NFL NEWS

PANTHERS FIRE FRANK REICH IN HIS FIRST SEASON WITH TEAM OFF TO NFL-WORST 1-10 RECORD

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Frank Reich era in Carolina is over after only 11 games.

The Carolina Panthers fired their coach on Monday following the team’s NFL-worst 1-10 start in his first year at the helm.

Panthers owner David Tepper announced the move hours after several news outlets reported that he used a profanity as he was leaving the locker room following a 17-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

Tepper hired Reich to fix one of the league’s worst offenses over the past few seasons and develop Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall pick whom he gave up four draft picks and top wide receiver D.J. Moore to acquire this past offseason in the hopes of winning multiple Super Bowls.

Instead, the Panthers are assured a franchise-record sixth straight losing season.

The Panthers are 30-63 since Tepper bought the team from Jerry Richardson in 2018 for $2.275 billion and have never made the playoffs.

Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor will take over as interim head coach. Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown will become the team’s play caller, with senior assistant Jim Caldwell serving as his special adviser.

Tabor’s first move as interim coach was to fire quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and running backs coach Duce Staley, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Monday because the moves have not been announced.

McCown and Staley were handpicked by Reich to be assistants.

When Tepper makes his next head coaching hire after the season, it will be the seventh full-time or interim head coach to serve under him.

Tepper is scheduled to address reporters Tuesday at a news conference at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers canceled all media access Monday.

Reich is the second NFL head coach to be fired this season, joining Josh McDaniels of the Las Vegas Raiders.

Reich was fired earlier in his tenure than any head coach since Pete McCulley, who went 1-8 with San Francisco in 1978. He is the fifth NFL head coach in the last six years to be fired during or after just one season, joining Nathaniel Hackett (Denver, 2022), Urban Meyer (Jacksonville, 2021), Freddie Kitchens (Cleveland, 2019) and Steve Wilks (Arizona, 2018).

Phone calls and text messages sent to Reich seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Tepper has shown a lack of patience as a team owner. Reich is the Panthers’ third head coach fired during the season under Tepper.

He also owns the Major League Soccer team in Charlotte and has fired two coaches in the organization’s first two years of existence.

On the NFL front, Tepper inherited Ron Rivera as his head coach in 2018 but fired him less than two years later during the season. Perry Fewell finished out the season before Tepper gave Matt Rhule, who previously coached at Baylor, a seven-year, $63 million contract. But Rhule lasted less than 2 1/2 season before Tepper dismissed him and replaced him with Wilks, the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, on an interim basis.

Tepper then hired Reich, who as offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles helped them win the Super Bowl before becoming head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, who fired him last season. Wilks is now the defensive coordinator for San Francisco.

Carolina still ranks near the bottom of the league in nearly every offensive category. The Panthers are 30th in the league in total offense and 30th in passing yards per game and haven’t scored more than 15 points in a game since the bye week.

Reich had signed a four-year contract with the Panthers that runs through the 2026 season. Tepper will be on the hook for an estimated $9 million per season over the next three seasons.

Reich had experience running good NFL offenses, but that didn’t translate over to the Panthers.

Young has been sacked 40 times this season, and the Panthers’ offensive line has allowed 43 overall over in 11 games, fourth most in the NFL. Young has been under heavy pressure most of the season, making it difficult to evaluate his progress as a quarterback.

But the former Alabama product has failed to progress as a quarterback and ranks near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. He has yet to throw for 250 yards in a game and has nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (nine).

Because of their record, the Panthers could possibly land the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, but that immediately would go to the Chicago Bears because of the trade for Young.

ANALYSIS: AFC’S RACE FOR THE NO. 1 SEED IS TIGHT WITH 4 DIVISION LEADERS EARNING WEEK 12 WINS

Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars took control of their division. Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs shrugged off a big deficit. Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens showed their balance.

Three of the AFC’s division leaders kept pace on the road Sunday, setting up a wide-open race for the No. 1 seed down the stretch.

The Ravens (9-3) beat the Chargers 20-10 to remain a half-game ahead of the Chiefs (8-3), Jaguars (8-3) and Miami Dolphins (8-3).

Jackson threw for 177 yards, the Ravens ran for 197 and a stingy defense shut down Justin Herbert and the Chargers, forcing four turnovers.

The Ravens host the Rams after their bye week and then play Jacksonville and Miami sandwiched around a difficult game against San Francisco (8-3) in Weeks 15-16-17. Those games will help determine who will earn the AFC’s top spot.

The Chiefs rebounded from a disappointing loss at home to Philadelphia on Monday night by rallying for a 31-17 win over the Raiders. It took them a quarter to get going in Las Vegas before Mahomes tossed two touchdown passes and Isiah Pacheco ran for two scores.

“When you have a short week and you’re playing a team like the Raiders, who always plays you tough, you have to bounce right back,” Mahomes said. “You wash it, you learn from it, and then you kind of just go back to the fundamentals and working. And so, we still have stuff to learn from this game.”

A major bright spot for the Chiefs was the performance of rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice, who had eight catches for 107 yards and one touchdown. A week after drops by Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson cost them a win against the Eagles, it was important someone other than Travis Kelce stepped up to catch Mahomes’ passes.

