Playoff picture getting clearer (college football winners and losers)

Michigan linebacker Jaylen Harrell (rear) broke up a pass intended for Ohio State tight end Cade Stover and helped put a dent in the Buckeyes' playoff hopes. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

The final Saturday of the regular season sorted out plenty of the fall’s questions.

Georgia and Michigan? Both are probably good to go for playoff berths regardless of how next weekend’s conference title games unfold.

TCU? A demolition of Iowa State kept the Horned Frogs — who have thrived as an under-the-radar team all season — away from any potential chaos and on track for a playoff berth should they win the Big 12 title next weekend.

Clemson and LSU? Unexpected losses to close out November sank both recent champions’ playoff hopes and took some of the juice out of both the ACC and SEC title games.

Southern California? The Trojans handled matters against Notre Dame to move closer to their first playoff berth.

And Ohio State? The Buckeyes (11-1) might need some help next weekend to back into the semifinals after getting steamrolled at home by Michigan.

Only five power conference teams — Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Southern Cal and TCU — made it through November with no more than one loss. And with just the conference title games to go (and Ohio State doesn’t even have one of those), that group appears set to produce the four playoff participants come Dec. 4.

Michigan does it again, blasts Ohio State to solidify playoff spot

Ohio State (loser)

Are the Buckeyes done as a playoff possibility? No, not even after a 45-23 loss to Michigan at home Saturday. Get Georgia to win the SEC title game (knocking out LSU) and someone to dispatch Southern California, and No. 2 Ohio State (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten) basically becomes a default selection.

Still, it was hard to like much about the Buckeyes’ second half — or the savvy displayed for much of the day. A couple turnovers, nine penalties, a pass defense that surrendered 21.4 yards per reception … and that doesn’t even factor in a worn-down defense getting popped twice for long touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.

Michigan has perfected the formula for beating the Buckeyes; they’ve dealt Ohio State its only two losses over a 23-game span. The rest of the Big Ten isn’t good enough to replicate it, but a playoff team — Georgia, perhaps? — probably could. No, the Buckeyes aren’t done yet, but it’s hard to imagine a potential playoff stay lasting too long even if they catch some breaks in the next week.

Michigan (winner)

The No. 3 Wolverines (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) are East Division champions yet again after their thrashing of Ohio State. It was their first victory in Columbus since 2000, and it puts Jim Harbaugh’s team in fine shape to earn a second consecutive playoff berth.

Much like last season, Michigan manhandled Ohio State’s defensive front. A year ago, the Wolverines averaged 7.2 yards a carry behind Hassan Haskins’s 169 yards and five touchdowns. This time around, with star back Blake Corum limited to two carries, Donovan Edwards capped a 216-yard day with touchdown runs of 75 and 85 yards in the fourth quarter to ice it.

To review: The Wolverines have overwhelmed Ohio State on the ground in back-to-back seasons. It stands to reason they’ll keep the same approach in future years until the Buckeyes show any competence in stopping Michigan’s rushing attack.

Georgia (winner)

Book the Bulldogs for the playoff. It took a half for Kirby Smart’s team to get going, but Georgia eventually pulled away from Georgia Tech for a 37-14 victory.

After a 12-0 regular season, it’s hard to envision the Bulldogs getting excluded from the national semifinals even if they lose to LSU in next week’s SEC championship game. Perhaps they could tumble to fourth behind a Big Ten champion Michigan, an undefeated TCU and maybe even LSU. But it sure looks like fourth is the floor for Georgia entering championship weekend.

LSU (loser)

No two-loss team has made the playoff, but the Tigers might have become an exception had they knocked off Georgia in the SEC title game to get to 11-2.

They might still beat the Bulldogs, only it would be to get to 10-3. And that won’t accomplish anything more than a Sugar Bowl berth.

