Should Alabama really leapfrog TCU? (college football winners and losers)

TCU quarterback Max Duggan came up just short of the goal line in overtime against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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Southern California played its way out of the playoff Friday. TCU probably didn’t Saturday afternoon, even if it did leave the door ajar with its overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game.

The No. 3 Horned Frogs (12-1) are one of four power conference teams with less than two losses. Unbeaten Georgia and Michigan were guaranteed to remain in that group regardless of how their respective conference title games unfolded — and they both ended up winning. No. 5 Ohio State (11-1) wasn’t going to lose this week because it isn’t playing.

And considering both history — no two-loss team has earned a playoff invitation — and the lack of a truly viable alternative, TCU could end up just fine after finally tumbling in a tight game.

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It’s worth noting 10-2 Alabama’s best victories came against 8-4 Texas, 8-4 Ole Miss and 8-4 Mississippi State. TCU swept through the Big 12 (including a victory over Texas) and managed to win even while losing Saturday as its best victory (Kansas State) grew in value.

Does the No. 6 Crimson Tide, which has one more loss and a few tight escapes of its own as evidence that it’s not a traditional Death Star Alabama, really jump over a team whose sole blemish came in overtime against a top-10 team?

Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban seems to think there’s a real risk this doesn’t happen, hence his Saturday night politicking.

Saban has his arguments, and it’s in his best interest to make them. But in the end, with only 12 or 13 data points, there’s a notable difference between one loss and two.

Southern Cal isn’t as fortunate as TCU after its dreams of restoring a Trojan dynasty on the Left Coast ran into a response from Utah.

The Southern California coronation seemed to be well on its way 20 minutes into the Pac-12 title game. Then Utah tightened up, Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams injured his hamstring, and the Utes surged to a 47-24 triumph to knock No. 4 USC (11-2) out of a potential semifinal slot.

Williams’s numbers — 28 of 41 for 363 yards, three touchdowns and an interception — were good. He could still win the Heisman Trophy next weekend.

But the Trojans had no answers for Utah, and will wind up in a non-playoff destination (the Cotton Bowl, perhaps?). And Ohio State should set to work penning thank-you notes to some folks in Salt Lake City for giving them a second chance at a national title and creating some tumult on the final weekend before the playoff field is set.

Ohio State (winner)

That faint sound late Friday night? That was the repetitive beeping from the No. 5 Buckeyes (11-1) backing into the playoff.

Ohio State entered the weekend needing help to make up for its home loss to Michigan to close out the regular season. And it sure got it from Utah, which smacked around Southern Cal in the second half of the Pac-12 title game en route to a blowout victory.

Now comes a reasonable question: If the Buckeyes were manhandled by Michigan in the Horseshoe, what’s going to happen when they face a Georgia team every bit as physical in a possible semifinal? Or, for that matter, how would they regroup in case of a rematch with the Wolverines?

Legitimate questions, both. But it’s a much better problem for Ryan Day and Ohio State to face than trying to summon the excitement to play the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl. The Buckeyes received new life Friday. It’s up to them to take advantage of it.

Georgia (winner)

The Bulldogs hung half-a-hundred on LSU in the SEC title game, effectively sewing up the No. 1 seed in the playoff and a return trip to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl later this month.

No. 1 Georgia (13-0) was basically a lock to earn a semifinal nod no matter how things went Saturday. Still, a 50-30 victory — ignited by Christopher Smith’s 96-yard blocked field goal return in the first quarter — ensured the Bulldogs would remain unbeaten since last year’s SEC title game.

Georgia smashes LSU in SEC championship. The CFP is up next.

Indeed, the only thing missing from Georgia’s résumé last year when it won the national championship was an SEC title trophy. Alabama denied the Bulldogs that laurel last season. Georgia, which built a 35-7 lead late in the first half Saturday, was never in serious jeopardy of permitting No. 14 LSU (9-4) to do the same this time around.

Michigan (winner)

Let’s not pretend the Wolverines’ 43-22 defeat of Purdue in the Big Ten title game was anything but workmanlike. Let’s also not pretend it matters.

The Wolverines (13-0) were effectively locked into the No. 2 seed in the playoff by the time they kicked off in Indianapolis. The No. 3 and No. 4 teams (TCU and Southern California) had already lost. No. 1 Georgia had already won. And Michigan owned a beatdown at No. 5 Ohio State a week earlier. There was really no wiggle room.

