Week 13 observations: Ohio State gains valuable experience as battle for top seed heats up

Dan Wolken


Published 1: 13 AM EST Nov 24, 2019

For about half an hour on Saturday, it looked like Ohio State might be in real trouble for the first time this season. Though the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes had been dominant in the first half against Penn State, a couple egregious turnovers had put them on their heels and turned the entire momentum toward their opponents. For the first time all season, Ohio State went into the fourth quarter of a game unsure whether it was going to win. 

So while the Buckeyes didn’t bank any style points, they got something far more important out of a 28-17 win over No. 9 Penn State: A sense of their own mortality.

Though Ohio State managed to reach late November without playing a single close game, the truth is there comes a point where such dominance can be counterproductive if you want to win the College Football Playoff.  

As impressive as blowout wins are, they do not prepare teams for situations where the outcome is in doubt and there’s scoreboard pressure to execute that key third-and-4 or to hold a team to three points in the red zone. As much as coaches can run all the plays and situations, you can’t practice what it feels like when the game is up for grabs — and at some point, the Buckeyes are going to be in a moment like that if they end up playing for a national championship. 

So while the much-discussed “eye test” wasn’t great for Ohio State as a 21-0 lead became 21-17 with quarterback Justin Fields committing back-to-back fumbles that opened the door for a comeback, this is the kind of game that will ultimately pay dividends for the Buckeyes.

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Were some Ohio State vulnerabilities uncovered? Maybe. But think about a team like Alabama in 2016 that really wasn’t challenged until it faced Clemson in the national championship game. Would Alabama have executed better in the fourth quarter and potentially won the game if it had that experience earlier in the season? We’ll never know. But for Ohio State to get those reps now could prove to be valuable down the road. 

Here are seven other observations from Week 13 of the college football season: 

The committee’s biggest decision will be the No. 1 seed

If the top three teams continue holding to form, most of the Playoff focus will flow toward who gets the nod at No. 4. But in many ways, that’s not the most important or toughest decision the committee will have to make. Instead, it could be the debate between LSU and Ohio State for the No. 1 seed. 

The stakes of that decision have never been higher in the CFP era. The reason? Because whoever gets assigned the No. 2 seed would have to face Clemson in the semifinals instead of a theoretically easier opponent. While there are no guarantees in the Playoff, you’d have to think most coaches would much rather play Utah, Oklahoma or even a Mac Jones-quarterbacked Alabama than Clemson, which only fell behind the top two due to strength of schedule. By every other metric, Clemson has been absolutely dominant in recent weeks, and we know the Tigers’ quality of talent across the board is just as good as anyone in the country. Throw in the intangibles of a coaching staff that has proven it can prepare a team for the Playoff, and it’s easy to envision a scenario where the No. 2 seed is actually an underdog to the Tigers. 

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Since the beginning of the Playoff era, there’s never been a real debate about which team ends up with the No. 1 seed and no major matchup advantage for getting it. If anything, there have been a couple occasions where the No. 1 seed got a tougher draw and lost to the eventual champions. (Alabama against Ohio State in 2014 and Clemson against Alabama in 2017). 

This time, though, there could be a big difference between No. 3 and No. 4, which means the committee should spend a lot of time discussing that issue. If LSU wins out, it will have legit top-15 victories at Alabama, against Georgia on a neutral field and at home against Florida. That’s a very impressive résumé, but the Buckeyes would have victories over Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and perhaps Minnesota while looking like a much more complete team due to its defense.

It’s not an obvious call either way. How dominant Ohio State looks against Michigan and in the Big Ten title game could play a role, especially if LSU’s defense continues to struggle. In the end, there may not be an exact right answer — but it could be a very consequential choice. 

Of course, beating Michigan won’t be easy 

All the Playoff hypotheticals could be moot next week if the Buckeyes can’t beat resurgent Michigan. And from all indications, it’s going to take an A-plus effort from Ohio State to win in Ann Arbor.

Though Michigan had plenty of problems in the first half of the season, that near-comeback at Penn State on Oct. 19 really did awaken something in the Wolverines. Since then, including Saturday’s impressive 39-14 win at sneaky good Indiana, they’ve out-scored opponents 166-45. 

Unlike last year and 2016, the Ohio State-Michigan game won’t decide the Big Ten East as the Buckeyes have already wrapped it up. But at 8-2, a Michigan win wouldn’t just be its first in the series since 2011 (and first under Jim Harbaugh) but it would put the Wolverines right in the mix for another New Year’s Six game and potentially the Rose Bowl if Ohio State made the Playoff anyway. In other words, beyond the rivalry stuff, there’s plenty of incentive here for Michigan to play its best game. And as we’ve seen over the last month, its best game just might be good enough at home to knock off the Buckeyes. 

Oklahoma had a good night despite struggling

For a couple hours Saturday night, there was an interesting side-by-side comparison happening between Oregon and Oklahoma. These were two teams, after all, who were occupying the pole position to win their respective respective conferences and potentially compete for that No. 4 spot in the Playoff. But only one of them escaped with their chances still intact. 

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While the Ducks folded in the desert against Arizona State to eliminate themselves from contention with a 31-28 loss, Oklahoma was able to gut out a 28-24 win over TCU to stay alive at 10-1.