No. 5 LSU (9-3, 6-2 SEC) had no answer for running back Devon Achane and Texas A&M in a 38-23 loss. Achane missed the Aggies’ past two games, and promptly made up for it in workload (38 carries) and production (215 yards and two touchdowns) as Texas A&M (5-7, 2-6) dragged down the Tigers at the end of a largely lost season.

Southern California (winner)

Caleb Williams threw for 232 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 35 yards and three more scores as the No. 6 Trojans (11-1) maintained a double-digit margin throughout the second half of a 38-27 defeat of No. 15 Notre Dame.

USC has won five in a row since its one-point setback at Utah on Oct. 15, and entertaining victories over UCLA and Notre Dame to close out the regular season have enhanced its postseason profile. (Also helpful: Other playoff contenders stumbling throughout a November that spread unpredictability almost evenly throughout the month).

The audacious gambit in Los Angeles late last year — hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, stocking up through the transfer portal and hoping to instantaneously become a national title contender — is arguably one victory away from bearing fruit. USC might or might not be the best team in the country. But it is plenty clear it is perhaps the most interesting.

South Carolina (winner)

The Gamecocks (8-4) won’t make the playoff, but they certainly had an impact on it. South Carolina ended the playoff hopes of Tennessee and Clemson on back-to-back weekends, following up a rout of the Volunteers with a 31-30 defeat of their in-state rivals to snap a seven-game skid to the Tigers — and did it in Death Valley, no less.

There were some uneven moments early in the season for the Gamecocks, and they’re only two weeks removed from getting drubbed at Florida. But with Spencer Rattler (360 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) outplaying Clemson counterpart DJ Uiagalelei, South Carolina should feel as good about this regular season as any since a string of three consecutive 11-win seasons from 2011-13.

Clemson (loser)

Whatever slim playoff hopes the No. 8 Tigers still possessed ended with their loss to South Carolina.

Granted, this was not a vintage Tigers team, something that was established long before the program’s 40-game home winning streak was halted. But a second November loss — dropping Clemson to 10-2 — simply hammers home the message before the playoff committee renders its verdict.

It also removes most of any national interest in next week’s ACC title game between the Tigers and North Carolina (9-3). The winner earns a trophy and an Orange Bowl berth, but the league will not produce a playoff team for the second consecutive season.

TCU (winner)

There was no drama this week for the No. 4 Horned Frogs (12-0, 9-0 Big 12), who smashed Iowa State, 62-14, to close within a victory of a playoff berth.

Things were basically over by the end of the first quarter. TCU had a 12-second stretch in which Kendre Miller rushed 25 yards for a touchdown and Millard Bradford returned an interception 36 yards for a score to make it 24-0.

The math for TCU is simple: Win the Big 12 title game next week and advance to the semifinals for the first time. The Horned Frogs are certainly tested; Saturday’s victory snapped a string of seven consecutive games TCU won by 10 points or less.

Kansas State (winner)

The No. 12 Wildcats (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) are off to a rematch with TCU in the conference title game after dispatching Kansas, 47-27. It will be K-State’s first Big 12 championship appearance since 2003, and they’ll attempt to avenge a 38-28 loss on Oct. 22 to the Horned Frogs.

Oregon State (winner)

The Beavers uncorked the sort of rivalry-game rally that will be referenced for decades in its 38-34 defeat of Oregon. Well, assuming conference realignment doesn’t split up the two in the years to come.

That unhappy thought aside — the rivalry-formerly-known-as-the-Civil War has a fine history of delivering fun, wacky games — No. 21 Oregon State trailed 31-10 in the third quarter and 34-17 early in the fourth. The Beavers went on to stitch together three touchdown drives that covered a total of 66 yards.

(That’s fun and wacky in a nutshell).

Two plays stand out as especially pivotal to the comeback. One was a fumbled snap on a punt.

