A year ago, in the aftermath of another dominant Ohio State win over Michigan, a 56-27 shellacking that almost felt routine, there were obvious questions about what “The Game” even meant anymore. The Buckeyes had won 15 of the past 16, the lone exception coming amid a lost year with an interim coach. Was Michigan even capable of making it interesting?
In August, when the Big Ten announced a shutdown of its season, The Game appeared destined for a hiatus, or perhaps a respite for the Wolverines. In 2020, it could be said, Michigan wouldn’t lose to Ohio State.
Then — what luck! — the Big Ten returned. Ohio State was again a playoff contender, and Michigan — oh, the less said the better. But hey, a rivalry game is the week you throw out the records, which Michigan would have been all too happy to do this weekend. In a year of utter chaos, we’d still have The Game.
And then, it was off again, with the Wolverines the latest program beset by COVID-19, with reportedly close to four dozen players sidelined by the virus and contact tracing.
Now, here we are, on the penultimate Saturday of a season that has never felt quite real, again robbed of one of the hallmarks of fall.
The roller-coaster ride for The Game mirrors so much of what this college football season has offered — hints of hope, mountains of frustration, and in the end, an empty feeling — a loss that, even for Michigan fans, stings in a way no defeat on the field would.
Instead of Michigan-Ohio State, we got Ohio State vs. “the rule,” with the Big Ten debating the legitimacy of an arbitrary metric it invented just a few months ago, back when the pandemic had only dabbled in disrupting the football season, and the notion that a team might not get six games in seemed pessimistic. Now the Buckeyes are in the Big Ten title game as the league looks for the best way to squeeze them into the playoff.
Perhaps the most jarring part of all of this is that it’s not actually all that jarring.
Yes, we lost The Game. But we also lost so many other rivalries — BYU and Utah, Clemson and South Carolina, Florida and Florida State. As one-sided as they all might’ve been in 2020, they’re still part of the fabric of any season, and now 2020 will be the year the rivalry disappeared.
In August, the overriding thought was simple: Any football is good. We’ll take what we can get.
Now here we are, and it feels pretty thin. We’ve had our moments — Lane Kiffin pushing Alabama to the brink, Clemson and Notre Dame dueling into double OT, Coastal Carolina’s thriller against BYU.
But somehow, it’s still hard not to miss those rights of fall like The Game, as lopsided as Ohio State-Michigan might’ve been. It’s a little like a holiday fruit cake. You didn’t need to enjoy it. It was comforting just to know it was there.
Checking in on the CFP’s other contenders …
While Ohio State finagles its playoff path in the Big Ten, the ACC rolled out the red carpet for Notre Dame and Clemson, nixing any proposed makeup dates for Saturday, giving both teams a week’s vacation to get ready for a conference championship game and a rematch of one of the best contests of the year. One team is a shoo-in for the playoff, and the other might well get in too. But neither has to play Saturday to make that happen.
Texas A&M could probably use a little résumé help as it tries to leap into the top four, but the Aggies won’t take the field this week either. Jimbo Fisher lamented the fact that A&M couldn’t work out a deal to play Ohio State, but it’s not like two teams can just schedule a game on short notice. That would never work, right, Coastal Carolina?
Cincinnati hoped it could crack the Power 5’s stranglehold on the playoff, but the Bearcats had to cancel their game with Tulsa. On the bright side, the committee had no intention of inviting Cincinnati to the playoff anyway.
They won’t make the playoff, but they deserve a watch
The ACC’s most exciting matchup
We’re talking about North Carolina vs. Miami, of course. The Hurricanes’ lone loss of the season came to Clemson, and the Tar Heels might be their next-best challenge to date. The Canes’ 12th-ranked defense (per SP+) faces a UNC offense ranked fourth in SP+. Catch it at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN App.
A Top 25 SEC matchup between Georgia and … Missouri? (Noon ET on SEC Network/ESPN App)
Missouri has been one of college football’s surprises this season — it’s 5-3 and ranked No. 25 in the country. Georgia has been itching to play since its Dec. 5 game against Vanderbilt was postponed due to COVID-19 issues within Vandy’s football program. It made soon-to-be-former AD Greg McGarity frustrated, but the Bulldogs will be back on the field this weekend with their new and improved JT Daniels-led offense.
SEC Now’s crew thinks that the confidence and momentum of Missouri’s offense will be a threat to Georgia coming off a break.
