by Ian Boyd
The top four teams in the College Football Playoff rankings held firm after Week 10, but there was a huge shakeup in the contenders ranked behind them. Ohio State suffered a shocking loss at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes, 55-24, in a game that derailed the "J.T. Barrett for Heisman" hype train and put a huge dent in the Buckeyes' defensive reputation as well. Urban Meyer's Buckeyes are in bad shape now, yet they still have a shot to win the Big Ten and collect some impressive victories along the way.
Alabama predictably dispatched LSU behind the always suffocating Tide defense, while Oklahoma predictably held off Oklahoma State in a wild and exciting 62-52 shootout that came down to the wire. Much of the week's action served to set up Week 11 as a veritable buffet of meaningful and intriguing matchups that could prove to be the most entertaining yet of this 2017 season.
Auburn and Georgia square off in a game with major playoff ramifications for everyone. Wisconsin and Miami are strolling into big games with Iowa and Notre Dame while still undefeated. TCU and Oklahoma are playing for what might be a berth in both the Big 12 championship game AND the top four playoff rankings. Washington gets another crack at proving themselves as they travel to Palo Alto to take on Stanford.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Washington (-6) at Stanford -- 10:30 p.m. Friday (FS1)
The Huskies have not really had a particularly challenging schedule this season, so it has been difficult to evaluate their 8-1 record. Their only game against a Power 5 opponent with a record above .500 was against Arizona State, who defeated them 13-7. Their only other two games against winning teams came against Fresno State and Montana. Suffice to say that Washington is largely untested this season.
They definitely haven't faced a team with talent and power running the football like the 2017 Stanford Cardinal, who they now draw on the road. Stanford has been bruising most opponents this season, even in losses, with star running back Bryce Love. That slowed down against Oregon State when Love was out and then again last week against Washington State's speedy and unorthodox defense. The Washington defense has been strong this season, but also largely untested. They gave up a nice 122-yard rushing day against Oregon's star running back Royce Freeman despite the Ducks relying on freshman passer Braxton Burmeister.
So there's a lot on the line for this Husky team, which could potentially win out this season and be positioned for a return to the playoff. They need to score some wins with performances that will impress the committee to beat out teams with similar resumes, and taking down Stanford on the road would be a big way to do it.
The Stanford defense has struggled this season, so they may not prove a particularly good test of the Washington offense, but it has been apparent that Husky quarterback Jake Browning has struggled in the absence of John Ross, his favorite 2016 target. Browning's yards per attempt have slipped from 8.8 in 2016 to 8.2 in 2017 without facing anything close to the caliber of defenses that he regularly battled in 2016. Washington has had to lean more on their running game, which draws a fairly favorable matchup in Stanford, who has badly missed 2016 star defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.
Washington is also trotting out a totally rebuilt secondary this season. The dominant 2016 group lost versatile safety Budda Baker (the team's leading tackler) as well as cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones. However, Stanford hasn't really thrown the ball well since Jim Harbaugh left, and has struggled to make headway in their passing game with either Keller Chryst or K.J. Costello at the helm.
So Stanford won't prove a full and complete test of Washington's strength as a national contender, but they will prove a better test than many others that the Huskies have taken this season.
- The star-studded Washington defensive line against Stanford's big, bruising run blocking.
- Can Stanford attack Washington's young secondary?
- Will Washington be able to overwhelm Stanford's struggling defense, or are they a much lesser unit than in 2016?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington
Michigan State at Ohio State (-15.5) -- 12 p.m. (FOX)
Mark Dantonio thought this line was amusing, and it's not hard to see why. Since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012, he has gone 3-2 against Dantonio's Spartans. Two of those three wins came by the exact same score, 17-16, and the third was in 2014 when they beat the Spartans 49-37 due to a shockingly efficient passing game from J.T. Barrett, the likes of which we've scarcely seen since.
Last year, a much more deeply flawed Michigan State team took the Buckeyes down to the wire before throwing a game-losing interception. That Spartans team actually took some damage against the Buckeyes run game, yielding 224 yards at 5 yards per carry, but they held Barrett to 86 yards passing at 3.9 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, their own offense found room for running back L.J. Scott to rush for 160 yards.
