College football’s biggest Week 12 statements and what they say about the national title picture

The Milwaukee Bucks lost five straight games in February and three straight in both March and April. The Atlanta Braves lost their first four games and didn’t creep over the .500 mark for good until the 113th game of the season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost three of four last November. The Tampa Bay Lightning lost their last three games of the 2020-21 regular season. The Baylor men’s basketball team lost its last game before the NCAA tournament. The Stanford women’s team lost at a mediocre Colorado squad midway through conference play.

Each of these teams still won its respective league championship or national title. Aside from Atlanta, none of these defeats or poor runs appeared to spell doom or wreck title chances; they were just losses. Losses happen.

Only in college football does a loss — particularly one early in the season — get treated with such gravitas, such finality, for such a long period of time. For many, this is one of the unique and glorious aspects of the sport: « Every game matters » and whatnot. But when Ohio State lost to Oregon on Sept. 11, it led us to lying to ourselves about two teams for more than two months.

No matter how the teams had looked since Week 2 — Ohio State dominated enough to briefly move to first in SP+ a few weeks ago, while Oregon cratered at 39th following a dismal loss to Stanford — it appeared to be a legal requirement that the Ducks be ranked one spot ahead of the Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff rankings. (This law didn’t apply to Michigan State’s win over Michigan for some reason, but that’s another story entirely.)

Week 12 was the week we got to stop lying to ourselves. It was also the week when college football’s powers officially got tired of the chaos. Most of the sport’s heavyweights rolled, while some teams with inflated rankings — Oregon (vs. Utah), Michigan State (vs. Ohio State), Wake Forest (vs. Clemson) — got crushed.

Ohio State scored on its first seven drives and led the No. 7 team in the country 49-0 at halftime. Cincinnati went up 48-0 against the best team it has played since beating Notre Dame. Notre Dame scored on every first-half drive against Georgia Tech and threw in a pick-six for good measure on its way to a 55-0 win. Michigan let four different quarterbacks throw passes and shifted down to second gear, but it still scored 59 points in a six-touchdown romp over Maryland. Hell, even Clemson indeed remembered its place in the world on Saturday, walloping Wake by three touchdowns and keeping hopes for a seventh straight ACC Atlantic title alive for a little while longer.

Week 12 was a useful one. It separated wheat from chaff, eliminated some pretenders from the contenders list and clarified the national title picture in some key ways. With only one week to go before Championship Weekend and only two until the postseason pairings are announced, let’s talk both about some of the statements that were made and about where the sport’s top teams stand.

Top 10 Saturday statements

After some wild early results, college football had grown a bit more predictable in recent weeks. In Weeks 9 to 11, only 15% of FBS vs. FBS games provided particularly surprising results, finishing with a scoring margin more than 20 points away from the spread.

In Week 12, however, that number rose to 28%. And while there was one genuine upset in there — Southern Miss beat Louisiana Tech by 16 as a 16.5-point underdog — most of the biggest surprises of the week took the form of either a slight underdog/favorite winning big (Utah over Oregon, UCLA over USC, Wyoming over Utah State, for instance) or a comfortable favorite obliterating an overmatched opponent (Ohio State over Michigan State, Notre Dame over Georgia Tech, Cincinnati over SMU).

It was a week of statements, in other words, and here were the 10 most impressive:

1. No. 4 Ohio State 56, No. 7 Michigan State 7

SP+ had bestowed « as good as Georgia » status on Ohio State a few weeks ago, but for any remaining holdouts, Saturday’s performance sent quite the message. The only thing that kept this score from being even worse was that the Buckeyes didn’t need style points quite as badly as they did, for instance, in 2014, when they beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game.

Against a Michigan State defense that had allowed lots of passing yards this year but primarily in small, bend-don’t-break chunks, C.J. Stroud not only completed 32 of 35 passes but also completed five for 23 yards or more on his way to 432 passing yards and six touchdowns. All three members of the Buckeyes’ amazing receiver trio — Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba — gained at least 105 yards, and all of them got plenty of second-half rest.

In a Heisman Trophy race that was waiting for someone to emerge and seize control, Stroud’s performance was quite the attention-getter:

The only thing that might have prevented Stroud from becoming the odds-on favorite at the moment is Alabama’s Bryce Young going 31-of-40 for 559 yards and five TDs against Arkansas. But this was still quite the statement.

