Mandel’s Final Thoughts: Iron Bowl delivers drama, but 2023’s chaos near-misses continue

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And now, 20 Final Thoughts from Week 13, aka Rivalry Week, in which the only thing lower than Black Friday prices was the 13-10 score of the Iowa-Nebraska Black Friday game.

1. This Thanksgiving weekend, I feel particularly grateful to the Iron Bowl for its never-ending supply of incredible football memories. I will never forget watching on my phone — while aimlessly wandering around a parking lot across from Michigan Stadium looking for my rental car in the freezing cold — when Alabama’s Jalen Milroe launched his seemingly impossible fourth-and-forever touchdown pass to Isaiah Bond.

2. While lacking the do-or-die stakes of Auburn’s Kick Six a decade earlier, Milroe’s pass will go down as one of the rivalry’s all-time wildest endings. Auburn, a week removed from getting trounced at home by New Mexico State, was up 24-20 and seconds away from ruining its rival’s season after Alabama lost yardage on three consecutive goal-to-go plays. All the Tigers had to do was prevent the Tide from converting a fourth-and-goal from the 31-yard line.

Instead, Bond escaped Auburn cornerback D.J. James in the back corner of the end zone.

No. 8 Alabama (11-1, 8-0 SEC) keeps its Playoff hopes alive, though getting there will require ending No. 1 Georgia’s 29-game win streak next week in Atlanta. For Auburn (6-6, 2-6), the first regular season under Hugh Freeze ends in devastating fashion. But that’s the Iron Bowl. Sometimes you kick the other guy in the stomach, other times he punches you in the face.

3. My main takeaway from covering Michigan’s latest win over Ohio State? Someone should make Sherrone Moore their head coach.

The 37-year-old offensive coordinator, now 4-0 this year when filling in for a suspended Jim Harbaugh, has made the most of his moment in the spotlight. Two weeks ago, he ran the ball 30 consecutive times against Penn State, then capped it off with an impassioned, teary-eyed postgame interview. And No. 3 Michigan’s 30-24 win over second-ranked Ohio State on Saturday was defined by Moore’s aggressive play calls and fourth-down decisions.

4. Michigan is now 26-1 in Big Ten play since 2021. I’m sure there will be strong opinions as to what effect, if any, its alleged elaborate in-person scouting ring contributed to that record. What’s indisputable is that they’ve done it with a core group of seniors — running back Blake Corum, receiver Roman Wilson, nearly the entire O-line, defensive back Mike Sainristil, linebacker Michael Barrett and more — who completely remade that program. This season feels like the Wolverines’ best opportunity in a quarter-century to win a national championship before all those seniors, and possibly Harbaugh himself, depart.

5. Conversely, Ohio’s State’s Ryan Day is facing a Michigan-induced identity crisis. In an effort to become “tougher,” the Buckeyes pivoted from the high-flying passing attacks of Dwayne Haskins/Justin Fields/C.J. Stroud to a more blue-collar, defense-first operation, only for the season to end with the same result. The Buckeyes notched a couple of hard-earned wins over Notre Dame and Penn State, but ultimately, it’s another unsatisfying 11-win season for Ohio State fans, whose team will now slink off to the Orange Bowl and a likely date with 10-2 Louisville.

The best news for Day is that the 12-team Playoff debuts next year. Presumably, Ohio State will be a regular. That will give the fan base a wider array of goals by which to define themselves other than, “Did we beat Michigan this year?”

6. This season continues to defy history in its unusual aversion to chaos. Even without star quarterback Jordan Travis, even after falling behind 12-0 in the first half, and even though Travis’ replacement Tate Rodemaker had to briefly leave the game, No. 5 Florida State (12-0, 8-0 ACC) beat five-win rival Florida 24-15 at the Swamp to keep its CFP hopes alive. Travis or no Travis, the committee is not going to leave out an undefeated Power 5 team. All that’s left to do for the Seminoles is to win next week’s conference championship game against No. 10 Louisville (10-2, 7-1 ACC), itself a rare upset victim Saturday, falling 38-31 to Kentucky.

7. The last-ever Pac-12 championship game will be by far the biggest in the 13 years of that event. No. 4 Washington (12-0, 9-0 Pac-12), which completed the league’s first unbeaten regular season in 13 years with a walk-off field goal to win the Apple Cup, faces a rematch with No. 6 Oregon (11-1, 8-1), which has been absolutely dominant since losing an Oct. 14 heartbreaker in Seattle. The winner almost certainly goes to the CFP, which would itself end a seven-year drought for the conference. Again, too little, too late.

Also: That Friday night showdown in Las Vegas will likely determine who wins the Heisman Trophy.

