The weekend offers plenty of intrigue as the college football seasons wind down. Let’s jump in.
Here are the most intriguing questions for Week 13.
Can No. 8 Penn State at least make No. 2 Ohio State work up a sweat?
The Nittany Lions have been less than stellar over the past two weeks, falling to Minnesota on the road and beating Indiana (though a much-improved, seven-win Indiana) by just a touchdown at home. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes routed yet another opponent, trouncing Rutgers, 56-21, to become just the second team in the past 100 years to win its first 10 games by at least 24 points. So it’s easy to see why most of the money is on Ohio State.
But is an 18 ½ point spread (as of Thursday) too big to cover against a fellow top 10 team?
If recent history is any guide, the game should be close. Since James Franklin took over at Penn State in 2014, the cumulative score through five meetings is Ohio State 156, Penn State 122, with four of the five games decided by seven points or fewer and the past two by a combined two points.
Penn State has enough offensive talent around quarterback Sean Clifford, including tight end Pat Freiermuth, wide receiver K.J. Hamler and a stable of solid running backs, to test Ohio State’s defense, especially since the Buckeyes haven’t faced an offense rated higher than 13th (Indiana) in SP+, an opponent- and tempo-adjusted measure of efficiency. The Lions offense ranks 11th, but Ohio State is No. 1 in defensive SP+ for a reason — and will be getting star defensive end Chase Young back from a two-game suspension.
Where the Nittany Lions are most vulnerable is on defense, especially in the secondary. In Penn State’s past two games, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan and Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey have combined to complete 49 of 61 passes (80.3%) for 710 yards and four touchdowns. Justin Fields — a one-time Penn State commit who ranks fourth in the country in passing efficiency and has 31 touchdown passes to just one interception — should have a field day.
Ohio State can clinch the Big Ten East title with a victory Saturday, and that will be a huge motivating factor. But Penn State has plenty to play for, too, since a win over the Buckeyes would put it on track to reach the conference title game and make the playoff.
There’s no question Ohio State is capable of dispatching Penn State with ease. But with so much on the line, it’s hard to see the Buckeyes running away with it.
Does Georgia deserve to be the No. 4 team in the country?
After beating Notre Dame, Florida and Auburn and clinching the SEC East title, the Bulldogs have impressed the playoff committee enough to take the No. 4 spot. So a win over unranked Texas A&M (7-3) wouldn’t change much.
But a loss? That’s where things get interesting.
Consider a scenario in which Georgia loses to Texas A&M but beats No. 1 LSU in the SEC title game. The Dawgs would be 11-2, but wouldn’t winning perhaps the nation’s toughest conference be enough to make up for two head-scratching losses? It would be unprecedented for the committee to let a two-loss team in, but Georgia’s resume would be hard to beat, even for a worthy one-loss team.
After losing to South Carolina, it was always SEC title or bust for the Dawgs’ playoff hopes. This game against Texas A&M will show just how ready they are for the challenge.
Can No. 14 Baylor keep its slim playoff hopes alive?
The Bears blew their best chance to make a stunning run to the playoff by losing a 25-point lead against Oklahoma last week. That second-half collapse might haunt Matt Rhule for the rest of his coaching career, but his focus should be on getting Baylor back in contention for a Big 12 title.
Texas heads to Waco on Saturday, and while the Longhorns are just 6-4, they’re still dangerous. Baylor can clinch a spot in the Big 12 title game — a likely rematch against No. 9 Oklahoma — with a win, and if they beat the Sooners in Dallas, they have a shot at cracking the playoff field.
As disappointing as the loss to Oklahoma was for Baylor, winning a conference title just two years after going 2-11 would be remarkable. There’s still plenty on the table for Rhule and Co., and it will be fascinating to see how his players respond to their first loss.
Who will emerge in the Group of 5 conference races?
There aren’t any marquee matchups this weekend besides Penn State-Ohio State, so this is a great weekend to get familiar with the G5.
