by Ian Boyd
About 10 teams still have a shot at making the College Football Playoff, and they are about to sort each other out over this weekend (Rivalry Week) and then in the following round (Championship Week). The Iron Bowl on Saturday afternoon is going to be the new biggest matchup of the season; it may determine the playoff fates of Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia all in one fell swoop.
Clemson has a trap to navigate in rival South Carolina before facing off against Miami in the ACC title game, where the winner will likely claim another playoff spot. The Pac-12 North title will be at stake when the Washington schools play on Friday; a Washington State win would send the Cougars to the conference championship game against USC, while a Huskies victory would pit the Stanford Cardinal against the Trojans instead. Regardless of their opponents, the Trojans are undoubtedly hopeful that a conference championship could put them into the playoffs over other two-loss teams.
Speaking of Stanford, Notre Dame still has a major matchup with the Cardinal. The Fighting Irish are currently ranked ahead of USC and just behind Ohio State in the playoff rankings, so a big win here could put them in as well.
Finally, there's "the game" between Ohio State and Michigan taking place in Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes need a win here and another in the Big 10 championship game against Wisconsin to catapult back into the playoffs.
All times are listed as Eastern.
South Florida at Central Florida (-10) -- 3:30 p.m. Friday (ABC)
It doesn't look like the playoff committee is keen on including even an undefeated AAC champion, but Central Florida is currently at 10-0 with two games remaining: this rivalry matchup against South Florida and, if they win, the AAC title game against Memphis. South Florida will earn that spot if they win this game since they only have one loss in conference and would own the tie-breaker over Central Florida. At the very least an AAC title is on the line in this contest and head coaches Charlie Strong (USF) and Scott Frost (UCF) are both under consideration for the big time jobs that are popping open all over the country.
These teams both play a pretty exciting brand of football with USF playing a hybridized version of the "veer and shoot" offense that Art Briles made famous at Baylor that's been crossed with the "Gulf Coast offense" that Willie Taggart developed at USF before leaving for the Oregon job. The "veer and shoot" is known for using spread formations with ultra-wide receiver splits and then combining downhill/power run game concepts with option football and very frequent deep throws off play-action. Charlie Strong and his staff inherited a quarterback in Quinton Flowers who's more of a runner than a deep passer, so they've kept around a lot of the "Gulf Coast offense" components in which Flowers executes option plays where he's either throwing a quick pass or running the ball himself. He's currently at 870 rushing yards and 2,097 passing yards on the year with 26 total touchdowns.
The Central Florida defense has played quite well this year with a "bend don't break" style but they'll probably aim to load the box and make Quinton Flowers beat them by throwing the ball down the field, as Houston did when they beat the Bulls 28-24. The USF Bulls can hit some throws deep but by playing off coverage while loading the box you can force Flowers to hit throws underneath and he tends to lack enough accuracy to execute that plan.
On the other side of the ball, Charlie Strong has brought a very effective blitz package to USF, significantly improving the defense. Central Florida could be vulnerable as their offensive line wasn't excellent in 2016 and had to make significant improvements to reach the point they're at now in 2017. Defensive linemen Bruce Hector and Mike Love have led the way for the Bulls with seven and five sacks apiece while nose tackle Deadrin Senat has added another four. It's a very disruptive front that has allowed the Bulls to get pressure without committing a lot of pass-rushers.
The Central Florida Knights are paced largely by quarterback McKenzie Milton, who's done an amazing job at distributing the ball with four different receivers at 300 yards or more. It's hard to key on any particular feature of the Knight offense but the Bulls may not have to if they can get pressure with three or four defenders while dropping everyone else into coverage. Milton has only taken nine sacks this year and thrown just five interceptions so no one else has been able to prevent the shifty quarterback from avoiding miscues while throwing for 10.1 yards per attempt and running for 422 yards and five touchdowns.
- Can USF get pressure on UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton?
- Will USF quarterback Quinton Flowers be able to push the ball down the field on the Knights' defense?
- Can the Knights win this game convincingly enough to make an impression on the playoff committee?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Central Florida
Ohio State (-12) at Michigan -- 12 p.m. Saturday (FOX)
Michigan vs Ohio State is probably the biggest rivalry in college football, even though this year's contest doesn't have many great selling points. It's not a particularly well known fact that Michigan's most legendary head coach, Bo Schembechler, never won a national championship. That's because Ohio State defeated them multiple times during the "ten year war" between Schembechler and Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes, and for their part Michigan spoiled several of Ohio State's best seasons during that decade as well.
Playing spoiler is just about the best that Michigan can hope for in this game, indeed it's hard to see them achieving a greater result to hang their hats on for the 2017 season than guaranteeing that the Buckeyes didn't make the playoffs. The problem for the Wolverines is that starting quarterback Wilton Speight is still out and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters who won the job from senior John O'Korn a few weeks ago may not be cleared from a concussion in time for this game. The Wolverines are built much more around the run game anyways this season, as you can tell from their stat profile, and their young offensive line struggles to protect their quarterbacks, the young receivers struggle to get open at times, and O'Korn in particular struggles to hit them when he does have time and they are open. Suffice to say there's good reason the Buckeyes are favored by 12 points.
