by Ian Boyd
Week 11 was a big shakeup for the college football scene. Two of the top four playoff teams went down in spectacular fashion, with Miami whipping Notre Dame and Auburn crushing Georgia. Alabama nearly went down as well in a tough contest with Mississippi State. Clemson alone came through more easily, winning a prime-time battle with ailing Florida State.
Washington was also knocked out of the playoff picture by Stanford, while Oklahoma established themselves as the clear favorites to win the Big 12. They would make for an interesting playoff team should they win out. The Sooners played better defense against TCU than we've seen from them at other times, and Baker Mayfield continued to build his case as the best football player in the country. Like many other contenders, they are essentially off this week and playing the hapless Kansas Jayhawks.
Week 12 is a big step backwards in terms of the number of high-profile and impact matchups. The final storm will be Weeks 13 and 14 with all of the rivalry game conclusions and then championship bouts. Week 12 has a few matchups that could have big ramifications for the teams jockeying for playoff position, such as Wisconsin and USC. It also has a few games that may be of interest in terms of coaches who are fighting to salvage the season, such as Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin or Texas' Tom Herman, or who are jockeying for a shot at a bigger job this offseason, such as SMU's Chad Morris.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Michigan at Wisconsin (-7.5) -- 12 p.m. (FOX)
Wisconsin has been chugging along this season, easily dispatching the relatively easy schedule that they've faced (ranked 98th by FEI), and slowly sneaking into the playoff picture due to their spotless resume. Iowa did them a great favor by blowing out Ohio State, making Wisconsin's commanding victory over the Hawkeyes the following weekend look better than it would have otherwise.
Most of the adversity that Wisconsin has faced this season has centered around health. The Badgers are currently dealing with injuries to key starters such as center Tyler Biadasz, strong safety D'Cota Dixon, linebacker Chris Orr, and wide receiver Jazz Peavy. They've lost good starters for the year such as linebacker Jack Cichy and receiver Quintez Cephus. They've been OK through all these injuries due to supreme roster depth and an offensive line that has been plowing opponents, setting up freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to run for 1,525 yards (7.0 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns and counting.
This week they'll face a greater challenge, going up against Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines. Michigan is really at their best defending the pass, but they've been all-around excellent on defense for a few years now, and can certainly hold their own in the run game. The Wolverines defense is built around their line, which features major impact players in tackle Maurice Hurst, defensive end Rashan Gary, and pass-rushing defensive end Chase Winovich. They're a terror to block on passing downs, but are no cakewalk to block in the run game either. Additionally, defensive coordinator Don Brown loves to bring blitzes and eight-man fronts to help stop up the works on standard downs in order to set up his pressure package on third downs. The Wolverines are ranked first in the nation in third-down defense, and Wisconsin is beat up right now at receiver. The Badgers tend to rely on tight end Troy Fumagalli on third down to run option routes in the seams, drawing double-teams and setting up the outside receivers for one-on-one matchups, but Wisconsin's outside receivers are fairly beat up now.
Wisconsin is also ranked high in third-down defense (10th nationally at 29.3 percent to Michigan's 23.7 perceent) and are not the ideal matchup for a young quarterback like Michigan's Brandon Peters, a redshirt freshman making his third start. Like Wisconsin, Michigan avoids asking their quarterback to carry the load. The Wolverines have three different running backs with 500-plus rushing yards, with Karan Higdon pacing the group with 854.
The Wolverines have settled into an identity as a team using lots of big formations, including two or three tight ends as well as senior fullback Khalid Hill. The team's second- and third-leading receivers are tight ends Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry, and their share of the load has increased since Peters took over at quarterback. Michigan hasn't attempted even 20 passes yet in a game and would probably prefer to continue in that vein against a Wisconsin blitz package that is designed to confuse and blow up young and inexperienced offensive lines like the Michigan crew.
The game probably comes down to which run game generates more and which team does a better job of avoiding turnovers. Neither team seems likely to score much without help from their own defense.
