Winners and Losers from Week 12 of College Football
Just because it was paycheck day for several top programs throughout the country doesn't mean the college football weekend was devoid of big matchups and big moments, of which there were several.
Ohio State demoralized Michigan State in the biggest win of that series history, and Oklahoma rebounded from a loss to Baylor to squeak one out against Iowa State.
Alabama had all kinds of problems with Arkansas but won to earn a spot in the SEC title game, and Cincinnati finally got a huge statement win to stay unbeaten on the season with a win over SMU. Speaking of undefeated teams, UT San Antonio's last-second win over UAB kept their unblemished season intact.
Then, Oregon's lopsided loss to Utah opened the door for the Bearcats and Michigan Wolverines and ends the Pac-12's playoff hopes.
Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young and Buckeyes signal-caller C.J. Stroud separated themselves in the Heisman Trophy race, and there was excitement throughout the day. Let's take a look at the winners and losers from Week 12.
Winner: C.J. Stroud's Heisman Moment
Overwhelming. Relentless. Incredible.
Whatever positive adjective you want to use for the Ohio State offense against Michigan State on Saturday, it applies and wasn't hyperbole. Everything freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud wanted to do against the Spartans worked.
The No. 4 Buckeyes had seven first-half possessions (until taking a knee with 35 seconds left). All seven finished in touchdowns.
They won the game 56-7, and it could have been worse. What could have been MSU running back Kenneth Walker III's Heisman breakout party instead belonged to Stroud, who might have pulled even with Alabama quarterback Bryce Young as the favorite.
He was that good.
Stroud finished 32-of-35 for 432 yards and six touchdowns, but in building that 49-0 halftime advantage, he was flawless, completing all but two of his 31 passes for 393 yards and all six scores.
Whether it was Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson or Jaxon Smith-Njigba (all eclipsed 100 receiving yards), Stroud distributed the ball to whom he wanted when he wanted.
Stroud, perhaps, doesn't get enough headlines, even though that may be hard to believe. Perhaps no player in the nation has grown up throughout the year, and he has bypassed the "strong player" category and skyrocketed into the stratosphere of superstar.
Against a Spartans team ranked seventh in the CFP rankings, he couldn't be stopped. It's why he should be right up there with Young for college football's top individual honor.
Loser: Oregon Basically Forgetting to Board the Bus to Salt Lake City
With so much at stake, the Ducks laid an egg.
No. 3-ranked Oregon has battled injuries much of the season and failed to win pretty for much of the season, but coach Mario Cristobal's team had held its head above water and held serve since an impressive early-season win at Ohio State.
Not anymore. Facing a Utah team that has continued to improve throughout the season after a rough start, Oregon endured a nightmarish first half in what eventually wound up a 38-7 loss. The game pretty much was settled by halftime, though, as the Ducks dug themselves a four-touchdown hole.
The real backbreaker was the final 27 seconds of the first half. After a Tavion Thomas four-yard touchdown run gave Utah a 21-0 lead, Oregon went three-and-out and punted to Britain Covey with no time left on the clock.
Then, this happened. Covey's 78-yard punt return with zeroes on the clock stunned the Ducks and put an exclamation mark on a half dominated by Kyle Whittingham's Utes. Utah allowed just seven first-half first downs and 122 yards in building the lead.
Despite Oregon coming out of the half with a touchdown, Utah answered with one of its own and basically ended the game.
Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown made timely plays throughout the season despite failing to dazzle, but he was ineffective against Utah in the most crucial moment of the season.
While these two teams likely will meet again in the Pac-12 championship game, the conference's College Football Playoff hopes went down in flames with Oregon's loss. Their hold on a top-four spot seemed tenuous at best throughout much of the season.
On Saturday, their luck ran out with an awful performance in their biggest blunder of the season.
Winner: Alabama Sweats out Arkansas to Earn a SEC Championship Game vs. UGA
The matchup everybody wants to see in the SEC is now set.
Alabama beat Arkansas on Saturday to earn a date in the conference championship game against top-ranked Georgia. It's going to be the generational Bulldogs defense against Bryce Young and the high-flying Crimson Tide offense.
We've just got to wait until December 4 to see it.
