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Is LSU vs. Alabama a playoff elimination game? Most intriguing college football questions for Week 11

Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama runs for a touchdown while playing LSU at Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3, 2018, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Alabama won, 29-0.
Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama runs for a touchdown while playing LSU at Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3, 2018, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Alabama won, 29-0. (Gregory Shamus / Getty)

The first College Football Playoff rankings are out, which means we’re less than a month away from seeing which four teams get a chance to win a national title.

Here are the most intriguing questions for Week 11.

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Is No. 2 LSU vs. No. 3 Alabama a playoff elimination game?

This game is being billed as another “Game of the Century," and rightfully so, with the winner taking control of the SEC West on its path toward a conference title. But how much will it really matter when it comes to deciding the playoff field?

If LSU wins, it cements its status as perhaps the nation’s best team. If Alabama wins, it continues a staggering run of success in the SEC and puts Nick Saban on the path toward his sixth championship in 13 seasons as coach of the Crimson Tide. The loser, however, will still be regarded as one of the nation’s best teams, especially if it’s LSU, which has already beaten Texas, Auburn and Florida and has one of the most potent offenses in the country led by Heisman Trophy favorite Joe Burrow.

There’s a scenario in which the loser of this game finishes the season 11-1 and finds itself in the discussion for the fourth playoff spot alongside a possible 12-1 Pac-12 champion (Oregon or Utah), 12-1 Big 12 champ (Oklahoma or Baylor) and 11-1 Big Ten East runner-up (Ohio State or Penn State). While a lack of a conference title would hurt, losing just one game — to the potential No. 1 team in the final CFP poll — and winning eight in perhaps the nation’s toughest conference might vault Saturday’s loser ahead of the other Power 5 champions.

There’s no doubt this game carries big stakes, especially in a conference that prides itself on its high level of competition. (You’ve probably seen the “It just means more” ads.) The loser will face an uphill battle to get back into the top four, but it’s not impossible, especially if Saturday’s game comes down to the wire.

This game might be Part I of a great rivalry. The sequel could come in the playoff.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck leads his team on the field prior to an NCAA college football game against Maryland, Oct. 26, 2019, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 52-10. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck leads his team on the field prior to an NCAA college football game against Maryland, Oct. 26, 2019, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 52-10. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs) (Stacy Bengs/AP)

What would a win over No. 4 Penn State mean for No. 17 Minnesota and the Big Ten?

Might there be a budding power emerging in Minneapolis?

The Golden Gophers’ 8-0 start is flimsy at best, considering the quality of opponents they’ve faced and how they’ve won. In addition to beating FCS South Dakota State, Georgia Southern and Fresno State by a combined 13 points to start the season, they’ve faced a first-string quarterback in less than one-third of the 32 quarters they’ve played this season. If Penn State’s Sean Clifford can stay healthy, that might be all the Nittany Lions need.

But consider what a possible Minnesota victory would look like, and what it would mean. After Saturday, the Gophers play at Iowa and Northwestern and host Wisconsin to end the regular season. Going 12-0, or even 11-1, and reaching the Big Ten championship game would be a dramatic turning point for a program that has won 10 games just once this century. And unlike Group of 5 teams that find a star coach only to lose him to a bigger, higher-paying Power 5 job, P.J. Fleck just signed a seven-year extension to stay at Minnesota.

This season might not be a fluke, but the start of something big.

Southern California head coach Clay Helton watches against Notre Dame in the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Southern California head coach Clay Helton watches against Notre Dame in the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya/AP)

Could we see two Power 5 coaches fired this weekend?

The first move for new USC athletic director Mike Bohn might be relieving coach Clay Helton of his duties, and it might happen as early as this weekend if the Trojans lose at Arizona State.

Including his time as the interim after taking over for Steve Sarkisian, Helton is 36-21 in his time at USC, including back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl game berths in his first seasons after being named the full-time coach. But even during those 10- and 11-win campaigns, the Trojans have routinely come up short in big games, with a 56-24 home loss to Oregon the most recent example. If USC loses to Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils on Saturday, it’ll be 5-5 and in danger of missing a bowl game for the second consecutive season. When the expectation is to compete for national championships, that’s not getting it done.

