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College Football Playoff X-Factors: These nine players must shine
College Football

College Football Playoff X-Factors: These nine players must shine

Updated Nov. 14, 2022 3:59 p.m. ET

And then there were nine.

The College Football Playoff field whittled itself down further in Week 11, as a rash of upsets from the deep South into the upper reaches of the West Coast jumbled the postseason picture even further. That’s simply par for the course this time of year. Teams to remember must win in November. Those that don’t, aren't.

As the days grow shorter, and we tick off the final few weeks of the regular season, who has the chance to make the biggest waves for their teams and notch not just victories, but style points for the CFP Selection Committee?

Week 12 Top 25: Trouble in the Pac-12

RJ Young shares his Top 25 rankings after Week 11, explaining why Oregon’s most recent loss is another example of "Oregoning."

Here are nine X-factors in the chase to be one of the final four, all of which will have a say in whether their team is in or out on Selection Sunday:

Dallan Hayden, RB, Ohio State

The Buckeyes found the end zone eight times against an overmatched Indiana on Saturday, but one of the more noteworthy touchdowns came from 14 yards out on a speedy scamper from a backup tailback. Only that backup — Hayden — is no longer the backup. Instead, he is the lone healthy rushing threat for OSU. Miyan Williams exited against the Hoosiers on crutches with a right leg injury, and TreVeyon Henderson remains in a walking boot until further notice.

Even if both were to return, the backfield is awfully thin as is. That puts even more on the shoulders of the true freshman as the schedule takes Ohio State to its most important games of the year. The former four-star has shown flashes when given carries so far, but he’ll see the workload increase significantly moving forward. Not only that, he’ll have to grind out yards against several pretty good defenses if the Buckeyes are to remain undefeated.

As much as the passing game with C.J. Stroud and Marvin Harrison Jr. get all the press, the team still needs some balance on offense, and it may be solely up to Hayden to provide it moving forward.

Ronnie Bell, WR, Michigan

Bell’s most notable contribution in Week 11 was his wild fourth-quarter catch, run and fumble that wound up being recovered in the end zone for a touchdown against Nebraska. But beyond that, he’s the big play threat that the Wolverines need to step up in their final few games, lest Jim Harbaugh’s offense simply be Blake Corum and a cloud of dust. 

QB J.J. McCarthy has been able to spread the ball around quite effectively so far this season, but it’s those explosive plays with Bell that he’ll need to connect on to get past Illinois and Ohio State the next few weeks — and into the CFP. If the two can’t threaten to make things interesting downfield, then teams will just keep loading the box and making life tough for the real offensive cog that keeps the machine running — Corum.

Caleb Williams, QB, USC

The Trojans defense isn’t great outside of forcing turnovers. The team’s receiving corps has been hit or miss this year. Travis Dye is gone for the season to leave a big hole in the backfield. All of which is to say: it’s on you, Caleb Williams.

The signal-caller is third in the country in touchdown passes but has thrown just two interceptions, so he’s been doing his part so far. Still, the level of competition is about to ramp up with crosstown rivals UCLA, a ranked Notre Dame side, and one of Oregon, Utah and Washington in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 title game coming up. It’s been a turnaround nothing short of a miracle in downtown L.A. since Williams and coach Lincoln Riley arrived, but they’ll need the young quarterback to carry even more of the load when the lights shine the brightest in the next few weeks. 

Caleb Williams for the Heisman Trophy?

Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart discuss what makes USC's quarterback stand out among the nation's best.

Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU

Johnston’s ankle has been the most notable injury that the Horned Frogs have dealt with during their magical run this season, and they’ve managed to survive him not being 100 percent the past few weeks. If TCU wants to get through the regular season unscathed against some tricky defenses the rest of the month, however, Johnston has to be at full speed and making big plays down the field. 

His 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame has led many to draw Calvin Johnson comparisons, and the way he shields defensive backs from the ball makes you understand why he’s lived up to them. Max Duggan doesn’t have a lot of depth in terms of receiving options, so he needs his top target to be a true X-factor in the next couple of games.

Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia

Bowers looked like he was destined to be a Heisman candidate early in the season with the way he was able to find the end zone in various ways. Since then, though, he hasn't been a focal point of the offense despite the way Georgia continues to dominate out on the field. Perhaps that has to do a little with the way Stetson Bennett wants to get everybody involved, but in the biggest games, it’s going to come down to making those critical third down and red-zone conversions — which is exactly what makes Bowers so critical in the team’s quest to repeat as champs.

Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee

The Vols’ schedule doesn’t allow them to notch any more marquee wins, so it’s going to have to keep coming down to Hooker putting up video game numbers to keep his team in the conversation as one of the best teams around. He’ll have a chance to pad his stats against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, on top of making his Heisman Trophy case in the same light. Still, UT is basically in the barn with their case as a likely 11-1 squad hoping for a little luck in the selection committee room. If they’re to get it, Hooker’s style points in November may play a role in becoming a small tiebreaker over other one-loss programs.

Breaking down Hendon Hooker's season

The "Big Noon Kickoff" crew discusses Hendon Hooker's Heisman-caliber season for Tennessee.

Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU

Daniels is going to largely control whether the Tigers simply win the SEC West or whether they make it two (or even three) SEC teams in the College Football Playoff. He’s thrown just two interceptions this season, yet they’ve come in two of LSU’s most frustrating games offensively (Tennessee and Arkansas). His ability to escape pressure behind a mediocre offensive line has been a huge help, and the 10 rushing touchdowns are a big factor in the ability to move the ball somewhat consistently.

No offense to the terror that is Harold Perkins off the edge, but if Daniels can avoid the big turnover and help keep the chains moving, the resurgence LSU has seen down the stretch under Brian Kelly can keep rolling along.

DJ Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson

Tailback Will Shipley has been terrific in helping carry the Tigers offense, but their floor and ceiling are going to be determined almost solely on the arm of Uiagalelei. He needed 39 attempts to get 191 yards in the loss to Notre Dame (before getting benched), hasn’t been above 70% passing in a game against an FBS opponent all season and has failed to recapture the form he’s flashed in games against Wake Forest or in 2020 as a spot starter.

Clemson is always going to get some benefit of the doubt given the talent on the roster and what kind of coach Dabo Swinney has been, but if they’re to sneak in as a one-loss ACC champion, it’s going to pretty much come down to Uiagalelei channeling his inner Cardale Jones the last three weeks. 

Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina

So far, the redshirt freshman hasn't looked anything like a first-year starter under center, and he may even be in line to earn a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony if he can close strong. He has put together five second-half comebacks already and can not only throw it all over the yard, but has the legs to be a real threat on the ground, too. Their rivals in Raleigh and Clemson in the ACC title game both have pretty salty defenses loaded with NFL talent, but if there’s a true dark horse that can crash the CFP party, it will be Maye leading the Tar Heels to glory.

CFP expansion showcased in Week 12

There are 67 games next week. Nine will have an impact on the College Football Playoff race as it stands.

There are obvious implications for games like TCU at Baylor, and USC heading over to UCLA, but also at Ohio State trying to remain undefeated when they visit College Park to take on Maryland. It’s not the greatest of slates, and even the nine games have just two involving a pair of ranked teams.

But what does the promise of a 12-team College Football Playoff bring? More games with more meaning.

In an expanded playoff, the number of games that matter would shoot up to roughly 20. Suddenly, that Ole Miss at Arkansas trip would have some intrigue, Iowa and Minnesota would be playing for more than just Big Ten West chaos, and Texas at Kansas would carry far more weight than it does now. 

Some people want to dismiss the coming changes to the postseason for devaluing the regular season, but looking ahead at Week 12, it sure looks like it would do the opposite for teams beyond usual names in the running for the ultimate glory. 

Pour one out for the underdogs

While there’s no doubt a top-heavy focus across college football in the waning weeks of the season, let’s pause to take a moment to recognize the underdogs on a particularly topsy-turvy weekend. 

