The national title race heads down the stretch. The finish line nears. Several marquee games will help decide the four playoff spots. Michigan State-Ohio State. Baylor-Oklahoma State. Florida-Alabama. Iowa-TBD.
But the following 10 games from earlier in the season will also play a major role. At the time their importance didn’t jump off the page. All were decided by 7 points or less.
South Carolina 17, North Carolina 13
Marquise Williams threw two interceptions in the end zone during the Gamecocks’ victory on the first Thursday night of the year. His errant pass on fourth-and-goal was picked off by Skai Moore with 3:48 remaining. At that point, the unranked Tar Heels’ title hopes were only a glimmer in the most optimistic Tar Heel fan’s eye. Steve Spurrier was still the HBC patrolling the sidelines down in Charlotte.
Since then North Carolina has ripped off nine consecutive wins and has a date with Clemson if they survive road tests against Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Going 3-for-3 would earn an ACC title and serious discussion for inclusion in the playoff. Without this blip on the radar, they’d be a lock.
Utah 24, Michigan 17
Jim Harbaugh’s reconstruction project began with a loss to the Utes in Salt Lake City. Jake Rudock looked terrible. The future, although bright, still appeared to be, well, in the future. Now the Wolverines sit at 8-2 with Ohio
State coming into Ann Arbor. A rivalry win and help from a pesky, heart-breaking Little Brother means a spot in the Big Ten championship game, most likely against an undefeated Iowa. A two-loss Michigan team needs to take of business and get lucky. A one-loss conference winner with one freakish loss wouldn’t have to sweat.
No. 9 Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27
The Irish were always going to have a say in the final four. Facing a last-minute deficit on the road and the loss of highly touted quarterback Malik Zaire, they needed a little magic to ensure their voice would be heard. That magic came in the form of a 39-yard touchdown connection between DeShone Kizer and Will Fuller. Kizer has been magnificent since taking the reins and Notre Dame clutches to that coveted fourth spot. A loss to top-ranked Clemson is a resume-builder. A loss to the Cavaliers would have sent the CV to the wastebasket.
Houston 34, Louisville 31
Greg Ward threw three touchdown passes, including a game-winner to Demarcus Ayers with 3:09 to play as the Cougars earned their second victory under Tom Herman. The bigger story after this one was Louisville falling to 0-2 on the year. Houston is currently N0. 17 in the playoff rankings and figures to be the non-power conference representative in the New Year’s Six should they defeat Navy and win the American Athletic Conference.
No. 11 Clemson 20, Louisville 17
The Tigers needed a last-second interception from Jadar Johnson to survive a sleepy Thursday night matchup in Louisville. DeShaun Watson withstood two interceptions against the reeling Cardinals. The win, although significant at the time, got buried before Clemson’s big matchup against Notre Dame and after laughers versus Wofford and Appalachian State. The way things have played out, a one-loss ACC champion would be in a precarious situation.
Florida 14, Kentucky 9
Defense carried the unranked Gators past the Wildcats in Lexington with six sacks and two interceptions. It was hard to imagine of the teams playing here would be the SEC’s only shot at the CFB playoff outside of Alabama. Jim McElwain’s sideline rager directed at Kelvin Taylor was still the hot topic surrounding the program. Seems a distant memory.
No. 24 Oklahoma State 30, Texas 27
Ben Grogan kicked a 40-yard field goal for the Cowboys as time expired after Texas flubbed a punt. All postgame focus was on the Longhorns’ abominable special teams. Oklahoma State was miles behind Big 12 frontrunners Baylor and TCU in the public’s mind. The Pokes were still using a dual-quarterback system and almost forfeited a chance at the game-winner following an untimely false start.
Iowa 27, Pittsburgh 24
Marshall Koehn stunned the Panthers with a 57-yard field goal to give the Hawkeyes their first 3-0 start in six years. The game was ripe for joking about tweets about punts and blue collars but not serious contenders.
Iowa 10, No. 19 Wisconsin 6
Hope you took the under. George Kittle scored the game’s only touchdown and the Hawkeyes forced four turnovers in Madison. It was at this moment we realized there was, gasp, a chance Iowa would go 12-0. We struggled to decide what that would mean for college football and the world at large. Either this or the Wisconsin win is the most impressive bullet point on Kirk Ferentz’s team’s resume, which remains unblemished.
No. 20 Oklahoma State 36, Kansas State 34
Grogan followed up his Texas heroics with more against the Wildcats, knocking through a 37-yarder with 32 seconds remaining. The Cowboys would go on to beat West Virginia, 33-26, in overtime in another close call. Unlike their in-state rival, any loss would leave them on the outside looking in. Fortunately for Mike Gundy and crew, that hasn’t happened yet.
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