NORTH CAROLINA AT PITTSBURGH (THURSDAY 7:00ET, ESPN)
Neither school was expected to be undefeated in conference play this late in the season—especially after UNC’s historically bad defense in 2014 and Pittsburgh’s coaching change. However, both schools have a lot to play for, including a trip to the ACC Championship Game, an accomplishment neither school has ever achieved. Pittsburgh is led by its defense, which comes as no surprise considering defensive guru Pat Narduzzi is the new head coach. North Carolina is led by its offense, but its success can be attributed to its improved defense, which is averaging 16.9 points per game allowed (a far cry from last year’s 39.0 ppg average). However, Georgia Tech’s 67th ranked offense is the best the Tar Heels have faced thus far. Not that Pittsburgh’s defense has faced many offensive juggernauts either as Iowa’s 51st ranked offense was the best unit the Panthers faced. Overall, both defenses are clearly better coached in 2015 than in 2014, but neither defense will be confused for Alabama’s.
North Carolina’s offense has the potential to be one of the best offenses in the conference. Marquise Williams is a true dual-threat quarterback who is flanked by a few talented running backs. However, Williams has proven to be inconsistent throughout his career, and could lay an egg at any point. That’s where Pittsburgh’s steady offense will come in and steal a victory out of thin air. Averaging 2 yards less per play than UNC, the Nate Peterman-led offense has taken care of the ball and sustained drives. Tyler Boyd will be the best player on the field, and will make a play in a close game. If the game comes down to the wire, the Panthers will edge this one out at home. However, I believe North Carolina is the best team atop the Coastal standings, and next week the rankings will finally get it right.
NORTH CAROLINA 35 PITTSBURGH 27
USC at CALIFORNIA (SATURDAY 3:00ET, FOX)
When a program loses its coach mid-season, there are two distinct ways the team can react. It can continue the meltdown and gradually implode on itself, spiraling to losses and transfers. Or, behind strong leadership and an interim that retains focus and drive, the team can play with an "us-against-the-world" mentality, and surge to bowl season. It looks like USC has taken the course of the latter. The USC roster is one of the nation's most talented; Clay Helton has harnessed that energy, leading Notre Dame after 3 quarters, and leaving no doubt in a 42-24 pounding of #3 Utah. It's almost like the USC team is accustomed to this sort of mid-season trauma after surviving the Lane Kiffin firing of 2013.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes has been echoing that "the third year is the year" for his program reconstruction. Well, that third year is here, and the Golden Bears jumped out to a 5-0 start behind wins over Texas and the Washington schools. But SIX turnovers ended the perfect season in the 30-24 loss at Utah, and then the defense simply couldn't stop UCLA. Back in August, I knew Jared Goff was the real deal, but also knew that the defense was going to be the issue heading into the season -- could Cal's defense make enough stops for its high-octane offensive attack? The unit gave up 44 points to an inept Texas offense, and 40 to UCLA, a team more on USC's level of talent. While I do expect Cal to get back to bowl season, that elusive 6th win will not come Saturday. USC's roster talent is simply too high, plus Helton seems to have saved the season and refocused his Trojan Army.
USC 45 CALIFORNIA 30
FLORIDA VS GEORGIA (SATURDAY 3:30ET, CBS)
What a difference a year makes. Georgia was the heavy favorite last year as Florida was in turmoil in Will Muschamp’s last season. Muschamp has since moved on (and brought his famed offense with him) and Jim McElwain has stepped in. McElwain has turned the program around with an efficient offense and a talented defense. Will Grier is still suspended for his PED use, but Treon Harris proved effective enough in his start against LSU. Neither quarterback will wow you like Deshaun Watson or Jared Goff, but both have improved their play under McElwain and can put pressure on a defense. Both Grier and Harris are dual threats—bad news for Georgia considering the two worst defensive outputs came against teams with mobile quarterbacks. And there might be something to that theory when Vanderbilt puts up more yards than Alabama. Georgia has supremely talented edge defenders like Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter, and Jordan Jenkins. However, the rest of the defense has lacked consistency, and McElwain is a master tactician who knows how to exploit weaknesses. In this game, anything is possible. Both teams possess a lot of talent, and both teams still have a lot to play for. But Florida’s momentum will carry them to victory.
FLORIDA 33 GEORGIA 28
MIAMI AT DUKE (Saturday 7:00ET, ESPNU)
This past week was an all-time low for the Miami program. But the good news is that the program can now begin to recover. Al Golden was not a perfect fit for “The U,” and both Golden and Miami will be better off in the future. While the Hurricanes are not living up to expectations this season, they still aren’t a bad team in Coastal terms. They are averaging more yards per play against a more difficult schedule than Duke, and Brad Kaaya has the potential to go off at any time, unless he is on the bench. Kaaya is recovering from a concussion sustained against Clemson, and redshirt freshman Malik Rosier figures to get the start. Rosier struggled against Clemson as he completed on 7 of 22 passes for 42 yards. However, he is surrounded by a lot of talent, and offers a dual threat. Kaaya or no Kaaya, the Blue Devils have not faced an offense as talented as Miami’s thus far. While they are taking care of business against a weak schedule, Duke is still unproven. I am confident that this defense is one of the better units in the ACC. However, this is not a true top 10 national defense (they are currently 9th). Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards are two of the best defensive backs in football, but this front seven will encounter difficulties against better offenses. The problem is that Miami can be a good offense. And Miami can be a terrible offense. I’m not going to speculate on which personality shows up on Saturday, but I am going to bet on Miami’s resiliency as the Hurricanes bounce back after doomsday.
