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College football Week 13 preview: Sorting out conference title games

Ohio State, Oregon and Texas have work to do to earn a spot in a conference title game. (AP and Getty Images)

A full 60 percent of the spots in Football Bowl Subdivision conference title games have been sorted out before the final weekend of the regular season. But that other 40 percent is enough to make anyone swear off math for a while.

For every ACC or SEC that has its matchup set, there’s a Pac-12 going deep into the tiebreaker list. For every Big 12 with a straightforward set of scenarios, there’s an American Athletic turning to a computer formula tiebreaker.

Here’s the full rundown of how to sort through it all while digesting a Thanksgiving feast (or its leftovers) this weekend.

College Football Playoff rankings: LSU holds off USC for No. 5 spot

ACC: No. 8 Clemson (10-1, 8-0) and No. 17 North Carolina (9-2, 6-1) had their divisions clinched before last week. They’ll meet in Charlotte in the final ACC title game with the Atlantic and Coastal division format.

Big Ten: The East Division is easy to figure out. No. 3 Michigan (11-0, 8-0) and No. 2 Ohio State (11-0, 8-0) will sort that out Saturday in the Horseshoe, and the winner probably winds up locking in a playoff berth as a result.

The West, unsurprisingly, could be a mess. Iowa (7-4, 5-3) can clinch the division with a victory Friday at home against Nebraska. The Hawkeyes hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Purdue (7-4, 5-3), which can win the division with a victory over Indiana coupled with an Iowa loss. If both Iowa and Purdue lose and Illinois (7-4, 4-4) can handle Northwestern, the Illini head to Indianapolis.

And what if Iowa, Purdue and Illinois all lose, which would be a very Big Ten West thing to happen? Iowa will claim the division.

Big 12: No. 4 TCU (11-0, 8-0) has one spot sewn up. No. 12 Kansas State (8-3, 6-2) can claim the other with a victory over Kansas or a Texas loss to Baylor. No. 23 Texas (7-4, 5-3) would snag a rematch of its 17-10 loss to the Horned Frogs if it beats Baylor on Friday and Kansas State falls the next night.

Pac-12: No. 6 Southern California (10-1, 8-1) is done with conference play and assured of a title game berth. No. 9 Oregon (9-2, 7-1) can join the Trojans in Las Vegas with a victory over No. 21 Oregon State.

And if the Ducks stumble? They can still make it if No. 13 Washington (9-2, 6-2) loses to Washington State in the Apple Cup. The Huskies and No. 12 Utah (8-3, 6-2) still have some hope, as Pac-12 Hotline’s Jon Wilner explained.

Washington’s path involves winning its game and getting wins from Oregon State and Cal (over UCLA). Utah needs to win its game (against Colorado, so it’s probably good to go) and then have Washington, Oregon State and UCLA triumph.

Nothing like fourth tiebreakers to get someone’s head spinning.

SEC: This one was locked in two Saturdays ago. No. 1 Georgia (11-0, 8-0) won the East Division again, while No. 5 LSU (9-2, 6-1) will take the West even if it loses to Texas A&M. The Tigers own a head-to-head tiebreaker over No. 7 Alabama (9-2, 5-2) in case it comes to that.

American Athletic: The winner of Friday’s Tulane-Cincinnati game will win the regular season championship and host the conference title game. Both teams are 9-2 overall and 6-1 in the league.

No. 22 Central Florida (8-3, 5-2) can lock up the second spot with a victory over South Florida (1-10, 0-7). But a Knights loss would gunk things up. Paired with a Cincinnati victory over Tulane, it would send the No. 19 Green Wave back to No. 24 Cincinnati for the title game. In tandem with a Tulane victory and a Houston loss to Tulsa, Cincinnati would travel to Tulane.

And then there’s the combination of losses by Central Florida and Cincinnati and a Houston victory, which would send the Bearcats and Cougars (7-4, 5-2) to a tiebreaker in which the highest-ranked team in four computer formulas would earn the trip to New Orleans.

Conference USA: Texas San Antonio (9-2, 7-0) has earned hosting duties on its way out of Conference USA. (The Roadrunners are one of six C-USA schools headed for the American next season.) North Texas (6-5, 5-2) will earn the other spot with a victory over Rice or a Western Kentucky loss to Florida Atlantic. Western Kentucky (7-5, 5-2) needs a win and a North Texas loss to play for the league title.

Kickers save TCU and Michigan (college football winners and losers)

Mid-American: Ohio (9-3, 7-1) clinched the East Division thanks to Tuesday’s 38-14 rout of Bowling Green. The Bobcats, seeking their first MAC title since 1968, will face West Division winner Toledo (7-4, 5-2) on Dec. 3 in Detroit. Toledo is a game ahead of Eastern Michigan (7-4, 4-3) but holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Mountain West: Boise State (8-3, 7-0) will host Fresno State (7-4, 6-1) regardless of how this weekend unfolds. The Broncos earned a 40-20 victory over the Bulldogs on the blue turf Oct. 8.

