Upset Watch for the Remaining College Football Games
Late-season upsets that shake up the College Football Playoff picture are an annual tradition in this beautiful, chaotic sport.
In the final three weeks of last season, No. 6 Oregon lost to unranked Arizona State, No. 5 Alabama lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl and then Oregon further ruined things for the Pac-12 by knocking off No. 5 Utah in the conference championship.
The year before that, the No. 7 team lost in back-to-back weeks at the end of November (first West Virginia, then Washington State) and No. 4 Michigan gave up 62 points in a loss to Ohio State.
And who can forget No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Miami both losing over Thanksgiving weekend in 2017, followed by No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 4 Auburn losing in their conference championships?
It might feel like we know who the true championship contenders are at this point, but there's still plenty of time for things to go haywire.
According to the latest update from the Allstate Playoff Predictor, there are currently six teams with at least a 25 percent chance of reaching the College Football Playoff: Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Clemson and Oregon. I'm also making the executive decision to include Texas A&M (11.6 percent) in that group of top contenders, because while the Aggies have no realistic hope of playing for an SEC championship, there's a good chance they win out and enter Selection Sunday with just a road loss to Alabama. That resume is going to get serious consideration.
Notably, Clemson does not appear on this list. A loss to Notre Dame in the ACC championship would not be a substantial upset, and I simply cannot see the Tigers losing to Pitt, Virginia Tech or (if they're able to reschedule the postponed game) Florida State.
Let's see where each of the other six top title contenders is most likely to be dealt a costly blow.
Games are listed in chronological order.
Notre Dame at North Carolina (Nov. 27)
First of all, it's really weird that Notre Dame is playing on a Friday.
Excluding bowl games, the Fighting Irish have neither played on a Thursday nor a Friday since opening the 1996 season on a Thursday night against Vanderbilt. On top of this being a road game during a pandemic over a holiday weekend, perhaps playing on a Friday instead of a Saturday will throw the Fighting Irish off-kilter.
And if they are anything short of firing on all cylinders, this North Carolina offense could bury them in a hurry.
The Tar Heels are averaging 43.1 points per game on the season and 51.8 points over their last four games. Sam Howell has been great at quarterback, and each half of UNC's two-headed monster in the backfield (Javonte Williams and Michael Carter) has already eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
If they hadn't lost two games, Williams and his nation-best 18 touchdowns would be very much in the Heisman conversation right now.
If early-season Ian Book shows back up, Notre Dame will have a hard time keeping pace. Book averaged just 178.3 passing yards and 0.75 passing touchdowns in Notre Dame's first four games. But since discovering some reliable targets, he has been much more potent lately and should be able to take advantage of a UNC defense that has been anything but stingy.
Notre Dame's defense, though, has been quite stingy, particularly against the run. The Fighting Irish have allowed just 85.1 rushing yards per game, which includes holding Clemson to 34 yards on 33 carries a few weeks ago. If they can do anything close to that against UNC's rushing attack—while also getting their usual supply of three rushing touchdowns from Kyren Williams and Co.—this won't even be a relatively close game. But you don't need to squint much to see this one going off the rails and scrambling the CFP picture.
Alabama vs. Auburn (Nov. 28)
Were it not for the history between these two programs, there's no way I could see an upset happening here.
Alabama has been a wrecking ball, scoring at least 38 points in each of its seven games. Its last three wins were by a combined margin of 132 points, and it has outgained each of its last four opponents by at least 150 yards.
Meanwhile, Auburn has a year-to-date margin of just five yards over its competition as year two of the Bo Nix Experience hasn't been anything close to what the Tigers hoped. They barely beat Ole Miss. They controversially beat Arkansas. They lost to South Carolina. And they got smashed by Georgia in the only game they've played against a team that currently has a winning record.
Alabama has won by double digits in each of its last four home games in this rivalry, and I suspect everyone who doesn't have "War Eagle" tattooed somewhere on their body is expecting that trend to continue this weekend.
