Alabama not a CFP lock, the Pac-12’s misfortune and more takeaways

No. 1 Georgia made light work of FCS’ Charleston Southern with a 56-7 victory. Meanwhile, Ohio State treated a top-10 Michigan State team like an FCS club, beating the Spartans by the same score.

Week 12 of the college football season gave us Heisman moments, stunning upsets and big plays to set up what is sure to be a wild rivalry week.

Our reporters put the past week into perspective.

The Pac-12 strikes out … again

For the fifth straight season, the so-called Conference of Champions will miss out on not just the championship, but even simply the opportunity to have one of its teams play itself into a title game. After Utah exposed an Oregon team that had struggled to look dominant in recent weeks, the conference’s only hope for a ticket to the playoff evaporated in unceremonious fashion. So, what now?

Though Ducks coach Mario Cristobal made sure to emphasize that Oregon still has plenty to play for, the clear disappointment brings with it a harsh reality: As good as the Ducks have recruited and played in recent years, the Pac-12 is still not up to par with the top teams in the country. What could have been construed as depth in recent years has turned into mediocrity across the board. Teams hovering around .500 continue to beat each other not because they’re all good, but because not a single one of them is great.

Oregon has clearly been the best team in the conference the past few years, but its ceiling still feels capped. It’s why all eyes this offseason turn to USC, which is set to have its sixth head coach (interim or full time) since Pete Carroll left.

Between its location, player name, image and likeness opportunities, history and name brand, USC still carries unrivaled potential compared to its conference peers. It can, and should, be a recruiting force — not just in California — that should, in turn, outfit a roster capable of beating SEC and Big Ten powerhouses. Tapping into that potential has been a problem, to say the least, but with the right hire, the Trojans could jolt their program and the conference in the process. It’s safe to say that they both need each other.

Sure, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff’s quickest path to a playoff berth is to push the long-awaited expansion of the playoff system, which seems all but done. But a change in structure might only shift the conversation, not fix the problem. Soon, the issue for the conference won’t be making the playoff, but winning it. — Paolo Uggetti

Alabama isn’t a playoff lock

The common refrain on the current state of the College Football Playoff seems to be this: Georgia is in. Alabama will get in. The winner of Ohio State and Michigan will get in. The final spot belongs to Oklahoma or Oklahoma State or Cincinnati (or, perhaps, Notre Dame) depending on how these final games shake out.

It makes sense, given the committee’s rankings these past few weeks, but there’s one big crimson elephant in the room that we might not be talking about enough: Alabama.

Are we certain the Tide are a surefire playoff team?

Don’t take this as a serious indictment of Alabama. Men don’t slight Nick Saban and live to talk about it. Doubting the Tide is a recipe for disaster. But this isn’t about analyzing the actual talent in Tuscaloosa. It’s about examining the playoff realities on the horizon.

First, Alabama’s résumé is good (convincing wins over Ole Miss and Mississippi State, both ranked, as well as Miami, Tennessee and Arkansas). But that résumé also includes a loss to a Texas A&M that was reeling (and unranked) at the time and still has three Ls in the standings. A&M has failed to exceed 22 points in five different games this year, but it hung 41 on Alabama — the second-highest mark of the season vs. an FBS foe. And Alabama has that ugly win over Florida that looks far worse in retrospect. It was lucky to escape an LSU team that had already largely given up on its season.

On Saturday, there was yet another near miss against Arkansas, with the Tide saved only by the heroics of their Heisman-candidate QB, Bryce Young. There have been games when the Tide’s defense struggled and games when the O-line looked light and games when the running backs found little room to roam — all of which is par for the course during almost any team’s season. It’s just unique at a place like Alabama.

Again, this isn’t to shred the Tide’s résumé. But if we’re going to nitpick Cincinnati, turnabout is fair play.

But there’s a bigger hurdle here, too: the future. There’s the Iron Bowl, which certainly looks like an easy win for the Tide, but strange things have happened in this game before. Then there’s the SEC championship game, where a date with No. 1 Georgia could easily hand the Tide a second loss.

