College football Week 12 highlights: Top plays, games, takeaways

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, November 19, 2023

We've spent 12 weeks waiting for a genuine plot twist in the 2023 season and Saturday it arrived in devastating fashion.

There were no upsets, of course. Throughout this season, we've seen the favorites hold serve again and again, as Michigan, Washington and Texas did Saturday, narrowly escaping on the road to keep playoff hopes alive, and we've watched Goliath slay every David to cross his path, as Georgia, Ohio State, Oregonand Alabamadid this week, too.

The season to this point has been one long wait for someone at the top of the rankings to break serve. We've seen a few minor blips, but with just one Saturday remaining in the regular season, it's been a little like listening to a jam band's encore, where every time we think we've hit a crescendo, we double back to the same beat we've been hearing for the past 45 minutes and you're thinking, "Doesn't Dave Matthews have a family to go home to?"

But Week 12 delivered one seismic shift to the playoff picture, when Florida StateQB Jordan Travis, playing the final home game of his brilliant career, went down with a gruesome leg injury.

What that means for FSU's hopes next week against Florida, in the ACC title game against Louisville, or in the eyes of the committee remain unclear. The Seminoles won Saturday 58-13 behind backup QB Tate Rodemaker, but the final score was little more than a footnote, because Travis' injury looms over everything.

The common refrain among Seminoles fans has been that an undefeated Power 5 champion cannot be left out of the playoff. But that was before the Travis injury.

The problem now for FSU is not simply that it has lost its leader, the beating heart of the program, but that its neighbors in the committee's top 10 have ceded no ground, and Travis' leg will be as much a part of the committee's conversations as Alabama's resurgence or Oregon's dominance.

Indeed, Saturday offered the committee no easy outs.

On Rocky Top, Tennesseepulled out all the stops in hopes of a win over No. 1 Georgia, putting Peyton Manning and Dolly Parton center stage. It didn't matter. Carson Beck threw for three touchdowns, Brock Bowers had six catches in the first half alone and the drama was nonexistent. Credit to Bowers, however. For all he's accomplished in his spectacular career to date, upstaging Dolly marks a new high-water mark.

Michael Penix Jr. played arguably the worst game of his tenure at Washington, and it wasn't enough to stop the Huskies' march toward an undefeated season. Penix completed just 13 passes, but seven of them went to Rome Odunze, who accounted for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

Texasseemed intent on bumbling away its Big 12 title hopes against Iowa State. It had two touchdowns called back by penalties, fumbled at the Iowa State 9 and coughed up a 66-yard touchdown to an uncovered Easton Dean in the fourth quarter. And none of it mattered. The Longhorns won 26-16.

Michiganrecorded its 1,000th all-time win while Jim Harbaugh watched from his secret underground bunker while wearing an eye patch and petting a cat (we assume).

Bo Nix threw six touchdowns before halftime for Oregon, and Alabama won easily, too, though Ty Simpson's early celebration of a touchdown may have caused Nick Saban's head to melt like he'd just witnessed the opening of the arc of the covenant.

It's fitting, perhaps, that Iowaclinched its spot in the Big Ten title game with a 15-13 win, too, because this season has felt like 12 opportunities for fireworks at the top of the rankings that all ended in punts.

At this point, it'd be easy to feel desperate for anything that approached real drama, real chaos, a true shake-up to the status quo.

And yet, the closest thing we got Saturday was perhaps the one thing no one wanted to see.

There's still a chance for chaos in the next two weeks, of course. History suggests we're bound to see it eventually. And when it comes, it'll be a bit less thrilling because one of the nation's best players won't be a part of it.

Jeff Brohm's incredible homecoming

A few things folks in Louisvilleknow without any doubt: Bourbon is delicious, horses are raised to race, and Papa John's cinnamon pull-apart is an underrated addition to any pizza order.

Add this one to the list: Jeff Brohm knows how to coach some football.

When Scott Satterfield bolted after last season, the call among Louisville fans was loud, persistent and unwavering: Bring Brohm home. The demands for the Cardinals to hire their former quarterback and hometown hero were so ubiquitous that, during Brohm's introductory news conference, athletic director Josh Heird all but said he'd had no choice in the matter.

On Saturday, Brohm repaid fans for that support by punching the Cardinals' ticket to the ACC championship game, keeping the Louisville's long shot hopes for a playoff berth alive, and, to top things off, won them a shiny bronzed pair of boots.