Even more impressive: The Ohio State defense was almost equally dominant. Michigan State’s Payton Thorne completed only 8 of 26 passes for 77 yards in the first half, and Spartans back and Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III’s day ended with just 29 yards on seven combined rushes and receptions. The Michigan State offense is pretty banged up at this point, but so is the Ohio State defense, and the Buckeyes were untouchable all the same.

2. Cincinnati 48, SMU 14

In Friday’s preview column, I pondered whether Cincinnati had begun to struggle in recent weeks or whether the Bearcats had just gotten a bit bored. They seemed to play aggressively only for as long as they needed to, then they took their foot off the gas.

Facing an aggressive and exciting SMU team on Saturday, the Bearcats had to find fifth gear again and stay there for a while. That’s exactly what happened. They forced three-and-outs on seven of SMU’s first eight drives and recovered a fumble on the other. On offense, they scored on a 53-yard bomb from Desmond Ridder to Tyler Scott on their first snap and scored six more touchdowns over their next nine drives. Total yardage: Cincinnati 544 (7.7 per play), SMU 199 (3.5).

It is somewhat poetic that Cincinnati got help from Utah on Saturday; the Utes were unbeaten darlings from non-power conferences in both 2004 and 2008, and while they probably wouldn’t have benefited from the existence of a CFP in those years, their win over Oregon helped out another unbeaten darling. Oregon’s loss puts Cincinnati in position to become the first Group of 5 team to ever hit the top four of the CFP rankings this week. Even if the committee continues to resist — as seems to be its preference — and places Michigan ahead of the Bearcats in fourth, Cincy should still be in top-four position after Michigan plays Ohio State this coming week.

3. No. 8 Notre Dame 55, Georgia Tech 0

It’s hard to figure out what the CFP committee might think of an 11-1 Notre Dame as compared to a 12-1 Big 12 champion, an 11-2 Alabama or even a 13-0 Cincinnati. But here’s what we do know: The Fighting Irish have looked pretty damn awesome of late. They’ve won their past five games by an average of 38-12, and they absolutely squashed Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon.

The Irish began the game with a 51-yard kickoff return from Chris Tyree and a 38-yard pass from Jack Coan to Kevin Austin; and just nine snaps into the game, they led 10-0 after a 43-yard pick-six by linebacker Jack Kiser. It was 38-0 by the midway point of the second quarter, and as with Ohio State, the only reason the game finished at merely 55-0 is that the Irish showed mercy; they didn’t score over the game’s final 19:50.

The Irish are now up to ninth in SP+, and they’re one of only five teams to rank in the top 20 in both offense (20th) and defense (13th). The run game was an issue early in the season, but it has grown dominant, and the big-play problems that afflicted the team in the first couple of games have long since disappeared. Whether this is a playoff team or merely a soon-to-be favorite in a New Year’s Six bowl, Notre Dame is fantastic at the moment.

4. No. 9 Oklahoma State 23, Texas Tech 0

The Oklahoma State offense remains frustrating at times, a little too willing to grind out stagnant periods knowing that its defense is good enough that it doesn’t make a difference. But … the defense is good enough that it doesn’t make a difference! The Pokes allowed 108 total yards to Texas Tech on Saturday night in Lubbock. One hundred and eight! The Red Raiders — who have topped 500 yards four times this year — didn’t hit triple digits until the final five minutes of the game.



Spencer Sanders throws for one touchdown and runs for another as he helps Oklahoma State put together a 23-0 win over Texas Tech.

Jim Knowles’ Cowboys defense jumped to 18th in defensive SP+ last season, and it has spent much of this season around 10th. The Cowboys are now sixth. Over their past four contests, they’ve allowed 5.8 points per game and 3.3 yards per play. They stuff your run, sack your passer and play some of the most physical pass coverage in the country. They are a little reliant on the whims of officials in that regard — in their past four games, they’ve been flagged one, seven, one and nine times — but if they eke out a playoff bid, they will be an absolute pain in the butt to eliminate.

