Key Games in the Last Week of College Football’s Regular Season
Maybe you need to silence the cousin who insists on saying the Ohio State University, or appease the sister-in-law from Cincinnati who is tired of the university down Interstate 71 being overlooked.
Perhaps there is the brother who is certain, just like some of his fellow fans have been almost every season since the Reagan administration, that this is Georgia’s year, or the aunt who went to Texas but requires a reminder that there are other (and, this season, far better) teams in the Big 12 Conference.
The end of college football’s regular season rarely brings out the best in any of us, so when better to consider conflicting opinions and revisionist history than at Thanksgiving?
It’s largely up to you to figure out the holiday’s other arguments — mashed potatoes, though, are definitely better than sweet — but here’s a cheat sheet for the top teams in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Throw in a few gratuitous jabs at the Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 Conferences, neither of which have teams in the playoff hunt, and it should be enough to get you to dessert.
All times Eastern.
No. 1 Georgia (11-0)
At Georgia Tech (3-8) on Saturday. (Noon on ABC)
In the first few years of Coach Kirby Smart’s tenure in Athens, the Georgia faithful sometimes wondered whether the school had tapped the right person to lead the Bulldogs. Alabama fans, who had watched Smart’s long apprenticeship under Nick Saban, counseled patience.
Those worries have faded mightily this season. With the nation’s top defense — Georgia has allowed an average of 7.5 points and about 236 yards per game — any offensive shortcomings have been easy to overlook. Just this week, Nakobe Dean, a junior who has recorded seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season, was named a finalist for the Butkus Award, presented to the game’s best linebacker.
The Bulldogs have not won a national title since the 1980 season. But the team managed back-to-back shutouts in Southeastern Conference play this season, a feat it had not achieved since that championship run.
No. 2 Ohio State (10-1)
At No. 5 Michigan (10-1) on Saturday. (Noon on Fox)
The Game is coming back in grand style.
A year after the pandemic forced the cancellation of one of the most fabled rivalries in sports, Ohio State’s grudge match against Michigan, a trip to the Big Ten Conference championship game will be on the line on Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Buckeyes muscled past this season’s early worries: Although Ohio State lost by a touchdown at home to Oregon, which Utah took apart on Saturday night to drop the Ducks to No. 11 from No. 3, Coach Ryan Day’s team humiliated Purdue and, over the weekend, a then-No. 7 Michigan State.
Quarterback C.J. Stroud is a contender for the Heisman Trophy, largely because he has completed more than 71 percent of his passes and thrown 36 touchdowns while leading the country’s top offense.
The Buckeyes are averaging almost 560 yards a game, 30.6 yards more than Pittsburgh in second.
No. 3 Alabama (10-1)
At Auburn (6-5) on Saturday. (3:30 p.m. on CBS)
It is generally unwise to count the Crimson Tide out of any national title conversation. Still, Alabama, which routed Ohio State last season to win the championship, has sometimes seemed out of sorts this fall.
There have been big wins — it is Alabama, after all — but also a loss at Texas A&M and one-touchdown escapes over a better-than-usual Arkansas and an absolutely abysmal Louisiana State. And an Iron Bowl date at Auburn is no cakewalk.
But the sophomore quarterback Bryce Young, also considered a Heisman contender, has Alabama’s offense averaging almost 502 yards and Saban’s defense, including the linebacker Will Anderson Jr., is the second-best in the SEC.
No. 4 Cincinnati (11-0)
At East Carolina (7-4) on Friday. (3:30 p.m. on ABC)
No team from a Group of 5 league has ever reached the playoff. Cincinnati, a member of the American Athletic Conference, just might do it. A signature win, 24-13, at Notre Dame, which is now ranked sixth, certainly helped.
On Friday at East Carolina, Desmond Ridder will be hard-pressed to replicate his performance against Southern Methodist over the weekend, when he completed 17 of his 23 passes, logging 274 yards and three touchdown passes.
He also ran for a score and caught a touchdown pass. Yes, really.
No. 5 Michigan (10-1)
Hosts No. 2 Ohio State (10-1) on Saturday. (Noon on Fox)
Cincinnati’s standing aside, there has perhaps been no bigger debate around this season’s playoff rankings than what to make of Michigan.
The Wolverines barely lost at Michigan State on Oct. 30 but soon found themselves ranked ahead of the Spartans because the playoff committee deemed Michigan “a more complete team.”
And Michigan is indeed very good: No. 9 in the country in total defense, No. 23 in total offense and powered by an offensive line that has been the nation’s stingiest at allowing tackles for loss. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who share the Big Ten’s lead for total sacks with 10 apiece, make up the first-ever Michigan duo to amass double-digit sack counts in a season.