“He’s a guy who wants it. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Mahomes said of Rice. “He has talent. He wants to be great. But it’s going to take us staying on top of it every single week, and he’s going to be a great receiver in this league.”

Kansas City has hosted five straight AFC championship games. None of the Chiefs’ final six opponents currently has a winning record so they have a clear path to the top spot. If they win out, they’ll earn a first-round bye.

Lawrence threw for 364 yards and one TD and ran for a score to help the Jaguars hold off Houston, 24-21. Jacksonville opened up a two-game lead over the Texans (6-5) and Indianapolis Colts (6-5) in the AFC South.

“You look at how well Houston has been playing, they were kind of nipping at our heels in the division, so this was a big game,” Lawrence said. “They win this game, we’re all square, and they beat us twice, so they’re first place in the division, and we don’t really control our own destiny anymore. … We just keep winning, we don’t have anything to worry about.”

The victory wasn’t secured until Matt Ammendola’s 58-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar in the final minute. Josh Allen and Travon Walker combined to sack C.J. Stroud for a 9-yard loss a few plays before the missed kick.

“For our D-line to run all over the field sometimes it felt like to make plays, it’s just a credit to them and just the ‘no-quit mentality,’ and Josh had a heck of a game, particularly here at the end,” Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said.

Jacksonville’s hopes of earning the No. 1 seed could come down to how the team fares in back-to-back games against Cleveland (7-4) and Baltimore in Weeks 14-15.

The Dolphins had the day off after whipping the New York Jets in the NFL’s first Black Friday game.

They earned another victory Sunday when the Buffalo Bills collapsed in Philadelphia. Josh Allen and the Bills blew several leads, including one in overtime, before losing 37-34 to fall to 6-6.

The Bills, who entered the season with Super Bowl expectations, are 10th in the AFC and now trail Pittsburgh (7-4), Cleveland, Indianapolis, Houston and Denver (6-5) in the wild-card race.

Miami’s next three opponents are 12-22 combined. But the Dolphins finish with three tough games against Dallas (8-3), Baltimore and Buffalo.

In the NFC, the Eagles (10-1) are the clear leader following their fourth straight comeback win. They’ve been resilient and Jalen Hurts has played at an MVP level. Philadelphia faces the 49ers and Cowboys in its next two games but has margin for error.

The top teams in the AFC don’t have that luxury. They have to keep winning.

KEY TAKEAWAYS AND ANALYSIS FROM WEEK 12 IN THE NFL

Payton turns it around

The Broncos have won five games in a row. Yes, the Broncos.

There were a lot of bad things said about this team after the first month of the season. Surely, there’ll be some Denver fans looking for apologies, but make no mistake: it was all true at the time.

But things change quickly in the NFL. After an impressive win over the Browns, the Broncos now find themselves sitting at 6-5 and effectively tied for the final AFC wild-card spot. Is anyone questioning the Sean Payton hire now?

The defense, of course, has been the main factor in Denver’s stunning turnaround. Just six weeks ago, it seemed like a matter of time before Payton would have to admit a mistake and move on from defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. Denver was off to a historically bad start on that side of the ball, and the 70 points allowed in Miami was no fluke.

Payton opted to stay the course. Joseph, to his credit, has delivered better results than anyone could’ve expected. The Broncos have given up just 80 total points across their five-game win streak, including nine to the Chiefs and 22 to the Bills.

The monumental defensive improvements have taken some pressure off the rest of the operation, allowing the offense to play more on schedule. It’s still not the most explosive unit, but the consistent play the Broncos have gotten out of Russell Wilson speaks to the upgrade made in the coaching department.

Wilson has just four interceptions on the season and hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 6. It also took him only nine games to top last season’s 16 touchdowns.

The Broncos probably don’t have the pieces for a deep playoff run if they even make the postseason, but the message has been sent. Payton can still coach, and his staff is in the process of laying the foundation for a bright future. The AFC West is going to be fun for a long time.

A new day in Pittsburgh

It’s official: Matt Canada was the problem.

OK, maybe that’s a little bit harsh. There were certainly more factors at play for the Steelers’ offense, including some terrible quarterback play, but how else are we supposed interpret what we saw this week?

Pittsburgh’s offense looked

Pittsburgh’s offense looked like a completely different unit in Sunday’s win over Cincinnati. While it didn’t quite show up on the scoreboard, a closer look reveals a largely effective change in philosophy under new offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner and play-caller Mike Sullivan.

Most notably, this version of the Steelers’ offense seems to understand the value of pushing the ball downfield and attacking over the middle. It’s no coincidence that Kenny Pickett completed 24 of 33 passes for a season-high 278 passing yards.

Pickett’s big day, along with an efficient 153 yards in the ground game, helped the Steelers post their first 400-plus-yard game since Week 2 of the 2020 season. That ends a dubious streak of 58 straight games.

Defenses will adjust to the changes made under Faulkner, and it’s tough to truly buy in on an offense led by Pickett. But the Steelers don’t need much to complement what’s always been an outstanding defense.