The American Athletic Conference has two big games, with No. 25 SMU (9-1) tangling with Navy (7-2) in a crucial AAC West battle in Annapolis and No. 19 Cincinnati (9-1) hosting Temple (7-3) in a pivotal East matchup. UCF (7-3) at Tulane (6-4) also offers plenty of intrigue, with the Green Wave looking to win eight or more games for the first time since 2002, perhaps making Willie Fritz one of the hottest coaching candidates on the market.
In the Mountain West, No. 20 Boise State (9-1) has a tricky road game against NFL draft darling Jordan Love and Utah State (6-4) as it seeks the G5’s Cotton Bowl bid, while San Diego State (at Hawaii) and Air Force (at New Mexico), both 8-2, look to keep pace.
In Conference USA, Charlotte (5-5) looks to beat East-division leading Marshall (7-3) to become bowl-eligible for the first time as an FBS program, while West-leading Louisiana Tech (8-2) seeks to rebound from its first conference loss in a road game at UAB (7-3). Southern Miss (7-3), meanwhile, can take the top spot in the West with a win over visiting Western Kentucky (6-4) and a Louisiana Tech loss.
In the Sun Belt, Coastal Carolina (4-6) battles UL Monroe (4-6) on Saturday, with the Chanticleers seeking to become bowl-eligible for the first time and the Warhawks trying to keep hope alive for just their second bowl berth in school history and first since 2012. Also Saturday, West division leader Louisiana (8-2) hosts Troy (5-5), which has taken a dip this season after three straight seasons of 10 wins or more but is just one victory away from reaching its fourth straight bowl game.
Most of the #Maction happened earlier this week, but Ball State (4-6) can get back on track for its first bowl berth since 2013 on Saturday by beating Kent State (4-6), itself holding out hope for its second bowl game in its 57-year program history.
Will Pittsburgh vs. Virginia Tech decide the ACC Coastal? The winner of this game will move to 8-3 overall and 5-2 in conference play with just one regular-season game remaining. If Pitt wins Saturday, it needs to beat Boston College and hope for the Hokies to topple rival Virginia to claim the Coastal title. If Virginia Tech wins Saturday, it needs to beat the Cavaliers to win the division. Virginia can make the Pitt-UVA meeting irrelevant by topping Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale — but the Cavaliers haven’t beaten their in-state rival since 2003.
It can’t get worse for Nebraska, right? Coach Scott Frost just got a two-year extension, but if he turns around and loses to Maryland on Saturday, the school might check to see whether the ink is still dry. The Cornhuskers really need some momentum to take into the offseason, but this season might have a few more unpleasant surprises in store.
All eyes are on the Pac-12 now. Will Oregon and Utah stay in the playoff race? It would be very Pac-12 for Oregon and Utah to finally put themselves in position to get into the playoff, only to lose to a pair of mediocre teams. There’s little reason to believe the Ducks (at Arizona State) and Utah (at Arizona) will falter, but, oh, would it be fitting.
Is Michigan surging toward an upset of Ohio State? Since the start of the second half against Penn State a few weeks ago, something has clicked for the Wolverines. In that span, they’ve outscored opponents 141-38. Michigan must get past a tough Indiana team on the road first, but if they do, they’ll be sitting at 9-2 with a chance to pick up their 10th win against hated rival Ohio State. What was once considered a lost season has the potential to be one of Jim Harbaugh’s best in Ann Arbor.
Illinois has already upset one Big Ten West contender. Could it knock off another? Don’t sleep on Lovie Smith’s squad. Wisconsin found out the hard way, losing on a last-second field goal in Champaign, and Michigan State was taught an even tougher lesson, watching the Fighting Illini storm back from a 25-point deficit to win. Illinois has already clinched bowl eligibility, but how sweet would another Top 25 win be for Smith? He gets the chance Saturday at No. 17 Iowa.