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College Football

College football storylines, Week 12: Ohio State and Alabama on the rise, Cincinnati and Oregon on the edge and more

Rivalry week and conference championship games loom, but there’s still plenty to sort out down the stretch in college football. Here’s what to watch this week, starting with a look at the race for No. 2:

Who’s a bigger threat to Georgia: Ohio State or Alabama?

We might find out Saturday. No. 4 Ohio State hosts No. 7 Michigan State (noon, ABC), while No. 2 Alabama hosts No. 21 Arkansas (3:30 p.m., CBS). Both the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide are favored by nearly three touchdowns, so comfortable wins are expected. But when it comes to impressing the playoff committee, style points matter.

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After overcoming a slow start that included a loss to Oregon, Ohio State has played like the best team in the country outside of Athens, Georgia. With a dominant 59-31 win over Purdue, the Buckeyes have risen to No. 2 in ESPN’s SP+ rankings, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency. That includes the nation’s No. 1 offense and a defense that has climbed to No. 14, making the Buckeyes perhaps the most complete team in the country. Georgia’s offense has been effective behind quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, but Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud has blossomed into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country.

Not to be outdone is Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. The sophomore has put up some of the best stats in the country, ranking fourth in Total QBR. When it comes to skill-position talent on offense, Alabama’s combination of running back Brian Robinson Jr. and wide receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie III trails only Ohio State’s group of running back TreVeyon Henderson and wide receivers Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

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Of course, all that talent might not be enough to score more than 14 points against Georgia. As effective as Alabama and Ohio State have been on offense, the Bulldogs have been even better on defense. When it comes to the playoff, it’s a safe bet we’ll see some combination of these three teams. Whether the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide have enough firepower remains a mystery.

Can Cincinnati stay in this?

Say what you will about Cincinnati’s strength of schedule, but the Bearcats can only play the teams in front of them. Unfortunately, the playoff committee has made it known time and again that it’s not how you play, but who you play.

That makes Cincinnati’s margin for error perilously thin. It’s not enough to go undefeated against an American Athletic Conference schedule with a win over Notre Dame — the Bearcats need to look dominant while doing it. That’s been a struggle of late, with close wins over Navy and Tulsa and a sloppy first half against South Florida raising doubts about Cincinnati’s strength.

But the Bearcats have a chance to put some of those doubts to rest Saturday against SMU (3:30 p.m., ESPN). The Mustangs might not be ranked, but they are 8-2 with one of the best offenses in the country. If Cincinnati can shut them down, that will go a long way toward bolstering what’s likely to be an undefeated resume.

Can Oregon hang on, too?

It’s Week 12, and Oregon is still in the playoff hunt — for now. There’s still plenty of work to be done to seal the deal.

That starts with a potential Pac-12 championship game preview Saturday night against No. 23 Utah (7:30 p.m., ABC), which has quietly won six of its last seven games after a 1-2 start. While it’s normally the defense doing most of the heavy lifting for the Utes, dual-threat quarterback Cameron Rising and the three-headed monster of running backs Tavion Thomas, TJ Pledger and Micah Bernard have formed one of the best offenses in the country.

There’s a reason Utah is favored at home. Quarterback Anthony Brown and the Ducks have plenty of work ahead of them if they want to stay inside the top four heading into championship weekend. Even if Oregon wins out, Ohio State, Alabama, Cincinnati and maybe even Notre Dame might have a better claim come Selection Sunday.

Is the Big 12 out of the playoff race?

Oklahoma’s loss to Baylor last weekend might have shut the Big 12 out of the playoff, but there’s still some hope. It just might reside with the Sooners’ in-state rival.

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After a 24-21 loss to Iowa State, No. 9 Oklahoma State has won three straight by a margin of 142-23. Those wins came against conference bottom-feeders Kansas, West Virginia and TCU, but it shows just how dominant the Cowboys can be. They’ll need to stay focused Saturday night (8 p.m., Fox) against a suddenly resurgent Texas Tech team coming off a 41-38 upset of Iowa State.

Last week’s 63-17 win over TCU might have been a breakthrough for the Cowboys’ offense, which has struggled to reach its usual heights under coach Mike Gundy. Fortunately, the defense has been rock solid all season. This final stretch against Texas Tech and Oklahoma and a likely berth in the Big 12 championship game will determine if Oklahoma State is just a good team or a real playoff contender.

Also keep an eye on …

No. 10 Wake Forest at Clemson (noon, ESPN): One of the nation’s best offenses meets one of the nation’s best defenses in a crucial ACC clash. Quarterback Sam Hartman and Wake Forest average 44.7 points per game, while Brent Venables’ Clemson defense allows just 15.3 points per game. Something has to give.

Iowa State at No. 13 Oklahoma (noon, Fox): The Sooners’ playoff dreams took a big hit last weekend, but they can still win the Big 12. Can freshman quarterback Caleb Williams bounce back from his worst start of the season, or will the Cyclones finally play up to their potential after losing two of their last three?

Rutgers at Penn State (noon, Big Ten Network): Coach Greg Schiano is one win away from getting the Scarlet Knights bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. Penn State is the better team, but the Nittany Lions are coming off a tough loss to Michigan and might not be very inspired as rumors swirl about coach James Franklin’s future. This one could be close.

Georgia Tech at No. 8 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., NBC): Should the Fighting Irish be considered playoff contenders? That loss to Cincinnati will probably keep them out, unless the Bearcats slip up. In the meantime, Notre Dame is cruising toward an 11-win season. Yellow Jackets quarterback Jeff Sims will be a challenge for coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense.

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No. 6 Michigan at Maryland (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network): On paper, this looks like a tune-up for the Wolverines ahead of a huge game against Ohio State next weekend. But the Terps are fighting for that elusive sixth win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2016 and usually give at least one Big Ten power a scare.

Nebraska at No. 15 Wisconsin (3:30 p.m., ABC): The Badgers have followed a 1-3 start with six straight wins and are likely to represent the West in the Big Ten championship game. The Cornhuskers have played well against some of the best teams on their schedule, but haven’t been able to close out a big win. Nebraska coach Scott Frost could use a pick-me-up heading into the home stretch.

Virginia at No. 18 Pittsburgh (3:30 p.m., ESPN2): The Panthers clinch the ACC Coastal with a win Saturday, but the Cavaliers can keep their division title hopes alive with a victory. It’s a matchup of two of the best quarterbacks in the country, with Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong ranking fifth and second, respectively, in passing yards per game.

UAB at No. 22 UTSA (3:30 p.m., ESPN+): In 2015, UAB didn’t have a football program and UTSA was only in its fourth season at the FBS level. Now they’re facing off with the West division crown at stake in Conference USA.

Louisiana at Liberty (4 p.m., ESPNU): The Ragin’ Cajuns’ Levi Lewis and the Flames’ Malik Willis are two of the most electric quarterbacks in college football. Louisiana has already locked up a spot in the Sun Belt championship game, but their nine-game winning streak is on the line.

UCLA at USC (4 p.m., Fox): There isn’t much at stake, but the uniforms are beautiful, the setting is immaculate and there’s a bunch of future NFL talent on the field. Keep an eye on USC outside linebacker Drake Jackson, a potential first-round pick.


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