Obviously, the Washington Huskies went into Autzen Stadium without many giving them a chance (13-point underdog) and they not only got the victory but came up with the big plays to get it done in the final few minutes. Fellow conference mate Arizona also put a dagger into the larger aspirations of UCLA, securing a marquee victory in the Rose Bowl for Jedd Fisch.

Michael Penix Jr. throws GORGEOUS 76-yard TD vs. Oregon

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. burned the Oregon Ducks with this long touchdown pass Saturday.

Even further down at the other end of the scale were perennial losers finding the correct side of the win column. Vanderbilt’s touchdown with 32 seconds left to beat then-No. 24 Kentucky was their first SEC win under head coach Clark Lea and the first of any kind in conference play in 1,120 days (Oct. 19, 2019). It was also the first time they’d won on the road in the league in 1,477 days and the first victory away from home over a ranked team since 2007.

Safe to say it’s been a while.

Same at UConn, which has been an under-the-radar turnaround story under Jim Mora Jr. this season. The Huskies did their civic duty in knocking off Liberty 36-33 on Saturday to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2015. Since that postseason berth (a loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl), the program has become a football independent, changed coaches four times, and won just 10 games between 2016 and 2021. Now the Huskies have the requisite six wins and are hungry for more.

The most emotional underdog story? That might be down on the Plains where former Auburn legend Cadillac Williams netted his first victory as interim head coach by fighting and clawing and generally dominating Texas A&M. Heck, even plucky Vegas favorite Georgia Tech got blown out by this up-and-coming program under Mario Cristobal at Miami, and Duke has a shot at a nine-win campaign following a thumping of Virginia Tech.

Alas, perennial bottom-25 team UMass couldn’t keep the good vibes going on Saturday but did at least make things close in a two-point loss at Arkansas State. Progress Minutemen, and maybe you can ride the wave eventually and join the ranks. 

Make it make sense

Saturday superlatives

Best Player: Harold Perkins, LSU

Team of the Week: Washington

Coach of the Week: Jedd Fisch

Goat of the Week: Mark Stoops, Kentucky 

Heisman Five: 1. Blake Corum (Michigan) 2. Caleb Williams (USC), 3. C.J. Stroud (Ohio State), 4. Drake Maye (North Carolina), 5. Max Duggan (TCU)/Bryce Young (Alabama)/Hendon Hooker (Tennessee)

Projected Playoff: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. TCU, 4. Tennessee

Tweet of the Week

Super 16

Here’s how I voted in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 poll this week:

  1. Georgia
  2. Ohio State
  3. Michigan
  4. TCU
  5. Tennessee
  6. USC
  7. LSU
  8. Alabama
  9. Utah
  10. Penn State
  11. Ole Miss
  12. Clemson
  13. North Carolina
  14. Washington
  15. Oregon
  16. Kansas State

Just missed the cut: Florida State

Best of the rest: UCLA, UCF, Oregon State, Cincinnati, Tulane, Coastal Carolina, Illinois, Troy

Pre-snap reads

No. 4 TCU at Baylor

Surely there will be no references to the Bears and Horned Frogs meeting back in 2014, a Baylor win that wound up costing both a shot at the Playoff. Dave Aranda’s side is already out of that discussion, but can still play spoiler for their bitter rivals up I-35. This has the feel of a good ol’ fashioned Big 12 shootout that the TCU ground game winds up helping notch the win in the final five minutes.

No. 8 USC at No. 12 UCLA

This feels like one where it comes down to Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Can repeat the performance from last season, or will he look more like he did in games against Arizona or South Alabama? Either way, expect points and plenty of them given the defenses involved. A few weeks ago it would have been easy to pick the Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Now? Lean the Trojans as Lincoln Riley gets a little revenge in Pasadena. 

Utah at Oregon

Pac-12 After Dark has consistently delivered some incredible moments, and these two should continue the trend. The Utes have had the Ducks’ number lately, including those memorable games to eventually nab the conference title. The run games are both capable of explosive plays, but it might be a Clark Phillips III interception that ends up deciding this one in Eugene.

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.


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