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A Pac-12 upset and Big 12 epic finish shake up Championship Weekend

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Georgia hauls in wild INT off LSU player's helmet (1:11)

Smael Mondon Jr. pounces on an interception that deflects off LSU receiver Jack Bech's helmet. (1:11)

Two things have been true of the College Football Playoff committee's first eight years of selections.

First, the committee has almost certainly gotten the top four correct on every occasion. For any debates over Ohio State in 2014 or Alabama in 2017, the eventual results -- a national championship for both -- served as the final word in any argument.

But the second detail worth noting about the committee's process is that, in the end, the decisions have almost entirely been easy. Even those mildly controversial choices actually represented the easiest possible solution for the committee. For all the griping and hand-wringing over every rankings release leading up to the final ballot, the stars have always aligned in the end.

That's not the case this season.

On a championship weekend that seemed to have little chance of disrupting the status quo, TCU and USC threw wrenches into the works. With Ohio State and Alabama relaxed on their respective couches, feet up and a bowl of chips on their laps, they somehow were pulled from the playoff scrap heap, dusted off and found to be playoff-caliber teams after all.

On Friday, Utah demolished USC 47-24, hanging a second loss on the Trojans' résumé -- all because they had to play an extra game that Ohio State, Alabama and Tennessee did not.

On Saturday, Max Duggan's heroics fell six inches shy of a win, and TCU's case is now in the committee's hands, where it'll judge the Horned Frogs' one loss in overtime to Kansas State against Ohio State's lone defeat vs. Michigan -- a blowout from a week ago that now feels like ancient history.

USC has two losses -- but it has lost to just one team, same as Ohio State. It lost in a blowout to a highly ranked conference rival, same as Ohio State. It has a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, a cadre of elite receivers, a shaky defense and an impressive win over Notre Dame, same as Ohio State.

TCU took the L, but didn't that frenetic comeback offer a reminder of the excitement the Frogs have given us all year? (And if it didn't, just stare deeply into the Hypnotoad's eyes.) A goal-line stand in overtime was the difference in TCU's 31-28 loss to Kansas State, but the Horned Frogs remain this season's Cinderella, even if the committee is now looking back at Alabama's wicked stepmother in the latest version of that Twitter meme.

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Kansas State gets huge goal-line stop in OT

Kansas State stuffs TCU at the goal line in overtime.

The committee will need to weigh putting in teams with more talent (Ohio State or Alabama) over teams that almost certainly are more deserving (TCU, USC, Tennessee). They'll need to weigh whether to punish teams that were so good in the regular season that they earned a spot in their conference title game or admit that everything that happened this weekend ultimately had no impact. They'll have to weigh whether there's more value in giving upstarts entry into the most exclusive club in sports or in playing to the TV ratings to create arguably the biggest battle of name brands in the playoff's brief history.

So, what's the right answer?

To watch Duggan drag the Horned Frogs back from the abyss and into overtime, bent over, bleeding and gulping for air like he'd just survived Black Friday at Walmart, only the most callous of voters could cast a ballot ignoring TCU's 12-1 season. The man ran for 95 yards on an 80-yard touchdown drive, after all.

And yet, the committee has never functioned on emotion. Committees, by design, are heartless entities.

To watch Caleb Williams limping through an unimaginably bad second half Friday night, blanketed by an unrelenting Utah pass rush, but still capable of genuine magic on the football field, would anyone fault the committee for punching a ticket for the country's most exciting player and, in the process, offering the West Coast its first taste of playoff football in six years?

And yet, there's virtually no case to be made that USC's defense would hold up against Georgia or Michigan in any playoff matchup.

Would the committee really punish Georgia with a Peach Bowl matchup against Ohio State just to avoid a first-round rematch between the Buckeyes and Wolverines?

Would the committee really hand an invite to 10-2 Alabama over a Tennessee team with the same record and a head-to-head win?

Would the committee really be ready for the blowback of putting Alabama into the playoff at any cost? Wouldn't that only give confirmation to all the conspiracy theorists who already believe Nick Saban is the puppet master directing the whole sordid affair to begin with?

Yeah, filling out this year's dance card isn't going to be easy. The committee should probably send Shane Beamer and South Carolina a nice thank-you card and a fruit basket for ensuring this debate isn't even more complicated.

