A guide to USC-UCLA, Georgia-Kentucky and the rest of Week 12’s best games
It’s the penultimate week of college football’s regular season and the Pac-12 takes center stage.
The Battle for L.A. between USC and UCLA has been anticipated all season. If the conference wants to have any College Football Playoff hope, the Trojans will have to beat the Bruins on Saturday, then defeat Notre Dame and win the conference title game. Despite a UCLA loss to Arizona last week, the Bruins would love nothing more than keeping their crosstown rival out of the playoff.
Oregon and Utah will also meet with Pac-12 championship game hopes on the line. After the Ducks and Utes played in last season’s conference title game, a loss for either team will eliminate them from this year’s championship.
Elsewhere, three of the top four teams in the CFP rankings have tests that could shake up the playoff picture ahead of the last week of the regular season. Georgia heads to Kentucky looking to defend its No. 1 ranking while TCU travels to Baylor in one of the Big 12’s fiercest rivalries. And Michigan hosts upstart Illinois, which despite a loss last week is experiencing one of its best seasons in recent memory.
These are the top storylines head into Week 12.
No. 7 USC (9-1) at No. 16 UCLA (8-2) (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox)
What could have been the first top-10 matchup between USC and UCLA since Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete were under center in 1988 will now have to settle for something a little less flashy: a battle between the No. 7 Trojans and No. 16 Bruins after Arizona upset UCLA last week.
With two of the top offenses in the country getting to tee off against two defenses that have been inconsistent, at best, there will be plenty of points and plenty still on the line for both teams. A win gets USC into the Pac-12 championship and keeps the Trojans’ College Football Playoff hopes alive; a win for UCLA means it still has a shot at the Pac-12 title.
“When both teams are good and there are a lot of opportunities ahead for both teams, it makes it way, way better,” USC coach Lincoln Riley, who will make his first appearance in the rivalry, said this week.
On Tuesday, he added: “We’re not doing anything honestly too specific with this rivalry and that’s not to discount it in any way. I think we’ve acknowledged that this game in some ways is going to feel different.”
If the Trojans, with over 40 transfers who haven’t had a taste of the crosstown matchup, are taking a more straightforward approach to Saturday’s game, then UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson — who Riley remembers facing at Oklahoma when Kyler Murray was his quarterback — is doing the opposite and not mincing any words when it comes to USC.
“Obviously we hate those guys across town,” he said on Monday.
This will be DTR’s fifth rivalry game against USC since arriving in Westwood, the fourth one he has starred in.
Though the Bruins’ train has slowed a bit in the past few weeks, Thompson-Robinson’s rampant goodbye tour through the Pac-12 hasn’t lost steam. He has been vocal about what teams he wanted to beat in his last season with the Bruins and has said he remembers when USC last beat UCLA at the Rose Bowl and players “cursed” at them and “flipped them off.” It’s part of why, as he put it, he wants to score 60 again like he did last season in a dazzling, six-touchdown performance.
Most USC players said Tuesday they hadn’t seen Thompson-Robinson’s comments, or given them any thought. But when informed of the quarterback’s goal to score 60 points again on the Trojans, defensive back Calen Bullock chuckled and said. “I know that’s not gonna happen.”
Whether it’s a fifth-year senior who grew up watching the L.A. rivalry and is now playing it for the last time, or a brand-new coach or transfer who is trying to treat the matchup like just another game, come Saturday, the motivation to win will be the same. — Paolo Uggetti
No. 10 Utah (8-2) at No. 12 Oregon (8-2) (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app)
A week after squandering its playoff hopes following a heartbreaking loss to rival Washington at home, Oregon will try to recover with an arguably tougher matchup. The No. 12 Ducks welcome the No. 10 Utes, who have two losses (by a combined 13 points) but are playing some of their best football the past few weeks.
Much was said about Dan Lanning’s decision to go for a fourth down late in the game with Bo Nix on the sideline (even Lanning said this week he wishes he would have called a timeout), but the real Achilles’ heel for the Ducks’ last game was their struggling defense, which has given up an average of 34 points to ranked opponents this season. Against the Utes — whose offense might not be as explosive as Washington’s but has been plenty effective — that will once again be the challenge.
The X factor of that Utes offense will likely be tight end Dalton Kincaid, who torched the inconsistent USC defense but missed the game against Arizona two weeks ago after suffering a shoulder injury against Washington State. Kincaid (who is averaging 13 yards per catch) played a limited amount of snaps against Stanford last week and his status for this week’s matchup is still in flux.
“He’s still not 100 percent, there’s some soreness,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But he’s a lot further ahead today than he was last Monday.”