- Can Wisconsin convert third downs against the Michigan defense without their starting wide receivers?
- How will Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters navigate Wisconsin blitzes that unexpectedly drop linebackers under tight ends in coverage?
- Which team protects the football better and wins the field position battles?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Wisconsin
TCU (-7) at Texas Tech -- 12 p.m. (FS1)
Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury is in an interesting predicament. The team needs to win either this home game with TCU or their end-of-year road trip to Austin against Texas to be bowl eligible and sell progress over last year. A third losing season in five years as head coach in Lubbock would be dangerous for Kingsbury's chances of retention. On the other hand, Texas Tech is strapped for cash and would probably prefer not to buy Kingsbury out if there was a solid chance of growth and then a rebound season in 2018.
The Red Raiders may have an opening to reach six wins this week against a TCU team whose quarterback, Kenny Hill, is questionable with an undisclosed injury he suffered against Oklahoma last week. This also raises some interesting questions about what will happen at TCU, where they are still in contention to win the Big 12 championship if they can win out and then make a better showing against Oklahoma in the title game.
If Hill can't play, the Horned Frogs would turn to exciting freshman quarterback Shawn Robinson, who won the 6A Texas high school state championship in 2016 but has played sparingly as a true freshman behind Hill, throwing only 10 passes this season. The TCU offense this season has been built around the run game, and while Hill is a solid runner, Robinson has the explosiveness to regularly break long runs. Texas Tech has struggled in run defense, and how they'd fare facing a talented but also obvious and one-dimensional offense might be the perfect test case for whether Kingsbury deserves another year or not.
Texas Tech has improved somewhat on defense this season. They have toughened up against the run thanks to the return of formerly ousted linebacker Dakota Haines (who transferred back in from a junior college) and the growth of sophomore linebacker Jordyn Brooks, but they still aren't playing at a particularly high level overall.
The major battle in this game is between TCU's speedy and veteran defense against Texas Tech's always-explosive passing game. This year's Tech offense has taken a step back from their normal top-10 rate, mostly because quarterback Nic Shimonek doesn't offer the same kind of mobility and run game boost as departed star Patrick Mahomes II. TCU will probably come after Shimonek with dime packages and blitzes designed to dare the Red Raiders to win by running the football. Next year's Tech offense will probably plug in a more athletic quarterback, but they need to beat TCU to ensure that Kingsbury has a chance to coach them again.
- TCU to dare Texas Tech to beat them with the run game.
- Will Kenny Hill be able to play, or will TCU have to turn to freshman quarterback Shawn Robinson?
- Texas Tech's improved run defense facing TCU's multi-pronged rushing attack.
S&P+ Outright Pick: TCU
Texas at West Virginia (-3.5) -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)
West Virginia is still hanging on for a chance to play for the Big 12 championship if they can win this home game against Texas and their season finale on the road against Oklahoma, and if TCU and/or Oklahoma State loses another game. Both of these final Mountaineers contests are tough ones, though.
Texas has only lost two games by double-digit points this season, a 24-7 loss at TCU and a bizarre 51-41 defeat against Maryland in the season opener. They've combined excellent defense and Michael Dickson, the nation's best punter (48.6 yards per punt), to make things very tough on opponents trying to take advantage of the Longhorns' woeful offense.
Additional complicating factors in this game for West Virginia include the return of 2016 All-American left tackle Connor Williams, who has been out since the USC game; the return of freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who leads the team in rushing; and the recent move of 260-pound running back Chris Warren III to tight end, which could change up the dynamics of the Texas offense. Ehlinger was at the helm for Texas' narrow defeats against USC, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. As a 230-pound, hard-nosed runner with a knack for scrambling, Ehlinger was able to help Texas avoid negative plays and generate some rushing yardage in those contests.
