Clutch play keeps contenders in hunt

- By Matt Murschel Orlando Sentinel

Saturday turned into survival of the fittest. What appeared to be a ho-hum of a slate of college football games wound up producing some of the most thrilling endings of the season. Fifteen FBS games were decided by four points or less, including six among the top 25 teams and four among the top 10 — Michigan, TCU, USC and Oregon needing big plays down the stretch to secure wins.

Tennessee’s loss opens the door for other playoff contenders.

The most impactful result from this Saturday was South Carolina’s stunning 63-38 upset win over Tennessee. The Volunteers were No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings and would have been the fly in the ointment if not for their loss to the Gamecocks. Instead, the result creates an easier path for several other playoff challenger­s, including the loser of this weekend’s Ohio State-Michigan game, the loser of the SEC title game and the Pac-12 champion.

As expected, the Big Ten East comes down to Ohio State and Michigan.

For a few harrowing moments Saturday, the possibilit­y of Ohio State and Michigan suffering catastroph­ic losses a week before their monumental meeting seemed likely. The Buckeyes struggled before putting away Maryland late, and the Wolverines needed a 35-yard field goal by Jake Moody with 9 seconds left to pull out a win over Illinois, setting up a battle of unbeatens with a critical berth in the Big Ten title game on the line.

TCU likes to keep things interestin­g. It’s almost becoming second nature now that TCU fans can expect to spend most of the Horned Frogs’ games on the edge of their seats. For the seventh straight game, TCU found itself in another close contest, this time trailing Baylor 28-26 late before QB Max Duggan drove the Horned Frogs 45 yards to set up Griffin Kell’s game-winning, 40-yard field goal as time expired. TCU remained undefeated and in the playoff race.

USC’s Lincoln Riley deserves considerat­ion for coach of the year. Oklahoma fans may not want to hear this, but former Sooners coach Lincoln Riley deserves a lot of credit for his masterful job in his first season leading USC. While there are a lot of good candidates (see TCU’s Sonny Dykes), Riley has the Trojans ranked in the top five of the AP poll for the first time in five years, back in the Pac-12 title game and in the playoff hunt.

Three teams still in the hunt for the Big Ten West title. The Big Ten West remains a three-team race. Iowa controls its fate with the Hawkeyes needing a win over Nebraska to earn its second straight spot in the conference championsh­ip game, but a loss opens things up for Purdue. The Boilermake­rs need a win over Indiana and an Iowa loss. Illinois remains a factor, needing a win over Northewest­ern and losses by Iowa and Purdue.

Notre Dame can play the role of spoiler. After a rough 0-2 start, Notre Dame has climbed back into the rankings by winning eight of its last nine games, including five straight. The Irish have used a stout defense and a solid running game to put themselves back in the discussion of a possible New Year’s Six bowl game. To do so, Marcus Freeman’s team needs to create a little chaos, knocking off USC to send the playoff picture into disarray.

Clemson fans should cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. It may seem weird considerin­g their history, but Clemson fans should be rooting hard for Notre Dame to upset USC. The Tigers are 10-1 with a game against South Carolina on Saturday and then a date with North Carolina in the ACC championsh­ip game. An Irish win coupled with Tennessee’s loss last weekend would help create a more straightfo­rward path for Clemson to get back into the semifinals for the first time since 2020.

The Heisman race remains wide open. Two weeks remain in the regular season and nobody has separated themselves in the Heisman Trophy race. USC’s Caleb Williams could be the frontrunne­r after passing for 500 yards in a win against UCLA on Saturday. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud still is very much in the mix. UNC QB Drake Maye struggled last weekend and Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker tore the ACL in his left knee against South Carolina.

UCF’s loss wreaks havoc in the American Athletic Conference. UCF’s stunning loss to Navy on Saturday made the chase for the AAC title much more chaotic with four teams in the mix. The winner of this weekend’s Tulane-Cincinnati game hosts the championsh­ip game, but which team they would face could come down to a tiebreaker that could involve playoff rankings or even a series of computer rankings.

 ?? MARK J. TERRILL/AP ?? QB Caleb Williams and USC edged rival UCLA 48-45 on Saturday night.
MARK J. TERRILL/AP QB Caleb Williams and USC edged rival UCLA 48-45 on Saturday night.

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