College football 'Rivalry Week' comes with added incentive

SEC Young Quarterbacks Football
Quarterback Jalen Hurts and his Alabama teammates will renew their rivalry with Auburn this weekend.

It’s “Rivalry Week” in college football, and some of the games will take on added importance as the jockeying for the four coveted spots in the College Football Playoff enters its penultimate weekend.

It would appear that the top seven teams in this week’s CFP rankings – sorry, fans of Notre Dame and Ohio State and, yes, Nittany Nation — are still in the running. The game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Auburn is at the top of the list, but other significant contests loom behind them.

The fascinating aspect of those rivalry games that will impact the rankings is how deep-seated the hostility has been over a long period of time even without the playoff prize out there.

Alabama-Auburn, 82nd meeting.

Clemson-South Carolina, 115th meeting.

Wisconsin-Minnesota, 127th  meeting.

Georgia-Georgia Tech, 110th meeting.

So look for things to get a little crazy Saturday.

What conference championship?

With the exception of Alabama-Auburn, in which the winner goes to the SEC championship game, the other five teams in the top seven already are assured of playing for their conference titles next week. If every head coach of those five teams has his way, however, no one is talking about it.

“Oh shoot, we ain’t talked one second about that game next week,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s all about this week. We’re playing playoff football for us. They give out a trophy after this game. Every game we play from this point forward, there’s a trophy on the line. So we’re dialed in and focused on just this week.”

Eyes on the bowl prize

While a select number of teams pursue that coveted top-four CFP spot, a much larger group — more than 50 percent of the 129 teams that play FBS football — is trying to get into a bowl.

This weekend starts with 70 teams that have reached the six-win threshold needed to earn a bowl invitation. With 39 games on the bloated postseason bowl schedule, that leaves room for eight more.

Four games this weekend are match-ups of 5-6 teams, and thus play-in games: California at UCLA, Colorado at Utah, Indiana at Purdue, and Middle Tennessee at Old Dominion. Ten other five-win teams will shoot for a bowl spot, including Temple.

If there aren’t enough six-win teams, teams that finish 5-7 will be selected using the most recent Academic Progress Ratings, a practice that has been utilized the past two seasons.

The Chipster

Who would have thought we’d come near the end of college football season, when rumors abound on possible coaching changes, and the No. 1 name that pops up is that of our old buddy, Chip Kelly?

According to various reports entering the weekend, UCLA is high on Kelly’s list, he received interest from Tennessee but turned the Vols down, and Florida has moved on after considering the former Oregon coach. CBSSports.com reported that Kelly wants to decide by Sunday so he can get started on recruiting, with the new early signing date of Dec. 20 looming.

Although he flamed out in his three seasons with the Eagles and one year with the San Francisco 49ers, Kelly was a superstar as Oregon coach before that, and has been in major demand as high-profile jobs have opened.

Harbaugh’s challenge

When Michigan brought in Jim Harbaugh to be its head coach in 2015, it was not a question to fans of “if” but “when” he would lead the Wolverines to Big Ten and national championships.

That hasn’t happened, plus he is 1-4 against his team’s two biggest rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State. The Buckeyes, still holding a glimmer of hope of making the CFP, will try to extend their winning streak to six against the Wolverines when they visit Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Harbaugh will make a game-time decision at quarterback with Wilton Speight practicing again after coming off broken vertebrae and Brandon Peters in concussion protocol earlier in the week.

Spoiler Rhule

It’s been a difficult year for Matt Rhule in his first season as Baylor head coach after leaving Temple. The Bears, who have had 11 true freshmen starters, finished 1-11 after playing Texas Christian tough for one half on Friday in a 45-22 loss that put the Horned Frogs in the Big 12 championship game.

Despite the record, Rhule called his season “a good experience.”

“Certainly I hate to lose, so that part is bothersome to me, but I think I’ve enjoyed the interactions and relationships I’ve built with the players,” he told the Waco Tribune. “I’ve enjoyed the way the team has come together … the way that they’ve continued to fight week-in and week-out. I’ve seen the progress they’re making.”

Expatriate of the week

Former La Salle College High School star Kyle Shurmur has put up some impressive numbers for Vanderbilt this season. The 6-foot-4, 227-pound junior, son of former Eagles assistant coach and current Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, is second in the SEC in passing yards (2,540) and touchdowns (22). He needs one TD pass Saturday against Tennessee to take the program record by himself.

Games of the week

Alabama at Auburn, 3:30 p.m., CBS3: The big question here is, if the Crimson Tide lose this game and fail to qualify for the SEC championship game, could they be like Ohio State in 2016 – getting into the College Football Playoff without winning their conference championship?

Wisconsin at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m., 6ABC: The CFP selection committee says that it continues to like the Badgers and that there is “very close separation” between them and No. 4 Oklahoma, but they’re still outside the top four. Look for Jonathan Taylor (Salem) to have a big day rushing.

West Virginia at Oklahoma, 3:45 p.m., ESPN: This isn’t a rivalry game, but the Sooners are paying it their full attention even though quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy front-runner, won’t start because of the lewd gesture he foolishly made toward the Kansas sideline last week.

Clemson at South Carolina, 7:30 p.m., ESPN: The Tigers are assured a spot in the ACC championship game but must defeat the Gamecocks to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive. South Carolina has won five of six and will be the toughest opponent Clemson has played in weeks.

Star watch

WR James Washington, Oklahoma State, 6-0, 205, Sr., Stamford, Texas

Washington, a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s outstanding wide receiver, leads the nation in receiving yardage, averaging nearly 120 yards per game. He has caught 61 passes and averages 21.6 yards per catch. He also has hauled in 11 touchdown passes, and has 37 in his career.

The Inquirer Top 10

  1. Alabama (11-0)
  2. Oklahoma (10-1)
  3. Clemson (10-1)
  4. Wisconsin (11-0)
  5. Auburn (9-2)
  6. Georgia (10-1)
  7. Miami (10-1)
  8. Notre Dame (9-2)
  9. Southern California (10-2)
  10. Ohio State (9-2)