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Playoff spreads championship hope and big games
By RALPH D. RUSSO AP College Football Writer

Back when the Bowl Championship Series decided major college football's champion, its defenders would talk about how it enhanced the regular season and how a larger playoff would take away from it.

That wasn't true, and now there's proof.

By expanding the postseason ever so slightly to add two games, the College Football Playoff has widened the field, given far more teams championship hopes and created more big games.

With 18-one loss teams and only three unbeatens in FBS, there is reason to think even a conference champion with two losses could have a chance to reach the first football final four.

"When it's all said and done there's going to be a lot of two-loss teams," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Wednesday. "We're trying to position ourselves to be the best."

Swinney's Tigers are off his weekend so he'll get to take in some pivotal contests with playoff implications that most didn't see coming in September.

No. 10 TCU (6-1, 3-1) is at No. 20 West Virginia (6-2, 4-1) in a matchup of Big 12 bounce-back teams. The Horned Frogs and Mountaineers combined for eight victories last season. The winner will still control its future in the Big 12.

In the Pac-12, No. 18 Utah (6-1, 3-1) visits No. 15 Arizona State (6-1, 4-1). The Utes missed the postseason last year. The Sun Devils played for the Pac-12 title, but replaced almost their entire defense and quarterback Taylor Kelly has missed a chunk of the season. Control of the Pac-12 South is up for grabs in this one and both have potentially huge games next week. The Utes host No. 5 Oregon and the Sun Devils welcome No. 6 Notre Dame.

Utah will be without leading receiver Dres Anderson, who was lost for the season to a knee injury.

At the top of the playoff rankings, Florida State is at Louisville and Auburn plays at Mississippi. So for anyone who didn't like the first rankings, just give it a couple of days.

"This is college football, it changes weekly and sometimes dramatically," Swinney said.

The picks:

MARQUEE MATCHUPS

No. 4 Auburn (plus 2 1/2) at No. 7 Mississippi

The elimination round begins in the SEC West ... AUBURN 28-24.

No. 10 TCU (minus 5 1/2) at No. 20 West Virginia

Horned Frogs won't reach 80 points, though 45 should do it ... TCU 45-31.

No. 18 Utah (plus 5 1/2) at No. 15 Arizona State

Utes WR Kaelin Clay has returned three punts for touchdowns and averages 22.4 yards per attempt. Sun Devils are 119th in nation in punt return coverage, allowing 13.3 per return. ... ARIZONA STATE 31-23.

No. 14 Arizona (plus 6 1/2) at No. 25 UCLA

Wildcats still have doubters. Another road victory would help validate that Oregon upset ... UCLA 38-31.

THURSDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

No. 2 Florida State (minus 4) at Louisville

Beware Thursday night road games - also strong Cardinals D (second in the nation in yards per play) led by DE Lorenzo Mauldin ... FLORIDA STATE 23-20.

UPSET ALERT

No. 6 Notre Dame (minus 14 1/2) vs. Navy at Landover, Maryland

Irish have won three straight to regain control of rivalry, though barely escaped last year in South Bend, Indiana ... NOTRE DAME 35-24.

UPSET SPECIAL

No. 21 East Carolina (minus 7) at Temple

No. 23 Marshall probably needs Pirates to lose for it to grab best-of-the-rest bid to New Year's bowls ... TEMPLE 33-30.

COULD GET UGLY

No. 9 Georgia (minus 13) vs. Florida at Jacksonville, Florida

The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party couldn't come at a better time for Gators fans, who likely will need a few stiff drinks to get through this season ... GEORGIA 28-17.

Kansas (plus 36 1/2) at No. 12 Baylor

How many did TCU score last week against Texas Tech? Bears may shoot for 83 ... BAYLOR 68-17.

Illinois (plus 28 1/2) at No. 13 Ohio State

Buckeyes could use a runaway win to get QB J.T. Barrett's sore knee some rest before showdown against No. 8 Michigan State next week ... OHIO STATE 48-17.

CONFERENCE CALLS

Arkansas (plus 11) at No. 1 Mississippi State

Razorbacks' SEC losing streak is 16 games, including 0-12 under coach Bret Bielema ... MISSISSIPPI STATE 42-24.

Stanford (plus 7 1-2) at No. 5 Oregon

Cardinal have allowed only 34 points in winning last two meetings with the Ducks ... OREGON 34-23.

Oklahoma State (plus 14 1/2) at No. 11 Kansas State

Cowboys have won four of five in series ... KANSAS STATE 34-17.

Purdue (plus 23 1/2) at No. 17 Nebraska

Huskers are averaging 551 yards per home game ... NEBRASKA 48-21.

No. 19 Oklahoma (minus 16 1/2) at Iowa State

Sooners are probably best two-loss team in the country ... OKLAHOMA 45-20.

No. 24 Duke (plus 4) at Pittsburgh

Don't look now, but Blue Devils are in first in the ACC Coastal again ... DUKE 27-21.

UNRANKED BUT NOT UNINTERESTING

Indiana (plus 7) at Michigan

Wolverines have won 18 straight against Hoosiers and 32 of 33. You want to know what rock bottom is in Ann Arbor? A homecoming loss to Indiana ... MICHIGAN 31-23.

Tennessee (plus 8) at South Carolina

Vols upset the Gamecocks last year ... SOUTH CAROLINA 33-27.

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Last week: Record straight: 16-4; vs. points 7-12.

Season: Record straight: 125-39; vs. points 71-91-2.

Best bet: 4-5.

Upset special: 3-7.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP