<
>

An early look at the biggest games for Week 1

Chris Petersen, with quarterback Jake Browning, faces a tough Week 1 challenge in Auburn. Jennifer Buchanan/USA TODAY Sports

It's yearbook season, so what better time to pick out some college football superlatives?

Normally these honors are based on the past, though today we won't be handing out awards for most dramatic (Baker Mayfield) or class clown (UCF, national champs!) from the 2017 season. Here at ESPN Analytics we're in the prediction business, so today, a mere 100 days removed from Week 1, we'll bestow awards for the opening slate of games.

Only rule: only one award per team/game, so we don't hurt anyone's feelings.

Most Important Game for the College Football Playoff: Washington vs. Auburn

There's plenty to play for in college football -- bowls, conferences, rivalries -- but when we strip it down, this is what matters the most, right? A ticket to the playoff and a shot at a championship. Neither team in this game reached the playoff last season, but based on our FPI projections both are immediate contenders to get there this season -- especially with a win in this neutral-site game.

By our adjusted leverage metric -- which considers each team's chance of earning a top-four strength of record depending on the result of their game and how likely that result is -- no game in Week 1 matters more to the playoff race than this one. In fact, it's the third-most important game for the playoff race in the entire season and it's a coin flip -- FPI gives each team a 50 percent shot to win.

If Washington wins the game, it would have a 51 percent chance to have a top-four SOR (our playoff proxy), while Auburn would have a 35 percent chance with a win.

Best Game: Michigan vs. Notre Dame

As we noted in our FPI projections release in April, Notre Dame is a legitimate playoff contender with the fifth-best chance at a top-four SOR finish. That may surprise some because the Fighting Irish lack a robust aerial attack, but credit their defense and a tough schedule.

Second only to Washington-Auburn in our pregame matchup quality metric, this one should be a must-watch on Sept. 1, especially because it could be our first look at Shea Patterson as Michigan's quarterback.

Team With Most to Gain: Alabama (vs. Louisville)

Keep in mind this is after Washington, Michigan, Auburn and Notre Dame, but the Crimson Tide can help their playoff chances if they pick up a résumé-padding win over Louisville. Such a win would boost Alabama's chance at a top-four strength of record from 40 percent to 43 percent -- a far cry from the 15 percent gain Michigan would pick up with a Week 1 win but still higher than just about every other team in the nation.

Though the Cardinals no longer have Lamar Jackson, Louisville still has a 13 percent chance to knock down the defending champs in what could be Tua Tagovailoa's first start for Alabama.

Team With Most to Lose: Georgia (vs. Austin Peay)

If you're wondering why we use an adjusted leverage (and not just regular leverage) to determine the most important games for the playoff race, this is the reason. If we strictly consider what a team's chance to finish with a top-four SOR is now versus if that team lost its Week 1 game, no one has a bigger difference (38 percent now, 10 percent with a loss) than the Bulldogs. But something tells me Georgia fans won't be sweating the 0.2 percent chance they have to lose this one.

Team Facing Highest Conference Title Stakes: UCF (at Connecticut)

It's not as if the Knights, coming off their undefeated 2017 season, are exactly trembling at the thought of traveling to East Hartford, but Week 1 isn't really known for its epic intraconference bouts. There may be more notable conference games (Virginia Tech vs. Florida State comes to mind), but no one's chances to win their conference hinge more on their Week 1 game than the Knights -- because they are major contenders to win the conference again. It's worth noting that Memphis, at 41 percent, is the favorite to win the American, over UCF (at 31 percent).

Teams Facing Highest Bowl-Eligibility Stakes: Old Dominion (at Liberty), Tennessee (vs. West Virginia), Syracuse (at Western Michigan)

These three schools are all firmly in the bowl bubble, with a preseason chance to reach six or more wins between 40 and 60 percent. Of the three, Tennessee starts with the best shot to hit that mark (59 percent) but also the toughest Week 1 game, with only a 38 percent chance to stop Will Grier and the Mountaineers. The Volunteers would drop to a 47 percent chance to win six games with a loss in Week 1. Meanwhile, Old Dominion and Syracuse would both fall below a 30 percent chance to win six or more games with a season-opening loss. None of the three teams listed here reached six wins last year, despite the fact that the Orange earned their fourth win, over Clemson (!), in October.