We’ve made it to the final week of college football’s 2022 regular season.
The final week always brings rivalries to the forefront and this season age-old matchups will dictate what happens in the College Football Playoff field.
A spot is reserved in the CFP for the winner of The Game between Michigan and Ohio State once again. Since the Wolverines took down C.J. Stroud and the Buckeyes last season to earn a spot in the playoff, revenge will be on the minds of everyone in Columbus.
Another possible playoff spot is on the line Saturday night in L.A. as USC hosts Notre Dame. The Trojans are the Pac-12’s best chance at the CFP but first will have to get past a Fighting Irish team that has won five games in a row and aiming for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Clemson hosts South Carolina after the Gamecocks put together their best performance of the season against Tennessee last week while a low stakes Iron Bowl hits Alabama.
Tulane and Cincinnati meet with a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game up for grabs and Oregon and Oregon State clash in a ranked matchup.
These are the key storylines ahead of the final week of the regular season.
No. 3 Michigan (11-0) at No. 2 Ohio State (11-0) (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
There have only been 11 other matchups between these two teams with both ranked in the top five and in five of those 11 games, the winner either went on to the playoff, a berth in the BCS national championship game or won the national championship.
To say the stakes are high is an understatement. Both teams know what’s on the line. Although there has been some trash talk and vitriol in the past, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is taking a different approach to this year’s game.
“We’re very grateful to be in this position to be playing in this game. Winner takes the East, winner takes all right there,” Harbaugh said. “So, strong opponent, and it’s the kind of situation that gives you the opportunity to display how strong our team is. There’s no need to hate, be grateful for the opponent. It’s like superheroes, it’s through a strong opponent you get to find out who you are.”
There might not be much bulletin board material this week for either team, but Ohio State has not forgotten the past. After Michigan won The Game last season, then offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said on the radio that Ohio State was more of a finesse team and not a tough team.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day said this isn’t the place or time to talk about what was said in the past, but tight end Cade Stover made it very clear, he is going to use those words as motivation.
“I really don’t give a s— what anyone outside this program says about our toughness,” Stover said Tuesday. “We know what we’ve got.”
Both teams are undefeated and have Heisman-caliber players, but both teams are also dealing with key injuries.
For Michigan, star running back Blake Corum was injured against Illinois, but told Detroit News reporter Angelique Chengelis that he should be good to go for the game. The Buckeyes have injuries in the backfield as well with Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson both banged up, but freshman Dallan Hayden stepped in against Maryland and rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
Neither coach had an update on their injuries, but neither seemed too concerned about their team or its health.
Day knows no matter who’s on the field, they will be motivated by the loss from last season and both teams will bring their best Saturday. Day said he didn’t want to put too much on his players regarding implications of this game, but he has reminded them of what they felt like after the loss to the Wolverines last season.
“I think you’re shaped by whatever’s happened in your past and we have scars and it motivated us all offseason,” Day said. “So, we’ve worked very hard to get to this moment right here, and now it’s time to go prepare the best we can and that’s what we’re going to focus on physically, mentally and emotionally to go play the hardest game we’ve ever played. And we’ll find out where we’re at on Saturday.” — Tom VanHaaren
No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) at No. 6 USC (10-1) (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN app)
Billed at the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, USC and Notre Dame enter the contest with both teams ranked for the first time since 2017.
The Trojans, who moved up to No. 6 in Tuesday’s CFP rankings, have a realistic path to their first playoff appearance, but not if they can’t beat Notre Dame, which has won five straight since a stunning home loss to Stanford.
“Enjoy being in this moment, enjoy competing at this level,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said of his message to the players. “Our team gets excited to play teams like this, there is no question about it. It’s fun playing really good competition in cool venues with a lot of things on the line. That is so much fun, so embrace it.”
The Heisman Trophy could be on the line for USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who helped his candidacy with a career-best 470-yard passing performance last week at UCLA. Williams has accounted for 40 touchdowns (33 pass, 7 rush) in 11 games for USC, helping the nation’s No. 2 offense eclipse 40 points in five consecutive games.