For the Tide, this hasn't been the most impressive season for a team that had to replace so much from last year's national championship team, but Nick Saban reloads, and that is obvious with so much young, impressive talent led by Young.
They took plenty of body blows at home from KJ Jefferson, Treylon Burks and the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday, but for every Hogs punch, Alabama countered and made big play after big play in a 42-35 win. Young distributed the ball all over the place to nine different receivers.
The longest came on a beautiful bomb to Jameson Williams for a 79-yard touchdown, but the biggest came on another diving, scoring pass to Williams with 5:39 remaining that finally let Bama breathe easy. It was questionable whether he possessed it, but the play was called a touchdown on the field and upheld.
Jefferson kept bringing the Hogs back with his arm and his feet, but the Tide just had too many weapons. Young cemented his Heisman Trophy front-running status after Stroud's big morning, completing 31-of-40 passes for 559 yards and five touchdowns.
It was a game Alabama had to sweat, despite being up two scores for much of it. Arkansas' growth continues to be evident in Sam Pittman's second season, but they just don't have the depth and talent to get the job done. Alabama isn't going anywhere for a long time.
Loser: Northwestern's Secondary Melts Down at Wrigley
CHICAGO — Northwestern packed up for a short trip from Evanston to Wrigley Field, aiming to flip the script on upset kings Purdue.
But the Wildcats forgot to bring their pass defense.
Although the team carried a disappointing 3-7 record into the Friendly Confines, the secondary had rarely been a problem this season. Northwestern entered the clash allowing just 6.5 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 21st nationally.
The main priority was to contain David Bell—a potential first-round NFL draft pick—and the Wildcats did a semi-respectable job of that. While he snared 12 passes for 101 yards, nine of his receptions covered less than 10 yards. Northwestern held Bell, one of the nation's most explosive wideouts, to a long catch of just 21 yards.
Milton Wright, however, provided the big plays for Purdue in a 32-14 victory.
The junior repeatedly torched Northwestern's single coverage down the left sideline, notching three receptions of 45-plus yards. Wright finished the contest with eight catches for 213 yards and three touchdowns—all career-high marks.
Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell ended the day with 423 yards and three touchdowns, both of which were season-worst totals for Northwestern's defense.
Written by David Kenyon
Winner: Oklahoma's "Big Man" Touchdown Turns the Tide and Fuels a Win
Iowa State was driving just before halftime in a tie game against rival Oklahoma on Saturday when a massive play flipped the momentum for good.
As Brock Purdy rolled to his left, away from the pressure he'd face throughout the entire game that would eventually knock him out of the game and to the locker room for a span, he was being pursued by Key Lawrence.
The safety barreled into Purdy, driving him to the ground and knocking the ball free. As it rolled backward, Oklahoma defensive lineman Jalen Redmond scooped it up in stride and rumbled 42 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with nine seconds left in the half.
There would be other swings, and the Sooners would have to hold off a furious Cyclones rally in the end with an interception, but Redmond's score (after Lawrence's huge play) turned things around for the Sooners. After a disappointing defensive effort against Baylor, it carried them in the win over Iowa State.
OU sacked a duo of Iowa State quarterbacks seven times and picked off two passes.
"Our defense was awesome," coach Lincoln Riley told FOX Sports after the win. "You know Iowa State is going to make a couple plays; they're too good not to."
They just weren't good enough to beat Oklahoma, which still has an outside path to the College Football Playoffs. While Caleb Williams and the passing game couldn't get going once again, the Sooners' ground game led the way with 209 rushing yards.
But it was the defensive effort, bolstered by Redmond's touchdown, that was the difference.
Loser: Wake Forest's Opportunity to Clinch the ACC Atlantic
It looked like old times in Death Valley.
With No. 13 Wake Forest coming to town to take on Clemson and seize the ACC Atlantic division with a victory, the Tigers weren't having anything of it. Instead, they dominated the Demon Deacons with their defense and running game and held on at the end for a 48-27 win.
Coach Brent Venables' defense was relentless, pressuring Wake quarterback Sam Hartman and taking him out of many things he wanted to do throughout the game. An otherwise-explosive Deacs offense struggled to click consistently.
On the other side, Wake's season-long defensive ineffectiveness continued.
