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College football storylines, Week 14: BYU vs. Coastal Carolina is a match made in heaven

A late change to the schedule might have given us the best matchup of the college football season. Here’s what to watch in Week 14:

A cause for celebration (No. 13 BYU at No. 18 Coastal Carolina, Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPNU)

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Disregard the College Football Playoff, the Group of Five and buzzwords like “strength of schedule” for just a moment. Let’s just sit back and enjoy what happened here.

Coastal Carolina, needing to find a new opponent after Liberty was forced to suspend its season because of COVID-19 concerns, called up BYU, which had an open date this weekend. The Cougars have played all season with the mantra “any team, any time, any place,” so of course they jumped at the opportunity to face a fellow undefeated team.

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For a sport that has long been decided by schedules set years ahead of time (get excited for Ohio State at Alabama in 2027!), this was a rare moment when teams experiencing historic seasons looked around the national landscape, spotted a fellow competitor with something to prove and made a meeting happen in less than a week’s notice.

This game won’t alter the playoff picture or draw the same number of television viewers that matchups like Alabama at LSU or even Clemson at Virginia Tech will, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s not about that, nor should it be.

There’s this idea that the only thing that matters is the playoff, and falling short of it means a season isn’t a success. For the Group of Five teams, the playoff will never be a reality until the field expands. For a major independent such as BYU, an undefeated season against quality opponents — and some chaos in the Power Five — is the only realistic path into the top four.

So why does this game matter? Coastal Carolina, in just its fourth season at the FBS level, is 9-0 and beat a ranked opponent (No. 21 Louisiana) for the first time in its history earlier this year. For what coach Jamey Chadwell is trying to build, this game is a huge opportunity to show recruits around the country that his program can hang with a perennially winning team at the peak of its powers — and maybe even beat it.

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For BYU, it’s a chance to build on an already impressive season that has Kalani Sitake feeling emotional when talking about how proud he is of his team. The Cougars haven’t been ranked this highly since 2009, when Sitake was an assistant at Utah and his star quarterback Zach Wilson was 10 years old.

So don’t worry about the rankings, or what the playoff committee thinks. Just enjoy what could be one of the best games of the year.

Is Ohio State in trouble? (No. 4 Ohio State at Michigan State, Saturday, noon, ABC)

After talking about two schools for which playoff rankings shouldn’t matter, let’s talk about one where it’s the only thing that does.

It’s mid-December, and the Buckeyes are only 4-0. They had to cancel games against Maryland and Illinois because of COVID-19 concerns at those schools, and were in jeopardy of missing a third with their own coronavirus issues before returning to practice this week. Coach Ryan Day will be out Saturday after testing positive last week.

So far, those four wins have been enough to keep Ohio State in the playoff field and on track for its annual spot in the Big Ten title game. But if they have to cancel another game, they’d fall below the minimum number required to be eligible for the conference championship.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit raised some eyebrows during Tuesday’s playoff rankings show when he said that Michigan, which had to cancel Saturday’s game against Maryland, could choose not to play its game against Ohio State next weekend, thus denying the Buckeyes the East division title. Herbstreit later apologized, and Michigan has given no indication that it intends to skip its remaining game.

But what if the Wolverines can’t safely play the Buckeyes on Dec. 12? Would an Ohio State team without a conference title, and with its best win coming against Indiana, get in over a one-loss champion or runner-up in the other major conferences that’s played eight or more games? It’s a tough call.

It’s likely that the committee will consider Ohio State one of the four best teams if it remains undefeated and doesn’t show many signs of weakness, like it did in nearly blowing a huge lead against the Hoosiers. But a little slip-up, perhaps against an unpredictable Michigan State team this Saturday, could seal the Buckeyes’ playoff fate.

Other things to watch

What a difference a year makes (No. 1 Alabama at LSU, Saturday, 8 p.m., CBS): This matchup delivered perhaps the game of the year in 2019, a 46-41 shootout won by Joe Burrow and the Tigers over Tua Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide. Both quarterbacks are now throwing passes in the NFL; the difference is who’s filled their big shoes. Tagovailoa’s replacement, Mac Jones, is a Heisman Trophy candidate piloting the best offense in the country, while Myles Brennan, T.J. Finley and Co. have struggled to move the ball consistently. It should be a breeze for Bama, but this rivalry could produce a surprise.

Tough road test for Aggies (No. 5 Texas A&M at Auburn, Saturday, noon, ESPN): Kellen Mond and the Aggies still have a chance at cracking the playoff field, but they have no more margin for error. Auburn is mediocre on both offense and defense this season, ranking 38th in overall efficiency, but has enough talent to put a scare in Texas A&M at home, especially if Mond continues to struggle.

Book building his case (Syracuse at No. 2 Notre Dame, Saturday, 2:30 p.m., NBC): The Fighting Irish should have no trouble against the Orange, who have been one of the worst teams in the country this season, ranking 116th in efficiency. It’s a nice opportunity for quarterback Ian Book to pad his stats for a potential Heisman Trophy campaign.

Vols need a victory (No. 6 Florida at Tennessee, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): It’s been a disappointing season for the Volunteers, who have lost five straight after a promising 2-0 start. Beating the rival Gators and knocking them out of playoff contention would be a small consolation prize for Jeremy Pruitt’s team after failing to meet high expectations. The Vols at least need to show signs of life.

Plenty to play for in Big Ten (No. 12 Indiana at No. 16 Wisconsin, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC): Neither team will likely have a chance to compete for a Big Ten title, but there’s still plenty on the line. The Hoosiers could add another signature win to a season full of them, while the Badgers are looking to finish strong and build momentum for 2021 after having three games canceled. Indiana quarterback Jack Tuttle has big shoes to fill after Michael Penix Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury against Maryland.

Herman on the hot seat? (Texas at Kansas State, Saturday, noon, Fox): Is this Tom Herman’s last stand? The Longhorns coach hasn’t taken the program to the heights its fans and alumni believe it should reach, and a loss to a mediocre Kansas State team would only make his seat warmer. His reported buyout of nearly $15 million would seem prohibitive, but we know the pockets are deep among the Texas boosters.

Patterson’s encore (Buffalo at Ohio, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBSSN): St. Vincent Pallotti graduate Jaret Patterson has rushed for 300 yards in two consecutive games, including last weekend’s record-setting performance of 409 yards and eight rushing touchdowns, which tied the NCAA single-game record. Does he have another 300-yard day in him?

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