Ohio State, though, is by far the season’s biggest test for the Wolverines, who have had just one win this season against a team that is still in the playoff rankings. Michigan has beaten Ohio State just twice since 2001, most recently in 2011.
No. 6 Notre Dame (10-1)
At Stanford (3-8) on Saturday. (8 p.m. on Fox)
Three of Notre Dame’s wins were by 3 points, so it has been something of a wonder that the Fighting Irish have pulled together a 10-1 record. Thank a sterling defense that has allowed just 9 points in three November games.
Isaiah Foskey, a defensive lineman, is responsible for 10 of Notre Dame’s 38 sacks, and the team has 21 takeaways this season. And there has been plenty of scoring from the defense, which has managed multiple touchdowns in two games this season. (The Notre Dame defense has actually outscored entire opposing teams, 12-9, this month.)
Michael Mayer, a tight end, stays busy when the offense is on the field and has caught 55 passes for 663 yards, while the tailback Kyren Williams has run for another 928.
No. 7 Oklahoma State (10-1)
Hosts No. 10 Oklahoma (10-1) on Saturday. (7:30 p.m. on ABC)
The Cowboys are coming off the finest defensive performance of Coach Mike Gundy’s 17 seasons leading the team — Oklahoma State conceded just 108 total yards to Texas Tech on Saturday — but they are about to meet Oklahoma, the Big 12’s highest-scoring offense.
Not that Oklahoma State’s offense is lackluster: In their last four games, the Cowboys have averaged about 482 yards and 41 points. Their offense is among the most balanced in the Big 12, but Tay Martin has logged at least 100 receiving yards in four games this season.
Saturday’s slate will decide Oklahoma State’s opponent in next weekend’s Big 12 title tilt. If Oklahoma wins, the Sooners and the Cowboys will meet in Arlington, Texas. If Oklahoma loses and No. 8 Baylor gets past Texas Tech, the Cowboys will play the Baylor team it beat by 10 points in October.
No. 8 Baylor (9-2)
Hosts Texas Tech (6-5) on Saturday. (Noon on FS1)
Although Dave Aranda is a defensive-minded coach — he was Louisiana State’s defensive coordinator when the Tigers won the 2019 season’s national championship — Baylor’s offense gains more yards per game than any other Big 12 team. The Bears favor the rush, running more than 400 plays on the ground this season and picking up almost six yards per attempt.
The star of the rushing attack was not in Baylor’s backfield in 2020; he was not anywhere on the offensive side of the ball, actually. But Abram Smith, who made four starts at linebacker last season, leads this year’s team with 1,249 rushing yards.
The Bears have not won a Big 12 title since 2014. They could play for one next weekend, though.
No. 9 Mississippi (9-2)
At Mississippi State (7-4) on Thursday. (7:30 p.m. on ESPN)
Ten-win seasons don’t come around Oxford very often: Mississippi is aiming for its third since 1972, and its inaugural 10-win regular season.
The first college football team known to have been 100 percent vaccinated against the coronavirus fell to Alabama and Auburn, but Mississippi also beat Arkansas and Texas A&M with the SEC’s most prolific offense by yardage.
Matt Corral, the junior Mississippi is pushing to win the Heisman, is one of three quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision who has thrown at least 15 touchdowns and rushed for 10 or more. Braylon Sanders has been a favorite target and is averaging 22.1 yards per reception, best in the SEC.
Thursday’s Egg Bowl will test Mississippi’s defense, as Mississippi State and Coach Mike Leach run an Air Raid offense that leads the SEC in passing yards.
No. 10 Oklahoma (10-1)
At No. 7 Oklahoma State (10-1) on Saturday. (7:30 p.m. on ABC)
The lone Big 12 program ever to reach the playoff, Oklahoma will head to its rivalry showdown in Stillwater focused on simply making the conference championship game.
It has been an odd road to 10 wins. The Sooners survived Tulane, 40-35, to open the season. The next week, Oklahoma scored 76 and held Western Carolina to zero. Then came some narrow victories over teams like Kansas State and West Virginia. But Oklahoma did not lose until Nov. 13 at Baylor.
Spencer Rattler, a preseason all-American, lost the starting quarterback job in mid-October. His replacement, Caleb Williams, has thrown for 1,418 yards and 15 touchdowns. Despite the turmoil, Oklahoma has assembled the most points-happy offense in the Big 12, no surprise under Coach Lincoln Riley, who is regarded as one of the country’s best offensive play callers.
The Sooners will visit Oklahoma State with some confidence since they are on a six-game winning streak against the Cowboys.