A midseason coordinator change may be all the Steelers needed to go from befuddling overachievers to legitimate contenders in the AFC. Mike Tomlin does it again.

Enjoy it while it lasts

An entire generation of fans has grown up hating the Patriots for their success (and probably the cheating scandals). It’s only natural, then, that a significant amount of the football world is taking great joy in their downfall. Just don’t get used to it.

For anyone who wishes nothing but bad things for the Patriots, I regret to inform you that it’s reaching a point where it’s almost too bad for it to last.

The Patriots losing to Tommy DeVito and the Giants in a game that featured Mac Jones being benched for the fourth time this season is a new low previously unimaginable under Bill Belichick. New England is now 2-9 and getting worse by the week. Based on everything we’ve seen to this point, it’s tough to pick out a single win on the remaining schedule.

But is that really such a bad thing for the Patriots? Continuing on this path would all but guarantee New England a top-two pick in the draft. Depending on how the Panthers finish the year, the Patriots could even end up in the No. 1 spot. And in case you haven’t heard, the incoming quarterback class is pretty good.

Adding either Caleb Williams or Drake Maye – and using their $91 million in cap space to upgrade the roster elsewhere – would give the Patriots an opportunity to build another long-term contender.

Belichick may not be sticking around to see that through, but a dream rebuild scenario, along with the general stability of the organization, would make New England one of the most attractive head coaching jobs this offseason.

The Patriots won’t be in the basement for long.

No way out

The Saints’ offense is a painful watch right now. We could probably chalk it up to injuries this week if we really wanted to be charitable, but this also isn’t exactly a new development. Just ask a Saints fan how they feel about this group.

The latest sign of mediocrity: managing just five field goals and failing to get in the end zone in a crushing divisional loss to the Falcons.

It’s easy to understand why the Saints signed Derek Carr. The NFC South is a winnable division, and New Orleans was going to be a runaway favorite if its new quarterback played anywhere near the top-12(ish) levels he’d occasionally flirted with in the past. That hasn’t happened.

Carr, who threw a backbreaking pick-6 in the loss to the Falcons, ranks 21st in EPA/play and 20th in success rate, according to Ben Baldwin’s database. Not exactly what you want for a quarterback just starting a four-year, $150-million deal. Baker Mayfield, for reference, ranks 14th in EPA/play after joining the Bucs on a one-year, $4-million deal.

As things currently stand, the Saints could theoretically get out of Carr’s contract after the 2024 season. But that’s before you consider the ramifications of some truly horrific salary cap management.

The Saints are currently projected to be $71.4 million over the 2024 salary cap, according to Over the Cap. That’s a direct result of the organization regularly restructuring contracts and pushing money to the future as a way of avoiding any sort of rebuild. And they’ve done it so much now that there’s little to no cap space to be gained by cutting players; continuing to kick the can down the road is the only option to get under the cap.

Carr’s $30-million base salary for next season makes him the most obvious restructure candidate on the roster. Any such maneuver would tie him to the team for at least one more season if not several more. The Saints may have no choice but to make this thing work.

Don’t be surprised if their efforts to do so dictate a potential offseason coaching search.

Quick slants

Bates paying off

Expensive free-agent signings rarely work out. It’s hard to live up to price tags set by a competitive market, and there’s often a reason why a player’s former team let them go. At the very least, conventional wisdom suggests you’re making the mistake of paying for past performance. Bates is one of the rare exceptions. The veteran safety has taken his game to another level after joining the Falcons on a four-year, $64-million deal. His pick-6 in the red zone against the Saints gives him four interceptions on the season, already tying a career high. Bates also prevented a go-ahead score with another turnover later in the game, stripping Taysom Hill inside the 10-yard line. The Falcons somehow got a steal with one of the NFL’s highest-paid safeties.

Colts in the mix

Don’t look now, but Reich’s former team is already sniffing around playoff contention. The Colts, who improved to 6-5 with Sunday’s win over the Bucs, currently hold the last AFC wild-card spot. While there won’t be many experts picking them to be in that position at season’s end, Indianapolis doesn’t seem to care much for our expectations. This kind of run in Year 1 under Shane Steichen, despite losing No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson to a season-ending injury, is already an incredibly promising sign for what’s to come. The AFC South will be a great division sooner rather than later.

Rice emerges for Chiefs

The Chiefs finally found some success in the passing game in a win over the Raiders. This won’t be the end of the discussion surrounding an underwhelming receiving corps, but feeding second-round rookie Rashee Rice was a promising development. Rice is far and away the team’s most explosive receiver. He fully displayed those abilities Sunday, posting season highs in catches (eight) and yards (107) to go with a putaway touchdown. High-volume games like this could go a long way toward preparing Rice for a feature role in the playoffs.

Jaguars still on top

An important win over the surging Texans gives Jacksonville a comfortable two-game lead atop the AFC South. With a relatively easy schedule to close out the season, there’s no reason the Jaguars shouldn’t be able to come away with a second consecutive division title. The gap is closing, though. C.J. Stroud was spectacular again this week, going head-to-head with Trevor Lawrence to give his team a chance. It wasn’t quite enough in the end, with a game-tying 58-yard field goal going off the crossbar. But the Texans really are that close. Houston is building a contender.

