Conference championship week is upon us. This weekend, front-runners like Georgia, Washington and Michigan will try to cap their undefeated seasons and likely seal spots in the playoff. Others will try to play their way in -- and some will just try to spoil the party.
Washington, in particular, has a lot on the line: a rematch with No. 6 Oregon that has playoff, Heisman and historical implications.
Ohio State will watch the weekend's games from home and hope that there is just enough chaos to send the Buckeyes to the playoff -- without a Big Ten title -- for a second consecutive year.
It's also a good time to look back at what some teams that aren't playoff bound -- such as Dave Doeren's sneaky good NC State team -- accomplished this year.
ESPN's college football reporters take it all in with the Week 13 takeaways.
Washington needs to find an extra gear
The Huskies have escaped another Saturday with a win and an undefeated regular season -- the first in Pac-12 history -- but with Oregon now looming and looking better than it has all year, there are reasons for Washington to worry.
Since beating the Ducks by three points at home, the Huskies have battled to win one-possession games in four of their past six contests. The team that was winning by 30 points in games at the start of the season has, over its past three games, won by a combined 12 points. In those past three games, facing defenses like Utah's and Oregon State's, Washington hasn't scored with the same proficiency that it once did -- it is averaging 27 points over those three games compared to 41 in the nine games before -- while its defense has slowly slipped.
Don't get me wrong: It's good that Kalen DeBoer's team is able to win close contests. But while Oregon has seemingly used its loss to UW as fuel to play its best football, Washington has looked beatable since its biggest win. That's surely not where the Huskies want to be as they head into a much-anticipated rematch that will determine not just the Pac-12 champion but also a potential College Football Playoff spot.
Some (myself included) believe the Huskies' undefeated regular season should be enough to get them in the playoff, regardless of the result in Las Vegas next weekend. But when you see how the Ducks have outscored their opponents by 156 points since the loss -- by a last-second field goal, no less -- it's hard not to wonder if the best team in the conference isn't the one that left Seattle with an L. Even Vegas, which has the Ducks as the early 7.5-point favorite, seems to agree.
It's probably not fair to ask Washington to beat Oregon twice just to get a shot at the likes of Georgia and Michigan. But if the Huskies, who have been struggling even in victory, find an extra gear and win this week, there will be no doubt that they deserve a spot in the final four. Regardless of result, this game should be a fitting farewell to the conference that both Washington and Oregon are leaving behind. -- Paolo Uggetti
Heisman race down to Nix vs. Penix in Vegas?
Yes, I fully understand that LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels' has eye-popping, off-the-charts stats. I understand that Daniels finished the regular season by completing 72.2% of his passes for 3,812 passing yards (third in the FBS) with 40 passing touchdowns (first) while adding 1,134 rushing yards (second in the SEC) and 10 touchdowns for the nation's leading offense (547.8 yards per game).
But the Tigers are 9-3, and as the members of the Heisman Trophy Trust prepare to present the 2023 award on Dec. 9, they should think that winning matters.
For the 11-1 Ducks, Nix leads the country both in completion percentage (78.6) and passing yards (3,906) for the second-best offense (541.1 YPG). Penix has eight 300-yard passing games and owns five games with at least four touchdown passes for a team that features the second-best passing offense in the FBS (345.5 YPG) and is 12-0 for the first time since 1991.
The past four weeks have seen Nix throw a combined 16 touchdowns with just one interception while throwing for at least 367 yards in each game. Johnny Manziel (4,600 total yards and 43 total TDs for Texas A&M in 2012) and Lamar Jackson (4,928 total yards and 51 total TDs for Louisville in 2016) are two recent Heisman winners who had similar seasons to what Daniels has achieved this year.
But the gap between Daniels and his counterparts in the Pacific Northwest isn't wide enough, in my opinion, to overlook the Tigers' three losses. -- Blake Baumgartner
Pour one out for the Pac-12
We've all had enough time to process the reality that the Pac-12 -- at least as we've known it -- is about ready to fade into memory. Thanks to years of an incredible combination of incompetence, arrogance and apathy by a long list of supposed leaders quite skilled in deflecting blame, more than a century's worth of history is just about done swirling down the drain. Friday's championship game between Washington and Oregon will be one of the most high-stakes games in conference history, while also representing an end.
In lieu of a funeral, here is a championship game in Las Vegas.
It's easy to understand why and how this has happened. It's even easier to mock those reasons as shortsighted and self-serving. The new landscape will be fun for a few years, but the novelty will wear off quickly.
You think the Rose Bowl looks empty for UCLA games now? Try imagining what things will look like in seven years as the two NFL teams continue to siphon off fans in the market while the Bruins play in a conference where they're no longer competing against a bunch of schools with fewer resources than them. But at least they'll have that Big Ten media revenue to fund those inevitable eight-figure coaches' buyouts.
