Utah’s loss to Oregon on Friday night opened a path for the Big 12 champion to break into the College Football Playoff. Oklahoma took advantage of the opportunity, outlasting Baylor in overtime for its second narrow defeat of the Bears this season.
Chaos would have come to the playoff race on Saturday afternoon if Georgia had pulled off an upset of LSU to win the SEC championship. But the Tigers held serve, making one final case for sitting atop the final playoff rankings while sending Georgia into the soft landing of a New Year’s Six bowl.
Saturday night brought an unexpected jolt of intrigue to a playoff race that seemed destined to be as controversy-free as any in the format’s history. While Clemson sailed past Virginia 62-17 to win the ACC, the Tigers’ fifth conference title in a row, Ohio State’s seemingly inevitable march to the Big Ten championship was delayed by Wisconsin. The delay was temporary.
The Buckeyes trailed 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and allowed Wisconsin to go 75 yards in just 32 seconds to score a touchdown late in the second to fall behind 21-7 at halftime, handing back momentum to the Badgers. But 17 points in the third quarter pushed Ohio State into a 24-21 lead, and another scoring drive early in the fourth grew the advantage to 10 points with 12 minutes left.
With brutal ease, OSU went from on the ropes to firm control in the span of 18 minutes. During that brief stretch — from the start of the third quarter through three minutes in the fourth — the Buckeyes turned a 14-point deficit into a 10-point lead. (This was also the approximate life span of the Twitter argument for Wisconsin reaching the playoff.) Another field goal made it a 34-21 final, with the Buckeyes outscoring Wisconsin 27-0 in the second half.
That OSU can fall behind by 14 points is an argument for being wary of the team’s chances against LSU or Clemson, since better teams than Wisconsin might be able to better capitalize on an early advantage. At the same time, that OSU can also flip a switch and play at a freakishly high level for an extended stretch is a big part of the Buckeyes’ intimidation factor.
Bowl projections:The picture beyond the Playoff
In the end, Saturday played out as expected: LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma will be in. The only question is who will land at No. 1. Here are the winners and losers from a weekend of conference championships:
Everything fell in the favor of the Sooners. Utah’s loss on Friday made Oklahoma the easy pick to round out the playoff field with another win against Baylor. Like the first, it took every second: OU topped the Bears 30-23 in overtime, the second time this year this series had been decided by a single possession. While the Sooners might’ve had to sweat out Sunday with a Georgia win, that LSU claimed the SEC will send OU back to the playoff.
The Tigers have done their part. Saturday’s 37-10 win against Georgia sealed the program’s first unbeaten regular season since 2011 and keeps the Tigers in position to win their first national championship since 2007. As expected, the passing game was on point: Joe Burrow cemented his Heisman Trophy with 349 yards passing and another four touchdowns, giving him 48 on the season. After beating Georgia, which was No. 4 in the latest playoff rankings, LSU has a case to move ahead of Ohio State and into the top spot come Sunday.
As has been the case since October, Clemson spent most of the fourth quarter against Virginia playing backups in a lopsided win, the eighth in a row by 31 or more points for the defending national champions. Following a trend that began in the second half of the regular season, Clemson sophomore Trevor Lawrence played at a level unmatched by any quarterback in college football, the Heisman favorite included. And as was the case at this point last season, Clemson may be playing the best football in the country.
It wasn’t as large a margin of victory as the 38-7 win from October, but it was similar in one respect: Wisconsin was competitive into the second quarter of that loss before OSU simply pulled away, as was the case during Saturday night’s third quarter. While quarterback Justin Fields and defensive end Chase Young were predictably dominant — Young while dealing with two or more blockers on most downs — the real star was running back J.K. Dobbins, who may have played himself into a spot as a Heisman finalist.
The Tigers will reach the Cotton Bowl as the best team from the Group of Five after beating Cincinnati for the second week in a row, this time to win the American. The 29-24 win moves Memphis to 12-1 and into a matchup with an at-large team from a Power Five league. But the bowl game will very likely be played without coach Mike Norvell, who is next in line at Florida State.
