Forward Pass: Will brutal home stretch doom Big 12's playoff chances?

On the 10th Saturday, there was clarity. Finally.

Clemson entrenched itself as the nation's No. 1 team. Alabama validated its top-four ranking. Michigan State ensured the Big Ten East won't end in a convoluted three-way tie. Memphis and Ole Miss are no longer potentially awkward playoff crashers.

For one conference, however, Saturday merely served as the first round of a potential four-week elimination derby. The one Power 5 league that missed the 2014 inaugural playoff will either launch its eventual champ safely into the top four or eliminate itself altogether in a haze of 74-yard touchdown passes.

The stage is finally yours, Big 12.

Thanks to an intentionally and perhaps dangerously backloaded schedule, four Top 15 teams from the committee's initial rankings are now engaged in a round-robin battle royale. Round 1 took place Saturday, when undefeated and previously unheralded Oklahoma State unleashed a 49-29 drubbing of previously undefeated TCU. In an instant, Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys went from peripheral contender to possibly conference frontrunner, while Trevone Boykin and the Horned Frogs' championship dreams devolved into nightmares.

"The sky's not going to be falling," TCU coach Gary Patterson insisted. "You're going to write the sky is falling, and I'm going to try to beat Kansas next week."

Theoretically, TCU could still make the playoff with a loss. The problem is, that would require a defense that's now been absolutely shredded on three occasions to survive the nation's No. 1 (Baylor) and No. 3 (Oklahoma) scoring offenses.

And three other contenders still face much the same gauntlet.

This week, 8-0 Baylor -- which to this point has managed to play zero current "teams with .500 or better records" -- begins the most daunting three-week stretch any team in the country has faced to date.

First up, comes a visit from 8-1 Oklahoma, whose quarterback, Baker Mayfield, is now the nation's second-highest rated passer. The only guy ahead of him will be on the opposite sideline -- injured Baylor standout Seth Russell. Oklahoma also boasts the nation's fifth-ranked defense (4.27 yards per play allowed), an astonishing anomaly in this year's Big 12, though the Sooners have struggled mightily to slow down Art Briles' recent teams.

If the Bears win that one, they'll be rewarded with a trip to Stillwater, where Oklahoma State's defense made its own statement Saturday in picking off the previously impregnable Boykin four times. TCU losing star receiver Josh Doctson with a wrist injury did not help, but at that point it was already losing 28-9.

"If there was an answer for [Boykin] from a scheme standpoint, somebody would have already used it," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said afterward. "… I used the Kevin Durant example, the one where you don't let him get to 50 points, just let him get to 25. That's what [the defense] did."

Oklahoma State's own offense has improved considerably over the course of the season. It's basically abandoned the running game due to a glut of injuries and put more trust in Rudolph, who exploited TCU's secondary to the tune of 352 yards and five touchdowns. Receiver James Washington alone had touchdowns catches of 48, 50 and 74 yards.

The Cowboys may be in the best position of the group to win out if for no other reason than the fact everyone else has to come to Stillwater. After a trip to Iowa State this week, Oklahoma State hosts both Baylor and Oklahoma.

As for Baylor, if they do beat both Oklahoma schools the next two weeks, there's still its Nov. 27 grudge match at TCU, whose coach, Patterson, is borderline obsessed with his nemesis "south of here." The two schools have seemingly been attached at the hip ever since last season's 61-58 Baylor win and subsequent "One True Champion" controversy.

As for Oklahoma, the Sooners put themselves in a hole with their inexplicable Texas loss, but they may also be the one team of the four that could make the playoff at 11-1 thanks in part to a non-conference win at Tennessee. Mostly, though, it's because unlike the other three, their loss would be a distant memory by Dec. 6.

The committee has already proven it works differently than the traditional pollsters in several ways, but they're hardly immune to recency bias. Alabama lost to Ole Miss early enough that it's had ample opportunities to put that game in the past. Would Oklahoma State enjoy the same luxury if it lost to Baylor on Nov. 21? Or Baylor if it lost to TCU on Nov. 27?

Selfishly, I hope the conference does not cannibalize itself for one simple reason: An Alabama-Baylor playoff matchup would be simply amazing. But as solid as freshman QB Jarrett Stidham looked in last Thursday's debut at K-State, it's asking a lot of him to beat both Oklahoma State and TCU on the road.

Frankly, it's asking a lot of all these teams to essentially play three playoff games in four weeks, all against incredibly prolific offenses. But this is the Big 12's answer to no conference championship game. It may work wonderfully. It may blow up in the league's face.


Every season's Heisman race takes on a different feel. Some years a guy takes command in September (Ohio State's Troy Smith in 2006, Oregon's Marcus Mariota last season) and never lets go. Others see a new flavor of the month every week with a champ only emerging at the very end (USC's Carson Palmer in 2002, Alabama's Mark Ingram in '09).

