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College Football Roundup: Playoff Picture Starting To Come Into View After Week 13

Week 13 action has narrowed the College Football Playoff picture, which still includes Notre Dame

Rivalry week did not disappoint, as fights in the tunnel and fans storming the field provided plenty of color to the drama that took place between the lines. The College Football Playoff picture gained clarity as Michigan and Oklahoma State took giant steps forward at the expense of their respective archrivals Ohio State and Oklahoma, while Georgia, Cincinnati, and Alabama held serve. Waiting in the wings is Notre Dame, should there be chaos on championship weekend.

With that being said, onto the week 13 action.

MICHIGAN 45 OHIO STATE 27

Jim Harbaugh earned the biggest win of his Michigan career with a 45-27 trouncing of Ohio State to give Michigan the Big Ten East crown and send them to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. Michigan absolutely whipped the Buckeyes at the line of scrimmage, rushing for 297 yards on 7.2 YPC while not allowing a single tackle for loss.

On the other side of the ball, DE Aidan Hutchinson had three sacks to headline a Michigan defense that racked up four sacks and eight TFLs. Whether it was the snowy weather or aggressive Wolverine defensive game plan, Ohio State never seemed to settle into the game on offense. The Buckeyes may have gained 458 total yards but were completely one-dimensional and an over-reliance on the pass played right into Michigan’s pass rushing strength.

While Michigan controls its own destiny for a CFP berth, it’s back to the drawing board for Ohio State coach Ryan Day. The Buckeyes have loads of talent and explosiveness at the skill positions – and that isn’t going to change any time soon – but Day needs to figure out how to make Ohio State a more physical football team on the line of scrimmage. In their losses to Oregon and Michigan this year, the Buckeyes gave up an average of 283 yards on the ground, had no sacks and just a single tackle for loss, allowed a 54% third-down conversion success rate, and offensively ran for only 81 YPG.

OKLAHOMA STATE 37 OKLAHOMA 33

Oklahoma State earned what may be the biggest win in school history by knocking off archrival Oklahoma in the annual Bedlam game – perhaps the last in Stillwater with Oklahoma leaving for the greener pastures of the SEC. The Cowboys overcame a 33-24 second half deficit, three turnovers, and over ten minutes less time of possession on the strength of their defense. Oklahoma did not score an offensive point in the second half and went only 5-18 on third down. The Sooners were also penalized twelve times.

Officiating will be a topic of conversation in Oklahoma bars this offseason, as there were multiple close calls that went against the Sooners, including no-calls on a late hit and pass interference penalties on Oklahoma’s final drive. However, the difference in the game came down to Oklahoma State’s ferocious pass rush, which generated six sacks, nine TFLs, and six QB hurries. Caleb Williams showed off his talent – but also his inexperience – as the Sooners were unable to get much going in the second half as Williams was unable to get comfortable in the pocket.

With the win, Oklahoma State is well-positioned to jump Notre Dame and get a CFP berth should the Cowboys beat Baylor in the Big 12 Championship next weekend.

ALABAMA 24 AUBURN 22

Leading 10-3 with the ball and just 1:47 remaining, Auburn RB Tank Bigsby ran out of bounds on a second down run, stopping the clock, and allowing the Crimson Tide to get the ball back with 1:35 remaining, as opposed to about 40 seconds. What happened next is either the stuff of legends or the result of a questionable defensive strategy, depending on what side the Iron Bowl you are on. With no timeouts remaining, QB Bryce Young led Alabama on a 12-play, 97-yard drive to tie the game, and then four overtimes later, Alabama eked out a 24-22 victory on penalty kicks – err, two-point conversions.

The Tide live to fight another day, and now move onto Atlanta to take on Georgia in one of the most highly anticipated SEC Championship games in recent memory. Alabama still controls its own destiny for the CFP but has shown its vulnerability in November in close wins over LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn. Most concerning for the Tide is the inability to run the ball. In three November SEC games, Alabama has only averaged 63 yards rushing per game on just 1.9 YPC. Young is a special talent, but against a defense like Georgia’s, Alabama cannot be one-dimensional, as the Dawgs are third in the nation in rush defense and second in the nation in pass defense, allowing only 78.9 YPG and 150.8 YPG, respectively.