That Ohio State drubbing is also a fair explanation why Michigan plodded its way to a 14-13 halftime lead and didn’t completely finish off the Boilermakers (8-5) until the fourth quarter. There was next-to-no chance the Wolverines would be as crisp as they were in Columbus to close the regular season. They weren’t, though they still pulled away late to make the margin comfortable.

Michigan heads into the playoff as a known quantity. It will try to run the ball down the throat of anyone it encounters, a strategy that has a reasonable chance of success against anyone not named Georgia. It will try to control the line of scrimmage on defense, and that plan may well work against anyone in the mix.

Last year, the Wolverines made the semifinals. After running the table in the regular season, they’re positioned well to go at least one more step forward in this year’s playoff.

Kansas State (winner)

The No. 10 Wildcats (10-3) claimed their first Big 12 title since 2012 and won their first conference title game since 2003, getting a fourth-down stand in overtime and then locking up a 31-28 victory on Ty Zentner’s 31-yard field goal. Will Howard threw for two touchdowns, and Deuce Vaughn rushed for 130 yards plus a touchdown.

In addition to locking in a Sugar Bowl berth, K-State avenged an earlier loss to TCU despite squandering an 11-point advantage in the fourth quarter.

It also invites a chance to revisit the Wildcats’ overall profile, which now includes one of the best victories in the country (a top-five team on a neutral field). They bludgeoned Oklahoma State 48-0 dominated Baylor 31-3 on the road and hammered Kansas 47-27 to close out the regular season.

And their losses? By a touchdown against a 10-win Tulane team, by 10 at TCU and by a touchdown against Texas. Not bad.

Depending on the selection committee’s whims, K-State could be remembered mainly as a playoff spoiler for TCU. But it had a stellar season and will have earned a place in the top 10 heading into the postseason.

In a 12-team playoff, will anyone care who wins a conference title?

Tulane (winner)

The Green Wave can go ahead and party like it’s 1939.

Tulane’s 45-28 victory over Central Florida in the American Athletic title game means it will be the highest-ranked Group of Five champion, which in turn gives it a ticket to the Cotton Bowl. The No. 18 Green Wave (11-2) will make its first trip to a major bowl in 83 years; it lost in the Sugar Bowl after the 1939 season on its home field to Texas A&M.

Things have changed plenty since then. The Green Wave was a member of the SEC at the time, and it made only sporadic postseason appearances in the eight-plus decades since.

But it nailed down a league title thanks to Michael Pratt’s long touchdown passes to Duece Watts and Shae Wyatt in the fourth quarter, as well as Pratt’s 18-yard scoring scamper with 4:04 to go.

LSU (loser)

No knock on the Tigers, who overachieved in their first season under Brian Kelly and were going to need a gargantuan effort to beat Georgia in the SEC title game. Losing quarterback Jayden Daniels to injury wasn’t ideal, but it probably didn’t matter in the long run, anyway. The Bulldogs were simply better, which wasn’t much of a surprise.

Still, it had to be a pretty sobering experience for LSU, which entered last week with a 9-2 record and dreams of becoming the first two-loss team to reach the playoff. After all, the Tigers already had a victory over Alabama (as well as Mississippi) and would have upended Georgia on the way to 11-2.

Instead, they sputtered against sub-.500 Texas A&M in a 38-23 setback and then tacked on a more predictable loss Saturday. They won’t be in the New Year’s Six structure, and even a 10-win season isn’t guaranteed at this point. Describing the Tigers as a loser is a bit harsh, but if they feel a bit of a letdown compared to where they were eight days ago, it would be understandable.

Cade Klubnik (winner)

The Clemson freshman quarterback came off the bench to complete 20-of-24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 30 yards and a score in the No.9 Tigers’ 39-10 rout of No. 23 North Carolina in the ACC title game.

Klubnik entered after two ineffective series from DJ Uiagalelei, and shifted plenty of onlookers’ thinking from “DJU” to “DJ Who?” He promptly led the Tigers to four consecutive scoring drives to close the first half.