But he hasn’t faced many defenses as talented and sound as Notre Dame’s, which ranks 16th nationally against the pass.
“They have good players at all levels,” Riley said. “They’ve built a talent base. When their backups come in, there are still a lot of talented guys on that field.”
Both teams have elite defensive ends. Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey has 5.5 sacks in his past five games and recently became the school’s career sacks leader (25). USC’s Tuli Tuipulotu is a national defensive player of the year candidate with 11.5 sacks, tying him for first nationally.
“He’s a powerful, athletic defensive end; he can beat you up physically and also use his athletic ability to get around you as an offensive lineman,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees told ESPN. “They put him in really good spots, try to single him up. We’ve got to do our part to make sure we’re sound in our protections.”
Rees believes Notre Dame’s offensive line, which entered the season with lofty expectations but struggled early, is playing at a higher level than any group in the country. Notre Dame has effectively used running backs Audric Estime, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree and eclipsed 220 rushing yards in four of the past five games.
USC ranks 96th nationally in yards allowed but has excelled in takeaways, leading the nation with 18 interceptions. The Trojans’ turnover margin — 25 takeaways, four giveaways — leads the FBS by a wide margin.
Rees, who went 2-1 against USC as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, said decision-making from current QB Drew Pyne, and the Irish’s ability to protect him, will be key in limiting the mistakes that have doomed USC’s opponents. Pyne is averaging only 170.3 passing yards per game but has thrown 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions, avoiding any games with multiple picks this season.
“He’s 8-1 as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame, and he’s done a lot of good things to help our program win games,” Rees said. “Anyone else’s opinion or narrative is kind of nonsense to me. The job of the quarterback is to win football games. He’s extremely confident, and I’m excited for him to get a chance out there in L.A.”
After dropping eight straight to USC from 2002 through 2009, Notre Dame has won four in a row and eight of the teams’ past 11 meetings. — Adam Rittenberg
South Carolina (7-4) at No. 8 Clemson (11-1) (Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN app)
The obvious question following South Carolina’s 63-38 win over then-No. 5 Tennessee last week, a game in which QB Spencer Rattler threw more touchdowns (six) than he had in seven prior SEC games combined (five), was what the heck happened?
Surely, South Carolina found a magic formula by rewriting the game plan, throwing out the playbook and replacing it with some sorcerer’s spells in order to follow up an entirely mediocre season with a stunning upset. A week earlier, the Gamecocks managed just 237 yards and six points in a loss to 6-5 Florida.
So, what’s the secret?
“We called a lot of the same stuff we have all year,” South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said. “If anything, there was less in the game plan. But [Rattler] played with a lot of confidence and he was very poised and knew where to go with the ball.”
South Carolina churned out a historical performance against a top-five team by simply doing what it’s always done — and just did it better than usual.
If that seems illogical, perhaps it’s best to step into the time machine and travel back to August 2021. Rattler was the QB at Oklahoma, a preseason Heisman favorite and a near unanimous pick to be the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft. The guy was unquestionably talented.
But then Rattler’s season went haywire, he was benched and eventually he transferred to South Carolina. His new home afforded only minimal respite, and he struggled to recreate the big numbers he’d posted in 2020 that had made him a scout’s dream.
Rather than assume Rattler was simply overrated or lost his touch, imagine when the pieces fit and it all clicked against Tennessee. Suddenly, the guy everyone loved 15 months ago was back.
“He made some throws you just can’t defend,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You go back and look and some, there was that much” — Swinney holds two fingers separated by six inches — “that much room between a touchdown catch and an incompletion.”
If it seems like a long shot, just consider the QB Rattler will face in this week’s rivalry game against Clemson.
Back in August 2021, DJ Uiagalelei was a guy with real Heisman hopes, too, and with his big arm, he looked like an obvious NFL prospect. But like Rattler, his 2021 season went off the rails as Clemson tried to find the right supporting cast, Uiagalelei battled injuries and doubt and criticism became the soundtrack to a lost season.
