College football Week 11 highlights: Top plays, games, takeaways

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, November 12, 2023

Michiganplayed its fourth game of the season without head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh began serving his second suspension of the season after the Big Ten imposed a three-game ban for breaking sportsmanship rules against on-site scouting of opponents' signs. And the Wolverines played, for the first time this season, against an opponent that actually seemed as if it might have a shot to win.

All of this constituted potentially seismic shifts in the Big Ten's power structure, and yet, when the dust settled on Michigan's 24-15 win, we were left with the same story we've seen all season.

Michigan won, and although the game was ostensibly close for much of the way, the Wolverines were never in real danger.

Penn State lost, and James Franklin is now 4-16 against Michigan and Ohio Statein his career in Happy Valley.

Harbaugh's future remains in doubt, but his impact was felt all the same, as Michigan's players spent Friday on social media promising to send a message and spent Saturday on the field at Beaver Stadium emphatically punishing Penn State for perceived crimes against them levied by -- well, as their beanies and T-shirts indicated, everybody.

(If you're keeping track, it's "Michigan vs Everybody" and "Ohio State vs. the world." We're not entirely sure either side wants to take on the SEC, though.)

The Wolverines were relentless on offense, running the ball again and again and again -- at one point on 20 straight snaps -- against an exhausted Penn State defense. They moved the ball a few yards at a time, methodically demoralizing the Nittany Lions, death by a thousand paper cuts, until Blake Corum sniffed the end zone and ended the misery.

Penn State was listless on offense, ignoring, once again, any thought of a downfield passing game and leaving Drew Allar to dance around the backfield, looking off one target after another before checking down for another lost cause. If Michigan overwhelmed Penn State 3 yards at a time, the Nittany Lions demoralized their own fans by moving the ball 3 inches at a time.

Even if Michigan had all of Penn State's signs, a CliffsNotes version of the Lions' playbook and James Franklin's ATM pin code, none of it would've been necessary.

So after a season in which Michigan's first nine games were little more than batting practice before Saturday's showdown with Penn State, this should feel like something significant, an official announcement that, in spite of any schedule-based skepticism, Michigan is a championship contender.

But no. The story is about Harbaugh, a story written in court filings and message board furor and breaking news alerts.

It was a story told through Sherrone Moore, working as interim coach Saturday, sobbing (and dropping a few curse words) in his postgame interview. It was, depending on your perspective, an emotional catharsis or yet another moment of Michigan victimizing itself.

It's a story that will be shrouded in mystery, such as where Harbaugh will spend game days from now through the showdown against Ohio State. We assume he spent Saturday in his underground lair, perfecting the space laser he's designing to blow up the moon, but really, anything is possible.

It's a story that will be adjudicated -- by the Big Ten, by fans, by media, by courts, by Connor Stalions' vacuum company investors -- with only a passing nod to due process, objective truth or reasoned context.

After all, it's OK to discern the opponent's signs from TV copy, or the all-22, or to call up former graduate assistants to dish on their old team, but it's not OK to buy a ticket, sit in the stands and watch. Whether that makes sense might be a worthy question, but the only issue at hand is whether Michigan broke a rule -- a literal written rule and, perhaps, the unwritten rule in which gamesmanship is OK unless it's overly convoluted, entirely stupid and executed by a guy with a hilarious name. (Of note: Our solution is a college football "Purge Day," in which all cheating is legal for one Saturday a year.)

How the scandal ends is, at this point, more interesting than how Michigan's season ends, and that's a shame.

Because J.J. McCarthy remains a Heisman Trophy candidate, but one whose success comes with an asterisk due to this scandal.

And Corum, as he announced after Saturday's game, returned to the field to do something special, but any accomplishment will come with a "yeah, but ..." from fans outside Ann Arbor.

And Michigan proved against Penn State that neither the weak schedule nor the Mr. Bean-level spying were the underpinnings of its success. But that's the story that will be remembered from the 2023 season, no matter where things go from here.

The Wolverines can keep winning, and the scandal will likely follow them as far as they're able to go.

Georgiastates its case

There will be a moment, probably some time in late December when we're searching for ways to start an argument with our relatives rather than watch another Hallmark movie, when someone will note that Georgia was down 14-3 at the half to South Carolinathis season. Heck, they might even bring up the fact that Georgia was tied with Auburnlate in the fourth quarter, too. And if they've had a few glasses of wine, maybe they'll even suggest Georgia's 30-21 win over Missouriwas closer than the final score suggested.

