Two kicks: one with nine seconds left, one with zeroes on the clock. Just one miss would’ve rewritten this year’s predictable College Football Playoff picture; had both gone awry, the playoff race would’ve imploded into chaos just steps from the finish line of the regular season.
No team in the Bowl Subdivision is more adept at winning close games than No. 4 TCU, which has mounted an out-of-nowhere playoff charge with unshakeable confidence in Sonny Dykes’ offensive scheme and a seemingly unstoppable run of late-game heroics.
Down 28-20 to Baylor with under seven minutes left, the Horned Frogs drove 90 yards to draw within 28-26 but missed the two-point conversion. After getting a stop on the Bears’ ensuing possession, TCU marched 45 yards to set up the game-winning field goal from 40 yards as time expired.
TCU has spent this entire season on the brink — seven of eight Big 12 wins and eight of 10 wins against FBS competition have come by 10 or fewer points, including memorable comeback victories against Oklahoma State, No. 17 Kansas State and the Bears.
But every win brings the Horned Frogs one step closer to the playoff. TCU can complete the most unexpected berth in the format’s history with wins against Iowa State next Saturday and in the likely rematch with Kansas State in the conference championship game.
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Another team currently in the top four of the playoff rankings, No. 3 Michigan, was pushed to the limit for the first time this season.
Illinois had coughed up the Big Ten West lead with two losses in a row but stepped up as underdogs against the Wolverines, taking a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter before Michigan kicker Jake Moody secured All-America honors for the second consecutive season with three field goals in the final 15 minutes, the last with nine seconds remaining.
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This is new for Michigan, and maybe a reflection of the attention already being paid to next week’s win-or-go-home rivalry game against No. 2 Ohio State. Only Maryland had stayed within single digits of the Wolverines, who went into Saturday with an average margin of victory in Big Ten play of 21.9 points per game.
How the games were won doesn’t matter. That they were won at all keeps the Horned Frogs and Wolverines in the thick of the playoff picture and continues what had been a very uncontentious and controversy-free postseason race.
No. 5, Tennessee, No. 9 Clemson, No. 19 Notre Dame and others join Michigan and TCU on this week’s list of winners and losers:
The No. 6 Trojans are the biggest winner of the weekend. For starters, the Trojans took home a memorable 45-42 shootout against No. 16 UCLA to earn at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season crown and a spot in the conference championship game. At quarterback, Caleb Williams threw for 470 yards with two touchdowns and might have taken over the lead in the Heisman Trophy race. Then there was No. 5 Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina, which opens up an even more obvious door for USC to enter and remain in the top four of the playoff rankings. With two more wins and a 12-1 finish, the Trojans will be impossible to keep out of the national semifinals.
With all due respect to the RedHawks, who have as many wins as the Hurricanes since the start of last season, Clemson routinely makes Miami (Fla.) look like Miami (Ohio). Including Saturday’s 40-10 win, the past four meetings between the pair have gone 196-30 in the Tigers’ favor, helpfully illustrating the gargantuan gap separating the best program in the ACC from one sitting somewhere in the bottom half of the pack. In addition to keeping Clemson in the mix for the playoff, the win marked another solid start for DJ Uiagalelei, who threw for 227 yards, ran for a team-high 89 yards and was responsible for three scores.
Ohio State and Georgia
No team in the top four had it easy. No. 1 Georgia’s offense sputtered in the red zone and gained a season-low 361 yards in a 16-6 win against Kentucky. No. 2 Ohio State was stressed out by Maryland, which led 13-10 at halftime and climbed within a field goal at 33-30 five minutes into the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes were able to win 43-30 thanks to a career-high 146 rushing yards from freshman Dallan Hayden and a late defensive touchdown after the Terrapins took over with 42 seconds left.
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For all the laughs had the expense of Iowa’s offense, which came into the weekend ranked 128th in the FBS in yards per game and 130th in yards per play, the Hawkeyes now stand within one win of another Big Ten West crown after beating Minnesota 13-10 on a late field goal. The offense is terrible; the defense continues to be the best in the country. With a rivalry victory next Saturday against woeful Nebraska, Iowa will advance to face Ohio State or Michigan in the conference championship game.