A critical mistake

The Browns are still alive at 7-4, but Sunday’s loss to the Broncos validates any and all concerns about this offense. It was bad enough with Deshaun Watson, but expecting to stay afloat with Dorian Thompson-Robinson or P.J. Walker always felt a little misguided. Do they give you a better chance to win than, say, Matt Ryan? Maybe. But wouldn’t you want to be sure? The Browns going next man up at quarterback feels like punting on what had been a promising season. If only they hadn’t traded Joshua Dobbs for no reason.

TEXANS, STROUD CONFIDENT THEY’LL BOUNCE BACK AFTER TOUGH LOSS TO JAGUARS

HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Texans missed an opportunity to move into first place in the AFC South with Sunday’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Despite the 24-21 defeat, star rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud is confident the Texans will bounce back and continue to exceed expectations this season.

“It’s about the mindset, though. What are we going to do? Not play anymore? (Are) we just going to tuck our tail and not play hard? No, I don’t really believe in that type of mindset,” he said. “I’m going out there every play, every game trying to win. So, I don’t really think that our season is over at all. It’s a long year … you can see the trajectory we’re on.”

Houston (6-5) fell into a tie with the Indianapolis Colts for second place in the division behind the first-place Jaguars (8-3) with the loss.

The Texans had a chance to force overtime with 34 seconds left Sunday, but Matt Ammendola’s 58-yard field-goal attempt bounced off the crossbar.

Before that, Stroud had another strong game. The second overall pick in the draft threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns to give him 3,266 yards passing to overtake Justin Herbert (3,224) for most yards passing in NFL history through a player’s first 11 games.

Stroud also became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 300 yards or more in four straight games.

He moved effectively to avoid the rush Sunday, averaging 3.8 seconds to throw each pass, which is the longest time by anyone in a single game this season according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Both his touchdown passes against Jacksonville came on extended drop-backs of four or more seconds.

“C.J did a really good job of being able to move around and extend plays,” coach DeMeco Ryans said. “Made a couple of big plays for us … I thought he moved around well when he had to, took what the defense gave him.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Stroud’s stellar play continues to make Houston’s passing game the strength of the team. His yards passing rank second in the NFL and Houston’s 276.2 yards passing a game also come in at No. 2 in the league.

He’s done a great job of spreading the ball around, and the Texans had four receivers with at least 40 yards Sunday.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Houston was down to just one timeout for the last drive Sunday after Ryans had to burn two earlier in the second half to avoid penalties.

“It’s tough for us not having those timeouts, having to waste them on procedural things that we need to clean up,” Ryans said. “All those timeouts were just self-inflicted things that we have to be better at. Whether it’s making sure we got the right amount of people on the field, getting the calls in quicker, getting to the line of scrimmage quicker, we just have to be better.”

STOCK UP

WR Nico Collins led the team with seven receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown Sunday. It was his third 100-yard game of the season, which is a career high for the third-year player. It’s the first time he’s had more than 100 yards receiving since finishing with a career-best 168 yards receiving in a win over Pittsburgh Oct. 1.

STOCK DOWN

CB Tavierre Thomas was called for pass interference on two plays on the same drive that helped the Jaguars to a touchdown in the third quarter.

INJURIES

LG Tytus Howard injured his knee against Jacksonville and is questionable for Sunday’s game. … WR Noah Brown missed a second straight game against the Jaguars with a knee injury. … RB Dameon Pierce returned against Jacksonville after missing three games with an ankle injury.

KEY NUMBER

0. The Texans didn’t have a sack Sunday for the first time all season.

NEXT STEPS

The Texans look to get back on track when they wrap up a three-game homestand with a visit from Denver Sunday. The Broncos (6-5) have won five in a row after dropping five of their first six games.

REPORT: RAIDERS RELEASE MARCUS PETERS AFTER BENCHING

The Las Vegas Raiders released veteran cornerback Marcus Peters, reports Vic Tafur of The Athletic.

The move comes after interim head coach Antonio Pierce benched Peters in the second quarter of Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs following a missed tackle. The two had a brief exchange on the sideline at halftime.

Tackling has been an issue for Peters, who joined the Raiders on a one-year, $3-million contract in July. The 30-year-old entered the Chiefs matchup with 11 missed tackles in 2023, according to Football Reference.

Peters racked up

Peters racked up 43 tackles (one for loss), five pass breakups, and one interception – a 75-yard pick-6 – across 12 games with Las Vegas. He allowed a 103.2 passer rating when targeted.

The Raiders nearly parted ways with Peters earlier this season, sources told Tafur.

Peters will be available on waivers after his release.