But it's the Iron Bowl, where seemingly anything can happen.
In the rich history of this series, Auburn holds a 14-9 record when both sides are ranked in the AP Top 25, which will be the case Saturday. We're not just talking ancient history, either. Auburn won in both 2017 and 2019 when both teams were ranked, and the Tigers own a 4-2 record against Nick Saban in those situations.
It wouldn't be that surprising if this game forces me to add another entry to the "Best Moments in the Alabama-Auburn Rivalry" piece I wrote this past offseason.
Texas A&M at Auburn (Dec. 5)
Is Texas A&M really one of the best teams in the country?
The 5-1 Aggies looked great against downtrodden South Carolina a few weeks ago, but in their only two games against opponents who are currently .500 or better, they beat Florida at home on a last-second field goal and got blown out by Alabama.
At least they do have a respectable win this season, though. Last year, they entered bowl season with a 7-5 record—seven wins over sub-.500 opponents and five losses to ranked opponents.
This game against Auburn (currently 5-2) will be massive—especially if Auburn happens to upset Alabama on Nov. 28. Going on the road and beating a team that just won a road game over the No. 1 team in the country would be quite the statement. But even assuming Auburn does not win the Iron Bowl, A&M needs to make a statement in this game, since it almost certainly will not get to play for the SEC championship.
Whether or not that's a positive statement will depend on which version of the Aggies defense shows up.
They completely shut down Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina, limiting those three opponents to 207.3 total yards and 9.7 points. But against Alabama, Arkansas and Florida, those numbers were 469.0 and 40.3, respectively. And we all know Bo Nix is a wild card who could lead his team to either 207 yards or 469 yards in any given game.
Cincinnati at Tulsa (Dec. 12)
Cincinnati has the talent to put Tulsa away early. Desmond Ridder has accounted for four touchdowns in five consecutive games, during which time the Bearcats have averaged 44.0 points. Prior to Week 12's nail-biter against UCF, they had won four straight games by at least four touchdowns and had only allowed eight touchdowns on defense in seven games.
But if they let Tulsa hang around, it could spell trouble, because Tulsa has mastered the art of the strong finish.
The Golden Hurricane scored the final 15 points of their 34-26 come-from-behind road win over UCF. They outscored East Carolina 31-13 in the second half to erase a 14-point deficit. They trailed SMU 21-0 before storming back for a 28-24 victory. And this past Thursday against Tulane, they scored 21 points in the final 10 minutes—with a third-string quarterback, no less—to force and eventually win in overtime.
In all four games, they trailed in the fourth quarter before snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
What sort of magic do they have in store for CFP hopeful Cincinnati?
Turnovers figure to be a huge variable in this one. Tulsa has both forced and committed 13 turnovers through six games. Cincinnati has committed 13 and forced 17 in eight contests. Tulsa has played in two games with six total turnovers, and there were nine combined takeaways in Cincinnati's game against South Florida. Could just be a question of which team best capitalizes on those golden opportunities.
And even if Cincinnati wins this game, it will likely face Tulsa again in the AAC championship on Dec. 19. The Bearcats would have home-field advantage in that one, but beating Tulsa twice the span of a week is a tough ask.
Notre Dame at Wake Forest (Dec. 12)
Everyone keeps talking about the probable 11-0 Notre Dame vs. 10-1 Clemson ACC championship, but this is the second significant hurdle the Fighting Irish still need to clear to set up that scenario.
Wake Forest's offense isn't quite as potent as North Carolina's, but there's no question the Demon Deacons can score in bunches. Since losing the season opener to Clemson by a score of 37-13, Wake Forest is 4-2 and has averaged 43.7 points per game. The Deacs even scored 42 and 53 in the two losses to North Carolina and NC State, so this isn't a team that's just going to roll over.
Moreover, this isn't a team that is going to shoot itself in the foot.