Losses to Marshall and Stanford threatened to engulf Notre Dame’s season and cast a negative spotlight on coach Marcus Freeman just six games into his tenure. With very little fanfare, however, the Fighting Irish have spent more than a month among the hottest teams in the Bowl Subdivision and enter the regular-season finale against No. 6 Southern California in range of a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Saturday’s 44-0 shutout of Boston College continues a run of strong play that really began with a 45-32 win against No. 11 North Carolina on Sept. 24.
Texas put together a dominant performance on both sides and battered Kansas in a 55-14 win that might stand as the Longhorns’ best effort on the year. At various points this season, including in losses to Alabama and TCU, the Longhorns have looked the part of a program close to breaking through under second-year coach Steve Sarkisian. While it will take some help to get into the Big 12 championship game — the Jayhawks would have to beat Kansas State and Texas has to get past Baylor — this season is beginning to represent a noticeable step forward for the Longhorns.
This is turning into a nice bounce-back season for Boise State, which failed to win at least eight games last year for the first time since 1998, not including the abbreviated COVID-19 season. After making a late interception in the end zone to hang on and beat Wyoming 20-17, the Broncos are 8-3 overall and unbeaten in Mountain West play entering the season finale against Utah State.
Tennessee was set to join the top four in the penultimate playoff rankings, replacing the loser of Ohio State and Michigan, and would’ve been difficult to unseat even without reaching the SEC championship game. But only if the Volunteers ended with just one loss — and South Carolina made sure that wouldn’t happen. The Gamecocks scored 35 points in the first half and won 63-38 to knock Tennessee out of playoff contention, potentially opening up a path for the Big Ten runner-up or a one-loss ACC champion Clemson. After playing much better of late, the Volunteers’ defense gave up 606 yards of offense while Spencer Rattler had his best game since transferring from Oklahoma with 438 passing yards and six touchdowns. And it gets worse: Hendon Hooker suffered an apparent lower-body injury late in the game with the Gamecocks ahead by 25 points.
If still a long shot, UNC had a genuine chance of reaching the playoff with a very narrow blueprint: win out, beating Clemson along the way, while Tennessee and the Pac-12 champion added a second loss. Despite leading 17-0 at the break, the Tar Heels lost 21-17 to Georgia Tech and are knocked out of the playoff conversation, though a New Year’s Six bowl remains a possibility. To get into one of the major bowls, UNC needs to beat Clemson or lose while the Tigers get into the national semifinals, which would give the Tar Heels the ACC slot in the Orange Bowl.
Losing 17-14 to Navy is bad news for the No. 18 Knights and potentially worse news for the American, which was scheduled to send another champion to the New Year’s Six but could now lose out on that access-bowl bid to a one-loss or two-loss team from the Sun Belt. The loss isn’t necessarily fatal: UCF can still get into the American championship game depending on the result of next weekend’s game between No. 22 Tulane and No. 21 Cincinnati. But the three-loss Knights could beat South Florida next Saturday, beat one of the Green Wave or Bearcats and still get squeezed of the New Year’s Six out by No. 23 Coastal Carolina, for example, should the Chanticleers finish with just one loss.
Inconsistency wasn’t unexpected in coach Billy Napier’s debut. Since beating No. 10 Utah in the season opener, Florida has alternated between hot streaks and losing streaks, seemingly landing somewhere in the middle of the SEC after last week’s obliteration of South Carolina. Then what should we make of the Gators’ 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt? No matter how you might try to write it off — that this is Napier’s first year, that the Commodores have been improving, that every week is unpredictable given the early stage of this rebuilding project, that the Gators basically gave the win away with multiple careless errors — there’s simply no excuse for Florida to lose to this game, even if Vanderbilt has turned a corner under coach Clark Lea.
At this time a year ago, Michigan State coach Mel Tucker was being feted as one of the hottest names in the business and just days away from inking one of the most lucrative deals in coaching history. One year later, the Spartans will very likely fall short of bowl eligibility after losing 39-31 in double overtime to Indiana. The Hoosiers crawled out of a 17-point hole at halftime and won despite having no business doing so: MSU outgained IU by more than 250 yards, gave up just 33 passing yards, had 17 more first downs and had possession for more than 36 minutes. Now 5-6, the Spartans will need to score a major upset against No. 12 Penn State to reach the postseason.