Seven key games en route to College Football Playoff

The College Football Playoff will come to Atlanta for the first time this season, with a national semifinal game slated for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 31.

Who’ll play in that game — and in the other semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. — won’t be known until Dec. 4, when the playoff selection committee unveils the four-team field and the semifinal pairings.

Meanwhile, on a weekly basis over the next three months, teams will make or break their playoff cases.

Here are seven key regular-season games, listed chronologically, that we figure will go a long way toward determining the playoff teams:


When; where; TV: Saturday, noon; NRG Stadium, Houston; ABC

The stakes: If Oklahoma wins the Big 12 championship, it will have a good shot at reaching the playoff for the second consecutive season, even with a loss somewhere along the way. But for Houston to make the playoff out of the American Athletic Conference presumably would require an undefeated season, including an attention-grabbing non-conference win over a brand-name program such as the Sooners. So this is a big game for both teams, but bigger for the Cougars, who were last seen humbling Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl to cap a 13-1 season.


When; where; TV: Sept. 17, 3:30 p.m.; Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.; CBS

The stakes: Defending national champion Alabama has reached the playoff each of the past two seasons despite losing to Ole Miss both years. It's hard to imagine Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban losing three in a row to the Rebels (or to anyone), but if Ole Miss wins its opener against Florida State on Monday in Orlando and beats Alabama again, the Rebels would become prominent in the playoff picture themselves.


When; where; TV: Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m.; Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman, Okla.; Fox

The stakes: If Oklahoma wins its opener against Houston, the first Oklahoma-Ohio State game since 1983 is sure to command the playoff committee's full attention. The matchup features the Nos. 3 (Oklahoma) and 6 (Ohio State) teams in the preseason Associated Press poll, the 2014 season's national champion (Ohio State) vs. a 2015 playoff semifinalist (Oklahoma), two of the nation's best coaches (Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops) and, barring injury, two of the nation's finest quarterbacks (Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield).


When; where; TV: Oct. 15, 7:30 p.m.; Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.; NBC

The stakes: Stanford, with 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey at running back, is the preseason pick to win the Pac-12, the only power conference without a team in the playoff a year ago. (With four playoff berths and five power conferences, at least one such league is sure to be excluded each season. The Big 12 was left out in the 2014 season.) So it behooves a potential conference champion to enhance its resume with a marquee non-conference victory. A win at South Bend would qualify. Notre Dame, whose only regular-season losses last year were by two points apiece to Stanford and Clemson, also could be a playoff contender.


When; where; TV: Oct. 29, time TBD; Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.; TV TBD.

The stakes: Let's say both teams win their season openers against SEC opponents — preseason No. 2 Clemson against Auburn and No. 4 Florida State against Ole Miss — and avoid upsets through the first seven weeks of their schedules to arrive at this ACC showdown with matching 7-0 records and dueling Heisman Trophy candidates: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and FSU running back Dalvin Cook. Both teams have an open date Oct. 22, providing runway for the buildup to this showdown, which falls on the weekend before the playoff committee's first rankings of the season. The winner of this game reached the BCS title game or the playoff each of the past three seasons.


When; where; TV: Nov. 5, time TBD; Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.; TV TBD.

The stakes: It goes without saying that this game of smash-mouth football figures to have huge bearing on who wins the SEC West title, which is as good a stepping stone as any toward the playoff. These teams open the season in the nation's top five, Alabama No. 1 and LSU No. 5, but will have to survive some marquee games in and out of conference to remain there into November. Assuming that happens, Alabama's five consecutive wins against LSU — a streak that started with the national championship game at the end of the 2011 season and continued with the Crimson Tide's shutdown of Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette last season — will only ramp up the anticipation.


When; where; TV: Nov. 26, time TBD; Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio; TV TBD.

The stakes: Both teams will face tough assignments before this one, including road games against defending Big Ten champion Michigan State, but imagine the atmosphere if Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines and Urban Meyer's Buckeyes show up for their regular-season finale with both teams' playoff aspirations intact. That might not happen. But it might, especially if Ohio State, despite returning only six starters from last year's team, manages to pull out a September non-conference victory at Oklahoma.