Pac-12 After Dark delivers with USC-UCLA center stage, CFP contenders hang on in Week 12

ByDavid M. Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, November 20, 2022

The last time the Pac-12 had a Saturday in November as consequential in the national conversation as it did in Week 12, California was little more than rows of orange groves and a few small studios churning out talking pictures.

OK, maybe it wasn't quite that long ago, but it's been a while since the Pac-12 was center stage at this point in the season, and on Saturday, the league delivered.

USCand UCLAtraded haymakers in a shootout with playoff implications.

Oregonand Utahtraded frustrations in a defensive battle in which both QBs struggled to find traction.

The end result was a pair of three-point games that could ultimately define who plays for the Pac-12 title.

USC's 48-45 win over UCLA wasn't exactly a heavyweight bout. It was more like two drunk guys attacking a plate of wings -- frenzied, haphazard and unrelenting.

On one side, Caleb Williams was a magician, throwing for 470 yards and two touchdowns and finding wide-open receivers again and again and again. In all, he connected with nine different players, including 11 completions to Jordan Addison, who finished with 178 yards. The Trojans punted just once, on their penultimate drive of the game, and even that seemed like a concession from Lincoln Riley to settle for a field position battle rather than chuck the ball one last time to seal the game. At no point did it seem as if UCLA had an answer for Williams and the Trojans' offense.

On the other side, there was Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who truly looked as if he had been through a boxing match. By the fourth quarter, he was so battered, he might as well have been flickering pink like Little Mac after one too many punches from Bald Bull. Yet he kept getting up, kept running through tackles and launching deep balls to keep the Bruins in the game.

Thompson-Robinson's four turnovers -- including an interception to seal the game on UCLA's final drive -- proved to be the difference. This has been the story of USC's season. The Trojans are now plus-20 in turnover margin for the season. So what if USC's defense is a mirage? A little luck and a lot of offense has taken it a long way, and with Tennesseeand North Carolinaremoving themselves from playoff contention Saturday, the Trojans are in prime position to earn the Pac-12's first playoff bid since 2016.

For UCLA, a once promising season has devolved with two brutal losses in a row. Chip Kelly can now turn his attention to his real job as everyone's weird uncle who brings up convoluted conspiracy theories about government corn subsidies at Thanksgiving.

For USC, its playoff résumé got a boost, but the Trojans will face another massive test next week against Notre Dame.

Oregon might find itself as the final hurdle for the Trojans after Saturday's 20-17 win over Utah.

Far from the high-scoring affair in Los Angeles, this one felt like trying to buy Taylor Swift tickets -- tedious, frustrating and filled with technical gaffes.

Bo Nix struggled through an ankle injury but still threw for 287 yards and converted a critical third-and-1 with his first run of the night to ice the game.

Cameron Rising had his worst game as a Ute, throwing three picks with no touchdowns in the loss, including one that Noah Sewell celebrated by doing his impression of a toddler refusing to learn to walk.

A week earlier, Oregon couldn't hold off a late charge from Washington. On Saturday, the Ducks fumbled through the second half, but their one successful drive resulted in three points that proved to be the difference in the game. The Oregon defense utterly frustrated Rising, who was just 6-of-13 for 29 yards and an interception on Utah's final three drives.

If the Ducks win next week against Oregon State, they'd face off against USC in the Pac-12 title game, where Kevin Warren will be waiting with a bouquet of roses and some Yankee candles for the winner.

Until then, the Pac-12 can enjoy at least one weekend in which it was the best show.

TCU's gamble pays off, Michigan avoids disaster

Saturday's games were essentially every movie where a fearless hero has to defuse a bomb, shut his eyes and clip the blue wire, not entirely sure if it's the right one.

It was every airline disaster film where a passenger is called to fill in for the unconscious pilot and land the plane.

It was Nic Cage, shirt unbuttoned and fluttering in the wind, screaming incoherently as explosions wreak havoc around him.

Saturday walked the college football season right to the edge of the cliff and jumped -- only to grab a branch on the way down and climb back to safety.

In Waco, Texas, TCU's miracle season went from absurd to sublime as the Horned Frogs botched a two-point conversion, nearly ran out the clock with a curious run call, then perfectly executed a special teams scramble drill for a game-winning field goal.

At the Big House, Illinoishad Michiganon the ropes, but the Wolverines inched their way down the field on a final drive, watched J.J. McCarthy throw two passes that could've ended in disaster, then booted a field goal to win.

The Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the country remain undefeated. Barely.

