When a week has only two matchups in which both teams are ranked, almost any loss by a ranked team is likely going to be viewed as an upset. Beyond (20) UCF’s loss to Navy, which has become somewhat of a yearly occurrence, the top 25 was ravaged by upsets, with (5) Tennessee (blowout), (13) UNC, (14) Ole Miss (blowout before garbage time), (22) Oklahoma State, and (24) NC State all losing. Michigan and Ohio State exhibited vulnerability in close calls, while TCU won on a hurried last-second FG, but that’s typical for them. Even Georgia had a weak offensive showing against Kentucky. The lesson here is that no team is invincible this season, just how we like it. Here are my week 12 takeaways!
(5) Tennessee’s Playoff Hopes End, Hendon Hooker Loses Heisman to Injury in Loss at S. Carolina
The CFP chase just got a major wrinkle. One stumbling block for numerous teams in the top 10 centered around what would happen with Tennessee. As they’re on Georgia’s side of the SEC, the Volunteers will not be playing in the title game. What would the committee do with an 11-1 Tennessee team ranked at #5? We no longer have to ponder that question, as Tennessee was demolished 63-38 by South Carolina in a monumental upset. I’ll leave the playoff discussion to the weekly update below and talk about what went down in the game here.
Right away, this game seemed destined to be a shootout. The first three drives were all touchdowns. These two teams combined for 59 first-half points and just 1 punt. Tennessee’s weakness was always their defense, and it was at its worst in this game. Let’s not bash them though and instead give full credit to QB Spencer Rattler. To say that the Oklahoma transfer has been disappointing with his new team would be an understatement. In this battle though, he played the best game of his college career. Rattler was absolutely spectacular, showing decisiveness, arm strength, pocket presence, mobility, and accuracy. His 30/37 passing line with 438 yards and 6 TDs powered the Gamecocks.
On the Tennessee side, the offensive story was all about QB Hendon Hooker, for better AND for worse. He played really well, throwing for 247 yards and 3 touchdowns with no INTs. Hooker wasn’t as perfect as Rattler was on this night, but he was a worthy competitor. Until the 4th quarter. Down 49-31, Hooker was trying to author a remarkable comeback, but as he made a cut, his knee bent awkwardly and he collapsed in pain. To add insult to injury, a review showed that he fumbled (due to the pain) before going down, giving South Carolina a short field and essentially the game. Hooker was able to limp off, but he wouldn’t return.
Noncontact knee injuries can be severe. I won’t speculate on the exact nature of the injury, but some are already suggesting that it could be an ACL tear. That would be devastating for both Tennessee’s bowl game and Hooker’s draft prospects (see below regarding the latter). More immediately, the Heisman race might be over. Ohio State QB CJ Stroud had a slim lead over Hooker going into week 12, and nobody else was close. Stroud is now poised to cruise to the trophy as long as he defeats an overrated Michigan team next week. South Carolina played a fantastic game and deserves to celebrate, but Tennessee will fly home wondering what could have been.
Only 6 of 10 FBS Conferences Have Representatives in the Top 25
We know that the rankings are always Power 5-heavy, and that’s to be expected. These are the best teams that also play the best teams, and they’re rewarded for it. However, that doesn’t mean that Group of 5 conferences should be shut out. The SEC, ACC, Big XII, Big 10, Pac-12, and AAC hold 24 of the 25 spots (independent Notre Dame has the other). I’m not saying that any MAC or Mountain West teams should be ranked, at least not yet, as no team in either conference has less than 3 losses. C-USA and the Sun Belt, though, each have a team that I think belongs in the rankings, so let’s check them out.