No two-loss team has ever made the College Football Playoff. Would Alabama be a safe bet to become the first?

On one hand, there’d be an argument that there’s no shame in losing to Georgia. Everyone does it. On the other hand, we’d already have a data point saying Alabama couldn’t beat Georgia, so why give the Tide a second bite at the apple?

And what if that final playoff spot comes down to 13-0 Cincinnati vs. 11-2 Alabama? Yes, strength of schedule certainly matters — but would the committee really go so far as to leave out an undefeated Bearcats team in favor of a two-loss Tide?

Of course, there’s also the very real chance Alabama beats Auburn with ease and stuns Georgia in Atlanta in two weeks, and all of this will be moot. Again, doubt Alabama at your own peril.

But as the playoff picture comes into increasingly sharp focus, Alabama’s position might not be quite so secure as it seems on first blush, and if an 11-2 Tide are in the thick of that final debate, it might well end up the biggest question the committee has ever had to answer. — David Hale

Top wide receivers in 2022 draft put up huge numbers

Rookie wide receivers can make an immediate impact in Year 1 in the NFL. Just look at former LSU star Ja’Marr Chase. On Saturday, several potential first-round wideouts in the 2022 NFL draft class showcased their abilities above the competition.

Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks faced one of his stiffest tests of the season as he entered Bryant-Denny Stadium to face off against the Alabama secondary. In a seven-point loss, Burks proved to be a high-end threat. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound target finished with eight catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yard scamper in which he was able to display his explosiveness.

On the opposite side of the field, Alabama’s Jameson Williams had another stellar night. He has thrived with more opportunities after transferring from Ohio State. He caught eight passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first player in program history to have four touchdown receptions of 75-plus yards in a single season.

Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, the Ohio State duo that sat atop Williams on the depth chart prior to his ascension at Alabama, both dominated in a top-10 matchup against Michigan State. The smooth-moving Olave led all receivers with 140 receiving yards on seven catches to go along with two touchdowns. Not far behind, Wilson had seven catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns. The dynamic duo paired with super sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba has asserted itself as the most dangerous corps in the country.

All in all, the early outlook for the 2022 wide receiver class looks promising. NFL teams in need of new perimeter weapons will be in luck as the upcoming group of prospects contains loads of potential. — Jordan Reid

The Egg Bowl is the SEC’s marquee rivalry game this year

Never mind the Iron Bowl. With Auburn on a three-game losing streak after its loss to South Carolina and Alabama expected to be a heavy favorite, the rivalry game to watch in the SEC this week will be the Egg Bowl.

Good luck finding a better matchup of quarterbacks than Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Mississippi State’s Will Rogers. The two have combined to score 63 touchdowns this season.

But while Corral has been a known commodity for a while now, you can’t say the same for Rogers. Two years ago, he was still playing high school football in Brandon, Mississippi. He was anonymous by big-time college football standards, a three-star prospect whose other scholarship offers included Troy and Tulane.

After an up-and-down freshman season in 2020, Rogers has emerged as one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country. Last Saturday’s win over Tennessee State provided further evidence of his ascent, as he set school records for passing yards and touchdowns in a single season — records held by arguably the greatest player in program history, Dak Prescott.

Rogers, who became the first player from Mississippi State to throw for 4,000 yards in a season, had watched Prescott since he was in elementary school and said he “never really imagined” being in the same company as him.

His coach, Mike Leach, said, “I’m not really surprised.”

The reason: Like a lot of young players, it takes time to learn the Air Raid offense. More reps means quicker processing and more consistency.

Not only has Rogers made steady improvement, but so has the offense as a whole, leading to what could be a shootout against Lane Kiffin’s high-powered Ole Miss offense on Saturday. Against Tennessee State, Makai Polk tied Fred Ross’ school record with 88 receptions this season, and Austin Williams tied another school record with three touchdowns in a single game.

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Through its first six games this season, State was averaging 24.7 points per game, which ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC.

