After Further Review: Can USC's incredible turnover margin help carry it to the College Football Playoff?

There are so many games over the course of a college football weekend that some slip through the cracks and others require further examination the next day. Before we turn the page to Week 13, here’s a closer look at some of the most interesting outcomes of Week 12.

USC 48, UCLA 45

USC may rank near the bottom of all FBS teams in yards per play allowed, but it ranks at the top in a statistical category that is even more impactful: turnover margin.

USC forced four turnovers in a thrilling win over UCLA on Saturday night in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans intercepted three Dorian Thompson-Robinson passes and also forced the UCLA quarterback to fumble. The fourth and final turnover came in the game’s final minutes when the Bruins had a chance to either tie the game or take the lead. Instead, that opportunistic USC defense struck again when defensive end Korey Foreman dropped into coverage and registered the game-sealing interception with 1:19 to play.

The Trojans were plus-three in turnovers in the win, putting them at a remarkable plus-20 for the season. USC has forced 24 turnovers and lost only four of its own — one fumble and three interceptions. That's the fewest turnovers in the country.

USC's Korey Foreman celebrates after intercepting a pass during the second half of the Trojans' win over UCLA on Saturday. (AP)
USC's Korey Foreman celebrates after intercepting a pass during the second half of the Trojans' win over UCLA on Saturday. (AP)

USC has forced a turnover in all but one of its 11 games and has six games with multiple forced turnovers. That includes forcing four turnovers on four separate occasions. Three of those four-turnover outings occurred in September. The defense has cooled off some since then until the UCLA game.

To put things in perspective, there are four teams who have forced more turnovers than USC, but nobody comes close to matching USC’s turnover margin. Duke’s turnover margin is plus-14, San Jose State’s is plus-13 and there are only four others with a double-digit turnover margin — Louisville (12), Kansas State (12), Western Kentucky (12) and Georgia Tech (11).

In the previous six seasons, only three other FBS teams have had a turnover margin of plus-20. The lowest any of those teams ranked in yards per play allowed was the 2018 Georgia Southern squad. That team was No. 48 nationally in yards per play allowed while finishing plus-22 in turnovers.

By comparison, USC allows 6.05 yards per play. That ranks No. 110 nationally.

All year long, this recipe of allowing a ton of yards while having impeccable turnover luck from USC has felt unsustainable. Somehow, USC continues to prove that line of thinking wrong and is on the verge of a Pac-12 title and possible College Football Playoff berth.

- Sam Cooper

South Carolina 63, Tennessee 38

Tennessee’s hopes of a national title disappeared Saturday night thanks to a porous defense that gave up nine touchdowns to a South Carolina offense that had scored just 18 TDs in its previous seven SEC games.

But Hendon Hooker’s torn left ACL in the fourth quarter was a much more disappointing development for the Volunteers. The injury happened when Hooker’s left knee gave way as he planted his leg and crumpled to the ground. He never returned to the game and hobbled to the locker room as it was clear that something significant had happened to his knee.

Hooker has been one of the best quarterbacks in college football and became one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy with his efficient play. Hooker threw three touchdowns and no interceptions on Saturday night and has 27 passing TDs to just two interceptions this year.

Hooker’s story has also been great. A transfer from Virginia Tech, Hooker came to Tennessee after Josh Heupel was hired as the team’s head coach ahead of the 2021 season. Hooker had just one 300-yard passing game in his Virginia Tech career and opened the 2021 season as the No. 2 quarterback at UT behind Michigan transfer Joe Milton.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) leaves the field after his team defeated Alabama 52-49 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) leaves the field after his team defeated Alabama 52-49 in on Oct. 15 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Hooker took over as the starting quarterback after Milton was injured in Week 2 and has kept the job since. He threw for 316 yards and four TDs in a win over Kentucky a year ago and then threw for 378 yards and five scores in an epic overtime loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl.

Despite Hooker’s great play at the end of 2021, it’s fair to say that hardly anyone outside of Knoxville expected him to be one of the top QBs in 2022. He surpassed all preseason expectations and should still get a lot of down-ballot Heisman votes even if his 2022 season is now over.

