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Auerbach’s Top 10: What did we learn from a college football Saturday of close calls?

Survive and advance. That was the theme for college football’s Week 12, as the top four teams in the nation teetered but stayed unbeaten … while No. 5 Tennessee lost on the road at South Carolina, a result that officially knocks the Vols out of College Football Playoff contention. And USC arrived—for real this time.

The penultimate weekend of the regular season brought drama, joy and heartbreak. And it’s time to sift through all three to determine the impact on the nation’s top teams.

Each Saturday night throughout the college football season, I’ll rank the 10 best teams in the country. The order will fluctuate week to week based on new results, player availability and whatever else impacts this chaotic sport. The final spot each week will go to a team that may not actually be the 10th best team in the country but still deserves a little shine.

The Bulldogs slogged their way to a 16-6 win at Kentucky in which they struggled through the air and settled for field goals at the end of all three of their first-half drives. Georgia allowed a 99-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter as Kentucky threatened to make it a game. After the Wildcats missed a field goal and failed on a fourth-down conversion on their final two drives, the Bulldogs came away with an ugly win … that’s still a win. The defending champs will gladly take it on a day that got dicey for a bunch of top teams.

The Buckeyes’ 43-30 win against Maryland was a strikingly similar game to their last trip to College Park, in 2018. It was far closer than it should’ve been, judging by the two teams’ records. Maryland looked like a world-beater in spurts, only to be met with heartbreak in the final minutes. All Ohio State had to do was hang tight and pull the game out at the end.

A final-minute scoop-and-score iced Saturday’s edition of the Big Ten East clash and left the final 13-point margin somewhat misleading. CJ Stroud threw for 241 yards and a touchdown, but the star of the Ohio State offense was freshman running back Dallan Hayden, who carried the ball 27 times for 146 yards and three touchdowns. Hayden has emerged in the last two games as the Buckeyes’ rushing attack deals with injuries, and the depth he provides could be a difference-maker next weekend against Michigan. At the very least, it sets Hayden up to be one of the next great running backs in Columbus. Safety Latham Ransom came up big again as a special teams stud, blocking a punt for a second consecutive game.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. Ohio State did its part to set up the biggest Ohio State-Michigan game since 2006.

3. Michigan (11-0)

It also wasn’t very pretty in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines pulled out a 19-17 win against Illinois thanks to a 35-yard field goal from Jake Moody with nine seconds remaining. Michigan is fortunate to have one of the best kickers in the country, because the Wolverines have probably settled for kicking field goals more than they should. They needed to kick field goals on Saturday because they couldn’t rely on the run game after an apparent knee injury to Heisman Trophy contender Blake Corum in the first half. The Wolverines’ passing attack still leaves quite a bit to be desired and should be a major concern heading into next week’s matchup against a much-improved Ohio State defense.

Jim Harbaugh said after the game that Corum was cleared to return to the game (he played one snap in the second half) and that he had no structural issues. Harbaugh also said he expects others who are banged up to be ready to play the Buckeyes as well because, well, it’s The Game. It’ll also be for a trip to the Big Ten championship game and a de facto play-in game to the College Football Playoff.

4. TCU (11-0)

We’ve wondered aloud whether — or perhaps when— TCU’s magic would run out. Well, time to table that conversation for another day, because it’s still working. The Horned Frogs orchestrated their most dramatic comeback of a season full of them to stay unbeaten, using a fire-drill 40-yard field goal by kicker Griffin Kell as time expired to beat Baylor, 29-28.

There is undoubtedly something special about this team, led by remarkably resilient quarterback Max Duggan, who deserves a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, at a minimum. The Horned Frogs’ path to the CFP is crystal clear: Win out, and they’re in. I don’t think TCU can survive a loss at this point, either to a sub-.500 Iowa State team next weekend or in the Big 12 title game. But an undefeated Power 5 champion would indisputably make the four-team field.

My best piece of advice to the Horned Frogs (who are definitely not asking for it)? Bottle up that magic and sell it alongside lottery tickets in convenience stores nationwide. Or dump it out, use it all up, win two more games and see how far this thing can go.

5. USC (10-1)

The Trojans notched a signature victory with a thrilling 48-45 win against UCLA in front of 70,000-plus at the Rose Bowl, and quarterback Caleb Williams likely cemented himself as the Heisman Trophy finalist with two weeks left in the race, accounting for 502 total yards of offense and three touchdowns on a national stage.

I’ve bumped the one-loss Trojans up a few spots and ahead of two-loss LSU, now that both teams have a pair of Top 25 wins. The Tigers’ best wins, over a good-but-flawed Alabama and an Ole Miss team now in free fall, looked better at the time than they do now.

