Thanksgiving weekend is college football distilled to its essence: in-state rivalries, goofy trophies that carry the weight of generations, and the culmination of a regular season1 that has passed much too quickly. Scores will be settled, titles clinched, and careers concluded. After months of speculation, the stage will be set for Championship Saturday, the first act of the postseason. This holiday week marks the most compelling, consequential slate on the schedule, and here is everything — really, pretty much everything! — you need to know to get you through the post-tryptophan gantlet.
The Playoff Field
Yes, Big 12, we know: Not for you.
As many as 10 teams enter the weekend with a plausible path to the final four, three of whom (Florida State, Alabama, and Oregon) can be more or less certain that they control their own destinies. The Seminoles, Crimson Tide, and Ducks are all favored by at least a touchdown over their in-state rivals, and can all advance to their respective conference championship games with a playoff ticket in reach.2 No team can afford a loss at this point, including the obvious front-runners, but unlike the aspirants immediately below them, the top three have no incentive to chase “style points,” either: As far as the playoff picture is concerned, the only drama in their games is the potential for an upset. Which is very low.
Florida State and Oregon will play for the ACC and Pac-12 titles regardless of the outcomes on Saturday; Alabama still needs to beat Auburn to wrap up the SEC West.
The real intrigue involves the next four teams — Mississippi State, TCU, Baylor, and Ohio State — a fully deserving quartet with virtually identical résumés running neck-and-neck for the fourth and final slot. For the moment, the pole position belongs to Mississippi State, which held at no. 4 in both the AP and Coaches polls following Saturday’s 51-0 throttling of lowly Vanderbilt.3 The Bulldogs also have the distinct advantage this weekend of facing a ranked opponent, no. 17 Ole Miss, while TCU, Baylor, and Ohio State face more prosaic tests against struggling rivals (Texas, Texas Tech, and Michigan, respectively) that boast a combined 15-18 record. The Rebels’ stock has plummeted from its midseason peak, but certainly not far enough to imagine Mississippi State falling out of the top four if it clinches a new school record for single-season wins with a victory in the Egg Bowl.
As of this writing, the selection committee’s weekly rankings have yet to be released, but it seems unlikely MSU will drop from the no. 4 position there, either.
Still, unless Alabama forfeits the SEC West crown (again) against Auburn, the Bulldogs’ triumph may be short-lived. The following weekend, Baylor and Ohio State will get a chance to make closing statements of their own against top-20 opponents,4 and to clinch conference championships in the process. (Technically, Baylor and TCU can still share the Big 12 title with identical 11-1/8-1 records, but Baylor owns the head-to-head victory over TCU, and an eleventh-hour win over K-State will almost certainly be enough for the Bears to overtake the Horned Frogs in the polls.) When in doubt, the selection committee protocol explicitly instructs members to place an emphasis on rewarding conference champions over non-champs. If Mississippi State is stuck watching the SEC title game from home, its fate may be out of its hands. In the meantime, the Bulldogs’ only course of action is to beat the Dockers off Ole Miss on Saturday, then find a TV and hope like hell that Auburn breaks out of its November stupor in Tuscaloosa.
Baylor hosts no. 11 Kansas State to close out the Big 12 schedule; the Buckeyes have already clinched a spot in the Big Ten title game against the winner of Minnesota/Wisconsin.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the records, the most dangerous trap for any of the would-be playoff teams has been set for TCU on Thursday night, the Horned Frogs’ Thanksgiving date with Texas. On paper, the Longhorns are lame ducks, 6-5 underachievers with lopsided losses already on the books against BYU, Baylor, and Kansas State. Since the calendar turned to November, though, the Horns have begun to look more like their old, bullying selves, having dispatched Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks by at least 17 points apiece. Offensively, sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes is coming off his best game of the season in the win over OSU; defensively, UT leads the Big 12 in total defense in conference games. The feeling in Austin is that the first really big win of Charlie Strong’s tenure is just around the corner, and as loath as Texas fans are to think of themselves as underdogs to any other school in the state — much less to little Texas Christian, with its enrollment of barely 10,000 — a top-10 upset to close the regular season would constitute the first needle-moving win in Darrell K. Royal Stadium in quite some time.
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As things stand, there’s not much point in contriving a scenario in which a two-loss team has a legitimate chance at crashing the final four, but if it’s going to happen, that team is probably going to be UCLA. As I outlined on Monday, the Bruins finally appear to be hitting their stride in all phases, and they should be the highest-ranked two-loss team in the eyes of the selection committee after stomping USC over the weekend, 38-20.5 On Friday, UCLA can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win against Stanford; from there, it can thrust itself into the national mix by upsetting Oregon in next week’s conference championship game. There’s no telling yet how susceptible the committee may be to the notion of rewarding the “hot team” at the end of the season, but if a couple of dominoes fall in front of them, the Bruins are positioned to force the issue.
UCLA was ranked no. 9 in last week’s poll, one place behind 8-2 Ole Miss, which just forfeited its place in the top 10 in a 30-0 flop at Arkansas.