The final moments weren't quite so dramatic for No. 1 Georgiaor No. 2 Ohio State, but they, too, flirted with disaster. The Bulldogs found the end zone just once in a 16-6 win over Kentucky. The Buckeyes trailed at the half and needed a late pick-six to fend off Maryland43-30.

Georgia's made a habit of sleepwalking past lesser foes. It hasn't mattered.

Ohio State was truly tested for the first time all season. We can forgive the Buckeyes falling into the trap with that team up north on deck next week.

In the end, neither game felt truly in doubt.

For TCU and Michigan, however, their place in the top four seemed about as safe as the average crypto investment.

Baylorled the Horned Frogs 28-20 with less than 7 minutes to play, but as it has seemingly done every week, TCU had an answer. Max Duggan drove the offense 90 yards on 11 plays for the score, then had Emari Demercado wide open for a game-tying two-point try but led his running back just a touch too far.

Baylor had a chance to run out the clock, but Blake Shapen decided to run on third down despite a wide open receiver beyond the sticks, giving the ball back to TCU one last time. The Horned Frogs managed nine plays and 45 yards in the final 1:34, but because Sonny Dykes is the type of person who likes to hit on 18 just to see what will happen, the final scrimmage play of the game was a run. Demercado went up the middle for 2 yards with the clock ticking down. The field-goal unit sprinted onto the field and snapped the ball just before the clock hit zeroes, and Griffin Kell drilled the 40-yarder for the win.

After the game, Dykes said there was never a doubt. The fire drill is something his team practices routinely. Whether Dykes is aware that practicing fire drills doesn't require you to light your house on fire to make them worthwhile is irrelevant. The gamble worked.

At Michigan, the Wolverines were without RBDonovan Edwards and Heisman Trophy candidate Blake Corum went down early in the second half with a knee injury, all of which made finding the end zone something akin to a Where's Waldo puzzle for Jim Harbaugh's offense. (Like Dykes' special-teams scramble, we also assume Harbaugh practices Where's Waldo puzzles daily.) Michigan had six second-half possessions. One resulted in a punt, one a 10-play drive thwarted by a failed fourth-down try at the Illinois 37 and four others with a field goal.

Lucky for Michigan, it has arguably the best kicker in the country.

Trailing by a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter, Michigan got field goals of 41, 33 and a 35-yard game winner from Jake Moody. The final series involved two dangerous throws from McCarthy -- one into the end zone that just missed the outstretched arms of Illinois DB Devon Witherspoon and the other batted into the air at the line of scrimmage, and Michigan survived.

That whooshing sound you might've heard after those last-second field goals? That was the playoff committee breathing an enormous sigh of relief. Oh, how close we came to chaos but Dykes cut the right wire, and Harbaugh landed the plane.

There were so many ways this could've gone wrong. Probably should have gone wrong. And yet, here we are, the playoff picture tattered and worn, but still in one piece.

Vols stunned by South Carolina

Somewhere at the bottom of the Tennessee River, a goal post is thankful it didn't have to witness what happened to the Volunteers on Saturday.

No. 5 Tennesseehad a real path to the College Football Playoff. It simply needed to beat South Carolina and Vanderbiltand then kick back and wait.

Turns out, that was easier said than done.

South Carolina utterly annihilated Tennessee 63-38 on Saturday in as unlikely a performance as there has been in college football this season.

For 11 weeks, South Carolina's season was chugging along just as it should. The Gamecocks were not good enough to warrant much attention, nor were they bad enough to be interesting. This is the South Carolina way. They are like every U2 album released in the past 20 years. People are vaguely aware they exist, but no one can recall any specific details about them.

A week ago, South Carolina scored six points.

In seven SEC games this season, Spencer Rattler had five touchdown passes.

In 84 years since the first AP poll, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, no unranked team had ever scored more than 60 against a top-five team.

And yet, on Saturday, unranked South Carolina scored 63 behind six touchdown passes from Rattler.

The loss essentially eliminates Tennessee from the playoff, and star QB Hendon Hooker went down with an injury in the second half to boot. It would be a clear low point for the program if the years between 2008 and 2020 hadn't happened.

The win was South Carolina coach Shane Beamer's first over a top-five team. That now ties him with his dad, Frank, who was 1-21 vs. teams ranked in the top five in his career.

Tales of the SEC via Twitter

It's the most miserable week of the season in the SEC, as half the league tunes up for rivalry games by demolishing lower tier opponents getting paid to lose big.