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Dinich: I have no doubt Ohio State will move into CFP top 4

Heather Dinich breaks down what USC's loss means for College Football Playoff hopefuls, Ohio State and Alabama.

Then again, if this championship weekend did little to settle the season's top four teams, Georgia's utter annihilation of LSU might have offered a more important lesson: The king is still the king.

For all the sound and fury over TCU and USC, Tennessee and Alabama, Ohio State or virtually any other team in the country, the real monster looming on the horizon is a 5-11 former walk-on who just hung 50 on the 14th-ranked team in the country. To think, LSU coach Brian Kelly has spent the past year chugging sweet tea, pretending to like jazz and using "Bless his heart" in casual conversation, and this is all he has to show for it. Sad, really. Wouldn't it just be simpler to let Stetson Bennett choose his next victim, like picking a lobster from the tank at some chain seafood restaurant? "Yes, I'll take TCU ... and keep the biscuits coming."

Michigan, too, finished in dominant fashion. After a back-and-forth first half against Purdue, the Wolverines put up 29 points in the second half behind a huge night from Donovan Edwards, who rushed for 185 yards in place of injured starter Blake Corum. J.J. McCarthy threw three touchdown passes for the second straight game, too.

It's notable, too, that because the Big 12 and the Pac-12 play without divisions, TCU was forced to dual with Kansas State for a second time and USC was forced to fend off Utah for a second time, and neither ended well for the playoff contenders. Meanwhile, Michigan drew the winner of the moribund Big Ten West, a four-loss Purdue, rather than facing a rematch with Ohio State. The Wolverines reward? It might be getting that rematch in the playoff instead. Poor Ryan Day. Even the good news comes tinged with khaki.

We're approaching a 12-team playoff in two years, but as we wrap 2022, it's hard to be excited about more than two teams.

Georgia remains the elephant in the room (unless Alabama gets into the playoff, too, in which case there'd be two elephants, which would be awkward).

It was just a year ago, after all, that Georgia utterly thwarted Michigan's offense in the College Football Playoff. It wasn't until McCarthy took over in relief of Cade McNamara late in the fourth quarter that the Wolverines found the end zone. Will starting McCarthy this season make that much of a difference?

But why look so far ahead? Perhaps the real takeaway is: Spending Saturday worrying about Sunday was to miss the good stuff.

Duggan might have earned his share of Heisman votes in a loss. It was as gutty a performance as we've seen all year. It was college football at its finest.

Lincoln Riley's rebuild at USC was no less impressive because it ended on a sour note. The Trojans -- and the Pac-12 -- were relevant into December for the first time in years. And still, the old-school portion of college football got the last laugh, as throwback Kyle Whittingham and his built-from-scratch Utes staved off the future of NIL-bought championships for at least another year.

Georgia dominated as we've come to expect, but it was still Bennett's first SEC championship. His storybook career would've been no less astonishing without it, but it still would've felt like reading a novel knowing a chapter was missing, "War and Peace" without the peace.

The committee will figure out where the chips fall. It will require more tough choices than it ever has, and days or weeks or, perhaps, years of righteous outrage will follow.

But Saturday was still the fun part. It always is.


Diabolical Dabo

Dabo Swinney got the last laugh.

For the past year, he has been fending off a near constant chorus of demands to change QBs, and at each step he has sworn DJ Uiagalelei was his guy.

After Clemson signed star recruit Cade Klubnik, Swinney was sticking with Uiagalelei. After Klubnik looked great late in a Week 1 win against Georgia Tech, no changes were in order. When Uiagalelei torched Wake Forest in a double-overtime win, Swinney demanded an accounting of all those critics who doubted Uiagalelei. Then after he benched Uiagalelei against Syracuse and Notre Dame ... well, that was just a test drive. Nothing to see here. Carry on with your business. Even after Uiagalelei completed just 8 of 29 passes in a loss to South Carolina last week, Swinney promised he wasn't making a change at QB.

All part of the plan to lure North Carolina into a false sense of security in the ACC championship game.

"The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn't exist." -- Kaiser Soze

"The greatest trick Dabo ever played was convincing the world his backup QB didn't exist." -- Mack Brown

True to his word, Uiagalelei got the start Saturday, but on the third series of the game, Klubnik took over and Clemson looked more explosive than it has since Trevor Lawrence's hair was glistening under the South Carolina sun.

