by Ian Boyd
This week saw the release of college football's first Playoff rankings, which are basically the new top 25 for the sport. That has some positive and negative impacts overall on the game. On the bright side, it helps the Playoff structure to maintain the week-to-week ranking and debate that give a lot of life and entertainment to the sport. On the other side of the ledger is the fact that it has reduced what constitutes achievement in this sport to finishing in the top four amidst a group of 130 football teams, which is rather lame.
With the Playoff rankings looming, last week was fairly eventful and entertaining for the sport. Penn State blew a big lead on the road in Columbus and elevated Ohio State as the likely winner of the Big 10 East. Georgia erased Florida from this season's discussions, and the Gators then fired their coach and began to orient towards the "silly season" of coaching transitions. Otherwise, lots of favorites like Notre Dame and Clemson laid down the law against upstart programs such as Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, while TCU blew their chances at a special season with a 14-7 loss to Iowa State in which their offense was shut out.
Week 10 will be huge, with a few big rivalry games that will determine the SEC and Big 12 races along with some other compelling games featuring conference races and playoff hopefuls.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Clemson (-8) at North Carolina State -- 12 p.m. (ABC)
As the playoff rankings demonstrated, Clemson is still alive and well in the postseason conversation after their loss to Syracuse. Of course they dropped a game last year to a unique and scrappy ACC team (Pittsburgh) and still won the title, so perhaps that should have been obvious. North Carolina State is currently ahead of them in the ACC race despite non-conference losses to South Carolina in Week 1 and then Notre Dame last Saturday.
In fact, North Carolina State had a big test against Notre Dame that they failed spectacularly. While defensive end Bradley Chubb emerged with an intact reputation as a star player, the rest of the Wolfpack were steamrolled by the Irish front while surrendering 318 rushing yards. Clemson doesn't have as potent a rushing attack as Notre Dame, but their spread-option run schemes are still plenty dangerous and will need to be effectively countered for North Carolina State to have a chance in this one.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant has had some struggles this year. He's not as accurate or savvy within their diverse system as Deshaun Watson was before him (no surprise) and the Tigers have struggled when opponents have dared Bryant to beat them by running the ball himself. Clemson has paired him with a diverse cast of backfield mates, but may start focusing more on freshman Travis Etienne, given that he's averaging 8.4 yards per carry.
The dominant unit in this game is unquestionably the Clemson defense, and the defensive line in particular, which is trouble for North Carolina State since they tend to lean pretty heavily on their own offense. Notre Dame bottled them up pretty well by keeping tabs on hybrid fullback Jaylen Samuels and keeping the ball in front of them, thus daring North Carolina State to move the ball against their own large defensive line. The Clemson defensive line is even better than what Notre Dame put on the field. Starting defensive ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell are both on track for 10-sack seasons. This is a pretty tough matchup for the Wolfpack, but they did nearly beat the Tigers last year in Clemson, so they won't be short on belief in this one.
- How does Clemson handle Bradley Chubb? Run away from him, or have Kelly Bryant try to read him on the option?
- Will Clemson start to feed running back Travis Etienne the ball more, or maintain a platoon?
- How will North Carolina State handle Clemson's monstrous defensive line?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Clemson
Stanford at Washington State (-2) -- 3:30 p.m. (FOX)
This is a pretty compelling game simply from the "styles make fights" perspective. Also consider the appeal of potentially watching Stanford running back Bryce Love contend for a Heisman Trophy against a good defense with the Pac-12 North potentially at stake for the winner. Stanford has been close to all-in this season on the power run game, regularly trotting out packages that feature a sixth offensive lineman in addition to one or two tight ends and veteran fullback Daniel Marx. Meanwhile, Washington State is an Air Raid team coached by Mike Leach that looks to spread the field and throw the ball around as much as possible.
The battle between Stanford's offense and Washington State's defense is the heavyweight bout of the afternoon, and it really exemplifies the contrasting strategies at play. The Cougars play a multiple, shifting 3-4 defense that tends to become something like a 4-2-5 after the snap. It is spearheaded by defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa. The curious thing about Mata'afa is that he's only 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, yet HALF of his tackles this season have come behind the line of scrimmage (15 tackles for loss), and 6.5 of those were sacks. The former wrestler is explosive and causes real problems against the run, but now he'll have to do his work against the Cardinal guards. The Stanford interior line features two of the better run blocking guards in the country in Nate Herbig (6-foot-4, 345 pounds) and David Bright (6-foot-5, 299 pounds), and swallowing up opposing defensive linemen is becoming a tradition in Palo Alto.
Beyond Mata'afa, the Cougars are pretty small everywhere else on their defense, so this will be a classic "speed vs. power" battle up until the moment that Love manages to get loose into open space. At that point it would become "speed vs. speed." The breakout star back for Stanford missed last week, though, and is a game-time decision for this contest.
On the other side of the ball, Stanford is also generally built around power with big, sturdy defensive linemen and then powerful and savvy (if not always speedy) inside linebackers. They often use nickel sub-packages to protect their bigger guys from having to run in space, but those will really be put to the test by Washington State's spread offense.
