Coach Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes will host Michigan in a meeting of top-three teams Saturday.

The road to Atlanta: Rivalry games will affect playoff race

The College Football Playoff’s road to Atlanta will run through Pullman, Wash., and Columbus, Ohio, among other places, this week.

Key regular-season finales involving arch-rivals will help steer the playoff selection committee toward its decision on which four teams will play in the national semifinals in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and Arizona’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.

The committee’s final determination will come Dec. 4, the day after the conference championship games, but this week’s results could thin the candidates.

The biggest game is No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday. The loser likely will drop out of the top four and playoff contention.

No. 5 Washington could be poised to replace the Michigan-Ohio State loser in the top four — if the Huskies win at No. 23 Washington State on Friday.

No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Clemson have intra-state games at home Saturday. You know Auburn and South Carolina would love to derail their high-flying rivals.

Two more games Saturday could have playoff ramifications: No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Penn State, both still hoping to make a playoff case by reaching and winning the Big Ten Championship game, are at home against Minnesota and Michigan State, respectively. Michigan State lost by only a point to Ohio State last week.

Peach Bowl President and CEO Gary Stokan, closely following the playoff race as it heads toward his game, expects this weekend’s action to have a big impact.

“I think the Ohio State-Michigan game is basically a quarterfinal, a play-in game,” Stokan said. “I think the Pac-12 needs Washington to win out to get a team in the final four. I think the Penn State-Michigan State game has huge implications. I think the Big Ten has the possibility of getting two teams in the playoff if Ohio State beats Michigan.”

THIS WEEK’S SNAPSHOT

As the rankings now stand, Alabama and Clemson would meet in the Peach Bowl. But that potential semifinal matchup will be derailed if Clemson beats South Carolina and climbs to No. 3 ahead of the Ohio State-Michigan loser.

One semifinal will match the Nos. 1 and 4 seeds, while the other will get the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. The Peach will get 1-vs.-4 if Alabama is 1.

Based solely on this week’s rankings, Stokan pencils in these potential pairings for the other “New Year’s Six” bowls: Washington vs. Wisconsin in the Rose, Louisville vs. Penn State in the Orange, Oklahoma vs. Auburn in the Sugar and Colorado vs. Western Michigan (representing the “group of five” non-power conferences) in the Cotton.

THIS WEEK’S KEY GAMES

No. 1 Alabama (11-0) at home vs. No. 13 Auburn (8-3), 3:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS: The Iron Bowl features the the two highest-ranked SEC teams, but Alabama clinched the SEC West two weeks ago.

No. 2 Ohio State (10-1) at home vs. No. 3 Michigan (10-1), noon Saturday on ABC: A Michigan win sends the Wolverines to the Big Ten Championship game, where they could clinch a playoff berth by beating Wisconsin or Nebraska. An Ohio State win might not send the Buckeyes to the conference title game because of an Oct. 22 loss at Penn State, but might nevertheless put them in the playoff.

No. 4 Clemson (10-1) at home vs. South Carolina (6-5), 7:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN: Clemson likely needs to beat the Gamecocks and win the ACC Championship game to make the playoff.

No. 5 Washington (10-1) at No. 23 Washington State (8-3), 3:30 p.m. Friday on Fox: A win puts Washington in the Pac-12 title game against Colorado or USC. The Huskies likely need to win the conference championship to make the playoff, given the selection committee’s concerns about their strength of schedule.

No. 6 Wisconsin (9-2) at home vs. Minnesota (8-3), 3:30 p.m. Saturday on Big Ten Network: A Wisconsin win or a Nebraska loss at Iowa on Friday puts the Badgers in the Big Ten title game as West Division champ.

No. 7 Penn State (9-2) at home vs. Michigan State (3-8), 3:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN: If Penn State wins and Ohio State beats Michigan, the Nittany Lions represent the Big Ten East in the conference championship game. Under that scenario, the Big Ten might place two teams in the playoff — Ohio State and the conference champ.

THIS WEEK’S Q&A

Q: Within the top 10 of this week’s rankings, how much separation does the selection committee see between various teams?

A: “The committee looked at teams 2 through 5 with very small separation between them this week,” committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said. “And the discussion this week was there’s little separation in 7 through 10. We were back and forth as to the positioning of some of those teams.”

Q: How does the committee quantify the difference between Ohio State and Penn State?

A: “Does the selection committee see a small margin of separation this week between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State? We do not,” Hocutt said. (In other words, it sees a substantial separation despite the Nittany Lions beating the Buckeyes.)

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