Sun Belt: Under other circumstances, Coastal Carolina (9-1, 6-1) would be playing for a division title at James Madison (7-3, 5-2) this week. But with the Dukes ineligible for postseason play as part of their FBS transition, the Chanticleers will represent the East Division.

In the West, Troy (9-2, 6-1) owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over South Alabama (9-2, 6-1), so the Trojans need a victory (over 3-8 Arkansas State) or a South Alabama loss (to 3-8 Old Dominion). South Alabama requires a victory and a Troy loss to secure a berth in the title game.

Five with the most at stake

A look at teams with plenty to play for during Thanksgiving weekend

1. Southern California. The Trojans’ playoff path is going to require some help, particularly in the form of at least one of LSU or TCU losing in the next two weeks. But they’re going to need to do their part, too, which means they have to deal with No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) in their regular season finale. All the playoff chatter goes away if USC can’t handle an Irish team that has won eight of nine.

Caleb Williams and USC catch a wave and ride it to a comeback win over UCLA

2a. Ohio State and 2b. Michigan. There’s an argument to place these teams a little lower. After all, the cost of a loss might not even be to get bumped outside the playoff. But whoever wins the showdown of unbeatens gains near-certain passage to the playoff, regardless of what happens in the Big Ten title game. That’s quite the reward, even if the risk isn’t as great as it is for others.

3. TCU. The Horned Frogs remain in survive-and-advance mode. And while it isn’t that hard to conjure up a scenario in which TCU loses the Big 12 title game and still earns a playoff berth (say, if Clemson, LSU and Southern Cal lose at least once in the next two weeks), Sonny Dykes’s team can’t afford a loss at home to last-place Iowa State (4-7, 1-7 Big 12).

4. Clemson. While some skepticism is warranted with regard to the Tigers’ résumé, the fact is a 12-1 Clemson team with an ACC title would generate some discussion for a spot in the semifinals. The Tigers can’t get to 12-1 without defeating South Carolina (7-4), and the Gamecocks should have Clemson’s full attention after dropping 63 points on Tennessee in a shellacking that knocked the Vols out of the playoff picture.

5. Georgia. The Bulldogs can put a bow on their playoff berth a week early by handling rival Georgia Tech (5-6), which has proved plucky under interim coach Brent Key. Georgia rates lower than the Big Ten unbeatens for one simple reason: Win or lose, it gets to play next week. The math isn’t hard: Win one game to earn a semifinal slot, and win both to lock in the No. 1 seed.

Heisman Watch

A weekly look at the race for college football’s favorite stiff-arming statue.

1. QB Caleb Williams, Southern California (3,480 yards, 33 TDs, three INTs passing; 316 yards, seven TDs rushing). With a big stage and facing a crosstown foe with its own conference title designs, Williams threw for 470 yards to make his strongest impression yet. He’ll have two more high-profile opportunities to shine — against Notre Dame this weekend and then in the Pac-12 title game. (Last week: 3)

2. QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State (2,991 yards, 35 TDs, four INTs passing). In another year, Stroud’s chances probably would have faded more after accounting for one or fewer touchdowns in three of the Buckeyes’ past four games. But there’s a prime opportunity for a Heisman moment with Michigan coming to town Saturday. (LW: 1)

3. QB Bo Nix, Oregon (3,061 yards, 25 TDs, six INTs; 509 yards, 14 TDs rushing). He clearly wasn’t much of a threat in the running game on a sore right ankle against Utah (except for a critical first down late in the game), but he still threw for 287 yards to keep the Ducks in the Pac-12 title chase. (LW: 5)

4. RB Blake Corum, Michigan (1,457 yards, 18 TDs rushing). The Wolverines star suffered a knee injury last week against Illinois, and his status for the de facto Big Ten East title game at Ohio State is uncertain. If he does play and he registers a ninth consecutive 100-plus-yard rushing day, his chances of earning an invitation to New York will improve. (LW: 6)

5. QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee (3,135 yards, 27 TDs, two INTs passing; 430 yards, five TDs rushing). The sixth-year senior’s college career concluded with a torn ACL suffered last week in a loss at South Carolina. He will still land on some Heisman ballots — and rightfully so. Hooker’s 10-plus games were better than most players’ 12 or 13. (LW: 2)

6. QB Max Duggan, TCU (2,858 yards, 26 TDs, three INTs passing; 291 yards, five TDs rushing). He threw for 327 yards, rushed for 50 and accounted for two touchdowns in a comeback victory at Baylor. He and the Horned Frogs close the regular season against Iowa State at home, where he has 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions this season. (LW: Not ranked)