Coastal Carolina, who isn’t playing their game this week at Virginia due to a horrific and deadly shooting at UVA, is the biggest miss by the CFP committee. Indeed, the Chanticleers, at 9-1, are ranked in both the AP poll and the Coaches Poll but not the official CFP rankings. The obvious factor to point to is that they’re the only 1-loss team that ISN’T currently ranked. If you gave their resume to a team like Michigan (I pick them due to their pathetically easy schedule), they’d be in the top 15 without question, maybe even the top 10. Looking closer, Jamey Chadwell’s team has a lot going for it, and the main factor is their offense.
QB Grayson McCall is largely responsible for CCU’s success since joining the FBS in 2016, and he’s considered a legitimate NFL draft prospect. He has an intriguing mix of size, arm talent, and mobility, and he rarely turns the ball over (just 7 INTs in nearly 3 years as the starter). WR Sam Pinckney has been the main target, with 814 receiving yards on the season. The Chanticleers’ biggest issue is that they haven’t played a ranked team, but that’s just a consequence of scheduling luck. They’re playing without McCall now, as he’s out for the season with a foot injury, but they’re continuing to win. There’s no reason they should be excluded from the top 25.
My pick for C-USA is more likely to be questioned, but I think this team still has merit. I’m talking about UTSA, the reigning conference champions. The non-CFP polls agree, as the other two rankings each had 40+ voting points this week for the Roadrunners. Their record is not as good as CCU’s at 9-2, but context matters here. UTSA started 1-2 after a much harder start to their schedule. They lost a heartbreaker in 3OT to then-#24 Houston, and they fell at Texas, who has been ranked more often than not this year and is generally considered a good team. Since then, they’ve won 8 straight games and have really found their stride.
Like the Chanticleers, UCA has a dynamic QB/WR combo. At QB, Frank Harris (a rare signal caller who wears #0) has passed for over 3000 yards and has added more than 500 yards on the ground. He’s truly a dynamic playmaker. His partner in crime is Joshua Cephus (no relation to Quintez Cephus as far as I’m aware), who has 836 yards. The Roadrunners’ primary shortcoming is that they don’t win pretty and often play shootouts. Regardless, they’ve proven that they can close games, which is more than many teams can say. They’re beating the teams on their schedules, including Western Kentucky, who has a 73-0 FBS win on their resume. That earns them a ranking in my book.
Northwestern Loses 10th Straight Game
I’m writing this for three reasons. 1. This is the longest active losing streak in the FBS, so it’s notable. 2. I am enjoying this streak for personal reasons. 3. If any of you are following teams that are disappointing or just plain bad, you can look at the Wildcats and feel better about things. We’ll focus on reason #1 here and see how Pat Fitzgerald’s team got to this point. It’s really hard to find a singular cause. I suppose when a team loses 10 games in a row, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The interesting part is that Northwestern’s season started off on a high note, and they’ve sort of tumbled from there.
A late comeback in week 1 against Nebraska (a team that we now know can’t close) gave Northwestern their first and only win. They were competitive again in week 2, losing by just 8 to an improved Duke team. The next two games were unmitigated disasters. They lost at home to previously winless Southern Illinois of the FCS. Northwestern then lost again at home, this time to Miami of Ohio, a MAC team that is not yet bowl-eligible. A mere 10-point loss to Penn State was seen as progress, but the Wildcats got drubbed 42-7 against Wisconsin. Two more losses against decent conference foes (Maryland and Iowa) ensued.
Since then, the offense has cratered. They’ve cycled through 3 QBs, but none has managed to reach even 10 points in the past 3 weeks. The team still has fight, as shown by their effort against Purdue, but the talent gap between them and the other Big 10 teams is staggering. Northwestern has one blue-chip talent (LT Peter Skoronski), and Evan Hull has been good at RB. Defensively, they’ve given up 30+ points 6 times and have been unable to get key stops. Fitzgerald is known as a quality coach who gets the best out of his players. He doesn’t seem to have recruited good players though, limiting what he can do schematically. It seems unlikely that the Wildcats break their streak next week against Illinois.
