Auerbach’s Top 10: What did we learn from a close college football Saturday?
Survive and advance. That was the theme of Week 12 in college football as the nation’s top four teams faltered but remained undefeated… No. 5 Tennessee lost on the road at South Carolina, a result that officially eliminates the Vols from College Football Playoff contention. I USC came – this time for real.
The penultimate weekend of the regular season brought drama, joy and heartbreak. And it’s time to analyze all three to determine the impact on the nation’s top teams.
Every Saturday night during the college football season, I will be ranking the top 10 teams in the country. The order will fluctuate each week depending on new results, player availability and anything else that affects this chaotic sport. Last place each week will go to the team that can’t actually to be the 10th best team in the country but still deserves some shine.
The Bulldogs cruised to a 16-6 victory at Kentucky in which they struggled through the air and settled for field goals at the end of all three of their first halves. Georgia allowed a 99-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter Kentucky threatened to make it a game. After the Wildcats missed a field goal and failed to convert a fourth down on their final two drives, the Bulldogs pulled off an ugly win…it’s still a win. The defending champions will be eager to take it on a day that has been a risky one for a group of top teams.
The parties 43-30 win vs Maryland had a remarkably similar game to their last trip to College Park in 2018. Judging by the records of the two teams, it was much closer than it should have been. In spurts, Maryland looked like a world leader, but in the final minutes it was in for grief. All Ohio State had to do was hang on and put the game away at the end.
A last-minute Big Ten East clash stunned Saturday’s 13-point game and confounded the final margin of 13 points. CJ Stroud threw for 241 yards and a touchdown, but the star of Ohio State’s offense was the freshman running back Dalan Hayden, who carried the ball 27 times for 146 yards and three touchdowns. Haden has appeared in the last two games as the Buckeyes’ rushing attack has dealt with injuries, and the depth he provides could make a big difference next weekend vs. Michigan. At least that makes Hayden one of the next great running backs in Columbus. Safety Latham Ransom came up big again as a special teams contributor, blocking a punt for the second straight game.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a victory. Ohio State contributed to the largest Ohio State-Michigan game since 2006.
3. Michigan (11-0)
It wasn’t pretty in Ann Arbor either, where the Wolverines are won against Illinois 19-17 thanks to a 35-yard field goal Jake Moody nine seconds left. Michigan is fortunate to have one of the best kickers in the country because the Wolverines probably settled for more field goals than they should have. They needed field goals on Saturday because they couldn’t rely on the run after the Heisman Trophy contender’s apparent knee injury Blake’s Choir in the first floor. The Wolverines offense still leaves a lot to be desired and should be a major concern heading into next week’s matchup against a much improved Ohio State defense.
After the game, Jim Harbaugh said Corum was cleared to return to the game (he played one snap in the second half) and that he had no structural issues. Harbaugh also said he expects others who are hurt to be ready to play for the Buckeyes, too, because it’s a game. It will also be for a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game and an actual College Football Playoff game.
4. TCU (11-0)
We wondered aloud if – if maybe if – The TCU magic would end. Well, time to put that conversation off for another day, because it’s still working. The Horned Frogs staged their most dramatic comeback in a season full of them to remain undefeated, kicker Griffin Cal made a 40-yard field goal as time expired to beat Baylor 29-28.
There is undoubtedly something special about this team led by an extremely consistent defender Max Dagan, who deserves at least a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. The Horned Frogs’ path to the CFP is crystal clear: win and they’re in. I don’t think TCU can survive a loss at this point, either to a sub-.500 Iowa team next weekend or in the Big 12 title game. But the undefeated Power 5 champion will unquestionably advance the four-team field.
My best advice to Horned Frogs (who definitely aren’t asking for it)? Bottle that magic and sell it alongside lottery tickets in stores across the country. Or throw it out, use it all up, win two more games and see how far this thing can go.
5. USC (10-1)
The Trojans pulled off a landmark victory with a thrilling 48-45 win UCLA in front of 70,000-plus at the Rose Bowl, and quarterback Caleb Williams likely cemented himself as a Heisman Trophy finalist with two weeks left in the race, with 502 yards of offense and three touchdowns on the national stage.
I moved the one-loss Trojans up a few spots and ahead of the two-loss Trojans LDU, both teams now have a pair of top-25 wins. The tigers the best wins over the good, but with flaws Alabama and an Be Miss the team, now in freefall, looked better then than it does now.
