UCLA AT Stanford (THURSDAY 10:30ET, ESPN)
The Pac-12 offers us some late-night football Thursday night in a matchup of 1-loss, ranked teams. After an opening loss at Northwestern, Stanford has gotten back to their winning ways manhandling USC and Arizona. But UCLA will be David Shaw's biggest test so far this season, despite the Bruins losing their 3 best playmakers on defense.
Yes, Brett Hundley is gone. While his departure takes out some QB mobility from Mora's offense, there have been marked improvements in other areas. Last season, UCLA ranked 120th nationally in sacks allowed (40). While some of that was a byproduct of Hundley trying to create plays with his legs, sacks are nonetheless drive-killers. This season, the line has improved and true freshman QB Josh Rosen has been efficient; they have allowed just 4 sacks (8th nationally). UCLA looked lethargic against Arizona State -- just take a look at the final ASU touchdown where they pushed the pile 20 yards! But after the bye week, and no more margin for error, I expect Mora to rally his troops. He is 11-6 vs. ranked opponents, but is still winless against the two conference powers Oregon and Stanford (0-6). That changes tonight.
UCLA 31 STANFORD 27
MICHIGAN STATE at MICHIGAN (SATURDAY 3:30ET, ESPN)
Ohio State - Michigan will always lead the rivalry charge, and Ohio State - Michigan State has had much more at stake recently. But this in-state rivalry, the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, has been heating up the past few seasons and thanks to Michigan's resurgence, it hits its peak Saturday as a top 10 matchup with College Gameday in Ann Arbor. Michigan State started the year with a strong performance over then-#7 Oregon which eventually catapulted them to #2 in the nation. It has been downhill since, as they have looked lackluster in their narrow wins over weak teams (3-point win over Purdue, 7-point win over Rutgers). By the way, that Oregon win looks less impressive, as they already have 3 losses including a 42-point loss to Utah.
Speaking of undefeated and top-5 Utah, Michigan played them tough and if it weren't for three Jake Rudock interceptions, the 7-point game may have gone the other way. Since that point, Harbaugh's Wolverines have gotten stronger every game, every quarter. They have pitched THREE straight shutouts (1st team to do so since 1995), and are the nation's #1 scoring defense. Michigan is surging upward, showing continuous improvement, while the Spartans are barely escaping against the conference's weakest teams. As crazy as it this would have sounded in August: Michigan looks like the better team, and is favored over Michigan State. Despite losing 6 of the last 7 in the series, I am calling for Michigan to unseat the Spartans, and throw their name into serious Playoff discussion.
MICHIGAN 27 MICHIGAN STATE 24
ALABAMA at TEXAS A&M (SATURDAY 3:30ET, CBS)
Alabama has a lot to prove after losing at home to Ole Miss two weeks ago. Texas A&M has a lot to prove after losing to Alabama 59-0 last year in Tuscaloosa. In short, this should be a hard-fought, grind-it-out type of game that could have the feeling of a conference championship game. The Aggies have looked great so far, but have yet to play a team that is still ranked in the top 25. Arkansas and Mississippi State are two solid opponents, but this game is the true litmus test. Kyle Allen has elevated his game—not quite to the level of Johnny Manziel—but to the point where you can count on him to be a playmaker. He has increased his 3rd down completion percentage from 46% last year to 58% this year and has only thrown two interceptions. Still, we won’t truly know how he stacks up nationally until he can prove to be somewhat effective against one of the nation’s top defenses. The Aggies have not seen improvement in their rushing attack this year and Alabama is only allowing 2.61 yards per carry. Read between the lines: the A&M offensive production will fall squarely on Allen’s shoulders. Even with Texas A&M’s improved defense, I feel confident the Tide will score about 30 points this game. Is Allen up for the challenge?
