The biggest matchup of SoCon Saturday was undoubtedly Ohio State vs. Penn State, with both the Big Ten East and a potential playoff bid on the line. Penn State's playoff dreams required beating Ohio State as a 19-point underdog and defeating the winner of Week 14's Wisconsin-Minnesota matchup. Ohio State almost assuredly needed to beat Penn State for a playoff bid too, despite the fact that they were undefeated and had been the most statistically dominant team this season by a wide variety of analytics. An Ohio State loss to Penn State would drop their playoff odds to just 8% according to 538's playoff predictor.
Through the first drive of the second half, Ohio State looked like it might cruise to an easy win over the overmatched Nittany Lions. Penn State had punted on their five first-half possessions, with three of them as three-and-outs, while Ohio State had created a 21-0 lead after the first drive of the second half. Despite Penn State having a defense that ranked in the top 9% in rushing expected points added (EPA), the Buckeyes had driven 91 yards on all rushing plays for a touchdown on their opening drive. Their second drive seemed to be a touchdown too, until it was determined that Justin Fields had fumbled crossing the goal line. That fumble would be a harbinger of things to come for the criminally unlucky Buckeyes.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out of the game on their next drive with a lower body injury, but backup Will Levis gave the run game enough of a spark to get the Nittany Lions on the board. That was the beginning of a disastrous run for the Buckeyes, as J.K. Dobbins fumbled on their next play, setting up the Nittany Lions for an easy 12-yard touchdown drive. Ohio State's fumbling continued on their next drive as well, giving the Nittany Lions a third scoring opportunity less than 1:30 after their first score of the game. The Buckeyes defense held Penn State to a field goal, but by then Penn State had quickly closed the gap to 21-17. Ohio State would go on to score one more touchdown and then go into energy conservation mode, content with just running out the clock to escape into Michigan Week.
It's difficult to overstate the importance of those three lost fumbles on the game. All either directly took away an Ohio State score or set up drives deep in Ohio State territory (Penn State's scoring drives following those latter fumbles started on the Ohio State 12- and 35-yard lines). Ohio State had a large margin in predicted points added (collegefootballdata.com's equivalent of EPA, PPA), with 0.18 to Penn State's 0.08, but the final outcome doesn't reflect that in the slightest.
But even if the final margin was somewhat skewed by fumble luck (and lack thereof), Penn State nevertheless revealed a few potential deficiencies that Michigan and either Wisconsin or Minnesota will try to exploit over the next few weeks. Despite allowing explosive passing performances to Minnesota's Tanner Morgan and Indiana's Peyton Ramsey in the last two weeks, Ohio State was far more committed to the run than almost anyone expected. The Buckeyes ran on 78% of standard downs and often relied on Fields' legs on passing downs as well. Sometimes this was effective, as in Ryan Day's decision to go for it on two fourth downs for Ohio State's second touchdown of the day. On the first of those fourth-down calls, Fields ran the J.T. Barrett special -- a designed quarterback run up the middle that they hadn't called all season. But it's unlikely that the Buckeyes can continue to rely on Fields' rushing ability against more elite teams. Fields will need to grow as a deep passer, because he often had open receivers but was a little late on multiple would-be touchdown passes.
The other big game of the week was a shocker -- Oregon, right there in contention for that fourth playoff spot, was upset by Arizona State 31-28. It was a low-scoring game until the fourth quarter, when the teams combined for 39 points. The scoring started with Arizona State's Jack Jones intercepting Justin Herbert, setting up the Sun Devils on the Oregon 32-yard line. Freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels then threw a 26-yard touchdown to Frank Darby to give the Sun Devils a two-touchdown lead. Similar to Ohio State, the Ducks turned the ball over for a second time almost immediately, with Khaylan Kearse-Thomas setting up the ASU offense inside the red zone.
Down 17 with just under nine minutes left, Oregon was forced to throw to get back into the game. And to his credit, Herbert responded with two completions for 49 yards and a touchdown on three plays on the next drive, then three passes and 66 yards (all to Johnny Johnson III) for another three-play touchdown drive. These two quick scores put the Ducks down by just a field goal. With five minutes left and up by three, Arizona State faced third-and-16 after a sack on their own 19-yard line. But Brandon Aiyuk took a pass from Daniels 81 yards for a touchdown, extending the Sun Devils' lead back to 10. Despite another touchdown from the Ducks, Arizona State was able to get a final first down and then run out the clock for their huge upset win.
The Ducks have every reason to feel crushed. While they can still win the Pac-12 and go to the Rose Bowl, they have been separated from an undefeated regular season by two close losses: Auburn's last-minute touchdown in Week 1 and Arizona State's interception-aided upset this week. SP+ gave the Ducks a 55% postgame win expectancy against the Sun Devils, and they had an average PPA margin of +0.34 and a success rate margin of over 10%.