On the off chance Stanford stuffs UCLA in the deep freeze, the Pac-12 South crown will fall to the winner of the annual Arizona State–Arizona match in Tucson, which is set to kick off simultaneously with Cardinal-Bruins at 3:30 ET on Friday.6 The duel in the desert will mark the first time since 1986 the Sun Devils and Wildcats have met as ranked teams (both are 9-2/6-2 in Pac-12 play) and, incredibly, the first time since Arizona joined the league in 1978 that a conference title has been even theoretically within reach in the Wildcats’ regular-season finale. Zona coach Rich Rodriguez has already forbidden the scoreboard operator from updating the UCLA score, but if Rodriguez has to rely on a backup quarterback for the first time this season, the proceedings 500 miles away will be the least of his concerns. (Plus, like, smartphones, ya know?)
Is scheduling two marquee conference games at the same time better or worse than scheduling them after two of the four time zones have already passed out on their sofas, as the Pac-12 usually does?
The other two-loss team harboring distant playoff ambitions is Georgia, which already boasts three blowout wins over ranked opponents (Clemson, Missouri, and Auburn), and which has a chance to make it four at the expense of no. 16 Georgia Tech, champion of the ACC’s Coastal Division. Two problems: One, Tech isn’t exactly the type to go down without a fight — the Yellow Jackets have won four in a row by at least three touchdowns apiece, including a 28-6 thrashing of Clemson their last time out — and two, regardless of what happens in the in-state rivalry game, UGA may have already been eliminated from the national race by kickoff. Unless Arkansas upends first-place Missouri on Friday, thereby delivering the SEC East title to Georgia, all that will be at stake for the Bulldogs 24 hours later is pride and a second-tier bowl assignment.
On the other hand, Arkansas has spent the last two weekends unleashing three years of pent-up rage against LSU and Ole Miss, and it suddenly looks like a force to be reckoned with on the heels of back-to-back shutouts. Technically, the Razorbacks are still in last place in the SEC West; at 6-5, they also received the most votes this week of any team that missed the cut in the AP poll, and so far Vegas sees Friday’s trip to Missouri as a pick ’em. If the Razorbacks are good enough on the road to get Georgia into the SEC title game, the Bulldogs are good enough to take it from there.
Oh, and there’s a relevant game in the Big Ten, too, where the winner of no. 22 Minnesota vs. no. 14 Wisconsin will claim the B1G West crown and advance to play Ohio State in next week’s conference championship game. But Gophers-Badgers is set to air on the Big Ten Network in the 3:30 ET time slot, opposite Mississippi State–Ole Miss (CBS), Florida–Florida State (ESPN), Notre Dame–USC (Fox), Baylor–Texas Tech (ABC/ESPN2), and Michigan State–Penn State (ABC/ESPN2) on the major national networks, so … good luck finding it.
And Now, a Brief Interlude on Week 14’s Best Rivalry Trophies
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5. The Platypus Trophy (Oregon vs. Oregon State): Platypuses are indigenous to Australia, not the Pacific Northwest, but when Oregon and Oregon State decided to introduce a rivalry trophy in the late 1950s, the evolutionary love child of a Duck and a Beaver was the inevitable choice. The result is perfect in every way: It’s specific to the schools, it was once “lost” for upward of 40 years, and it’s ugly as sin. (The story goes that there was some initial enthusiasm for the idea of reinstating the trophy after it was rediscovered circa 2005 in a closet, until the athletic directors actually laid eyes on the thing.) The only mark against the Platypus Trophy is that the hardware isn’t logistically associated with the Civil War game itself, or even officially acknowledged by the athletic departments: Instead, it travels between the rival alumni organizations after the fact. Verily, such inspired Eisenhower-era bric-a-brac deserves only the highest prominence.
4. The Old Oaken Bucket (Purdue vs. Indiana): It’s old. It’s oaken. It’s a bucket. But it’s so much more: It’s the platonic ideal of a bucket. According to Purdue’s website, the trophy was taken from a farm, “in a bad state of repair and covered with moss and mold,” after officials from Purdue and Indiana decided in 1925 that “an old oaken bucket would be a most typical trophy from this state and should be taken from a well somewhere in Indiana.” For an Indianan in 1925, the search for exactly the right bucket must have been like the search for the Holy Grail. But almost 90 years later, the legacy lives on in a pair of 3-8 teams that will embody the spirit of the bucket this weekend by arriving in a bad state of repair, covered with moss and mold.
3. The Territorial Cup (Arizona State vs. Arizona): Said Cup originally debuted in 1899, more than a decade before Arizona became the 48th U.S. state — hence the “Territorial” tag — and promptly disappeared for 70 years. After several more decades of general neglect, the cup was formally reinstated as a traveling trophy in 2001, although by that point it was so old that replicas had to be introduced to prevent adrenaline-soaked players from mutilating an antique. The original is later shuttled to the winning school’s Hall of Fame via police escort. Anyone who touches it with his bare hands will suffer an unspeakable fate.
