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  • Ohio State and Clemson's final tests before the College Football Playoff field is set don't look like very big tests at all.
By Scooby Axson
November 24, 2018

By the end of next Saturday, the College Football Playoff picture that has been muddled all year will start to become very clear. In the ACC and Big Ten title games, the matchups on paper look like nothing more than just extra practice time for two teams with playoff aspirations.

Ohio State’s thrashing of Michigan sends the Buckeyes to Indianapolis for a matchup with Big Ten West champion Northwestern, who made it a point to look as miserable as possible in nonconference play but somehow dominated its division to secure an improbable conference title game berth. The Wildcats slogged their way through their regular season finale against Illinois for a 24–16 win, but they did not look like a team that could throw the playoff picture into upheaval by pulling off an upset of Ohio State. The Wildcats have now won 15 of their last 16 conference games, but their second-half collapse against Michigan this season casts doubt upon their ability to hang with elite talent for four quarters.

Anyone expecting anything different from Northwestern than what they have seen through the first 11 games were sadly disappointed. Quarterback Clayton Thorson was his usual effective yet unspectacular self, throwing for 110 yards and two touchdowns against the same Illinois team that last week suffered the worst loss in school history in a 63–0 beatdown to Iowa ... at home.

The Wildcats might want to revisit the tape from Ohio State’s games against Purdue (a 52–20 loss) and Maryland (a 52–51 win). Both teams got their best playmakers in space and in turn picked up huge chunks of real estate at the expense of the Buckeyes’ defense all game long.

The bright spot for Northwestern’s offense lately has been the running of freshman Isaiah Bowser, who has broken the 100-yard barrier in four of his last six games and finished with 166 yards against Illinois. But it may take a heroic effort from that running game, which entered the weekend ranked 124th in the nation, averaging a measly 2.74 yards a carry. Ohio State looks like it’s back in the hunt for a playoff berth, but its defense is still vulnerable to the big play. The Wildcats’ challenge will be to test that weakness.

Pittsburgh’s path to the ACC Coastal was smoothed out by a less-than-stellar division, as the Panthers beat the likes of Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest over the past month to clinch a trip to Charlotte, with help from Miami and Virginia Tech’s late-season collapses. The Hurricanes made the Panthers look like they were the ones with nothing to play for on Saturday, dealing Pitt an ugly 24–3 loss that does not bode well for the upcoming date with Clemson’s defense.

The running game that had powered Pitt earlier in November was locked up in South Florida, gaining only 69 yards against the Hurricanes’ talented front. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 14 of 21 passes for 130 yards and was sacked six times, and the Panthers went 1-for-15 on third down and gained a season-low 200 yards.

Miami did its best to establish a passing game, but quarterback N’Kosi Perry completed only six of his 24 passing attempts for 52 yards. The Hurricanes finally came to their senses and scrapped that plan, milking the clock with the ground game and finishing with 293 yards rushing.

Northwestern and Pittsburgh have earned the right to play in their respective conference title games, but expecting competitive matchups based on recent play might be asking too much.

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