This year's matchup comes on the heels of that upset in Iowa. The Buckeyes offense proved vulnerable to a sturdy front that could avoid getting blown away by the Ohio State offensive line, while Barrett struggled to attack savvy zone coverage without costly turnovers. Michigan State will bring those same elements but at high speed. The Spartans have always made their living with defenses composed of well-developed, program kids with a good knowledge of both their own and their opponents' schemes. This squad is back to playing downhill and looking to stuff the run at all costs. They stuffed running back Akrum Wadley and the Iowa run game, shut down Northwestern's ground attack (but took some shots against the pass), and held Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to 63 rushing yards. You aren't making headway against Michigan State's defense without throwing the ball, and Ohio State has struggled to do that this season or in previous contests against Michigan State.
Those data points alone suggest this game will be much closer than the 15.5-point spread, but there's also the question of whether Michigan State might not just beat Ohio State straight up. Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke has been growing this season. He threw for 400 yards in against Northwestern and Penn State and carried the offense even as their run game has struggled.
Ohio State is a tough defense to attack unless you can handle their brilliantly deep and talented defensive line. The Spartans offensive line has been solid this season, but will be up against it facing Ohio State. They may need to find some trap and lead running plays to punish the Buckeyes' occasionally over-aggressive linebackers in order to eke out a win here.
- Can Ohio State run the ball on Michigan State, or will victory need to come from throwing the ball with quarterback J.T. Barrett?
- Will Michigan State stay aggressive with their passing game, or look to grind out a low-scoring victory?
- Can Michigan State protect quarterback Brian Lewerke against Ohio State's defensive line?
- Will Lewerke or Barrett be able to use their legs to make the difference in a close game?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
Georgia (-2.5) at Auburn -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
Georgia and Auburn have nearly been mirror images of each other this season. Both teams had high-profile, early-season, non-conference games with national contenders; Auburn wasn't able to pull out a win against Clemson, while Georgia barely scraped a victory over Notre Dame. Each team has a thundering, downhill running game that has been supplemented by a first-year starting quarterback with a big arm; Auburn has relied heavily on Jarrett Stidham while Georgia has been able to ease Jake Fromm along. Both teams have strong defensive lines and great offenses overall. And both teams would (probably) have to beat Alabama after this game in order to win the SEC title.
Georgia has looked like the more impressive team this season, but Auburn's resume is pretty strong in its own right. The Tigers whipped Mississippi State, much as Georgia did, but lost to LSU, whom Georgia did not play this year. So while Auburn is only 7-2 compared to Georgia's 9-0, they are slightly more battle tested. In particular, we have seen Auburn lean on Stidham to execute their passing game and beat teams down the field, whereas Fromm has not yet been asked to carry the Georgia offense to victory in a close game. The closest we have seen was Fromm throwing 29 passes against Notre Dame, and managing only 4.9 yards per attempt with one touchdown and one interception.
If Auburn has an edge in this game, it's exactly that. They know they can attack Georgia deep in the passing game with Stidham and pick up explosive plays. On the other hand, it's not clear whether Fromm can big plays throwing the football in order to pull out a win. He has shown great promise, so this may be a coming-out party for the freshman signal-caller, but we'll have to see.
The Georgia run game is probably the best that Auburn has faced this season, and may prove to be the best they'll face all year. The Bulldogs have been running a lot of Iso and power runs, even from spread formations, much as Auburn has tended to do under head coach Gus Malzahn. Lead running back Nick Chubb is at 867 rushing yards on the year with 6.2 yards per carry. Back-up Sony Michel has another 710 yards at 7.9 yards per carry. Georgia's offensive line took a big step forward this season while plugging in some new talent. Fromm has been very efficient when throwing play-action and option plays to protect their run game from being outnumbered by defenses.
If the Georgia run game proves too much for Auburn's defense, than it may indicate that the Bulldogs truly are the best team in football this year, even if we still won't know how Fromm would hold up trying to throw the ball to win against a top defense. Additionally, whichever team wins we'll have a nice point of comparison if the SEC title game matches Alabama against Georgia.
- Can either team impose its will in the run game against the other?
- If the game comes down to the play of the quarterbacks, will Jarrett Stidham or Jake Fromm make the key plays that swing the game?
- How do either of these teams look as potential contenders against Alabama?