Uiagalelei didn’t transfer like Rattler did. Instead, Swinney spent an offseason praising the QB. The result was a solid rebound season that, while far from Heisman-worthy, has kept the Tigers in the playoff hunt. Still, Uiagalelei sees the parallels.
“I don’t want to talk about anyone else’s journey,” Uiagalelei said, “but he’s done a great job of just sticking to being the person he is and playing his game and not listening to the outside noise.”
For both, the highs may have been a bit overvalued. But the lows — well, QBs have a way of being drug deep into the mire when things go bad.
“He gets that, but he’s been a fantastic teammate and a fantastic leader,” Beamer said of Rattler. “I told him the other day, and I think you can say the same thing about DJ — DJ’s the starting quarterback and he’s won 10 football games. With Spencer, too, he’s done a lot of positive things this year. It might not be the year he wanted statistically, but he’s won a lot of football games and done a lot of things for us as a program already.”
Perhaps Rattler and Uiagalelei will never live up to the expectations many had before the start of last season, but 2022 has been, unquestionably, a reminder that both are immensely talented.
“Both have had some ups and downs, but DJ’s really played well for us,” Swinney said. “He’s a winner, a great leader and an unbelievably committed guy. And Spencer, I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a player. He’s got all the tools.”
Rattler and Uiagalelei were both asked this week about their futures in college football. Both can return for 2023 with hopes of building on the steps forward they’ve taken this year. Or they could leave, try their luck in the NFL draft, hope to prove people wrong again at the next level.
There’s probably no simple answer for either one. The path isn’t nearly so clear as it might’ve seemed 15 months ago.
But Saturday’s Palmetto Bowl will allow at least one of them to add another chapter to their personal redemption stories.
“I wanted to come here and win a lot of big games,” Rattler said after Saturday’s win over Tennessee. “We’ve been doing that. And we’ve still got games to finish out.” — David Hale
CFP selection committee chair Boo Corrigan explains why it has Clemson ranked behind Alabama.
Auburn (5-6) at No. 8 Alabama (9-2) (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
There’s no such thing as an inconsequential Iron Bowl. Just ask the folks who live in the state or the coaches and players who’ve been a part of one of college football’s fiercest rivalries.
But this Iron Bowl will take on a different feel Saturday. For one, it’s the first time since 2007 that the game hasn’t had direct College Football Playoff or BCS national championship game implications. Alabama has already lost two regular-season games and is out of the playoff chase. This is the first time Alabama has gone into this game with two regular-season losses since 2010.
It’s been a tumultuous season for Auburn, and the Tigers are just trying to become bowl-eligible. But it’s been a different Auburn team these past three games under interim coach and former star running back Cadillac Williams. Auburn, playing with renewed life, has won two straight games on the heels of a 39-33 overtime loss to Mississippi State under Williams, who took over when Bryan Harsin was fired on Oct. 31.
Auburn running back Tank Bigsby said Williams is coaching the whole team with the “same energy” that he coached the running backs before being named interim head coach.
“If you know Coach Cadillac, he didn’t change because he was the head coach,” Bigsby said.
One thing that has changed under Williams is an Auburn running game that has gone from sporadic to dynamic. The Tigers have rushed for more than 250 yards in each of their past three games and averaged 5.4 yards per rush. Auburn has had a 100-yard rusher in each of its three games under Williams, and Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter have each rushed for 100 yards in the past two games, wins over Western Kentucky and Texas A&M.
Alabama has been one of the toughest teams in the country to run the ball against this season, especially those teams that are one-dimensional. The Crimson Tide are tied for eighth nationally in rushing yards per attempt allowed (3.1). But in four different SEC games, they allowed more than 180 yards on the ground, and one of the things to watch in this game is whether or not Auburn quarterback Robby Ashford can loosen up the Alabama defense by having success running. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels rushed for 95 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown run in overtime, in the Tigers’ 32-31 win.