All of that will be objectively, unassailably true, and yet it would be like judging Robert De Niro's career by his work in "Little Fockers" and "Bad Grandpa." Sometimes, you're just there to cash a check.

On Saturday, Georgia wasn't phoning anything in. This was a statement that the two-time defending champs are still the team to beat.

Carson Beck threw for 306 yards. Kendall Milton ran for two scores. Brock Bowers returned after missing a month with either an ankle or injury or possibly while battling Mothra, and hauled in three catches and a touchdown.

Georgia's offensive line absolutely dominated Ole Missup front.

Georgia's defense played havoc with Jaxson Dart and the Rebels' attack.

Short of some superhuman feats of athleticism, Ole Miss had no answers.

It was, in short, the best team in the country clicking on all cylinders -- ostensibly in a win over the No. 9 team in the country, but also in a message to everyone ranked ahead of Ole Miss, that the road to the national title still runs through Georgia.

FSU, Washingtonsurvive

After the contenders wrapped up Week 11, the committee appears poised to simply cut and paste the top third of the rankings from the past two weeks, as the favorites all prevailed once more. But if there's a debate to be had about any meaningful positions, it might be over No. 4.

On Saturday, Florida Statemoved to 10-0, but it largely slogged its way past rival Miami, 27-20, in a game in which the Canes often overwhelmed FSU's offensive line and had a chance to tie on their final drive.

Washington, too, is 10-0, and like Florida State, it endured more than earned its latest win, a 35-28 victory over Utah. Washington had endless chances to put the game away and managed to use its foot for target practice instead.

For Florida State, Jordan Travis did just enough to survive, throwing for 265 yards and a touchdown. He relied more on his run game (Trey Benson had two scores) and the ACC's replay booth that might still be using Windows 98.

For Washington, Michael Penix Jr. delivered just enough darts to keep the Huskies in charge, throwing for 332 yards and two touchdowns, but still needed his defense to record one final interception of Bryson Barnes to secure a win.

One was a game in which Florida State never appeared to be truly in danger, but also never seemed to find its rhythm.

The other was a game in which Washington seemed like it was always on the verge of an insurmountable lead, but kept leaving a door open for Utah.

Neither looked great. Neither looked bad. Both were essentially like dinner at Sbarro -- fulfilling but regrettable.

FSU and Washington both have a case to be ranked in the top four, but for the time being at least, there's room for just one of them.

A week ago, Washington leapfrogged Florida State in ESPN's strength of record metric, moving into the No. 2 spot. The Huskies now have wins over ranked Arizona, Oregonand Utah, plus a solid W vs. USC.

Florida State has been a victim of an ACC that has slid into mediocrity after a strong start. Its best win, vs. LSU, remains impressive, butClemson, Dukeand Miami aren't the power players the Noles might have anticipated.

So what is the committee to do?

It ultimately might not matter. If both teams keep winning, they're all but certain to make the final cut. Indeed, if Georgia doesn't land the No. 1 overall seed, there might be value in finishing fourth. But as résumés are parsed for another week of a season that's been nearly all chalk, FSU's is trending in one direction, and Washington's in the other.

But it sure would be good for Florida State to win a few of these games with a bit more emphasis, to flex all its muscles and leave the committee assured there's no smoke and mirrors here.

And it would certainly behoove Washington to get back to its September dominance rather than pulling one rabbit out of a hat after another. The narrow escapes could certainly be categorized as a tribute to the Huskies' resolve or a case of a team playing with fire when the committee has a long history of ignoring the ashes of the Pac-12.

There remains the familiar refrain that the committee's job ultimately gets easier as attrition takes its toll, and contenders fall by the wayside. "Just keep winning" makes for an effective mantra. But attrition has been scarce this season, and sometimes looking good is every bit as important as actually being good.

Milroe scores six

Since being benched in Week 3, Jalen Milroe has completely rewritten his -- and Alabama's -- season.

In Saturday's dominant 49-21 win over Kentucky, Milroe threw for 234 yards, ran for 36 more and found the end zone six times -- three through the air and three on the ground.

Milroe's line over the past six weeks: 67% completions, nearly 11 yards per attempt and 21 touchdowns accounted for.

What's been most impressive about Milroe's evolution is how he and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have slowly added more and more into the repertoire. The bulk of Milroe's early success came on the deep ball (he entered Saturday with 22 completions on throws of 20 yards or more, disproving Penn State's theory that the field is actually just 6 yards long), but he has added in more and more of the ground game in recent weeks, making life near impossible for opposing defenses.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Milroe is just the third SEC QB with back-to-back games with three rushing touchdowns in the past 20 years. The other two? Cam Newton and Jayden Daniels. Not bad company.