Clemson hasn't been able to muster much offensively throughout the year, and even without star receiver Justyn Ross, who is out after surgery, the Tigers did plenty enough to win the game. That was largely because of the 1-2 running back punch of Kobe Pace and freshman Will Shipley.
Pace led the Tigers with 191 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns, but perhaps the biggest budding star in orange is the former 5-star Shipley, whose role in the offense has expanded throughout the year, and he looks like a centerpiece for the future.
Against Wake, Shipley ran for 112 yards and a pair of scores and threw a touchdown pass to fuel the loud, full house in the rout at Memorial Stadium.
In the process, the Tigers kept their slim hopes for the Atlantic division alive. They still need more help from Wake Forest and North Carolina State, but the Tigers have a path to the championship game in a down year. This was a huge statement win for Dabo Swinney's team.
Winner: Cincinnati Continuing to Take Care of Playoff Business
This is more like it, Cincinnati.
After several sleepwalking performances in a row when coach Luke Fickell's team really needed to put a positive impression on the College Football Playoff committee, they got the opportunity to post some style points at home against SMU on Saturday afternoon.
The Bearcats dominated in all facets of the game in a 48-14 annihilation of the Mustangs in Nippert Stadium where everything went right. With Oregon's loss, the Bearcats could be the biggest winner of the weekend.
This was the team that beat Notre Dame and looked like it was going to steamroll its way into the College Football Playoff. But, the fact is, right now the Bearcats are on the outside looking in, and the committee doesn't love their schedule or how they've looked beating up on inferior opponents.
While thumping the Mustangs certainly looks good, this wasn't the matchup it looked like it was going to be just a month or so ago. Back-to-back losses to Houston and Memphis dulled some of the luster from a 7-0 start, and now, Cincy has to wait and see if this is going to be enough.
Yes, the Bearcats will get another chance for a resume win in the AAC title game, but the Mustangs didn't hold up the end of their bargain in making this the type of big-name game Fickell's bunch needed.
Still, it was thorough. Quarterback Desmond Ridder finished with 320 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, and the defense looked like the type of unit any team would be scared to face. They allowed their first points late in the fourth already up by 41.
Say what you want about how Cincinnati has yawned its way through the middle part of the season, but it still has a spotless record. Will it be enough to get into the Final Four? There is still a lot of football left to be played.
Loser: USC, Once Again in Its Rivalry Against UCLA
UCLA is clanging that Victory Bell once again.
After a two-year winning streak in the series by the USC Trojans, coach Chip Kelly's Bruins kept the Men of Troy's misery going in this forgettable season with a lopsided 62-33 win over the Trojans in one of the most embarrassing losses in a season full of them.
USC simply had no defensive answers, and whoever the Trojans peg to be their next head coach has a long way to go in rebuilding something that seems so irreparably broken right now.
Sparked by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson's 349 passing yards, 46 rushing yards and six total touchdowns, the Bruins dominated USC. Zach Charbonnet added 167 rushing yards in the thorough dismantling of USC.
It was far from a storybook first start for Trojans true freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart, who looked solid at times in piling up 325 passing yards, but he also threw two interceptions in the loss. They fall to 4-6 with games against BYU and California remaining on the schedule.
A season that started with the Trojans ranked and expected to be the favorite in the Pac-12 South featured enough early-season spiraling to fire coach Clay Helton. Injuries to Kedon Slovis haven't helped, and as the season has progressed, the defense has regressed.
That was the case against Saturday as the Bruins did whatever they wanted in becoming bowl-eligible for the first time under Kelly.
Now, the Trojans don't even look like a bowl team, so most of the focus shifts to answering who is going to be the next head coach. Whoever it is has a massive project on his hands, despite the talent compiled. This team is a mess.
Winner: UTSA's Brilliant Last-Minute Drive to Stay Spotless
Great teams find a way to win games when they're on the line.
If you don't think the UT San Antonio Roadrunners are a great team, you haven't been paying attention this year. Sure, they don't play in the best conference, and they aren't the sexiest name out there. But coach Jeff Traylor should be one of the hottest name for job openings after the job he's done.