Though it’s clear the Sooners are a flawed team, they’re going to be right in the Playoff mix if they can win at Oklahoma State next week and beat Baylor for a second time in the Big 12 title game. The big concern for Oklahoma lately is turnovers, as quarterback Jalen Hurts threw an interception and fumbled midway through the fourth quarter when the Sooners were about to put the game away.

More: No. 8 Oklahoma holds off TCU in another close win to keep playoff hopes alive

More: No. 6 Oregon sees College Football Playoff hopes end as Arizona State pulls the upset

Though Oklahoma came in at No. 9 in the Playoff standings last week, indicating the committee wasn’t that high on the Sooners, they’d have a pretty solid argument with a 12-1 record and a Big 12 title over a team like Alabama that hasn’t had a legitimate top-25 win so far and won’t win the SEC. 

Bud Foster got a fitting send-off from Lane Stadium

If the College Football Hall of Fame ever added a wing for assistant coaches — the fact it doesn’t is kind of ridiculous, but that’s another argument altogether — Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster would be one of the first to be enshrined. Foster, who has coached at Virginia Tech since 1987 and been the defensive coordinator since 1995, is retiring after this season. So how better to honor him in his final game at Lane Stadium than his defense pitching a shutout in a 28-0 win over Pittsburgh?

It’s been an interesting final chapter for Foster. After so much success under Frank Beamer, part of the agreement for Justin Fuente to become the new coach was retaining Foster as kind of a bridge between the two eras. Though the Fuente-Foster partnership got off to a very fast start, the Hokies struggled to a 6-7 record last season and looked like they might be spiraling this year after a 2-2 start that included a very ugly 35-point loss to Duke at home. 

Since then, however, Virginia Tech’s only loss was 20-21 at Notre Dame. Moreover, Foster’s defense hasn’t allowed a score for nine straight quarters. Virginia Tech finishes the regular season at Virginia next weekend in a game where the winner goes to the ACC championship game to face Clemson. 

American has huge final weekend lined up 

It has been a terrific overall year for the AAC, with three teams ranked in both the CFP and Amway Coaches Poll last week. But will it end with the league snagging a coveted bid to the Cotton Bowl that will go to the highest-ranked champion among the Group of Five teams? 

The AAC heads into the final week of the regular season still trying to untangle a thicket of possibilities in how its hopes might play out. Here’s what we know for sure: Cincinnati, by beating Temple 15-13, is in the AAC title game no matter what happens next Friday in its game at Memphis. On the other hand, Memphis has no margin for error. If the 10-1 Tigers beat Cincinnati, they’ll host a rematch the following week in the Liberty Bowl for the conference championship. If the Tigers lose, they will likely also lose out on the division title as Navy would take it with a win over woeful Houston.

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With Boise State ranked 20th and still having just one loss, the cleanest path for the AAC is Memphis beating Cincinnati twice or Cincinnati beating both Memphis and Navy. If that doesn’t happen, it could get messy as the AAC champ would have two losses. Boise State would probably get the bid as a one-loss team, but if Navy wins the conference title, it’s possible the CFP committee could delay announcing the Cotton Bowl pairing by a week until the Midshipmen play Army if that result would affect the pick. 

Who are the biggest flops? 

With the season now coming to an end, it’s worth evaluating which teams are the biggest flops relative to preseason expectations. At the top of that list, you’d undoubtedly find the Texas Longhorns, whose 24-10 loss to Baylor dropped them to 6-5 after starting the year at No. 10 in the Amway Coaches Poll. 

Opinion: Lackluster Texas has no answers — or offense — in loss to Baylor

From the same state, you’d have to consider North Texas, a team that was picked to win its division in Conference USA but has cratered at 4-7 and lost this weekend to 2-9 Rice. Syracuse, a team that was ranked No. 22 in the preseason, has been completely non-competitive in the ACC at 4-7. Northwestern, Stanford and Washington State also started the year ranked but are nowhere to be found now. Another strong contender is Missouri, which many predicted to contend in the SEC East but has lost five in a row and now sits at 5-6.

Where there’s a Will, there’s a bowl 

Charlotte’s unconventional decision to hire 34-year-old Will Healy as head coach last December is already paying big dividends. The 49ers, whose program was born in 2013, got bowl eligible for the first time in school history Saturday with their fifth straight win — a 24-13 upset over Marshall to get to 6-5 on the season. Charlotte should add a seventh win next week against 1-10 Old Dominion.

Healy is a name to keep in your memory bank going forward. The Chattanooga, Tenn., native who played quarterback at Richmond generated a lot of media attention a couple years ago when he turned around FCS-level Austin Peay’s program from 0-11 his first year to 8-4 in his second. That got Healy, who has a Dabo Swinney-like charisma, on the radar for a lot of athletics directors and search firms. But given his age and the fact that his team regressed to 5-6 in his third year, most schools wanted to take a wait-and-see approach before bringing him up into an FBS job. But Charlotte, a fledgling program that hadn’t yet broken through, thought it was worth rolling the dice to get in early on a coaching talent like Healy. It seems to have been a good bet. 

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