DUKE AT NORTH CAROLINA (SaturDAY NOON, ESPN2)
This may be the biggest football game on Tobacco Road…ever? While it’s not on the same magnitude of Mississippi’s Egg Bowl last year (even though that one lost some steam leading up to Rivalry Week), it is still huge. North Carolina has never played in the ACC Championship and Duke had to play against Florida State’s National Championship team in its lone ACC Championship Game appearance. I don’t often like to speculate on a team’s state of mind because you just don’t know unless you are in the locker room. However, Duke’s psyche will be a factor in this game after a roller coaster of emotions last week in a miraculous loss against Miami. And their minds better be right because North Carolina is the best team they’ve faced to date. The Tar Heels defense matches up perfectly with Duke’s offense as their weaknesses are unlikely to be exploited against Duke’s surprisingly stagnant passing attack. Thomas Sirk has been getting better each week and hit his pinnacle against a very good Virginia Tech defense—Sirk threw for 270 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions—in the win. However, Duke’s offense lacks playmakers on the perimeter, and Sirk is still more of a runner than a passer. Gene Chizik’s defense has come a long way in its pass defense after finishing 121st in the country in yards allowed per pass attempt. Thus far, UNC has been a top 10 pass defense. Look for Marquise Williams to make enough plays down the stretch as the Tar Heels give Duke its second straight heart-breaking loss.
NORTH CAROLINA 26 DUKE 22
NOTRE DAME at PITTSBURGH (SATURDAY NOON, ABC)
The leader of the “first four out” grouping is Notre Dame. Considering Ohio State was ranked 16th at this point last year, it’s safe to say that the Irish controls its own destiny. Pittsburgh may not be ready for the national stage yet, but the Panthers are in a strong position in the ACC. Georgia Tech needed was in a similar situation near the end of last year as the Yellow Jackets needed help from the Duke/North Carolina matchup before booking their tickets to Charlotte for the ACC Championship. However, the Jackets needed help from the Tar Heels while Pittsburgh will need Duke to win in 2015. All of Pittsburgh’s games have been settled by a touchdown or less except for the Panthers win in week 2 vs. Akron. Notre Dame will be the toughest test of the season, but the Irish have played down to competition levels similar to Pittsburgh (Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Temple). Pittsburgh is the exact type of team Notre Dame does not want any part of. Nate Peterman does not strike fear into any opponent, but he has not thrown an interception in five straight games, and has Tyler Boyd to throw to. The Panthers do not beat themselves, and that is why they have overachieved thus far. Still, Deshone Kizer is improving week by week and the injury bug seems to be flying out of South Bend. Notre Dame has the talent in the secondary to matchup with Boyd, and I can’t imagine the smaller Pittsburgh defensive front keeping up with Notre Dame’s physical rushing attack all game long.
NOTRE DAME 33 PITTSBURGH 20
FLORIDA STATE at CLEMSON (SATURDAY 3:30ET, ABC)
Despite a top 20 matchup, the line has been around 12.5 in favor of Clemson for most of the week. Clemson has been riding a high lately after looking a bit shaky to start the year, and now the Tigers find themselves #1 in the country. They have adjusted to the loss of Mike Williams on offense with freshmen Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and Ray Ray McCloud picking up slack. Still, this offense looks to Artavis Scott before anyone else. Despite other skill players being talented and more than capable, Scott is who Deshaun Watson has built the best chemistry with. The reason I bring this up is because of Florida State’s second best player, Jalen Ramsey. The All-American defensive back will have a huge impact in this game as Clemson’s passing attack struggled against two of the better defenses faced, Louisville and Notre Dame. Watson was uncharacteristically off against Louisville, but Notre Dame’s secondary clearly won the battle against Clemson’s skill players. Florida State doesn't have Jaylon Smith manning the middle of the field, but there is plenty of talent on the Seminole defense. However, the difference in this game will be on the other side of the ball, in the trenches. Clemson’s defensive front started off slow to start the year, but Shaq Lawson and the rest of the Tiger defensive line has been dominant ever since. Florida State’s young offensive line has struggled to replace one of the best units in the country in 2013 and 2014. Dalvin Cook will need a heroic game for Florida State to pull this one out, which I am not discounting, but his health is worrisome. A healthy Dalvin Cook has proven to be the best closer in all of football However, his health is uncertain, and Clemson wins this game 8 times out of 10, so I have to go with Clemson at home.
CLEMSON 30 FLORIDA STATE 27
TCU AT OKLAHOMA STATE (Saturday 3:30ET, FOX)
The calendar has flipped to November which means the preseason is finally over in the Big 12. The league has 4 teams in the CFP Top 15, and they all play each other in the coming weeks: a true gauntlet. The first matchup features two undefeated teams in TCU and Oklahoma State who have each demonstrated resiliency throughout the 2015 season. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin is at the top of the Heisman discussion and has picked up right where he and the Horned Frog offense left off last season. The unit is averaging 48.9 points per game (2nd only to Baylor) and Josh Doctson has 14 receiving touchdowns (2nd only to Baylor's Corey Coleman). But the storyline with TCU has been on the defensive side of the ball. In August, this was the reason we placed Baylor above TCU - so many all-conference caliber stars moved on, and the unit was very inexperienced. Even worse, the defense has been riddled with injuries and departures from the team. It has shown at times this season, as they allowed 52 to Texas Tech, 45 to Kansas State, and 37 to lowly SMU. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State has some firepower of its own, averaging 44 points per game (8th nationally). And the 'Pokes defense will be one of the strongest that TCU faces this season. In front of a rowdy Boone Pickens crowd, I am calling for Oklahoma State to take down #8 TCU. The Horned Frogs have lived on the edge in Big 12 play, and I don't foresee another last-second, endzone miracle like the one they received in Lubbock.
