No. 4 Southern California's loss Friday night to No. 12 Utah has already brought No. 5 Ohio State back into the College Football Playoff mix. As of Saturday afternoon, No. 6 Alabama reentered the playoff debate as No. 10 Kansas State threatened to expand upon an already double-digit lead in the Big 12 championship game against No. 3 TCU.
But this is TCU, and one thing we've learned during this wildly unexpected march toward an unbeaten season is to never count out Max Duggan and the Horned Frogs.
By reversing Kansas State's 21-10 lead in the third quarter and forcing overtime, TCU might've done enough to keep the Crimson Tide at bay and remain part of the playoff. The 31-28 loss still sets up a stressful waiting period until Sunday morning as the Horned Frogs prepare for the head-to-head comparison with the Crimson Tide.
That the Horned Frogs stormed back is par for the course during the most memorable regular season in program history. Only once since the second week of October have the Frogs cruised to victory, in last week's 62-14 romp against Iowa State.
The story of the year has been close calls: TCU won five games by a possession, most recently beating Baylor 29-28 on a last-second field goal, and defeated seven Big 12 opponents by an average margin of 6.9 points.
UNEASY FEELING: TCU's playoff fate in committee's hands after loss
DOOR NOW OPEN: USC's shocking loss to Utah throws playoff into chaos
The overtime loss might give Duggan the edge over Caleb Williams in the Heisman Trophy race. He finished with 251 passing yards, 110 rushing yards and two scores, and led one of the memorable drives in program history, an 80-yard march lasting three minutes to knot the game at 28-28 with just under two minutes remaining.
While Alabama and the SEC will advocate for the Crimson Tide, that the Frogs lost in overtime to one of the best teams in the country — a team they had defeated earlier in the regular season — should bring some calmness and clarity back to a race that threatened to devolve into complete anarchy at the doorstep of the final rankings.
If not officially eliminated from contention — as has been predicted dozens of times since November's loss to No. 13 LSU — Alabama still doesn't have the resume to match with TCU, which wins the argument across four important categories:
More wins. Alabama has seven Power Five wins to the Horned Frogs' 10.
Better wins. The Tide can claim five wins against bowl-eligible opponents. TCU has eight.
Stronger wins. Alabama's best win is probably against Texas, edging out Mississippi and No. 25 Mississippi State. That's trumped by the Frogs' win against Kansas State.
The Texas win. Comparing the one common opponent, No. 21 Texas, reflects well on TCU. Neither team dominated, but Alabama escaped with a 20-19 win against the Longhorns, who needed to rely on backup quarterback Hudson Card. TCU beat Texas 17-10 thanks to the Longhorns' meaningless touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The debate over the fourth playoff team should instead focus on USC and OSU, with the Buckeyes poised to backdoor into the semifinals for a likely rematch with No. 2 Michigan as the third seed. But the committee has been given the option of reevaluating Alabama as an option; anything and everything is possible once the Crimson Tide enter this conversation.
The Horned Frogs and Wildcats are front and center for the final winners and losers of the regular season:
No. 2 Michigan will sail into the playoff as the second seed after taking apart Purdue in the Big Ten championship game. Without running back Blake Corum, out for the rest of the year with an injury, the Wolverines leaned on Donovan Edwards, who ran for 185 yards and a score after setting a new career high with 216 yards in the win against No. 5 Ohio State. The 43-22 win also included a solid but not spectacular game from J.J. McCarthy: 11 completions in 17 throws for 161 yards and three touchdowns. Back-to-back Big Ten champions for the first time since 2003-04, Michigan has entered a new stratosphere under coach Jim Harbaugh and must be seen as Georgia's biggest threat for the national championship.
The Wildcats' first conference championship since 2013 sets the table for even bigger success in the future under coach Chris Klieman. Sparked by quarterback Will Howard, who went unbeaten as the starter after replacing Adrian Martinez in November, Kansas State will finish in the top seven or eight in the playoff rankings after avenging this year's earlier loss to TCU. In the end, the Wildcats were held out of the playoff debate due to the 17-10 loss to No. 18 Tulane during non-conference play.