McDONOUGH’S MUSINGS

  • Once the Iron Bowl got to overtime Auburn should have gone for the win with a two-point conversion at the end of the first overtime. The Tigers had scored on an incredible catch from TE Landen King to cut the deficit to 17-16, but rather than go for the win, Bryan Harsin decided to kick the tying extra point and take his chances against Alabama in subsequent overtimes, where they ultimately fell short. Harsin has to realize that his team had punched above their weight all day and the Tide had grabbed the momentum with the 97-yard touchdown drive to send the game to overtime. It’s hard to understand why he felt that his offense – which was led by a backup QB who could barely walk – would be able to outlast Alabama’s offense as the game went on. Also, as we saw during the third overtime, Auburn had a well-designed two-point play that worked for a score. As a massive underdog, you need to be aggressive and push your chips to the middle of the table in that situation.
  • Though there are certainly arguments on both sides, I think this year makes a great case for playoff expansion. The field will be whittled to four teams next weekend, but there are multiple teams who will be left out who would have the talent to win it all in an expanded field. For instance, would anyone want to play Alabama when Nick Saban has a month to prepare? And what about Ohio State, who has shown the highest ceiling of any team this season? The Notre Dame defense has been dominant in November and would present major problems for most teams in the nation. What about Ole Miss, after a month to get healthy and for Lane Kiffin to design an offensive game plan? While it is the committee’s job to select the most-deserving teams (and I’m not arguing against that), my point is that in contrast to previous years where there have been one or two clear-cut top teams, the field feels wide open this year. Even as dominant as Georgia has been, Georgia does not possess the same offensive explosiveness as champions of the past five seasons and it is way too premature to crown the Dawgs as champions.
  • For those who argue that an expanded playoff would dilute the importance of the regular season, I have two counterarguments. First, with either a first-round bye or home-field advantage tied to being a high seed, regular season success is still essential. Alabama’s win over Auburn would be the difference between the Tide getting a bye or hosting a playoff game – or traveling to north of the Mason-Dixon line in December. Second, this makes the regular season more important for an even wider subsection of teams. With the current system, a single loss puts most teams on the outside of playoff discussions, while a second loss renders the rest of the season meaningless (when it comes to winning a championship). But, with an expanded playoff, those teams would still be alive. Take this year’s Egg Bowl for example. Ole Miss won the game, but the only thing it mattered for was bragging rights. Even though Ole Miss is in the top-ten, they cannot play for the SEC Championship and won’t be in the CFP. With an expanded playoff, so much more would be on the line.
  • It is worth celebrating the increased parity in college football this season. In conversations with a number of people before the season, I picked up on a sense of defeatism, because at the end of the day, their assumption was that the playoff would probably be Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and “insert fourth team here”. However, should the favorites all win next week, the CFP field would likely consist of Georgia, Michigan, Cincinnati, and either Oklahoma State or Notre Dame. Though blue bloods are represented, there is still an infusion of new blood – and even Georgia and Michigan have only one playoff berth between them. This is great for the sport and proves a fitting end to one of the most unpredictable college football seasons in recent memory.
  • The incredible, 97-yard touchdown drive to tie the Iron Bowl coupled with Ohio State’s loss to Michigan means barring a complete meltdown against the Georgia defense, the Heisman Trophy is Alabama QB Bryce Young’s to lose. Young was my frontrunner in this column last week, and nothing that happened this weekend changed that. Young would join Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry, and DeVonta Smith in the Alabama Heisman fraternity.