Whittingham also heaped praise on Nix, who, despite the loss last Saturday, still had three touchdowns and completed 70% of his pass attempts. Nix still has a shot at perhaps jumping back into the Heisman conversation with another big game, especially if Oregon wins out. And the Ducks need to.
Much like both L.A. schools playing on a big Saturday for the Pac-12, both Oregon and Utah are still in contention for the Pac-12 championship and subsequently, the Rose Bowl. The team on the losing end will have to wave goodbye to both. — Uggetti
No. 1 Georgia (10-0) at Kentucky (6-4) (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
It wasn’t too long ago that this game looked like it could be one of Georgia’s most daunting challenges in getting through the regular season unbeaten.
That was before Kentucky quarterback Will Levis was injured, before it became apparent that Kentucky simply couldn’t protect Levis and before Levis saw his struggles go from bad to worse.
Georgia, 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, is second nationally in scoring defense, allowing 11.6 points per game. The Dawgs have allowed just nine touchdowns on defense, and three of those came in the fourth quarter when the outcome was all but decided. Kentucky, meanwhile, has scored more than 21 points on offense against an SEC opponent only once — a 27-17 win over Mississippi State. In the Wildcats’ past three games, they’ve managed a total of five touchdowns.
In other words, this one looks like a mismatch, at least on paper, especially with Kentucky limping into the game having lost to Vanderbilt 24-21 last week at home. The Commodores had lost 26 straight SEC games before knocking off the Wildcats.
“Not enough hype. Not enough juice. We talked about it among us all week, and we did not buy into it,” Levis said following the Vanderbilt loss.
Kentucky was ranked No. 20 in the AP preseason poll, and expectations were soaring after the Wildcats won 10 games a year ago. And while the defense has played well enough in most games to give them a chance to win, the offense has been particularly sloppy in the red zone (ranked 99th nationally) and stopped itself repeatedly with sacks, penalties and turnovers.
“We’re moving the ball and doing good things, but we’re not getting into the end zone,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “One of the downsides is that we’ve had explosive [plays], but they’re not scoring all the time. Chunk plays are great, but when chunk plays get tackled on the 25 instead of scoring, it’s hard.”
The Wildcats’ red zone woes figure to get more difficult against a Georgia defense that has given up an FBS-best six touchdowns in the red zone all season.
So much has been made of the Georgia defense, and with good reason. But lost in what the Dawgs have done in winning 25 consecutive regular-season games vs. Kentucky going back to the end of the 2000 season is how efficient they’ve been on offense. They’re tied for sixth nationally in scoring offense (40.6 points per game) and are third nationally in total offense (509.6 yards per game). — Chris Low
Illinois (7-3) at No. 3 Michigan (10-0) (Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN app)
Illinois got off to a hot start, going 7-1 before dropping its past two games against Michigan State and Purdue. A big part of the team’s success has come from running back Chase Brown, who leads all FBS running backs with 1,442 yards.
He is averaging 5.15 yards per carry and has seven rushing touchdowns on the season. Unfortunately for Illinois, Brown went down with an injury in the last game against Purdue. He hasn’t been ruled out against Michigan, but his status is still in doubt.
“Josh McCray, Chase Brown … both those guys are trending in the right direction,” coach Bret Bielema said. “Very positive and excited, but don’t know where we’ll be by Friday for the trip and Saturday for the game.”
Michigan’s defense already ranks No. 1 in rush yards allowed per game, giving up only 72.7 yards. The team is No. 3 in yards allowed per rush and No. 3 in rushing touchdowns allowed, giving up only three touchdowns on the ground.
That will make the challenge of playing 10-0 Michigan, ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, even more difficult if Brown isn’t able to play.
“Our run wall has been very good, it’s going to be tested this week probably like none other up to this point,” Jim Harbaugh said. “So, Illinois is very strong at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Outstanding, outstanding run scheme, outstanding running back. So, it’ll be a real challenge and a task for our team this year.”
This is an important game for the Wolverines to remain undefeated and give the team a chance to take on Ohio State to finish out the season for another berth in the Big Ten championship game and the playoff.
Michigan isn’t without injuries, either, as defensive end Mike Morris was injured in the most recent game against Nebraska. Morris went on the Inside Michigan Football radio show and said he’s feeling great and that he tweaked his leg in the game.
“I feel like I’ll be all right,” Morris said. “Our trainers are working very hard. I was in there getting treatment for like four hours this morning, so I’ll be fine. I’m in great hands, it’s all in God’s plan.” — Tom VanHaaren
No. 4 TCU (10-0) at Baylor (6-4) (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
TCU had established itself as a second-half defense, transforming from leaky to lockdown in several Big 12 wins. But it wasn’t enough.
Two weeks ago, defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie told the group that if they wanted to achieve their biggest goals, they needed to deliver “a full 60.”