But spending a bunch of money just to watch a disaster unfold isn't unique to the SEC. That's what's happening at Twitter, too. So as our favorite social media network circles the drain, we figured we'd celebrate the SEC's blowouts by remembering some of the best tweets ever sent.

Alabama34, Austin Peay 0

It's been a weird year for Alabama. On one hand, the Tide's two losses are by a combined three points. On the other hand, this is the first season in recent memory that Alabama hasn't been in the title hunt in mid-November. It's clear there are problems at Alabama. But are they big problems or something more akin to a bowl stuck inside another bowl?

Things Nick Saban has tried:

-warm soapy water

-oil on edges


-aggressive shaking


-Scheduling Austin Peay

That last one seemed to offer some hope, as Jermaine Burton caught seven balls for 128 yards and two touchdowns while Jase McClellan ran for 156 and two scores in the win.

Texas A&M20, UMass3

Well, the Aggies finally snapped their six-game losing streak after paying UMass $1.7 million to come play at a mostly empty Kyle Field.

And while a win is a win, this was hardly a turning point for Jimbo Fisher's team. The offense largely sputtered yet again, and has not topped 28 points against an FBS opponent all season (and has gone 13 straight FBS games without topping 28).

For reference, here's a list of teams that scored less than Texas A&M did Saturday against UMass in the last four years: Stony Brook this year UConn in 2021 UConn in 2018

That's the whole list.

And that brings us to our Twitter memory to celebrate all that A&M has accomplished this year.

Allow us to paraphrase for the folks in College Station ...

Food $200

Data $150

Rent $800

Coaching buyout $86 million

Utility $150

Someone who is good at the economy please help me budget this. My NIL collective is dying.

Mississippi State56, East Tennessee State 7

The eastern part of Tennessee gave us Dolly Parton, and ETSU must surely be thinking Mississippi State could've had its choice of cupcakes, but now ETSU may never score again. Regardless, the Buccaneers will be talking about Will Rogers and his five TD passes in their sleep.

But here's the real question: Do you think Mike Leach has ever been to Dollywood?

Auburn41, Western Kentucky17

Cadillac Williams has Auburn's ground game working, with both Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter each rushing for more than 100 yards Saturday. The win gets Auburn to 5-6 and now all the Tigers need to do is win the Iron Bowl to get bowl eligible.

What we've thought of the Tigers:

Hey, nice national championship in 2010.

Wow, a second national championship appearance in 2013.

Oh, they had two good seasons.

Missouri45, New Mexico State 14

Brady Cook threw three TD passes, and the Tigers won with ease. They'll now host Arkansasnext week with bowl eligibility on the line. Which brings us to our Missouri tweet.

The Tigers have five wins and can make a bowl. Is that good?

Well, here are the Tigers' five wins so far: Louisiana Tech, Abilene Christian, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and New Mexico State.

They are in a balloon. Arkansas is the power lines.

LSU41, UAB10

Yes, Brian Kelly is a bit of an odd duck. And sure, those jokes about the accent and the dancing were hilarious. But the guy can coach, and if LSU wins out, there's a real chance the Tigers could become the first two-loss team in the College Football Playoff.

Also, he'd probably be wearing one of those rasta caps and call it mac-uh-roo-nuh.

Sooners win Bedlam

Oklahomawent 1-of-15 on third and fourth down, held the ball for 15 fewer minutes of possession time and didn't score in the second half Saturday against Oklahoma State.

The result: The best win of the season for the Sooners.

Don't bother digging into those details. Saturday was a high-water mark for the struggling Sooners. The defense finally looked like a unit coached by Brent Venables, picking off four Spencer Sanders passes in the win and immediately angering Lincoln Riley that he didn't lure a few more Sooners defenders to USC this offseason.

Dillon Gabriel accounted for three touchdowns, the Sooners ran for 175 yards, and Venables earned his first win in Bedlam as a head coach.

On a week in which former Oklahoma QBs Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams earned wins, too, Oklahoma finally had something to truly celebrate after a season of misery, and in the process, secured bowl eligibility for the 24th straight season, the second-longest active streak in the country (after Georgia).

Texas vanquishes arch nemesis

In Austin, they can finally breathe easy. Those plucky upstart Longhorns have finally felled the monster.

Texas toppled Big 12 power Kansas Jayhawks 55-14 Saturday in a stunning upset that has, at long last, delivered a message that the big, bad Jayhawks aren't invincible.

Oh, sure, the rivalry had been entirely one-sided of late. Texas hadn't tasted victory over the Jayhawks since 2019 -- ancient history, really. It was a time when a legend named Tom Herman roamed the sidelines, the only Texas coach in the past decade without an L against Kansas. Those were the glory days for the Longhorns.