- Georgia hasn't faced many vertical passing attacks like this Auburn one -- will they hold up in the secondary?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Georgia
Alabama (-14) at Mississippi State -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)
If you thought Alabama lacked great quarterback play but still featured great defense and an imposing running game, then the LSU game unfolded more or less as you would have expected. The Tigers weren't able to do much damage running the ball against the Tide save for a Wildcat play for running back Darrel Williams, and their passing game is not at a level that can dominate against a top team like Alabama.
However, the LSU defense held their own and limited the damage of Alabama's running game while holding Jalen Hurts to 11-of-24 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown. Hurts hasn't really proven he can take down a great defense with his arm. What gains they had against LSU often came as a result of Hurts hitting his first read because the Alabama receivers were able to get open against man coverage.
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will challenge Alabama with pattern-matching zone coverages while looking to load the box to stop the run. It will be very interesting to see how well Hurts navigates that style. Auburn and Georgia both ran for 200-plus yards on Mississippi State, so Alabama may not need Hurts to generate offense in this game. It may also be a struggle to keep star wide receiver Calvin Ridley from getting open -- the Alabama junior has been excellent in somewhat limited opportunities this season.
The Tide have been very effective running the football this year; lead running back Damien Harris is averaging 8.1 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns. This offensive line is one of the best we've seen from Nick Saban's program, and that's saying something. It will be difficult for the Bulldogs to pull this win out unless they are regularly changing the numbers on the scoreboard.
On that side of the ball, things boil down to the play of Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The junior quarterback has run for 100 yards in each of the last four games and thrown for 200 yards only once in that period, against BYU. There have been spread offenses in the past that have managed to run the ball on Alabama by involving the quarterback heavily as a runner, but last season Fitzgerald ran the ball 11 times for only 15 yards against Alabama. If Mississipi State's offensive front has improved enough that Fitzgerald can break off some long runs, then the game could really get interesting.
- Have the improvements from Mississippi State's run game been a result of weaker opponents or real growth?
- Can Mississippi State stop the Alabama run game well enough to force Jalen Hurts to beat them throwing the ball?
- Will Mississippi State be able to throw the ball on Alabama, or do they have to trust Nick Fitzgerald to run it 20 times?
S&P Outright Pick: Alabama
Notre Dame (-3) at Miami -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
Miami has been chugging along this year, improving as a team while dispatching the opponents on their schedule, and that held true against Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes won the big-play battle in that contest, putting up 429 yards on 58 plays while Virginia Tech needed 75 plays to get even 299 yards. Miami has played things very simply this year, looking to outrush their opponents while also producing more big plays in the passing game. They did so against Virginia Tech, although quarterback Malik Rosier threw three interceptions in addition to his 10 completions that netted Miami 193 yards and two touchdowns. Miami also ran the ball effectively, with Rosier and running back Travis Homer combining for 27 carries, 179 yards, and two rushing touchdowns.
They draw an even stiffer test this week against Notre Dame, who doesn't give up much either on the ground or in the form of big plays this season -- at least, they didn't before facing Wake Forest a week ago.
The Demon Deacons broke through some of Notre Dame's defenses with a spread-option attack that utilized senior quarterback John Wolford's ability to throw pass options (and he threw for 331 yards in this game) and to run the ball himself (12 carries for 59 yards). Miami's offense is not the same as Wake Forest's; they tend to run Rosier on zone-read plays and use more traditional passing concepts from head coach Mark Richt's old playbook as a pro-style coach. However, they may be able to match Wake Forest's success in spreading the Irish from sideline to sideline and finding places to punch the ball through with speedy athletes.
Miami should prove a good test for the Notre Dame running game as well. The Irish are a tad beat up as running back Josh Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush left the Wake Forest game (briefly, in the case of Wimbush) with injuries. Miami has been strong in run defense this season and is very comfortable playing with three linebackers and keying tightly on opposing running games while playing bend-don't-break style in the secondary. This is exactly the kind of offense that Miami's defense is designed to counter. It's simply a question of whether they can match the physicality and execution of the Notre Dame offensive line.
The renewing of this rivalry, once very fierce and well encapsulated by the "Catholics vs. Convicts" story of the past, should make for some compelling drama even before factoring in the fact that both of these teams are competing for a playoff spot.
- Can Miami's defense match up with Notre Dame's offensive line?
- Will Miami's spread offense be able to mimic what Wake Forest did successfully against Notre Dame?
