech, 31-17. How has his opinion of Clemson changed after its loss to Syracuse?

This is the last chance for CFP contenders to make a first impression before the committee convenes in Grapevine, Texas, where the members will deliberate on Monday and Tuesday to determine the first of six rankings. Here’s a look at the games this week most likely to impact the committee’s top 25:

1. No. 2 Penn State (7-0) at No. 6 Ohio State (6-1)

Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX

If Penn State wins: The Nittany Lions would emerge as the leader to win the Big Ten East and become the league’s most legitimate playoff contender, while handing the Buckeyes their second loss of the season and knocking them out of the top-four debate. It would be a far different scenario from last season, when Penn State beat Ohio State, because this time the Buckeyes cannot trumpet a nonconference win like they had against Oklahoma last year.

A win would put Penn State in strong position to return to the Big Ten title game with a road trip to Michigan State up next.

If Ohio State wins: The Buckeyes would earn their best win to date and take the lead in the Big Ten East. Right now, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Ohio State a 70 percent chance to win its division, but that would increase to 97 percent with a win over the Nittany Lions.

While a loss wouldn’t eliminate Penn State from CFP contention, it would make it very difficult to return to the Big Ten championship game and rob it of its best chance at a marquee victory. Having played Akron, Pittsburgh and Georgia State, Penn State doesn’t have the kind of signature nonconference win probably needed to boost it into the top four without winning the Big Ten.

Player to watch: Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett. He was held without a touchdown in the loss to Oklahoma. In five games since, he has a 72 percent completion percentage, 22 total touchdowns and a 93.8 Total QBR — all best in FBS — without committing a turnover.

2. No. 14 NC State (6-1) at No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1)

Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC

If NC State wins: The Wolfpack would go from CFP dark horse to contender, and the Irish would disappear from the conversation as quickly as they entered it. Having already lost to Georgia, Notre Dame has no wiggle room. It also doesn’t have a conference championship game, and the committee will evaluate the Irish based on 12 games.

As the only team in the ACC Atlantic still undefeated in league play, NC State still has a path to the conference championship game. For the Wolfpack to achieve bigger things, though, they have to beat the Irish. After a season-opening loss to South Carolina, not even an ACC title would be enough to pull NC State out of a two-loss hole. If NC State loses this game but wins the ACC, the league loses, too.

If Notre Dame wins: The CFP’s biggest X factor is still in play, as the Irish would have another win over a contender for a Power 5 conference championship. It would be their second straight win against an AP top-15 team, having defeated USC last week. Notre Dame still has road trips to No. 8 Miami and No. 20 Stanford looming, so every week is a must-win for the Irish.

Player to watch: Notre Dame RB Josh Adams. This game will be determined by how Notre Dame’s offensive line fares against the Pack’s defensive line, and whether the former can pave the way for Adams, who ranks second nationally in yards per carry. His average of 9.21 per rush trails only Stanford’s Bryce Love (10.27).

3. No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs (7-0) vs. Florida Gators (3-3)

Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS (In Jacksonville, Florida)

If Georgia wins: The Bulldogs would be able to exhale after snapping a three-game losing streak — all by double digits — to the Gators. This is the third time in the past 35 seasons that Georgia enters this game undefeated — the Dawgs lost the previous two (2002, 05). FiveThirtyEight predicts Georgia has a 39 percent chance to finish in the top four, the second-best chance behind Alabama (69 percent).

If Florida wins: Here we go again. While a loss wouldn’t knock Georgia out of the CFP or out of first place in the SEC East, it would raise doubts about whether the Bulldogs are truly top-four material. It would also add significant pressure down the stretch. Don’t forget, Georgia still has to play at No. 19 Auburn on Nov. 11.

Players to watch: Georgia’s defense. The Bulldogs are second in FBS in defensive efficiency and have held three opponents under 250 yards. Florida is second-worst in the SEC in offensive efficiency, ranking 73rd in FBS.

4. No. 4 TCU (7-0) at No. 25 Iowa State (5-2)

Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN2 and ESPN App

If TCU wins: The Horned Frogs remain the only undefeated team in the Big 12. An ideal scenario for the league is to have an unbeaten TCU face a one-loss opponent in the conference championship game. The Cyclones are a much tougher out this season than in past years, as Oklahoma has learned. With a win at Iowa State, TCU’s chances of winning the Big 12 increase from 37 percent to 41 percent. It would also be TCU’s fourth Power 5 road win of the season.

If Iowa State wins: Oklahoma would feel better about that home loss to Iowa State. For the Cyclones, it would snap its 11-game home losing streak to ranked opponents, and TCU’s chances of winning the Big 12 sink to 27 percent.

The Big 12 would also join the Pac-12 as the second Power 5 conference without any undefeated teams, and it would take some shine off of the new conference championship game.

Player to watch: Iowa State LB/QB Joel Lanning. He’s contributed in all three phases of the game, and in the past three games, Lanning has been in on 228 snaps (178 defense, 25 offense, 25 special teams), recording 32 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 74 rushing yards and 25 passing yards.

5. Georgia Tech (4-2) at No. 7 Clemson (6-1)

Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN2 and ESPN App

If Georgia Tech wins: The defending national champs would be done. If the Tigers lose to Georgia Tech, their chances of winning the ACC plummet to 32 percent, according to FPI.

If Clemson wins: The Tigers would take their first step in rebounding from the Syracuse loss, and set up a season-defining showdown at NC State on Nov. 4. Clemson is favored to win each of its remaining games.

Player to watch: Clemson QB Kelly Bryant. He suffered an ankle injury against Wake Forest and a concussion in the loss to Syracuse but had the bye week to recover and is expected to play against the Yellow Jackets. If he does play, how does he look? And can he run effectively? If not, and Bryant’s mobility is limited, so is Clemson’s offense.

6. No. 11 Oklahoma State (6-1) at No. 22 West Virginia (5-2)

Saturday at noon ET on ABC and ESPN App

If Oklahoma State wins: The one-loss Cowboys would keep their CFP hopes alive after winning their second straight road game. This is the first in a three-game stretch against top-25 opponents along with Oklahoma and Iowa State. For Oklahoma State to have a prayer at the committee’s final top four, it has to run the table. The ideal scenario would be meeting an undefeated TCU team in the Big 12 title game, where the Cowboys could avenge their regular-season loss to the Horned Frogs.

If West Virginia wins: Oklahoma State would be eliminated, and the Big 12 would need to hope for a rematch between a one-loss Oklahoma and a one-loss TCU in the Big 12 title game.

Player to watch: West Virginia QB Will Grier. He has seven straight games with at least 300 yards passing, the longest active streak in FBS. He also has 26 touchdown passes, 22 of which have come on throws 10 yards or more downfield.

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