Mandel’s Final Thoughts: For some CFP hopefuls, staying perfect in Week 12 comes at a cost

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And now, 20 Final Thoughts from Week 12, a.k.a. Homecoming Week in the SEC, when most of the league’s teams get an unofficial off week playing a Conference USA or FCS foe. Or, in the case of Auburn, an expensive L.

1. If you were hoping this would be the week we finally get some earth-shattering upsets that shake up the College Football Playoff race, I have some bad news. For the third consecutive week, the top eight teams from the committee’s Oct. 31 rankings — Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan, Florida State, Washington, Oregon, Texas and Alabama — all won. And they’re quickly running out of chances to lose, although at least someone will next week when No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan meet as 11-0 teams for the second year in a row.

Unfortunately, the most significant CFP development on Saturday was a gruesome one.

2. Star Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis, a sixth-year senior who weathered injuries and three consecutive losing seasons to lead his program back to prominence, left his final career home game in an ambulance. As he scrambled for a first down early in Saturday’s 58-13 win against North Alabama, Travis’ leg twisted in a direction it is not supposed to. A distraught Mike Norvell did not specify the injury afterward, saying only it “didn’t look good.” But we can safely assume Travis will not be on the field when the fourth-ranked Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 ACC) face rival Florida next week or in the following week’s ACC championship game.


FSU QB Travis carted off with apparent leg injury

It likely falls on fourth-year junior Tate Rodemaker, who came off the bench to rescue FSU in last season’s 35-31 win against Louisville, to finish the race. And the Noles, whose only win over a current Top 25 team came in the season opener against LSU, have zero margin for error.

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Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis was injured in the first quarter of Saturday’s game. (Morgan Tencza / USA Today)

3. FSU’s opponent in Charlotte will be No. 10 Louisville (10-1, 7-1 ACC), which earned its first ACC title game invite with Saturday’s 38-31 win at Miami. It was a classic Jeff Brohm offensive clinic, with the Cardinals running 34 times for 162 yards and quarterback Jack Plummer (24 of 37, 308 yards, three TDs, one INT) hitting Kevin Coleman for a 58-yard catch-and-run that became the winning score.

Perhaps because Louisville, which went 8-5 last season, has been such an overachiever, not many were considering the Cardinals might beat 6-5 rival Kentucky next week, then knock off Florida State to finish as a 12-1 ACC champ. Travis’ injury seemingly opens the door to that possibility. Unfortunately, Louisville would be easy for the committee to leave out due to its 38-21 loss at 3-8 Pitt. But don’t let that dampen the remarkable job done by Brohm, having led Purdue and now his alma mater to the programs’ first conference championship games in consecutive seasons.



Louisville holds off Miami to punch ticket to first ACC championship

4. There was a brief moment Saturday night when it appeared that one of the five undefeated Power 5 teams might bite it. Trailing 22-10 at halftime to No. 5 Washington (11-0, 8-0 Pac-12) at rain-soaked Reser Stadium, No. 12 Oregon State (8-3, 5-3) ground out a 16-play touchdown drive lasting 9:56, then followed it up with a field goal to cut the Huskies’ lead to 22-20. But the Huskies, despite going scoreless in the second half and gaining just 272 total yards, held on for the win, first by stopping the Beavers on a late fourth-and-5, then by dialing up a patented Michael Penix Jr. completion to Rome Odunze for a game-sealing first down. Kalen DeBoer’s team, which wrapped up a Pac-12 title game berth, has won 18 consecutive games.

I’m done nitpicking Washington. It’s the only team with wins over four of last week’s Top 25 teams: No. 6 Oregon, at No. 12 Oregon State, at No. 17 Arizona and No. 22 Utah. Not that it matters, but the Huskies should swap spots with No. 4 Florida State.



Washington stays undefeated with win vs. Oregon State

5. After a sluggish first half of the season, two-time defending national champ Georgia (11-0, 8-0 SEC) is now fully activated. The Bulldogs’ 28th consecutive win came in the form of a 38-10 rout at No. 18 Tennessee (7-4, 3-4). It was their third Top 25 win in as many weeks. Quarterback Carson Beck (24 of 30 for 298 yards, three TDs, no INTs) seems to find a new favorite receiver each week. On this day, it was Dillon Bell (five catches, 90 yards and a TD). Meanwhile, the Georgia defense allowed a 75-yard Jaylen Wright touchdown run on the first play of the game, then held the Vols to three points and 202 yards the rest of the way.

