And now, 25 Final Thoughts on a Rivalry Weekend that went extra-heavy on the spite, pettiness and season-ruining upsets.
1. On the 13th week of its journey, the 2022 season decided to take a fun little detour. Why not have the No. 3 team (Michigan) humiliate the No. 2 team (Ohio State), the No. 5 team (LSU) implode against a 4-7 team (Texas A&M), the No. 8 team (Clemson) lose to its rival (South Carolina) for the first time in nine years and the No. 9 team (Oregon) blow a 21-point lead to lose to its own rival (Oregon State).
Georgia (12-0), Michigan (12-0) and, yes, TCU (12-0) are now in the CFP, win or lose in their conference championship games. If USC (11-1) wins its title game Friday night, we frankly won’t even need Saturday.
If the Trojans lose to Utah … well, we still don’t need Saturday, because the fourth team will be someone not playing that day.
2. When Ohio State-Michigan turns, it turns. Michigan owned the rivalry for roughly a dozen years in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, until Jim Tressel arrived and began 18 years of Buckeye dominance under him and Urban Meyer. Granted, two years is not 12 or 18, but Jim Harbaugh has officially taken ownership of Ryan Day’s program.
3. As badly as the Wolverines kicked their rivals’ butts last year, 2022 was so much worse. To go to Columbus and hang a 45-23 defeat on 11-0 Ohio State; to do it without star RB Blake Corum; and the manner in which they did it — scoring touchdowns of 69, 75, 45, 75 and 85 yards — is about as thorough a repudiation as one can inflict. The longstanding perception of Ohio State as an uber-talented behemoth lording over the rest of the Big Ten is dead. I don’t care what the recruiting rankings say. Michigan is quite clearly the better program right now.
4. All of which would have sounded nuts two years ago when Harbaugh was still 0-5 against the Buckeyes and avoided going to 0-6 only because the 2020 game got canceled. It’s well-documented how he reinvented his program, though Saturday’s formula — J.J. McCarthy throwing downfield to wide-open receivers — wasn’t necessarily his blueprint for most of the last two years. You could tell how much the power dynamic had turned when Ryan Day opted to punt from the Michigan 43, down 24-20. That’s not the mark of a “more talented” team.
5. Day’s approval rating in Columbus undoubtedly took a beating Saturday, which speaks to just how much that one game defines the coach of Ohio State or Michigan. Day, in his fourth full season, has won 90 percent of his games, a higher clip than Nick Saban, Lincoln Riley or any other active coach. But these two unforgivable losses are now top of mind with the fan base. His job is not in jeopardy, but after some questionable play-calling in both the Penn State and Michigan games, perhaps he should consider handing over the reins of the offense next season and focus entirely on his role as CEO.
6. In the immediate aftermath, it sure looked like Ohio State’s Playoff hopes were dashed, because the committee values conference championships and hates blowout losses. But after three more top-10 teams lost, the Buckeyes are right back in it. If USC loses, brace yourself for a debate with no right answer. The committee’s top choices would be 11-1 Ohio State with two Top 25 wins (Notre Dame and Penn State) and a blowout home loss; 11-2 USC with three Top 25 wins (Oregon State, UCLA and Notre Dame) and two losses; and, your old pal, down-but-not-out, 10-2 Alabama with one (Texas), maybe two (Ole Miss) Top 25 wins and two close losses.
(My colleague Nicole Auerbach thinks I’m nuts to even be considering Alabama with its paperweight resume, to which I say … it’s Alabama. The committee can never quit Alabama.)
There’s also 10-2 Tennessee, which beat Alabama but fell three spots below the Tide in last week’s rankings. Who knows, maybe the Vols will jump back up this week after housing Vanderbilt 56-0. Guess we have to watch that show.
7. Of course, Jimbo Fisher’s previously woeful Texas A&M offense would rise up in its last game and run the ball down the throats of the No. 5 team in the country. After missing the last two weeks to injury, star RB Devon Achane carried a career-high (by a lot) 38 times for 215 yards as the Aggies (5-7, 2-6 SEC) waxed LSU (9-3, 6-2) in College Station, 38-23. Does this mean he won’t fire himself as offensive coordinator after all?
Brian Kelly did an admirable job with this team, but it appears the usually formidable SEC West was a wee bit overrated. Alabama was not its usual self, Arkansas lost to Liberty, and Texas A&M lost to Appalachian State (which finished 6-6). The division champ lost to an ACC team, Florida State, and got blown out twice in conference play. LSU becomes the first three-loss team in the SEC Championship Game since Florida in 2016.
Those Gators lost 54-16 to Alabama in Atlanta.
8. It’s been quite a thing the last two weeks to watch one long-entrenched Heisman Trophy candidate after another — Hendon Hooker, Blake Corum (to injury), Drake Maye and, most notably, C.J. Stroud — go by the wayside. USC star Caleb Williams basically stole it away from everyone with his back-to-back showcase performances against UCLA and Notre Dame. The sixth-ranked Trojans (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) dispatched the Irish (8-4) with relative ease, 38-27. Once again, their defense forced turnovers, two in the second half that Williams and the offense converted into TDs.