- Turnovers -- last week aside, both of these teams have done well in turnover margin and are ranked fourth (Miami) and fifth (Notre Dame) on the year.
- Can this be a heated rivalry once more?
S&P Outright Pick: Notre Dame
TCU at Oklahoma (-6.5) -- 8 p.m. (FOX)
The current Big 12 standings feature a two-way tie for first place between ... Oklahoma and TCU. Because the Big 12 is instituting a ridiculous championship game between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams at the end of the year, this game won't necessarily have the big impact on the conference race that it would have in the past. Neither team wants to be cast down with the second-place teams and forced to peck their way out of that mess, but the bigger ramifications of this game are for the playoff race, in which Oklahoma and TCU are ranked fifth and sixth respectively.
The Horned Frogs have been winning in a pretty orthodox fashion for a college team, if not for a Big 12 squad: by running the ball and playing great defense. Quarterback Kenny Hill has some strong numbers on the year, but his stats against good defenses have not been amazing. He has tended to be more of a caretaker who can boost the offense on third downs with his legs. The real thrust of their offense is running the ball with Darius Anderson (726 yards) and Kyle Hicks (435 yards) behind a veteran offensive line.
Oklahoma showed well on defense against the run-oriented Ohio State Buckeyes, but has been getting shredded by Big 12 spread attacks. Oklahoma State threw for 448 yards and five touchdowns against the Sooners, while adding another 213 rushing yards and two more touchdowns to add up to 661 yards and 52 points. TCU, of course, is more of a run-oriented squad that isn't designed to attack the hapless Sooners defense down the field in the same manner as Oklahoma State or other Big 12 teams. Nevertheless, Oklahoma has curiously played well on defense against Big 12 teams when using 4-2-5 nickel personnel, but they are thin in the secondary right now due to injuries and keep trying to play 4-3 personnel that can't hold up against the spread. They'll probably play the latter against TCU, and the Frogs may have a big day as a result.
The battle between Oklahoma's No. 1 ranked offense and TCU's No. 3 ranked defense is the most intriguing matchup of the entire weekend. The Horned Frogs have been getting better every week. They seem to have found a comfort zone with a 4-2-5 nickel package that has the speed and versatility to help the Frogs move players around to take away their opponent's right hand from week to week. Oklahoma doesn't have the kind of offense that you can outnumber though. They pair a thundering run game with a host of formations, constraints, and downfield passes for quarterback Baker Mayfield to utilize in attacking defenses. The senior is playing like the best player in the country right now, and the Sooners have been working out ways to give him even more resources for attacking opponents.
Wide receiver Marquise Brown had nine catches for 265 yards and two scores last week against Oklahoma State. He gives the Sooners yet one more option on top of flex tight end Mark Andrews, budding star freshman receiver Ceedee Lamb, and versatile fullback Dmitri Flowers. The Sooners may be most deadly now when throwing down the field on play-action with Andrews crossing over the middle to hold a safety while the speedy Brown runs past the cornerback for Mayfield. There's not really anywhere on the field from which defenses can send help to stop either the Oklahoma run game or the passing game.
What TCU will instead have to do is try to confuse Mayfield, keep the ball in front of them, and keep the score down to a manageable level so that Hill doesn't have to trade shots with Mayfield late in the game. If they can slow the Sooners down, there's a chance that TCU's amazing speed on offense will punish a slower and mistake-prone Oklahoma defense enough to give the Frogs the win.
- How will Gary Patterson's experienced TCU defenders attack Oklahoma's senior quarterback Baker Mayfield?
- Can TCU's small defensive line and linebackers hold up against the big Oklahoma offensive line in the run game?
- Will TCU be able to run the ball on Oklahoma's big defensive front, or do they try to exploit the tattered Oklahoma secondary?
- TCU's speedy slot receivers could change this game with yards after the catch.
S&P Outright Pick: TCU
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 11
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread||Ian's Pick against the spread|
|Ohio State||15.5||Michigan State||Ohio State||Ohio State||Michigan State|
|Alabama||14||Mississippi State||Alabama||Mississippi State||Alabama|
|Notre Dame||3||Miami||Notre Dame||Miami||Notre Dame|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 2-4
S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 33-27
Ian Picks against the spread last week: 5-1
Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 27-33