The other was yet another decision by No. 9 Oregon to go for it on fourth down that seemed unnecessary both in real time and in retrospect. Quarterback Bo Nix was stuffed at the Oregon 28 with the Ducks up 34-31 and 9:39 to go. Four plays later, the Beavers (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

It’s just the eighth season with at least nine victories in Oregon State history and the first since 2012. A bowl victory would give the Beavers a 10-win year for only the third time, joining the 2000 and 2006 seasons. But even without a postseason triumph, Oregon State is sure to savor its rivalry victory for a long time to come.

Purdue (winner)

Somebody had to win the Big Ten West, and that somebody was the Boilermakers. After a creaky start to its rivalry game against Indiana, Purdue dominated the second half of a 30-16 victory to earn its first trip to the Big Ten title game.

(The Boilermakers’ appearance in Indianapolis reduces the number of Big Ten teams without a league title game appearance to five: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota and Rutgers).

Purdue (8-4, 6-3) heads into next Saturday’s date with Michigan on a three-game winning streak, and the warm feelings of playing for a championship about 65 miles from campus. It may not end well against the undefeated Wolverines, but the Boilermakers have reason to celebrate this weekend.

Wisconsin’s final minute discipline (loser)

The Badgers needed a touchdown to tie it in the closing stages of its regular season finale against Minnesota. And they were in decent shape to get it after earning a first-and-goal at the 5.

Then came a holding penalty and a false start, followed by an incomplete pass. Then Wisconsin tacked on two more false starts to face a second-and-goal at the Minnesota 30.

Unsurprisingly, things did not end well for the Badgers (6-6, 4-5 Big Ten), and the Golden Gophers (8-4, 5-4) wound up hoisting Paul Bunyan’s Axe instead with a 23-16 victory.

Willie Taggart (loser)

The Florida Atlantic coach was fired just after the Owls wrapped up a 5-7 season with a 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky, bringing an end to yet another coaching tenure that began just months before the onset of the pandemic.

Both Karl Dorrell (Colorado) and Jeff Scott (South Florida) were hired in that cycle and fired earlier this season. Steve Addazio (Colorado State), Todd Graham (Hawaii), Jimmy Lake (Washington) and Nick Rolovich (Washington State) were all ousted last year after two-year runs.

The 46-year-old Taggart went 15-18 in three years with the Owls, his fifth head coaching stop. All of them have been crammed into the past 13 seasons — three at Western Kentucky, four at South Florida, one at Oregon and two at Florida State before landing in Boca Raton.

Florida Atlantic is heading into the American Athletic next season, a league Taggart enjoyed some success in while at South Florida. It’s not as if the Owls were dreadful or especially unlucky; they went 2-4 in one-possession games this season, so their record isn’t particularly deceptive. It’s also not a case of a new athletic director wanting to make a splashy hire; Owls AD Brian White took over in 2018.

This much is certain: The Florida Atlantic job has turned over a bunch since Howard Schnellenberger’s retirement after the 2011 season. The Owls will have their fifth full-time coach in 12 seasons next fall.

James Madison (winner)

The Dukes are in the clubhouse for the season, and what a debut season it was in the Football Bowl Subdivision. James Madison thrashed Coastal Carolina, 47-7, to claim the Sun Belt’s East Division and finish 8-3.

Todd Centeio threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns Saturday for the Dukes, who are ineligible for the postseason as part of their transition from the Football Championship Subdivision. But they wasted little time demonstrating they could hang at a higher level, right down to the final weekend of the season.

Mike Norvell (winner)

The task facing the Florida State coach when he arrived in Tallahassee after the 2019 season was a two-parter. First, reverse the spiral that began at the tail end of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure and later consumed Willie Taggart’s brief run with the Seminoles. Second, reestablish Florida State as the national power it has been for much of the past 40 years.

Friday’s 45-38 defeat of Florida — capped by Trey Benson’s touchdown run with 4:06 to go — signaled the first part had been accomplished as the No. 16 Seminoles wrapped up a 9-3 regular season.

To be clear, this is not a declaration of how “Florida State is back.” The Seminoles’ five-game winning streak since their open date came against a motley collection of ACC teams with various problems (Georgia Tech, Miami and Syracuse) plus Louisiana-Lafayette before Friday’s takedown of the Gators (6-6).