While the Oregon loss doesn't really improve Utah's playoff chances, the Utes are still in a relatively good place for a playoff bid, assuming they can beat Oregon (64% probability via SP+) in the Pac-12 Championship Game and Georgia doesn't upset LSU in the SEC Championship Game (which has a 45% chance of happening). Utah's playoff odds are currently sixth-best, sitting at 27% via 538 (for comparison, SP+ has Utah winning out and LSU beating Georgia at roughly 34%).
Speaking of the Bulldogs, they likely had the third-most interesting game of the weekend in their fifth one-score game of the year, a 19-13 win over Texas A&M. November was always going to be tough for the Bulldogs, as they've faced four top-40 SP+ teams and come out undefeated. They locked up the SEC East and now get their second-easiest game of the season in SP+ 103rd-ranked Georgia Tech next week before LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
But the bad news is that the Bulldogs offense still looks lost, despite a few interesting play calling wrinkles this week. Georgia had a negative average PPA and just a 33.8% success rate against the Aggies. Jake Fromm again completed less than 50% of his passes, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt. Lawrence Cager was out of the lineup for the Bulldogs, and only D'Andre Swift (four catches for 29 yards) and George Pickens (two catches for 57 yards) had multiple catches on the day. As we near the end of the season, it is increasingly clear that Georgia's offensive problems don't lie just with the play calling, but also with receiver depth. After Georgia's mass receiver exodus last season, the Bulldogs coaching staff only feels they can trust a handful of receivers, two of whom are true freshmen. Fromm also seems off as well, as he missed several wide open targets early in the game that would have been easy scores. But nevertheless, Georgia marches on with a 10-1 record, able to lean heavily on an elite defense and hope that can be enough to slow down Joe Burrow and the Tigers in two weeks.
- I really can't emphasize enough how Michigan is rounding into form at exactly the right time with Ohio State on deck. After not being able to beat the Buckeyes for the entire Urban Meyer tenure, Michigan will again go into The Game as home underdogs, but Shea Patterson and the Michigan receivers will ensure that this could be the time for an upset. Against Indiana, whose quest for nine wins took a big hit in the 39-13 loss, Patterson created multiple explosive plays for his tall and fast receivers. A prime example was Nico Collins, who ended the day with six catches for 165 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown. The Josh Gattis offense has really rounded into form, as Patterson has become far more effective creating space for a strong receiving corps to work. With a 52.9% passing success rate, nearly 18% of Patterson's throws went for 20 or more yards. Ohio State's elite defensive backfield has yet to face a receiving corps with this much talent.
- Most preseason observers projected Texas to win nine games. F/+ had them as the 32nd-ranked team in the preseason, and SP+ has them at 31st now, just with a few more losses than expected. The latest came at the hands of 10-1 Baylor, 24-10. Baylor sacked Sam Ehlinger five times and picked him off too, holding Ehlinger to 4.8 yards per attempt (sack-adjusted). The Bears are still asking too much of Charlie Brewer, as he nearly equaled the total number of carries (19) of the other five players who had a rush attempt for Baylor. While Brewer wasn't very efficient through the air (39.3% passing success rate), he did connect on a few explosive plays to break the game open.
- Since losing to Kansas State, Oklahoma has won three consecutive games by less than a touchdown. All opponents were top-35 in SP+, but the Sooners' struggles were apparent in their 28-24 win over 5-6 TCU. Jalen Hurts had his worst day as a passer, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt, but added 28 runs for 173 yards to Kennedy Brooks' 25 carries for 149 yards. The dominant rushing attack, along with the defense holding TCU quarterback Max Duggan to a 17% passing success rate, was enough to eke out another win in Big 12 play. The Sooners have Oklahoma State and Baylor left, with about a 51% probability of going undefeated through the regular schedule. If that were to happen, 538 would give the Sooners roughly an 85% probability of making the playoff (and 538's model would have the Sooners over LSU if Georgia upsets the Tigers!).
- Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State. Jayden Daniels looked like a world-beater in the Sun Devils' upset win over Oregon. At 22-of-32 for 402 sack-adjusted passing yards (42.9% success rate), 20% of his throws went for 20-plus yards (which was the eighth-highest rate of the week).
- Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan. Again, Shea Patterson seemed to show what many expected him to be in Michigan's offense, with 360 sack-adjusted passing yards on multiple explosive throws. Receiver Nico Collins deserves the honor as much or more than Patterson, but the former five-star's confidence going into the Ohio State game this week will be at an all-time high.
- Chase Young, DE, Ohio State. Chase Young returned from a two-game suspension well-rested and ready for a difficult three-game stretch against Penn State, Michigan, and the winner of Wisconsin-Minnesota. Young had three sacks and four tackles for loss against the Nittany Lions, breaking the Ohio State season record with at least three games left in the Buckeyes' season. It's not unreasonable to think he could challenge for the FBS record for single season sacks.