MICHIGAN AT Penn State (SaturDAY Noon, ABC)
2 years ago this matchup produced one of the best finishes of the season, featuring the Allen Robinson catch in the final seconds to force a 4-overtime duel. It will be a ‘white-out’ again but due to the noon kickoff there will be 8 hours less of rowdiness (see: beer) in Beaver Stadium.
Penn State has failed to meet expectations again this season, mostly due to its struggling offensive line. The unit was pushed around by Temple in the opener, and simply looked like it didn’t want to play anymore. Penn State ranks 99th in rushing offense and 89th in passing, despite playmakers at the skill positions. Freshman Saquon Barkley has impressed, and the RB future looks bright with him. But at quarterback, Christian Hackenberg needs to improve on his consistency – 54% completion will not cut it. It’s hard to understand, especially because he has shown glimpses of brilliance, and I think the high potential could still be there.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh has turned around Michigan quicker than most expected, and even has them controlling their destiny to the Big Ten Championship game here in late November. The defense is in the top ten in most important categories, most notably 6th in scoring, 6th in pass defense, and 8th in rush defense. This disruptive unit will expose the PSU offensive line and force Hackenberg out of his rhythm. If Jake Rudock continues to make strides (441 yards, 6 TD last week), Michigan will be fine. 2013 continues to cloud my mind, as I can see Penn State playing up to the preseason expectations and piecing together its best game of 2015. But so many poor performances by the offensive line make it hard to take that intuition.
MICHIGAN 23 PENN STATE 17
Michigan State at Ohio State (SATURDAY 3:30ET, ABC)
Back in August I predicted that this game would decide the Big Ten’s playoff bid, and even mentioned the potential for a #1 vs. #2 matchup! After Michigan State defeated Oregon, they did indeed rise to #2 and the Big Ten controlled the top two spots. Several close calls and ugly wins pulled MSU down in the rankings, and Dantonio’s squad played with fire one time too many, as Nebraska pulled off the last-second comeback win to deal MSU its first loss of 2015.
This is the 4th straight season that College Gameday is on-site for the matchup, and it will again be a huge factor in the Big Ten race. Ohio State has now won 23 straight games, but recall that Michigan State ended a 24-game win streak back in the 2013 Big Ten title. National attention has been on the Ohio State quarterback controversy all year, which has overshadowed the other side of the ball: Ohio State has perhaps the best defense in college football. They are stout against the run, stronger against the pass (8th nationally) and only allowing 13.8 points per game (2nd nationally). The unit is flooded with all-conference caliber players and future draft picks. Despite recent success on the ground, Michigan State has failed to establish a rushing attack this year, only gaining 3.9 yards per carry (97th). That ineptitude coupled with Ohio State’s strong front seven means even more pressure on Connor Cook’s back (or in this case, his shoulder, which is banged up from last week). I doubt he is at 100%, meaning MSU will struggle to sustain drives and score points.
On the flip side, it’s all about Ezekiel Elliott. The Heisman contender has pulled this offense all season, and he actually gets stronger as the game goes on. Elliott leads the nation in 2nd half rushing, and it’s not even close, as his 930 yards (7.8 per) are 200 above the next closest. There has been a slight shift in offensive style from previous Buckeye teams that liked to stretch the field vertically, and even horizontally with bubble screens and jet sweeps. Why aren’t dynamic weapons such as Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall, and Braxton Miller getting a handful of touches each? The firepower is there, but they have chosen to just pound the ball to Elliott. Hard to mess with success, but against stronger teams down the stretch, I wonder if we will see some changes. Michigan State has issues defending the pass, so Meyer may open it up this week. Regardless, I see a convincing Ohio State win, as we start to see this team play to its high ceiling.
OHIO STATE 38 MICHIGAN STATE 20
USC at OREGON (SATURDAY 3:30ET, ESPN)
The only 3 ranked teams lost last Saturday, and it was symbolic of the entire Pac-12 season: cannibalization. Heading into 2015, we thought the Pac-12 would be one of the deepest and most competitive conferences, and that has held true as 9 of the 12 teams have been ranked at some point. But this also means that they have beaten each other up to the point that no team has survived with less than 2 losses, and the league’s chances at a Playoff bid are slim to none.
Oregon and USC were our predicted division winners back in August; we could not have predicted the meltdown in the Trojans’ locker room, nor the future injured index finger of Oregon QB Vernon Adams. However, both teams have found their stride after their 3 losses, making this an intriguing (and ranked) matchup.
Offensively, both units average over 36 points per game and feature efficient quarterbacks. USC’s Cody Kessler is completing 69% of passes with a 23-6 TD-INT ratio but has been rattled at times and not lived up to last season’s high standards. Oregon’s Vernon Adams was riddled by an injured index finger, but since recovering he has won 4 straight games with a 12-3 ratio of his own. Oregon has the workhorse running back in 1392-yard rusher Royce Freeman, while USC has star WR Juju Smith-Schuster. But don’t overlook freshman Ronald Jones who has been featured more heavily in Tre Madden’s absence (doubtful).