Weekly CFP Update and Analysis
There wasn’t much change at the top of this week’s rankings; the top 5 teams all stayed where they were. I won’t repeat what I said last week about those teams but will instead discuss the teams chasing them. The ACC is in the most precarious spot, with Clemson stuck behind two-loss Alabama at #9. It’s clear that the committee doesn’t think much of the Tigers’ offense, and their blowout loss to Notre Dame really hurt. I tried to come up with a way for the ACC’s last hope to get into the CFP as a one-loss champion, and I couldn’t without losses by TCU, USC, and LSU, and 2 from Michigan. That seems a little farfetched, but possible (except that last part).
LSU is making an interesting case to be the first two-loss team ever to make the CFP. They’re currently #6, and their only path is to win out and beat Georgia for the SEC championship. What would happen in that case? There is certainly precedent for the committee sending two SEC teams to the playoff. I feel like Georgia is in no matter what, as they were last year when they lost the title game. The loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game would probably be eliminated. Given the respect LSU has to be ranked so highly already, I sense that they’d be in. The SEC would be boosted if TCU were to stumble at some point (which almost happened this week).
The last realistic contender is (7) USC, and they had a lovely week. They moved up a spot in the rankings after Oregon’s loss, and this week, their biggest obstacle fell. Tennessee is done with their second loss, as they have no conference championship game. USC should move up to 6 with their win over UCLA, and they’re suddenly in decent shape. Michigan or Ohio State should drop below them next week after their matchup, leaving them just 1 spot out. Of course, USC needs to beat a resurgent Notre Dame team and their Pac-12 championship opponent. If they do that though, they just need a TCU loss (possible) or a Georgia win over LSU (likely). Things are looking up for the Trojans.
QB Hendon Hooker’s Draft Stock
If you’ve been watching college football this year, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker. He led to Tennessee to their first (and brief) #1 ranking in years and has played brilliantly, with 3135 yards and 27 TDs. He also has 430 yards and 5 TDs rushing. However, when I see analysts talk about the top QB prospects, I only hear CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, and Will Levis. I’d argue that Hooker has outperformed Young and Levis by a mile. He has good size at 6’4″, a live arm, high character marks, and good decision making (2 INTs so far this year). That made me dig around to see what scouts are saying about him, and I’ll relay what I’ve discovered.
The consensus grade for Hooker at this time appears to be a day-2 pick. Most evaluators are leaning toward round 2, while some still say round 3. Their biggest question mark is his offensive system. Coach Josh Heupel runs an Oklahoma-like spread offense with predetermined reads and easy throws. Despite having plenty of college experience, many feel like Hooker would need a lot of development in a pro system. I’ve heard that this is compounded by the fact that Hooker is already 24 years old, but that doesn’t seem like a big deal for a QB. These scouts have stressed that he still has time to rise and that he could test really well at the combine and maybe in the CFP.
Overall, I personally think Hooker is destined for round 1 IF he’s healthy. I wouldn’t necessarily take him there, but it only takes 1 team to fall in love with him. If a team says “that’s our guy”, they won’t let him fall. The fifth-year option on first-round rookie contracts is also important for a QB. Quarterback values are always inflated, and that might be doubly true this year. The 2022 draft was abysmal at the position, causing many teams with needs to pass. Increased demand could raise the price on this year’s crop. Hooker’s maturity will show up throughout the pre-draft process, and a team that misses out on Stroud or Young might be inclined to pull the trigger and draft Hooker.
Should his injury be severe, he could to day 3. I’d encourage him to return to school in that scenario, but it seems as though this was his last year of eligibility. You hate to see a player potentially lose a lot of guaranteed money because of a senior-season injury, but that’s possible here. Some are speculating that Hooker has a torn ACL, and I really hope that’s not the case. As we’ve seen recently with Jameson Williams and John Metchie, however, a late-season ACL tear doesn’t HAVE to tank your draft stock. We’ll deal with these scenarios more during the pre-draft process, but for now we’ll just root for his MRI to come back clean.