Brian Kelly's undefeated Fighting Irish can't overlook Saturday's game at Northwestern
The first set of College Football Playoff rankings were released on Tuesday night and there weren’t really any surprises. Alabama came in at No. 1 followed by Clemson with LSU and Notre Dame rounding out the top four spots. If the season ended today these would be your playoff teams. But there are still four weeks left in the regular season and then there are the conference championship games. Finishing the regular season by winning out is never an easy task, especially in LSU’s case as the Tigers already have one loss on their resume.
The Crimson Tide, Tigers and Fighting Irish don't want to lose at this point either, but the first four playoffs have featured 13 one-loss teams compared to a total of three undefeated teams. This means of course that a two-loss team has yet to get a shot at playing for the national title, which again puts LSU on notice. I highly doubt any of these programs want to try and be the team to change that.
Each of these four teams have some interesting matchups over the next few weeks and there are some trap games hidden in their schedules. It only takes one upset to change an entire season and you know the teams that line up on the opposite side of these teams will be more than happy to play the role of spoiler.
With that in mind here is the biggest "trap game" for Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Notre Dame as the regular season enters the final stretch.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC)
AP Rank: 1
Coaches Poll: 1
Chances of winning out: 44.3 percent
Remaining games: at No. 3 LSU (Nov. 3), vs. No. 18 Mississippi State (Nov. 10), vs. The Citadel (Nov. 17), vs. Auburn (Nov. 24), potential SEC Championship game (Dec. 1 in Atlanta)
Trap Game: LSU
While it's hard to call a game against the No. 3 team a "trap," and the matchups with Mississippi State and the Iron Bowl could just as well be playoff roadblocks, for now it's all about those other Tigers. Saturday night's game in Baton Rouge (also the last road game for Alabama) could very well decide which team wins the SEC West. These two rivals have accounted for nine of the last 14 division titles. The Crimson Tide have won four of the last six SEC crowns. Alabama got into (and eventually won) last year's playoff without even playing in the SEC Championship Game, so that path is possible, but winning the SEC West and then coming out victorious in Atlanta on Dec. 1 would make it a foregone conclusion. While the Bulldogs and the in-state Tigers can't be completely overlooked, beating LSU clears the first hurdle for 'Bama's hopes of repeating as national champions. It's also the Crimson Tide's last road game.
2. Clemson Tigers (8-0, 5-0 ACC)
AP Rank: 2
Coaches Poll: 2
Chances of winning out: 73.2 percent
Remaining games: vs. Louisville (Nov. 3), at No. 22 Boston College (Nov. 10), vs. Duke (Nov. 17), vs. South Carolina (Nov. 24), potential ACC championship Game (Dec. 1)
Trap Game: Boston College
The rivalry with South Carolina has produced its share of fireworks through the years, but the trip to Chestnut Hill to face Boston College (6-2, 3-1) is the game to watch. The Eagles have used the legs of sophomore running back AJ Dillon to land in the initial playoff rankings and are already bowl eligible for the third straight year. Dillon is fourth in the nation in rushing (133.5 ypg) with his lowest rushing total of the season (59 yards) coming in the loss at Purdue and him missing Boston College's other loss (at NC State) because of an ankle injury. Providing he stays healthy (he missed two games because of that ankle injury), the Eagles will lean heavily on their 245-pound workhorse against Clemson.
The Tigers are tied No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (13.0 ppg with Kentucky), third in total defense (263.9 ypg), and seventh against the run (91.6 ypg). Their defensive line is full of NFL-caliber talent and will no doubt be focused on slowing down Dillon. Expect this game to be hard-hitting and it could be a defensive slugfest, as Boston College is no slouch on that side of the ball including leading the ACC (and tied for third nationally) in sacks with 28. If the Tigers get by the Eagles it should be clear sailing to a fourth straight ACC Championship Game appearance.
3. LSU Tigers (7-1, 4-1 SEC)
AP Rank: 4
Coaches Poll: 4
Chances of Winning Out: 3.4 percent
Remaining Games: vs. No. 1 Alabama (Nov. 3), at Arkansas (Nov. 10), vs. Rice (Nov. 17), at No. 20 Texas A&M (Nov. 24)
Trap Game: Alabama
While interest may be building up in the Thanksgiving weekend game at Texas A&M, it’s this week’s game with archrival Alabama that will decide the fate of the Tigers' season. Losing at Florida on Oct. 6 means LSU can't afford another if it wants to stay in the playoff conversation. At the same time, this game with the Crimson Tide will probably decide who represents the SEC West in Atlanta for the conference title game. The Tigers have dropped seven in a row to Alabama but all of those bad memories would be erased with a win at home on Saturday night. LSU fans can think of nothing sweeter than to see their team keep its playoff hopes alive while dealing a serious blow to the defending national champs.
4. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-0)
AP Rank: 3
Coaches Poll: 3
Chances of Winning Out: 32.4 percent
Remaining Games: at Northwestern (Nov. 3), vs. Florida State (Nov. 10), vs. No. 19 Syracuse (Nov. 17 at Yankee Stadium), at USC (Nov. 24)
Trap Game: Northwestern
Syracuse’s up-tempo offense could give the Irish defense a workout, and USC (despite current struggles) is always a tough game, especially since Notre Dame has gone 2-6 in its last eight games at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But it’s this week’s game at Northwestern that should make the Notre Dame faithful nervous. The 2018 version of the Wildcats (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) is the surprising leader of the Big Ten West division entering November. Pat Fitzgerald's team has won four in a row, including last week's stunning, impressive victory over two-time defending division champion Wisconsin. Northwestern needs just one more victory to become bowl eligible for the fourth straight year.
The Wildcats get another opportunity to send shockwaves through the college football landscape at home in primetime against the undefeated Irish. Northwestern has beaten Notre Dame in each of the teams' past two meetings (1995, 2014). This game is much bigger than most realize and it certainly could change the course of the season for both teams.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.