MIAMI 26 DUKE 20
NOTRE DAME AT TEMPLE (Saturday 8:00ET, ABC) BY ZACH KINDER
Temple is off to its best start in school history behind a perfect record through seven games this season. The Owls have a victory over Penn State and road wins against Cincinnati and East Carolina, two of whom they lost to a year ago. After jumping into the rankings a couple weeks ago, there's every reason to buy into this team. There are only two significant hurdles left for Temple in its pursuit of a perfect season. The first arrives to Philadelphia Saturday along with ESPN's illustrious College GameDay. The tradition-rich Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will seek to end Temple's momentum and continue its own push toward the College Football Playoff.
The Irish are coming off a victory over USC, which just knocked Utah from the ranks of the unbeaten. Despite the turmoil in Los Angeles, the Trojans still field a formidable team with talent to match any in the country. Notre Dame's only blemish resulted from a failed two-point conversion in the final minutes at Clemson. A win at Temple would be a standout victory for the Irish and one that would resonate during the playoff selection. A year ago this team was derailed due to a rash of unfortunate defensive injuries. This season the offense has taken blows with quarterback Malik Zaire and running back Tarean Foster sidelined for the season. If it hadn't been for Foster's injury, however, Brian Kelly might not have discovered standout CJ Prosise, currently 10th nationally in yards per game.
Don't expect a wildly entertaining game when these two defensive juggernauts hit the field on Saturday. While Notre Dame fields the superior offense, Temple's defense ranks No. 6 on the S&P+ Def. Rankings, adjusted for opponents, just behind Alabama and ahead of teams such as Ohio State and Florida. Notre Dame has been no slouch this season, either. The disparity between these two teams, however, comes in the form of Temple's offense.
Temple has won games this season grinding it out and limiting opponent possessions, while the offense averages just 345 yards per game (No. 108) and scores 32 points per game. If Notre Dame is able to find consistency against the Temple defense, it could spell trouble. Against Cincinnati, the Owls were forced to break up a last-minute touchdown pass to secure a win after the Bearcats found a way to move the ball consistently, rallying from a 34-12 deficit in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati has the highest adjusted offense the Owls have faced this season at No. 46. Notre Dame has an adjusted offense of No. 6.
Tradition and history are stacked up against the Owls, but the defense gives them a chance to win any game. Unfortunately, the Notre Dame offense has proved capable where Temple's has not, which gives the Irish a little bit of an edge in this game. Even with a loss here, Temple is within reach of an 11-win season with only Memphis left on the schedule.
NOTRE DAME 27 TEMPLE 14
STANFORD AT WASHINGTON STATE (SATURDAY 10:30ET, ESPN)
If you have watched College Gameday any fall Saturday morning since 2003, you have seen Ol' Crimson, the Washington State Cougars flag, soaring proudly in the background. 172 shows later, and WSU is still awaiting for the road show to come to Pullman. The tradition started in 2003 because ESPN picked an SEC matchup in favor of a ranked matchup at Washington State, and the alumni wanted to remind ESPN of their mistake. With the Cougars at 5-2 and hosting perhaps the hottest team in America, Coug Nation hoped to finally host the show, 12 years later. And after the longest announcement delay, WSU was spurned again -- this time to non-AQ Temple hosting an already-featured Notre Dame, at an off-campus location. Ouch.
As for the actual football game, it's a big one. The Pac-12 North might be at stake, as these are the only undefeated or 1-loss (in-conference) teams remaining. This also marks the 6th (of 8) games that Stanford kicks off after 10pm ET -- they are the unseen team, despite being perhaps the hottest. Since the opening loss to Northwestern (sidenote: that HAS to be the biggest head-scratcher game of 2015), Stanford has won 6 straight and has averaged a margin of victory of 19 points per win. Christian McCaffrey leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game, is climbing the Heisman ladder, and is the spark that has brought this Stanford attack from strong to dynamic/explosive. Look for Kevin Hogan to continue to demonstrate senior poise, decision-making, and help the Cardinal offense do what it loves to do: control the ball and clock.
Well, Washington State managed to lose to an FCS team AND defeat Oregon in the same season, which alone is quite the feat. Mike Leach's squad has won 3 games by a score or less, and both losses are by a touchdown. This is the same Leach air-raid, spread the field, wide line splits, 4-vert attack that thrived at Texas Tech; QB Matt Falk is 2nd in America, averaging 412 yards passing per game. It is a one-dimension attack, by definition, as WSU has the fewest rushing attempts in the nation.
It is such a contrast in styles, and while it's the first relevant game for the Cougars in a long time, this is a weekly tradition for Shaw's battle-tested Stanford program. On principle alone, I trust a rushing attack, strong offensive line, and proven defense -- as opposed to an air-raid passing attack with no defense. Factor in the talent levels and surge of Stanford, and I am calling for a sad night in Pullman, after another sad morning watching Gameday elsewhere.
STANFORD 41 WASHINGTON STATE 27