But the past month has provided validation for both Norvell’s methodical work and the value of a veteran quarterback like Jordan Travis. Florida State might not begin next year as an ACC favorite, but it won’t be overlooked or, worse, a punchline. That fate will be left to Miami.

Iowa (loser)

The Big Ten West defied comprehension all season. Two coaches were fired by early October. One team (Northwestern) hasn’t won a game in North America all year. Illinois — Illinois! — had firm control of the division until November.

So it seemed almost too good to be true that a semblance of normality had set in heading into the regular season’s final week. Iowa, that most anachronistic of programs and a participant in games that ended with scores of 7-3, 10-7 and 9-6 this season, needed only a victory at home against Nebraska on Friday to seal a Big Ten title game berth.

And what did the Hawkeyes do? Find a way to lose a one-possession game to the Cornhuskers, who were 6-24 in one-score games over the past five seasons. Nebraska survived, 24-17, to end a seven-game slide against Iowa.

Nebraska names Matt Rhule as its next football coach

Truth is, the Hawkeyes (7-5, 5-4) were fortunate it was that close. Nebraska converted a pair of first-half fumble recoveries and an Iowa muffed punt early in the third quarter into 17 points en route to a 24-0 lead. The Hawkeyes scored on three of their next four possessions — including one of their patented four-play, zero-yard field goal drives before a turnover on downs and an interception in the final 2:06.

And at least for one more day, the Big Ten West was left in the state of flux it has existed in pretty much all season.

Tulane (winner)

The road to the American Athletic Conference title now runs through New Orleans thanks to the Green Wave’s 27-24 victory at Cincinnati on Friday. No. 19 Tulane (10-2, 7-1 American) clinched the regular season title and will play host to next week’s championship game.

The Green Wave snapped No. 19 Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak, a parting gift to last year’s playoff semifinalist in its final game as a member of the American (the Bearcats head to the Big 12 next season).

Tulane secured only the fourth 10-win season in program history and the first since a 12-0 run in 1998. The Green Wave now probably stands one victory away — on its home field, no less — from securing a berth to the Cotton Bowl as the Group of Five’s representative in the New Year’s Six structure.

Arizona (winner)

Not every sub-.500 season is made equally, and the Wildcats have every reason to feel like they made progress while going 5-7 this year.

They won the Territorial Cup on Friday against Arizona State, earning a 38-35 victory to end a five-game skid in the in-state series. Michael Wiley rushed for 214 yards and three touchdowns, the second-most yardage ever for a Wildcat against the Sun Devils (Trung Canidate had 288 yards in 1998).

That alone was a welcome development. But for a team that went 1-16 over the past two years and had dropped 20 of its last 21 conference games before this season, Arizona narrowed the gap between itself and the rest of the Pac-12.

It beat Colorado like it was supposed to. It ended UCLA’s playoff hopes earlier this month. And it was a genuine nuisance to Southern Cal and Washington into the fourth quarter. It might not be good enough, but things are trending upward in Tucson.

Ohio (winner)

The Bobcats didn’t have starting quarterback Kurtis Rourke — dubbed the “Maple Missile” — with a shot at the Mid-American Conference title game on the line Tuesday. Ultimately, CJ Harris made sure it didn’t matter.

The backup rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another in Ohio’s 38-14 rout of Bowling Green. The Bobcats (9-3, 7-1) advanced to next weekend’s title game against Toledo (7-5, 5-3).

Amazingly, Ohio will play for its first conference title since 1968. It’s sort of hard to believe, given how consistently Frank Solich cranked out bowl teams in Athens. The Bobcats made four MAC title games under Solich but lost them all — hardly a serious blemish for a tenure that included 11 bowl berths in 16 seasons.

Now Tim Albin, Solich’s successor, has a chance to end the streak. And with a seven-game winning streak, Ohio is well-positioned to do exactly that.

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