With Thanksgiving (and Rivalry Week) right around the corner, to be followed closely by Championship Week, thoughts invariably turn to potential College Football Playoff scenarios and the decisions the CFP selection committee will face.
There are more contenders than we usually see at this stage of the season, but one of them — unbeaten Florida State — was dealt a serious blow with an injury to quarterback Jordan Travis, further complicating an already complex picture.
For teams outside the playoff sphere, it’s a time to appreciate surprising success (such as at New Mexico State) or look for a fresh start and a new coach (like Syracuse).
ESPN’s college football reporters take it all in with the Week 12 takeaways.
The 12-team CFP is coming a year too late
This would have been the perfect season to start the 12-team playoff field, which doesn’t begin until next year. There haven’t been this many contenders this deep into the season before during the four-team playoff era. Four of the Power 5 conferences still have at least one undefeated team remaining, the lone exception being the Big 12. There are still eight teams with a path to the playoff — nine if you include Louisville, though the selection committee would have a hard time getting past the Cardinals’ loss to Pitt, and other conference champs will likely have stronger résumés.
Ohio State-Michigan will settle itself on the field, but this could still be the selection committee’s toughest task in a decade. While the weekly Tuesday rankings have lacked drama and major movement, the more they stay the same, the more difficult it will be on Selection Day.
Possibly the most challenging scenario would be if Alabama beats Georgia in the SEC championship game, one-loss Texas wins the Big 12 and two other undefeated conference champions — in addition to the Big Ten champ — remain. The Longhorns’ head-to-head win at Alabama will continue to loom large as long as their records are the same and their résumés are comparable. — Heather Dinich
Florida State presents test case for CFP committee
Florida State’s fortunes may have changed on a dime with the injury quarterback Travis suffered late in the first quarter of its 58-13 victory over North Alabama, a game in which Florida State scored 58 unanswered points to end the game. Because of his leadership and multidimensional capabilities out of the game’s most important position, Travis’ absence triggers a pivotal cause and effect.
Florida State enters its annual rivalry game with Florida at 11-0 for the first time since 2014. Redshirt junior Tate Rodemaker likely will take the reins to the offense for the rest of the season. Rodemaker, who had thrown only eight passes this season before being thrust into the spotlight, finished Saturday night 13-of-23 passing for 217 yards and two touchdowns. Rodemaker, who sparked a win at Louisville last September after Travis was injured, will make his first career start in the Swamp while leading an offense that is seventh in the FBS in scoring (40.1 PPG) and 17th in total offense (451.6 YPG).
With Washington also 11-0 for the first time since 1991 — when it split the national title with Miami — ahead of the Apple Cup with Washington State, an interesting debate could surface if both teams continue to win.
ESPN’s Heather Dinich referenced the 2014 playoff, when the committee moved Ohio State into the top four for the first time after Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to a thrashing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Led by Jones, Ohio State would go on to win the inaugural CFP title after dispatching of both Alabama and Oregon.
Rodemaker and the Seminoles will have that same opportunity to show what they’re worthy and capable of. But what happens if Washington jumps them this Tuesday after winning at Oregon State? Florida State has Louisville waiting in Charlotte for the ACC crown in two weeks while Washington may have to go to Las Vegas and beat Oregon a second time to earn the Pac-12 title. How much does the quality of competition matter? We may end up finding out if both teams can add two more wins apiece by the time Dec. 3 rolls around. — Blake Baumgartner
Babers, Syracuse face stark reality
Syracuse parted ways with coach Dino Babers on Sunday after the Orange fell to Georgia Tech 31-22. Babers ends his eight-year tenure with the Orange with an ACC record of 20-45 (41-55 overall) and just two bowl bids. Given those numbers, the decision is hardly a surprise.
But dig a little deeper into the situation at Syracuse, and Babers’ dismissal signals a larger set of problems — problems that echo the uphill battle so many low-end Power 5 teams will face moving forward in the new era of college football.
Babers was 12-12 in the past two seasons, which is actually better than Miami’s Mario Cristobal or Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, and the same as Houston’s Dana Holgorsen and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi since the start of 2022. But the fan base had soured on Babers after Syracuse wasted back-to-back strong starts — 6-0 in 2022, 4-0 this year — and athletic director John Wildhack opted for a change.
But look at the cards Babers was dealt: The loss to Georgia Tech came with a converted tight end playing quarterback for the second straight week. It came in a season in which Babers replaced both coordinators after the incumbents left in lateral moves. Babers recruited well enough to have two players from last year’s team drafted and another make an NFL roster. Indeed, four others left for different Power 5 programs — the portal offering access to better NIL opportunities at bigger schools.