While Milroe has garnered the headlines for Alabama, it's also worth noting the Tide's defense has blossomed, too.

After hearing its share of criticism in 2022, the Crimson Tide's D carried the team in the early going and has only gotten better since. On Saturday, the Tide pressured Kentucky QB Devin Leary on 41% of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which resulted in just five completions, three sacks and an interception.

The win officially punched Alabama's ticket to the SEC championship game, and if you're on the playoff committee, you're praying Nick Saban doesn't make your life impossible by actually winning it.

Heisman Five

Part of what makes the Heisman interesting is that there's not a true formula for how to award it. Yes, it's ostensibly for the best player in college football, but how to define "best" is a subject of great debate. So, for this week's Heisman Five, let's look at five different arguments for what the Heisman actually means, and who would win the award in each case.

The best stats: LSUQB Jayden Daniels

There's a good case to be made that Daniels is flat-out the best player in college football, period. But LSU's three losses likely mean he's playing to an inside straight when it comes to winning an award that recent history suggests is reserved for playoff contenders. Still, it's impossible to argue with the results. Daniels has played six top-50 defenses this season (by SP+). His numbers against those teams: 68% completions, 21 touchdowns, three interceptions and 453 yards of offense per game.

The best player: Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr.

With apologies to Daniels, there's been no player whose impact has been felt in big games more often this season than Harrison. In Saturday's steamrolling of Michigan State Spartans, Harrison caught seven balls for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He now has multiple TD receptions in three straight games and has scored in six straight. He is clearly Ohio State's primary weapon, and every opponent puts its best DBs on him, and yet he's remained unstoppable.

The most valuable player: Florida StateQB Jordan Travis

His numbers stand on their own merit: 64% completions, 27 touchdowns, more than 3,000 yards of offense. Perhaps more important than those, Travis has turned the ball over just twice this season. But more than anything, Travis is the beating heart of a Florida State program that has followed his lead in rising from college football's ashes and is now 10-0.

The most clutch performer: WashingtonQB Michael Penix Jr.

We saw it a half-dozen more times Saturday against Utah: Every time Washington has needed a big throw, Penix has made it. His numbers largely mirror Travis and fall short of Daniels, but when it comes to the sheer number of throws that have helped decide a season, Penix is your guy. His five TD passes and 32 first down throws in the second half of one-score games put him squarely among the country's best.

The best player on the best team:GeorgiaQB Carson Beck

At no point this season has it felt like Beck was actually all that impressive, and yet take a step back and look at the numbers. He's fifth nationally in Total QBR, has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and has 21 touchdowns with just three INTs. He's done much of that with Ladd McConkey, a man just waiting to inherit his dad's dental practice, as his most consistent offensive weapon. Perhaps we need to give Beck a bit more credit.

Iowascores points

The total for Iowa's game against Rutgers closed at 27.5, a full field goal less than had previously been allowed for a game to qualify for family viewing. Indeed, Iowa has owned the top of the low total standings the way your drunkest college friend had every top score on Golden Tee.

But to credit the Hawkeyes, it wasn't their fault this game went under.

Iowa won 22-0, topping 400 yards of offense for the first time in 32 games. Tory Taylorpunted only three times, which was a low enough number to technically qualify him as a missing person for much of the game. Indeed, Saturday might have been offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz's finest hour.

And yet, the under was still never in real jeopardy thanks to Iowa's defense, which held Rutgersto just 127 yards and seven first downs and helped the Hawkeyes climb to 8-2 and snag a share of the Big Ten West title.

Iowa remains college football's version of Rebecca Black's "Friday" -- so bad, it seems impossible to believe mere incompetence is responsible for its awfulness, and yet so inescapable that, eventually, it worms its way into the cultural zeitgeist ... or the Big Ten title game.

Upon further review

Checking in on a number of other big games around the country on Saturday ...

Bo Nix threw for 415 yards and four touchdowns which would seem pretty impressive if it hadn't come against USC's defense. Nevertheless, Nix kept his Heisman hopes and Oregon'splayoff hopes alive, dealing the Trojans their third straight loss, 36-27. USC was a 15-point underdog in this game -- the biggest line featuring the Trojans as an underdog since 2011 (also against Oregon). USC pulled the upset in that game. Not so much Saturday. Either way, we look forward to Lincoln Riley being fired at an airport luggage carousel in two years. Ultimately, we're left with one of the great what-ifs of the season: What if USC's D-line had gone through this in reverse back in August?

