In the first seven years of the College Football Playoff, four teams have gobbled up 17 of the 28 available spots: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. After a crazy rivalry week, the sport is close to having a playoff featuring none of the above.
For years, critics of the four-team payoff have argued that expanding the field will be good for the game and get more programs involved. Instead, football’s middle class decided to rise up and defeat the programs that have lorded over the sport since the playoff era started in 2014.
No. 10 Oklahoma was edged by No. 7 Oklahoma State in its first Bedlam loss since 2014 and just third since Mike Gundy took over the Cowboys in 2005. Not to be outdone, No. 2 Ohio State physically collapsed against No. 5 Michigan for its first loss in The Game since 2011. No. 3 Alabama survived — barely — against rival Auburn, but is limping at best and prepares to walk into the wood chipper that is No. 1 Georgia.
Right now, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm projects No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Cincinnati and No. 4 Oklahoma State as the likely playoff field. The Wolverines boast the most recent crown, a split national championship in 1997 that ushered in the BCS. Georgia comes next with a title in 1980. Oklahoma State claims a dubious (sorry, Pokes) Sagarin ratings national championship in 1945, while Cincinnati has no title — or even top-five finish — to claim.
Point is, some fanbase is about to be historically happy. And when that happens, seeing some new blood compete and win at the sport’s highest level is only going to show why expanding the playoff field is a no-brainer.
Few, if any, would have expected teams that rank No. 15, No. 47 and No. 54 in 247Sports Talent Composite to have beaten teams that rank No. 3, No. 6 and No. 12, respectively, in championship-defining situations. When everything is on the line, there are enough good players and coaches throughout the sport to produce mayhem. And with Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson now going to “regular” bowl games, there will be more opportunities than ever for the middle class to show that on any given day, they can compete with the best.
Here are more winners, losers and overreactions from Week 13 of college football.
Michigan: Finally, Jim Harbaugh’s moment has come. After losing his first five matchups against Ohio State, his Wolverines put together the biggest win since he arrived in Ann Arbor. Michigan rushed for nearly 300 yards and made the Buckeyes look soft in one of the most physical displays of the season. Suddenly, it’s Ohio State having to answer existential questions about competing for national championships. In many ways, this is the team that was promised when Harbaugh took over the program in 2015. The Wolverines win with efficient quarterback play, stifling defense and a powerful run game that has become far more multiple under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. There might not be a bigger winner in college football this season … assuming the Wolverines can top Iowa next week and capture their first Big Ten Championship since 2004.
Ed Orgeron: Coach O has had quite the life on the Bayou. First he led LSU to a national championship with Heisman winner Joe Burrow in one of the greatest runs of all time. Then, after his touted assistants left for other jobs, he earned a sizable golden parachute and left to raucous applause as he beat — who else? — reported LSU coaching target Jimbo Fisher and his No. 15 Texas A&M squad 27-24 in his final game as Tigers head coach. Despite the way it ended, Orgeron will be a Louisiana legend forever.
Oklahoma State: Like Michigan, Oklahoma State’s struggles against its rival have defined the program for the last decade. The only two wins for the Cowboys came when they fielded the best team in program history in 2011 and then in 2014. This one was different. Oklahoma State didn’t catch Oklahoma in an off season; playoff hopes were on the line for both programs as the Sooners wind down their time in the Big 12. Down by two scores entering the fourth quarter, it was Oklahoma State emerging as the more physically and mentally strong team, outscoring the Sooners 14-0 and not allowing a single offensive point in the second half. If this is the final moment of Bedlam in Stillwater for years, Oklahoma State fans can rest easy.
Washington State: Few programs have faced the adversity the Cougars have in the last year. Former head coach Nick Rolovich had a very public feud with administration over the COVID-19 vaccine, and he was ultimately fired because of the statewide mandate. Young assistant Jake Dickert was handed the reins to the program midway through the year. However, the Cougars bounced back and won three of their last four Pac-12 games, including a 40-13 victory over rival Washington for their first Apple Cup win since 2012. For his efforts, Wazzu named Dickert the full-time head coach.
