Despite a seemingly lackluster slate of games, college football met its craziness quota with upsets and near-upsets involving many of the teams in the middle of the race for the national championship.
One is previously unbeaten Michigan State, which suffered a second defensive meltdown in as many weeks and lost to Purdue.
Also in the Big Ten, Ohio State was pushed to the limit by Nebraska, which slowed the nation’s most productive offense but was undone once again by failures on special teams and inside the red zone.
Another is Cincinnati, which is making things more and more difficult for even its most ardent defenders by struggling to put away Tulsa.
And a fourth is Wake Forest, which was the lone unbeaten team in the ACC and the league’s only hope for the College Football Playoff. The Demon Deacons can still reach a New Year’s Six bowl but have very small odds of finishing in the top four after losing in a shootout to North Carolina.
About the only team that continues to take care of business on a weekly basis is Georgia, which swarmed Missouri to keep charging at an unbeaten regular season. Those teams and others lead this week’s list of winners and losers:
The top-ranked Bulldogs led 26-3 at halftime and cruised past Missouri 43-6 behind another strong game from quarterback Stetson Bennett, who completed 13 of 19 attempts for 255 yards and two touchdowns. The backup to JT Daniels heading into the season, Bennett has thrown for at least 230 yards in three of his last four games and is one of just three Power Five quarterbacks averaging more than 10 yards per throw over more than 100 attempts.
Army took a big leap toward reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the second straight season by beating Air Force 21-14 in overtime. In the round-robin series format, the Black Knights can own the trophy outright by beating Navy in the final game of the regular season; Air Force beat Navy earlier this year, eliminating the Midshipmen’s chances. Even with a loss to Navy, tiebreaker rules would allow the Black Knights to possess the trophy for another year.
Despite the lack of beauty points, Miami has put together a three-game winning streak to bring coach Manny Diaz off the hot seat and raise the possibility of an eight-win regular season. The 33-30 victory against Georgia Tech included another outstanding showing from young quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who went for 389 yards and three scores without an interception. With Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke to close the year, the Hurricanes could head into the postseason with the chance to win nine games and contend for the back end of the Top 25.
The Wildcats allowed just 122 yards and beat California 10-3, ending a losing streak that began more than two years ago. The Golden Bears’ ineptitude is nearly entirely the result of missing more than two dozen players to COVID-19 protocols, including starting quarterback Chase Garbers; his replacement, Ryan Glover, completed 11 of 29 attempts for 94 yards. The win is Arizona’s first under coach Jedd Fisch and first since Oct. 5, 2019, snapping a 20-game dry spell.
The SEC’s best defense this side of Georgia held Auburn to just 226 yards on 3.2 yards per play and won 20-3 in a game with New Year’s Six and playoff implications. The win also keeps A&M in line to win the SEC West, which would demand a clean sweep of November and one Alabama loss — maybe to the Tigers in the Iron Bowl. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix completed just 20 of 41 throws for 153 yards and an interception, ending perhaps the best two-game stretch of his career.
Expectations have changed amid a down year for Dabo Swinney and the Tigers. While not destined for the playoff — or maybe even the ACC championship game — climbing out of a 17-7 hole, making a late goal-line stand and beating Louisville 30-24 is by far the best moment of a frustrating season. The win also says something about quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who has been criticized all season for failing to meet the ridiculous standard set by recent Clemson quarterbacks but gutted out 232 yards of offense and three touchdowns despite a leg injury.
The Volunteers scored 45 points despite holding the ball for just 13:23 and beat Kentucky for the first marquee win of the Josh Heupel era. Averaging almost an insane 3.5 points per minute allowed Tennessee to hang on despite facing a barrage of snaps from Kentucky, which ran 99 plays and gained 612 yards but was unable to convert a late fourth-down try and win two in a row in the series for the first time since 1976-77. Now 5-4, the Volunteers’ play under Heupel should give a hungry and emotional fan base reason to be optimistic about the state of the program heading into the final three games of the regular season. Given how Heupel has already impacted this offense, what can UT achieve with an improved defense?
Losing 40-17 to South Carolina is one of the lowest moments in program history and the clearest sign yet that coach Dan Mullen has lost the plot late in his fourth season. A year already running off the rails has officially found rock bottom: USC had lost four of five in the SEC, with the only win against Vanderbilt; was starting a third-string quarterback, Jason Brown; and hadn’t scored more than 23 points in any game against FBS competition. For Mullen, about the only good news is that he won’t need to answer any questions this week about Florida’s recruiting — he’ll just have to answer for how this program has dropped off a cliff.
Here’s some good news: For the first time in four games, Texas didn’t blow a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. (Texas did lead at halftime, though.) Instead, Iowa State scored 21 points in the third quarter and pulled out a convincing 30-7 win that drops the Longhorns to 4-5 under coach Steve Sarkisian. UT is now 1-5 in games against Power Five opponents with a winning record, beating only Texas Tech, and the hype and optimism of August and September has been replaced by legitimate concerns that Sarkisian may fall short of a bowl game in his first year.
The Golden Gophers can add a second nightmare loss to September’s mindboggling setback to Bowling Green: Illinois ran just 58 plays, threw for only 80 yards but still pulled off the 14-6 upset, bringing even more chaos to the Big Ten West after the Gophers had surged to the top of the division standings. A somewhat controversial pick for the debut playoff rankings, this loss will drop Minnesota out of major-bowl contention.
Losing 28-25 to Memphis is a bad look for SMU, which has now dropped two straight, and bad news for Cincinnati, which needs marquee regular-season wins but can no longer rely on the Mustangs to move the needle with the playoff selection committee. The loss also comes as SMU coach Sonny Dykes has become one of the top candidates for the opening at TCU. And it’s just a bad loss, period: Memphis had dropped four of five with losses to Tulsa and Temple.
Wake’s slim playoff hopes are erased by a 58-55 loss at North Carolina in a game between the two ACC programs that has no impact on the Demon Deacons’ status as the only team still unbeaten in league play. The offense gained 615 yards and had 35 first downs but was unable to offset the continued struggles of a defense that has allowed at least 500 yards in four of the last five games. Up next, the Demon Deacons take on North Carolina State and Clemson in matchups that will decide the ACC Atlantic.
The Spartans are not eliminated from the playoff race by a 40-29 loss to Purdue but no longer have any wiggle room heading into season-defining games against Ohio State and Penn State. A more immediate concern is the play of the defense, which gave up 552 yards in last week’s rivalry victory against Michigan and then 594 to the Boilermakers, 536 coming through the air. In one positive note, the loss shouldn’t do much to impact the Heisman Trophy candidacy of star running back Kenneth Walker III, who went for 136 yards and a touchdown. For Purdue, this is just the latest upset of an unbeaten Big Ten team, joining recent wins against Ohio State and Iowa.
It’s becoming nearly impossible to argue for the Bearcats’ inclusion in the playoff amid a run of close games against supposedly inferior competition, capped by a 28-20 win against Tulsa sealed only by a pair of late goal-line stands. Beating the Golden Hurricane by a single possession is going to have a major impact on Cincinnati’s place in the playoff rankings, offsetting the potential to climb up in the wake of the Spartans’ loss and move closer to the top four.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg