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Season shapers: mid-tier football teams with top-tier influence

Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire

It’s November, which means a college football season is about to encounter its most climactic, pressure-packed moments.

Yes, it’s time to focus even more closely on Alabama and Clemson and Michigan and Washington. Yes, it’s time to wonder if division leaders Virginia Tech, Navy and Florida will stay the course. However, the team on the other sideline has a say in a game’s outcome. If it plays out of its mind and doesn’t succumb to pressure, it can profoundly affect the trajectory of November and the season itself.

Without further ado, here are several football “season shapers,” the opponents which will get a chance to derail dreams for prominent teams across the country.

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Navy and South Florida are both very much in the hunt for division championships in The American. It’s necessary to follow what Tulsa and Temple do — the Golden Hurricane and the Owls are the two main competitors of the Midshipmen and Bulls — but it’s also necessary to put SMU on an “AAC watch list.”

The Mustangs already hounded Houston, capturing the Cougars in a season-altering upset. The Ponies aren’t done, though. They play USF and Navy in back-to-back weeks to close their regular season. Both games are at home, too, in University Park, Texas.

It’s more likely that SMU’s game against USF will affect a divisional race (the AAC East), since Tulsa-Navy is likely to decide the AAC West, one way or another. However, if Western Michigan loses and (as a hypothetical) Boise State drops yet another game, the SMU-Navy contest on November 26 could have Group of Five New Year’s Six implications for the Midshipmen if they’re 8-2.

SMU is 4-4 and a middle-of-the-road team, but the Mustangs are a far different group from what they were six weeks ago. They will define how this AAC and Group of Five season is remembered.

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Indiana, under Kevin Wilson, has consistently caused problems for the big boys of the Big Ten, but very rarely breaks through. This year, the Hoosiers ambushed Michigan State, but it turned out that the Spartans were not their normal selves. Beating Rutgers and Purdue will lift Indiana to a bowl game, but the Hoosiers also get a look at both Penn State and Michigan. They’ll affect the Big Ten East race and the New Year’s Six puzzle (Penn State at 10-2 would be a candidate), and they could alter the College Football Playoff picture if they can knock off Michigan.

No one’s saying Indiana will do the deed; the point is that the Hoosiers will be given multiple chances to play spoiler in November.

Football foil: Justin Thomas (5) has trouble fending off two Miami defenders during the NCAA football game between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Miami Hurricanes at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire)

Football foil: Justin Thomas (5) has trouble fending off two Miami defenders during the NCAA football game between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Miami Hurricanes at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire)

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets won’t win the ACC Coastal Division title this season, but they certainly can decide it. Paul Johnson’s team destroyed Duke in the first half of this past Saturday’s game, but was then outmaneuvered and outplayed in the second half, having to scramble in order to avoid coughing up a massive lead. If Good Georgia Tech shows up against Virginia Tech or North Carolina (or both), the ACC Coastal chase will acquire a different texture.

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California won’t play in a high-profile bowl, but the Golden Bears will be able to drastically rearrange the Pac-12 bowl picture. Sonny Dykes will lead his team into games against Washington and then Washington State over the next two weeks. If Cal beats Washington, the Bears might knock the Pac-12 out of the College Football Playoff. If the Golden Bears lose to U-Dub but beat Wazzu, they’ll force the Cougars to beat Colorado in order for the Apple Cup to remain the winner-take-all Pac-12 North championship game it currently appears to be.

Everyone’s waiting for that Apple Cup, but Cal could spoil the party in Pullman… or for Chris Petersen.

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Strictly according to the standings, LSU is in the thick of the SEC West race. The Tigers have Leonard Fournette on their team and will play in prime time this Saturday on national network television. To that extent, they are not an “under-the-radar” team. Yet, the Bayou Bengals certainly have been removed from the center of the national college football conversation ever since Les Miles was fired and replaced by Ed Orgeron. The Tigers would have to win out to have any shot at a New Year’s Six bowl. They exist on the periphery of major national discussions, so in that sense, yes, they’re under the radar.

Of any team not owning a good chance of winning its division or conference, none has more of an ability to influence the direction of the 2016 football season.

LSU plays Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas A&M.

The Tigers have a chance to reshape the playoff, the NY6, the SEC West, and the SEC East. They are the ultimate college football example of a season shaper, the team that’s not in the center of the spotlight, but will be able to bother the behemoths and division leaders which have so much at stake in November.

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