What else is worth watching:
Army-Navy (Noon ET on CBS)
In a normal year, Army-Navy gets this weekend all to itself, but don’t let the more crowded schedule keep you from watching one of the few bits of genuine tradition the 2020 season has provided. Army still has a shot at the Commander’s Cup, with a rescheduled game against Air Force set for next weekend. But this also serves as an opportunity for Navy to add a small silver lining to an otherwise lost season.
The Cougars and Chanticleers wouldn’t be the first folks to leave Myrtle Beach with a hangover, and after last week’s epic finish in which Coastal Carolina held off BYU at the 1-yard line on the game’s final play, it’s fair to wonder what’s left in the tank for the two upstarts from outside the Power 5. Neither team will get off easy either, as Coastal has a road trip to Troy, where the pesky Trojans will be looking to end Cinderella’s season, while BYU hosts the stout defense at San Diego State. Both teams remain in the mix for a New Year’s Six shot if they can win out.
West Coast showdown
This marks the first time USC and UCLA have faced off when both had a winning record since 2015. The Trojans remain undefeated, even if it has taken a few miracle comebacks, while Chip Kelly’s Bruins finally seem to be finding their stride. A win for UCLA would match last year’s total in half the games. Catch it at 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: Rutgers vs. Maryland (Noon ET)
Listen, I’m not necessarily going to sit here and tell you to watch this football game. I care about you, reader. However, with another week of cancellations and postponements, time can be made for two teams that have shown improvement this season (not that the bar was set high). I’m willing and ready to keep this game open in another window just to see which of these teams is better.
Hale: Nevada at San Jose State (10 p.m. ET on CBSSN)
The Mountain West hasn’t gotten much love this season, thanks to late starts — both big picture (the league kicked off in late October) and on game day (with lots of 10 p.m. ET kickoff times). But the Wolf Pack and Spartans are having exceptional seasons, with San Jose State among the handful of remaining unbeatens. Coach Brent Brennan has done a terrific job turning around a Spartans program that hadn’t had a winning season since 2012, and former Arkansas QB Nick Starkel has looked strong running the offense (66% completions, 11 TDs, 3 INTs). Nevada won’t be an easy win, though. The Wolf Pack’s lone loss came at Hawaii by just 3, and QB Carson Strong has been, uh, strong this season, with 21 TD passes. It’s another late kickoff, but it should be one worth staying up for.
Player to watch
Patterson is the player none of us expected to be invested in — but now we always want to know what he’s doing next. On Nov. 17 against Bowling Green, he rushed for 301 yards and four touchdowns. On Nov. 28, he hit the national spotlight with 409 yards and eight touchdowns against Kent State. This week, Buffalo plays Akron (2:30 p.m. ET on CBSSN), one of the worst teams in the FBS. Can Patterson set more records?
Jaret Patterson rushes for 8 touchdowns and 409 yards in Buffalo’s 70-41 win against Kent State.
Imagine this scenario: The Big Ten changes its rules, allows Ohio State to play for a conference title, and then the Buckeyes lay an egg against Northwestern. OK, it’s not particularly likely, but Northwestern’s defense is legitimately good, and that starts with Fisher in the middle. Saturday’s game against Illinois (noon ET on ESPN2) should be little more than a tune-up for the Wildcats, but it’s also a good chance to get a look at Fisher (58 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 2 QBH) and the rest of the talented D before it tries to slow down Justin Fields. That includes linebacker Blake Gallagher, who leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss, and corner Greg Newsome, who has nine passes defended in just six games.
Upset of the week
Lyles: Baylor over Oklahoma State (7 p.m. ET on ESPNU/ESPN App)
I haven’t loved what I’ve seen out of Oklahoma State this season — the Cowboys have gone 2-3 after four straight wins to open the season. Baylor is only 2-6 on the year, but with a limited pool for potential upsets, I’m going to throw this one up in the air and hope the Bears learn how to run the football this week.
Hale: Memphis over Houston (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU/ESPN App)
The Tigers have been an enigma this season. After a strong 5-2 start, the offense has disappeared. Brady White & Co. struggled to eke out a 10-7 win over Navy two weeks ago, then struggled mightily against Tulane in a 35-21 loss last Saturday. White entered the season as one of the most renowned QBs outside the Power 5, but his recent work has been far from impressive, as he completed just 54% of his throws with 4 TD and 3 INT. It’s all out of character for a QB and an offense used to far more explosiveness, and perhaps Houston’s defense (ranked 97th nationally in explosive-play rate allowed) is the answer. Memphis is 25-2 at home over the past four seasons, so the underdog status Saturday might be just the spark the team needs to end its offensive funk.