Incredibly, Wake Forest has only committed one turnover all season and has forced 16 of them. That plus-15 margin is easily the best in the country, and it could be a major factor in this game.
Problem is this defense is quite boom or bust.
Drives that don't end in turnovers frequently end in points, as Wake Forest is allowing 457.4 yards and 29.7 points per game. (Those numbers spike to 523.8 and 36.0 if you take out the games against FCS school Campbell and woeful-this-year FBS school Syracuse.) And Notre Dame's Ian Book has only thrown one interception thus far this season.
As with the game at North Carolina, the Fighting Irish should be able to both establish their dominant run game and stifle their opponent's attempt to do the same. But with two road games remaining against teams with winning records, we can't just assume they'll carry zero losses into the ACC title game.
Oregon vs. Washington (Dec. 12)
There are two big things I'll be focused on when the first College Football Playoff rankings come out Tuesday night: How much respect is the selection committee going to give Cincinnati and BYU, and how much ground does Oregon need to make up in order for the Pac-12 to legitimately vie for a playoff spot?
The Ducks had spent the past eight weeks hovering in the Nos. 11-14 range of the AP rankings before moving into the Top 10 this week. But it has always felt like more of a "Well, who else are you going to put there?" than a "I firmly believe that's a title contender!" sort of statement. I'm quite curious to see where the committee lands on 3-0 Oregon after back-to-back wins over Washington State and UCLA in which the Ducks only occasionally looked like the better team.
Of course, none of that matters if they end up losing a game.
7-0 Oregon might have a case for the No. 4 seed, but 6-1 Oregon most definitely will not. And while I assumed before the season that this would be a rebuilding year for Washington, that Huskies defense is going to be a problem in Oregon's regular-season finale.
Arizona scored four fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Huskies on Saturday night, but that game was already over long before that meaningless outburst. Late in the third quarter, Washington led 37-0 and Arizona had 51 yards of total offense.
The Huskies also held Oregon State to 85 passing yards in their other game. Jermar Jefferson did rush for 133 yards, but that guy has a couple of games every year where he's just unstoppable. And Washington held the rest of OSU's offense to 119 total yards.
And Washington could take advantage of an Oregon rush defense that has not looked great thus far.
Ohio State in Big Ten Championship (Dec. 19)
The current projections for the Power Five championships with potential College Football playoff implications are Alabama vs. Florida, Clemson vs. Notre Dame, Oregon vs. USC and Ohio State vs. Northwestern. Of those four games, the only one with a potential outcome that would be considered a major upset is Northwestern over Ohio State.
Let's be sure to first point out that, while extremely likely, this matchup is not set in stone.
Ohio State technically could lose to two of Illinois, Michigan or Michigan State to open the door for Indiana to win the East. It's more possible (though still highly improbable) that Northwestern could lose two of its remaining games against Illinois, Michigan State or Minnesota to pave the way for Wisconsin in the West.
Short of that, though, we're going to get the Buckeyes against the Wildcats on Dec. 19, and the Northwestern defense that just suffocated the life out of Wisconsin could throw a major wrench into the CFP picture.
The Wildcats have held each of their five opponents to 20 points or fewer and have averaged 3.0 forced turnovers per game. One week ago, I would have said (and did say), "Big deal, Justin Fields doesn't turn the ball over." But after watching the Buckeyes QB throw three awful picks against an Indiana defense averaging 3.0 forced turnovers per game, I'm more willing to entertain the possibility of an Ohio State dud against this defense.
Even with those turnovers, though, the Buckeyes scored 42 points. It's hard to imagine Northwestern is going to be able to limit this offense to 21 points. And it's equally difficult to foresee Peyton Ramsey—who has yet to have a completion go for more than 25 yards this season—launching deep balls against the Buckeyes secondary like Michael Penix Jr. did.
When these teams met for the Big Ten championship two years ago, Ohio State won by three touchdowns. That's probably what will happen this year, too. But you just never know.