Six weeks ago, Babers was asked about Syracuse’s depth amid rising injury attrition, and he offered a blunt answer.
“It’s the same old thing: Depth is gone,” Babers said. “Our depth is in the transfer portal. You know how many guys we lost. You know what schools they play at. Schools like us, we’re not going to have a lot of depth because it gets bought away.”
More than a few Syracuse fans and critics suggested this was an easy excuse for another downward spiral, but Babers wasn’t wrong. This is life on the fringes of big-time college football today. Winning at a place like Syracuse has been hard for a long time, but Babers proved in 2018 that, with the right QB and a handful of diamonds in the rough, it was possible. He led Syracuse to a 10-win season and a No. 15 ranking in the final AP poll — two things that hadn’t happened in Central New York in 17 years.
But then COVID hit (and hit Syracuse harder than almost any team in the country), the portal opened, NIL became the law of the land and, yes, a hefty fraction of Babers’ best talent walked out the door.
That’s not to say Babers didn’t make mistakes. Witness Syracuse’s second-half collapse against Clemson last year or the woeful performance against Virginia Tech last month coming off an open date. There’s simply no room for error when the margins are so thin.
Perhaps the next coach will win more than 12 games in two years. It’s certainly possible. But the problems at Syracuse run deep, and some of them simply can’t be addressed by hiring a new coach or funneling more money into the football program. — David M. Hale
New Mexico State’s Jerry Kill a coaching treasure
Auburn suffers setback vs. feisty New Mexico State
The Aggies snap the Tigers’ three-game winning streak with a stunning 38-10 upset at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
On a Wednesday in late October 2015, Jerry Kill sat before a microphone in Minneapolis, flushed with emotion, and announced he would be retiring as Minnesota’s coach. Kill, then 54, had been suffering more frequent seizures as a result of epilepsy.
He had endured a seizure during a game in 2011, and left Minnesota for seven games in 2013 as he tried to get his condition under control. But on advice of his doctor, Kill said he could no longer continue.
“This is not the way I wanted to go out,” Kill said. “But you all know about the struggles. And I did my best to change. But some of those struggles have returned. And I don’t want to cheat the game. And I ain’t going to change. I know somebody will ask, ‘Coach, what are you going to do?’ I don’t know. I ain’t done anything else. That’s the scary part.”
Turns out, Kill would coach again. And again. And again. Even when his health forced another retirement in 2017 at Rutgers, he would return. Kill is one of college football’s best coaches. He’s quite possibly the most resilient. He survived kidney cancer while coaching at Southern Illinois.
Nearly 3,000 days after the Minnesota retirement announcement, Kill led New Mexico State to a 31-10 win over Auburn. Although the Aggies came in at 8-3, overcoming a 2-3 start to win six straight, they were 25.5-point underdogs. Didn’t matter. Kill’s crew dominated Auburn, nearly doubling the Tigers in first downs (23-12) and total yards (414-213) en route to their first win against an SEC opponent.
New Mexico State hadn’t beaten a Power 5 team since 2011 against Minnesota, the day Kill had his seizure on the Gophers’ sideline.
Kill is 16-9 at New Mexico State, undeniably one of the toughest jobs in the FBS. Before Kill arrived, NMSU had made one bowl game since 1960, the last time the program made consecutive bowls. The nine wins mark the second most in team history and the most during its time in the FBS. New Mexico State is 6-1 during its first season in Conference USA and will face Liberty for the league title next week.
At 62, Kill continues to write a distinct and inspiring coaching story, and there are clearly more chapters to follow. — Adam Rittenberg
Manager Jim Leyland selected to Hall of Fame
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jim Leyland, the longtime manager who guided the Florida Marlins to the 1997 World Series title, was selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.
Leyland was named on 15 of 16 ballots in the selection process during a meeting of the Hall’s contemporary baseball era committee, which examined the cases of managers, umpires and executives whose greatest contributions came after 1980.
Nominees needed to be named on at least 12 ballots for enshrinement. Falling just short was former manager Lou Piniella, who was named on 11 ballots. Executive Bill White was listed on 10 ballots. Also considered were managers Cito Gaston and Davey Johnson, umpires Ed Montague and Joe West, and executive Hank Peters.