The 45-38 win against Louisiana-Lafayette looks closer than it actually was, thanks to a Louisiana charge to cut into a 42-17 deficit early in the second half. Appalachian State has now won or shared the last four Sun Belt championships, the latest under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz. The win also moved the Mountaineers to 12-1, with the one loss coming on a weeknight to Georgia Southern, and adds to a resume that includes Power Five wins against North Carolina and South Carolina.
Miami claimed its first MAC championship and ensured its first winning finish since 2010 with a 26-21 win against Central Michigan. It’s a breakthrough for the program under coach Chuck Martin, formerly an assistant under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, and comes after two six-win seasons in the past three years and one year after Miami reached bowl eligibility but didn’t receive a postseason bid.
The Owls claimed a second Conference USA championship and second season with double-digit wins in three years under Lane Kiffin with a 49-6 blowout of Alabama-Birmingham. It was never close: FAU led 35-6 at halftime, thanks in part to a 75-yard scoring strike and a touchdown on special teams, and ended with almost 600 yards of offense in Kiffin’s final game with the program.
The Broncos beat Hawaii for the second time to complete their first unbeaten conference season since joining the Mountain West. The 31-10 win — it was as dominant as the score says — was the Broncos’ seventh of the year against an eventual bowl team, and if Cincinnati had won the American might’ve been enough to put the program back into a New Year’s Six bowl.
There remains some sense of a missed opportunity stemming from Oregon’s largely avoidable loss at Arizona State last month. A win there would’ve sent the Ducks into Friday night’s Pac-12 championship with just one loss, making the date with Utah a potential play-in game for the playoff. What could’ve been. But the Ducks capitalized on the opportunity and pulled off a hugely impressive 37-15 win to salvage what should still be viewed as a successful finish: Oregon will head to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2015 and the seventh time in program history.
There’s no bigger loser from this weekend than the Utes, who entered the championship game with a good shot at cementing No. 4 in the final playoff rankings but instead flopped in the one-sided loss. Outside of the obvious postseason implications, the worst aspect of Utah’s loss was how easily and fully the Ducks owned the line of scrimmage — while Utah was pegged as the more physical team, the Utes seemed wobbled early by Oregon’s aggressiveness. (See a failed fourth-down conversion in the first quarter that seemed to set the tone for the entire game.) In terms of bowl play, the loss sends the Utes tumbling, from a potential semifinal berth to perhaps out of the New Year’s Six picture entirely.
The loss stings, doubly so when you consider the Bears’ two losses on the season came to Oklahoma by a combined 10 points. But to keep the year in perspective: Baylor was 1-11 in 2017, still managing the fallout from the scandal that rocked the program in the wake of the Art Briles era, and just went 11-2 in the regular season and reached the Big 12 championship game. Even in a loss, the work Matt Rhule has done should be recognized as one of the top coaching jobs in recent college football history.
Georgia’s one path to the semifinals demanded a win against LSU. That seemed unlikely not long into the second quarter, when another Burrow touchdown pass pushed the Tigers’ lead to 14-0 just as the Bulldogs’ own passing game continued to sputter. Instead, look for Georgia to land in the Sugar Bowl as the second-ranked team from the SEC while LSU looks to land at No. 1 in the final playoff rankings and avoid a semifinal matchup against likely No. 3 Clemson.
Memphis and Florida Atlantic
Winners, yes, but winning big on the Group of Five level inevitably comes at a cost. For Memphis, it means losing Norvell to Florida State, which is searching for a replacement for Willie Taggart. And FAU’s conference championship marks the end of the Kiffin era, with the former Tennessee and Southern California coach heading back to the SEC as the new head coach at Ole Miss. Drinkwitz may also end up an option for a Power Five opening after his first season at Appalachian State.