I wouldn’t say Williams has locked up the Heisman just yet. If he falters Friday night, that could open the door to someone who has a big game Saturday, most notably TCU QB Max Duggan. And if they both lose … Stetson Bennett?
9. Credit to Oregon State (9-3, 6-3) for a wild come-from-behind win over Oregon, but I haven’t seen a team all season collapse as spectacularly as the ninth-ranked Ducks did. Oregon (9-3, 7-2) led 31-10 late in the third quarter before: allowing two quick TDs, fumbling a punt snap at its own 2 and getting stuffed on a fourth-and-1 from its own 29 (yes, Dan Lanning did this again), at which point the Beavers took the lead. Jonathan Smith’s team managed to win a game in which its quarterback threw for 60 yards with two picks, it got outgained 470-328 and lost the turnover margin 3-0.
Smith has done a phenomenal job at his alma mater, which now has a chance to win 10 games for the first time since 2006. And if he can get his own Bo Nix or Michael Penix Jr. in the portal this offseason, watch out.
10. Oregon’s loss coupled with Washington’s Apple Cup win late Saturday night sends Utah (9-3, 7-2) back to the Pac-12 title game for the fourth time in five years. That’s impressive. So is the fact that Washington (10-2, 7-2) is now one more USC win away from reaching the Rose Bowl in Kalen DeBoer’s first season. Michael Penix Jr. and the Huskies racked up 702 yards in a 51-33 win over Wazzu (7-5, 4-5). Utah can return to the Rose Bowl if it beats USC for a second time Friday in Vegas. If not, and the Trojans move up and Washington would almost certainly be the next-highest ranked team.
11. Spencer Rattler went to South Carolina seeking a fresh start after things went south at Oklahoma. For 10 games, it looked like nothing had changed for him. And then at the 11th hour, he and the Gamecocks (8-4) exploded just in time to knock off back-to-back top-10 teams. Rattler (25-for-39, 360 yards, two TDs, two INTs) threw an early pick-six Saturday against No. 8 Clemson, then turned around and lit up the Tigers’ defense much like he did Tennessee’s a week earlier in a 31-30 win.
Clemson (10-2) still had a chance to win despite a woeful day from DJ Uiagalelei (8-for-29 for 99 yards) until Antonio Williams fumbled a late punt return. This never felt like a vintage Clemson team, but it managed to stay in the hunt this long because the ACC is just not very good. Dabo Swinney needs to do some self-evaluation this offseason if he hopes to get his program back to the top.
12. The most interesting conference championship matchup may come in the Big 12. No. 4 TCU waxed Iowa State 62-14 to achieve just the second 9-0 league record since the conference went to a round-robin format in 2011. Its reward is to face a red-hot Kansas State team in Arlington, Texas. The No. 12 Wildcats (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) routed Kansas 47-27 behind a sensational Deuce Vaughn performance — 147 yards rushing, 82 yards receiving. The Horned Frogs’ offense has been sensational all season; K-State’s took off starting right after its 38-28 loss at TCU on Oct. 22. Expect a shootout at Jerry World.
13. Purdue makes for an easy punchline as an 8-4 division champ, but what a cool moment for Jeff Brohm’s program to advance to its first-ever Big Ten Championship Game. The Boilermakers (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) stood at 5-4 before knocking off then 21st-ranked Illinois, taking care of business against Northwestern and Indiana, and watching Iowa, a team it lost to 24-3, suffer its fourth conference loss to open the door. Purdue, which will presumably be a heavy underdog against 12-0 Michigan in Indianapolis, will be playing for its first Big Ten championship since Drew Brees’ senior season in 2000.
14. It sounds strange to say this, but Iowa fans may have dodged a bullet with the Hawkeyes losing to a bad Nebraska team and costing themselves a trip to the Big Ten title game. A five-game win streak and division title may have given Kirk Ferentz cover to maintain the status quo with his staff. Instead, Iowa lost to its rival for the first time since 2014 and finished the regular season averaging 255.4 yards per game, lower than any FBS team but New Mexico going into Saturday. For Kirk’s sake, hopefully Brian Ferentz takes the decision about his job status out of the head coach’s hands. No one wants to have to fire their own son.
15. Tulane’s rise this season has been an amazing, off-the-grid story. The Green Wave (10-2, 7-1 AAC) went to Cincinnati on Friday and ended the Bearcats’ 32-game home winning streak, 27-24, and now will host UCF (9-3, 6-2) in next week’s AAC title game. The winner will earn a New Year’s Six berth, which is old hat for UCF at this point but would be Tulane’s first major bowl game since the 1940 Sugar Bowl, two decades before it left the SEC. And it would be quite a moment for Willie Fritz, a college head coach for 26 years. He led Sam Houston State to two FCS championship games, but a lot more people watch the Cotton Bowl.