But in the past five games, it has averaged 40.4 points per game, which ranks third in the conference behind Georgia and Alabama. — Alex Scarborough

Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has meaning

We’ve all tried to figure out if Ohio State and Michigan were on a collision course for the Big Ten championship game berth and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

We don’t need to guess anymore. It’s happening.

This is the first time both teams are ranked in the top five since 2016, when No. 2 Ohio State beat No. 3 Michigan 30-27 in double overtime. That game is etched into Michigan fans’ minds with the controversy over whether Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett was short on a fourth-down run that eventually led to the winning score.

It has been a long time since this game has meant something for both teams, and it has also been a long time since Michigan has gotten a win in this rivalry. Ohio State has won the past eight meetings and 15 of the past 16. Jim Harbaugh is 0-5 against the Buckeyes, and it’s going to take a lot for the Wolverines to slow down Ohio State’s offense.

Quarterback C.J. Stroud is coming off a game in which he put up 393 yards and six touchdowns in the first half alone against Michigan State. Stroud had only three incompletions on the day and could’ve gone for 600 yards had he not been pulled for the backups.

To say the Ohio State offense is clicking right now would be an understatement. Stroud has four games this season with five passing touchdowns and no interceptions, which is tied for the most such games by any FBS quarterback over the past 20 seasons.

His receivers, Smith-Njigba, Wilson and Olave, are the first Big Ten trio to each have 100 receiving yards in multiple games in a season over the past 25 years.

The game against Michigan State was supposed to be a lot closer than it was, but it ended up being the biggest margin of victory between two top-seven teams since 1945, when No. 1-ranked Army beat No. 6 Penn 61-0.

The game was such a blowout that Ohio State coach Ryan Day admitted his focus jumped quickly to Michigan.

“We have a huge game — everything is riding on this thing coming up right around the corner,” Day said. “The game wasn’t even over yet and I was already thinking about it. All of the focus goes to the Wolverines.”

Michigan has been putting up good numbers on offense as well, but maybe more importantly for this game ahead, the defense hasn’t allowed more than 18 points in the past three games. The Wolverines’ defense ranks No. 8 in pass yards allowed per game and No. 10 in total yards allowed per game.

Their secondary will need to have its best game of the season to control Ohio State’s passing attack. Michigan is coming off of a game in which it held Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa to 178 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

“Yeah, it means everything that was planned, built for, all of the energy that was put in since way back in early 2021, January, February, all the things that the guys have done, the coaches have done has put us in this position,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the position we wanted to be in, and we want to finish it. We want to win all the marbles. So, we’re in the position we want to be in. We’ve been preparing for this really the entire year, and now bring that preparation to life this week, to play for it all.” — Tom VanHaaren

Pitt is it (in the Coastal)

It goes without saying that nobody figured at the start of the season that Pitt would be the first team to clinch its spot in the ACC championship game. But nothing about this season has followed a familiar script.

Pitt included.

Oh, sure, people *thought* the same ol’ Pitt had turned up after a 44-41 loss to Western Michigan, made even worse by its timing — a week after an impressive 41-34 win over Tennessee. Coach Pat Narduzzi told ESPN on Sunday that he had serious concerns over his players’ sideline demeanor during the Western Michigan game, so much so that he had a conversation with his team about the way it seemed to shy away from the resilience it needed to win an unexpectedly close game.

That has not been a problem since, especially in the past two must-win games. They have been heart-stopping affairs, because this is Pitt, after all, and nothing necessarily comes easy (or, as conditioned Pitt fans will say, without thinking the worst is about to happen). Against North Carolina in the rain two weeks ago, the Panthers jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead, only for the Tar Heels to tie the game late and send it into overtime.

That is where Kenny Pickett showed why he has drawn so many rave reviews throughout the season, winning the game with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Lucas Krull. With a chance to win the Coastal Division on Saturday, Pitt once again was in a nail-biter against Virginia, with the game slingshotting back-and-forth before the Pickett-to-Jordan Addison combination proved too difficult to stop.

