We knew this could be a defining week in the season, and Saturday did not disappoint when it came to shaking things up. Tennessee and Alabama gave us what could be the game of the year, while USC and Oklahoma State both suffered heartbreaking losses that damaged their Playoff hopes. We have no shortage of big games this week either, as Clemson-Syracuse and UCLA-Oregon will produce conference frontrunners, and two top-20 battles will set the tone for the rest of the Big XII season.
Tennessee - The matchup with Alabama was the biggest game for the Vols in decades, and their game-winning field goal as time expired confirms that Josh Heupel may have things fully turned around in Knoxville quicker than anyone would have imagined. Tennessee came out firing and looked poised to perhaps even run away with the game when it took a 28-10 lead in the second quarter, but the Tide scored 18 unanswered to tie the game, and a back-and-forth classic ensued with Rocky Top eventually coming out on top. Tennessee’s offense is unquestionably elite at this point (No. 1 nationally in total offense), but the question moving forward is whether its subpar defense can perform well enough to allow this team to achieve at a championship level. Time will tell.
Michigan - Michigan’s domination of Penn State marked a clearance of the first of only a handful of potential hurdles for the Wolverines, whose schedule presents little adversity aside from a massive trip to Ohio State to end the season. They are certainly one of the better teams in the country, and a Heisman candidate at running back paired with a bit more versatility at quarterback could render them more of a threat in a Playoff setting then last year’s edition. However, as is typical, the game against Ohio State is likely a winner-take-all situation when it comes to a berth in the final four.
TCU - Another week, another shootout win for the Horned Frogs, who now stand alone as the Big XII’s only remaining undefeated team. TCU’s offense is performing at a level eclipsed only by Tennessee and Ohio State right now, but its defense is struggling to the point where the Frogs are required to simply outscore people each week. That pattern may have to continue this week if they are to remain unblemished, as Kansas State quarterback Adrian Martinez is always a threat to turn any game into a track meet.
USC - We were honestly a bit more impressed with the Trojans than we expected to be in their road bout with Utah, but a late touchdown and two-point conversion by the Utes helped them pull out a 43-42 win in a #Pac12AfterDark masterpiece. The Trojans are not out of the Playoff race yet, and their stretch run includes mostly conference bottom-feeders outside of UCLA. They’ll need that win and a Pac 12 title, however, because at present this is a 6-1 team whose best win is a 17-14 triumph at Oregon State. This was truly a big missed opportunity for USC.
Alabama - The Tide rallied and had plenty of chances to outlast Tennessee but ultimately fell in Knoxville in perhaps the most entertaining game of the season so far. The Alabama defense was powerless to stop the Vols’ high-powered attack and will need to right the ship if there is hope of a Playoff run to come. On the bright side, if Alabama had to lose a game, this was the least damaging one on the table given that it was against a highly-ranked team that doesn’t reside in the same SEC division. This team still controls its own destiny for another Playoff appearance, but it can’t afford to slip up again.
Oklahoma State - The Cowboys were in position to add an impressive road win to their resume this past weekend — they led by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter at TCU — but weren’t able to close the deal and now have their backs against the wall when its comes to a potential Big XII title or Playoff appearance. There will still be chances to vault back into contention, but Oklahoma State is going to need more consistent play on both sides of the ball to make good on those opportunities.
Penn State - The Nittany Lions couldn’t get anything going against Michigan, and if not for two big plays in the first half they never would have been in the game at all. This was always a long shot when it comes to the Playoff, and the non-competitive nature of this game shows that Penn State is likely far from that caliber of team. There will still be an opportunity for a nine- or 10-win season here, but a matchup with Ohio State next week figures to put a definitive nail in the Penn State coffin.
GAMES TO WATCH:
No. 14 Syracuse @ No. 5 Clemson - Noon
No. 7 Ole Miss @ LSU - 3:30 p.m.
No. 9 UCLA @ No. 10 Oregon - 3:30 p.m.
No. 20 Texas @ No. 11 Oklahoma State - 3:30 p.m.
No. 17 Kansas State @ No. 8 TCU - 8 p.m.