Leyland will become the 23rd person to be inducted into the Hall as a manager and the first since 2014, when Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox were enshrined. Leyland, who got his start in the majors as a coach under LaRussa with the Chicago White Sox, was asked to sum up what he tried to impart to his players over the years.
“I tried to impress upon them what it was to be a professional and how tough this game is to play,” Leyland said. “And I told them almost every day how good there were.”
Leyland never advanced beyond Double-A as a minor league catcher during a playing career that ended in 1970. But he more than made up for that during a long managerial career that began in the minors in 1971. He landed his first big league job with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986 and went on to win 1,769 games over a 22-year big league career that ended in 2013 with the Detroit Tigers. He ranks 18th on the all-time managerial win list.
Only Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy won more games among managers who never made the big leagues as a player. As he waited for the call from Hall of Fame chairperson Jane Forbes Clark on Sunday, Leyland initially thought the hour advanced late enough that the call — 60 years in the making — was not going to arrive. Then it did.
“I thought when I didn’t get [the call] by a quarter of seven, it wasn’t going to happen,” Leyland said. “So I went up just to rest a minute and get my thoughts together. When my son came up, the phone rang and it was the Hall of Fame. I couldn’t believe it. There was definitely a tear in my eye.”
Leyland managed numerous superstar players during his career, including all-time greats Barry Bonds and Miguel Cabrera. As much as he was respected by the superstar players, he was known as a skipper who treated everyone in his clubhouse as an equal.
“All the good managers realize it takes 24-25 guys,” Leyland said. “It takes one heartbeat to sustain. I try to communicate with everybody.”
Known for his lovably irascible manner and pregame news conferences conducted in undershirts amid a haze of cigarette smoke, Leyland reached his pinnacle with the 1997 Marlins, an expensively built team designed to win fast. With Leyland leading a team full of stars including Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and Kevin Brown, the Marlins went on to beat Cleveland in a seven-game World Series.
After that Marlins club was dismantled, Leyland moved on to manage the Colorado Rockies for one season before spending his final eight managing the Tigers. Detroit won two pennants during his tenure (2006 and 2012) and earned four postseason appearances.
Leyland was named Manager of the Year three times, twice in the National League (1990 and 1992) and once in the American League (2006).
Leyland, 78, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 21 in Cooperstown, New York. He originally signed as a player with the Tigers organization in 1964, so when he is recognized among the game’s immortals next summer, it will be the crowning achievement of 60 years around the professional game.
“It’s the final stop, really, as far as your baseball career goes,” Leyland said. “To end up and land there at Cooperstown? It doesn’t get any better. I mean, that’s the ultimate.”
Michigan, Washington, Texas, Alabama reach CFP
The Wolverines and Huskies as undefeated conference champions were considered virtual shoo-ins to make the CFP. Michigan is in the playoff for the third straight year. Washington, on the other hand, has been in the CFP only once before, losing in the semifinals in the 2016 season.
The path to the playoff was a bit murkier for Texas and Alabama.
Texas is back in the running for the national championship after booking its first trip to the playoff. Led by quarterback Quinn Ewers, the Longhorns went 12-1 and won the Big 12 championship in their first appearance in the conference title game. Texas’ lone loss came at the hand of Oklahoma in the Red River rivalry game. Both schools will head to the SEC after this season, but the Longhorns already got an SEC boost this year. Texas notched perhaps the biggest win of the college football season by going on the road in September and beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama proved that one big win can sometimes make up for one early loss. The Crimson Tide are in the playoff a day after ending Georgia’s 29-game, 728-day winning streak with a 27-24 victory in the SEC championship game. Nick Saban’s squad faced challenges atypical for Alabama, losing at home to Texas in the second game of the season and otherwise scuffling through the early part of the schedule. Part of the issue was uncertainty at quarterback. Jalen Milroe started and finished the season as the team’s top QB, but both Ty Simpson and Tyler Buchner were given chances to take control of the position in Tommy Rees’ first year as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Bama will now have a chance to win its fourth College Football Playoff national championship in the final year of the four-team format.
Alabama’s win Saturday ended Georgia’s pursuit of a third straight national championship. The Bulldogs had won 29 straight games, but Saturday’s ill-timed loss to Alabama in the SEC title game left Georgia on the outside looking in. As a result, the Bulldogs become the first No. 1 team in the penultimate CFP rankings to fall out of the top four after losing in Championship Week.
Florida State won its conference championship game after an undefeated regular season, but becomes the first unbeaten Power 5 champ to miss out on the CFP, a decision that rankled ACC commissioner Jim Phillips.