This season took a turn Saturday I'd never seen before. Two players, LSU's Leonard Fournette and TCU's Trevone Boykin, who'd maintained the consensus 1-2 spots for nearly two months, both endured their worst outings of the season. Fournette, who'd gained at least 150 yards in each of his first seven games, managed just 31 in a humbling loss to Alabama. Boykin, who'd been outstanding every week, threw four picks in a blowout defeat at Oklahoma State.

Neither player is eliminated by any means. But suddenly this is a much more hazy race.

Alabama's Derrick Henry jumped to the top of a lot of voters' lists (including mine) by stealing Fournette's spotlight with a 210-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Tigers. He wore down LSU with 81 yards in the fourth quarter alone. In doing so, the junior jumped to sixth nationally in rushing (139.3 yards per game) and has been exceptional in the Tide's biggest games.

"Derrick did the same thing he's been doing, [but] for some reason he just doesn't get as much credit as the other guy [Fournette]," Alabama QB Jake Coker said afterward. "The other guy's really good, too, he's a great player, but so is [Henry]. He deserves every bit of credit he's going to get."

But Henry hardly took a commanding lead as he's just one of several outstanding backs nationally. Florida State's Dalvin Cook, who sprang for 194 yards against Clemson, is No. 2 nationally in rushing (153.9 yards per game) and closing the gap on Fournette (172.9). He's averaging a remarkable 8.3 yards per carry thanks to his propensity for 75-yard touchdown runs. Unfortunately, he's also been injured or a non-factor in three games, and his team is now out of the playoff race, which means he'll be out of the spotlight from here.

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott has been more consistent, posting 100-plus yards in all nine games this season, and will have a chance to close out strong with games against 8-1 Michigan State, 7-2 Michigan and possibly 9-0 Iowa. Ditto Stanford's Christian McCaffrey against 8-1 Notre Dame and possibly 8-1 Utah. And while Deshaun Watson does not have the flashy numbers of Boykin or Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, he's the star quarterback for the No. 1 team, which is oftentimes the decider in a crowded race.

Expect the hierarchy to change quite a bit from week to week the rest of the season. Fournette's built up enough mileage that he could well still win it, but likely only if Henry falters.


The 10-year-old ACC Championship Game in Charlotte is often ridiculed for its annual sparse crowds. If this year's impending matchup comes true there may not be enough seats available at Bank of America Stadium.

No. 1 Clemson, now 9-0 for the first time since its 1981 national title season, clinched the Atlantic Division on Saturday with an ultra-satisfying 23-13 win over longtime tormentor Florida State. After a slow start, Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson racked up 404 total yards, while the defense recovered from FSU star Dalvin Cook's torrid start to keep FSU out of the end zone for the game's final 59 minutes.

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, never one to hide his excitement, is embracing every bit of Clemson's historic ascension. Earlier in the week he pledged to buy pizza for an entire stadium of fans for a potential playoff poll party Dec. 6.

"This is the best of times," he said after Saturday's win. "This is the good old days. I told our guys to enjoy it."

This is clearly not one of those underachieving Clemson teams of the past decade that consistently failed to turn the corner, so don't expect a letdown in its next three games against a trio of 3-6 opponents (Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina). Barring a major upset, the top-ranked Tigers will take a 12-0 record -- and potentially 70,000 fans -- with them to Charlotte.

That being said, the Tigers' most likely opponent at this point has more than a few vested fans living in Charlotte. With a 66-31 rout of rival Duke on Saturday, North Carolina moved to 5-0 in the ACC and 8-1 overall, the Tar Heels' own best marks since Mack Brown was coaching them back in 1997. UNC has shrugged off a bizarre season-opening 17-13 loss to South Carolina in which three Marquise Williams red-zone interceptions spoiled a game it otherwise dominated.

On Saturday, Williams threw for 404 yards in the first half, and a much-improved defense -- led by first-year Heels coordinator and former Auburn national title coach Gene Chizik -- forced three turnovers.

The Tar Heels still have some work left to clinch the Coastal Division, with games remaining against 6-3 Miami, 4-5 Virginia Tech and 6-3 NC State, the latter two on the road. But they should at least crack the selection committee's Top 25 this week after a questionable exclusion in the first edition.

"We've just got to come out and execute and keep winning games, and eventually they're going to have to recognize us," Williams told reporters Saturday.

As the ACC super-sized itself from nine teams in 2003 to 14 a decade later it unquestionably enhanced its football product but also lost some of its core identity. It's no longer a regional-flavored league, and teams in the same state now go years without appearing on each other's schedules.

But a Clemson-UNC matchup would pit the conference's pre-Florida State football power against one of its Tobacco Road bluebloods. Like Swinney said, it's like the old days. An ACC team not named FSU is No. 1 in the country.