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Touchdown! Cade Klubnik scores vs. North Carolina

Touchdown! Cade Klubnik scores vs. North Carolina

Klubnik finished 20 of 24 for 279 yards and accounted for two touchdowns in Clemson's 39-10 win. Afterward, Brown said the game plan was to stuff the Tigers' ground game and make Uiagalelei beat them.

Well, UNC stuffed the run. Clemson finished with 68 yards on the ground. But it hadn't counted on Klubnik entering a phone booth and coming out with a cape.

Advantage: Dabo.

Oh, sure, losing to South Carolina means Clemson won't make the playoff. But it was a small price to pay to pull off such a top-notch surprise Saturday. As Swinney has so often said, the playoff was never a team goal. The ACC title is. The clues were there the whole time if any of us had bothered to look. (Gene Chizik drops his coffee cup and on the bottom reads the word: Cade.)

The Tigers will head to the Orange Bowl now, and Klubnik figures to be the starter.

Or, maybe that's just what Swinney wants you to believe.


Heisman Five

So, about that Heisman race.

Virtually every contender for the award stumbled to the finish line with a loss -- be it Hendon Hooker in Week 12, C.J. Stroud in Week 13 or Max Duggan and Caleb Williams in conference championship games.

Does that mean the Heisman betting should be completely upended? Well, someone has to win, and a little recency bias shouldn't overshadow some terrific seasons.

1. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud

Separating Stroud and Williams at this point is entirely about splitting hairs. Stroud is just a tick better in Total QBR. Williams has two fewer picks. Stroud completed 66.2% of his passes. Williams completed 66.1%. Stroud averaged 9.4 yards per pass. Williams averaged 9.1. They both threw 37 touchdowns. They both were exceptional, but what puts Stroud ahead here is this: He did it all with Jaxon Smith-Njigba playing just three games and TreVeyon Henderson missing four games. As deep as Ohio State is at the skill positions, Stroud made every one of a parade of emerging stars who stepped into bigger roles better. And he did it all in spite of having to spend half of every game watching other Big Ten offenses. Do you know how hard it is to stay awake through all that?

2. USC QB Caleb Williams

If he'd beaten Utah, would he be a clear-cut No. 1? Perhaps. But Williams rolled the dice moving to the Pac-12, knowing that nothing ends well there, so he must live with the consequences.

3. TCU QB Max Duggan

Yes, Duggan lost Saturday. But the loss was hardly on him. The man ran himself into near hypothermia, and if he'd made it six inches farther in overtime, TCU might be 13-0 right now. Duggan's performance was herculean even if the reward hardly matched the effort, like those guys who finish a 64-ounce steak just to get a free T-shirt and their photo on the wall of the restaurant. If it weren't ultimately enough to win him the Heisman, it was certainly enough to secure his spot in New York for Heisman weekend -- and in the hearts of TCU fans forever.

4. Georgia QB Stetson Bennett

There was one QB who finished the season on a high note, and that's Bennett. The Heisman is not intended to be a lifetime achievement award, even if Bennett's life is the stuff of legend. But his numbers warrant consideration on their own. His 86.3 Total QBR is just a fraction shy of Williams' 86.4. He has accounted for more than 3,500 yards and added 27 touchdowns. He has led Georgia to a 13-0 record and done it with a supporting cast that hardly looks like the cadre of superstars at USC or Ohio State (no offense to Brock Bowers, because honestly, we're terrified of Brock Bowers). To vote for Bennett couldn't be simply about the stats or the legacy. His case is somewhere in the margins, in understanding he possesses some rare magic that can't be quantified or understood but that makes him just about the coolest human being since Miles Davis.

5. Alabama QB Bryce Young

There's a reason only one player in history has won multiple Heisman trophies. Not only is it hard to repeat an elite performance, but rather than being judged against the other contenders, he's inevitably judged against his prior year's success. Such is the case for Young, who lost two games and missed a sizable chunk of two more, and that's simply not enough to get it done when the standard is so incredibly high. But Alabama's offense was not the wrecking ball we were used to seeing, and Young was the spark that kept the Crimson Tide's season alive. He won't win the award, but there's still a good case to be made he was the best player in the country in 2022.


Sanders leaves with SWAC title

Deion Sanders landed a trophy and a new job Saturday, leading Jackson State to a SWAC title with a 43-24 win over Southern before officially accepting the head-coaching job at Colorado.