Georgia is constantly being measured against its 2021 and 2022 editions, an understandable but unfair comparison. The Dawgs need only be better than the 2023 field. They weren’t trending that way a month ago. They are now.



Georgia beats its third straight ranked opponent, rolling over Tennessee

6. Last week, No. 3 Michigan (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) showed it could beat a top-10 team without throwing a pass after halftime. This week against Maryland (6-5, 3-5), the passing game went quiet for other reasons. Playing most of the game without top receiver Roman Wilson, who went out following a big hit in the first quarter, Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy finished a modest 12 of 23 for 141 yards and a pick in the end zone, and the Terps got within 24-19 in the fourth quarter. Fortunately, Michigan’s defense did what it does, getting a Derrick Moore scoop-and-score, two Mike Sainristil interceptions and a safety on an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone that made the final score 31-24.



Michigan is first college football program with 1,000 wins

McCarthy was getting Heisman buzz during Michigan’s quiet 9-0 start but has not been a factor the past two weeks. As The Athletic’s Austin Meek noted, his worst performances this season have all come in games for which Jim Harbaugh was suspended. As you may have heard, his coach will not be at The Game next week.



Meek: Michigan holds off Maryland, but will it miss Jim Harbaugh even more vs. Ohio State?

7. On Oct. 22, I questioned whether the Buckeyes (11-0, 8-0) could beat the Wolverines with this season’s more limited offense. Today, I consider the game a true toss-up. Ohio State has been a more complete team since running back TreVeyon Henderson returned from injury the week after the win against Penn State. In Saturday’s 37-3 rout of Minnesota (5-6, 3-5), the junior broke off a 75-yard touchdown and finished with 15 carries for 146 yards, his third 100-yard day in four weeks. Receiver Emeka Egbuka, who also missed a chunk of the season, had his biggest game (five catches, 83 yards) since September.



Ohio State enjoys easy lead-in to Michigan showdown: Buckeyes takeaways

8. The big question heading to Ann Arbor is whether the Buckeyes’ offensive line, a sore spot for much of the season, can hold up against the Wolverines’ outstanding defensive front. It wasn’t great against Penn State but got away with it because of the Nittany Lions’ hapless offense. Michigan’s offense will present a much stiffer challenge.

The second-biggest question is whether any more Michigan coaches will be suspended or fired the day before the game. Because these things always seem to happen on Fridays.

9. Any trip to Ames gets an official “trap game” designation but especially when the visitor is Texas, which had lost three of its previous four trips to Iowa State. This one started ominously, too, with a pair of first-half Longhorns touchdowns called back by penalties. No. 7 Texas (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) led 6-3 at the half but ultimately pulled away from the Cyclones (6-5, 5-3) for a 26-16 victory that gave the program its first 10-win season since 2009. With top running back Jonathon Brooks lost for the season last week, freshman CJ Baxter delivered his first career 100-yard game (20 carries, 117 yards).

Texas, which faces 6-5 Texas Tech on Friday, is one of four teams still in the mix for the Big 12 title game, along with No. 14 Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2), No. 21 Kansas State (8-3, 6-2) and No. 23 Oklahoma State (8-3, 6-2). Texas and Oklahoma State, which hosts 5-6 BYU, are both win-and-in. You’ll need a Ph.D. to decipher the other tiebreakers.



Texas’ win at Iowa State brings Bo Davis’ memorable tirade full-circle

10. UCLA’s Chip Kelly went from hot seat to hero in a week. Bruins fans undoubtedly took great satisfaction in their team’s 38-20 rout of rival USC, completing the Trojans’ spiral from a 6-0 start on Oct. 7 to a 7-5 regular-season finish on Nov. 18. In what was possibly Caleb Williams’ last college game, UCLA’s defense forced three turnovers, notched four sacks and held the Trojans to 3 rushing yards, while the Bruins (7-4, 4-4) ran for 199. USC’s steep tumble from its preseason No. 6 ranking in Lincoln Riley’s second season was eerily reminiscent of 2012 when Lane Kiffn’s Trojans began at No. 1 in the AP Poll and finished 7-6. Kiffin at least had the built-in excuse of massive scholarship reductions due to NCAA penalties. No such thing for Riley’s underachievers.