OKLAHOMA STATE 48 TCU 45
ALABAMA AT LSU (Saturday 8:00ET, CBS)
As if “Alabama vs. LSU” doesn’t sound intriguing enough, “Leonard Fournette vs. Alabama’s front seven” is a matchup that makes your heart beat just little faster and your veins swell a little larger. It’s the same feeling you get when Russell Crowe limps into the Colosseum, mangled, wounded, and weak, after an epic journey brought him into this very position, and you hope that it’s not all for nothing, even though you must admit: the odds are against him. It’s that very same natural appeal that makes the star-centric NBA relevant. Can Jordan’s greatness possibly be transcended? This very moment encapsulates why sports are so great. You have two elite teams playing for the highest stakes. And then there’s the game within the game; you have the same fundamental storyline that you’d find in any superhero movie—except this is real and history is being re-written in the midst of it all. You don’t find moments like these any time you casually flip on the TV. These are the types of moments that the pictures in our website banner epitomize. In the words of Drake, Future, and now Mark Jones, “what a time to be alive.”
Alabama’s defense may not be the historic 2011 unit, but it is trending that way. If you take away Nick Chubb’s 82 yard run, the Alabama defense has absolutely shut down opposing rushing attacks as they’ve only allowed 2.60 yards per carry despite going up against teams like Georgia (pre-Chubb injury), Tennessee, and Arkansas. And with freshmen DBs Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, and Marlon Humphrey all learning on the fly, this defense is looking like a National Championship-quality unit. Unfortunately, this is Alabama’s worst offense since 2008. The Tide rarely have rarely averaged under 6 yards per play in the Saban era, yet are averaging only 5.65 in 2015. Jake Coker’s indecisiveness, the interior offensive line’s struggles, and young, inexperienced playmakers have all contributed to this number. But with Derrick Henry running the ball against a very good, but not particularly great, defense, I expect decent production on the ground. Calvin Ridley has played his four best games in each of the past four weeks, and his continued development is crucial because his talent is undeniable.
LSU’s overall talent on offense may be the best it’s ever been. Brandon Harris, despite his fair share of struggles, can throw the ball well. Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural may not be Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, but they are still one of the best wide receiver duos in the nation. And then, of course, you have Leonard Fournette and this offensive line. Fournette has been spectacular, and I don’t think this analysis needs to go much further than that. The Tiger offense runs through him, and we don’t quite know what it will look like if an opposing defense can take Fournette away. Brandon Harris ranks last in the SEC on 3rd and long completion percentage, struggling in the few obvious passing downs he has faced. However, he has not thrown a single interception on the year, so he is not hurting the team either. LSU’s defense is the anti-Alabama defense. It’s good on all levels, but elite in the secondary. Lewis Neal has been a one man pass rush, ranking 15th in the nation and 3rd in the SEC. Overall, the Tiger defense should get the better of Alabama’s offense, but I expect a few big plays from Alabama to swing the game.
Michigan State’s fumbled punt return for a touchdown over rival Michigan, Georgia Tech’s Kick Six over undefeated Florida State, and Miami’s once-in-a-generation multi-lateral walk-off kick return touchdown. What a few weeks in college football. And now on the biggest stage, I’m betting on Jake Coker to show up and battle like he did against Ole Miss under the brightest lights, and Alabama’s defense to limit Fournette well below his season average. Alabama wins in Tuscaloosa.
ALABAMA 20 LSU 17
CALIFORNIA AT OREGON (SATURDAY 10:30ET, ESPN2)
It feels strange without having Oregon in the Playoff discussion or even the Top 25, but after close losses to Michigan State and Washington State, AND a 42-point blowout loss to Utah - the Ducks have been hunted. Meanwhile, Cal looked like it had potential to break through into the division's top 2, but 3 consecutive losses to South teams have derailed those hopes. Turnovers and defensive collapses have held back Cal. Jared Goff has shown flashes of brilliance, and if he avoids bad decisions and turnovers this offense can keep pace with Oregon. The Duck defense has serious issues ranking 118th in scoring defense, with meltdowns every few weeks: 62 points allowed vs. Utah, 45 vs. WSU, 55 vs. ASU (3OT). Even worse news against Sonny Dykes' air-raid attack is that Oregon's passing defense ranks 126th (of 128) in the nation. Dykes' system has roots in the Mike Leach attack; Leach already beat the Ducks, and Dykes will follow suit.
CALIFORNIA 38 OREGON 34