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  • With conference championships set for next weekend, let’s look at the four conference championship games that will impact the CFP race.
  • #8 Baylor vs. #7 Oklahoma State
    • Time and Network: 12 PM ET, ABC
    • Spread: Oklahoma State -6.5
    • Key Question: Can Oklahoma State rack up another top-ten win and crash the College Football Playoff?
    • Matchup to watch: Baylor rushing offense vs. Oklahoma State rushing defense. The Bears rank first in the Big 12 in rushing with 227.9 YPG, while the Cowboys are first in the Big 12 in rush defense, allowing only 93.6 YPG.
    • Prediction: Oklahoma State 27 Baylor 20
  • #1 Georgia vs. #3 Alabama (Atlanta)
    • Time and Network: 4 PM ET, CBS
    • Spread: Georgia -6.5
    • Key Question: Can Alabama be the first team to challenge Georgia this season?
    • Matchup to watch: Alabama’s offensive line vs. Georgia’s defensive line. The Tide rank 12th in the SEC, allowing 2.92 sacks per game, while Georgia’s defense ranks second in the conference with 3.42 sacks per game.
    • Prediction: Georgia 28 Alabama 17
  • #24 Houston vs. #4 Cincinnati (Cincinnati)
    • Time and Network: 4 PM ET, ABC
    • Spread: Cincinnati -10.5
    • Key Storyline: Can Cincinnati become the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff?
    • Matchup to watch: Houston’s defense vs. Cincinnati’s offense on third-down. The Bearcats lead the conference converting 43.8% of third-down conversions, but the Cougars are also first in the American, only allowing a paltry 26.8% of third-down conversions.
    • Prediction: Houston 33 Cincinnati 30
  • #5 Michigan vs. #16 Iowa (Indianapolis)
    • Time and Network: 8 PM ET, FOX
    • Spread: Michigan -10.5
    • Key Storyline: Will there be any letdown after Michigan’s massive victory over Ohio State?
    • Matchup to watch: Iowa’s secondary vs. Michigan QB Cade McNamara. Iowa will focus on taking away the run and forcing McNamara to beat them. McNamara has been great in November, but Iowa leads the nation with 22 interceptions. For the Hawkeyes to have a chance, they need to forced turnovers.
    • Prediction: Michigan 16 Iowa 13

BIGGEST WINNERS OF THE WEEKEND

  • Michigan – The Wolverines exorcised some scarlet and gray demons with the 45-27 victory over the Buckeyes – their first in the rivalry since 2011. Michigan was the better and more physical team throughout the game and will play for its first Big Ten Championship under Jim Harbaugh, who now has as many conference championship game appearances as independent Notre Dame.
  • Oklahoma State – Though Bedlam is undoubtedly a fierce rivalry, it is perhaps the most historically one-sided of all major rivalries, with Oklahoma holding a 90-18-7 advantage over Oklahoma State entering Saturday’s game. That script was flipped on its head with Oklahoma State’s 37-33 comeback victory. The Cowboys held the Sooners without an offensive point in the second half – proving that some schools still play defense in the Big 12 – and are now one win away from a possible CFP berth.
  • Iowa – The Hawkeyes used a blocked punt and safety (along with being the beneficiary of whatever Scott Frost did to anger the football gods) to score the final 22 points and knock off Nebraska 28-21 on Friday, securing a double-digit win season. Then, they got to watch Wisconsin get upset by Minnesota, sending Iowa to the Big Ten Championship.
  • Wake Forest – Fresh off a disappointing loss to Clemson, Wake Forest needed to knock off Boston College to secure its spot in the ACC Championship game. There was no hangover from the loss to Clemson, as the Demon Deacons raced out to a 24-10 halftime lead before outscoring the Eagles 17-0 in the second half. The most positive development was the performance of the Wake Forest defense, as after giving up 49.3 PPG the past three weeks, they held BC to just 10 points and just 19 yards passing. Wake Forest will have a chance to win its first ACC Championship since 2006 next weekend against Pitt.
  • Oregon and Michigan State – The Ducks and Spartans suffered humiliating losses last weekend, but both teams responded with physical victories over rivals on Saturday. Oregon controlled the entire game against an improving Oregon State team to come away with a 38-29 victory, and Michigan State jumped out to an early lead and then held on to defeat Penn State 30-27 in snowy East Lansing. Oregon has a chance to avenge its loss against Utah and capture the Pac-12 title next weekend, while Michigan State can still go to a New Years’ Six bowl if Michigan defeats Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.

