Top storylines heading into college football Week 12

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Compared to the last couple of weekends, college football Week 12 is shaping up to be quite the snooze fest barring some huge upsets. There were 14 ranked versus ranked matchups in week 10 and week 11 combined, but this weekend there is only one.

There isn’t a whole lot of action left in the regular season. Unlike the NFL, college football teams typically schedule easy opponents at various points during the season. This weekend is the calm before the storm that is coming in the final surge of the regular season before conference championship games.

These are the biggest storylines from a relatively docile slate of games in college football Week 12.

Alabama’s cupcake party

It’s always nice to celebrate a hard-fought win with a party. The Alabama Crimson Tide needed every bit of offensive firepower Jalen Hurts could muster last weekend to pull out a road win over Mississippi State and stay undefeated. To celebrate that win, they get to come back home and host Mercer, which has gone 5-5 this year and is in fifth place in the Southern Conference.

Needless to say, ‘Bama will still be undefeated heading into Week 13. Likely, this game will give Nick Saban the opportunity to rest many of his top players for most of the game. It’s a well-needed reprieve for a roster that’s been hit hard by injuries in 2017 and has the Iron Bowl against Auburn coming up next.

Will TCU finish strong?

It’s been a disappointing past few weeks for Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs. They went into the Iowa State game undefeated and were stunned by the Cyclones. Two weeks later, Oklahoma cleaned their clocks in a prime-time matchup that didn’t live up to the hype.

Still, with just two losses, TCU is in second place heading into the final two weeks of its regular season. If the Horned Frogs win out, they’ll have a chance to play for the conference championship on Dec. 2. Likely, it’ll pit them against the Sooners once again for a grudge match.

Texas Tech is hosting TCU this Saturday. And while the Red Raiders have fallen off a cliff during the second half — five losses in their last seven games — they still are quite dangerous offensively. The Horned Frogs need to get back to playing the kind of defense they played the first half of the season. If they can do that, they’ll win. Period.

Potential trap game for Miami

Miami Hurricanes

We saw it in the week after Ohio State beat Penn State. Emotional games like the one Miami just played against Notre Dame can take a toll on how a team plays the week afterwards. The Hurricanes honestly shouldn’t have any trouble with Virginia. But Ohio State should have wiped the floor with Iowa, too, and lost big.

For Mark Richt’s club, it’s all about maintaining that razor’s edge focus that propelled them to big wins in consecutive weeks over both Virginia Tech and the Irish. Provided they do that, the Hurricanes will romp at home against the Cavaliers, who’ve lost three of their last four games.

That said, with an easy opponent in Week 12 and two tougher games ahead to close out the season against Pittsburgh and Clemson, this is most definitely a trap game.

Michigan looking to play spoiler

The two losses on Michigan’s record, combined with the fact the Wolverines have yet to beat a single team with a winning record, have ensured they are out of the playoff chase. Michigan knows this. We all know this. But the Wolverines do have a great reason for finishing the season strong besides landing a sweet bowl berth: They want to keep their rivals from achieving their own goals.

Center Patrick Kugler laid this out pretty succinctly when he said, “It’s just kind of fun to ruin peoples’ season,” while noting his team has embraced the role of villain to close out the year.

Wisconsin has yet to lose a game this year. The Badgers just laid waste to Iowa last weekend, holding the Hawkeyes to an astonishing 66 total yards and five first downs. So clearly, they’re playing excellent defense right now and could prove too difficult a challenge for Michigan, which isn’t great offensively right now. The same can be said for Alex Hornibrook and the Badgers’ passing game, however.

So this game is going to be very intriguing, both from a micro and a macro perspective. Can either team move the ball and score? Can Michigan knock Wisconsin out of the playoff for good? We cannot wait to find out.

For Auburn it’s all about staying in the groove

The Tigers made a huge statement last weekend dismantling the No. 1 ranked team in the nation. Both offensively and defensively, they were in a tremendous groove, winning that game over Georgia by the score of 40-17.

Auburn doesn’t have much of a challenge this Saturday at home in the form of Louisiana Monroe. The Tigers are favored to win by more than five touchdowns and should handle their opponent with ease. So this upcoming game is more about maintaining the momentum this team has built up since losing to LSU than anything else. Especially with Alabama looming on the horizon.

Perfect chance to rebound for Mississippi State

The Bulldogs put forth a commendable effort last weekend at home against the Crimson Tide. They did almost everything right, but ultimately the Tide rolled on like they always do.

Mississippi State should find the sledding considerably easier this weekend on the road against an Arkansas squad that has given up over 35 points per game this year and hasn’t come remotely close to beating a ranked team.

In particular, we expect Mississippi State to have a field day running the ball against an awful Razorbacks defense. It’s just what the doctor ordered for at team that came oh, so close to taking down one of the giants of college football.