West Virginia has struggled in run defense this season due to a rebuilt defensive line missing all three starters from 2016. If the Longhorns can get into bigger formations and use the quarterback run game, they may be able to push the Mountaineers around on a cold, rainy day in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers' success this season has been built off their offense, which has a truly elite dimension in the Will Grier-to-David Sills V connection. The Florida transfer quarterback has hit Sills for 18 touchdown passes already this season. West Virginia has a balanced offense with a high degree of play-action and run/pass option schemes, but their favorite way to attack is throwing down the field to Sills or fellow wide receiver Ka'Raun White.
The Longhorns defense will counter with a 3-2-6 dime package that has been responsible for much of their defensive success this season, including holding the similarly designed Oklahoma State Cowboys to 10 points in regulation a few weeks ago. The Longhorns will be without star cornerback Holton Hill (suspension) and could be put to the test balancing the need to double-team Sills and still stop running back Justin Crawford.
- West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V in the red zone, where he has 12 touchdown catches.
- Can Texas stop the West Virginia run game in their dime defense?
- How well will West Virginia's small defense hold up in the cold and wet against Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and the run game?
- Texas and West Virginia are playing for bowl eligibility and a Big 12 title, respectively, so there's plenty on the line.
S&P+ Outright Pick: West Virginia
SMU at Memphis (-13) -- 12 p.m. (ESPNN)
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There are going to be a lot of big jobs in college football opening up this December. A few big ones are already open at Tennessee and Florida, with likely more to come at Arkansas and Texas A&M. Two of the head coaches that will be looked at as possible answers for those coaching jobs are SMU's Chad Morris and Memphis' Mike Norvell.
Norvell has had a great two-year run replacing Justin Fuente (who left for Virginia Tech), winning big this season with quarterback Riley Ferguson and a mult-faceted run game. The star of the show is wide receiver Anthony Miller, who has 905 receiving yards this season and had 1,434 a year ago, but the run game is a real challenge to opponents. Lead running back Darrell Henderson has run for 776 yards at 8.2 yards per carry this season. Ferguson runs the show, which includes heavy doses of run/pass options and an overall balanced approach that represents some of the best of modern spread football.
The Memphis defense has also been solid this year, which will be important against Morris' SMU offense that has been similarly effective this season. The Mustangs offense has a trio of star wide receivers in Trey Quinn (1,008 yards, eight touchdowns), NFL-bound Courtland Sutton (875 yards, 11 touchdowns), and James Proche (690 yards, five touchdowns). Morris also runs a spread offense designed for balance and pushing the ball vertically down the field off the threat of the run game. This style of system is an emerging practice nationally and will likely make both coaches very intriguing to some of the bigger programs searching for leaders.
This game should be a shootout. You can reasonably expect SMU to be very aggressive since Morris would love to score a big victory that would draw in the eyes of local jobs like Arkansas and Texas A&M. Memphis needs the win to clinch the American West division and have a shot at South Florida or Central Florida in the American title game in three weeks. American football is often some of the most exciting around, on a similar level as the Big 12, and this game should be no exception.
- Will SMU have tricks up their sleeve to try and score an impressive win for Chad Morris?
- This game should go over the current 74.5 number for total points.
- Wide receivers Anthony Miller and Courtland Sutton, who may be in the NFL next season.
S&P Outright Pick: Memphis
Texas A&M at Ole Miss (-2.5) -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Ole Miss hasn't been much of a story this year. Their head coach resigned in disgrace in July, their young star quarterback Shea Patterson was lost for the season, and they have a self-imposed ban that has severely diminished the stakes of their campaign.
However, in the midst of that, over the last three games the Rebels have been playing some winning football thanks to junior quarterback Jordan Ta'amu. The former back-up has thrown for at least 350 yards in all three games, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions while adding another four rushing touchdowns. The Rebels run game has been decent over this stretch, thanks in part to Ta'amu's prowess on the ground, and their typically great passing game has torched the opponents on their schedule.