“Our kids have been unfazed,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve got faith and belief in what they’re doing and where we’re going. I just never see anybody ever waver. That’s the characteristics of a championship team, that they find different ways. We’re on the edge of our seat the entire game, but guys kept playing and stuck together.”

Pitt punched its ticket to Charlotte for the ACC championship game, winning the Coastal for the second time since 2018. In fact, Pitt is the only team from the Coastal to win two division titles since 2013. Both have come under Narduzzi.

“It says a lot about the state of the program,” Narduzzi said. “Coming from the Big East, going into the ACC, it takes time to get there and do what you want to do. We’ve done a great job recruiting, we’re not just taking guys to take guys. We’re taking guys that we think fit in and can do what we want in our program.”

The next week gets tougher. Pitt closes the season at Syracuse, but because the Atlantic champion will not be decided until Saturday afternoon, Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson must sort themselves out so Pitt can start preparing for the championship game. — Andrea Adelson

First-year gems by Heupel and Beamer

What Josh Heupel has done at Tennessee and Shane Beamer at South Carolina are shining examples of first-year coaches coming in and completely changing the culture with the way they relate to everybody in their program, and doing so with positivity.

Words like “positivity,” “belief” and “accountability” are constantly heard among people within those programs.

Nobody in college football expected much from the Vols or Gamecocks this season, but they’re both bowl eligible and have generated a wave of momentum going into the postseason — and even more importantly — into the next recruiting period.

The Vols have six wins and will be heavily favored to get to seven wins this Saturday when Vanderbilt visits Knoxville. Heupel’s warp-speed offense has kept defenses off balance, produced an array of big plays and been equally entertaining to watch. Tennessee has scored 34 or more points seven times this season, compared to only five times during Jeremy Pruitt’s three seasons in Knoxville.

It has been a struggle for South Carolina on offense for much of this season. The Gamecocks have played three different quarterbacks, including Zeb Noland, who was a graduate assistant coach back in the summer. Most recently, it has been Jason Brown, an FCS transfer who has come up huge in the past three games with seven touchdown passes, including five in wins over Florida and Auburn. All of a sudden, South Carolina has Clemson coming to town Saturday night, and after seven straight losses to the Tigers, it’s not all that farfetched to think that the Gamecocks have a chance to pull the upset and get to seven wins.

Heupel and Beamer also deserve kudos for not allowing disappointing defeats to demoralize their teams. Tennessee was shut out in the second half in a September loss to Florida and got the short end of some officials’ calls in a home loss to Ole Miss, but the Vols continued to improve and took down nationally ranked Kentucky on the road two weeks ago despite a roster that was depleted by transfers.

South Carolina was blown out by Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road. But it didn’t wilt, coming back with its two biggest wins of the season in November over Florida and Auburn.

These next two or three recruiting classes will be critical for both the Vols and Gamecocks because both teams are way behind right now in terms of personnel. But they have a couple of first-year head coaches who have bred some newfound life into fan bases looking for a reason to hope. — Chris Low

A coaching candidate to keep your eyes on

With the coaching carousel in full swing, many coaches are being thrown around as potential candidates at the top of various lists across the sport. You’ve heard of the top guys like James Franklin, Dave Aranda and Mario Cristobal, to name a few.

One person you might not know as well is Houston’s Doug Belk. Belk was initially hired as the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach in January 2019 after two seasons as cornerbacks coach at West Virginia. In January 2020, Belk was promoted to associate head coach, then to defensive coordinator in January 2021.

If you’re looking to link Belk to a legendary coaching tree, he spent the 2014-16 seasons at Alabama as the defensive graduate assistant coach, working directly under Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt.

Under his direction this season, Houston’s defense ranks fifth in FBS, allowing just 293.4 yards per game. He has helped Houston achieve its first 10-game winning streak since 2015, when they started 10-0.

This week, Belk’s defense held a Memphis offense that had scored 28 or more points in every game but to just 13 points while forcing two turnovers.

So whether he gets a head-coaching opportunity this cycle or not, remember Belk’s name in the future. His time is coming. — Harry Lyles Jr.

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