Each week, I'll update my predicted lineup for the New Year's Six bowls based on the latest week's games.

Peach: Florida (at-large) vs. Temple (Group of 5)

Fiesta: Notre Dame (at-large) vs. Baylor (at-large)

Sugar: LSU (SEC) vs. Oklahoma St. (Big 12 champ)

Rose: Iowa (Big Ten) vs. Utah (Pac-12)

Orange (semifinal): No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Stanford

Cotton (semifinal): No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Alabama

Week 10 finally produced the landscape-defining upsets (Oklahoma State over TCU, Nebraska over Michigan State, Navy over Memphis) I needed to finally feel confident penning this lineup. Not that every projected scenario here will come to pass, but the basic structure is finally coming into focus.

Clemson is the surest bet to finish undefeated at this point and thus finish No. 1. Ohio State is next, though it could certainly lose to Michigan State or, more likely, at Michigan. As of now, I don't believe a one-loss Big Ten champ would get in. Alabama is firmly in control of the SEC, especially if you watched Florida-Vandy.

Stanford as No. 4 is contingent on two outcomes -- the Cardinal winning out and beating likely 10-1 Notre Dame in their regular-season finale, and Oklahoma State and Baylor failing to make it the rest of the way unscathed. One-loss Stanford would likely trump a one-loss Big 12 champ due to its stronger schedule and chance to add two Top 10 wins at year's end against Notre Dame and Utah.


Navy's Ken Niumatalolo. The eighth-year Midshipmen coach is enjoying his finest season to date. After trouncing undefeated Memphis 45-20, his team is 5-0 in its first year in the AAC and entered the AP poll for the first time since 2004.


Indiana's Kevin Wilson. The Hoosiers, after showing promise with a 4-0 start and near-upset of Ohio State, are 0-5 in the Big Ten. Wilson, who's yet to reach a bowl, likely needs to win road games at Maryland and Purdue to save his job.


This is not the space to delve into great detail on the volatile situation at Missouri, where, with coach Gary Pinkel's blessing, the football team united Sunday for a de facto strike. Read up on the racially charged events on campus that prompted a grad student's hunger strike and form your own opinions.

What's most interesting from a college athletics observer's perspective is that the Tigers players felt empowered to do something. It's part of a larger trend.

Beginning with Northwestern football players' 2014 unionization push -- which eventually got shot down but not before effecting NCAA policy changes -- college athletes clearly feel more empowered than ever before. Earlier this year, we saw Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops walk arm-in-arm with his players and cancel practice in protest after a racist fraternity video went viral. And a couple of recent Illinois players' Twitter allegations of mistreatment by coach Tim Beckman prompted an investigation that led to his August ouster.

Agree or disagree with the Missouri players' tactics, it's just refreshing to see athletes feel more comfortable partaking in social activism without fear of repercussion from coaches. After all, many of their student peers freely do the same.

Missouri meets BYU on Saturday in Arrowhead Stadium. Whether or not the players get their desired outcome (the university system president's resignation) before that, important discussions are presumably taking place now because of their actions.


Three games we're most excited for:

--No. 15 Oklahoma at No. 6 Baylor (Saturday, 8 ET): Oklahoma won its first 20 meetings with Baylor. Starting in 2011, the Bears have won three of four. This will be a prove-it game both for Stidham and for Mike Stoops' OU defense.

--No. 4 Alabama at No. 20 Mississippi State (Saturday, 3:30 ET): Bulldogs star Dak Prescott is quietly having another good season (18 TDs, 1 INT). He'll look to redeem himself after a rough game in Tuscaloosa last season.

--Oregon at No. 11 Stanford (Saturday, 7:30 ET): The Ducks have won three straight since QB Vernon Adams rejoined the fold, but their defense has shown little sign it can slow down Kevin Hogan and Christian McCaffrey.

Three games you shouldn't miss:

--No. 13 Memphis at No. 25 Houston (Saturday, 7 ET): Paxton Lynch and the Tigers must shake off the Navy loss in a hurry. Undefeated Houston, led by QB Greg Ward Jr., has scored at least 33 points in every game this season.

--Miami at North Carolina (Saturday 3:30 ET): Miami returns to the Triangle just two weeks after its stunning walk-off win at Duke. UNC can clinch the ACC Coastal with a win and a Pittsburgh loss to the Blue Devils.

--Arkansas at No. 2 LSU (Saturday, 7:15 ET): Fournette and the Tigers look to regain their mojo against a 5-4 Arkansas team that's been living a charmed existence lately. What tricks will Bret Bielema have in store?

One under-the-radar gem:

-- Bowling Green at Western Michigan (Wednesday, 8 ET): It's a clash of the MAC's two division leaders, both undefeated in conference play, and a chance to see Falcons QB Matt Johnson (3,686 yards, 33 TDs, 3 INTs) do his thing.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to