10 storylines for Week 12 of the college football season

By Jesse Reed

Week 12 of the college football season will separate at least one or two contenders from the pretenders.

There are some incredibly important games on this weekend’s schedule, with playoff implications galore. Because there are so many good teams with one loss and only a handful of undefeated programs left on the table, every win is worth its weight in gold, so to speak.

These are the top storylines as we get ready for the busy weekend of action.

1. Now we get to see how good Ohio State really is

After a season that has presented very little test to the No. 3 Buckeyes, the final two games will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt if this team is as good as we all think it should be.

Michigan State (No. 9) is up first in Columbus, and then Ohio State will hit the road to take on Michigan at The Big House.

Courtesy of USA Today ImagesThe Spartans can put up points on the board, but their defense is susceptible to giving them up. Connor Cook is expected to start, but he’ll be harassed all night long by the likes of Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Darron Lee and Co. and will be hard pressed to lead the Spartans to their 33 points on average.

On paper, given Ohio State’s dominant defense and overpowering rushing attack should be able to propel the Buckeyes to victory at home. But given the way this team has underperformed offensively for much of the season anything is possible, and nobody should be surprised if the Spartans find inspiration and come away with a huge win.

2. Can TCU play spoiler to Oklahoma’s playoff bid?

Oklahoma (No. 7) opened up plenty of eyes by imposing its will upon previously unbeaten Baylor in Texas last weekend, and now another Texas team stands in the way of the Sooners’ run towards the playoffs.

TCU (No. 12) heads into Memorial Stadium Saturday night on crutches, so to speak, with an injured quarterback and star receiver. Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson are officially “questionable” to play, according to head coach Gary Patterson, who’ll need both to have much of a chance to beat Oklahoma. Should Boykin be unable to go, then Patterson said redshirt freshman Foster Sawyer (1-of-7 for 42 yards and a touchdown last weekend) would likely be the next man up.

For the Sooners, TCU’s porous defense should provide little resistance, meaning the Horned Frogs will need to score often to pull off an upset. Baker Mayfield has been on fire the past five games, scoring 19 total touchdowns, and the running game has been steamrolling opposing defenses.

It would seem the Horned Frogs have little chance to win this game, limping in as they are. That said, Oklahoma lost to Texas earlier this year, proving anything is possible.

3. Baylor would love to do the same to Oklahoma State

Courtesy of USA Today Images

With one loss, Baylor (No. 10) head coach Art Briles certainly believes his team still has a chance to work back into the playoff picture by winning out. Oklahoma still has TCU and Oklahoma State (No. 5) and could certainly lose one or both of those games, which would make Baylor the conference winner with just one loss and a win over the Cowboys.

Thankfully for the Bears, freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham is going to be “fine,” per Briles, after he was banged up pretty badly in the first quarter against the Sooners. It will surely help their cause if Stidham can connect with Corey Coleman, who was held to just 51 yards on three catches last weekend, and who failed to catch a touchdown for the first time all year.

The Cowboys have a big edge in the contest in terms of defense, featuring one of the most dangerous pass-rushing units in the nation. With 35 sacks already, defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer has shown no hesitation to send pressure from all sorts of angles in order to create turnovers. With 15 interceptions and nine forced fumbles, his approach is working.

This should be a very entertaining game and should feature plenty of splash plays on both sides of the ball. And the implications of a win for both teams loom large.

4. One step closer to history for Keenan Reynolds

Navy’s 2015 campaign has been a tremendous success. The No. 17-ranked Midshipmen have lost but one game (to Notre Dame), thanks to some outstanding play by senior quarterback Reynolds, who recently broke Montee Ball’s FBS record for rushing touchdowns.

Now, with 81 career rushing scores, Reynolds is just three away from the NCAA all-divisions record of 84, which was set by Adrian Peterson of Georgia Southern between 1998-2001.

Reynolds runs the nation’s No. 2-ranked rushing attack, averaging 335 yards per game. He and his juggernaut offense will attempt to run over Tulsa Saturday, and the going should be easy. The Golden Hurricane ranks near the bottom in run defense, allowing over 220 yards per game. This one could get ugly — fast — and Reynolds could make his way into the all-time record books once again in the process.

5. Will Clemson continue playing down to competition?

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney knows it’s time for the top-ranked Tigers to push the pedal to the metal the next couple of weeks, rather than playing down to their competition.

Clemson“We need to really put the hammer down and put our best foot forward each and every day. It’s not a time to grow weary. It’s a time to grow stronger and to accelerate to the finish line, not cruise,” he said, per The State.

Syracuse gave Clemson quite a scare last weekend, and it took some effort in the second half by the Tigers to avoid an upset. Complacency better not be part of the equation on Saturday when Clemson hosts Wake Forest, which is better than its 4-6 record indicates.

If not for some trouble in the red zone and a tremendous lapse in defense on a 98-yard run by Josh Adams of Notre Dame, then the Demon Deacons would have been much closer on the scoreboard than the 28-7 final. They held Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer to just 111 yards passing and shut down dynamic receiver Will Fuller most of the game.