16. Some wanted to put Florida State coach Mike Norvell on the hot seat after an underwhelming first two seasons. But it was apparent from the opener against LSU that Norvell’s third team had a lot more talent. On Friday, Jordan Travis and the Noles held off rival Florida to finish the regular season 9-3 for the first time since 2016. They were 4-3 on Oct. 15 before rolling off five straight wins. Most satisfying for Noles fans: the season included wins over LSU, Miami and Florida. After so much frustration over the past five years, they have ample reason to feel encouraged by the program’s direction.
17. NC State (8-4, 4-4) salvaged a previously disappointing season when fourth-string QB Ben Finley (younger brother of Ryan) outdueled UNC star Drake Maye for a 30-27 overtime win, the Wolfpack’s second consecutive win over the Tar Heels (9-3, 6-2). NC State began the year with its highest preseason ranking (13th) since 1975, but the season went sideways when star QB Devin Leary suffered a season-ending injury in its Oct. 8 win over Florida State. Meanwhile, after getting to 9-1 and clinching its division, UNC lost to Georgia Tech and NC State. We should call next week’s ACC title game the Backing In Bowl.
18. There was a lot of head-scratching around the industry when Missouri gave third-year coach Eli Drinkwitz, 17-18, an extension and a raise from $4 million to $6 million. Now he can at least say he’s gotten the Tigers to a bowl all three seasons after 5-6 Mizzou edged 6-5 Arkansas on Friday. Conversely, 2022 was a step back for Arkansas’ Sam Pittman after winning nine games and an Outback Bowl last season, but he dug the Razorbacks out of a much deeper hole when he got there. Both teams will likely make it to decent bowls with the SEC on track to have four teams make New Year’s Six games.
19. It’s been another fantastic season for UTSA, which got to 10 wins Saturday … but only after falling behind 24-0 to UTEP, then rallying to win 34-31 on a last-second field goal. Star QB Frank Harris averaged an insane 17.4 yards per pass attempt, going 16-for-22 for 382 yards and three TDs. Jeff Traylor’s Roadrunners (10-2, 8-0 Conference USA) will host North Texas (7-5, 6-2) in next week’s Conference USA Championship Game. The league has not had a repeat champion since Western Kentucky in 2015 and ’16.
20. And now to the Coaching Carousel section of the column …
21. By all accounts Nebraska went hard after Matt Rhule, who could have taken a year off, done some TV work and counted his Panthers money but instead will attempt to rebuild a proud program that only got worse under Scott Frost. He’s certainly qualified. He took over a Baylor program reeling from the Art Briles sexual assault scandal, which had one committed recruit, trudged through a 1-11 season and won 11 games just two years later. Nebraska has far more resources and fan support than Baylor, it just needs a coach who can run competently run a Power 5 program. Rhule is that.
22. Kudos to Ole Miss on keeping Lane Kiffin. Perhaps the first hint he was staying should have been when he went out of his way to troll that Starkville TV reporter. Mind you, the Rebels (8-4, 4-4) ended their regular season on a downer, losing three straight, and Kiffin’s bizarre timeout usage at the end of Thursday’s 24-22 Egg Bowl defeat did not help matters. But if I’m an Ole Miss fan I’d still rather have him calling plays rather than another team from my own division.
23. I hope new Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham will be sending a commission to my colleague Ari Wasserman, who first nominated him for the job way back on Sept. 20. It’s a bit of a risk hiring a 32-year-old to run your Power 5 program, but Ari makes a compelling case. The school desperately needs some juice to reinvigorate its fan base post-Herm Edwards. An ASU alum who runs an exciting offense and recruits at an elite level should provide that. It’s not unlike rival Arizona’s choice of Jedd Fisch, who has already galvanized that program. It would be fun if the Territorial Cup finally became relevant nationally.
24. But let us all agree that the most fascinating move if it comes to fruition would be Colorado hiring Deion Sanders. Bruce Feldman reported Saturday that CU made an offer and Coach Prime is seriously considering it. The Buffs, as I wrote last spring, have given no one east of the Rockies any reason to pay attention to them for going on 20 years. They just finished a 1-11 season in which they were woefully non-competitive. I can’t think of another realistic target who could come in and immediately get CU football back in the headlines.
25. Finally, I wrote the last third or so of this column sitting in the press box at Saturday night’s BYU–Stanford game, which I drove over to (it’s 15 minutes from my house) on the slight possibility that Stanford coach David Shaw might announce his resignation. Sure enough: At around 12:33 a.m. PT, with the rest of the country fast asleep, the Cardinal’s 12th-year head coach announced to a room of six reporters: “I just informed the team I’ve coached my last game at Stanford.” In 20plus years of postgame news conferences, that was a first for me.
I’ll have much more to say about the news soon, but suffice to say a lot of Stanford fans are quietly relieved. AD Bernard Muir was likely never going to fire the school’s all-time winningest coach, but after going 14-28 the last four years — well, as Shaw himself said, “It was time.”
And now it’s time for me to wrap up this marathon-length edition.
BREAKING: David Shaw just announced he has coached his last game at Stanford.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 27, 2022
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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