Dave Preston is an AP Top 25 voter. Read his latest rankings here.
It’s easy to buy into the hype of college football as there’s only 12 games over 13 weeks to determine success or failure. Thanksgiving weekend represented the final chance to secure a bowl bid or enter the offseason/bowl practice on a strong note.
Thus, the games this past weekend take an added importance and sometimes, the game actually exceeds the hype. Maryland, Virginia Tech, Navy, and even James Madison and Virginia to lesser degrees had plenty to play for Thanksgiving weekend. And what a weekend it was.
The final regular season weekend of college football delivered plenty of memorable games. It started off with No. 3 Michigan outscoring No. 2 Ohio State 30-24 to secure an unbeaten season and a third straight trip to the Big Ten Championship Game (even the Wolverines decision to wear blue pants with blue jerseys couldn’t jinx them badly enough).
No. 1 Georgia and No. 5 Florida State both remained unbeaten with closer-than-it-should-have-been wins over in-state nonconference foes while No. 4 Washington and No. 8 Alabama kept their respective playoff hopes alive with three-point wins over in-state archrivals.
Even the much-maligned Big Ten West (and for the record I have maligned them quite a bit this fall) delivered thrilling games featuring Northwestern-Illinois (Wildcats win 45-43 with the two teams combining for 37 points in the fourth quarter) and Purdue-Indiana (Boilermakers win 35-31 after trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter). Plus, there was a close game between Iowa and Nebraska (having watched the 13-10 comedy of errors I cannot call it thrilling).
But like a storm system of fun, the close games on the forecast completely bypassed the D.C. metro area with the locals. The average margin in games involving Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Navy and James Madison was 36 points.
If you were watching, you’d easily be excused to channel surf after halftime (in some cases it would have been OK to bail before intermission). All the more time to be on the edge of your seat for the thrillers.
Navy (5-6, 4-4 AAC) fell behind early against SMU when they allowed the Mustangs to drive 67 yards on five plays for a touchdown on their opening drive. And then scoring drives of five plays for 80 yards, seven plays for 78 yards and four plays for 67 yards all in the first quarter. While SMU’s first four possessions yielded 28 points, the Midshipmen’s first four drives produced 22 yards (on 13 plays). Even with a couple of first half touchdowns, this one got late early as the Mids fell 59-14, setting up a bowl or bust game with Army next month.
Midshipman Medals: True freshman Braxton Woodson rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown while passing for 71 yards. Eli Heidenreich rushed for 54 yards and also recovered a muffed punt to set up Navy’s first touchdown of the day. Riley Riethman averaged 50.8 yards on 10 punts (third time in the last six games he’s posted double-digit kicks) while Amin Hassan averaged over 10 yards per punt return (including a 39-yarder).
Midshipman Miscues: The offense converted just 2-15 third downs and the passing game averaged 2.8 yards per attempt. The defense coughed up 452 yards before intermission, allowing points on seven of eight first half possessions. The only SMU punt was fumbled and recovered for a Mustangs touchdown. One of those days.
Next: Dec. 9 vs. 5-6 Army in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Maryland (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten) began their afternoon against Rutgers with a bang by scoring three touchdowns on their first three drives of 75, 55 and 75 yards put the Terps up 21-3 after one quarter. Even with the Scarlet Knights scraping their way back at home, head coach Mike Locksley’s team never let the game get within single-digits in a 42-24 victory. The cherry on top was Taulia Tagovailoa becoming the Big Ten’s all-time passing leader (with apologies to Rex Kern, Rick Leach and Mike Phipps).
Terrapin Triumphs: Tagovailoa threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns while running for another score. Records and stats aside, there’s something to be said about the stability he brought to the position and program during his time in College Park (there was an unintentionally hilarious revolving door of quarterback’s from 2007-13 and 2015-19). Tagovailoa’s top target Tai Felton made five catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. Roman Hemby had his best day since Week 2 against Charlotte, rushing for 113 yards and a TD. The defense held the Scarlet Knights to 13-34 passing while Dante Trader made 11 tackles.
Terrapin Troubles: Two turnovers, one of which led to a Rutgers touchdown. The defense allowed 190 yards rushing while also giving up completions of 24 and 42 yards.
Next: Bowl TBA. 247Sports said they’re going to the Las Vegas Bowl to face Utah on Dec. 23.
Virginia Tech (6-6, 5-3 ACC) set the tone against Virginia (3-9, 2-6 ACC) early, driving 52 yards on 11 plays for a field goal on the Hokies’ opening drive. They’d hold the Cavaliers to four straight three and outs to begin the game, and when the Cavaliers finally got their initial first down of the day, they were behind 17-0. The 55-17 rout delivers a winning conference mark to Blacksburg for the first time since 2019 as well as bowl eligibility for head coach Brent Pry in a season that looked like it was going off the rails in September. Virginia meanwhile goes back to the drawing board for year three under head coach Tony Elliott.
Hokie Highlights: Bhayshul Tuten rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown while also returning a kickoff for a score. When he’s had 15 or more touches this fall, Virginia Tech is 6-0. Da’Quan Felton stretched the Virginia secondary by making three catches for 133 yards and two TD’s. Cole Nelson led the pass rush with two of the team’s six sacks.
Hokie Humblings: Nine penalties for 101 yards is not sustainable. Despite the deep shots taken and made, Kyron Drones completed under 50% of his passes. And was it appropriate for the team to go back onto the field for a postgame picture at the 50-yard line?
Next: Bowl TBA, and according to 247Sports, it’s against USC in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 29.
Cavalier Congrats: Malik Washington made 14 catches for 115 yards, giving him 110 for 1,426 on the season. Jonas Sanker tallied 10 tackles for an overmatched defense. Postgame redemption came in the form of starting the sprinklers on the Scott Stadium field when Virginia Tech posed for a photo.
Cavalier Concerns: The ground game never turned into an effective counterpunch for the offense this year, and Saturday was no exception as the running back rotation netted just 43 yards on 16 carries. Anthony Colandrea averaged under 10 yards per completion and the offensive line allowed six sacks. The defense failed to post a sack and allowed scoring plays of 32, 33, 34, 44 and 84 yards. Special teams coughed up a 94-yard kickoff return for a TD.
Next: The 2024 spring game or Aug. 31, 2024, at home against Richmond.
James Madison (11-1, 7-1 Sun Belt) despite owning the best record in the Sun Belt East was not eligible for the championship game. But the Dukes determined who would play there, beating Coastal Carolina 56-14 to send Appalachian State into the title game (thank you notes from the Mountaineers pending). The other good news is the shortage of six-win teams (thank-notes to Nebraska, Mississippi State and others pending) means JMU will play in a bowl game this December.
Duke Do’s: Jordan McCloud passed for 324 yards and five touchdowns while also running for a score. Top target Elijah Sarratt made six catches for 107 yards and three TD’s. The offense converted 6 of 11 third downs while going 2-2 on fourth down (effectively 8-11 on moving the chains). The defense kept the Chanticleers off the scoreboard in the first half and recovered three fumbles.
Duke Don’ts: Just one sack from a pass rush on an afternoon where Coastal was in catch-up mode for most of the game. Nine penalties for 62 yards will give this team quite a bit to think about as they prepare for their first-ever bowl game.
Next: If 247Sports is right, the 68 Ventures Bowl will be on Dec. 26 against Arkansas State.