But Saturday, Bijan Robinson unearthed a bit of that same glory once again. He ran for 243 yards and four touchdowns against the mighty Kansas defense, a sizable fraction of Texas' 427 rushing yards on the day.

Quinn Ewers got his first taste of the rivalry, and completed just 12 of 21 passes for 107 yards. Still, he earned the win -- something no Texas QB had accomplished this decade. Ewers then celebrated by unrolling a pack of cigarettes from his t-shirt sleeve and relaxing on the hood of a 1982 Trans Am.

It was an emphatic win for the Longhorns, their biggest margin against the Jayhawks since 2011. It was a statement, really. No longer would Texas be the Big 12's laughing stock while Kansas basked in the spotlight of true supremacy. The tide has turned. Texas finally has the monkey off its back. And yes, we assume the monkey then attacked a bunch of kids.

Heels tripped up

At North Carolina, the ceiling is the roof. But the floor? That's Georgia Tech.

For the second straight season, a ranked UNC team fell to the Yellow Jackets. This one, however, stings much worse.

The Tar Heels saw their long shot playoff hopes disappear along with a 17-0 lead thanks to myriad red-zone failures and a defense that couldn't get off the field on Georgia Tech's final drive.

For the first time this season, Drake Maye failed to throw a touchdown. He might've had one -- and a game-winner -- when he hit a wide open Josh Downs at the 1 on a fourth-and-11 with 4 minutes to play. But Downs dropped the pass, UNC turned the ball over on downs and Georgia Tech converted a third-and-4, third-and-9 and third-and-1 to drain the clock to zeroes.

The Tar Heels had four trips inside the Georgia Tech red zone and came away with just 13 points from them.

For the Yellow Jackets, interim coach Brent Key is now 4-3 against ACC competition, staking a strong claim for the full-time job.

For North Carolina, a season's worth of come-from-behind wins came to a screeching halt when Maye and the offense ran out of magic.

UNC will still play for an ACC championship and has a chance to knock off rival NC Statenext week. And, of course, basketball season is underway, so there's still plenty for Heels fans to discuss over a nice Chteau Margaux sauvignon blanc and some Bitto Storico.

No New Year's Six for UCF

UCF's hopes for an American Conference championship are still alive, but one week after taking command in the quest for the Group of 5's New Year's Six bid with a win over Tulane, the Knights ran into a Navy defense that played its best game of the season.

UCF was without starting QB John Rhys Plumlee in the second half, turned the ball over twice, was just 3-of-12 on third-down tries and its defense couldn't get off the field as Navy chewed up the final 5:54 of the game on an 11-play drive to secure the 17-14 win.

The Knights' loss further scrambles both the AAC championship game picture and the New Year's Six bid. Tulane and Cincinnati were both ranked in the committee's most recent top 25, but they'll face off against each other in Week 13. UCF wraps its season against hapless USF, and would still make the conference title game with a win. Whether a three-loss UCF could make a New Year's Six bowl even with a conference title, however, is a big question, leaving the door open perhaps for Coastal Carolinaor UTSAto make a late push, too.

The most college football thing to happen Saturday

This season has had far too few random animal entertainment during games. Last year we had the Louisvilledog and the Arizona Statefox. We've had jackrabbits and squirrels and ducks over the years, and they're always a delightful distraction during a particularly dull football game.

So, a huge tip of the cap to this year's first truly memorable animal act: The end zone pigeon.

The pigeon appeared in the end zone in the second half of Oregon State's 31-7 win over the Sun Devils and spent nearly the entirety of the remainder of the game there, without fear that Arizona State's offense might intrude on his real estate.

With the game a blowout, the pigeon became prime TV fodder, and a star was born.

Heisman Five

Caleb Williams made a statement in his bid for the Heisman in Week 11. Drake Maye's chances took a nosedive. Bryce Young played a cupcake, C.J. Stroud was mediocre, and Hendon Hooker got hurt. Long story short, the Heisman race remains up in the air and Week 11 did little to define the outcome. But we've written enough about the Heisman this season. For this week, let's turn our attention to the Group of Fivesman -- the best players outside the Power 5.

1. UTSAQB Frank Harris

Harris threw for 103 yards, ran for 124 and accounted for five touchdowns in the Roadrunners' 41-7 win over Rice. For the season, Harris is completing nearly 70% of his passes, with 24 passing touchdowns and eight more on the ground, while posting a Total QBR of 78.9 -- better than any other QB outside the Power 5. More importantly, Harris has UTSA with a genuine shot at a New Year's Six bid if it wins out and gets a little help.

