Tom Lindley

Tom Lindley

The phrase, “Games in November are games to remember,” resonates among college football aficionados.  It’s a time of big games, rivalries and playoff implications.

That was true last weekend and will remain so over the next three Saturdays, as most colleges wrap up their regular seasons and the best look to a conference championship. All of this is a prelude to the first College Football Playoff, which will become the newest version of how to produce a national champion.

November is make-or-break time. There's no time to recover from a slip that comes as the leaves change colors and begin to fall, despite what may have happened over the first two months of the season.

Auburn had high hopes for a return to a national championship appearance. Those were dashed last Saturday when a simple snap from the center to an unsuspecting quarterback resulted in a fumble that Texas A&M recovered, preventing a short field goal attempt that probably would have sent the game into overtime.

Notre Dame and Michigan State also absorbed defeats that ended their visions of hoisting a national championship trophy in January.

As amazing as was Auburn’s home loss was Alabama’s road win at Louisiana State, where the Tigers dominated play throughout Saturday night. How LSU let the lead slip away with less than a minute to play on its home field will haunt Coach Less Miles and disbelieving Tiger fans for ages. The Tide, whose offense stalled most of the evening, drove the length of the field in the final 50 seconds to kick a game-tying field goal, and then won in overtime, turning Death Valley into Dead Valley.

Mississippi State, Florida State and Oregon sailed along and remained well situated to earn three of the four playoff bids.

Another round of weekend games probably will lead to further scrambling atop the polls. The marquee pairing brings Mississippi State to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Coach Nick Saban’s team plays well at home, but refocusing for the No. 1 team in the country following such a mentally draining and physically pounding game the previous week will require superhuman effort.

A loss to Alabama wouldn’t be fatal for Mississippi State, especially if the Bulldogs keep the outcome in doubt until late in the fourth quarter. A win, however, all but seals a spot in the playoffs.

Is it still labeled an upset if the top-ranked team goes home from Alabama with a victory? That may be true in the Southeastern Conference.

On the outside - and looking for a way inside the playoff talk - are Texas Christian, Baylor, Ohio State and Arizona State. They’re all one-loss teams that have been playing well and scoring plenty of points. Each scored more than 40 points last weekend in beating Kansas State, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Notre Dame, respectively.

All of this makes the playoff selection committee’s weekly work rather meaningless. Those that win tend to hold their high rankings, while a surprising loss puts a solid contender into a free fall.

It all shakes out with a new lineup of teams to knock out until the next weekend, when the shifting resumes once again.

A four-team playoff, blended with a powerful  lineup in the SEC West, has resulted in one of the most intriguing chases of a college football national championship ever.

The race has been somewhat like the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, where a loss late in the season is as fatal as a defeat in the tournament's Sweet 16. Winners advance and  losers are left to wonder what might have been if a play were made or a defensive assignment not missed.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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