“It’s unfathomable that Florida State, an undefeated Power Five conference champion, was left out of the College Football Playoff,” Phillips said in a statement Sunday. “Their exclusion calls into question the selection process and whether the Committee’s own guidelines were followed, including the significant importance of being an undefeated Power Five conference champion. My heart breaks for the talented FSU student-athletes and coaches and their passionate and loyal fans. Florida State deserved better. College football deserved better.”
The committee seemed to focus on how competitive the Seminoles would be in the playoff without quarterback Jordan Travis, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in mid-November. FSU started backup Tate Rodemaker in its regular-season finale victory over Florida, but a concussion kept him out of the ACC title game. That forced coach Mike Norvell to go with freshman Brock Glenn on Saturday, a win over Louisville in which the Noles’ defense led the way.
Washington will play Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, while Michigan will face Alabama in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Prudential. Both semifinal games will be played on New Year’s Day and aired on ESPN.
The CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T will be played Monday, Jan. 8 on ESPN.
College Football Playoff first look: Previewing Michigan-Alabama and Washington-Texas
The final four-team College Football Playoff field is set, with the selection committee having to make the toughest decision it had ever faced.
We knew going in that history would be made and that at least one team and its fan base would be left with some serious gripes. Would an unbeaten Power 5 champion be left out for the first time? Would the SEC be shunned? Would the No. 1 team going into the conference championship games fall out?
In the end, Big Ten champion Michigan was awarded the No. 1 seed and will face No. 4 Alabama of the SEC. In the other semifinal, Pac-12 champ Washington, the No. 2 seed, will face No. 3 Texas of the Big 12.
Here’s our first look at the four-team field, including key players, X factors and what each team has to do to win it all.
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Alabama
CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Prudential
When: Monday, Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ET
Where: Rose Bowl (Pasadena, California)
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Key player: RB Blake Corum
Corum tied Michigan’s career rushing touchdown record in the Big Ten championship game with his 55th TD. He has carried the load for the Wolverines the past few seasons and the offense has gone through him. He led all FBS running backs with 24 touchdowns and had his third 1,000-yard season. When Corum is productive, it opens up the rest of Michigan’s offense and creates an easier path for the passing game. Corum is a team leader as well, and his two touchdowns against Ohio State put Michigan over the top and propelled the Wolverines toward the playoff.
X-factor: CB Mike Sainristil
Sainristil doesn’t get a lot of the attention, but he has been a leader on Michigan’s defense. He came up with two forced fumbles in the Big Ten championship game against Iowa and was integral in stopping the Hawkeyes offense. He had 30 total tackles on the season and four interceptions along with six pass breakups. He started his career at receiver before making the switch to corner, and over the past two seasons has built himself into a potential NFL draft pick on defense.
How Michigan wins: The offense performs at its peak
The offense hasn’t been at its best the past few weeks, but has done enough to stay undefeated. In the postgame press conference after the Big Ten title game, Jim Harbaugh said the team will have to clean up some things up in pass protection and the run game in order to have success in the playoff. The defense has been outstanding all season, but against the teams that Michigan will face in the playoff, the Wolverines will have to put up more points. That means Corum putting up big numbers and quarterback J.J. McCarthy complementing the run game with the passing attack we saw early in the season. — Tom VanHaaren
Key player: QB Jalen Milroe
Since his benching against South Florida in Week 3, Jalen Milroe has been one of the most dynamic players in college football. He has accounted for 28 touchdowns and turned the ball over just five times in leading the Crimson Tide to 11 straight wins. His ability to scramble for big gains and buy time in the pocket make him extremely difficult to defend for any defense, but he also has a big arm and has repeatedly connected with his receivers on deep throws. Georgia coach Kirby Smart compared the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Milroe to Lamar Jackson last week because of his acceleration in the open field and arm strength to push the ball down the field. Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Crimson Tide wouldn’t be in this position had Milroe not responded to his benching the way he did and continued to improve and “be our point guard.” Milroe’s decision-making has gotten significantly better as the season has progressed, and he said a lot of that is because he’s played with more freedom and confidence since Saban told him unequivocally that it was his job.
X factor: OLB Dallas Turner
Turner has been Alabama’s biggest disruptor on defense. The junior is the Tide’s best pass-rusher and can change the complexion of a game with a big sack or a tackle for loss that kills an opposing offense’s drive. Turner leads Alabama with 14.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries. Championship teams need a big-play defender who can cause the opposing offense to get out of its rhythm. The 6-4, 252-pound Turner is that player for the Crimson Tide.