USC’s defense is definitely suspect. I don’t believe that. Gave 45 points in spite of forcing four revolutions. It’s really, really hard to do! Although Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma teams were good enough offensively to win the regular season games needed to build a strong playoff resume, the defense doomed the game Earlier once they got to the CFP. I feel the same way about Riley’s first USC team. If the Trojans win, they will add two more wins to their resume: vs Mother of God and a likely top-15 opponent in the Pac-12 championship game.
There are still discussions and scenarios to consider, but the Trojans will be on the field with the Pac-12 title. The system isn’t set up to rule out a one-loss Power 5 champion with potentially four top-25 wins and one loss to a ranked team on the road.
6. LSU (9-2)
The Tigers avoided the drama that befell their top 10 peers this weekend with a 41-10 win UAB at home on Saturday evening. LSU’s defense allowed a touchdown on a short field on UAB’s first possession and a field goal on its second before essentially shutting things down. LSU racked up 565 yards of offense, converted 11 of 13 third downs and generally ran the game.
LSU’s resume could look very different by the end of the season: its home loss Tennessee won’t be tempered by the fact that the Vols have made it into the top four, and a win over Ole Miss is quickly depreciating. Good news for the Tigers? None of that really matters because they should be a lock for the CFP if they win out. In a situation like this, nobody in the country will have a better win than a win over Georgia on a neutral court. That’s how a two-loss team will make its way into a four-team CFP field for the first time.
7. Clemson (10-1)
The Tigers continue to lurk, teetering slightly off the pace but still very much alive in the College Football Playoff race. Clemson knows it will be in a decent situation if it wins out, and several teams ahead of it will still be in contention before the final rankings are released. A loss to Tennessee on Saturday night takes another strong one-loss hope out of the mix.
The Tigers are crushed Miami 40-10 in a game that was over almost as soon as it started. DJ Uiagalelei and company scored on three of their first four offensive drives, which matched pretty well with Miami’s first four drives: three three-and-outs and an interception. Clemson has been playing pretty well since losing to Notre Dame in early November, and I’ll be interested to see a visit next weekend from a South Carolina team that just knocked Tennessee off the rankings.
8. Alabama (9-2)
On a day filled with close calls, it was good to be in Alabama, which posted a 34-0 win against FCS program Austin Peay. SEC teams that schedule a softer Saturday before a competitive weekend tend to thank themselves later, and here’s why. The Tide didn’t have to worry about a trap game before the Iron Bowl, faced little resistance and rested Bryce Young for most of the fourth quarter.
The Ducks lost two games under Dan Lanning, and each time we learned quite a bit about them from their responses. After a lopsided loss to Georgia in Week 1, they’ve won eight straight, scoring more than 40 points in each game. And after the emotional loss of home Washington last week, they combined the impetuous speech with a bang Because Nix with a strong defensive effort in a 20-17 win vs Utah. Nix battled all night, throwing for 287 yards and a touchdown and making up for his only big mistake — a fourth-quarter interception — with a fake pass and a run for a third-down conversion to ice the game.
The Ducks will advance to the Pac-12 Championship with a win vs State of Oregon or the loss of Washington Washington State Next week. They may not be contending for a CFP berth, but they’re still playing quite a bit in Lanning’s first season — and maybe they’re doing enough to get the Knicks, Chestnut transfer to New York.
10. Mother of God (8-3)
Congratulations to the Fighting Irish for theirs a brilliant 44-0 victory against Boston College and more importantly, to establish himself as a “quality loss” for various top teams. We’ve come full circle with this preseason top-10 team that hit rock bottom with a loss Marshal and Stanford and seems pretty decent now.
Boston College is in the midst of a terrible season, but the Irish still showed some grit, bolstered by three interceptions from the freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison. Notre Dame committed five turnovers and scored on its first eight possessions, a simple formula for success. Marcus Freeman has talked a lot about Notre Dame playing by the standard, not the opponent, and this was a good example of that vision becoming a reality.
The Irish went a very respectable 8-3 against top-10 USC in the season finale, but their impact on the CFP race extends far beyond that, now that they’re all but established as a top-20 team. They are an acceptable loss for Clemson, nothing that drags the Tigers’ resume down too much. They were the top 20 wins for Ohio State, increasing the Buckeyes’ tally to a top-four finish. And they could also be a potential win for the Trojans next week. It’s a strange place for a program that would like to be in CFP contention itself, but it’s a sign that Notre Dame has returned to respectability — and then some — in an eventful 1st year for Freeman.
(Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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