2. HoustonWR Nathaniel Dell

Dell led the way for Houston on Saturday with nine catches for 176 yards and a touchdown in the Cougars' dominant win over ECU. Dell now has a touchdown grab in eight straight games, the longest streak by an FBS receiver since 2019. In his past four games, Dell has 43 catches for 566 yards and six touchdowns.

3. CincinnatiLB Ivan Pace Jr.

Pace entered the weekend as the nation's leader in tackles for loss with 19. He didn't add to that total Saturday, but he did help key another dominant defensive performance in Cincinnati's 23-3 win over Temple. For the season, Pace has nine sacks, seven QB hurries, two forced fumbles and three pass breakups, too.

4. MarshallRBKhalan Laborn

Laborn added another 105 total yards to his season tally in Marshall's 23-10 win over Georgia Southern on Saturday. The former Florida State tailback has been the centerpiece for Marshall's offense this season, and he has topped 100 yards of offense nine times. He's one of just six players in the country -- and one of just two outside the Power 5 -- with 1,400 total yards and 14 touchdowns.

5. OhioQB Kurtis Rourke

The Bobcats have won six straight games and have a chance to lock up a spot in the MAC title game with a win next week against Bowling Green. The key to Ohio's success? Rourke has been nearly flawless. He has averaged better than 10 yards per pass six times this season, including in three straight games. For the year, he has 25 passing TDs and just four INTs while ranking among the most prolific players in the country with more than 3,500 yards of offense through 11 games.

Under-the-radar play of the day

When we debate who made the year's best catch in college football, be sure to include this one from Duke's Jordan Moore.

On a second-and-6, QB Riley Leonard threw a back-shoulder pass toward the sideline. Moore was well covered, and the ball was thrown high. Meh. No problem.

Moore finished the game with 14 grabs for 199 yards and a touchdown, but the Blue Devils came up just short in a 28-26 loss to Pitt.

Under-the-radar game of the day

Aidan Sayin hit Trey Flowers for a 5-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal with 5 seconds to play to lead Penn over Princeton, a win that handed the Ivy League title to Yale.

No doubt this will result in those new money Yalies ribbing their rivals with some droll remarks between bits of crudité down at the marina. But let them have their American football. Princeton will always excel at gentlemanly club life.

Big bets and bad beats

This week, Las Vegas set the lowest over-under for a college football game in the past 20 years for Iowaand Minnesota's matchup. The Hawkeyes considered it a dare.

With a total that closed at just 31.5, Iowa and Minnesota never even sniffed the over. Iowa took a 10-7 lead to the half, but after the break, the two teams opted to engage in a war of attrition that included less action than the average staring contest.

The Gophers had a prime chance to put the game away midway through the fourth quarter (though, in fairness, a second touchdown against Iowa at any point during a game usually ensures a win) when Mohamed Ibrahim carried 14 times on a 16-play drive but fumbled on a third-and-4 in the red zone. After a Minnesota interception on its next drive, Iowa scored a field goal to secure the win.

Ibrahim finished just 10 yards shy of matching Iowa's total yardage, carrying 39 times for 263 yards (with a catch for seven more), but it wasn't enough.

The under covered easily. Iowa won for the fourth time this season in a game in which it failed to crack 300 yards of offense.

The top four teams in the country all won Saturday, but none of them covered.

Georgia was a 22.5-point favorite against Kentucky but won by just 10. Ohio State was a 26-point favorite against Maryland but led by just three in the final minutes of the game. Michigan was a 17-point favorite and needed a last-second field goal to pull out the victory over Illinois. And TCU, favored by just two, escaped Baylor by a point.

This year's installment of Cal-Stanfordwon't be remembered as the wildest ending in the rivalry, but bettors of the under will certainly be talking about it for a while.

The total closed at 46 and the under looked like an easy winner with Stanford leading 17-6 after three quarters. But Cal responded with three fourth-quarter touchdowns to take a 27-17 lead with 58 seconds to play. It was enough to get bettors sweating, but at 44 points, the under remained safe.

Well, it should have anyway.

Stanford got the ball back, ran nine plays for 37 yards to the Cal 43 and then, with just five seconds remaining, lined up for a 61-yard field goal try.

Why? Our only guess is crypto is in the tank and too many Stanford boosters had the over.

In any case, Joshua Karty's kick was good -- sealing Stanford's 27-20 loss and a wild cover for the over.

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