This year's Cougars offense has struggled to hit opponents down the field in the passing game, but they have gotten a lot of mileage out of checkdowns and quick passes to their running backs. There's no hiding a big inside linebacker if the other team is throwing the ball to the running backs every other play, so Stanford is going to have to work out some answers to this dilemma.
Big guys or fast guys? The winner could be in position to win the Pac-12 North this season.
- Can Stanford's big offensive line get their mitts on Washington State defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa?
- Is running back Bryce Love healthy enough to play, and can Stanford make explosive gains on offense without him?
- How will Stanford protect their slower defenders from the Cougars' spread passing attack?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Stanford
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State (-2.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
This showdown is one that many people have assumed could be repeated at the end of the year in the Big 12 championship game. If so, the results of this game wouldn't mean too much, but neither team would have the No. 2 spot in the league locked up if they lose this game, so there's still quite a bit to play for. Additionally, Oklahoma is hoping to win out and secure a Playoff bid after being ranked no. 5 in the last committee rankings, and quarterback Baker Mayfield is also gunning for the Heisman Trophy after finishing as a finalist in each of the last two seasons.
Mayfield is the star of the show in this game, and right now he's playing like the best player in the country. In addition to his accuracy and scrambling abilities, the Sooners quarterback has also been brilliant at directing the offense at the line of scrimmage with checks and audibles to get Oklahoma into the best play every snap. With their running game and emerging freshman receiver Ceedee Lamb (nine catches for 147 yards last week against Texas Tech) the Sooners have a ton of weapons on offense. Baker's savvy ability to direct things during the game is a primary reason they are ranked No. 1 in offense by most metrics.
Oklahoma State has been very good on defense in their own right, fielding a veteran group that has really limited if not shut down every offense they've played save for TCU, which found some running room on them. Oklahoma will present the best offensive line and most dangerous rushing attack they've faced this season though, and it'll be paired with Mayfield and the passing game. An optimistic expectation for the Cowboys defense would be to hold Oklahoma under 40 points and give their own offense a good chance in a shootout.
The battle between that explosive Cowboys offense and Oklahoma's defense is where things get really interesting. After taking down the Ohio State Buckeyes on the road, the Sooners have had a split personality on defense. One personality insists on trying to play three linebackers against spread offenses and is routinely shredded; the other personality embraces a nickel sub-package and leans on an athletic defensive line headed by star defensive end Obo Okoronkwo (seven sacks). The first personality animated the Oklahoma defense for the first several drives last week against Texas Tech, and the Sooners gave up three consecutive touchdowns before finally ditching the 3-3-5 package they were playing for a standard 4-2-5 nickel. After that switch, the Sooners dominated the Tech offense and gave up just seven points in a 49-27 victory.
Given Oklahoma State's struggles on the offensive line and against dime defensive looks from TCU and Texas earlier this season, the obvious move for Oklahoma this week would be to play their 4-2-5 nickel package, be conservative in coverage on Oklahoma State's deadly wide receivers, and trust Okoronkwo and their defensive line to control the game. The Sooners have dominated this series for the entirety of Mike Gundy's run as head coach at Oklahoma State, going 10-2 against the mullet-donning head coach, and it's probably a good bet that they'll figure things out this week.
- Baker Mayfield diagnosing and attacking a multiple and crafty Oklahoma State defense.
- Can Oklahoma State stop Oklahoma's run game without getting gashed by the passing attack?
- Will Oklahoma try to be creative on defense again, or just trust their athletes to go beat Oklahoma State?
- Can Oklahoma State's offensive line block star defensive end Obo Okoronkwo?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma State
LSU at Alabama (-21.5) -- 8 p.m. (CBS)
This has been another lopsided rivalry series this decade, much like the Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State Bedlam battles. In both instances, one team has won almost every game this decade. The exceptions were both in 2011, when Oklahoma State whipped Oklahoma 44-10 to win their only Big 12 title under Mike Gundy, while LSU took down Alabama 9-6 (before facing them again and losing in the title game).
The problem for the Tigers has tended to be that they've tried to be the biggest, baddest team in the trenches every season, but they've never been bigger or badder than Alabama. When they've gone mano a mano in the trenches with the Tide, even if they've managed to slow down Alabama's rushing attack, they've been beaten down elsewhere. In particular, LSU has really struggled to get anything going whatsoever with their own offense. It was with that in mind that head coach Ed Orgeron hired Matt Canada to try and bring some confusion to Alabama to stop them from stuffing their rushing attack. Canada has looked to do that by adding jet sweeps to all of LSU's base runs to prevent opponents from getting numbers to the middle of the field to stuff their downhill running game.
Alabama tends to play the edge very carefully and force the ball back inside, where they annually field NFL-bound defensive linemen and inside linebackers, and that will be their task again this season. If they are successful in forcing the ball inside, it's hard to see LSU having more success this year than in previous contests given the youth and inexperience of the Tigers offensive line. If LSU instead chooses to try and air the ball out, that would be a marked departure from previous seasons and could make for an interesting night.