Both defenses have glaring issues. Oregon’s defense ranks 114th in scoring, allowing 37.1 points per game, but is even worse against the pass (126th nationally). Meanwhile, USC is without not just one, but TWO starting linebackers (Lamar Dawson and Cameron Smith out for season). Given Oregon’s recent surge, and USC’s lackluster 3-point win over lowly Colorado, I expect the Ducks to defend Autzen Stadium. Tons of points will be scored in this one:
OREGON 44 USC 41
LSU AT Ole Miss (Saturday 3:30ET, CBS)
These teams feel each other. They both had legitimate national title aspirations at some point this season. Since then they’ve both suffered disappointing losses; and among those defeats, they are both coming off of losses to Arkansas. Ole Miss should have beaten the Razorbacks if it weren’t for a miraculous 4th & 25 conversion by Alex Collins and a facemask call on Marquis Haynes in overtime, while LSU was firmly defeated by the fighting Bielemas. However, a loss is a loss and now we have to see
what type of resolve each team possesses.
The Rebels will be without linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, which will be crucial going up against a powerful rushing attack. I’m surprised it has taken this long for teams to go all-out in stopping Fournette as this LSU offense has proven to be even more one-dimensional than some originally thought, despite its bevy of talented receivers. Rest assured, Ole Miss will be doing exactly what
Alabama and Arkansas did in game-planning for Fournette. Fortunately for the Rebels, Denzel’s brother Robert Nkemdiche has been a beast since returning from concussion and, while limited, Tony Conner has also returned from injury. Mississippi is tied with Alabama and Boston College for allowing the fewest rushing touchdowns in FBS this year (5). And LSU is seriously slumping, only averaging 2.02 yards per carry in the last two weeks.
Ole Miss’s record is a bit misleading. This team lost in the most uneven, even game ever played when the Rebels were blasted (per the scoreboard) by a very good Florida team. And then two losses later—one to a future first round QB and one fluky loss—Mississippi is squarely out of the Playoff picture. However, no team wants to face the top-tier talent that this team possesses, and Chad Kelly
has the potential to go off any Saturday. Regardless of Kelly’s performance, I expect the Ole Miss defense to handle the LSU rushing attack, and in doing so, control the game.
OLE MISS 33 LSU 22
BAYLOR AT Oklahoma STATE (Saturday 7:30ET, FOX)
As last week's Baylor-OU game unfolded, I started to think we were watching the de-facto Big 12 Championship Game. But the undefeated Cowboys have something to say about that. Oklahoma State continues to find ways to win, following the old adage: survive and advance. While it hasn't been pretty at times, OSU still has a zero in the loss column, and at #6 they are in the thick of the playoff race. But have they played with fire too much, and will it catch up to them Saturday against the #1 offense in America?
In Stidham's first start, he personally played really well. But another issue emerged, in how they failed to establish the ground game against lowly Kansas State. And then last week in his second start, Briles stayed committed to the ground game but seemed too conservative at times. I waited all week for this prediction because there was uncertainty surrounding Stidham's health (back injury), and without him BU will have a converted receiver at quarterback. Briles finally broke the silence, saying Stidham WILL play, and there are simply too many weapons at the skill positions for OK State to handle. I hate to make a prediction like this, but it all hinges on Stidham's health, an unknown to me. If he plays near 100%, I think Baylor wins it. If he is banged up or knocked out of the game, I think you'll see a result similar to OSU-TCU.
BAYLOR 38 OKLAHOMA STATE 37
TCU AT OKLAHOMA (SATURDAY 8:00ET, ABC)
The Big 12 gauntlet continues for these two 1-loss contenders, but Oklahoma and TCU are trending in different directions. The Horned Frogs were the media darlings of the preseason, but we went against the grain to predict they would NOT win the Big 12 due to major losses on defense. That stake has held true, as the levee finally broke last Saturday in Stillwater. TCU survived so many close contests and even got a miracle touchdown in Lubbock, but their luck has ran out. The defense has been poor all season, but Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson were there to bail them out week after week. Now with Doctson out for the season, and Boykin’s health status questionable, the outlook is negative for TCU (and the Committee buried them at #18).
Oklahoma enters the matchup trending in the opposite direction, surging up in the polls and Heisman race. Even with the rivalry loss to lowly Texas factored in, Oklahoma has an average margin of victory of 26.4 points, and an average yardage differential of +210 per game – both bests among the top 9 playoff contenders. Baker Mayfield dazzled last Saturday night against Baylor. He has shown creativity and ability to extend plays, and has backed up his confident approach. His 70% completion rate and TD-INT ratio of 31-5 are both Heisman-like.
This one is quite simple to me. Oklahoma has a much stronger defense, and while both offenses have played at elite levels, only one side has its dynamic QB-WR connection fully healthy and intact. It’s all Oklahoma again:
OKLAHOMA 48 TCU 34