8. That race is down to two candidates. In one corner, we have Oregon’s Bo Nix, who went 33 of 40 for 367 yards in the Ducks’ 31-7 rout of 16th-ranked Oregon State (8-4, 5-4). Nix has thrown for 3,906 yards, 37 touchdowns and just two interceptions while currently on pace to break the FBS completion percentage record (78.2). And he has the benefit of a huge championship weekend spotlight opportunity.

In the other corner, we have LSU’s Jayden Daniels, the nation’s top-rated passer, who just completed a spectacular, Johnny Manziel-esque dual-threat season: 3,812 yards passing, 1,134 yards rushing, 50 total touchdowns, just 4 interceptions. On Saturday against Texas A&M (7-5, 4-4), he rallied his 14th-ranked team from a 24-14 deficit to win 42-30. The only problem: Daniels’ defensively inept team lost its three biggest games of the season (Florida State, Ole Miss and Alabama) and thus will not be playing on the final weekend.

The way I see it, if Nix beats 12-0 Washington, that last impression will put him over the top. But his Huskies counterpart Michael Penix Jr. has been too inconsistent down the stretch to win the thing himself. If Penix tops Nix, the award likely goes to Daniels.

9. One longshot possibility: Voters have an 11th-hour epiphany and give the award to Penix’s teammate, Rome Odunze. The 1,326-yard receiver has been Washington’s most valuable player all season, but never more so than on one crucial play call in Saturday’s Apple Cup. Facing fourth-and-1 in his own territory late in a tied game, Kalen DeBoer opted to go for it, a potentially fatal decision if the Huskies didn’t get it. But they had the perfect play call drawn up. Penix faked a handoff, twisted his body around and tossed to Odunze on a sweep that caught Washington State flat-footed.

Ohio State star Marvin Harrison Jr. will likely win the Biletnikoff Award, but Odunze has been just as productive, and just as valuable.

10. As of now, the Big 12 would be the conference squeezed out of the Playoff, much to the chagrin of Texas fans. Steve Sarkisian’s seventh-ranked Longhorns (11-1, 8-1 Big 12) reached 11 wins for the first time since 2009 with Friday’s 57-7 rout of Texas Tech (6-6, 5-4). In almost any other year, their resume would be Playoff-worthy, with a road win over Alabama and their only loss coming to a 10-win Oklahoma team. Unfortunately, though, the Big 12 is so down that Texas will face a 9-3 Oklahoma State team that barely cracked the committee’s top 20 last week. It’s not the best opportunity for a closing statement.

Yet you could make a perfectly reasonable case that Texas should be higher than Florida State or Oregon, who go into next weekend with just one Top 25 win apiece. The 2023 ‘Horns boast the program’s best offensive and defensive lines in recent memory and offensive weapons galore. It’s just crowded this year! If nothing else, though, Texas can win its first conference championship since the Colt McCoy era.

11. Mike Gundy’s Cowboys reached their second Big 12 title game in three seasons after a roller-coaster regular season with an entirely on-brand ending. They trailed five-win BYU 24-6 at halftime in Stillwater before storming back to win 40-34 in double overtime. Star running back Ollie Gordon II ran 34 times for 166 yards and a season-high five touchdowns. Oklahoma State’s Nov. 4 win over Oklahoma gave it the tiebreaker for the right to face Texas next week.

12. No. 9 Missouri is unofficially New Year’s Six-bound after reaching win No. 10 by pounding 4-8 Arkansas 48-14 on Friday. Tigers running back Cody Schrader, the former walk-on transfer from Truman State who will likely finish the year as the SEC’s leading rusher (1,489 yards, 13 TDs), ran 27 times for a career-high 217 yards and a touchdown against the Razorbacks. “Let’s start talking about putting him up for the Heisman for the best player in the country,” Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz said in his postgame interview. It’s probably a little too late for that, but how about the Doak Walker Award?

13. No. 12 Ole Miss (10-2, 6-2 SEC) had never won 10 games in the regular season prior to Lane Kiffin’s arrival, but the Rebels have now done it twice in three seasons. Their 17-7 Egg Bowl win Thursday night felt somewhat anticlimactic given that Mississippi State (5-7, 1-7) had already fired coach Zach Arnett. The glass-half-full take on Ole Miss’ season starts with the fact it beat current Top 25 teams Tulane and LSU. But someone who’s not as fond of the polarizing Kiffin would note that the Rebels lost 24-10 to Alabama and 52-17 to Georgia.

Kiffin’s team needs to move up at least one spot to reach a New Year’s Six bowl. As of last week, it was getting boxed out by Penn State (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten), which closed out what felt like an empty-calorie 10-win season with Friday’s 42-0 rout of Michigan State (4-8, 2-7).

