Washington coach Chris Petersen tried to temper the hype surrounding his season-opening game against No. 9 Auburn — a game that highlights five straight days of college football, features two preseason top-10 teams, has the potential to boost the Pac-12’s image nationally and, oh, will continue to resonate with the College Football Playoff selection committee into December.
“We’re talking about one game,” Petersen said. ” … It’s going to be the whole body of work. It’s going to be the league, how they do in the bowls. I mean, I know everybody wants to put it all about this one thing, the Pac-12 is either good or not on one game. That’s totally unrealistic. I don’t look at it like that.”
A win by Washington, though, would push the Pac-12 one giant leap away from its miserable, unprecedented 1-8 bowl record last year. The only time we can compare the Power 5 in a sport that doesn’t have any uniform scheduling is when they face each other, and Week 1 is where #myconferencecanbeatyourconference begins.
According to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor, the SEC enters the season with an 87 percent chance to place a team in the playoff, followed by the Big Ten (75 percent), the ACC (73 percent), the Pac-12 (49 percent) and the Big 12 (29 percent). Six teams have a better chance of reaching the playoff than the entire Big 12 right now.
“We think the Big 12 path to the end of the season is not only the most challenging, but the highest quality,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told reporters at the league’s media days. “Nobody is going to win the Big 12 by who they don’t play. It’s a difficult path, but I think it’s one that will serve us well.”
Before they get there, though, can West Virginia beat Tennessee? Here’s a look at the biggest Week 1 games that will help shape both conference and playoff perceptions, ranked in order of importance to both:
1. No. 6 Washington Huskies vs. No. 9 Auburn Tigers (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC and WatchESPN
What it means: According to the Playoff Predictor, Washington enters the season with a 41 percent chance to reach the playoff. That will drop to 28 percent if it loses to Auburn. If Washington wins, its playoff chances increase to 54.4 percent — while Auburn’s sinks to 8.4 percent. After watching Auburn remain relevant until the very end last year with two losses, it would be foolish to write off the loser of this game, but it’s going to put somebody in a precarious position. Washington doesn’t have as difficult of a schedule as Auburn, so the pressure would be on the Huskies to win out and hope the rest of the Pac-12 is held in high regard by the selection committee. If Auburn loses, it still has to survive November road games against Georgia and Alabama. No matter how you look at it, this game is huge for both the Pac-12 and SEC. FPI says: Washington has a 50.5 percent chance to win.
2. No. 14 Michigan Wolverines at No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC
What it means: The winning head coach will take his first big step in silencing critics who continue to wonder if his team can be great, not just good. Brian Kelly hasn’t elevated Notre Dame into the playoff yet, and Jim Harbaugh has yet to win the Big Ten, let alone position the Wolverines in the playoff race, and is 9-8 in his past 17 games. A road win against the Irish would separate Michigan from the other contenders in the Big Ten, as nobody else — not Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State or Michigan State — play a nonconference opponent of Notre Dame’s caliber. A win by Notre Dame is important because the Irish have four other ranked opponents on their schedule, which will make running the table after a loss extremely difficult. With no conference championship game to play in, Notre Dame has 12 chances to impress the committee. FPI says: Notre Dame has a 68 percent chance to win.
3. No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Louisville Cardinals (Camping World Stadium, Orlando)
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC and WatchESPN
What it means: This is one of two chances this week for the ACC to make a statement against the SEC (the other being No. 4 on this list). If Louisville can pull off the upset (and keep in mind Alabama has won 73 straight games against unranked opponents) maybe the ACC’s Atlantic Division is stronger than just Clemson. At the very least, a Louisville win could boost Clemson’s resume down the stretch if the Cardinals are ranked. At best, maybe the ACC is the next league to get two teams in if Louisville’s only loss is to ACC champion Clemson. Assuming Alabama follows the script, though, and wins its 17th straight season opener, the Tide will remain in its familiar spot — at the top. FPI says: Alabama has an 87 percent chance to win.
4. No, 8 Miami Hurricanes vs. No. 25 LSU Tigers (AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)
Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC and WatchESPN
What it means: The SEC West enters the season with four ranked teams, including LSU, but the Tigers are hanging on by their claws. Coach Ed Orgeron is already under pressure from a demanding fan base, and ESPN’s FPI favors LSU in only five games this year — including nonconference opponents Southeastern Louisiana, Louisiana Tech and Rice. It’s critical that LSU gets off to a good start, especially with the Sept. 15 road trip to Auburn looming. If LSU loses, and its record plays out as FPI predicts, this win will be devalued for the Canes down the stretch. It’s still important for Miami to win, though, because the rest of the unranked nonconference schedule — Savannah State, Toledo and FIU — won’t do much for their resume. FPI says: Miami has a 66 percent chance to win.
5. No. 20 Virginia Tech Hokies at No. 19 Florida State Seminoles
Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN
What it means: Because these teams are in opposing divisions, it’s more of a temperature gauge of their top-25 worthiness than it is of their playoff potential. As long as Clemson remains the ACC’s heavy frontrunner and top playoff candidate, it would help the Tigers if FSU won because Clemson plays at Florida State on Oct. 27, and the better FSU is, the more impressive a win in Tallahassee would be that day. Clemson doesn’t face Virginia Tech, but a road win against a ranked opponent would be a great start for the Hokies. FPI says: Florida State has a 66 percent chance to win.
6. Tennessee Volunteers vs. No. 17 West Virginia Mountaineers (Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
What it means: West Virginia is 1-5 vs. SEC teams since 2009, but can start to change that narrative against a Tennessee team coming off a 4-8 season — the worst in school history. Even if WVU wins, though, it would need Tennessee to put together a respectable season in order for it to carry much weight with the selection committee when comparing the Mountaineers against other contenders with Power 5 nonconference wins. Jeremy Pruitt will be making his debut as the Vols’ head coach, and the SEC East could use an upgrade, as Georgia is the only ranked team. FPI says: West Virginia has a 59 percent chance to win.