The Crimson Tide won in four overtimes a year ago against the Tigers, and quarterback Bryce Young rallied the Tide from a 10-0 deficit. They drove 97 yards for a touchdown late in regulation to force the four overtimes and a 24-22 Alabama win. It’s a game that changed the trajectories of both teams. Alabama went on to win the SEC championship and play in the national championship game. Auburn and Harsin never really recovered, as Harsin was the subject of a university-directed investigation a little more than a month later before being fired in October.
And while there won’t be a national championship opportunity down the road for Alabama this season, nobody needs to explain the stakes to Nick Saban. As he’s said multiple times, if you don’t win this game, regardless of anything else you’ve accomplished, there’s always a but.
Of course, the backdrop to this game will center on the guy who won’t be coaching on either sideline. A lot of signs are pointing to Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin being named Auburn’s head coach as early as Sunday.
Just the thought of Saban and Kiffin in the same state is enough to spice up even the spiciest of rivalries. — Chris Low
No. 9 Oregon (9-2) at No. 23 Oregon State (8-3) (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN app)
On some level, it feels like the Ducks are making a winded, but valiant sprint to the finish line. But if that’s the case — after a close loss to Washington and a close win against Utah — maybe the motivation of a regional rivalry game is exactly what Oregon needs to ensure it plays at least one more meaningful game in the Pac-12 championship. A win and the Ducks are in.
Oregon State will arrive just as motivated. The Beavers have quietly put together a fantastic season under head coach Jonathan Smith. Take the blowout loss to Utah in Salt Lake City away and they’ve lost their other two games by a combined six points. At 8-3, it will be easy for Oregon Stage to match the Ducks’ motivation despite not having a trip to the title game on the line. Since 2003, Oregon State has only won nine games in a regular season once.
And while the story for the Ducks this season has mostly been their offense, it’s their defense that comes into this game with some momentum. As Smith noted earlier this week, Oregon’s defense shut down a good offense in Utah last week during what was a tough, low-scoring affair.
“They’re explosive on offense, and we know we’re not going to win this game 3-0, or going into it we don’t think so,” Smith said. “But then you get into these games and each game is a little bit different.”
One of the anchors of that explosive Ducks’ offense led by quarterback Bo Nix has been starting center Alex Forsyth, who missed the Utah game due to a right shoulder injury. Oregon coach Dan Lanning did not shed much light on whether Forsyth would be able to play in this week’s game.
“It’s that time of year when you’re banged up and you’re hurting and it’s not Week 1 anymore,” Lanning said.
If Oregon is limping to the finish line, it feels like the Beavers are catching their stride, which will likely make this an even matchup. And what better way to cap off Smith’s turnaround of the program in Corvallis than with a signature win against Oregon State’s most hated rival. Potentially keeping them out of the Pac-12 championship? That would just be icing on top of the cake. — Paolo Uggetti
No. 19 Tulane (9-2) at No. 24 Cincinnati (9-2) (Friday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN app)
Cincinnati fans have been clamoring for a change at quarterback for a while now.
Well, they may get what they asked for at an interesting time — during the regular-season finale against Tulane with a trip to the American Athletic Conference championship game on the line.
So far, there’s been no decision on whether starting quarterback Ben Bryant will be ready after he suffered a foot injury during last week’s win at Temple. He left the game in the second half and returned to the sideline on crutches.
Following in Desmond Ridder’s footsteps was never going to be easy, but Bryant has fallen short of expectations. For one, he’s not as skilled a runner as Ridder, checking in with minus-118 rushing yards this season. And while he’s been solid overall in the passing game (21 touchdowns, seven interceptions), he hasn’t been a true difference-maker, ranking seventh in the AAC in QBR (57.4) and fifth in yards (2,732).
So, naturally, fans have been wondering about his backup, Evan Prater, one of the most sought-after recruits in program history and a player who has the ability to run the football when called upon.
Before the Temple game, the former four-star prospect had played only sparingly, completing 6 of 8 pass attempts for 111 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. But, during that time, he carried the ball nine times for 89 yards and a touchdown.