14. After starting 4-3, No. 22 NC State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) rolled off five consecutive wins, culminating in what was surely a highly satisfying 39-20 rout of rival North Carolina (8-4, 4-4), the Wolfpack’s third win in a row over Mack Brown’s Tar Heels. Former Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong, whom coach Dave Doeren benched earlier in the season, had his best game in at least two years, going 22 of 31 for 334 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Doeren has reached the nine-win mark four times since 2017, but a bowl win would give him 10 for the first time in his 11-year tenure.

Brown, who recently announced he’d be returning next season, has some evaluating to do after North Carolina lost four of its last six.

15. West Virginia’s Neal Brown entered the season atop every coaching hot seat list, and his team was picked to finish dead-last in the 14-team Big 12. On Saturday, Mountaineers quarterback Garrett Greene threw a 29-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left to beat Baylor 34-31, completing an eight-win regular season for his team. At 6-3 in Big 12 play, West Virginia finished tied for fourth in the conference along with defending champ Kansas State and another surprise team, 7-5 Iowa State, which beat the Wildcats 42-35 in snowy Manhattan. Both Brown and Matt Campbell should expect new contracts.

16. Sad to say, Saturday night’s Cal-UCLA game was likely the last-ever #Pac12AfterDark game. It did not go well for Chip Kelly. A week after getting back in Bruins fans’ good graces by beating up on Lincoln Riley, UCLA (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) fell 33-7 to a 5-6 Cal team. After quarterback Ethan Garbers got hurt, Kelly had to place a bullpen call to freshman Dante Moore, who lost his job after throwing six picks in his first three Pac-12 starts and threw two more Saturday night. Now, AD Martin Jarmond has to decide whether he still has confidence in Kelly, who has gone exactly .500 (34-34) in his six seasons in Westwood, to lead the program into the Big Ten.

Cal’s surprise bowl eligibility was a nice milestone for Justin Wilcox following three consecutive losing seasons. His program has more cause for optimism right now than Bay Area rival Stanford, which finished 3-9 for a third consecutive season.

17. Matt Rhule’s first season at Nebraska looked uncannily similar to most of the Scott Frost era. The Huskers (5-7, 3-6 Big Ten) lost their last four games, all by one score, extending their Power 5-worst bowl drought to a seventh year. Since 2021, Nebraska is a nausea-inducing 3-18 in one-score games. Friday’s 13-10 loss to Iowa (10-2, 7-2) typified those games. Quarterback Chubba Purdy had a last-minute chance to drive Nebraska for the win but instead threw an interception to the Hawkeyes, which set up a game-winning field goal.

Rhule was hired in large part because of his track record of turnarounds at Temple and Baylor. To kick-start this one, he needs to land a confidence-inspiring quarterback in the portal this offseason.

18. This year’s Group of 5 rep in a New Year’s Six Bowl (either the Peach or Fiesta) will likely be the winner of next week’s SMU-Tulane AAC championship game in New Orleans. No. 23 Tulane (11-1, 8-0 AAC), which upset USC in last year’s Cotton Bowl, is now 23-3 since last season, a remarkable feat for coach Willie Fritz’s program. SMU (10-2, 8-0), which throttled Navy 59-14 on Saturday, has been more dominant than the Green Wave in conference play. Unfortunately, though, standout Mustang quarterback Preston Stone left in the second quarter Saturday with an ankle injury and may not be available next week for SMU’s biggest game in decades.

19. One other Group of 5 contender: No. 25 Liberty, which completed a 12-0 regular season with a 42-28 win at 3-9 UTEP. First-year coach Jamey Chadwell, whom Liberty hired away from Coastal Carolina last year, will lead his team against 10-3 New Mexico State in next week’s Conference USA title game. Obviously, the Flames need Tulane to lose to have a shot at the NY6 invite, but even then, its FBS-worst schedule strength may prevent it from finishing above an 11-2 SMU team.

20. Finally … poor Oregon State fans. First their conference blew up, leaving them as one of just two schools without a soft landing. Then on Saturday, less than 24 hours after losing to Oregon, head coach Jonathan Smith — the quarterback of the Beavers’ 2000 Fiesta Bowl team — left to take the job at Michigan State. Perhaps it was never realistic they’d hold on to Smith even if the Pac-12 held together, but the timing of this one was particularly hard. Beavers players are now free to enter the transfer portal, and it could get ugly, given the program hasn’t yet finalized who they’re going to play against next season, much less who will be coaching them.

But Michigan State got a good one in Smith, who rescued Oregon State from the ashes and won 10 games last season. It’s that time of year. By next Sunday, schools will fire and hire coaches, championships will have been won, the Playoff field will be set and the transfer portal will open for business.

This sport always manages to pack a year into 14 weeks.

(Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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