5. No. 6 Michigan 59, Maryland 18

In his seven seasons at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh has engineered four 10-win seasons; the Wolverines had managed just two in the 11 years before his arrival. After a dismal 2-4 campaign in 2020, he made key changes, both on his coaching staff and at quarterback, and things have clicked into place beautifully. Following Saturday’s destruction of the Terrapins, Michigan is 10-1 and fourth overall in SP+.

The Wolverines’ problem, however, is the same one that has loomed over the program since Harbaugh’s arrival: Their chief rivals to the south are on a different plane of greatness. When Michigan went 10-3 in 2015, 2016 and 2018, Ohio State went 12-1, 11-2 and 13-1, respectively. Harbaugh has yet to beat the Buckeyes, and Michigan itself has done so only once since 2003. While U-M is fourth in SP+, the Buckeyes are basically tied for first, more than eight points better than the Wolverines. By almost any standard, Harbaugh has done quite well in Ann Arbor, and he has engineered a wonderful rebound. But unless Michigan upsets the Buckeyes on Saturday, the narrative will remain about what he hasn’t done as much as what he has.

6. No. 23 Utah 38, No. 3 Oregon 7

Like plenty of teams through the years, it appears Utah began the season with the wrong quarterback in the lineup. Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer won the job to start the year but managed just a 117.2 passer rating, and Utah lost to both BYU and San Diego State in a 1-2 start.

Since Cam Rising took over behind center, the Utes are 7-1. He has made contributions to a dynamite run game, and he has thrown only two interceptions. Utah is 21st in SP+, but if you look only at Rising’s starts, it rises to 14th. The Utes were leaps and bounds ahead of a supposed national title contender Saturday night in Salt Lake City. They dominated Oregon on offense, defense and special teams, raced to a 28-0 halftime lead and played ball control all second half. Oregon will get another shot at the Utes in the Pac-12 championship game if the Ducks handle their business against rival Oregon State this coming week, but the Ducks would then be playing for a Rose Bowl bid now, not a playoff bid.

7. Clemson 48, No. 10 Wake Forest 27

After such a ghastly start to 2021, Clemson’s offense had seemingly begun to find its footing. But it was fair to wonder if the Tigers had enough firepower to keep up against a Wake Forest team explosive enough to score 20-plus on even Clemson’s elite defense.

They did. D.J. Uiagalelei needed only 19 passes to top 200 yards, and Kobe Pace and Will Shipley combined for 303 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After averaging 6.7 yards per play in 2020, they topped that for the first time all year, averaging 7.3 yards against the Deacs.

Obviously, the 8-3 Tigers were long ago eliminated from the CFP race, and they have only a scant shot at a seventh straight ACC Atlantic title. But the second half of this season was about Clemson reestablishing an offensive rhythm, and it appears that might have officially happened.

8. UCLA 62, USC 33

It’s been an odd year for Chip Kelly’s Bruins. They began with a statement win over LSU then fell to Fresno State. They won three of four to put themselves in solid position in the Pac-12 South race then lost to both Oregon and Utah and trailed Colorado 20-10 at halftime last week.

They then proceeded to score a combined 96 points on Colorado and USC over the course of six quarters. The Bruins rolled to an easy win over the Buffs, and after throwing interceptions on his first two passes against USC, the forever-enigmatic Dorian Thompson-Robinson finished the game 16-of-20 for 349 yards and four scores. It’s too late to make a South division run, but the Bruins could still finish with nine wins after earning just 10 in Kelly’s first three seasons combined.

9. Tie: Louisiana 42, Liberty 14 and Appalachian State 45, Troy 7

Three Sun Belt teams entered 2021 with top-25 aspirations, and the race ended up unfolding tortoise-versus-hare style. Coastal Carolina bolted to 7-0 and topped out at 14th in the AP poll, while Louisiana got stomped by Texas in Week 1 and Appalachian State began the year a mere 4-2.

Since App State’s 30-27 upset of Coastal, however, the dynamics have shifted. The Mountaineers have won their past four games by an average score of 46-14, and Louisiana has won its past six by an average of 35-15. On Saturday, both teams had complete, top-25 level performances — App against a decent Troy team and Louisiana on the road against a good Liberty club. These teams will play each other for the Sun Belt title for the third time in four years, and it appears they’ve both rounded into form at the perfect time.