Louisville downed Miami38-31 on Saturday behind three touchdown passes from Jack Plummer, securing a chance to play Florida State for the ACC title. The Cardinals did it with their top two offensive weapons -- Jawhar Jordan and Jamari Thrash -- battling nagging injuries. Louisville won by inverting the playbook that had served them so well all season, in yet another example of Brohm's offensive brilliance.

With Jordan limited to just nine carries, Louisville still ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns against a stout Miami front.

With Thrash held to just one catch, the Cards turned to their tight ends -- a unit that had just 17 catches all season -- to the tune of nine catches for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Fourteen different players had an offensive touch, including a TD grab from offensive lineman Trevonte Sylvester, and just a week after No. 4 Florida State struggled to a 27-20 win against Miami in which it mustered just 322 yards of offense, Louisville hung 38 points and 470 yards on the Canes.

The win earned Louisville possession of the Schnellenberger Trophy -- a bronzed pair of the former Cards and Canes coach's boots, given this year for the first time. They're bound to look exceptional in the trophy case.

More importantly, the victory punched Louisville's first ticket to the ACC's title game, where it will face FSU with an opportunity to, at long last, make a genuine national statement.

This, of course, has been Louisville's blessing and curse in 2023. The Cardinals won the schedule lottery, missing FSU, Clemson and North Carolina in the regular season and providing a smoother path to this point. On the other hand, the light schedule -- No. 84 nationally, according to ESPN -- has meant there are still ample critics who believe Louisville is a paper tiger. Add in a loss to woeful Pitt, and the Cardinals have largely played the role of playoff footnote, despite the now 10-1 record. Never mind that Louisville now has five wins over bowl-eligible Power 5 foes, matching Alabama and Florida State for the most in the country.

It's a fool's errand to figure out the logistics of Louisville's playoff path at this point. There is a path, to be sure, but it's quite fuzzy right now.

So instead, enjoy a nice victory cigar -- or, in Schnellenberger's honor, a victory pipe -- to celebrate this historic win. And when the next set of playoff rankings arrives Tuesday, we can start wondering how much more history these Cardinals can write.

Down go the Dukes

Appalachian Statechanneled its inner Alexander Hamilton and thwarted James Madisonon Saturday 26-23 in overtime, ending the Dukes' magical 10-0 start to the season.

The Mountaineers led throughout, but JMU receiver Elijah Sarratt made a ridiculous catch at the goal line with 57 seconds to play to pull the Dukes to within two, then tied it with an even more impressive reception on a 2-point try.

The conversion sent the game to overtime, where JMU scored first, connecting on a 25-yard field goal.

App State answered, however, with a Joey Aguilar pass to Kaedin Robinson, who spun near the goal line, narrowly getting the ball into the end zone for the win.

James Madison falls to 10-1 on the season, its first loss in more than a calendar year. Several Virginia politicians, however, will be filing suit to overturn the loss in court unless the Sun Belt decides it didn't really count.

Aggies have Freeze's number

It began with a home loss to UMass.

This is not the way any good story begins. The amount of truly amazing things that would have to follow for the story to end well is essentially incalculable.

But that's what makes New Mexico State's season so utterly, wonderfully, unbelievably thrilling. It started with a home loss to UMass, and now is unquestionably the best season the program has had in more than 60 years, and it reached its crescendo Saturday with a dominant 31-10 win over Auburnat Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Aggies were a 25.5-point underdog Saturday. They won by three touchdowns.

The last time that happened in an FBS game was just last year. The victor in that game, too, was New Mexico State over Liberty. The losing coach, too, was Hugh Freeze.

Saturday's win was emphatic. Diego Pavia threw for three touchdowns. The Aggies rushed for 213 yards. The defense held Auburn to just 213 yards of total offense. It's the biggest moment for the state of New Mexico since the final season of "Better Call Saul."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it's the biggest upset of an SEC team since South Alabamabeat Mississippi Statein 2016, but the point spread only reflects how little the general public seems to appreciate how good this New Mexico State team is. The Aggies have now won seven straight games and are 15-4 in their past 19. Jerry Kill has made his case not just as a coach of the year candidate, but arguably for a Nobel Prize. Prior to his arrival, New Mexico State's most impactful moment in the past half-century involved having its luggage stolen off the team bus in Gainesville, Florida. Now, they're set to play in the Conference USA championship game against Liberty. Kill has won seven games in back-to-back years at New Mexico State. The program had won seven games in a season just twice in the prior 54 seasons.

Long story short, the takeaway from all this is simple: UMass is better than Auburn.