Kelly, whose team finishes with 5-6 Cal, is not necessarily out of the woods, although he’d have some renewed momentum heading into the Big Ten if the Bruins at least finish 8-4.



Morales: Caleb Williams’ USC career may be done, and road ahead for Trojans looks daunting

11. No. 19 Arizona’s fifth consecutive win was its most impressive yet. Behind another set of big days from quarterback Noah Fifita (23 of 30, 253 yards, 2 TDs, no INTs) and receiver Tetairoa McMillan (eight catches, 116 yards, 1 TD), the Wildcats (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) jumped out to a 28-0 first-half lead on No. 22 Utah (7-4, 4-4) en route to a 42-18 blowout. It’s the first time since 1998 that Arizona has rolled off five conference wins in a row. All hail, Jedd Fisch.

That result, however, did no favors for No. 6 Oregon. On the same day that the Ducks (10-1, 7-1) got six first-half Bo Nix touchdown passes to whip Arizona State 49-13, they may have lost their lone Top 25 win to this point if the Utes exit the rankings. But it might not matter if Nix and company finish the year by beating No. 12 Oregon State and No. 5 Washington in a rematch.

The issue will also be moot if the Ducks lose on Friday and Arizona beats Arizona State on Saturday, in which case the Wildcats will head to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 title game.

12. Florida led 31-30 in the final minute at No. 9 Missouri and needed only a fourth-and-17 stop to earn a huge upset and a bowl berth. Instead, Brady Cook hit a wide-open Luther Burden for 27 yards, followed by two more completions to set up Harrison Mevis for a game-winning 30-yard field goal. While Mizzou (9-2, 5-2 SEC) moved to within one win of its first New Year’s Six bowl, the Gators (5-6, 3-5) moved within one loss of ending the season on a five-game skid. And Florida, like Florida State, figures to be without its QB1 for next week’s duel as Graham Mertz suffered a collarbone fracture in the second half.

None of this bodes well for second-year coach Billy Napier. I wouldn’t say he’s coaching for his job against FSU, but I’d strongly advise the Gators not to embarrass themselves against their rivals because a $31.6 million buyout isn’t as strong a deterrent in the SEC as it used to be.

13. On Thursday, a North Carolina spokesperson issued a statement declaring that coach Mack Brown is “full steam ahead” and “not retiring” after the season. Two days later, his 20th-ranked Tar Heels (8-3, 4-3 ACC) went to Clemson (7-4, 4-4) and lost 31-20. The Tigers admittedly have gotten much better during the past month, but it’s still not vintage Clemson, and UNC trailed by double-digits for most of the second half. Brown can retire whenever he wants, but it feels like he has missed his window in Chapel Hill. For five consecutive seasons, he has had either a future NFL starting quarterback (Sam Howell) or a soon-to-be top-five draft pick (Drake Maye), yet he has not been able to crack 9-3. But he could still get to 10 wins if UNC can win at NC State (8-3, 5-2) next week and then win its bowl game.

14. We started the season fixated on Iowa’s “Drive to 325,” but it quickly became apparent the Hawkeyes were never going to broach 25 points per game. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, whose impending dismissal was announced a few weeks ago, has reached that 25-point mark just twice in 11 games. But on Saturday, No. 16 Iowa (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) clinched its second Big Ten West title in three seasons, by a fitting 15-13 score over Illinois. The difference in the game? Yes, a first-quarter safety.

Iowa will face either Ohio State or Michigan in Indianapolis. It will not be pretty. But a 10-win season with a bowl trip to somewhere warm is exactly what Kirk Ferentz gets paid the big bucks to deliver.