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Meanwhile, Arkansas has hit rock bottom under former SMU coach Chad Morris, having lost six straight. Morris inherited a depleted roster last season from Bret Bielema and went 2-10, but there have been no signs of progress this year. The Razorbacks rank 112th out of 130 FBS programs in the Massey Composite, which is essentially every poll and rating combined into one ranking. Only Rutgers (No. 118) is worse among Power 5 programs.

To make matters worse for Morris, Arkansas faces its former starting quarterback Ty Storey, now with Western Kentucky, on Saturday. If Storey, who transferred after being told he wouldn’t start for the Hogs, makes his old team look foolish, that could be the straw the breaks the camel’s back for Morris’ rocky tenure.

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, center, talks with his players during a time out during the first half of an NCAA college football game Sept. 21, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, center, talks with his players during a time out during the first half of an NCAA college football game Sept. 21, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke) (Michael Wyke/AP)

Some small questions worth asking

Is this the week Baylor’s magical run ends? The Bears have played well enough to stay unbeaten and give coach Matt Rhule a contract extension, but the bill might come due Saturday. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Baylor a 52.1% chance of winning at TCU, and Vegas has the Bears as just a three-point favorite. The Horned Frogs have one of the most exciting freshman quarterbacks in the country in Max Duggan and a coach that has beaten Baylor in four straight games in Gary Patterson. As much fun as it would be to see Baylor host Oklahoma next week with a perfect record, there’s a good chance the winning streak ends Saturday.

Can Wisconsin get back on track? The Badgers had a week off to lick their wounds after getting trounced by Ohio State, but there’s no shame in getting beat by what could be the best team in the country. The problem is that it was Wisconsin’s second straight loss after falling to Illinois on a last-second field goal. It might seem as if the Badgers have nothing left to play for, but there’s still a chance they can win the Big Ten West, get back to the conference title game and perhaps knock off a favored — and potentially undefeated — East champ. That road begins against No. 18 Iowa on Saturday.

Is this a lost season for Texas, or a sign of trouble for Tom Herman? The Longhorns have already lost three games and have just a 3.2% chance of winning the Big 12. A season that began with such promise, following Sam Ehlinger’s brash “We’re baaaaack” declaration at the end of last season’s Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, looks like it’s headed for at least four losses and a mid-tier bowl game. Texas still has a chance to beat No. 16 Kansas State this weekend and knock off a potentially undefeated Baylor team in three weeks to take some momentum into the offseason, but we’ve already seen that backfire. Herman has clearly made the Longhorns better, but they might not become the national title contenders many thought they could be under his leadership.

Can Wake Forest keep its Orange Bowl hopes alive? With Clemson likely headed for the playoff and ACC standings a mess, the Demon Deacons have emerged as a strong candidate to take the conference’s Orange Bowl bid. Sitting at 7-1, Wake Forest has a good chance to finish 10-2 and waltz into its first major bowl game since 2006. But Virginia Tech has been better of late after a rough start, and the Deacs might be looking ahead to next week’s game at Clemson. Going 9-3 might still keep the Orange Bowl in play, but why leave it to chance?

Can Appalachian State get back in the Group of 5 race? The Mountaineers probably needed to finish undefeated to have any shot of going to the Cotton Bowl as the top ranked G5 team, and that hope died with a loss to Georgia Southern last week. But would two wins over Power 5 teams convince the committee (whose rankings determine the at-large G5 bid) that App State is better than a potential one-loss AAC champion or one-loss Boise State? We won’t know unless the Mountaineers beat South Carolina this weekend, but it’d be fascinating to find out.

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Is Boise State better than the top AAC contenders? The committee seems to think the Broncos are close to — if not better than — the AAC’s best, ranking Boise State No. 22, just behind No. 20 Cincinnati and No. 21 Memphis and ahead of No. 24 Navy and No. 25 SMU. The Broncos have a tough challenge against Mountain West foe Wyoming, which is 6-2 with a win over Missouri and ranks by most metrics as a top-50 team. For Boise to keep up with the AAC, this is a game it needs to win.

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