Roll out the hospital bed and open up your DMs because Hugh Freeze is going bowling. It's hardly been a stellar first season on The Plains for Freeze, but Auburnthumped Arkansas48-10 on Saturday, securing a bowl bid and possibly putting the final nail in Sam Pittman's coffin.

Washington Statelost a showdown with Cal42-39 in large part because of its problematic execution of the Brotherly Shove.

UCFdonned its Space Game uniforms, which are made entirely out of an alien substance imported from Area 51 designed to blind predators, and mopped the floor with Oklahoma State, 45-3.

Chalk it up to an old-fashioned Oklahoma hangover, which usually involves more Wild Turkey but in this case was simply the Pokes still riding high off last week's Bedlam win and looking utterly unprepared for UCF. Ollie Gordon'ssleeper Heisman campaign likely came to an end as he managed just 25 yards on 12 carries, and Alan Bowman threw three picks in the loss.

How good was Missouri's defense in a 36-7 win over Tennesseeon Saturday? Good enough for head coach Eli Drinkwitz to break out somesalty language.

We assume Drinkwitz preceded this comment with, "I do declare!" and dramatically fanned his face, but his point is well taken. The Tigers held Tennessee to just 350 yards and 5-of-13 on third down. Meanwhile, Missouri's Cody Schrader caught five passes for 116 yards and carried 35 times for 205 yards in the game, becoming the first player in SEC history to post 200 yards on the ground and 100 receiving.

Tyler Loop booted a 24-yard field goal as time expired after Noah Fifita led Arizonaon an 11-play, 67-yard drive to beat Colorado34-31. Fifita threw for two touchdowns, and Jonah Coleman ran for 179 yards on just 11 carries. Buffs coach Deion Sanders then replaced his defensive playcaller with Sean Lewis just to see what would happen.

Purduewon big over Minnesota49-30 in a game that feels like it should have a trophy that's, like, a silver mop or a bowl of soup or something. But apparently it's not a rivalry game at all. Feels like a missed opportunity. Anyway, Purdue held the Gophers to just 4-of-14 on third down, despite Minnesota employing stealth technology in its uniforms (something UCF could only dream of doing).

SyracuseQB Garrett Shrader was "limited" Saturday, which meant he couldn't throw much, but he could run and, when called upon, flip.

Indeed, Syracuse coach Dino Babers dove deep into his bag of tricks and unearthed a cavalcade of trick plays (as well as an old TV Guide and a half-eaten bologna sandwich). The Orange used Shrader as a runner (96 yards and a touchdown) and a decoy, while handing the ball frequently to LeQuint Allen, who ran for 102 yards on 28 carries, and putting tight end Dan Villari at QB, where he completed three balls for 12 yards but ran for 154 and a touchdown in the 28-13 win over Pitt.

Babers' game plan for next week involves a ladder and a baby panda.

LSUracked up 701 yards of offense -- 11.5 yards per play -- in a 52-35 win over Florida. And yes, we checked: Todd Grantham was not coaching the defense for the Gators. This was all Jayden Daniels, who racked up 372 yards passing, 234 rushing and five total touchdowns, marking a signature performance in his amazing career. It was all enough to overshadow Trevor Etienne's three-touchdown day, and it sets up Florida with two final games against top-12 teams -- Missouri and Florida State -- needing to win one to make a bowl game. Florida is now 10-21 in its last 31 games against Power 5 opponents which feels like the Will Muschamp Era Part IV.

Quinn Ewers returned from either an injury or a brief European tour with his Foreigner cover band (Fauxreigner) to throw for 317 yards and a touchdown in a 29-26 win over TCU. Texas actually led 26-6 entering the fourth quarter and nearly saw the lead disintegrate in the final moments -- which is also more or less what happened last week against Kansas State, too. And that came two weeks after nearly blowing a 21-0 lead against Houston, which came one week after blowing a 30-27 lead with 1:17 to play against Oklahoma. We're not saying there's a pattern here, but we are suggesting Steve Sarkisian reconsiders his bullpen use.

Texas A&Mis going bowling after walloping Mississippi State51-10. The Aggies were without starting QB Max Johnson, though a bit of pregame subterfuge may have been in order, too.

