Twelve games that could define the season

Can Jim Harbaugh get Michigan past Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin this upcoming season? AP Photo/AJ Mast

In spite of the inconsistencies we've seen from the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee, strength of schedule remains a critical component in determining the top four teams, and winning a conference championship still carries tremendous weight.

Ohio State (2016) and Alabama (2017) both finished in the top four without even winning their divisions, but the other 14 semifinalists over the past four years have been conference champions.

It is possible for one game to define a season.

Whether it's a high-profile nonconference game, or a season-defining rivalry game, certain matchups are guaranteed to resonate with the committee until Selection Day. Here's a look at 12 games this fall that will have the biggest influence on their final verdict, ranked in order of impact:

1. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 1: This game will feature two coaches who are both desperately trying to remain relevant through November, but it starts here. With no conference championship to play in, Brian Kelly knows the Irish can probably afford only one loss all season. The Irish also have road trips to Virginia Tech and USC this season. Technically, there are no elimination games in September, but if the Irish start with a loss, every game after that will certainly feel like one. Michigan can lose this game and still win the Big Ten, but starting the season with a win over the Irish is exactly what Jim Harbaugh needs.

2. Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 24: Jim Harbaugh is 0-for-3 against the Buckeyes, and ... isn't that enough?

3. Clemson at Florida State, Oct. 27: Clemson also has a tough nonconference game against Texas A&M and former FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, but the path to the ACC title runs through Tallahassee. This game has typically determined the Atlantic Division winner and Clemson has won the past three in the series. Clemson can lose to the Aggies and still win the ACC, making it extremely difficult for the committee to leave out a one-loss ACC champ that should have one of the best defenses in the country.

4. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 24: This game should again determine the SEC West winner, and while it's possible for the loser to still make the playoff (See: 2017), that's assuming it's the only loss. Don't forget Auburn also plays Washington this season, and Alabama has Louisville.

5. Oklahoma at West Virginia, Nov. 23: At No. 9 in ESPN's preseason FPI, the Sooners are the early favorite to win the Big 12, but the Mountaineers could be their toughest competition along the way, especially in Morgantown on a Friday night to end the season.

6. Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 10: Don't underestimate the Spartans in the Big Ten's East Division race this season, especially when they've got home-field advantage against both the Buckeyes and Michigan. With 19 starters returning, and a nonconference road trip to ASU, the Spartans have the pieces to be a CFP contender.

7. Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 10: The reason Auburn was still in the mix as a two-loss team last year was because it beat both Georgia and Alabama during the regular season. If it can pull off that feat again, it won't matter if Auburn loses to Washington in the opener -- just like the loss to Clemson last season was eventually forgiven.

8. Auburn vs. Washington, Sept. 1: Washington's strength of schedule is no longer an issue. In addition to the trip to the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta, Washington also has five true conference road games. If the Huskies can beat Auburn and win the Pac-12, they'd seem like a no-brainer for a top-four spot. A win here also would give Auburn a much-needed cushion heading into league play, as the Tigers have November road trips to both Georgia and Alabama.

9. Ohio State at Penn State, Sept. 29: This will be a critical game in the Big Ten's East Division race, and both teams are currently ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's initial FPI. The Nittany Lions have to face Michigan on the road, and they also play Wisconsin in a crossover game this season, so they need to take care of business at home against the Buckeyes. Ohio State will face TCU in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 15, but this will be the Buckeyes' first true road game of the season.

10. Wisconsin at Michigan, Oct. 13: The Badgers' strength of schedule looks better this season thanks to road trips to Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern and Michigan, but that also means it's going to be a lot more difficult to go undefeated in the regular season. This will be an important cross-divisional game that should be a huge boost to the winner's résumé.

11. Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24: Ranked No. 5 in the preseason FPI, Notre Dame at least has the potential (again) to be an X factor in the playoff, but it can't fade down the stretch like it did last season. If Notre Dame can remain in the committee's top 25, and USC can win the Pac-12 South, this would be an enormous win for the Trojans heading into the title game.

12. Miami vs. LSU, Sept. 2: If both of these teams go on to have successful seasons and are ranked in the committee's top 25, this game could keep the winner in the CFP conversation much like Miami's win over Notre Dame did last year for the Canes.