How Alabama wins: By hanging around and being there at the end
Alabama has been one of the more resilient teams in the country. The Tide trailed five times in the second half in SEC games this season and rallied to win. In other words, they know how to win close games, and the more they’ve played, the more confident they’ve become in being able to finish games. Alabama’s offense isn’t necessarily built to get into high-scoring showdowns and having to come back from big deficits. But if the Tide are in the game in the fourth quarter, that’s their comfort zone. They don’t get rattled, and Milroe has delivered in pressure-packed situations. — Chris Low
No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Texas
CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl
When: Monday, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET
Where: Caesars Superdome (New Orleans)
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Key player: WR Rome Odunze
Even as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. generated Heisman Trophy consideration, Odunze has always been the Huskies’ best player. Whenever the team has needed a big play, Odunze has gotten the call. It happened, most notably, in the final minutes against Oregon in the regular season, when he hauled in the game-winning touchdown. And then, again, in the Apple Cup when he took an end around to pick up a monumental first down on fourth-and-1 from the Huskies’ 29-yard line. Odunze finished the regular season No. 4 in the country in receiving yards (1,326), No. 6 in receiving touchdowns (13) and is sure to be one of the first receivers off the board in the upcoming NFL draft.
X factor: RB Dillon Johnson
As teams devoted more effort to stopping the Huskies’ prolific passing offense as the season went along, Johnson became a more valuable asset. He rushed for 615 of his 961 regular-season yards over the last five games with seven touchdowns in that span. The Mississippi State transfer ran 28 times for 152 yards and two scores to help take down the Ducks on Friday night and should be a key factor in this game.
How Washington wins: Penix finds his early-season form
At the halfway point of the season, Michael Penix Jr. was the clear Heisman front-runner. He had the numbers. He passed the eye test. There wasn’t anything, it seemed, that could slow him down. But as the season went along, something felt off. He was still good enough to lead the Huskies to a 12-0 mark and ranked No. 2 in passing yards (3,899), but his accuracy regressed and the big plays weren’t as plentiful. When he’s at his best, though, Washington can beat anyone, as evidenced by the Huskies’ 34-31 win over the Ducks on Friday, when Penix threw for 319 yards and a score. — Kyle Bonagura
Key player: DL T’Vondre Sweat
Sweat came back for a super senior year to try to help Texas complete its turnaround. It’s fair to say that decision has been a massive success, as Sweat became a force in the interior as the Big 12 defensive player of the year and helped the Longhorns win the conference championship. At 6-4 and 362 pounds, Sweat is literally a massive piece of the Texas defense. But as big as he is, he’s so quick and agile that he wreaks havoc even on passing plays, despite having just two sacks on the season, because he draws so much attention that it frees up other players, including 6-1, 308-pound Byron Murphy II, who plays next to Sweat and was the league’s defensive lineman of the year. In the conference championship, Sweat even added a touchdown reception and a Heisman pose. The man contains multitudes.
X factor: TE Ja’Tavion Sanders
With the addition of Adonai Mitchell as a receiving threat opposite Xavier Worthy, Sanders has seen a dip in his production, with a few nagging injuries also a factor. Last season, he caught 54 passes for 613 yards and 5 TDs; this year he settled for 31 catches, 502 yards and one score in the regular season. But at 6-4, 243, Sanders is a nightmare matchup for linebackers and a big target for quarterback Quinn Ewers. He can be a key outlet, particularly near the goal line, where Texas has struggled for most of the season, ranking 104th nationally in red zone offense. Sanders averaged 4.2 catches per game last year, down to 2.6 this year. Entering the Big 12 championship game, he’d caught five passes in a game only twice this year, and both times he went over 100 yards, including 114 yards against Alabama. But against Oklahoma State on Saturday, he had a season-high eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Sanders could be the cure for the Longhorns’ woes in the end zone if they keep him going, particularly with Worthy’s ankle injury suffered against OSU adding concern.
How Texas wins: The offensive line protects Quinn Ewers
The Longhorns have the heft along both lines to match up with pretty much anyone, but with Jonathon Brooks, who had 1,138 yards in 10 games, lost for the season, they’ll have to find a back to make the running game a factor. But it will take a strong performance from quarterback Quinn Ewers and the passing game to key the Texas attack. If the offensive line can protect Ewers and keep him upright, the Longhorns have the speed to make big plays on the outside and the offense has shown the potential to deliver when it’s needed most. — Dave Wilson
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