Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was asked recently about his team blocking out postseason predictions. It’s a constant conversation surrounding the five remaining undefeated teams in the SEC: Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida.
“I’ve told them we’re not worried about any of that talk until you get to the end of November because that’s all that matters,” Malzahn said. “Right now it doesn’t matter. Every year, you have teams that are hot early, and they fizzle out.”
No. 7 Auburn — or No. 10 Florida — could be one of them.
Florida is No. 1 in remaining strength of schedule and begins what is the most difficult four-game stretch for any team this season on Saturday against Auburn, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Gators then have road trips to LSU and South Carolina before hosting Georgia.
“This is why you come to Florida: to play in big, big games like this,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said. “We don’t shy away from it.”
Auburn, meanwhile, will play in four of the seven remaining regular-season games with the greatest impact on the playoff race, including on Saturday. After wins against Oregon and at Texas A&M, Auburn can afford to lose to the Gators, but a loss would put the Tigers in a pressure-packed position for the rest of the season.
Saturday brings the first of three straight road games for Auburn, including Oct. 26 at LSU. That is also one of the seven games with the greatest playoff leverage, along with Georgia at Auburn on Nov. 16 and the Iron Bowl to end the regular season.
The last time Auburn started 5-0 was 2014, when the Tigers lost five of their final eight games.
“The very first of the year, I looked at the schedule, I put it up there, I told the guys: ‘Here’s the big picture, all right?'” Malzahn said this week. “But that’s the last time we are going to do that. So we are going to Florida, and then we will come back, we’ll have an off week, and we’ll get our stuff all cleaned up and get a plan.”
Saturday will bring the first piece of the puzzle, as October will help sort out the triangle connecting Florida, LSU and Auburn, which play a round-robin this month. According to the Football Power Index, the most likely scenario is that LSU beats them both (46%), thanks in large part to home-field advantage in both games.
Saturday’s game will also reveal more about Florida, which isn’t garnering much serious conversation as a playoff contender yet. Auburn will be the Gators’ first ranked opponent and the first FBS team they’ve faced with a winning record.
“I told our guys today, if they need me to give a ‘rah-rah’ to get us going,” Mullen said, “then they’re pretty messed up in the head right now.”
It’s easily the biggest game of the week, but it’s not the only one.
Battles in the Big Ten
The Big Ten also has five undefeated teams remaining, and Saturday could present some challenges for two of them:
No. 25 Michigan State at No. 4 Ohio State (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): The Buckeyes should win with style (again), but this is the toughest defense they have seen yet, and it’s an important East Division game. The Spartans are allowing just 1.9 yards per carry, but the Buckeyes are averaging 6.1.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields has yet to throw an interception, but Michigan State has snagged six.
“They don’t turn the ball over, they control the game, and if we come in and do anything other than what we’ve done in the past, we’re going to be in it up to our eyeballs,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “… Those guys know the recipe, and we’d better come to play, or else we’re going to be in it.”
No. 14 Iowa at No. 19 Michigan (noon ET, Fox): Iowa is 4-0 for the first time since 2015 but has understandably garnered little if any attention. The Hawkeyes have been overshadowed in their division by Wisconsin, but they can raise some eyebrows on Saturday by following the Badgers’ blueprint: Dismantle Michigan. A major reason the Badgers entered the playoff conversation, albeit on the bubble, is their convincing 35-14 home win against Michigan on Sept. 21. Iowa has a chance to make a similar splash — and do it on the road.
Of course, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz watched the film of Wisconsin’s win over Michigan. What’d he see?
Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor. Lots of him.
“Well, I know where my vote for best running back in the country would go right now,” Ferentz said. “Just watching him play is pretty good. I don’t mean that to diminish other people’s work that’s out there, but sometimes games like that happen to teams, good teams. We’ve seen that before, and we’ve been victimized by that ourselves. But it was one of those days. Wisconsin just played a tremendous football game, and it just wasn’t Michigan’s day. But I’ve got to say that back is pretty special, too.”
Even if Iowa wins, Jim Harbaugh will likely garner the most attention, as he has lost his past three games — and seven of the past 10 — against AP-ranked opponents.
ESPN’s FPI gives Iowa less than a 50% chance to win each of its next two games against Michigan and Penn State.
Pac-12 upset watches
No. 13 Oregon will have home-field advantage against an improved Cal team, and No. 15 Washington heads to Stanford.
Trap games? Possibly. Especially considering the Huskies kick off at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, which is setting the table for #Pac12AfterDark. The conference’s playoff hopes would nosedive if either ranked team lost, and it would be tough to recover from both of them losing. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, the Pac-12 has just an 8% chance to send a team to the playoff — last among the Power 5 conferences and also behind Notre Dame (15%).
The ideal situation is for both teams to stay ranked until they meet on Oct. 19. The winner of that game, if it can win the league with just one loss, would still be in the debate.