Hooker finishes the season with 3,135 yards passing and a near 70% completion percentage to go with 430 rushing yards and five touchdowns. His 32 total touchdowns are tied for ninth in college football. While the knee injury clouds his status ahead of the 2023 NFL draft, Hooker is an intriguing prospect for NFL teams. It’s a shame we won’t get to see him play again this season.

- Nick Bromberg

Oregon 20, Utah 17

Believe it or not, it’s not inconceivable that Utah will be in the Pac-12 title game despite losing to Oregon on Saturday night.

The road loss dropped the Utes to 6-2 in the conference and 8-3 overall as QB Cam Rising threw three interceptions and completed only 10 passes to players not named Dalton Kincaid. The Utes’ only offensive touchdown came at the end of a 13-play, 86-yard drive that tied the game at 17-17 in the third quarter.

Utah’s final three drives of the game ended with two turnovers on downs and Rising’s third interception of the game.

The 2022 season is the first of the Pac-12’s division-less alignment and USC clinched a spot in the title game with its win over UCLA. The second spot is up for grabs as Oregon can get into the title game if it beats Oregon State.

If the Ducks lose to Oregon State, Utah has a path. And it’s semi-realistic.

After all, a win for Oregon against its in-state rival is hardly a guarantee. QB Bo Nix is hobbled and Oregon State moved to 8-3 with a win over Arizona State on Saturday. The Ducks are just 3.5-point favorites and Oregon State has won two of the past three against its rival in Corvallis.

If Oregon loses that game, Utah needs to beat Colorado and needs Washington to beat Washington State to set up a three-team tie between the Utes, Huskies and Ducks. Utah also needs UCLA to beat Cal, even though those two teams are out of Pac-12 title contention.

Why does that game matter? Utah and Washington didn’t play this season, so a straightforward head-to-head three-way tiebreaker can’t be applied to Oregon, Washington and Utah.

The next step for the tiebreaker is the winning percentage of the tied teams’ common conference opponents. And even though UCLA played all three of Utah, Oregon and Washington, its win over Cal would be enough to boost Utah’s conference opponents’ winning percentage above Oregon’s and Washington’s.

- Nick Bromberg

TCU 29, Baylor 28

Can TCU carry this high-wire act all the way into the College Football Playoff?

TCU improved to 11-0 with a last-second win Saturday. There have been so many tight games along the way, and the win over the Bears was the closest call yet.

BU led 28-20 late into the fourth quarter, but TCU managed to score a touchdown and then kick a field goal in the final 2:07 of regulation. The touchdown cut Baylor’s lead to only 28-26 because the Horned Frogs failed on the game-tying two-point try. Baylor was unable to run out the clock on the subsequent drive and TCU won with a walk-off 40-yard field goal by Griffin Kell.

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Before that, Baylor had blown multiple opportunities to score. The Bears missed a 46-yard field goal, had a turnover on downs in TCU territory and threw an interception in the end zone. Those missed chances helped TCU complete the comeback and eke out another close win. There have been many of them.

Of TCU’s 11 wins, eight have come by 10 points or fewer. There has been some good fortune as TCU faced backup quarterbacks in its wins over Oklahoma, Kansas, Kansas State and Texas Tech. But there was also resiliency as TCU overcame a double-digit deficit in the wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State.

This team just knows how to win games. And most impressively, TCU has been able to win in a variety of ways. No matter if it's a shootout or a run-heavy slugfest, the Horned Frogs continue to get things done.

TCU has already locked up a spot in the Big 12 title game but needs to take care of business vs. Iowa State next week to ensure that a berth in the College Football Playoff is on the line in the conference title game.

- Sam Cooper

Extra points

Michigan 19, Illinois 17: Michigan’s stellar rushing attack and defense have masked a mediocre passing offense led by J.J. McCarthy. That almost proved costly against Illinois. The Michigan offense struggled mightily with top running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards sidelined, but McCarthy did just enough to lead the Wolverines to a come-from-behind win.