A former Kansas City Chiefs first-round pick, Peters was once considered one of the NFL’s most dangerous corners. The Washington product paced the league with eight interceptions and 26 pass breakups as a rookie in 2015, and he led the league in pick-6s twice.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NEWS

MARYLAND, INDIANA, MICHIGAN AND PURDUE EARN WEEKLY FOOTBALL HONORS

Offensive Player of the Week
Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
QB – Sr. – Ewa Beach, Hawaii – Thompson

  • Completed 24 of 31 passes for a season-high 361 yards, accounting for four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) in a 42-24 win at Rutgers
  • Became the Big Ten’s all-time leader in passing yardage (excluding postseason games), surpassing Purdue’s Curtis Painter (11,163), ending the game with 11,256 career passing yards
  • Saturday was Tagovailoa’s 15th career 300-yard passing game
  • Last Maryland Offensive Player of the Week: Taulia Tagovailoa (Oct. 2, 2023)

 
Defensive Player of the Week
Aaron Casey, Indiana
LB – Sr. – Douglasville, Ga. – Alexander

  • Finished with 11 tackles, including nine solo stops, to move his season total to 109, the first Hoosier to post a 100-tackle season since Tegray Scales (126) in 2016
  • The 11 stops mark his 11th career double-digit tackle game and sixth of 2023
  • Credited with the lone sack of the game for Indiana and also forced a fumble
  • Tied a career-high with 4.0 tackles for loss. Casey’s 4.0 tackles for loss moved his career total to 36.0 and into No. 8 overall in Indiana program history
  • Last Indiana Defensive Player of the Week: Aaron Casey (Oct. 6, 2023)

 
Special Teams Player of the Week
James Turner, Michigan
K – Gr. – Ann Arbor, Mich. – Saline

  • Converted field goals of 37, 38 and 50 yards, tying his season and Michigan career-best with the 50-yard field goal, his second field goal made of 50-plus yards this season
  • Set a new Michigan best with 12 points 
  • Last Michigan Special Teams Player of the Week: Jake Moody (Nov. 20, 2022)

 
Freshman of the Week
Dillon Thieneman, Purdue
DB – Westfield, Ind. – Westfield

  • Made two interceptions to set a new school record for interceptions by a freshman in a single season (6), helping Purdue to a 35-31 win over Indiana
  • Led the Boilermaker defense with a team-high eight tackles, all solo, breaking Rod Woodson’s school record for solo tackles in a single season. Woodson had 67, Thieneman finished the season with 74
  • Recorded his first multi-interception game of his career and first for any Boilermaker this season
  • Last Purdue Freshman of the Week: Dillon Thieneman (Nov. 13, 2023)

MAC ANNOUNCES FINAL FOOTBALL PLAYER OF THE WEEK AWARD WINNERS

MAC East Division Offensive Player of the Week
Kurtis Rourke, Ohio, QB               
Grad., Oakville, Ontario, Canada (Holy Trinity)  
Highlighted by becoming the second leading passer in program history, Rourke led the Bobcats to a 25-14 victory over the Akron Zips (Nov. 24). The quarterback’s rushing touchdown marked Ohio’s first touchdown of the game, followed by a two-point conversion to cut the deficit to three points. Their next drive, Rourke reclaimed the Ohio’s lead with a one-yard passing touchdown to wide receiver Miles Cross.
 
MAC East Division Defensive Player of the Week
Jordan Porter, Bowling Green, DL            
Senior, Muskegon, Mich. (Muskegon HS)
Jordan Porter played a crucial role in Bowling Green’s 34-10 victory over Western Michigan. In the game, Porter totaled four tackles and showcased his defensive prowess by forcing a fumble. Notably, he achieved a career-high with two timely sacks in the first half, contributing to BGSU’s impressive 5.0 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss as a team. The Falcons’ defense, led by Porter, effectively limited Western Michigan to 258 yards of total offense. In the first half alone, Porter and the defense held the Broncos to a mere 117 yards, allowing the Falcons to secure a commanding 31-3 lead at halftime. This victory was particularly significant for the team as it marked BGSU’S first winning season since 2015.
 
MAC East Division Special Teams Player of the Week
Jack Wilson, Ohio, P      
R-Jr., Lancefield, Victoria, Australia (Gisborne Secondary College (ProKick Australia))     
Wilson recorded three punts in the Bobcats’ final regular-season victory on Friday (Nov. 24), averaging 43.3 yards per punt. His longest punt of the day (58) matched the career-high he set against Miami (Ohio) earlier this season (Oct. 28).
 
MAC West Division Offensive Player of the Week
Peny Boone, Toledo, RB               
Junior, Detroit, Mich. (King)
Peny Boone rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns in Toledo’s 32-17 win over CMU on Nov. 24. It was his second-highest output and eighth 100-yard game of the season. He is the first Rocket to break the 100-yard mark eight times in a season since Kareem Hunt did it in 2016. Boone now has 1,359 for the season, which ranks fifth in the nation. He is also third in the country in yards per carry (7.43) and fifth in rushing TDs (15).
 
MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week
Ray Thomas, NIU, Defensive End             
Junior, Racine, Wis. (Washington Park) 
NIU leading tackler Ray Thomas recorded his second double-figure tackle game of the season with 10 stops, including seven solo tackles and added a tackle for loss as the Huskies defeated Kent State 37-27 to earn bowl eligibility. NIU outscored the Flashes 27-10 in the second half while holding KSU to 17 rushing yards.
 