UCLAtakes down USC

The rumors of Chip Kelly's demise may have been a tad premature.

Just days after rumblings of his imminent firing, Kelly led his Bruins to an emphatic 38-20 win over USC in what may have been Caleb Williams' last college game.

UCLA athletics director Martin Jarmond denied the rumors that Kelly's job was in trouble, but the win certainly helps solidify his position as the Bruins prepare for a move to the Big Ten next season.

Saturday's loss marked the regular-season finale for USC, and with it, likely the final appearance for Williams, the reigning Heisman winner. Williams threw for 384 yards, but he was upstaged by UCLA's Ethan Garbers, who returned from an injury to throw three TD passes against the maligned Trojans defense. USC has now allowed 34 points or more in eight straight games, the longest streak by a Power 5 defense since Kansasin 2021.

Lincoln Riley has lost five of his past six and is 5-7 in his past 12 against Power 5 opposition. Three of those five wins have come by a combined 10 points.

In other words, the bigger story coming out of Saturday's action isn't where UCLA goes from here, but how the once-heralded Riley begins to rebuild USC without his superstar quarterback amid so many lingering questions.

For comparison, he's now 18-8 in 26 games at USC. Lane Kiffin was 19-7 in his first 26 while dealing with NCAA sanctions.

So, perhaps Riley gets things turned around with a new defensive approach in 2024. Or perhaps USC should move one of its HR folks over to an office at the charter terminal at LAX.

Hartman scorches Wake

For five years, Sam Hartman called Wake Foresthome, setting school records for touchdowns, passing yards, completions and ribs removed.

On Saturday, he faced his old team, and he showed absolutely no mercy. Hartman led Notre Dameto a 45-7 win over Wake, throwing for 277 yards and four touchdowns in the process.

In Hartman's absence, Wake has been unable to find any success at the quarterback position. Michael Kern became the third different QB to start for the Deacons this season, completing just 11 of 20 passes for 81 yards. Wake has just two passing touchdowns in its past seven games -- six of them losses.

Hartman, meanwhile, passed Graham Harrell for fourth all-time in FBS passing yards and passed Colt Brennan, Rakeem Cato and Baker Mayfield to move into sole possession of fourth in passing touchdowns. And he's done it all in only 16 years as a college player.

Wolves run wild

In just a little more than 10 minutes of game action at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth, Arkansas Stateaccomplished the following:

  • Recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown
  • Kicked a 58-yard field goal
  • Intercepted a pass and returned it 87 yards for a touchdown
  • Intercepted another pass and returned it for a 50-yard touchdown
  • Saved Butch Jones' job, got bowl-eligible, were awarded the 2023 champions of life trophy

The Red Wolves whooped Texas State77-31, scoring three times on defense, while the offense added touchdowns of 41, 42 and 57 yards.

In fact, Arkansas State ran just 57 plays in the game, meaning the Red Wolves averaged 1.35 points per play.

Arkansas State is bowl-eligible for the first time since 2019, and its six wins are more than the Red Wolves managed in their past two seasons combined.

Arkansas State is the fourth team this season to score at least 77 -- joining, among others, Texas State! -- but is the first to do it vs. an FBS opponent since SMU hung 77 on Houstonin Week 10 of last season, and is just the 11th team to do it in the playoff era.

Michigansurvives a scare

It has been a wild week in Ann Arbor. Jim Harbaugh declared Michigan to be "America's Team," which, honestly, is only a bit more disingenuous than the Cowboys using that moniker.

The school then abandoned its quest to absolve Harbaugh of any wrongdoing in the sign-stealing scandal, accepting the Big Ten's three-game suspension, which began last week. An NCAA investigation continues, however, so we can expect that to be wrapped up some time around summer 2036. Then on Friday, the school fired linebackers coach Chris Partridge reportedly for obstructing the investigation and possibly destroying potential evidence.

The week concluded with Michigan surviving a scare from Maryland, defying the Terps' late comeback and coming away with a 31-24 win.

That Michigan managed just 291 yards of offense, or that J.J. McCarthy looked frazzled at times in the pocket, or that the ground game that dominated Penn State mustered just 3.3 yards per carry all might seem like cause for concern ahead of The Game next week, but this is Michigan, and Harbaugh's boys don't worry about little things like offensive struggles.

After all, are we all nave enough to assume Harbaugh spent five games this season just twiddling his thumbs while suspended? No, he spent only two of them thumb-twiddling and that was just to prove that no one on the planet could twiddle better than him. The rest of the time, he's been secretly plotting against Ohio State, sewing a Ryan Day voodoo doll (and a nice set of mittens) and scheming up the perfect game plan to take down the Buckeyes for the third straight year.