None of the schools that left the Pac-12 traded up for better day-to-day experiences for student-athletes or fans. They made moves guided by either fear or the flawed idea that chasing revenue in the short term was somehow necessary despite operating with significantly more money than ever before.
It's easy to make the case this was inevitable. And that's true, to a degree. Conference realignment and shifts in power have been constant since the concept of collegiate athletics was developed. This wasn't the first time a major conference disbanded and it certainly won't be the last. None of that makes this less sad.
Generations of fans on the West Coast experienced college football through the Pac-12 -- and history won't be kind to those who let it fall apart. -- Kyle Bonagura
Can Ohio State still make it to the playoff?
Ohio State lost to Michigan in the 2022 season, but still found its way into the College Football Playoff. In 2023, the Buckeyes, once again, lost to Michigan and are hoping they also again somehow end up as one of the final four teams standing.
The chances aren't good for the Buckeyes, but there is still hope. Ohio State has one loss on the season and it was to the No. 3 team in the country. And as it stands now, Georgia, Michigan, Washington and Florida State are the only unbeaten playoff contenders remaining.
Ohio State is surely hoping those teams lose in their conference championship games. Coach Ryan Day was asked if his team was a playoff contender after the loss to the Wolverines, but he said he hadn't had much time to think about it.
"We have a very good team. We came up short today and it's devastating, but I believe in our players," Day said. "I think we have a veteran team. I think we have a team that is solid in all three phases. I'd have to see what else is out there. Honestly, I've just been so focused on this game. I appreciate the question, I just don't have a great answer for you right now."
Washington will play Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game in a rematch of a game the Huskies won by three points. Florida State is playing Louisville in the ACC championship game, but will do so without starting quarterback Jordan Travis, who was injured two weeks ago against North Alabama. Georgia and Alabama will play for the SEC championship. Ohio State will need some combination of those undefeated teams to lose to have a shot at making it in. And even if everything goes the Buckeyes' way, they still might not get the result they got in 2022.
If Oregon beats Washington, the Ducks will also have one loss to a top-three team but will also have a win over that same team, something Ohio State doesn't have. If Alabama beats Georgia, that would give the Crimson Tide a win over the No. 1 team. That could vault them ahead of the Buckeyes.
It seems as though the biggest help to the Buckeyes' case would be a Florida State loss, an Oregon loss and an Alabama loss. Even still, Texas could throw a wrench into things if it wins the Big 12 championship game. The Buckeyes aren't out of it yet, but they are going to need absolute chaos to get a shot at a national championship.
"The worst part is that, we kind of have to sit back now and see how everything shakes out," quarterback Kyle McCord said after the Michigan loss. "It's out of our control. I know last year we got a second chance at life there, getting in the playoffs, and we came ready to play and motivated." --Tom VanHaaren
This season might be Dave Doeren's best coaching job yet
NC State went into its open date at 4-3, off an Oct. 14 24-3 loss to Duke, a game coach Dave Doeren called one of the most embarrassing of his career. He had made changes to the offense, bringing in new offensive coordinator Robert Anae and transfer quarterback Brennan Armstrong, but nothing was working. NC State struggled in its opener at UConn, needed a last-second field goal to beat Virginia and scored only 10 points at home against Louisville. Doeren benched Armstrong after that game, hoping for a spark. Fans loudly voiced their discontent with Doeren, who is in Year 11 with the Wolfpack, and pointed at North Carolina and Duke, which were both off to much faster starts. At this point, the season could have gone off the rails.
Instead, Doeren held what he called a "really transparent, come to Jesus" meeting with coaches and staff, asking them if they were happy with what they put out on the field. "Everybody pulled together," Doren said. "It was really cool to see."
NC State has not lost since, finishing the regular season 9-3 with a chance for just the second 10-win season in school history, for real this time (you will remember NC State had a chance for 10 in 2021 but UCLA pulled out of the Holiday Bowl hours before kickoff -- Doeren wanted to put 10-3 in the school record books with an asterisk).
During its current five-game winning streak, the Wolfpack have beaten four bowl teams -- including rival North Carolina, Miami and Clemson. But the second half of the season has not been without its turbulent moments. MJ Morris, who replaced Armstrong as the starting quarterback, decided that he wanted to keep his redshirt and bowed out of the final three games of the season.
It was Armstrong's team again, and he played inspired football when he got his second opportunity. After throwing six interceptions in his first five starts, Armstrong threw zero in his final three. He saved his best for the finale against the Tar Heels, throwing for a season-high 334 yards and three touchdowns, completing 71% of his passes and adding 22 yards on the ground.
NC State has won at least eight games in four straight seasons, the first time that has been done in program history. Doeren might have had more talented teams, but there is a legitimate argument to be made that this is the best coaching job he has ever done. When I asked him whether he thought it was, he demurred and said it was up to us in the media to make that determination.
The fact that Doeren took a team that looked dispirited and uninspired to one of the ACC's best at season's end tells you all you need to know. He should be in the conversation for ACC Coach of the Year. -- Andrea Adelson