MAC West Division Special Teams Player of the Week
Mitchell Tomasek, Eastern Michigan, P 
Junior, Columbus, Ohio (Worthington Kilboure)
Mitchell Tomasek continued to flip the field for the Eagles as he averaged 43.2 yards per punt, including two of his five kicks being downed inside the 20-yard line, to help Eastern to a 24-11 win at Buffalo for not only the first road win of the season for EMU, but also making the team bowl eligible for a program-record third consecutive season. The second-ranked punter in the MAC and 19th nationally with 45.3 yards per punt, Tomasek currently sits third in the FBS with 24 punts inside the 20 while his 2,764 yards of accumulated punts standing fifth nationally and eighth in EMU single-season history.

ALABAMA, GEORGIA FIX ON FIGHT FOR SEC, CFP SPOT

Championship preparation is the theme of the week for Georgia and Alabama.

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, once the boss of Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, has Alabama positioned to play for the SEC title after an emotional comeback win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Saturday.

The reward for Alabama is a rematch with Georgia in Atlanta with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line.

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to win 29 games in a row, or even go 12-0 in a season,” Saban said Monday. “They’ve got good players. Well coached. This is a team that doesn’t have a whole lot of weaknesses. That’s why they are who they are, what they are.”

Georgia defeated Georgia Tech 31-23 on Saturday to set the record for consecutive wins by an SEC program.

Neither team lost a conference game heading into the SEC title matchup in a league each has dominated in recent years.

Saban and Alabama won 26 consecutive games (2015-16). The Crimson Tide won the SEC Championship in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 202 and 2021. Georgia won last year and lost to national champion LSU in 2019.

“It’s phenomenal what he’s accomplished,” said Saban, who promoted Smart to defensive coordinator at Alabama in 2008. He remained in that role until he accepted the Georgia job in 2016.

But if the Bulldogs lose for the first time in 30 games this weekend, there’s no guarantee a CFP spot will be available. Florida State and Texas could make cases to join Michigan and Alabama in that hypothetical scenario.

Alabama is the last team to beat Georgia, 41-24 in the 2021 SEC Championship. Georgia then defeated Michigan in the CFP semifinals and won the first of back-to-back championships by avenging that defeat to the Crimson Tide.

This version of Alabama had Smart doing double-takes in film preparation. As usual, it starts with Alabama’s versatile and dynamic defense.

“Size, speed, toughness, aggressiveness, players that play multiple positions,” Smart said Monday of the Crimson Tide defense.

Saban downplayed the similarity between approaching this game and the Alabama victory on Dec. 4, 2021, but plans to call on his upperclassmen to show his team how to prepare for Georgia.

“I have a great appreciation for this game. I grew up in the SEC, an SEC footprint kid, grew up coaching in the SEC. I have an appreciation for this game, how hard it is to win,” Smart said. “In some ways, Alabama and us, have been spoiled. I don’t think some kids appreciate, they think it’s a rite of passage. It’s not, it’s earned.”

AP TOP 25 REALITY: TIME FOR UPSETS HAS PASSED WITH LITTLE CHAOS AND RANKED TEAMS WITH GAUDY RECORDS

The time for upsets has come and gone with little chaos in college football and not much movement in the AP Top 25 for much of the season.

For the first time in more than 14 years, the same eight teams held the top eight spots in the poll for five straight weeks.

Behind No. 1 Georgia this week was Michigan returning to No. 2, followed by Washington, Florida State and Oregon in the top five. Ohio State slipped to No. 6 after losing to Michigan.

No. 7 Texas and No. 8 Alabama held their spots. Eight playoff contenders, four unbeaten and four 11-1. All but Ohio State will play in a conference championship game next week.

Throughout the entire Top 25 the records are gaudier than usual.

Last year the Top 25 teams heading into championship weekend had lost 59 games. In 2021, that number was 47.

This year, the Top 25 has 40 combined losses after the completion of the 12-game regular season. Of those 40 losses, 24 have come against other teams that currently are ranked.

Has that made life easy on AP poll voters this year? Maybe a little, but Reality Check will always find places to ponder the rankings.

No. 1 Georgia (12-0)

Next: vs. No. 8 Alabama, SEC championship, Saturday.

Reality check: The Bulldogs allowed 10 rushing touchdowns combined in their two championship seasons. This season: 12. Weird to see Georgia with a so-so run defense.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 2 Michigan (12-0)

Next: vs. No. 18 Iowa, Big Ten championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Loss of G Zak Zinter (left leg) will test the Wolverines’ depth up front if they end up in a third straight College Football Playoff.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 3 Washington (12-0)

Next: vs. No. 5 Oregon, Pac-12 championship, Friday.

Reality check: Huskies don’t have a Hypnotoad but all these close victories — now six straight by 10 points or fewer — give them 2022 TCU vibes.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 4 Florida State (12-0)

Next: vs. No. 15 Louisville, ACC championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Seminoles found some offense in the second half after a rough start with QB Tate Rodemaker against Florida. That offense was RB Trey Benson, who scored three touchdowns.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 5 Oregon (11-1)

Next: vs. No. 3 Washington, Pac-12 championship, Friday.