Aggies win without Fisher

Jaylen Henderson racked up 287 yards of offense and two touchdowns to lead Texas A&Mto a 38-10 win over Abilene Christianin the team's first game after Jimbo Fisher was fired.

Moose Muhammad IIImight have taken a slight jab at Fisher during pregame warmups, when he appeared wearing sleeves -- something he was supposedly once benched for doing under Fisher. The move apparently worked well, because he finished the game with four catches for 104 yards and a touchdown.

It was a strong start for the post-Fisher era at A&M, and if the school's top boosters were all smart enough to wager $77 million on Abilene Christian +40.5, then pretty much all the Aggies' problems have been solved.

Checking receipts

The bad news for Colorado? After Friday's horrid 56-14 loss to Washington State, the Buffs' bowl hopes are over.

The good news? Deion Sanders is going to have so many receipts after the way this season has ended, he's going to need to buy a new wallet.

After a 3-0 start to the season that made Colorado the talk of the college football world, things have unraveled faster than an F1 race in Las Vegas,with the Buffaloes dropping seven of eight, demoting their offensive coordinator and revoking DJ Khaled's sideline pass because he refused to jump in on the O-line for a few series in hopes of finding anyone who could keep Shedeur Sanders upright.

Perhaps the lasting lessons of this Colorado story is that you can't build a team overnight. Or maybe it's that you shouldn't jump to conclusions three weeks into a season. Or maybe it's that any truly good story requires a little steak with its sizzle. The important thing is that none of us learn any of these lessons and when Coach Prime has the Buffs at 3-0 again next season, we completely buy in all over again.

Heisman Five

It's still too soon to suggest we have a clear-cut Heisman favorite, but Week 12 gave us a leader in the clubhouse for the 2023 Reverse Heisman, because you'll be hard pressed to find a play this ugly that doesn't include the term "Butt Fumble." So, congrats to Colorado's Gavin Kuld, who had a batted ball, a reception and an interception all on the same play. We'll see you in -- um, wherever the Reverse Heisman ceremony is held. Newark, New Jersey, we assume.

As for the guys still battling for an invite to New York ...

1. LSUQB Jayden Daniels

Daniels put up 509 yards and eight touchdowns in a blowout win over Georgia Stateon Saturday, and frankly it's getting to a point where, regardless of LSU's three losses, there's simply no argument against Daniels' magic. It's also worth noting that Daniels has a 91.7 Total QBR in the three games the Tigers lost.

2. Ohio StateWR Marvin Harrison Jr.

Harrison had just three catches for 30 yards in the win over Minnesota, but he did haul in a TD for the seventh straight game. Besides, who could blame Harrison for saving his best for next week?

3. OregonQB Bo Nix

According to the experts in Las Vegas, Nix is the favorite to take home the hardware. He did nothing to discourage that perception Saturday, utterly demolishing Arizona State Sun Devils to the tune of 404 yards and six touchdowns. Nix's numbers are off the charts, but it's also worth noting he's faced just one defense ranked in the top 40 (by SP+), while Arizona State marked the seventh he's faced from the bottom half of the rankings.

4. WashingtonQB Michael Penix Jr.

Penix didn't deal well with the elements -- or Oregon State's defense -- on Saturday, but he did enough to pull out another win for Washington. He completed just 13 of 28 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns, but he also had two critical runs to keep drives alive, including one for a score.

5. Florida StateQB Jordan Travis

Odds are, this is the last week we'll be able to have Travis here. His injury against North Alabama was gruesome, and the implications will be felt for weeks to come. But more than anything, it's such a brutal end to one of the genuinely great college football success stories. Three years ago, Travis was on the verge of walking away from the game after being dismissed again and again by coaches. But he resurrected his career -- and Florida State's program, too. He won't win the Heisman, and FSU's odds of winning a national title took a big hit, too. But it's still fair to say there won't be many Seminoles in the program's rich history more beloved for what he's done on and off the field than Travis.

Quick hits

Iowaclinched a berth in the Big Ten title game in perfect Iowa fashion, edging Illinois 15-13 on a 30-yard Kaleb Johnson run with 4:43 to play. It was Iowa's fifth win of the season in which it scored 20 points or less. No other Power 5 team has more than two. Iowa remains the Pete Davidson of College Football: Strange, endearing, riddled with issues and inexplicably successful. We're mere weeks from Brian Ferentz dating a Kardashian.