BIGGEST LOSERS OF THE WEEKEND

  • Alabama – Though the Tide managed to pull out an epic victory in the Iron Bowl, any illusions of Alabama making the playoff after a loss to Georgia next weekend have ended. The Tide have been unimpressive in November, with close victories over LSU, Arkansas, and now Auburn to go with the blowout win over New Mexico State. Try as ESPN may, there is no argument for Alabama to the CFP as one of the “four best teams” if the Tide lose to Georgia. Alabama will need to beat Georgia to make the playoff.
  • UTSA – The dream of an undefeated season came to an end in a disappointing 45-23 loss to North Texas. UTSA still has a chance to capture the Conference USA championship for the first time, but even with a victory, the Roadrunners will only be playing in a lower-tier bowl.
  • Nebraska – I never thought I would end up writing so much about a 3-9 team in this column throughout the year but observing Nebraska’s 2021 season has been like watching a car wreck, and on Friday, the Huskers blew another late lead to lose 28-21 to Iowa. The Huskers set a record in futility, becoming the first team in college football history to lose nine games by single digits. Furthermore, despite a 1-8 record in the Big Ten, Nebraska had an even point differential (as they beat Northwestern 56-7 in their only win). Scott Frost will be back with an overhauled coaching staff and may have something in freshman QB Logan Smothers, who played well against a strong Iowa defense.
  • Notre Dame – The Fighting Irish earned a 45-14 victory over Stanford – which has not been an easy place for Notre Dame to play in recent seasons – but Notre Dame did not get the help it needed Saturday to get into the playoff. Cincinnati used big special teams plays to dismiss East Carolina on Friday, and then on Saturday, Auburn blew the game against Alabama, keeping the Crimson Tide alive. Then in primetime, Oklahoma squandered a 33-24 second half lead against Oklahoma State, giving the Cowboys a quality win to jump the Irish (which they have already done in the AP and Coaches’ polls). Perhaps most damagingly, Wisconsin lost to Minnesota and no team ranked between 20th to 25th in the CFP rankings lost, meaning it is unlikely Purdue will be ranked this week. This means that Notre Dame could have zero wins over ranked opponents if Wisconsin falls out of the top-25. The door is still open for Notre Dame to make the CFP, but what could have been an incredible weekend for its chances did not materialize. The Irish need some things to break their way next weekend.
  • Wisconsin – The path was simple. All the Badgers had to do was beat Minnesota and then they would have a chance to rematch with Michigan in the Big Ten Championship. Instead, the Badgers were outscored 17-3 in the second half and lost 23-13. The Gophers limited RB Braelon Allen to just 47 yards rushing and forced QB Graham Mertz to beat them with his arm. Mertz averaged only 4.5 yards per attempt and was incapable of pushing the ball down the field. Paul Chryst will need to find a way to improve the offense in the offseason, as Wisconsin went just 8-4 despite having the #1 rushing defense, #2 total defense, and #5 scoring defense in the country.

FULL CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE

  • Conference USA - Western Kentucky vs. #22 UTSA (San Antonio), Friday
  • Pac-12 - #11 Oregon vs. #19 Utah (Las Vegas), Friday
  • Big 12 - #8 Baylor vs. #7 Oklahoma State (Dallas)
  • Mountain West - Utah State vs. #21 San Diego State (Carson, CA)
  • SEC - #1 Georgia vs. #3 Alabama (Atlanta)
  • American - #24 Houston vs. #4 Cincinnati (Cincinnati)
  • Big Ten - #5 Michigan vs. #16 Iowa (Indianapolis)
  • ACC - #17 Pittsburgh vs. #18 Wake Forest (Charlotte)