McCarthy completed only 18 of his 34 passes for 208 yards. There were a few drops mixed in, but McCarthy also badly missed some wide-open receivers. His accuracy has been an issue. Over UM’s past three games, McCarthy is just 39-of-78 (50%) for 488 yards. With the trip to Ohio State coming next weekend, McCarthy must play significantly better. That’s especially true if Corum and Edwards are still banged up.

Ohio State 43, Maryland 30: Ohio State’s collection of talent never ceases to amaze. Injuries at running back have piled up for the Buckeyes this year, leaving Miyan Williams out and TreVeyon Henderson hobbled for Saturday’s game vs. Maryland. With the passing game struggling a bit, OSU needed a boost from its running game and it got that from an unlikely source — freshman Dallan Hayden. Hayden had shown flashes of a promising future throughout the season before combining for 248 yards and four touchdowns over the past two games. In the win over Maryland, Hayden went for 146 yards and three touchdowns. The Buckeyes may not have won the game without him.

Ohio State running back Dallan Hayden (5) celebrates his touchdown with offensive lineman Luke Wypler (53), wide receiver Julian Fleming (4) and offensive lineman Donovan Jackson (74) against Maryland on Saturday in College Park, Maryland. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Ohio State running back Dallan Hayden (5) celebrates his touchdown with offensive lineman Luke Wypler (53), wide receiver Julian Fleming (4) and offensive lineman Donovan Jackson (74) against Maryland on Saturday in College Park, Maryland. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Kansas State 48, West Virginia 31: It’s easy to see how Week 13 could be the final game of Neal Brown’s tenure at West Virginia. The Mountaineers dropped to 4-7 days after athletic director Shane Lyons was fired by the school. Lyons brought Brown to West Virginia and the Mountaineers are now set to have three losing seasons in Brown’s four years in charge. Brown started sophomore QB Garrett Greene over JT Daniels after Greene led the Mountaineers to a win over Oklahoma. Greene threw three TDs but also threw two interceptions. With no bowl to play for, it'd be surprising if Greene doesn't start against Oklahoma State to end the season.

Georgia Tech 21, North Carolina 17: UNC had one of the most disappointing losses of the weekend. The Tar Heels were 9-1 and No. 13 in the CFP rankings with a chance to keep moving up. Instead, they lost at home to the Yellow Jackets as a three-touchdown favorite. UNC jumped out to a 17-0 lead late in the first half and never scored again. Georgia Tech was rotating its third- and fourth-string quarterbacks but was still able to come all the way back and win. The Yellow Jackets also limited Drake Maye to just 16-of-30 throwing for 202 yards and an interception. UNC’s national championship hopes are dashed, but its date with Clemson in the ACC title is already set. Perhaps this loss will be a wake-up call for the Heels.

Louisville 25, NC State 10: It has been a remarkable turnaround for the Cardinals. After losing to Boston College to drop to 2-3 on the season, Louisville has won five of its past six games and has every right to think it can get its eighth win of the season at Kentucky. The Cardinals beat the Wolfpack by two scores in a battle of backup quarterbacks. Malik Cunningham missed the game with a shoulder injury as Brock Domann started in his place. RB Jawhar Jordan was the Cardinals’ offensive star, however. He had 16 carries for 105 yards and a TD.

Houston 42, East Carolina 3: Houston has to be the most unpredictable team in the country. Preseason expectations were massive for the Cougars, but they managed to open the season with a 2-3 record. Three of those first five games went to overtime, including a triple-overtime win over UTSA and a double-overtime loss to Texas Tech. Since then, UH has won five of six to sit at 7-4, but the results have varied. There was a wild fourth-quarter comeback in an improbable one-point win over Memphis, a 77-63 loss to SMU and a last-minute win over Temple. On the heels of barely scraping by Temple (one of the AAC’s worst teams), UH went to East Carolina as a six-point underdog. The Cougars proceeded to blast the Pirates. Before that, ECU’s average margin of defeat was 5.2 points per game. Go figure.