On the other side of the ball, LSU is also younger and less disciplined than they have been in previous seasons, but they have a unique opportunity facing Jalen Hurts and this Alabama offense. Hurts has been incredibly turnover-averse this season, but he has also been inaccurate and has struggled to execute their pro-style passing game under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
If -- and it's a big if -- LSU is able to stop Alabama's running game by loading the box and playing man coverage on the Tide receivers, it's possible they could force Hurts to make plays in the passing game in order to score enough to allow Alabama to pull away. In that event, it could become anyone's game.
- Can LSU's defensive line resist Alabama's offensive line if they get help from the secondary?
- Will the LSU offense stick to their plan, or try to air it out to avoid Alabama's run defense?
- If this game becomes a contest of LSU quarterback Danny Etling vs. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, does that give LSU the advantage?
S&P Outright Pick: Alabama
Virginia Tech (-2.5) at Miami -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
This is the game lots of people may flip to if Alabama ends up beating LSU senseless over on CBS. Miami is currently undefeated through seven games despite some scheduling switch-ups due to the storms the state of Florida has endured. They have also barely scraped by a few times, beating Florida State by four, Georgia Tech by one, and North Carolina by five, so their undefeated resume hasn't left a major mark on the selection committee just yet. Beating Virginia Tech would move the dial another notch for the Hurricanes.
Virginia Tech is in the early stages of a formula that they hope will take them to new heights as a program, pairing a dynamic quarterback in redshirt freshman Josh Jackson with a yet another strong and aggressive defense coached by defensive coordinator Bud Foster. That has been their formula this season and it has worked out pretty well, although Jackson is not yet what he will be after another offseason or two under head coach Justin Fuente's development. They will be up for a major early challenge from Miami, who is led by a trio of young playmaking linebackers and has been pretty resistant to giving up big passing plays this year.
The Hokies will also likely put Miami quarterback Malik Rosier to the test, daring him to run on their fast secondary while squeezing the interior running lanes closed with their superior linebackers and a strong defensive line. This is a really tough group to run the football against and Foster has seen it all in terms of offensive schemes. If they have a weakness it's probably more in the pass game.
Miami has been solid throwing the ball this year and has a nice weapon to utilize against Virginia Tech's secondary in tight end Christopher Herndon IV, their second leading receiver. Miami is going to have to throw the ball in this game to ease the Hokies off their running game. Throw to score, run to win, if you will.
Both of these teams are fairly young and still improving, so while the winner will be in pole position in the ACC Coastal division, this is also a developmental game that features some players and programs who are probably going to be even better in future seasons.
- Miami to try and throw the ball early to force Virginia Tech to back off their run game.
- Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson, a potential future superstar.
- Does either team look capable of winning an ACC title game bout against Clemson?
S&P Outright Pick: Miami
Arizona at USC (-7) -- 10:45 p.m. (ESPN)
Arizona has taken off for the last few games after starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins was momentarily taken out of the game against Colorado and sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate was inserted into the lineup. Tate proceeded to run for more than 300 yards in that game and Arizona never looked back. The Wildcats have been winning shootouts since Tate took over four games ago, breaking 40 points every week.
In subsequent weeks, opponents have worked out that allowing the 6-foot-2, 215-pound athlete to get loose in space is just about certain death for a defense, but the Wildcats also have a play-action game and a stable of good backs who can do damage when teams are keying on Tate. It's a tough offense to deal with, close to the Louisville Cardinals with Lamar Jackson at the helm in terms of what they do and what it takes to stop them, although Tate is not as disciplined or confident running north and south as Jackson.
The USC Trojans have been beat up on defense this year and could easily struggle to deal with this attack. They only have one nose tackle left on scholarship, true freshman Brandon Pili, and are also missing defensive end Porter Gustin and perhaps also defensive end Christian Rector. It's hard to stop a spread-option attack that features a veteran offensive line like this Arizona group and then ballcarriers like Tate who can score on any play. It's harder if you're plugging in back-ups at new positions every week because of injuries.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona's defense is healthy, but it's just not very good. The USC offense has been dealing with injuries but is still being anchored by Sam Darnold, who threw for three touchdown passes last week against Arizona State, and their own run game. Running back Ronald Jones tore up the Sun Devils for 216 yards on just 18 carries and could very well be up for going toe-to-toe with Tate and the Arizona offense.
The most likely result of this game is a thrilling shootout where USC is leaning on Darnold to make plays late in the game to stave off Tate and the Wildcats. It should be a fun nightcap, and a victory would help USC nail down the Pac-12 South division.
- Khalil Tate is running wild this season -- he's must-watch television when he gets loose on the perimeter.
- Can USC's beat-up defense hold up against Arizona's explosive spread-option attack for four quarters?
- Sam Darnold in clutch time in a shootout against the Wildcats.
S&P Outright Pick: USC
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 3
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread||Ian's Pick against the spread|
|Clemson||8||North Carolina State||Clemson||Clemson||Clemson|
|Washington State||2||Stanford||Stanford||Stanford||Washington State|
|Oklahoma State||2.5||Oklahoma||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 5-1
S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 31-23
Ian Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 22-32