NC Stateentered Saturday as the only Power 5 team with seven wins to remain unranked by the College Football Playoff committee. That should change next week.

The Wolfpack beat Virginia Tech35-28 behind four touchdowns from Brennan Armstrong, and NC State has won eight games for the fourth straight season. The only other Power 5 teams to do that? Georgia, Alabama and Notre Dame. (Clemson can join them with one more win this season.)

Playing without a slew of starters and possibly using several random guys they found waiting for a table at Red Iguana, Utah's quest to cover for its injuries finally came to a screeching halt against red-hot Arizona. The Utes have fought valiantly against unyielding attrition this season, but a week after what felt like a last-stand loss to Washington, they had no answers for the Wildcats. Noah Fifita threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns, and Arizona rolled to its eight win of the season 42-18. A win against rival Arizona Statenext week will get Arizona just its second nine-win campaign since 1998.

Will Howard accounted for three touchdowns as Kansas Statewon the Sunflower Showdown 31-27. Devin Neal had three rushing TDs for Kansas, but the loss likely dooms any hope of the Jayhawks finishing a season in the top 25 for the first time since 2007. On the other hand, Kansas basketball beat Manhattan last week, so overall the Jayhawks got a split with teams from Manhattan.

Last week, Arkansaswas embarrassed on the field by Auburn 48-10 and off the field when reports emerged that players had watched "Polar Express" during halftime of the game. Obviously, head coach Sam Pittman was livid because it's simply not appropriate to start watching Christmas movies before Thanksgiving. But Saturday, the Hogs rebounded nicely, torching FIU 44-20 behind three touchdowns from KJ Jefferson. Pittman was so pleased with the performance, he allowed a postgame viewing of "Fred Claus."

SMUnarrowly edged Memphis38-34 behind three touchdowns from QB Preston Stone, including this 43-yard bomb on fourth down in the first quarter.

LJ Johnson Jr. added 115 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and the Mustangs move to 7-0 in conference play. A win next week against Navy would assure SMU a trip to the AAC title game in its final season in the conference.

The Mustangs will play either Tulaneor UTSA, both of whom won in Week 12 and remain undefeated in the league. The two face off in the regular-season finale next week.

Northwesternis officially bowl eligible after topping Purdue23-15. The win follows the announcement earlier this week that David Braun would have the interim tag removed from his title (a process that involves a lot of Wite-Out and some of those Mr. Clean magic erasers) and become the team's full-time head coach. The six wins are two more than Northwestern had in Pat Fitzgerald's final two seasons there, and the latest results marked the school's first back-to-back wins since November 2020.

Penn Stateparted ways with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich after last week's frustrating loss to Michigan, but the team paid a proper tribute Saturday by throwing for just 88 yards in a 27-6 win over Rutgers. Fun fact: There have been 13 wins by Power 5 teams this season when throwing for 90 yards or less. Seven of them are from Big Ten teams. It's no wonder the league is getting more than $1 billion a year.

Under-the-radar play of the week

Last week, Woffordescaped winless The Citadel to earn its first win of the season. Saturday, it got win No. 2 in much more impressive style.

The Terriers handed 9-1 Furmanits first conference loss, 19-13, thanks in large part to a 64-yard fumble return by Maximus Pulley.

It was a big moment for Pulley, who we assume, based on his name, had not enjoyed that type of success since winning the 1994 World's Strongest Man competition.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Week 12 had five bowl bowls -- i.e. games in which the winner earned bowl eligibility -- and none was more entertaining than Texas Tech's 24-23 win over UCF.

The Red Raiders fell behind 14-0, roared back to take a 24-17 lead, then saw John Rhys Plumlee hit Javon Baker for a 71-yard touchdown that might've tied it up, if not for a missed PAT.

But the game was sealed by Texas Tech's offense, which ran the final 5:30 off the clock on an 11-play drive in which just one snap went for more than seven yards.

The Red Raiders are now bowl eligible alongside South Alabama(who beat Marshall28-0), Georgia Tech(who beat Syracuse31-22) and Boise State(who beat Utah State45-10).

Wisconsinalso is bowl eligible in Luke Fickell's first season with the Badgers, while Matt Rhule will need an upset over Iowanext week to get to six wins in his first year at Nebraska, after falling 24-17 in overtime Saturday. The Huskers have lost their past three, all by one possession. Nebraska is now 7-24 in one-possession games since 2019.

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