They remained unbeaten on the season Saturday with a frenetic, come-from-behind win over UAB at home, scoring a touchdown with 5 seconds remaining to win 34-31 in front out a raucous crowd.
Even if they aren't the best team in Texas, they have the best record.
It didn't come easy against the Blazers. Facing a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the closing seconds, quarterback Frank Harris dropped the snap but picked it up and scrambled left. He floated a pass toward Oscar Cardenas in the back of the end zone.
Cardenas caught the ball, which was just out of reach of the outstretched hand of the UAB defender, and the crowd went crazy. The dream season continued, and UTSA earned a spot in the conference championship game in the process.
It was an unreal finish to a drive that covered 77 yards in just seven plays and only took 1:03 off the clock. UAB had no answers for the Roadrunners on that final drive, but the last play looked like a little luck was on their side, and the Cinderella season continued.
After the win to go to 11-0, Traylor got the ice bath. It was much deserved in a nail-biting win.
The Roadrunners are this year's Coastal Carolina.
Winner: Baylor, Even Without Gerry Bohanon
There would be no Baylor hangover in the Little Apple.
A week after the Bears dominated Oklahoma to knock the Sooners from the ranks of the unbeaten and saw the fans storm the field (twice) in Waco, Saturday's trip to Manhattan, Kansas, set up for the perfect let-down game for Dave Aranda's Bears.
Instead, the 20-10 win over Kansas State showed the grit, determination and mental fortitude of a team that has gone from a nice little story to one of the most impressive in college football. There's a reason why Aranda's name keeps coming up for job openings, and he showed why Saturday.
Despite star quarterback Gerry Bohanon going down just before halftime with a leg injury and watching most of the contest from the sideline in street clothes, Baylor handled the Wildcats.
This wasn't just any pushover team, either. Kansas State is always tough at home, and the Wildcats were 7-3 entering the game. When Bohanon went out, the playing field evened out a little more, too. Baylor was actually an underdog, but it certainly didn't play like one.
Bohanon had 76 passing yards and a scoring pass before the setback, but backup Blake Shapen (who, by the way, is the nephew of former PGA Tour golfer Hal Sutton) filled in admirably in the starter's stead, completing 16-of-21 passes for 137 yards to keep control of the game throughout the second half.
Baylor's bruising defense did the rest. Despite K-State star running back Deuce Vaughn's 165 offensive yards, he was really the only weapon the Wildcats had. Skylar Thompson could never get anything going through the air.
The win for the Bears moves them to 9-2 on the season in Aranda's second year in Waco. If they can keep him around, this program is on firm footing for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, Bohanon's injury won't keep him out too long, either.
Loser: Duke's Defense Demoralized by Malik Cunningham's Lamar-Like Performance
At times Thursday night, it was like we all stepped inside a time machine and went back to 2016, watching a Louisville quarterback do whatever he wanted in one of the greatest individual performances you'll see.
But, no, Lamar Jackson wasn't on the field again for the Cardinals.
Instead, Malik Cunningham posted a performance Jackson would have been proud of, putting up an even better single-game performance than the Louisville great and former Heisman Trophy winner ever did in a 62-22 rout of Duke.
As the Cardinals racked up those 62 points, they scored on every possession but one leading up to garbage time. At the center of it all was Cunningham.
The dual-threat quarterback, at that point of the game, had out-gained the Blue Devils by himself. He wound up 527 yards (303 passing, 224 rushing) of total offense and seven touchdowns.
He became the first player to run for 150 yards and throw for 150 yards in a half since Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch against UMass in 2012, according to ESPN.
The accolades gathered even more after the break. The ESPN broadcast team also noted he's the second FBS QB ever to pass for 300 yards and run for 200 along with Washington's Marques Tuiasosopo in 1999. Runs like this were just stupid, too.
Yes, Duke is awful, but numbers like that against any FBS opponent are remarkable. And before you think this game was meaningless, it got Louisville bowl-eligible, and with a winnable game against rival Kentucky remaining, Scott Satterfield's team still has attainable goals.
Winner: Oklahoma State's Rugged, Throwback Defense
Bedlam looms, and there is still the outside possibility we could see Oklahoma-Oklahoma State twice in the next two weeks if things fall the right way in the Big 12 closing week.