Knights continue to charge to the finish line

UCF head coach Scott Frost

There isn’t a hotter team in college football than the UCF Knights. Led by young head coach Scott Frost — a guy who’s being looked at by many top programs for next year — the Knights lead the FBS in scoring offense and have roughly the same strength of schedule as Wisconsin.

Up next for the 9-0 Knights is a road game against the Temple Owls. We don’t expect this to be a particularly close game. Temple has been bowled over by the likes of Notre Dame and South Florida and doesn’t possess the kind of offensive firepower needed to hang with UCF.

Should the Knights prevail as expected, then only the USF Bulls stand in the way of an undefeated finish. And boy, wouldn’t that give the CFP committee something to chew on?

Can the Mustangs outrun the Tigers?

Memphis has been an entertaining team to watch all year due to its ability to put points on the board. Of course, one of the reasons the Tigers are in so many fun games is because they don’t exactly play great defense, which sets up for what should be a barnburner Saturday against SMU.

The Mustangs are very similar. They score nearly 40 points per game but give up over 32. So which team will outlast the other when the Mustangs and Tigers put their track shoes on?

This game also features a few fantastic receivers. Watch out for SMU’s Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton as well s Memphis’ Anthony Miller, who have put up over 2,700 yards and scored 30 touchdowns between the three.

Clemson gets a gimme

Much like Alabama, the Clemson Tigers can coast through their Week 12 game against The Citadel. ESPN’s Matchup predictor gives the Tigers a 99.7 percent chance of winning this one, and that’s about as one-sided as those come.

Really, we’d be willing to bet Clemson could win this upcoming game without the offense doing a darn thing. Kelly Bryant could probably take a knee every single time, going three-and-out all game long and his defense would score points on the other side. That’s how dominant the Tigers are on that side of the ball. This is the reason defensive coordinator Brent Venables deserves to win the Broyles Award for the second year in a row after the 2017 season is over.

Virginia Tech must stop the bleeding

Heading into Week 10, it was thought by some that the Hokies could potentially take Miami down. Obviously that didn’t happen. Not only did they lose that game, but then the Hokies lost last weekend to Georgia Tech, too.

Pittsburgh isn’t on the same level as either of those teams but always plays tough. If Josh Jackson continues to struggle and Virginia Tech’s offense sputters, it could easily lead to a third loss in a row.

The Panthers feature a pretty forgiving defense and just lost to North Carolina, so the Hokies should be okay. But we’ve seen teams slide out contention fast in the past before, and with a freshman quarterback and a defense that’s been struggling to stop the run, Virginia Tech has to turn things around quickly.

Cyclones should get back on the winning track

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has done nothing short of an amazing job with the Cyclones this year. This team came into the season with no hype, whatsoever. Then they lost two of their first four games, pretty much living up to that lack of hype.

Then in Week 5 Kyle Kempt and Co. beat mighty Oklahoma and the narrative changed for good. The Cyclones won four straight games and took down TCU in the process. Suddenly, the team with no preseason hype was a giant killer. The past two weeks have chilled that narrative quite a bit, as West Virginia and Oklahoma State handed this team two consecutive losses.

It’s a bummer, but in no way do those losses detract from the magical run the Cyclones had. And they should get right back on the winning track Saturday against Baylor. The Bears have actually underachieved, which is saying something because nobody expected much from Matt Rhule’s team in his first year. We fully expect Iowa State to burst out of its two-game skid with an offensive explosion against an awful Baylor defense.

Georgia has scheduled reprieve after blowout loss

Caption: Dec 30, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb (27) before the game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Liberty Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

We predicted Georgia was due for a loss against Auburn. That said, we never thought it would be such a one-sided blowout. Less than a week after being placed at the top of the first CFP ranking this year, the Bulldogs were brought to heel in a brutal way by the Tigers.

Thankfully for Kirby Smart and Co. they now have a perfect salve for those wounds in the form of a Kentucky team that recently lost to Ole Miss, was blown out by Mississippi State and barely beat Tennessee.

The Bulldogs should breeze through this game. It sets up up one final contest before the SEC Championship Game, when Georgia can make up for last weekend’s loss like it never existed with a win over Alabama.

Out of the playoff, Notre Dame must fight through disappointment

Saturday’s blowout loss to Miami signaled the end of Notre Dame’s playoff dream. With two losses, this team can only finish strong and hope to be rewarded with one of the remaining New Year’s Six bowl bid for its efforts.

If the Fighting Irish play like they’ve been playing all year (minus last weekend), then the upcoming game against Navy is one they should win. The Midshipmen run the ball as well as any team in the nation but are also susceptible to the run. This means Notre Dame’s rushing attack should get back on track after being derailed by the Hurricanes.

The only thing the Irish need to really fight against other than pure execution of the game plan is their own emotions. Losing a chance to play for the championship hurts. But it’s not the end of the world, and there’s a ton left to gain still.