It will be fascinating to see if Deshaun Watson has better luck than Kizer did against this extremely tough defense. If not, then Clemson’s defense will have to pick up the slack and dominate the Demon Deacons.

6. Will Nick Saban care about Derrick Henry’s Heisman campaign?

In the past, Saban hasn’t hesitated to pull his starters in blowout wins against cupcake opponents. Needless to say, Charleston Southern constitutes a cupcake, and there is a change the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide will have the game put away before halftime.

If Saban decides to leave his back in long enough to rack up 200-plus rushing yards — something Henry has done three of the last four games — even if ‘Bama is already up big, then he’s running the risk of getting his ticket to a national championship injured. Chances are, he won’t do this, and perhaps he won’t need to.

Player management will be a factor in this upcoming game for the Crimson Tide. Given the way Henry has dominated against top-level competition, and given his 19 rushing touchdowns already, perhaps he doesn’t need to play much in this upcoming contest, regardless. He’ll have chances to make a huge impact in his stats against Auburn and then again in the SEC Championship Game to close out the year.

7. Will Leonard Fournette resurrect his Heisman campaign?

Leonard Fournette

If Fournette fails to hit the 100-yard mark for the third straight game, then LSU will be in danger of losing three in a row. The Heisman hopeful running back was well on his way to running away with the award before Alabama made him irrelevant in Week 10. He ran for just 31 yards in that game and then followed up that atrocious outing with a 91-yard effort against Arkansas last weekend.

Ole Miss is up next on the schedule for Fournette and the Tigers. If he has any chance of catching Derrick Henry from ‘Bama, Fournette needs to have a huge game on the road in Oxford. The Rebels have been stout against the run, however, allowing just 3.2 yards per carry and five touchdowns all season. Head coach Hugh Freeze knows his defense is up for a huge challenge.

“You’re playing one of the best backs probably in the history of the SEC,” Hugh Freeze said Monday (h/t foxsports.com). “It’s a tremendous challenge. You have to gang tackle. You have to run to the football. He’s just one of the best players that will ever come through this conference, and that says a lot.”

When Fournette isn’t hot, neither is LSU. It’s time for both to get back on track this weekend.

8. Why isn’t Dalvin Cook getting more Heisman love?

FSU’s Cook is the most dynamic all-around running back in the nation, and he may have the best pro potential of the bunch of outstanding backs putting up huge numbers this year around the nation. He also has big-time stats and plays for one of the top teams in college football, yet he continually is overlooked when talking Heisman favorites.

There is no good reason for this. Averaging an astounding 8.1 yards per carry, Cook is putting up 152.1 rushing yards per game, has scored 15 total touchdowns and has added 202 yards receiving — all while missing one-and-a-half games due to injury.

While he’s behind Henry in our book (those 19 touchdowns and monster production against ranked opponents matter — a lot), Cook should be right up there with Fournette as a close second in the rankings.

Chattanooga is up next for Cook and Florida State (No. 14). The Mocs haven’t fared well against top ranked opponents in the past and shouldn’t present much of a challenge. After breaking Warrick Dunn’s single-season rushing record last weekend, Cook should have another huge game on his way to New York this December.

9. Shamrock Classic at Fenway Park

Courtesy of USA Today Images

If you get the opportunity Saturday evening to tune into NBC, then by all means do it. No. 4 Notre Dame is “hosting” Boston College at Fenway Park, where the crowd will undoubtedly be pro-Eagles. It’s going to be interesting to see The Green Monster as a backdrop for football, and despite Boston College’s status as a bottom-dweller in the ACC the atmosphere should be supercharged with excitement.

Brian Kelly — the most underrated head coach in college football — must get his team back on track after a frustrating game against Wake last weekend. The Demon Deacons controlled the clock and kept the Irish from getting into a rhythm on offense by keeping DeShone Kizer and Co. on the sideline as much as possible.

The Eagles come into the game after a week off on a very late bye. Head coach Steve Addazio is happy his players will be fresh after the break but lamented the lateness of the bye, calling it “ridiculous,” per ESPN’s Jared Shanker. Boston College had lost six straight heading into the bye and should be easy prey for the playoff-hopeful Irish.

10. Iowa’s quest for perfection rumbles on

The playoff committee still doesn’t see undefeated Iowa (No. 6) as worthy of getting in, but there can be no doubt about the Hawkeyes making it as one of the four finalists if they should win out. With two regular-season games remaining and then the Big Ten Championship Game, a perfect 13-0 season would propel them into the No. 4 spot over any one-loss team, you would think.

This weekend’s test against Purdue should be somewhat of a reprieve for Iowa, which just got past more difficult foes Indiana and Minnesota by a total of 12 points.

Given the Boilermakers’ inability to stop the run — 2,104 yards and 22 touchdowns allowed on the ground — it’s easy to predict a huge blowout at home for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been a buzz saw lately on the ground and continue to churn out running backs at a prodigious pace, with four players at six touchdowns or more.

Look for Kirk Ferentz’s players to continue playing at the highest level as the Hawkeyes roll at home to continue being a thorn in the side of the one-loss teams who desperately need them to lose a game to get into the playoff.