Reality check: Oregon is tied for 12th in the nation in defense at 4.83 yards per play allowed with … yes, Georgia.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 6 Ohio State (11-1)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: When you have a perennial top-five program, especially these day when rosters can be so fragile with the transfer portal, you don’t make coaching changes unless you absolutely have to. Ohio State doesn’t.

Ranked: Little high.

No. 7 Texas (11-1)

Next: vs. No. 19 Oklahoma State, Big 12 championship, Saturday.

Reality check: RB Jaydon Blue had a breakout game (121 yards on 10 carries) against Texas Tech as the Longhorns look for someone to pick up some of the slack for the loss of star Jonathon Brooks.

Ranked: Touch low.

No. 8 Alabama (11-1)

Next: vs. No. 1 Georgia, SEC championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Tide allowed 244 yards rushing against an Auburn team that could barely complete a pass. Puzzling.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 9 Missouri (10-2)

Next: TBD

Reality check: Tigers have the SEC’s leading rusher in RB Cody Schrader, a former D-II transfer and walk-on, and third-leading receiver in Luther Burden III, a former five-star recruit.

Ranked: This group of four teams is tricky. This one is fine.

No. 10 Penn State (10-2)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: Incongruous stats: Nittany Lions rank 14th in the nation in scoring at 37 points per game, but 81st in yards per play at 5.46.

Ranked: Little high.

No. 11 Mississippi (10-2)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: Rebels had never won 10 regular-season games and now have done it twice in three seasons under coach Lane Kiffin. Complain about his failure to win more “big games,” but Ole Miss throughout its history often loses a lot of the not-so-big games.

Ranked: Little low.

No. 12 Oklahoma (10-2)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: S Billy Bowman Jr. had an All-America season with six interceptions, three returned for touchdowns.

Ranked: Little low.

No. 13 LSU (9-3)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: OLB Harold Perkins Jr. didn’t have the dominant season many expected after flashing huge potential as a freshman last year. Still, on a defense that struggled in general, he showed improvement throughout.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 14 Arizona (9-3)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: After one of the best turnarounds of the season, now the goal for the Wildcats is to keep coach Jedd Fisch in Tucson.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 15 Louisville (10-2)

Next: vs. No. 4 Florida State, ACC championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Despite the loss to Kentucky, Cardinals still looks good to earn a spot in the Orange Bowl as long as Florida State makes the CFP.

Ranked: This works.

No. 16 Notre Dame (9-3)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: Been some complaints about Notre Dame’s offense, but it ranks ninth in the country in yards per play (6.95). Last time the Irish finished a season with a top-10 offense was 2015.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 17 Tulane (11-1)

Next: vs. No. 25 SMU, AAC championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Green Wave are 23-3 over the last two seasons, a remarkable achievement for a program that had three previous double-digit win seasons, two coming in the 1930s.

Ranked: This is fine.

No. 18 Iowa (10-2)

Next: vs. No. 2 Michigan, Big Ten championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Hawkeyes closed the season on a four-game winning streak, during which they averaged 15 points per game. Amazing.

Ranked: Too high.

No. 19 Oklahoma State (9-3)

Next: vs. No. 7 Texas, Big 12 championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Ollie Gordon II saved the Cowboys’ season with five touchdowns against BYU. If a running back breaks into the Heisman top five this season, it should be OGII.

Ranked: About right.

No. 20 Liberty (12-0)

Next: vs. New Mexico State, Friday.

Reality check: With a late-season surge that included 765 yards rushing over the last two games, the Flames lead the nation in rushing at 295 per game.

Ranked: Little high.

No. 21 (tie) North Carolina State (9-3)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: Under-the-radar quality season by coach Dave Doeren and the Wolfpack, led by LB Payton Wilson, who is an All-America lock and in contention for all the defensive player of the year awards.

Ranked: Little low.

No. 21 (tie) Oregon State (8-4)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: The final results of D.J. Uiagalelei’s second chance after Clemson were OK. The Beavers were a good team and the quarterback was solid, but when teams forced Oregon State to lean on him it didn’t go great.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 23 Toledo (11-1)

Next: vs. Miami, Ohio, MAC championship, Saturday

Reality check: The MAC championship used to routinely produce drama with coaches who might be leaving for bigger jobs. Rockets coach Jason Candle could be in that position this year.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 24 James Madison (11-1)

Next: TBD.

Reality check: The Dukes will go bowling thanks to a shortage of six-win teams. Now let’s see if we can get them a good opponent.

Ranked: Just right.

No. 25 SMU (10-2)

Next: at No. 17 Tulane, AAC championship, Saturday.

Reality check: Mustangs’ first appearance in the AAC title game has been fueled by a top-10 defense.

Ranked: Just right.

SHEDEUR SANDERS MISSED UTAH GAME WITH FRACTURE IN BACK, ACCORDING TO VIDEO

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders missed the season finale at Utah on Saturday due to a fracture in his back, according to a YouTube video posted by “Well Off Media.”

The site is run by one of coach Deion Sanders’ children and has been tracking the Buffaloes with behind-the-scenes footage throughout the season. The title of the video was, “Colorado Ends Their Season 4-8 With Loss To Utah: PAC 12 Refs Are TERRIBLE: Shedeur’s Injury.”