“I knew we had the potential,” Gillespie told ESPN. “I just didn’t know where it was going to happen, or if it was going to happen. That was as complete a four-quarter defensive [performance] that we’ve played up until this point. And it’s good timing.
“Now the deal is, you’ve got to keep doing it. You’ve got a big target on your chest, and that’s a good thing.”
Gillespie referred to TCU’s defensive masterpiece in last week’s win at Texas, which didn’t score an offensive touchdown and finished with only 28 net rush yards, while averaging 3.3 yards per offensive play. TCU’s defensive stars shined: cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, linebacker Johnny Hodges, safety Mark Perry and others.
The Frogs silenced Texas and any remaining doubters about their College Football Playoff candidacy. But their quest continues, again on the road, this time against the defending Big 12 champions in Baylor.
Gillespie has seen significant growth from TCU’s defensive line, which entered the season as his biggest concern. The front three will be stressed by a Baylor offense that, until last week against Kansas State, had run the ball well with freshman Richard Reese and others.
“You’re talking about three hands in the grass, and that’s it,” said Gillespie, who uses the increasingly popular 3-3-5 alignment. “We’re asking them to take on roles and do some things that aren’t so pretty sometimes. It’s easier to fall in love with it when you see production, but just the way they’ve embraced the approach, it’s a very selfless attitude.
“And those guys make a lot of dadgum plays.”
Baylor comes off of its worst offensive performance since 2020, recording season lows in points (3) and rushing yards (103). Coach Dave Aranda remains fully confident in quarterback Blake Shapen, who had two interceptions against Kansas State, while “pressing” and struggling with his footwork.
“He can be a dual threat, there’s a lot of scramble stuff,” Gillespie said of Shapen. “They’ve got three running backs, they’re going to keep fresh legs, they’re going to hit you on the perimeter, and then you’ve got an entire offensive line that has been playing together for a minute. This is a unit that works very well together, they understand each other.”
Gillespie entered the season not really knowing what TCU’s defense could become. The Frogs were implementing a new scheme and feeling out how offenses would attack them. After stringing together quarters, halves and finally a full game, TCU is primed to continue its quest for an improbable CFP spot.
“You’ve seen just about every blocking scheme, we’ve had just about every adjustment,” Gillespie said. “So they’ve gotten mature. There was some patience in knowing, ‘If we could put both [halves] together, we could be a pretty good squad.’ Fortunately, it started happening the other night. Certainly that’s got to be something we build off of.” — Adam Rittenberg
Clinching scenarios for Week 12
• Clemson and North Carolina have both clinched spots in the ACC championship game.
• TCU has clinched a spot in the Big 12 championship game. The Horned Frogs are making their second appearance in the Big 12 title game. They lost in 2017 to Oklahoma.
• Kansas State clinches a spot in the Big 12 championship game with a win at West Virginia and a Texas loss at Kansas. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 17% chance the Wildcats clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• USC clinches a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a win at UCLA. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 61% chance the Trojans clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• Utah clinches a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a win and UCLA loss. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 32% chance the Utes clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• Oregon clinches a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a win vs. Utah and a Washington loss to Colorado. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 2% chance the Ducks clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• Georgia and LSU have both clinched spots in the SEC championship game. They are meeting in the SEC championship game for a fifth time, the second most by any pair of teams in any conference championship in FBS history. Alabama and Florida have met 10 times in the SEC title game.
Georgia has an 84% chance to win the SEC championship game according to ESPN Analytics.
Group of 5
• UCF clinches a spot in the American championship game with a win vs. Navy and loss by Houston at East Carolina. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 61% chance the Knights clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• The second spot in the championship game can not be clinched until Week 13.
• UTSA clinches with a win at Rice or Florida Atlantic loss at Middle Tennessee. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 90% chance the Roadrunners clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• The second spot in the championship game can not be clinched until Week 13.
• Toledo has clinched the West, its seventh appearance in the MAC championship game. That is the second-most by any team, trailing only Northern Illinois (nine).
• Ohio clinches the East with a win at Ball State and Bowling Green loss at Toledo. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 52% chance the Bobcats clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• Fresno State clinches the West Division with a win at Nevada or losses by San Jose State (at Utah State) and San Diego State (at New Mexico). According to ESPN Analytics, there’s an 84% chance the Bulldogs clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• Boise State clinches the Mountain Division with a win at Wyoming. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 79% chance the Broncos clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
• Coastal Carolina has clinched the East. This is Coastal Carolina’s first appearance in the Sun Belt championship game.
• Troy clinches the West with a win vs. UL Monroe and South Alabama loss at Southern Miss. According to ESPN Analytics, there’s a 32% chance the Trojans clinch a spot in the championship game this week.
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