It’s tempting to wonder how Clemson’s season might have unfolded had Klubnik taken over sooner. A quarterback playing as well as he did Saturday probably helps the Tigers avert an upset bid a week earlier against South Carolina. And Uiagalelei, after turning in strong games against Wake Forest, North Carolina State and Florida State, faded toward the end of the regular season.

Of course, Klubnik promptly threw an interception when he entered the Tigers’ first loss, a Nov. 5 setback at Notre Dame. So it’s not a sure thing the Tigers (11-2) would have been playing for a playoff berth rather than just an Orange Bowl appearance even if a quarterback change occurred earlier.

In defense of Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney, he was at practice every day and should have a better sense of his quarterbacks’ readiness. Plus, there’s the whole Kelly Bryant/Trevor Lawrence decision in 2018, when Swinney decisively switched to a freshman four games into the season.

But Saturday made it clear: Klubnik is not only the future for Clemson at quarterback, he’s now — finally — its present. His work Saturday helped ensure the Tigers claimed their seventh ACC championship in eight years.

Utah (winner)

Don’t suggest to the Utes it’s hard to beat a team twice in a season.

They made it look pretty darned easy in their Pac-12 title game humbling of Southern Cal, shrugging off a 17-3 deficit and scoring on seven of their last nine possessions.

Williams’s hamstring injury made things more manageable for Utah’s defense, but that doesn’t cover how effectively the Utes eviscerated the Trojans throughout the second half. That’s a byproduct of the ethos Utah has nurtured within its program even before its Pac-12 days.

The Utes (10-3) will head to the Rose Bowl for the second consecutive season, where it is likely to face Penn State. It is not the playoff berth the program dreamed of as the season began — those hopes were gone after an opening loss at Florida and an Oct. 8 stumble at UCLA. But all things considered, it’s still a fine way for Utah to cap another season as the toughest team in the West.

Lincoln Riley (loser)

Let’s review the work of the current Southern Cal coach’s defenses in his three playoff appearances and the game that could have gotten him to a fourth.

In the 2017 Rose Bowl, Oklahoma gave up 54 points (45 in regulation) and 527 yards (at a clip of 8.4 per play) in a loss to Georgia.

In the 2018 Orange Bowl, Oklahoma surrendered 45 points and 528 yards (7.5 per play) in a loss to Alabama.

In the 2019 Peach Bowl, Oklahoma was carved up for 63 points and 692 yards (9.4 per play) in a loss to LSU.

And in the 2022 Pac-12 title game, Southern Cal yielded 47 points and 533 yards (7.7 a play) in a setback against Utah.

That is what is called a track record, and the longer such a trend continues, the more it becomes the responsibility of a head coach.

Now, Riley rightfully gets credit for instantly revitalizing the Trojans, who became one of the most exciting teams in the country almost overnight. But there’s a clear obstacle to end-of-season accomplishments for the 39-year-old, and it’s clear what needs to improve if he’s going to lead a team to a national title.

Pac-12 (loser)

And so it’s come to this: Six consecutive years without a playoff berth for the sport’s Left Coast flagship league. Southern Cal’s loss was the final blow for the Pac-12, which entered November with three one-loss teams and serious hopes of producing a playoff team.

Instead, UCLA and Oregon both lost twice down the stretch, and the Trojans’ defensive meltdown Friday night ensured that 2016 Washington would remain the Pac-12’s most recent playoff participant.

Texas-San Antonio (winner)

The Roadrunners performed quite the mic-drop on Conference USA, completing a perfect season against league competition on their way out the door by walloping North Texas, 48-27, to clinch a second consecutive conference title.

UTSA (11-2) went 17-1 against C-USA competition over the last two seasons, and a major part of its success stemmed from quarterback Frank Harris. He shredded the Mean Green for 341 yards and four touchdowns on 32-of-37 passing, while Kevorian Barnes rushed for 175 yards and a touchdown.

The Roadrunners are part of a six-school contingent (that also includes North Texas) on its way to the American Athletic Conference next season as part of the latest round of conference realignment. C-USA will be left with only one school — Western Kentucky — that has actually won a title in the league.

As for UTSA, it has won at least 11 games in back-to-back seasons after never topping eight in its first decade of fielding a program. The Roadrunners are in fine shape to make a splash in their new home — but no doubt will appreciate taking home some hardware on the way out the door.