On a day filled with close calls in college football, it was No. 5 Tennessee that suffered the biggest upset of the day, a 63-38 shellacking by unranked South Carolina.
The Volunteers had no answer for Spencer Rattler, whose six passing touchdowns nearly doubled his previous season’s total of eight heading into the game. He completed 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards in the game of his life, and Tennessee’s offense simply could not keep up.
Speaking of which, the Volunteers lost more than the game Saturday. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, the driving force behind Josh Heupel’s high-octane offense, left the game late in the fourth quarter with a non-contact injuryapparently to his knee.
That certainly hurts, probably even more than the Vols’ dashed hopes of making the College Football Playoff. No two-loss team has ever made the Playoff, and Heupel and Co. won’t even have a chance to make a case on conference championship weekend.
Tennessee’s loss was a victory for several other teams, however. Here’s what the Volunteers’ defeat means for the top of the rankings heading into the final week of the regular season (rankings reflect Week 12 College Football Playoff top 25):
Previous rank: 1
The Bulldogs wrapped up their SEC schedule Saturday with a ho-hum 16-6 victory over Kentucky. Georgia won’t be affected in the latest rankings, but Kirby Smart and Co. now know they won’t have a rematch against Tennessee in the Peach Bowl (assuming they beat Georgia Tech and LSU over the next two weeks).
Ohio State (11-0)
Previous rank: 2
Ohio State got all it could handle from Maryland, winning 43-30 in a game that was a lot closer than the score indicated. Regardless, Tennessee’s loss won’t affect the Buckeyes in the latest set of rankings. The only thing they should be worried about is a visit from No. 3 Michigan for “The Game.”
Previous rank: 3
Likewise, Michigan needn’t concern itself with anything but the Buckeyes. The Wolverines haven’t won in Columbus since 2000, which was also the last time Michigan won consecutive games in the rivalry.
That said, Tennessee’s loss opens the possibility that the loser of “The Game” could make the Playoff as a one-loss non-champion, depending on how close the score is. That favors Ohio State more than Michigan considering the Wolverines’ poor non-conference schedule.
Previous rank: 4
TCU needed a last-second field goal to beat Baylor and remain undefeated. There existed the possibility that the optics of that close victory would allow the committee to drop the Horned Frogs in favor of Tennessee. No more.
The question now is, can TCU afford to lose a game and still get in as a one-loss Big 12 champion? That would put it on similar ground with potential Power 5 champions Clemson and USC. Either way, TCU will stay at No. 4 this week and potentially move to No. 3 after the conclusion of “The Game” next week.
Previous rank: 5
Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina, especially in blowout fashion, precludes the Volunteers from making the Playoff. But there’s still plenty left to play for, including a New Year’s Day 6 Bowl berth.
Depending on the outcome of the Georgia-LSU SEC championship game, Tennessee could finish the season as the second-highest-ranked team from the conference, which would move it to the Sugar Bowl vs. TCU or Kansas State. If LSU somehow remains ranked ahead of the Vols, then the latter would more than likely go to the Orange Bowl, with a game against Clemson or North Carolina.
Previous rank: 6
Could LSU become the first two-loss team to make the Playoff? The Vols’ loss opens up the possibility for LSU to move up to No. 5 in Week 13, move up to No. 4 ahead of Ohio State or Michigan, and then move up again with a win over top-ranked Georgia in the SEC championship game.
It would be hard to keep Brian Kelly and Co. out of the playoff at that point — impossible, likely. The Tigers all of a sudden have a Lot to play for in the final two weeks before bowl season.
Previous rank: 7
The Trojans still need to beat UCLA, but assuming they do that, then they likely move up to No. 6 in the Week 14 CFP rankings. That sets USC up, with games vs. No. 18 Notre Dame in Rivalry Week and no. 10 Utah or No. 12 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, to make a late Playoff statement.
USC would prefer Utah in the conference championship game. A win over the Utes would avenge the team’s only loss so far this season.
Previous rank: 8
The Crimson Tide enjoyed a little schadenfreude with Tennessee’s loss, but the Vols do affect Alabama’s bowl berth moving forward. Had Georgia and Tennessee both made the Playoff, then Alabama could have been the SEC’s representative in the Sugar Bowl as its highest-ranked non-Playoff team.
But Tennessee’s loss likely ensures Alabama won’t be the SEC’s second-highest-ranked team (thanks to the Vols’ 52-49 victory over Alabama earlier this year). Alabama then could have a berth in the Orange Bowl, considering Michigan or Ohio State will head to the Rose Bowl.
Other options include the Cotton Bowl, which at this point could feature Alabama vs. old Southeastern Conference foe Tulane, which will be the highest-ranked Group of 5 team in Week 13.
Previous rank: 9
The Tigers all of a sudden have life in the Playoff race following a 40-10 victory over Miami on Saturday. Clemson even gets the opportunity to take on South Carolina — the team that took down the Vols — during Rivalry Week, which certainly couldn’t hurt the team’s chances.
Following that, Clemson has a meeting in Charlotte, NC, with North Carolina for the ACC championship. The Tar Heels suffered a 21-17 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday, hurting Clemson’s strength of schedule in the process.
Clemson might not make the Playoff even with Tennessee’s loss. But the Tigers have a glimmer of hope where before they had none.