Oklahoma should be able to sleep walk to victory this week

It’s hard to find a more lop-sided game than the one that’s going to go down in Lawrence, Kansas this Saturday between the Sooners and Jayhawks. Kansas has beaten one team all year, and it happened in Week 1 against SE Missouri State. It averages less than half as many points as it gives up every week on average.

Oklahoma has that same type of disparity, only in reverse.

Heisman favorite Baker Mayfield might not even play in the second half in this game, depending on how head Lincoln Riley decides to play things. Oklahoma could probably just run the ball every time and still win by multiple touchdowns. It’s not going to be pretty.

Ohio State must keep the pedal to the metal

With two losses, and bad ones at that, there’s almost no chance Ohio State gets into the playoff without some really crazy stuff happening to other teams at the top. Still, after the Buckeyes backed a dump truck over the Michigan State hype train with a blowout win last weekend, those playoff hopes are still flickering.

Illinois has a zero-to-none chance of winning Saturday in Columbus. But a win won’t do the trick for Ohio State. The Buckeyes need another eye-popping final score to bolster their playoff resume and make up for their two blowout losses to Oklahoma and Iowa.

Cowboys have to stay sharp to avoid an upset

Looking at Kansas State’s 5-5 record, it’s easy to think this team is just mediocre. But a closer look (or sharper memory) tells us the Wildcats are no pushover. Of their five losses, four were one-score games, including contests against high-powered foes Oklahoma and West Virginia.

With that in mind, the Oklahoma State Cowboys must be on their best behavior to avoid dropping their second game in three weekends. Mason Rudolph has been hot of late, throwing 11 touchdowns in his last three games. If he keeps up that same pace, it’s likely the Cowboys will roll to another big win at home. But if he gets sloppy and allows the Wildcats to get some momentum defensively, anything can happen.

Will Saquon Barkley finally be unleashed?

Saquon Barkley Heisman candidate and head coach James Franklin

It seems like an absurd question to be asking at this point in the proceedings. After all, Barkley is the best offensive player in college football. Surely he’s been unleashed all year long, right?


In fact, for much of the year, Barkley has been treated like a secondary weapon in James Franklin’s arsenal. With just two games until the postseason, Barkley has carried the ball just 166 times all year, or 16.6 times per game.

It’s been a maddening development that’s unfolded almost in slow motion all year long. This scribe got so fed up with it that a column was written about how Franklin destroyed Barkley’s Heisman hopes.

If Barkley isn’t turned loose against a Nebraska defense that gives up over 200 yards on the ground per game…well, it won’t make any sense, that’s for sure.

Tennessee without Butch Jones

Butch Jones was finally fired this past week. It was only about five weeks too late, in my own estimation. For whatever reason, the university continued to torture its fans and students before finally letting Jones go and promoting Brady Hoke to interim head coach.

The upcoming game at home against LSU is going to be interesting. The Vols have been one of the worst teams in the nation at stopping the run, and Derrius Guice has gotten into a groove of late. Likely, the Tigers will romp. But will we perhaps see a different attitude from Tennessee without Jones at the helm? That’s going to be very interesting indeed.

Battle between potential top NFL picks

UCLA and USC have their annual meeting in Week 12 to see who will claim the Victory Bell. It’s likely to be one-sided in favor of the Trojans, who’ll be in their home stadium and who have the more complete team.

But this game will be worth watching because Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold — two quarterbacks who could both be considered for the top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — will go head-to-head. Between them, they’ve passed for 6,565 yards and 45 touchdowns this year. Both possess some elite traits that NFL scouts love to see, including the ability to be at their best with the game on the line.

Can anyone catch Baker Mayfield in the Heisman race?

Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield against Texas in college football Week 7

As we already mentioned, Saquon Barkley isn’t going to win the Heisman Trophy this year because he hasn’t been featured like a Heisman winner should be featured. So he’s out, even if he does end up making it as a finalist.

Bryce Love out of Stanford is an intriguing player worth watching the next couple of weeks. He’s rushed for 1,622 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging nine yards per carry, despite missing an entire game. Last weekend he rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns despite limping through the entire game against Washington.

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is really something else. He’s a sophomore who didn’t even start the year as the the team’s starting quarterback. A dual-threat passer, he does more damage on the ground at this point in his career. But what he does on the ground is spectacular.

And we cannot forget about last year’s winner, Lamar Jackson. The junior has had another stellar season, putting up numbers comparable to last year’s campaign. The biggest difference is that the Cardinals are awful and would have a losing record if not for his exploits.

Bottom line: Nobody’s catching Baker Mayfield this year. He’s put up 3,790 total yards and 36 touchdowns and leads one of the top teams in the nation. The award may as well already have his name engraved on the side.