Up until a year ago, two games would have truly counted in the national championship picture this weekend: Tennessee-Martin at Mississippi State and Virginia at Florida State. Don't get me wrong, there would be lots of fascinating jockeying for position to step in for those two in the event one of them lost, but that's all it would be.
This week I count 10 such games, and six that pit Top 25 teams against each other, lasting from noon Eastern to midnight Pacific. We've ranked those six games in order of importance while explaining what makes those games so important and the stat that will decide each game.
1) No. 7 Kansas State at No. 6 TCU - 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX
TCU would need a Baylor loss to claim an outright Big 12 title, but Kansas State needs no help. The Wildcats are alone in first place at 5-0 in the conference, keeping hope aflame of becoming the first team to go 9-0 in the Big 12's round-robin era. No matter, whoever wins this game falls in line squarely behind Oregon as the top non-SEC one-loss team.
What will decide the game? Turnovers
2) No. 14 Ohio State at No. 8 Michigan State - 8 p.m. ET, ABC A true elimination game, the winner is the Big Ten's official representative for Playoff discussion, while the loser can start buying Citrus Bowl tickets. The winner will fall in line behind the K-State/TCU winner, and should hope it's the Wildcats considering the slate they have ahead of them (at West Virginia, at Baylor). What will decide the game? Setting the tone in the first half.
3) No. 5 Alabama at No. 16 LSU - 8 p.m. ET, CBS
An Alabama win gives the committee reason to justify Alabama's No. 5 ranking beyond the evasive eye test. When they're on, Alabama has looked extremely good, blowing Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee off the field. When they've struggled, they've struggled with about six extra g's. Meanwhile, LSU has slowly crept up to the fringes of the Playoff picture. With only Arkansas and Texas A&M remaining after Saturday, it remains to be seen how high LSU can actually climb in the rankings, but the dominos have fallen in 'Ol Lester's favor before.
What will decide the game? Can Anthony Jennings create enough of a threat with the LSU passing game to give Leonard Fournette and company room to run?
4) No. 10 Notre Dame at No. 9 Arizona State - 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Dan Wolken did a good job pointing out the great irony of this game: Notre Dame desperately wanted out of this trip to Tempe back when it quasi-joined the ACC, and now it's the Irish's saving grace. A win over Arizona State would likely represent Notre Dame's only Top 25 victory at season's end - if they can beat the Sun Devils. Arizona State has turned its season around since that awful 62-27 loss to UCLA, ripping off wins over then-No. 16 USC, then-No. 23 Stanford, at Washington and over No. 17 Utah while steadily improving defensively throughout the streak, allowing 5.19, 4.72, 4.03 and 3.26 yards per play. Arizona State's stock is rising with the committee, jumping five spots with the Utah win and a schedule (at Arizona, Pac-12 Championship vs. Oregon) that allows for the Sun Devils' stock to keep climbing.
What will decide the game? Can Notre Dame match Arizona State's physicality after defending Navy in Washington, D.C., last Saturday night, returning home to South Bend and then flying cross-country to Phoenix?
5) No. 4 Oregon at No. 17 Utah - 10 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ole Miss' loss last week gives Oregon the security of knowing that all it needs to do from here is win and they're in. First up: a night game in Salt Lake City. Not much security in that.
What will decide the game? The blueprint is the same for Utah as it was for Arizona in September and last November, and Stanford in the two seasons before this one - bully Oregon off the race track and into a mud fight.
6) No. 12 Baylor at No. 15 Oklahoma - noon ET, Fox Sports 1
This one is simple: both teams need significant help. Baylor actually controls its own destiny for the Big 12 championship, owning the tiebreaker over TCU and getting Kansas State in Waco to close the season, but sits behind two-loss Ole Miss as well as one-loss Oregon, Alabama, TCU, Kansas State, Michigan State, Arizona State and Notre Dame. A win likely vaults them into the top 10, though still at the bak of the line. Oklahoma, meanwhile, is praying for a case of dynamite to be dropped on the top half of the rankings.
What will decide the game? There have been two Baylors ever since Art Briles took over: the one in Waco that could beat the Seattle Seahawks on the right day, and the one on the road (specifically, outdoors and on grass) that looks like a completely different club. Case in point: Bryce Petty. He's averaged 6.5 yards per attempt and thrown five total touchdowns in three Big 12 road games, and averaged 9.6 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns in two Big 12 home games.