ALABAMA 30 TEXAS A&M 24
FLORIDA AT LSU (Saturday 7:00ET, ESPN)
Are the Gators for real? Tennessee and Ole Miss were two good wins, but the Gators may be a little overhyped at this point. We don’t truly know how good Ole Miss is, and it’s likely they were a bit overrated after beating Alabama. But Ole Miss is certainly a talented team, and Chad Kelly is a talented quarterback. Basically, it is still early in the season, and I’m suspicious about Florida being a top 5 team. I had Jim McElwain’s bunch rated higher than the national consensus in our season preview so I do feel good about this team, but I’m just prefacing this preview with my skepticism heading into week 7. Florida played an extremely efficient game against Ole Miss, leading to a blowout victory at home. Will Grier, in particular, was very efficient as he threw for 4 touchdowns and completed 82% of his throws. Still, Florida only outgained Ole Miss by 27 yards. The game was not as much of a mismatch as the score indicated. But if you are that efficient with your opportunities, you will win nearly every time. Unfortunately, the laws of statistics are against Florida in this game, and the statistical wonder himself, Will Grier, is suspended. The Gators’ offensive line woes are well-documented, and LSU’s defensive front is loaded—Davon Godchaux and Lewis Neal have already combined for 7 sacks. While I would be tempted to pick Florida if this game was in Gainesville, it’s not.
LSU 22 FLORIDA 15
USC AT NOTRE DAME (Saturday 7:30ET, NBC)
How can this keep happening at USC? It feels like we hit 'replay' and are watching the same program meltdown we saw in 2013 here. That season featured the abrupt firing of Lane Kiffin after a blowout loss to Arizona State -- he was fired in the parking lot at the airport upon landing. Two years later, two elite recruiting classes later, USC looked primed to return to prominence in the second year under the Steve Sarkisian staff. The roster expansions looked to help with depth and 4th quarter performance. Their quarterback, Cody Kessler, was surrounded by elite talent, and looked the Heisman part himself.
Then, it happened again. Bizarre off-the-field incidents, and under-performance in league games cost Sarkisian his job after 5 games. Clay Helton steps in as the interim coach, but who knows how bad this dumpster fire will burn over the coming months. USC has some of the best talent in America, and makes a case for the best roster in the land. But without a strong, cohesive coaching structure, motivation, and lack of distractions, the parody of college football can catch you.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is 5-1 and very much still alive in the Playoff hunt. Their only loss came in a rain-soaked thriller at Clemson, a game that Notre Dame outplayed the home team for 56 minutes. The first 2 minutes of both halves were crazy enough to earn Clemson the win. This is still a very talented Notre Dame squad, and despite the "Navy Effect" I think it's safe to say ND is more focused and prepared for this matchup than their Hollywood counterparts.
NOTRE DAME 30 USC 20
PENN STATE AT OHIO STATE (SATURDAY 8:00ET, ABC)
For the first time ever, THEE Ohio State Buckeyes will wear black; ALL black from head-to-toe, and the entire Horseshoe will match their team. Urban Meyer has still not lost a regular season Big Ten game and goes for his 27th straight Saturday night against a Penn State squad that nearly ruined last season's title run. Penn State's defense has been elite for quite some time, and that facet of the program is back again in 2015 (#11 scoring D). But this season was supposed to be the year that the offense finally connected. Hackenberg's 3rd starting season, a promising core of young playmakers at receiver, and an "improved" offensive line sounded like the recipe for success. But issues still linger here, as evidenced by the line's ineptitude and lack of fight in the Temple loss.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has been sleep-walking through an easy schedule. As we saw in the Virginia Tech game, and the Michigan State game of 2014, revenge is a strong driver for OSU. Even though they escaped in double-overtime last season in Happy Valley, this one still has that big-game feel, and perhaps a small dose of "revenge." Regardless of how Meyer handles the QB situation (looks like more rotation), look for this team to come out and prove their #1 ranking, despite recently losing some grip on the top spot. This one will look more like the 2013 edition than the 2014 thriller.
OHIO STATE 41 PENN STATE 20