One thing is certain, though: After Saturday night's win over Texas Tech, the Cowboys have secured their spot. If they beat the rival Sooners next week and Baylor ends the year with a win over the Red Raiders, they'll meet the Bears. If TTU upsets Baylor, Bedlam Part II will take place in the title game.
Coach Mike Gundy's team probably isn't worried about the opponent. If the Cowboys look anything like they did Saturday night, it's going to be difficult for anybody to knock them off.
They dominated Texas Tech with an outstanding defense that has carried them throughout the season. The Cowboys entered the game with the Big 12's top-ranked total defense (282.8 YPG), and they did nothing to damage those numbers.
Just how dominant were they? The Cowboys pitched a shutout, allowing only 108 total yards to go along with that goose egg on the scoreboard. The Red Raiders converted just 3-of-14 third downs, and they wound up with 10 first downs in the entire game.
Unfortunately for them, they ran into a buzzsaw. TTU quarterback Donovan Smith couldn't find open receivers at all, as they were smothered by a deep, talented Cowboys secondary. The Red Raiders' leading rusher had 15 yards.
There was just nowhere to go; every attempted play disappeared in a sea of white jerseys.
So, while there is work remaining for Gundy's team, this looks like a championship-caliber defense. Right now, perhaps only Georgia is playing better on that side of the ball nationally.
Loser: Nebraska Keeping Pace with Texas for 2021's Most Disappointing
Even on a day when they play well, when they go on the road and take on a hot Big Ten team and their quarterback goes down in the record books, Nebraska finds a way to lose.
It's hard to see how Scott Frost continues to keep his job.
But he is still there, finding a way to screw up even quality performances. Two weeks after firing four assistants to secure his job for another year, the Cornhuskers outplayed Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium at times, but they couldn't seal the win.
The Badgers kept them at arm's length, and after Nebraska tied the game at 28-all late in the fourth quarter, but a porous 'Huskers rush defense allowed a 53-yard scoring scamper from Braelon Allen with 2:37 left to break the tie and win the game, 35-28.
Allen was the star of the game, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns to keep Nebraska tumbling and his team surging. The Badgers did not play a pretty game on Saturday, allowing way too many receivers to get behind the defense and more big plays than you're used to seeing in a Wisconsin game.
Adrian Martinez became Nebraska's all-time leader in total offense in the game and was brilliant at times. But in typical Martinez fashion, he threw two costly interceptions as well, which has been the story of his uneven career.
Wisconsin survived to win their seventh consecutive game and continue to seize momentum in the Big Ten West. They are on a collision course with Ohio State in the conference championship game. Nebraska, meanwhile, dropped to 3-8, and it seems inevitable a coaching search looms, likely within the year.
Winner: A Couple of First-Year SEC East Coaches-Turned-Miracle-Workers
For a large swath of the season, South Carolina's quarterback situation has been in shambles. The Gamecocks even had to take the coach's hat off graduate assistant wide receivers coach Zeb Noland to start some games at quarterback since he had eligibility remaining.
After the unceremonious firing of Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee was gutted by the transfer portal defections and had a defense full of inexperienced players, held together by duct tape.
Yet, here the Gamecocks and Vols were on Saturday night, winning games and getting bowl-eligible despite all the hurdles. It's uncertain whether first-year coaches Shane Beamer and Josh Heupel are football coaches or miracle-workers.
Plenty of teams around the nation would buy the type of snake oil they're peddling.
South Carolina continued Auburn's second-half slumber by dominating the Tigers after the break in a 21-17 win. That means the Gamecocks have upset Auburn and Florida in recent weeks. Despite a tough, season-ending showdown with rival Clemson, that game doesn't look as unwinnable as it previously did.
The Vols, meanwhile, dominated South Alabama after a run of four consecutive games against ranked opponents. Tennessee's path to seven wins and a better bowl is much easier with a game against hapless Vanderbilt next week.
Tennessee's offense has been electrifying for a large part of the year, with Hendon Hooker leading the way at quarterback. For the Gamecocks, it's been more about gutting out gritty wins.
Regardless, the future looks much brighter for these two programs than they did at the beginning of the season. Both deserve some votes for SEC coach of the year.