College football’s home stretch is upon us, and the Week 12 slate has more intrigue than an Agatha Christie mystery. What do you mean I’m dating myself? A Lucy Foley thriller? Staying current is hard. Well, no matter.
The sport’s top contenders have for the most part been identified, but many still have work to do in the regular season’s final two weeks.
This Saturday’s schedule features three top-25 matchups, as well as several other key contests with playoff and conference championship implications. There are mid-tier offerings as well that might interest you if your team is still battling for bowl eligibility, but we rank the top seven here, in order of importance and potential to entertain.
No. 8 Michigan State at No. 4 Ohio State
Noon ET, ABC
Why watch: They don’t get much bigger than this key Big Ten East clash. Both teams control their destiny in the conference race, as the Spartans have a victory in the bank against Michigan and the Buckeyes will take on the Wolverines next week. Buckeyes’ QB C.J. Stroud figures to have a big day against the Spartans’ leaky secondary that surrenders 329 yards a game through the air. MSU will try to help the defense by feeding RB Kenneth Walker III early and often, but the Ohio State front has shown improvement against the run since being gashed by Oregon in September.
Why it could disappoint: If the Buckeyes can get RB TreVeyon Henderson rolling as well, there might be nothing the Spartans can do to keep up, even if MSU QB Payton Thorne has a solid passing day.
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No. 5 Oregon at No. 25 Utah
7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch: This is almost certainly the first of two meetings between the Ducks and Utes with a rematch in the Pac-12 title game likely to follow two weeks hence. Oregon has all but clinched the North, though a Ducks loss could leave the door ajar for Oregon State if the Beavers can get past Arizona State later in the night. Utah needs just one more win to lock up the South, which it should get next week against Colorado even if it is unsuccessful in this home date with the Quack Attack. Oregon QB Anthony Brown and RB Travis Dye will test the Utah ground defense that usually holds up well against the run but gets gashed for 10 yards or more 4.6 times a game. Utes’ RB Tavion Thomas sat out last week’s win at Arizona but should be back to help QB Cameron Rising take on the Oregon defense that can struggle to get off the field on third down.
Why it could disappoint: An Oregon blowout is unlikely, as nearly every Ducks game has been close in the fourth quarter. A big win by the Utes is possible if they can build an early lead, but the disappointment probability for this one is low.
No. 22 Arkansas at No. 2 Alabama
3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Why watch: Last week’s chaos ended up bringing some clarity to the SEC West. OK, it was expected clarity admittedly, and now Alabama is a win from wrapping up the division and finalizing the much-anticipated showdown with Georgia. The Razorbacks hope to make the Crimson Tide wait another week and add another accomplishment to an already successful campaign. The 2020 Alabama offense set an impossibly high standard, but QB Bryce Young has done his best to keep the Tide rolling with 33 TD passes to just three INTs. The Tide’s ground game hasn’t always been as reliable, however, and LB Bumper Pool and the Razorbacks’ front will look to turn Alabama’s red-zone opportunities into field-goal attempts. Arkansas QB K.J. Jefferson’s passing game is more controlled, but WR Treylon Burks does provide a constant breakaway threat.
Why it could disappoint: Alabama LB Will Anderson is a disruptor who can turn a game with a big sack or forced fumble. Arkansas has shown it can score with just about anyone in the SEC, but a multi-score deficit before halftime will be hard to overcome.
Southern Methodist at No. 3 Cincinnati
3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: The Bearcats have three more weeks to make their case to the College Football Playoff committee to crack the top four. Their fans were hoping the Mustangs would also be ranked at the time of this encounter, but SMU’s 8-2 mark coming in will at least give UC a boost in schedule strength. Of course, the Bearcats must also actually win, and the Mustangs have the fire power to make that a challenge. SMU QB Tanner Mordecai enters the game with 3,264 passing yards and 37 TDs on the season. He does have 10 picks, and Bearcats’ CBs Coby Bryant and Arquon Bush could push that number up. UC’s veteran QB Desmond Ridder hasn’t been as flashy but gets plenty of help from RB Jerome Ford to keep the sticks moving.
Why it could disappoint: The Bearcats have needed to grind out a few of their wins, and such games aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing. But if the Mustangs find the end zone early and UC has to respond by opening things up, it could be quite intense in the final stages.
Iowa State at No. 11 Oklahoma
Noon ET, Fox
Why watch: The Sooners aren’t out of the playoff hunt altogether, but their chances took a huge hit with last week’s loss to Baylor. The Big 12 title is off the table for the Cyclones, but they still have enough talent to cause havoc. Texas Tech’s game-winning 62-yard field goal stole all the headlines last week, overshadowing big outings from ISU RB Breece Hall and QB Brock Purdy. The Cyclones’ backfield duo isn’t the Sooners’ only concern, however, as QB Caleb Williams is coming off his roughest outing since taking over the starting job.
Why it could disappoint: It seems unlikely that the Sooners’ offense will have another bad day. The Cyclones have also had occasional issues in punt coverage, so the Sooners could benefit from some favorable field position.
No. 12 Wake Forest at Clemson
Noon ET, ESPN
Why watch: The Demon Deacons are a win from playing for the ACC championship. They’d like to get it here, but they haven’t won in Death Valley since 1998 and must overcome a lot of blowout-filled recent history against the Tigers. Clemson won’t be a disinterested party, either. The Tigers could still win the league’s Atlantic Division with a win here and one more loss from both the Deacons and N.C. State. Wake is maintaining is stratospheric scoring average of 44.7 a game despite QB Sam Hartman giving up four picks in his last two outings. His timely runs have helped, but the Clemson defense won’t be as forgiving. The Tigers used last week’s tune-up against lowly UConn to work out some kinks for its struggling offense, but QB D.J. Uiagalelei’s unit is still not nearly as explosive as Tigers fans have come to expect.
Why it could disappoint: Wake’s winning formula has been to score enough points to overcome a defense that surrenders 440 yards a game, 202 on the ground. That might not work against the Tigers, who’ve endured some injuries along their defensive front but still have next-level talent.
No. 13 Baylor at Kansas State
5:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Why watch: With help, Baylor could get a chance to play for the Big 12 title, but the Bears don’t get to enjoy their huge win against Oklahoma for long. The Wildcats are having a solid bounce-back season themselves and enter this date with the Bears on a four-game winning streak. K-State’s foundation is a sound defense, but it also helps when QB Skylar Thompson is healthy as he is now. He gets plenty of support from RB Deuce Vaughn. Baylor RB Abram Smith is going to need some air cover from QB Gerry Bohanon to keep his running lanes open.
Why it could disappoint: Both teams feature top-30 scoring defenses, so if you like Big 12-style track meets (think Red River), this might not live up to your expectations. Conversely, it is also unlikely either team can build an insurmountable advantage, so it should warrant periodic check-ins.
Follow colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football Week 12 games to watch start with Big Ten clash