Thanksgiving week is here, which means it’s rivalry week in college football.
Let’s dive into a buffet of intriguing questions for Week 14.
Can Alabama make one last playoff statement with Mac Jones at quarterback?
After losing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to a season-ending hip injury, it seemed that all hope was lost for the Crimson Tide to reach the College Football Playoff.
Yet here they are, clinging to the No. 5 ranking with one more chance to make a statement for inclusion in the four-team field. Standing in their way is their hated in-state rival, Auburn.
The No. 15 Tigers haven’t been able to beat any of the SEC’s top teams, but they haven’t been a pushover, either, losing to Florida, LSU and Georgia by an average of seven points. Auburn might have the best defensive line in the country, led by Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown, and that means Tide quarterback Mac Jones might have to win the game with his arm.
Jones has been steady filling in for Tagovailoa, throwing for 235 yards and three touchdowns against Arkansas and 275 yards and 3 TDs against Western Carolina. But against Tennessee and Mississippi State, teams that at least offered some resistance, he completed less than 60% of his passes with zero touchdowns.
Backed by an improved defense (up to No. 6 in SP+), Alabama should be able to rely on star running back Najee Harris and a strong group of receivers to score enough points to win. But will a close victory be enough to impress the committee?
An 11-1 Alabama, even with a soft strength of schedule, will be hard to deny. But if the Tide want to jump a possible 12-1 Power 5 champion from the Big 12 and/or Pac-12, they’ll need to leave no doubt Saturday that they’re one of the four best teams in the country. Anything short of a convincing win might keep them out of the playoff field for the first time ever.
How will Minnesota handle the pressure of its biggest game in recent memory?
When the Golden Gophers needed to rise to the occasion against then-No. 4 Penn State, they left no doubt that they were true Big Ten title contenders. Now, they host No. 12 Wisconsin in a battle for the Big Ten West crown with visions of a conference championship dancing in their heads.
The Badgers can put those dreams to bed. Since losing back-to-back games to Illinois and Ohio State, Wisconsin has won three straight and has climbed back into the top 10 in most efficiency rankings (SP+, Sagarin, Massey Composite). Jonathan Taylor continues to build his case as one of the most productive running backs in NCAA history, rushing for at least 200 yards in the past three games.
Minnesota should be able to slow down Taylor and quarterback Jack Coan, but the Gophers offense is the key. Behind uber-efficient QB Tanner Morgan, Minnesota ranks eighth in offensive SP+, but they’ll face a stiff test from a Wisconsin defense that ranks third in SP+.
According to Vegas, the Badgers are field-goal favorites. But this Minnesota team has defied expectations all year. Why would it stop now?
Will the streak finally end in the Commonwealth Cup?
Virginia Tech has beaten Virginia in 15 straight meetings. The Cavaliers’ last win in this storied rivalry came in 2003 — when UVA’s current players were still in grade school.
At stake Saturday isn’t just the end of the streak, but a spot in the ACC title game opposite Clemson. Plus, if Virginia wins, it would become the seventh unique ACC Coastal champion in the past seven seasons, one of the most remarkable oddities in the sport’s history.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is looking to complete a stunning midseason turnaround under fourth-year coach Justin Fuente, who was seemingly on the hot seat after the Hokies were blown out at home by Duke, 45-10, on Sept. 27, and fell to 2-2. Since then, Virginia Tech has won six of its past seven games, with the lone loss coming in the final minute to then-No. 16 Notre Dame.
The winner of this game likely gets the conference’s Orange Bowl berth, too. With so much on the line, now would be a perfect time for Virginia to end the streak.
Who can gain more style points this weekend: LSU or Ohio State?
The Tigers and Buckeyes can both lose this weekend and still win their respective conferences and make the playoff. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything on the line.
With both teams fighting for the playoff’s No. 1 seed, this weekend offers a chance to make a statement. If Ohio State beats No. 13 Michigan handily, it keeps its grip on the top spot. But if the Buckeyes struggle and LSU dominates Texas A&M, we could see another flip at the top of the rankings.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Michigan and Texas A&M are good enough to pull off upsets, and if they do, what has so far been a chalky season might devolve into chaos heading into conference championship weekend.
Who’s going to win the Group of 5 conferences?
Let’s start in the American Athletic Conference, where No. 18 Memphis hosts No. 19 Cincinnati on Saturday. If the Tigers win, they host the Bearcats again in the conference title game the following weekend. If Memphis loses and Navy beats Houston, Cincinnati hosts the Midshipmen for the conference title. The AAC champ is likely headed to the Cotton Bowl, too, so there’s also a New Year’s Six bowl bid up for grabs.
In Conference-USA, Florida Atlantic (vs. Southern Miss) and Marshall (vs. Florida International) are battling for the East division title, while UAB (at North Texas), Louisiana Tech (vs. UTSA) and Southern Miss scrap for the West crown. To win the East, FAU needs a win or a Marshall loss, while Marshall needs a win and an FAU loss. To win the West, UAB needs a win and a Southern Miss loss; Louisiana Tech needs a win and a UAB loss; and Southern Miss needs a win and a Louisiana Tech loss.
If the three West teams finish in a three-way tie (either at 6-2 or 5-3), the tiebreaker would be decided by highest average computer ranking (Anderson and Hester, Billingsley, Colley Matrix, Massey, Sagarin and Wolfe) after a late change to the rules by the conference.
In the MAC, Miami (Ohio) has already claimed the East title, but the West is still up for grabs. Central Michigan can clinch the division with a win over Toledo on Saturday, but a loss would hand the title to Western Michigan, which beat CMU earlier in the season.
The Mountain West and Sun Belt divisions have already been wrapped up, with No. 20 Boise State and Hawaii meeting for the Mountain West championship and No. 25 Appalachian State and Louisiana facing off for the Sun Belt crown next weekend. Boise State (at Colorado State) and Appalachian State (at Troy) don’t have conference titles at stake this weekend, but both can ill afford a loss if they want to stay in contention for the Group of 5 bid to the Cotton Bowl.
Some smaller questions worth asking
No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 9 Baylor and No. 6 Utah are still in the playoff race. Will one of them drop out this weekend? The Sooners appear the most vulnerable, facing No. 21 Oklahoma State on the road after eking out three close victories in a row. The team that almost knocked them out for good, Baylor, should have no problem beating Kansas, but the Jayhawks, even at 3-8, are much improved under Les Miles. Utah, meanwhile, has been dominant lately, and there’s no reason to believe it will let its foot off the gas as it tries to make a statement to the playoff committee. But nobody thought Arizona State would beat Oregon, either.
Can Nebraska salvage this season by reaching a bowl? Farmageddon! That’s what the Iowa-Nebraska rivalry should be called, anyway. The Cornhuskers need a win to become bowl eligible, and while most Nebraska fans didn’t think it would take until the final weekend to get there, a victory over the No. 17 Hawkeyes would make for a much calmer offseason for Scott Frost.
Can Oregon State knock off its in-state rival to become bowl eligible? Oregon’s loss to Arizona State took some hype out of the Civil War, but you can bet the Beavers, 3-21 the past two seasons, are jacked up to win their sixth game — and do it against their hated rivals.
Who needs a win more: Washington or Washington State? This isn’t the best Apple Cup we’ve had in awhile, but what it lacks in stakes it more than makes up for in anxiety. The Cougars have lost the past six meetings, but if they can break the streak, it would be another disappointing result in a season full of them for Chris Petersen and the Huskies.