Mississippi State sniffed out the ruse, however, by noticing that, unlike Johnson, a suburban dad, this QB wasn't wearing grass-stained New Balance sneakers or standing next to the groundskeepers discussing proper lawn-watering techniques. In actuality, A&M AD Ross Bjork said it was all an honest mix-up when a walk-on borrowed Johnson's shirt for warm-ups. The walk-on was immediately offered a scholarship and a fake mustache by Michigan.

Oregon Statescored roughly the equivalent of the average Stanfordfreshman's SAT score Saturday, as Damien Martinez carved up the Cardinal's defense for 146 yards and four touchdowns in the Beavers' 62-17 win. It was Oregon State's most points in a Pac-12 game since 2012.

Oklahomasnapped a two-game losing streak by embarrassing West Virginia59-20 behind five touchdown passes and three TD runs from Dillon Gabriel. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Gabriel is the first player with five TD passes and three TD runs in a game since Clemson Tigers's Tajh Boyd did it vs. NC Statein 2012, and he tied Geno Smith (2012 vs. Baylor) and B.J. Symons (2003 vs. Texas A&M) for the most TDs in a game in Big 12 history. It's also amazing how often that Baylor-West Virginia game in 2012 comes up in trivia like this.

Grayson Loftis had a chance to ensconce himself as North Carolina'sclear-cut second-most-hated Grayson in Dukehistory Saturday -- no one will ever top Grayson Allen -- but his final throw in double overtime sailed out the back of the end zone, allowing the Tar Heels to escape 47-45.

Loftis, making just his second career start led a nine-play TD drive, scoring with just 41 seconds left to take a three point lead, but Drake Maye responded, completing his final four passes to set up a tying field goal. Both teams traded touchdowns in overtime, but Maye's two-point try found tight end John Copenhaver, while Loftis' just missed.

On the plus side, Duke doesn't have to worry about finding space in the equipment truck to lug the Victory Bell trophy all the way back to Durham.

Under-the-radar play of the week

The official scale of highlight plays goes from 0 (Mark Sanchez's butt fumble) to 10 (Odell Beckham Jr.'s one-handed stretch), and on Saturday, Clemson's Tyler Brown delivered something awfully close to a perfect 10.

The Clemson freshman did his best OBJ impression to haul in a touchdown grab from Cade Klubnik, as the Tigers pummeled Georgia Tech42-21 in what might've been their most complete game of the season.

Klubnik threw for a career-high four touchdowns. Will Shipley returned from a concussion to post 107 yards and a score. And Dabo Swinney led a raid of a local QT, where he now controls the region's supply of grab-and-go pizzas.

But no moment from Saturday's win was bigger than Brown's grab, which felt like both the Tigers' top highlight of the season and a fresh reminder that, yes, this team still has some ridiculous talent. The win also ensured Clemson will be bowl eligible this season, and moves the Tigers to 2-0 since Swinney ripped into a caller on his radio show.

Of note: It's time for James Franklin to start planting some callers to his radio show each week.

Kansas' offense slumps

A quick headline suggestion designed to appeal to the young demographic: Without its Bean, Kansas has no magic.

OK, we're being told we went too young on that one. Apologies.

Down to its third QB, Kansas ran out of anything approaching offensive firepower in a 16-13 loss to Texas Techon Saturday.

The Jayhawks entered play ranked No. 16 by the College Football Playoff committee, their best ranking in any poll since 2009, but it was short lived.

Jason Bean, who'd been playing in place of injured Jalon Daniels, was banged up at the end of the first quarter. He returned to play briefly in the second, but it was clear he couldn't go. Cole Ballard went the rest of the way and completed just 9 of 20 throws for 124 yards and a pick.

Under-the-radar game of the week

It's certainly understandable if your FCS focus was entirely on the twin showdowns of 0-9 Indiana State vs. 0-9 Western Illinois and winless Wofford traveling to the winless Citadel (or is it winless The Citadel?), but don't overlook -- as so many people have over the years -- the action in the Ivy League.

Penn and Harvard battled to a draw in regulation, after which, according to Ivy League rules, the winner is determined by net wealth or in overtime. Given the markets were closed, the two teams went ahead and played OT, trading field goals before moving to 2-point tries (and, should it be required after five OT frames, trading "Yo Mama went to Brown" jokes).

Thankfully, Harvard opted for a dramatic "Philly Special" -- or, as they call it at Harvard, "a gentleman's bootleg" -- fooling the Penn defense easier than a bunch of SEC regulators, with Cooper Barkate hitting QB Jaden Craig for the score to win it 25-23 in triple overtime.

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