Nebraska: I don’t believe in jinxes or curses, but Cornhuskers, what did you do to anger the football gods? Nebraska capped off one of the most unbelievably unlucky seasons in college football history with a record ninth loss by single-digits, a 28-21 decision against No. 16 Iowa. The ‘Huskers held a 21-6 lead with 5:54 remaining in the third quarter, but allowed 22 unanswered points down the stretch, including a two-yard run by Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras to capture the game. Nebraska coach Scott Frost is back for another season in 2022, but for his sake, he had better perform an exorcism on Memorial Stadium before that campaign begins.
UTSA: The good news is that UTSA still hosts Western Kentucky in the Conference USA Championship Game. Going 11-1 is an unprecedented moment for one of the nation’s youngest programs and head coach Jeff Traylor has made a commitment to the program for the long term. The bad news is that the Roadrunners followed up an emotional win over UAB with an incredible 45-23 letdown at North Texas that ended their perfect season and allowed the Mean Green to earn bowl eligibility. UTSA may not finish the season ranked in the top 25 after the loss, and the likelihood of quality bowls taking interest in a now one-loss Conference USA squad has diminished greatly.
Wisconsin: Heading into rivalry week, Wisconsin’s season could be broken up into two parts: Pre-Braylon Allen and post-Braylon Allen. But in a 23-13 loss to Minnesota, the No. 14 Badgers proved that the second-half renaissance had much more to do with competition level than the introduction of a talented freshman running back alone. The Gophers held Wisconsin to just 62 yards rushing and 233 total yards in the loss as the Badgers blew their chances to make the Big Ten Championship Game.
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Bryce Young is the new Heisman frontrunner
With 90 seconds remaining and the ball at its own 3-yard line against Auburn, the obituaries were being written of Alabama’s 2021 campaign. Then, Young happened.
While facing immense pressure behind a struggling offensive line, the redshirt freshman completed four passes for 83 yards in 71 seconds, including a 28-yard bomb to Ja’Corey Brooks to send the Iron Bowl into overtime. Young then threw another touchdown and a pair of two-point conversions into the end zone to finally outlast the Tigers in quadruple overtime of a 24-22 win.
Auburn is far from a quality opponent — and the Crimson Tide are far from a surefire national title contender — but that doesn’t matter. On a day when fellow lead contender C.J. Stroud lost his rivalry game to miss the Big Ten title game, Young’s heroics will ferry him to the front of the Heisman race. Now, he just needs to do the same against Georgia’s No. 1 defense to win.
The ‘new’ Big 12 is setting up nicely
When Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby got the message that Texas and Oklahoma were departing the conference for the SEC in July, there’s no way he could have known that the future could look this bright come November.
On Saturday, Oklahoma’s six-year reign of dominance came to an end. Elsewhere, No. 24 Houston cemented its spot in the top 25 and could play spoiler against No. 4 Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game next week. While the league will miss Oklahoma, the Big 12 instead adds the Bearcats, a projected playoff participant, in its place. Texas, conversely, missed just its fourth bowl game since 1998 as it suffered through their worst losing streak since 1956 under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian. Even in a down season, UCF found its way to eight wins under its first-year coach Gus Malzahn.
While Oklahoma and Texas are still the only programs in the Big 12 to win multiple national championships, the top-to-bottom football quality of the new Big 12 suddenly seems to be in a strong position. With Baylor, Oklahoma State and Cincinnati on the precipice of locking up their highly-regarded coaches long term, the on-field future appears bright for the new league.
Granted, the $100 million question — literally — is how the broadcast networks see the Big 12 heading forward. There’s no guarantee that power-brokers in the sport value winning football (shoutout to the Longhorns). However, the league having multiple apparent playoff contenders in the coming years at least gives the Big 12 a solid baseline.