USC’s defense is decidedly suspect. I do not trust it. It gave up 45 points despite forcing four turnovers. That is really, really hard to do! Although Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma teams were good enough offensively to win the regular-season games needed to build a strong Playoff resume, the defenses doomed the Sooners once they got to the CFP. I feel the same way about Riley’s first USC team. If the Trojans win out, they’ll have added two more marquee wins to their resume: against Notre Dame and a likely top-15 opponent in the Pac-12 championship game.

There are still debates to be had and scenarios to consider, but the Trojans would be in the field with a Pac-12 title. The system is not set up to exclude a one-loss Power 5 champion with potentially four Top 25 wins and a lone loss to a ranked team on the road.

6. LSU (9-2)

The Tigers avoided the drama that descended upon their Top 10 peers this weekend, cruising to a 41-10 win over UAB at home on Saturday night. The LSU defense allowed a touchdown on a short field on UAB’s first possession and a field goal on its second, then essentially shut down everything after that. LSU piled up 565 total yards of offense, converted 11 of 13 third downs and generally took care of business.

LSU’s resume may look quite different by season’s end: Its home loss to Tennessee won’t be softened by the Vols sneaking into the top four, and the win over Ole Miss is depreciating fast. The good news for the Tigers? None of that really matters because they should be a lock for the CFP if they win out. In that situation, no one in the country would have a win better than a neutral-site triumph over Georgia. That is exactly the way a two-loss team would break into the four-team CFP field for the first time.

7. Clemson (10-1)

The Tigers continue to lurk, hovering just off the pace but still very much alive in the College Football Playoff race. Clemson knows that it will have a decent case if it wins out, with multiple teams ranked ahead of it still set to face off before the final rankings are released. Tennessee’s loss Saturday night takes one other strong one-loss hopeful out of the mix.

The Tigers crushed Miami 40-10 in a game that was over almost as soon as it started. DJ Uiagalelei and company scored on three of their first four offensive drives, which paired quite well with the first four Miami drives: three three-and-outs and an interception. Clemson has played pretty well since losing to Notre Dame in early November, and I’ll be curious to see next weekend’s visit from a South Carolina team that just escorted Tennessee out of these rankings.

8. Alabama (9-2)

On a day filled with close calls, it was good to be Alabama, which cruised to a 34-0 victory against FCS program Austin Peay. SEC teams who schedule soft the Saturday before rivalry weekend tend to thank themselves later, and this is why. The Tide didn’t have to worry about a trap game before the Iron Bowl, faced little resistance and got to rest Bryce Young for most of the fourth quarter.

The Ducks have lost two games under Dan Lanning, and we learned quite a bit about them from their responses each time. After a lopsided loss to Georgia in Week 1, they ripped off eight consecutive wins, scoring more than 40 points in each game. And after a heartbreaking home loss to Washington last week, they paired a gusty performance from a banged-up Bo Nix with a strong defensive effort in a 20-17 win against Utah. Nix battled all night, throwing for 287 yards and a touchdown and atoning for his lone big mistake — a fourth quarter interception — with a fake pitch and scamper for a third-down conversion to ice the game.

The Ducks will reach the Pac-12 championship game with a win against Oregon State or a Washington loss to Washington State next week. They may not be playing for a CFP berth, but they are still playing for quite a bit in Lanning’s first season—and they may be doing just enough to get Nix, the Auburn transfer, to New York City.

10. Our Lady (8-3)

Congratulations to the Fighting Irish for their blistering 44-0 win against Boston College and, more importantly, for cementing themselves as a “Quality Loss” for a variety of top teams. We’ve come full circle with this preseason top-10 team, which bottomed out with losses to Marshall and Stanford and now appears to be pretty decent after all.

Boston College is in the midst of a dreadful season, but the Irish turned in a sharp performance anyway, boosted by three interceptions from freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison. Notre Dame forced five turnovers and scored on its first eight possessions — a simple formula for success. Marcus Freeman has talked a lot about Notre Dame playing to a standard and not its opponent, and this was a good example of that vision becoming reality.

The Irish carry a very respectable 8-3 record into their season finale against a top-10 USC team, but their impact on the CFP race stretches far beyond that, now that they’re nearly cemented as a top-20 team. They’re an acceptable loss for Clemson, nothing to drag the Tigers’ resume down too much. They’re a top-20 win for Ohio State, boosting the Buckeyes’ top-four case. And they could become a potential marquee win for the Trojans next week, too. It’s a weird place to be for a program that would rather be in CFP contention itself, but it’s a sign that Notre Dame climbed all the way back to respectability — and then some — in an eventful Year 1 for Freeman.

(Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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