This was shaping up to be the dullest day in months for the SI Top Ten. Four of the top five teams were not playing, and the fifth was prepping for a guaranteed blowout victory.
Marco Wilson did a very Florida Man thing Saturday night. The Gators had forced a punt late in a tie game, when junior safety Wilson grabbed the cleat of freshman tight end Kole Taylor as it lay on the turf and chucked it “20 yards downfield,” in the immortal words of referee James Carter. That drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that kept the drive alive, and a few plays later Cade York drilled the preposterously clutch, 57-yard field goal to win the game.
Before Saturday, there were a million ways a team could lose a shot at the College Football Playoff. Now there are a million and one. This was the Elijah Moore fake-dog-pee Egg Bowl incident with higher stakes—a rash decision that Gator Nation will be shaking its head over for years to come.
And a downtrodden defending national champion LSU team that had little to play for showed some pride in pulling off the monstrous upset.
Could a two-loss Florida team get in by shocking mighty Alabama? Seems highly doubtful. A two-loss team has never made the playoff, and one of those losses is against a team with a losing record.
So who benefited the most from Florida’s folly? Ohio State, which no longer has to worry about a one-loss Gators team leapfrogging it by beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game. Notre Dame also can breathe a bit easier, knowing that it can lose the Atlantic Coast Conference title game and not have to sweat Florida sneaking past it and into the playoff. Texas A&M, Iowa State and Cincinnati also have less company in the pack of pursuers trying to make the field of four. (Iowa State does not belong anywhere near the playoff race, but the committee doesn’t see it that way.)
Outside the playoff realm, there were some momentous happenings around the sport. Sarah Fuller kicked two extra points for Vanderbilt to become the first woman to score in a Power 5 football game. USC staged its third last-minute rally of its five-game season to beat UCLA and remain undefeated. North Carolina had two running backs combine for an NCAA-record 544 rushing yards in annihilating Miami. Arizona fired Kevin Sumlin after a 70-7 humiliation against rival Arizona State Friday night. And Western Michigan nearly upstaged all of it with a lateral play that would have been the greatest since California’s famous, the-band-is-on-the-field miracle to beat Stanford in 1982—except one of the laterals was an illegal forward pass.
On to the Top Ten:
Last game: Beat Arkansas, 52-3
Next game: Florida in the SEC championship
If anyone out there is chirping, “We want ‘Bama,” they’re lying. The Crimson Tide became the first team in league history to go 10-0 in SEC games, trampling the Razorbacks and extending their streak of games scoring at least 40 points to nine. Receiver DeVonta Smith added to his Heisman sizzle reel with an 84-yard punt return touchdown, and the continually improving Alabama defense only allowed one Arkansas play of longer than 18 yards. The Hogs finished with 188 yards, the second opponent the Crimson Tide has held to less than 200 in the last four games.
2. Notre Dame
Last game: Beat Syracuse, 45-21 on Dec. 5
Next game: Clemson in the ACC championship.
The Fighting Irish got their ACC-arranged hall pass when their scheduled game against Wake Forest was called off by the league. They should be rested and re-charged for the rematch with the Tigers, as they attempt to win the first conference title in school history. Win or lose, Notre Dame stands a great chance of making the playoff. And win or lose, we should find out next week whether defensive coordinator Clark Lea is atop the Vanderbilt coaching search wish list.
Last game: Beat Virginia Tech, 45-10 on Dec. 5
Next game: Notre Dame in the ACC championship.
Like Notre Dame, the Tigers were gifted with a week off to make sure they are ready for their close-up in Charlotte. This time, Trevor Lawrence will play against Notre Dame. That could well make the difference between victory and the double-overtime defeat suffered in South Bend in November. Clemson has won five straight ACC championship games.
4. Ohio State
Last game: Beat Michigan State, 52-12 on Dec. 5
Next game: Northwestern in the Big Ten championship
The Buckeyes didn’t get to play rival Michigan for the first time since 1917, thanks to COVID-19 issues within the Wolverines program. But their week was already made by the Big Ten changing its rules to allow them to participate in the league title game despite having played just five games to date. Ohio State will be gunning for its fourth straight Big Ten title Saturday in Indianapolis.
5. Texas A&M
Last game: Beat Auburn, 31-20 on Dec. 5
Next game: at Tennessee
The Aggies’ game against Mississippi was canceled by the virus, That’s a missed opportunity for a team still trying to pile up style points in the beauty contest with Ohio State. (Their signature victory over Florida also lost a little shine, thanks to LSU springing the upset in Gainesville.) Texas A&M likely needs a blowout of the Volunteers plus a bit of an Ohio State struggle against Northwestern to get the selection committee to reassess where the two teams stand in relation to each other.
Last game: Beat Central Florida, 36-33 on Nov. 21
Next game: Tulsa in the AAC championship
Of all the teams at risk of being forgotten due to canceled games, the Bearcats top the list. A road-home doubleheader with Tulsa would have given them the chance for a pair of good wins, but the first one was called off. Hopefully the second one is played, because Cincinnati’s very slim playoff hopes disappear altogether without that game. Cincy did get a little more polish on the resume when Army—a team the Bearcats handled in September—moved to 8-2 by shutting out Navy.
Last game: Beat Wisconsin, 14-6 on Dec. 5
Next game: Probably against Iowa in the Big Ten East-West jamboree weekend, but nothing has been formalized yet.
The Old Oaken Bucket rivalry game with Purdue was called off, and there is no guarantee the Hoosiers will be able to play next weekend. The selection committee doesn’t like them nearly as much as we do, leaving Indiana at No. 11 last week, but this is a team worthy of great respect after winning in Madison with its backup quarterback.
8. Coastal Carolina
Last game: Beat Troy, 42-38
Next game: Louisiana in the Sun Belt championship
The Chanticleers had a predictable hangover game after coming off the thrilling victory over BYU. They led all game before falling behind with 1:20 to play, then engineered a brisk drive for the game-winning touchdown with 35 seconds remaining. Quarterback Grayson McCall (24 of 29 for 338 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) continues to have a season that should garner more Heisman Trophy consideration than it has. The undefeated, fairy tale run continues.
Last game: Beat UCLA, 43-38
Next game: Washington in the Pac-12 championship
The undefeated Trojans are a lot lucky and a little good. Or maybe a lot good and a little lucky. Either way, they have been the most dramatic team of the latter stage of the season—three of their five victories have come on touchdowns in the final minute. That was the case against the rival Bruins, who led USC by 18 points in the second half before giving up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. After UCLA took a 38-36 lead, the Trojans used a long kickoff return and a long pass to reach the red zone. From there, Kedon Slovis (344 passing yards, five TDs, two interceptions) found Amon-Ra St. Brown for the winning score with 16 seconds left. Now the Trojans will host Washington for the Pac-12 title, an arrangement the league weirdly announced during the USC-UCLA game. Could they actually still make the playoff? That would be the ultimate Clay Helton comeback.
Last game: Beat San Diego State, 28-14
Next game: Regular season over
The Cougars had a bit of a hangover of their own after the long trip and crushing loss at Coastal Carolina. They trailed the Aztecs after one quarter 14-7 on a frigid night in Provo, but pitched a defensive shutout the rest of the way, highlighted by a fourth-quarter goal-line stand. Quarterback Zach Wilson had just his second 300-yard passing game in the last six, bailing out a BYU running game that was held to a season-low 74 yards. Now we’ll find out what bowl destination awaits a team that came up a yard short of a perfect regular-season.