10. Miami 38, Virginia Tech 26

This one was a different kind of statement. Both Miami’s Manny Diaz and Florida’s Dan Mullen were likely coaching for their jobs on Saturday.

Mullen made the most conservative choices imaginable at Missouri: punting on fourth-and-inches; attempting a field goal on fourth-and-2; and after getting the ball with more than a minute left in regulation, electing to simply send the game to overtime instead of trying to move 30 to 35 yards into field goal range. Mullen’s Gators lost in said overtime, and he was fired on Sunday.

Diaz’s Hurricanes, meanwhile, threw haymakers. Tyler Van Dyke completed passes of 32, 39, 55 and 75 yards (and had a 72-yard touchdown negated by penalty), and Miami converted a fourth-and-1 in its own territory to start the fourth quarter. This is a flawed, sloppy and young team, and Diaz still has more work to do to save his job, but going out and seizing the game worked on Saturday. Maybe Mullen should have tried it.

The hypothetical hierarchy

With Statement Saturday in the books, how do things stand in the CFP race? Let’s look at the hypothetical teams and their résumés that might exist two weeks from now and where they might stand in the playoff pecking order. Here’s my best guess:

1. 13-0 Georgia (SEC champion)

2. 12-1 Alabama (SEC champion)

Georgia and Alabama have been the top two teams in each set of playoff rankings thus far, and while there’s a chance the Crimson Tide could fall behind Ohio State after the way each team played this past Saturday, hypothetical wins over Auburn and Georgia would almost certainly bump them to the top spot. If Ohio State beats both Michigan and the Big Ten West champion by huge margins, we’ll talk.

Odds of each team’s existence, based on SP+ projections: 13-0 Georgia 59%, 12-1 Alabama 30%

3. 12-1 Big Ten champion (Ohio State or Michigan)

4. 12-1 Georgia

This one is still open to negotiation, but it still feels pretty straightforward: If Georgia wins out, the Dawgs are the No. 1 seed; and if they don’t, and Alabama is 12-1 and seeded first, UGA would play a one-loss Big Ten champ in the semis.

Odds of each team’s existence, per SP+: 12-1 Ohio State 46%, 12-1 Georgia 38%, 12-1 Michigan 20%

Now here’s where things get blurry. What would the CFP committee do with an Alabama team that loses to Auburn then beats Georgia? Would a late strength of schedule boost be enough for a 12-1 Big 12 champion to leapfrog an 11-1 Notre Dame? Would said Big 12 winner hop a 13-0 Cincinnati team too? Again, here’s my best guess:

5. 13-0 Cincinnati (AAC champion)

6. 12-1 Big 12 champion (Oklahoma or Oklahoma State)

7. 11-2 Alabama (SEC champion)

8. 11-1 Notre Dame

The way the committee has proved willing to overlook losses in the name of big wins (case in point: Alabama becoming the first one-loss team to rank second in the initial CFP rankings this year) leads me to believe that the Crimson Tide might still have a shot at landing in the top four if they fall to Auburn but then upset No. 1 Georgia in Atlanta. They would be the first two-loss team to make it into the playoff, but two-loss Auburn would have made it in 2017 had they won the SEC.

That said, the 2017 Auburn team had two quality losses, and Bama would have lost to what is currently a 6-5 Auburn team. We’ll say this unlikely 11-2 Bama squad would still end up behind a 13-0 Cincinnati and a 12-1 Big 12 champion, at the very least, but any arrangement of these four teams wouldn’t be a total surprise.

Odds of each team’s existence, per SP+: 11-1 Notre Dame 92%, 13-0 Cincinnati 66%, 12-1 Oklahoma State 27%, 12-1 Oklahoma 26%, 11-2 Alabama 9%

9. 11-2 Alabama

10. 11-2 Iowa (Big Ten champ)

11. 11-2 Big 12 champion (Oklahoma State or Baylor)

12. A two-loss Big Ten non-champ

We’ll call these the fail-safes. If everything falls apart — if Cincinnati loses to Houston in the AAC championship game; if a two-loss team wins the Big 12; if Notre Dame loses to Stanford; if the Big Ten race gives us a surprise or two — some arrangement of these teams could still get in.

If what we saw Saturday is any indication, however, we’re through with that level of chaos for 2021. The bullies have become bullies again.

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