Then, Prater came on against Temple and looked good, completing 12 of 17 passes for 127 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran nine times for 24 yards.
Afterward, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell praised Prater, saying he did a good job of what he was asked to do. As the game progressed, Fickell said coaches gave him more opportunities.
“I thought he moved around the pocket really well and delivered some really good balls,” he said.
Against a stout Tulane secondary that gives up only 189.5 passing yards per game, Prater’s ability to mix things up as a runner could come in handy. UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee rushed for 176 yards against the Green Wave only a few weeks ago; Tulane is giving up an AAC-high 4.03 yards per rush to quarterbacks this season.
On Tuesday, Fickell didn’t tip his hand about who would start at quarterback. He said they’re “optimistic” about Bryant’s recovery but they won’t know his availability until closer to game time.
“If [Bryant is] able to do it, then you know what, we could go that direction,” he said. “But, we got to have preparations in both ways.” — Alex Scarborough
Clinching scenarios for Week 13
Spots already clinched
• ACC: Clemson and North Carolina
• Big 12: TCU
• Pac-12: USC
• SEC: Georgia and LSU
• Conference USA: UTSA
• MAC: Toledo and Ohio
• Mountain West: Boise State and Fresno State
• Sun Belt: Coastal Carolina
• Kansas State clinches with a win vs Kansas OR Texas loss vs Baylor. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s an 88% chance the Wildcats reach the Big 12 championship game.
•Texas clinches with a win vs Baylor AND Kansas State loss vs Kansas. There’s a 12% chance the Longhorns reach the Big 12 championship game, according to ESPN Analytics.
• The winner of Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game wins the East. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 71% chance the Buckeyes reach the Big Ten championship game (29% for the Wolverines).
• Iowa clinches the West with a win vs Nebraska OR losses by Illinois (at Northwestern) and Purdue (at Indiana). According to ESPN Analytics, there’s an 84% chance the Hawkeyes reach the Big Ten championship game.
• Purdue clinches the West with a win at Indiana AND Iowa loss to Nebraska. There’s a 12% chance the Boilermakers reach the Big Ten championship game, according to ESPN Analytics.
• Illinois clinches the West with a win at Northwestern AND losses by Iowa (vs Nebraska) and Purdue (at Indiana).
• Oregon clinches with a win at Oregon State OR Washington loss at Washington State. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 78% chance the Ducks reach the Pac-12 championship game.
• Utah clinches with a win at Colorado AND losses by Oregon (at Oregon State), Washington State (vs Washington) and California (vs UCLA). According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 15% chance the Utes reach the Pac-12 championship game.
• Washington clinches with a win at Washington State AND (1) losses by Oregon (at Oregon State) and Utah (at Colorado) or (2) losses by Oregon (at Oregon State) and UCLA (at California).
• The winner of the Tulane-Cincinnati game on Friday clinches a spot in the American championship game.
• UCF clinches a spot in the American championship game with a win at South Florida.
• Even with a loss, Tulane clinches a spot in the American championship game with a UCF loss at South Florida.
• Even with a loss, Cincinnati clinches a spot in the American championship game with losses by UCF (at South Florida) and Houston (vs Tulsa).
• If Houston wins and Cincinnati and UCF loses, the tie between the Bearcats and Cougars will be broken by composite computer rankings (Cincinnati is currently well ahead of Houston in those rankings)
• North Texas clinches with a win vs Rice OR Western Kentucky loss at Florida Atlantic. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 91% chance the Mean Green reach the Conference USA championship game.
• Western Kentucky clinches with a win at Florida Atlantic AND North Texas loss vs Rice. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 9% chance the Hilltoppers reach the Conference USA championship game.
• Troy clinches the West with a win at Arkansas State OR South Alabama loss vs Old Dominion. There’s a 75% chance the Trojans reach the Sun Belt championship game, according to ESPN Analytics.
• South Alabama clinches the West with a win vs Old Dominion AND Troy loss at Arkansas State. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 25% chance the Jaguars reach the Sun Belt championship game.