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Week 12 playoff takeaways: Three biggest things we learned Saturday

Michigan State’s win over Ohio State will have far-reaching effects. That and other thoughts on the College Football Playoff race after Week 12.

College football entered Week 12 with five undefeated teams. It leaves with just two. The penultimate week before conference championship games delivered plenty of drama to shake up the race for College Football Playoff berths. In fact, that race now looks more muddled than it was before Saturday, setting the season up for a thrilling conclusion.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from Week 12:

1. Michigan State’s win over Ohio State has major implications in and outside the Big Ten

When the Spartans fell 39–38 to Nebraska in a controversial finish two weeks ago, it was hard to imagine how they could work their way back into the playoff picture. Meanwhile the Buckeyes seemed destined to return to the semifinals as they strung together 10 straight wins to begin the season, even though none of those victories came over ranked teams.

Michigan State upset reveals Ohio State problems were there all along

Saturday’s 17–14 Michigan State victory reset projections for both teams. Mark Dantonio’s squad now has a seemingly clear path to the playoff. Though nothing is guaranteed, the Spartans would have a strong case for inclusion if they finish the season 12–1 with a Big Ten title and wins over Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan and Oregon. The Buckeyes aren’t completely out of the hunt but lost control of their own destiny. Urban Meyer’s squad must beat Michigan next week and hope Penn State upends Michigan State to move Ohio State back to the top of the Big Ten East. A win over Iowa could be enough to propel the Buckeyes back into the top four.

Regardless of how the Big Ten East sorts itself out, the Spartans’ win was a huge boost for every other team on the playoff bubble. Iowa will almost certainly enter the selection committee’s top four this week as one of two remaining unbeaten teams. Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Baylor also benefit as the number of one-loss teams increases and makes their earlier defeats look less damaging.

2. The Big 12’s best playoff shot is … ?

Entering Week 12, Oklahoma State had the clearest path to the playoff of any Big 12 team. If the Cowboys won out, they’d surely end up in the top four. Baylor dashed those hopes, handing Oklahoma State its first loss of the season with a 45–35 decision that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. The Bears dominated the Cowboys offensively, outgaining Mike Gundy’s squad 694–399 despite quarterback Jarrett Stidham (only starting because of Seth Russell’s neck injury) missing the second half with ankle, hand and back injuries. Third-stringer Chris Johnson stepped in to throw for 138 yards and two scores and rush for 42 yards with another touchdown. Baylor ran the ball 73 times on the night for 304 yards while holding Oklahoma State to just eight rushing yards.

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The only team to beat the Bears this season, Oklahoma, kept its playoff hopes alive by narrowly holding off a TCU team playing without its Heisman candidate quarterback, Trevone Boykin, or its Heisman candidate wide receiver, Josh Doctson. After backup Foster Sawyer proved ineffective, third-stringer Bram Kohlhausen rallied the Horned Frogs from a 30–13 deficit, pulling within a point on a 14-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds left. Coach Gary Patterson opted to go for the win with a two-point conversion, but Oklahoma safety Steven Parker leaped to bat down Kohlhausen’s pass at the line. The Sooners also played at less than full strength with Heisman candidate quarterback Baker Mayfield sitting out the second half with a head injury (it’s been a rough year for Big 12 quarterbacks and injuries).

Oklahoma would now seem to be the Big 12’s best playoff shot due to the Sooners’ resounding 44–34 win over Baylor last week. However, if Oklahoma slips up next week in the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State, Baylor could be poised to play its way back into the top four. The Bears looked playoff-worthy Saturday night in their first victory in Stillwater since 1939. That doesn’t erase last week’s impressions, but a booming win over TCU next week and just a bit of chaos in the rest of the Power Five (like a Stanford win over Notre Dame) could boost Baylor into the semifinals.

3. Notre Dame’s grasp on the No. 4 spot is slipping

The Fighting Irish are inside the selection committee’s top four for now, but it may not take a loss for them to drop out. While the other teams fighting for playoff spots are reaching the apex of their conference schedules, Notre Dame has beaten Wake Forest and Boston College over the past two weeks.

And Saturday’s victory over the Golden Eagles wasn’t even a commanding performance. Notre Dame turned the ball over five times, keeping Boston College in the game despite its lackluster offense. The Irish held on for a 19–16 win that required a failed onside kick to be secured. The Eagles converted just two of 13 third downs but hung around thanks to two interceptions and a fumble in the red zone from Notre Dame.

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Iowa will almost certainly leapfrog the Irish in the playoff rankings when they are released Tuesday, and Oklahoma and Michigan State might as well. No team’s playoff résumé is more reliant on style points than Notre Dame’s due to the lack of an opportunity to play in a conference title game or even win a league championship. That makes lackluster, sloppy performances like Saturday’s all the more damaging.

The Irish still have a good shot to make the playoff, especially if the Big 12 cannibalizes itself in the final week. But without that, Brian Kelly’s squad is desperately in need of a convincing win over Stanford next Saturday to remind selection committee members why they had Notre Dame in the top four in the first place.