College Football Week 13 Preview – Can Rivalry Week Shake Up the Playoffs?
This Thanksgiving, we give thanks for many classic rivalry games with big playoff implications. Here are some of the big question marks going into this weekend.
Who Wins The Game?
Ohio State/Michigan is always one of the nation's most heated rivalries, but the emotions will be running especially high this week with a potential playoff spot on the line. Both teams control their own destiny, although the Buckeyes have a simpler path (more on that in a moment). The Wolverines can clinch the Big Ten East with a win and would move into the playoffs with a victory in the conference title game (likely against Wisconsin). However, the Wolverines could be without starting quarterback Wilton Speight, who missed last week's game after suffering a shoulder injury in Michigan's loss to Iowa. Speight is officially listed as day-to-day and coach Jim Harbaugh is staying quiet about his availability. But unless his arm is close to falling off, it's difficult to imagine him him missing the biggest game of his career.
For Ohio State, this is a team that returned fewer starters than anyone in the NCAA and who most people thought were in for a rebuilding year. But instead the Buckeyes have dominated (almost) all challengers and are on the verge of heading to the playoff for the second straight year Since 2001, Ohio State is 13-2 against the Wolverines, including the last four straight. But seldom before has so much been on the line in a rivalry that is already one of the nation’s best.
When is Not Winning Your Conference a Good Thing?
In one of the weird quirks of the 2016 season, No. 2 Ohio State can all but lock up a playoff spot this week, but probably still not reach the Big Ten championship game. With the Buckeyes' loss to Penn State a few weeks ago, even if Ohio State beats No. 3 Michigan this week, the Nittany Lions would win the division via tiebreaker, assuming they get past Michigan State. So the Buckeyes could advance to the playoffs without technically winning their own division.
To be fair, Ohio State doesn't technically control their own destiny. They would still need the blessing of the playoff committee. But even though Ohio State wouldn't be a conference champion, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the selection committee would drop them from No. 2 to No. 5 or lower after a win over the No. 3 team in the country.
As such, the Buckeyes find themselves in an odd position of wanting to win while simultaneously quietly rooting for Penn State. Oh, sure, they'll say the right things about wanting to make it to the Big Ten title game. But if you put a truth serum in them, why would they want to take the risk? Their scenario is simple--beat Michigan and they're in the playoff.
Can the Iron Bowl Throw the Playoff for a Loop?
While there might not be as much on the line as past years when No. 1 Alabama and No. 9 Auburn square off, this year's version of the Iron Bowl could still be one of the year's more entertaining games. Not only is this one of the nation's longest running and contentious rivalries, but in recent years has been one of the biggest games on the schedule as one of these two teams has gone to the national title game in six of the last seven years. While this year's stakes might not be that high, (Alabama has already locked up the SEC East and a loss here probably still wouldn't knock them out of the playoff), but that doesn't mean this year's matchup won't still be intense.
It will be a battle of strength against strength as Auburn, which ranks fifth in rushing offense, takes on the nation's leading rush defense. Likewise, Alabama comes in averaging 478 yards and 40 yards per game but will go against an Auburn defense that ranks seventh nationally in scoring defense and has allowed just 15 touchdowns in 11 games. While we all know Alabama has the potential to turn this game into a rout, Auburn will do its best to run the ball, control the clock and make it a game late with the strength of the defense.
If that happens, it could come down to the team that makes that one big play. Alabama leads the nation in punt return average and has twice as many non-offensive touchdowns (12) as anybody else in the nation. But surely the game won't come to that, right? I mean it's not like an Iron Bowl classic could ever come down to a big special teams play.
Can the Cougars Play Spoiler?
With either Ohio State or Michigan guaranteed a loss, No. 5 Washington is still very much alive in the playoff hunt. But there is nothing that Mike Leach and No. 23 Washington State would like more than to end that dream in this year's edition of the Apple Cup. But the Cougars actually have big stakes for themselves as a win this week would send them to the Pac-12 title game with a shot for just the fifth conference title in school history and first since 2002.
After an 0-2 start that included a loss to FCS Eastern Michigan, Washington State rolled off eight straight wins before last week's loss at Colorado. As you'd expect with a Leach-coached team, the Cougars have been getting it done through the air. Washington State is second nationally in passing offense and quarterback Luke Falk leads the nation in completion percentage. However, Washington boasts a balanced offensive attack that can match the Cougars score-for-score. In fact, both teams average over 42 points per game, so this could be a high-scoring shootout with big conference title and playoff implications.
Can Colorado Go From Worst to First?
A year ago, Colorado finished 1-8 in Pac-12 play. A few months ago, they were picked last in the Pac-12 South in the preseason poll. But just a few short weeks later, the No. 9 Buffaloes now find themselves one win away from their first appearance in a conference title game since the 2005 Big 12 Championship.
After years of getting burned, Colorado has surprisingly been getting it done with defense. The Buffs are among the nation's leaders in total defense, scoring defense and turnovers. This week, they'll face a balanced Utah offense that has put up 420+ yards eight times this year.
After last week's upset loss to Oregon, No. 22 Utah finds itself out of contention for the Pac-12 title game and can only play spoiler. If the Utes pull off the upset, USC would get the Pac-12 South nod. The Buffs had lost 23 straight games against ranked teams before last week's win over Washington State. One more ranked win this week will complete Colorado's worst-to-first turnaround.