Sanders' son, Shedeur Sanders, threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns in the win. Sanders wrapped his Jackson State coaching career with a record of 27-5.

Colorado AD Rick George confirmed Sanders' hiring Saturday night, which allowed Coach Prime enough time to rent a party bus for all the players he's likely to take with him to road trip out to Boulder that will also be filmed for a new Netflix special. On the plus side for Jackson State, however, Sanders did leave a nice note on his desk reading: "Thanks for the memories. IOU 1 recruiting class. Love, Coach Prime."


Tulane wins American

In 1998, Tulane went 12-0 and won Conference USA. For the next 23 years, the Green Wave went without a conference title, and there were no celebrations in New Orleans as far as we're aware.

But that torment came to a rollicking end Saturday as Tulane demolished UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game, securing a New Year's Six bowl bid in the process.

Michael Pratt threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns, and Tyjae Spears rushed for 199 yards and a score in the 45-28 win, earning revenge after UCF won their regular-season matchup three weeks ago.

Tulane racked up 649 yards in the game, its second most since that 1998 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and the bludgeoning could've been even worse. The Green Wave turned the ball over three times and failed to convert a fourth down deep in their own territory that led to a UCF touchdown.

Tulane now enters its bowl game with 11 wins for just the second time in its history, just one year after a miserable 2-10 campaign.

We only hope the Green Wave will be able to find a few establishments willing to host a party.


What might have been

As the committee's highest-ranked team from the Group of 5, Tulane is set for a bid to a New Year's Six bowl, but if one of the year's most iconic plays hadn't happened way back in Week 3, it might be Troy celebrating this week.

The Trojans dominated Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt championship on Saturday, 45-26, despite the return of Chanticleers QB Grayson McCall, who had been out since Nov. 3 with an injury.

Troy is now 11-2 on the season and has won 10 straight, each of the past three by at least 21.

So, why isn't Troy in the conversation for a New Year's Six bowl? Blame Chase Brice.

Back in Week 3, Appalachian State had just pulled off a stunning upset of Texas A&M and hosted "College GameDay," but the Mountaineers trailed Troy 28-26 with just 2 seconds to play. That's when Brice heaved a Hail Mary that Christian Horn caught short of the goal line before he looped around to the sideline and found the end zone for a chaotic 32-28 win.

It was the last time Troy lost, but it was also likely enough to keep the Trojans well behind Tulane in the Group of 5 pecking order this season.

And yet, Troy isn't likely to even be the biggest story about a Trojans team narrowly missing out on a top bowl invite.


Under-the-radar play of the week

Justin Marshall hauled in a 37-yard touchdown pass by reaching over Akron's Rishad Hence's head, helping to spark a huge second-half comeback for Buffalo.

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Justin Marshall makes an incredible TD catch for Buffalo

Justin Marshall climbs the ladder and makes a spectacular snag for a Buffalo touchdown.

Marshall finished with two touchdown grabs in the game, and Quian Williams scored from 16 yards out with 1:15 to play to carry the Bulls past Akron 23-22.

The game was originally scheduled for Nov. 22, and Buffalo finally finished shoveling snow off its field Friday to allow the teams to play. The win gets the Bulls to 6-6 and bowl eligible, too, and if there's any fairness in the world, they'll get to go someplace much, much warmer than Buffalo.


Under-the-radar game of the week

Six days ago, New Mexico State hopped onto College Football Tinder and updated its profile: "FBS independent, bowl-eligible and ready to mingle."

Valparaiso quickly swiped right, and on Saturday, we learned that, perhaps, the Beacons weren't actually ready for a relationship.

New Mexico State had already gotten a waiver from the NCAA to become bowl-eligible at 5-6 after its Oct. 22 game against San Jose State was shelved. Still, the Aggies had a shot to get to .500 with the make-up date against Valpo and they didn't waste the chance.

New Mexico State won 65-3 -- a score that surely puts Valpo head coach Landon Fox on Auburn's radar when the Tigers are looking again in 2025 -- and secured the Aggies' second six-win season in the past 20 years.

With New Mexico State assured a bowl bid -- its second since 1960 -- and Buffalo knocking off Akron on Friday, 81 of the 82 bowl bids were filled by teams 6-6 or better. That leaves Rice -- at 5-7 -- as the final team to make a bowl courtesy of having the highest APR among five-win teams.