The Green Wave are headed to the Cotton Bowl after beating No. 23 Central Florida 45-28 to complete a remarkable turnaround and win the American Athletic. After winning just two games in 2021, Tulane lost just twice during the regular season: by a field goal to Southern Mississippi and a touchdown to UCF. In addition to beating the Kansas State and Knights, the Green Wave added wins another five bowl teams in Houston, East Carolina, Memphis, SMU and Cincinnati. This success made coach Willie Fritz one of the top contenders for the Georgia Tech job, which eventually went to interim coach Brent Key. Keeping Fritz on the sidelines is a huge win for Tulane.
In another year, Troy might've been the Group of Five's representative in the New Year's Six. The Trojans will settle for one of the best years during the program's Bowl Subdivision existence after romping over Coastal Carolina 45-26 for the Sun Belt championship. While Troy had shared the conference crown in 2010 and 2017, this is the Trojans' first outright since the 2009 team ran the table in league play. At 11-2, Troy should make the back end of the final playoff rankings and be the second-best team in the Group of Five behind Tulane.
New Mexico State
Bowl eligible before Saturday thanks to an NCAA waiver granted earlier this week, the Aggies completed an impressive six-win finish under new coach Jerry Kill by beating Valparaiso 65-3 in a rescheduled season finale. Bowl games are rare: New Mexico State has played in just four, most recently winning the 2017 Arizona Bowl. So are six-win seasons, something the Aggies have now done just six times since 1968.
All of the intrigue surrounding the SEC championship game was erased by the Tigers' loss last Saturday to Texas A&M, leaving No. 1 Georgia entrenched in the playoff win or lose and LSU competing for the New Year's Six, not the top four. Playing for seeding and the chance to avoid another loss in the championship game, the Bulldogs stepped out to a 35-7 lead in the second quarter and strolled to a 50-30 win. The program's second SEC crown under Kirby Smart will leave Georgia as the playoff's top seed and hold LSU out of one of the major bowls, likely sending the Tigers to the Citrus Bowl.
Once on the fringes of the playoff race at 9-1, North Carolina will trip and fall into the postseason on a three-game losing streak, the last a 39-10 decision against No. 11 Clemson in the ACC championship game. Back in the game for the first time since 2015, another loss to the Tigers, the Tar Heels haven't won the ACC since 1980. Beyond sending Clemson back to the New Year's Six, the game was notable for Dabo Swinney's quarterback change from a struggling DJ Uiagalelei to true freshman Cade Klubnik. Stepping for Uiagalelei after just five pass attempts, Klubnik completed 20 of 24 attempts for 279 yards and had two touchdowns, one on the ground. UNC redshirt freshman Drake Maye tossed two interceptions, giving him four against a single touchdown during this three-game losing streak.
Klubnik was so in control, actually, that it raises the question of whether Swinney's quarterback change came one week too late. If he was under center against South Carolina, does Klubnik mean the difference in a one-point loss? And if the Tigers beat the Gamecocks, are they in the playoff instead of Ohio State? The move to Klubnik paced Clemson's ACC championship and sets the table for a return to more consistent quarterback play next season. But the Tigers could've used Klubnik before Saturday.
The Broncos' conference-championship dry spell hits three years after losing 28-16 to Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game. That marks a very disheartening finish to a regular season salvaged by seven wins in eight games after a rough start in September. On the heels of a strong run as the Broncos' starter after taking over in October, quarterback Taylen Green completed just 17 of 38 throws for 175 yards and two interceptions as Boise State ignored a running game that averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Fresno State wasn't any better at 245 yards of offense, but the Bulldogs scored on a punt return in the first quarter and had an 87-yard touchdown drive in the fourth to put the game away.
The best team in the MAC since the start of conference play in October, the Bobcats were unable to survive the absence of quarterback Kurtis Rourke and lost 17-7 to Toledo in the conference's championship game. Out since late November with a season-ending injury, Rourke led the MAC in every important category: completion percentage, yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and efficiency rating. His replacement, CJ Harris, managed 163 yards and an interception as the Rockets claimed a second conference championship under coach Jason Candle. The long dry spell continues for Ohio, which has won five division crowns since 2006 but hasn't won the MAC since 1968.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football winners and losers: TCU, LSU headline Week 14 list