College football Week 12: Pac-12 showdowns take center stage

Austin Jones has been a key contributor to a USC running game that has been among the best in the country. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

The weekend before Rivalry Week has turned into something of an alternative programming showcase in college football. Games like Michigan-Ohio State have moved back a week, the SEC unloads its remaining cakey nonconference games, and with such huge games on the near horizon, the College Football Playoff race almost hits pause with a series of undercard affairs.

On one hand, that's frustrating -- Ohio State-Michigan is right there, but we have to wait another week for it! On the other hand, we get to focus our gaze on other intriguing storylines. The Pac-12 is putting on a particularly fun and important pair of games Saturday night (along with Bedlam in the Big 12!), the small-school slate is loaded and young stars that we will be talking about a lot in 2023 are quickly emerging.

Week 12 has already given us some incredible, snowy MACtion games that I hope you had a chance to take in. Here's everything else you need to follow during Week 12, aka Alternative Programming Week.

The Pac-12's big night

The new Pac-12 turned into the old Pac-12 last week. It has rebounded beautifully from a dismal 2021 campaign and currently boasts five of the top 17 teams in the CFP rankings. But a lot of its current CFP drought -- no Pac-12 team has made it since 2016 -- stems from the fact that (a) it usually has a lot of really good teams but no top-five caliber teams, and (b) the good teams beat each other up and the conference champ ends up with two or more losses.

The Pac-12 had three one-loss CFP contenders at the start of last week and one at the end of it. Oregon fell to Washington (forgivable) and UCLA fell to Arizona (less so) in a Pac-12 After Dark classic, and suddenly 9-1 USC, which is seventh in the CFP rankings, is the conference's last playoff hope. The Trojans might need some help to climb into the top four in the coming weeks, but they could help themselves by shifting into gear and thumping some good teams (UCLA, Notre Dame and whomever they might face in the Pac-12 championship game).

The Pac-12 race is still an absolute free-for-all, with five teams within a game of the top of the standings -- SP+ currently gives Utah a 36% chance of winning the league, Oregon 29%, USC 27%, UCLA 7% and Washington 0.4%. Two potential Saturday night toss-ups should bring clarity. Let's get weird out West.