It’s unclear when Shedeur Sanders suffered the injury. He was sacked 52 times this season behind a struggling offensive line that Deion Sanders has pledged to bolster before next season. Shedeur Sanders needed at least two pain-numbing injections this season to get through games and a few days off from practice every so often to recover from hits.

Sanders discussed his latest injury on the video as he walked onto the field Saturday. He was asked if the injury would be revealed after the Utah game and he wasn’t sure. A graphic flashed on the screen, saying, “he has a fracture in his back.”

“It’s crazy because I feel good, bro,” Shedeur Sanders said on the video before the Buffaloes’ 23-17 loss to the Utes dropped them to 4-8 in their final season in the Pac-12 before bolting for the Big 12. “But when I start running for real, it’s like the idea is, ‘I feel good.’ Realistically, bro, you can’t. I can’t even throw right now.”

Sanders threw for 3,230 yards to break the program’s single-season record of 3,200 set by Sefo Liufau in 2014. Sanders also finished with 27 touchdown passes, just one shy of tying the mark held by Liufau. Sanders also completed 69.3% of his passes, another top mark.

It was a roller-coaster first season for Deion Sanders after he was brought in to turn around a 1-11 program. The team started 3-0 before losing eight of nine to end the year. Their only win during the skid was a 27-24 victory at Arizona State on Oct. 7 courtesy of a field goal in the waning seconds.

Colorado was the talk of college football all season long, with Folsom Field the place to be. The Buffaloes sold out all six home games for the first time in school history, with many a celebrity showing up on the sideline.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE FIRES RICK STOCKSTILL AFTER 18 SEASONS

Middle Tennessee fired football coach Rick Stockstill after 18 seasons on Monday.

The Blue Raiders finished 4-8 this season and were 113-111 in his tenure with 10 bowl appearances (4-6 record).

“This is one of the most difficult days in my tenure, but one I feel is necessary in our aspiration to compete and win championships,” athletic director Chris Massaro said in a news release. “I appreciate everything Rick, his wife Sara, and their family have done the last 18 years for MTSU Athletics, our football program, and, more importantly, our student-athletes. Because of his leadership, our student-athletes have performed at a high level in the classroom, have dedicated time and energy to supporting our community and have given us countless hours of dedication to being successful on the football field. I want to thank Coach Stockstill for his professionalism, character and dedication, and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

The school said a national search for Stockstill’s replacement will begin immediately.

Stockstill, 65, was hired in December 2005 after working as an assistant coach at South Carolina, East Carolina, Clemson, UCF and Bethune-Cookman.

He was named the Sun Belt Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2009 and earned the same honor in Conference USA in 2018.

Stockstill’s best season came in 2009 when he guided Middle Tennessee to a 10-3 record and a New Orleans Bowl win. The Blue Raiders were 8-5 with a Hawaii Bowl victory in 2022.

DUKE STARTS PROCESS OF REPLACING MIKE ELKO AFTER AN UNUSUALLY SHORT COACHING STINT IN DURHAM

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Duke made a rapid climb under Mike Elko. Now they’re searching for a new football coach after an unusually short tenure.

Texas A&M officially named Elko its next football coach on Monday, ending Elko’s two-year stint that saw the Blue Devils win 16 games and twice reach bowl games. That marked only the second time in nearly a century that a Duke coach was on the job for three or fewer seasons.

Athletics director Nina King said it had been “a busy day” that included conversations deep into Sunday night with Elko as he was engaged in talks with A&M, where he worked as defensive coordinator before taking over in Durham in 2021.

“We’ll be thorough in our process and we will certainly work swiftly as we have done before,” King said in a statement to reporters Monday, though she didn’t take questions.

That will be important. NCAA rules permit players to enter the transfer portal for 30 days after a coaching change, allowing them to formally explore moves elsewhere. Additionally, the portal window officially opens next Monday, which offers coaching staffs the ability to seek out help from other schools.

The school needed 12 days to hire Elko after David Cutcliffe’s exit.

The last time a Duke coach stayed three or fewer seasons came when Steve Spurrier left for Florida after a 1987-89 run that included the program’s last Atlantic Coast Conference title in his final season. Elko and Spurrier are the only Duke coaches to stay three or fewer years since 1925, spanning the Blue Devils’ time in the Southern Conference before becoming a charter ACC member in 1953.

King said associate head coach and running backs coach Trooper Taylor would work as the interim coach while the school searches for Elko’s replacement. She said she met with the players Monday morning, and has Zoom meetings scheduled for that night with verbally committed recruits as well as in the coming days with the families of current Blue Devils players.

Elko won nine games and a bowl in his debut season, then guided Duke to a seven-win regular season with a weekend win against Pittsburgh. This year’s team opened with a rout of preseason ACC favorite Clemson, cracked the AP Top 25 amid a 4-0 start and even hosted ESPN’s “College GameDay” for the first time in football — after multiple visits here for the storied men’s basketball program — ahead of a ranked-vs-ranked matchup against Notre Dame.