2. Paul Bunyan’s Axe (Minnesota vs. Wisconsin): Beaucoup bonus points for the ax literally being a functional tool fit for a giant that could conceivably be deployed for most common ax-like purposes by any human large enough to swing it. This year, the ax will move from its traditional place on the incumbent sideline after an “incident” at the end of last year’s game that nearly led to a brawl. I think that sentence pretty much sums it up.
1. Fremont Cannon (Nevada vs. UNLV): The cannon is named for John C. Fremont, a 19th century explorer who famously (if you’re from Nevada) abandoned a howitzer in the snow in the Sierra Nevada. As a full-size replica, it ranks as both the largest trophy in college football (545 pounds) and the most costly to build ($10,000, in 1969 dollars). Until the turn of the century, the school that possessed the cannon in a given year fired it to punctuate touchdowns in the rivalry game, and players still paint the cannon red (for UNLV) or blue (for Nevada) upon winning it back from the other side. Its combination of local history, school pride, and violent bombast is unsurpassed in its field.
Hot Seat Watch
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Will Muschamp’s last hurrah at Florida arrives 10 years after another doomed Gator coach, Ron Zook, went out with an inexplicable upset over Florida State in his last game, a precedent Muschamp frankly doesn’t seem to appreciate. But gamblers do: Already, the opening line in Vegas (FSU -10) has been bet down to FSU -7.5, and may continue to fall given the Seminoles’ proclivity for wringing the last ounce of drama out of every game.7 Teams under lame-duck coaches are the most volatile; with nothing in particular to play for, the Gators could come out flat and indifferent, or loose and inspired by the prospect of sending their coach out on a high note. We saw earlier this month in its out-of-nowhere romp over Georgia that Florida is capable of hitting a higher gear at random intervals, and Saturday would be a hell of a time to do so again before descending into the murky abyss of a high-profile coaching search.
Five of FSU’s 11 wins this season have come by six points or fewer, and it’s trailed in the fourth quarter of two others.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, the ax has yet to officially fall on coach Brady Hoke, but even Hoke can’t go on pretending he doesn’t see the writing on the wall with a losing record now all but assured. Hoke has been on the chopping block since the final weekend in September, when the Shane Morris Incident exacerbated the humiliation of a lopsided loss to Minnesota, on the heels of previously humiliating losses to Utah and Notre Dame; a month later, the university made its position on the state of the program abundantly clear when it succeeded in squeezing out athletic director Dave Brandon on Halloween.
Even if it were still somehow possible for Hoke to save his bacon with a win over Ohio State … I’m sorry, I can’t even finish that thought, because there’s not a single shred of evidence that these Wolverines are capable of upsetting the Buckeyes in Columbus. For the most part, Michigan has played like it was ready for this season and this administration to be over from the second game on. Finally, it gets to embrace the end.
Two coaches who may be legitimately coaching to keep their jobs this weekend: Illinois’s Tim Beckman and Virginia’s Mike London, both of whom enter rivalry games with a 5-6 record and bowl eligibility at stake following last weekend’s upsets over Penn State and Miami, respectively. If the local press is any indication, London has at least a 50-50 shot of returning for a sixth year in 2015, and those odds will rise considerably if Virginia is able to snap a decadelong losing streak to foundering Virginia Tech on Friday night. As hapless as the Hokies have looked down the stretch, this is an opportunity the Cavaliers have to seize. Beckman is on shakier ground in Champaign; attendance has dwindled to embarrassing levels, and even with a win this weekend at Northwestern, his record in Big Ten games will be 4-20 over three years. Is a potential berth in the Quick Lane Bowl really worth another year of this?
Like a Turkey and Gravy
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Above all, rivalry weekend exists to give constructive form to the seething, irrational spite between tribes, which is (as they say in Georgia) the good, clean, old-fashioned way to hash out some deep-seated rifts. But not for Texas and Texas A&M, two factions that recently agreed their relationship had grown so toxic that even convening on the same field, or as members of the same conference, was no longer tenable. The divorce has been hard on everyone.
Before 2012, the Longhorns and Aggies played on or around Thanksgiving day, year-in and year-out, for more than a century. When the series ended for the foreseeable future following A&M’s defection to the SEC, both sides decided to move on by rekindling the “tradition” with someone new: In 2012, Texas spent Thanksgiving getting reacquainted with an old Southwest Conference flame, TCU, and beginning this year Texas A&M has agreed to start seeing a new conference “rival,” LSU. Like two exes pretending not to notice one another from the opposite ends of their favorite old haunts, the games will kick off at the same time Thursday night on competing networks.
Someday, when tensions have eased and the levers of power in the state have been passed down to a new generation — one that takes both A&M’s membership in the SEC and the existence of the Longhorn Network as unobjectionable bastions of the status quo — the series will be renewed, and no one will have the foggiest idea why it ever broke up in the first place. In the meantime, the holiday doubleheader will serve as an annual reminder of just how much hate must still exist to keep the Aggies and Longhorns apart after so long, and also of how perfect these two will always be for each other.
This article has been updated to correct schedule information for recent TCU-Texas games on Thanksgiving.