Week 13 storylines: What to watch for in college football's biggest matchups
The final week of the regular season is upon us. The past 12 Saturdays have brought incredible plays, shocking outcomes, once-in-a-lifetime endings and more-than-normal coaching turnover, adding up to one of the more memorable and eventful years in recent memory.
That’s reflected by the fact that as we reach Week 13, much of the College Football Playoff race remains unsettled (not to mention the Heisman race, where no definitive frontrunner has emerged). A multitude of scenarios are still in play even after Week 12 saw Michigan State take down Ohio State and the Big 12 picture clear up slightly. A packed Week 13 slate will shape the race even more, bringing the conclusion of the Big 12 round robin and several other games with national implications, many of which involve heated rivalries. By Sunday morning, we’ll either be able to sketch a four-team field with reasonable certainty or be even more unsure about who the committee will choose, with multiple teams strengthening their résumés enough to stay alive for a bid.
Here are five storylines to watch on Saturday:
1. Bedlam serves as playoff elimination game
With the third-ranked Sooners and 11th-ranked Cowboys each entering Saturday night’s matchup with their playoff hopes alive, it’s not a stretch to say that, in terms of national implications, this is perhaps the most significant Bedlam game in history. The other competitor for that distinction is 1984, when Oklahoma and OSU entered at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, but back then the teams’ national title hopes were dependent on No. 1 BYU losing its final regular season game or its bowl game (which it didn’t). In the playoff era, they control their destiny for a championship—should they make the four-team field, of course.
Oklahoma has a much stronger chance of doing so. With its undefeated season squashed, Oklahoma State needs to beat the Sooners (ideally in definitive fashion) and likely also needs Baylor to lose to TCU and have a couple more upsets happen to other contenders. The Sooners, meanwhile, will be in an enviable position if they win Saturday and are a near lock if Notre Dame loses to Stanford as well. It’s unclear how the committee would view Oklahoma in comparison to a potential one-loss Big Ten winner and one-loss Notre Dame, but with a Bedlam win, Oklahoma will at least feel good about its chances. One thing is certain: the loser will be out of the race.
2. Can Stanford ruin Notre Dame’s playoff hopes?
The Irish came in at No. 4 in the previous two playoff rankings despite having a loss, with the committee lauding their wins (including Navy, Temple and Pitt) and the fact that their defeat was a narrow one against No. 1 Clemson, on the road, in a rain storm. But Notre Dame’s position seemed precarious—what with there being several undefeated/potential one-loss teams that could end up with stronger résumés (and indeed, Iowa and Michigan State both passed it in this week’s rankings). Because of that, this week’s game against No. 9 Stanford has loomed all season. A loss will eliminate the Irish, while a win may be just what they need to earn a bid.
Stanford’s strong rebound from its season-opening loss to Northwestern had us thinking for a while that Saturday’s game would serve as a playoff play-in. That’s no longer the case with the Cardinal falling to Oregon, but they remain one of the best teams in the country with one of the best players in the country in Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey, meaning they’d still represent a big win for the Irish. Stanford still has faint playoff hopes itself, and winning Saturday would keep those hopes alive. But more significantly, it would definitively remove Notre Dame from the race. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Irish.
3. Ohio State and Michigan meet in The Game
After years of subpar Michigan teams and a mediocre Ohio State outfit in 2011, when the Wolverines went on to win the Sugar Bowl, this hallowed rivalry will once again pit two teams firmly on the national radar. A week ago, it seemed The Game would decide the Big Ten East and potentially the Big Ten’s playoff representative, but the Buckeyes’ surprising loss to Michigan State removed that implication. It’s possible the winner will still go on to the Big Ten title game, but that can only happen if the Spartans are upset at home by a so-so Penn State team (and that game starts after the conclusion of Michigan-Ohio State, so whoever wins won’t know its fate until later).
Still, expect plenty of intensity—this game has it in spades every season, and this year should bring even more, what with it being the highest-ranked matchup since 2006. Ohio State will be trying to maintain its dominance over the Wolverines and stay alive for a payoff bid, while a reinvigorated Michigan will be going for its first win over the Buckeyes since 2011 and just its third in the last 15 years. That this is the first matchup pitting Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer only makes for more intrigue.
4. Alabama and Florida face final tests before SEC title game
These two teams have been on a SEC championship game collision course for several weeks. Whoever wins their potential matchup in the title game (the Tide will take the SEC West with a win or Ole Miss loss in Week 13; the Gators have clinched the East) should receive a playoff bid as well. That’s certainly the case for the Tide, who’ve been on a roll since losing to the Rebels and who remained at No. 2 in this week’s playoff rankings. The Gators have been unimpressive, especially offensively, in their last four games, but it’d be difficult to keep them out as one-loss SEC champions boasting a win over Bama.
Before the conference title game, though, each will have to get by an in-state rival. You never know what might happen in rivalries like the Iron Bowl, but Alabama shouldn’t have too much trouble with a 6–5 Auburn team. The Gators face a tougher task in trying to beat Florida State, which hasn’t truly distinguished itself this season but is nevertheless a 9–2 team with a ton of talent, headlined by Dalvin Cook. Beating the Seminoles is necessary for Florida’s playoff case, and it would give the Gators a huge boost heading into the SEC championship game.
5. UCLA and USC play for Pac-12 South title
UCLA beat Utah last week in what was a de facto elimination game for the South, setting up this week’s intra-city showdown for the division crown, even though USC was soundly defeated by Oregon last Saturday. (The Trojans have four conference losses to the Bruins’ and Utes’ three but own the head-to-head tiebreaker over both.) The winner in the Battle for L.A. will meet North winner Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.
It’s been a trying season for both teams, each of which entered the year with high expectations. Many thought USC was set to return to its pre-sanctions heights, and UCLA seemed to answer the main question about it when quarterback Josh Rosen got off to a world-beating start. But their seasons quickly got derailed, with injuries being the main culprit for each. The Bruins have also struggled with inconsistency and undisciplined play, and the Trojans, of course, had to deal with the early firing of Steve Sarkisian. Yet now they’re in a position to win their division and have a shot at the conference title. It certainly won’t go down as a dream season for whoever wins, but taking home some Pac-12 hardware will stand as a worthy achievement considering what UCLA and USC have had to overcome.