In college football, every game counts. That's what you're constantly being told, and that's what everybody worries about protecting when talk of expanding the College Football Playoff comes around.
Well, "every game counts" is more useful as a marketing campaign than it's factual. Don't get me wrong: every game does indeed count. It's just, some games matter far more than others. So while two 3-7 MAC teams playing on a Wednesday night are playing in a game that counts, it doesn't count as much as the two one-loss Pac-12 teams squaring off on Friday night trying to keep their playoff hopes alive.
So, with that in mind, I went through the 2021 college football schedule week by week to determine which games "count" the most as far as the College Football Playoff is concerned. Below are my findings, which are irrefutable and will prove to be 100% correct.
This was an obvious choice for Week 1, but oddly, the stakes for this game aren't as high as they might seem. Considering how early it is in the season and that it's a nonconference game, the loser of this game is not eliminated from anything. If nothing else, it's a good résumé loss! Like, if Clemson or Georgia are sitting with one loss at the end of the year and being compared to another one-loss team, you're going to look at them and say, "yeah but their loss was to Clemson/Georgia, that's a good loss!"
WEEK 2 - Oregon at Ohio State
This game is probably more important for Oregon than Ohio State. The Buckeyes can lose it, and as long as they aren't blown out, they'll still be a strong CFP contender if they run through the Big Ten. Meanwhile, if Oregon loses, you'll see your annual dose of "the Pac-12's playoff hopes are already dead" columns awaiting on Sunday morning. Particularly if you consider that Washington is playing Michigan on the same Saturday. It's going to be a massive day for the Pac-12.
WEEK 3 - Alabama at Florida
I can't help but believe people are writing off Florida a little too quickly heading into the new season, and this will be an early-season test for the Gators. If they hang tough with the Tide or pull off the upset, they'll earn more support as a team capable of reaching the playoff for the first time. As for the Tide, while they open the season against Miami in Atlanta, this will be the team's first true road test of the season, and The Swamp is a difficult environment to play in. We'll learn a lot about both teams.
WEEK 4 - Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin in Chicago
This is the biggest game of a week that doesn't have many headliner matchups. I don't think many people expect the Irish to be as good this season as they were last year, but it's still Notre Dame, and this is a marquee matchup against one of the Big Ten's best. It's the kind of win the Irish need on their résumé.
And we shouldn't dismiss Wisconsin. The Badgers are a favorite in the Big Ten's West Division, and if they won the division, a win in this game would boost their résumé. Think about it, if the Badgers reach Indianapolis and beat Ohio State, they're probably going to the CFP. But if they lose closely to Ohio State, and it's their only loss with a win over the Irish on the résumé? They'll have a case.
WEEK 5 - Ole Miss at Alabama
Ole Miss is not a playoff contender, and I'm confident those words will not haunt me. That said, the Rebels are agents of chaos, and we know what kind of problems this offense can cause Alabama. While Lane Kiffin's team won't reach the playoff, it's a team that will have plenty of chances to impact which ones do get there this season.
Also considered: Cincinnati at Notre Dame; Oklahoma at Kansas State; Michigan at Wisconsin
WEEK 6 - Alabama at Texas A&M
Wow, it seems like Alabama has a lot of important games! Seriously, this could be a massive game in the SEC this season. A&M finished just outside the top four last season, and the Aggies enter the year hoping to break through, but to do that, they have to prove they can hang with the elite.
This isn't a must-win for A&M as much as it's a must-compete. And if the Aggies do pull off the upset? Whooo boy.
WEEK 7 - Miami at North Carolina
Now that Notre Dame is an independent again, we're back to searching for a legit threat to Clemson in the ACC, and entering the season, it looks like North Carolina and Miami are the two best bets. All of which means this game is enormous because the winner will have a leg up on the Coastal Division title, and you can't earn the right of being crushed by Clemson in the ACC Championship without winning the Coastal first.
WEEK 8 - USC at Notre Dame
This situation isn't different from the one with Oregon against Ohio State in Week 2. The Pac-12 faces a perception problem as well as a performance problem, and, fair or not, the results on the field won't matter nearly as much when it comes to the CFP if the conference doesn't start winning big matchups outside the conference. A USC win over Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, would go a long way to helping the conference's image, as well as USC's potential playoff case. As for Notre Dame, as an independent, it can't afford slip-ups. They're all must-wins, particularly the ones against other playoff contenders.
Also considered: Ohio State at Indiana; Oklahoma State at Iowa State
WEEK 9 - Georgia vs. Florida in Jacksonville
It's one of my favorite games every year, no matter the stakes, and the stakes are high this season. These are your two SEC East contenders, and it won't be easy to win the division if you don't win this game. Win the division, and you go to Atlanta. Go to Atlanta, and you have a chance to win the SEC. If you win the SEC, you're in the playoff. It's that simple!
Also considered: Penn State at Ohio State; North Carolina at Notre Dame; Florida State at Clemson
WEEK 10 - LSU at Alabama
You can make a strong case that any of the three games also considered below will be more important in 2021 than the one I chose, but in the end, we're talking about the two most recent national champions here. It's possible LSU's season could be over from a playoff perspective by the time this game is played. However, it's still LSU, so it's also possible that it's the Tigers and not the Aggies challenging Alabama for the division title. Still, three other games are going on this weekend that should also be incredibly important. I kind of just want to fast forward to Week 10 right now.
Also considered: Texas at Iowa State; Oregon at Washington; USC at Arizona State
WEEK 11 - Michigan at Penn State
Is there a challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten? Honestly, I'm not sure there is right now, but I can't overlook the possibility that Penn State and Michigan could be those teams. The more likely scenario here is that Penn State has already lost to Ohio State, and now we're looking at a spot where this game decides a New Year's Six berth. But given the rest of the schedule this week, it's hard to find a game with clearly bigger stakes.
Also considered: Miami at Florida State; Texas A&M at Ole Miss; Arizona State at Washington
WEEK 12 - Iowa State at Oklahoma
Like Texas before it, Iowa State learned last season that beating Oklahoma during the regular season is awesome and all, but it doesn't mean much if you lose the rematch in the Big 12 title game. Still, if the Cyclones are going to contend for a playoff spot, they'll probably need to beat Oklahoma twice. When it comes to the Sooners side of things, they've built more CFP cred, which gives them wiggle room, but the CFP showed last year it isn't afraid to leave the Big 12 champ out if it believes there's a better option. So the Sooners are better off winning both meetings too.
WEEK 13 - Texas A&M at LSU
This might be a controversial choice! Remember, I'm not ranking the biggest rivalry, but the game that is most likely to have a bigger impact on the College Football Playoff. While both Ohio State and Alabama are playing Michigan and Auburn, those games will probably impact the CFP if one of them is upset.
The A&M/LSU game, meanwhile, could be for second place in the SEC West, or possibly the division title. Of course, both teams could also be 8-3, and I could look like an absolute moron for this one, but it wouldn't be the first time, so it's a risk I'm willing to take.
Also considered: Ohio State at Michigan; Alabama at Auburn; Oklahoma at Oklahoma State