How one clutch TD helped Iowa max out the drama of its latest Big Ten West title

15. Auburn paid New Mexico State $1.85 million to play at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Jerry Kill’s Aggies returned the favor by demolishing their SEC hosts 31-10, the most triumphant moment yet in Kill’s remarkable turnaround story. The former Minnesota coach’s battle with seizures cut short his tenure there in 2015, and he mostly worked behind the scenes until serving as TCU’s interim coach in 2021. It seemed an odd fit when he took over an aimless New Mexico State program last year. But the 9-3 Aggies, who already clinched a berth in the Conference USA championship game, just beat an SEC team for the first time in program history and now have their most wins since 1960.

Coincidentally, Auburn coach Hugh Freeze also got blown out by the Aggies last season at Liberty, when both programs were independents. Auburn (6-5, 3-4 SEC) had won three consecutive SEC games before this one. Next week brings Alabama.

16. OK, I’ll admit it: We got way ahead of ourselves on Deion Sanders.

The bar was so low for Colorado entering the season that a 3-0 start felt miraculous, no matter the competition. It was no surprise when they backslid once the schedule got harder. But Friday night’s 56-14 loss at Washington State, which like the Buffs was riding a six-game losing streak, was embarrassing for Sanders. It feels like he has been saying “it’s not who we are” at his news conferences for seven games in a row.

In hindsight, Colorado would have been better off starting 2-2 and then finding two more wins along the way. A 4-8 season (assuming a loss to Utah next week) at a program coming off 1-11 would not have seemed unusual. But this has been such a wholehearted implosion that it can’t be waved off.



Washington State eliminates Colorado from bowl contention

17. It seems like every time Appalachian State (7-4, 5-2 Sun Belt) floats into the mainstream, it’s because of some crazy upset or near-upset. On Saturday, the Mountaineers spoiled undefeated James Madison’s moment in the “College GameDay” sun with a walk-off touchdown in overtime for a 26-23 win. Because the Dukes are ineligible for the Sun Belt championship, App State is tied for first in its division with Coastal Carolina (7-4, 5-2), The latter holds a head-to-head tiebreaker from its walk-off win in Boone last month, but the Chanticleers, who lost 28-21 to Army on Saturday, now face 10-1 James Madison themselves next week. App State, winner of four in a row, gets 6-5 Georgia Southern.



App State spoils JMU’s perfect season with OT win

18. If you thought the Big 12 tiebreaker was complicated, let me introduce you to the Mountain West. UNLV (9-2, 6-1 MWC) took over sole possession of first with its comeback win at Air Force (8-3, 5-2). After 24.5-point underdog New Mexico pulled a stunner and knocked Fresno State (8-3, 4-3) out of the race, it’s the Rebels, Falcons, Boise State (6-5, 5-2) and San Jose State (6-5, 5-2) playing for two spots. It just so happens that UNLV hosts San Jose State and Boise hosts Air Force next week, but depending on how things break, computers may get involved.

All I know is there’s a possibility Boise State could hoist a championship trophy just a few weeks after firing coach Andy Avalos.

19. With only one week remaining before its championship game, the AAC still has three teams undefeated in conference play: No. 24 Tulane (10-1, 7-0), SMU (9-2, 7-0) and UTSA (8-3, 7-0). Fortunately for the league, the Green Wave visit the Roadrunners next week, while SMU hosts Navy, so the race will be resolved cleanly. But with leagues getting ever bigger while scrapping divisions, it seems inevitable that someone at some point is going to win all its conference games and not make its conference title game.

20. Finally, the Bay Area can be pretty apathetic about college football — but not when it comes time for The Big Game.

Even with both teams below .500, 52,000-seat Stanford Stadium was sold out for Saturday’s 126th Battle for the Axe. With a 27-15 win, Cal (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) has flipped the script on Stanford (3-8, 2-7), winning four of the past five meetings after losing nine in a row before that. Amid an otherwise disappointing season, Justin Wilcox has found a quarterback in redshirt freshman Fernando Mendoza, who finished 24 of 36 for 294 yards, three TDs and one INT. And Jaydn Ott (36 carries, 166 yards, 1 TD) has established himself as the Pac-12’s leading rusher with 1,182 yards.

It breaks my brain to think this will be an ACC game next year in Berkeley. I look forward to Florida State and Clemson fans getting their first taste of The Staredown.

(Top photo of Vandrevius Jacobs: Don Juan Moore / Getty Images)

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