They'll face a step up in competition against the Texas A&M defense, but also an opponent who may be playing for a lame duck head coach. With bowl eligibility secured, the Aggies don't have much to play for unless there's a chance that winning out saves Kevin Sumlin's job. The Aggies have found some new life since injured quarterback Nick Starkel returned to the starting lineup two weeks ago. The redshirt freshman has thrown for six touchdowns and zero interceptions since relieving Kellen Mond against Auburn.
While Mond was an effective runner for the Aggies, Starkel has made better use of upperclassmen receivers such as Christian Kirk, which in turn has helped ease some pressure off the Aggies potent, two-headed running game. Ole Miss has been horrible in run defense this season. Even if they manage to light up the Texas A&M defense, they could still be facing a shootout with an uncertain outcome.
The Texas A&M defense has had some "feast or famine" elements to them this season, ranking 55th in IsoPPP and 80th on passing downs despite being sixth nationally in team sacks. Sacks are no longer a great metric for passing defense. The teams that are best at getting off the field on third down typically bring pressure without exposing themselves to hot routes and easy throws from spread formations that pick up yards after catch.
There's a good chance that Ole Miss' spread offense will do real damage to the Aggies' defense and create a pretty high-paced shootout.
- Does Texas A&M continue to blitz, or do they take a more cautious approach against the Ole Miss spread offense?
- Is Texas A&M inspired to protect their coach in this game? How aggressive is the game plan?
- Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel's passing could open running lanes for speedy running back Trayveon Williams.
S&P Outright Pick: Ole Miss
UCLA at USC (-16) -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
Fans of the NFL may tune in to this game for the battle between potential draft picks Josh Rosen of UCLA and Sam Darnold of USC. Rosen at least seems destined for the NFL next season, while there's plenty of talk that Darnold might return for another year at USC despite his likely status as a day-one draft pick.
USC figures to be much better next season, when they'll have a deeper collection of offensive linemen and defensive tackles than they have in this injury-riddled year. Their cast of wide receivers will be one year better and should still include star target Deontay Burnett. But for all that, USC still has a shot at a national title this coming season if they can win out and get some luck from some other top teams losing.
Darnold will have a decent shot at achieving that aim against UCLA, which has been playing absolutely horrible defense this season for head coach Jim Mora. The Bruins first began to knock on the door of national relevance under Mora because of his defenses and his ability to recruit top Californian and Texan players like Myles Jack and Soso Jamabo, but his defenses have collapsed over recent seasons and the offenses have failed to bail him out despite Rosen's presence.
The USC offensive line has been a little more consistent recently. Running back Ronald Jones II has been doing real damage, with 1,224 rushing yards this year at 6.7 yards per carry with 14 rushing touchdowns. The wide receiver corps has also been flourishing with redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns emerging as the No. 2 receiver behind Burnett.
Still, the Bruins are very dangerous when playing pro-style passing schemes, with tight end Caleb Wilson attacking in the middle and opening up opportunities for outside receivers Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley. Their run game has been solid and will probably also get some chances against USC's beat-up defensive line. The Bruins will need the whole offense to attack the Trojans' weakened defensive line, which is now potentially missing the season's starting defensive ends and outside linebackers in addition to lacking players inside.
If the Trojans' beat-up defense can hang on while Darnold and the offense get them through another week, there's a chance that this team could be healthier and dangerous come playoff time.
- NFL quarterback prospects Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold.
- Will the Trojans offense overpower the UCLA defense, or can the Bruins make enough stops to make this game competitive?
- Who will be available to take the field for USC on defense? Can they hold up against Rosen and the Bruins passing game?
S&P Outright Pick: USC
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 12
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread||Ian's Pick against the spread|
|TCU||7||Texas Tech||TCU||Texas Tech||Texas Tech|
|Texas||3.5||West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia||Texas|
|Ole Miss||2.5||Texas A&M||Ole Miss||Ole Miss||Texas A&M|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 2-4
S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 37-29
Ian Picks against the spread last week: 1-5
Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 28-38