Nevertheless, Michigan's defense has been ranked in the top 10 all season and are a tough bunch to move the ball against. Ohio State made some strides on offense after the debacle in Iowa by de-emphasizing some of their option runs and focusing on giving quarterback J.T. Barrett pass options or straight hand-offs to their excellent running back tandem of Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins. When they're at their best the Buckeye offense combines a three-headed rushing attack (Dobbins, Weber, and Barrett himself) with an Air Raid-inspired passing game that presents Barrett with speedy receivers running crossing routes over the middle.
The Wolverines are going to match this offense by playing a lot of man coverage and loading up the middle of the field while daring Barrett to beat them outside. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown also attacked the Buckeyes a year ago with a combination of man-1 blitzes (five pass-rushers, man coverage, and a single deep safety) as well as some hybrid blitzes that brought five pass-rushers while playing bracket coverage on Ohio State's most dangerous deep threat. All three of Michigan's starting linebackers have 4.5 sacks or more while defensive linemen Chase Winovich (7.5 sacks) and Maurice Hurst (5.5 sacks) are also regular attendees in opposing backfields.
There's a solid chance that Michigan has a good plan to limit the Ohio State offense but spoiling Ohio State's season will depend on finding ways to attack the Buckeye defense. Another adjustment that Ohio State made to the debacle in Iowa was to move their linebackers around and insert redshirt freshman Tuf Borland at middle linebacker while moving senior Chris Worley back outside to strongside linebacker. The Wolverines attacked Ohio State in the middle of the field last year with tight end Jake Butt but they may have a hard time throwing the ball against Ohio State this year without Wilton Speight under center.
Most likely Michigan head man Jim Harbaugh will have a detailed and extensive plan to run the ball on the Buckeyes' struggling linebacker corps and make young Borland prove he's ready to handle a complicated gameplan designed to attack him. They may also look to throw the ball outside on Worley who will now be playing in space on Michigan's slot receiver Grant Perry and tight ends after spending most of the year playing inside.
Jim Harbaugh has not yet beaten Ohio State in two tries, nor has he had a ton of success against their other rivals, the Michigan State Spartans. With the 1-5 record against their rivals playing in a home game with a lot at stake it's a good bet that Michigan is going to treat this game like the Super Bowl.
- Can Michigan find ways to attack Ohio State's linebackers and move the ball on offense?
- Who wins the chess match between Urban Meyer and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown?
- Who plays quarterback for Michigan and will they be ready to handle the pressure of "the game?"
- Michigan to play a surprisingly competitive game in a heated rivalry at home.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
Alabama (-4.5) at Auburn -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
While the Iron Bowl doesn't have quite the tradition or history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, it has been one of the better games of this decade; on three different occasions (2010, 2013, and 2014), it has determined whether the winner could go on to the SEC title game and then onto the national championship. Alabama is ranked No. 1 and Auburn No. 6, as highly ranked as these teams have been going into this game. The winner goes on to play Georgia in the SEC title game, and the winner of that game is probably a shoo-in for the college football playoff while losing either of these games would likely eliminate Auburn and possibly Alabama as well.
Alabama is the favorite -- indeed, it's hard to recall a game in the last 10 years where Alabama wasn't favored -- but it's hard to find many advantages for the Tide in this contest. Auburn has been playing better and better every week thanks to an offensive line that has been getting healthier and a quarterback in Jarrett Stidham who's gaining confidence in the offense as a first-year starter. The Tigers are coming into this game with a more settled defense, a more dangerous passing game, and the confidence of having been tested by multiple top teams, while Alabama has really only played one marquee game this year (against LSU).
The biggest danger spot for Alabama in this game is up front when the Tigers have the football. In addition to having a lot of misdirection, sweeps, play-action, and option concepts in their offense, the Tigers are also good at simply running it down your throat with running back Kerryon Johnson (1,172 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns) behind fullback Chandler Cox. The Tide are very good along their defensive line, but their linebacker corps is missing their normal upperclassmen inside linebackers to shut down opposing rushing attacks. Instead they'll be relying on hybrid outside linebacker Rashaan Evans, whose main strength isn't stuffing inside runs but blitzing, and true freshman Dylan Moses, who started his first game a week ago against Mercer.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama will also be challenged by trying to attack Auburn's top-10 defense with their current offensive design. The Tide have an outstanding offensive line that has helped spring running back Damien Harris for 855 rushing yards at 8.2 yards per carry, but they may meet their match in Auburn's defensive front, led by linebackers Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams. If Alabama can't generate enough offense on the ground, it'll come down to Jalen Hurts executing their passing game against a Tigers defense that can get pressure without blitzing thanks to defensive end Jeff Holland. Hurts tends to follow a procedure on passing downs that goes "look for Calvin Ridley; if he's covered, take off running." If Auburn can cover up Ridley and keep Hurts contained in the pocket, as LSU did at times, Alabama doesn't have many other bullets to fire on offense.
Nick Saban has a lot to try and shore up in this game in order to handle what will likely be a similarly carefully crafted game plan from Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. The Auburn coach has managed to get the best of Saban before, and it'll be worth tuning in to see if he can do so again.
- Can Alabama track and defend all of Auburn's run game concepts with a freshman middle linebacker?
- How will Alabama's safeties balance the need to help the linebackers with stopping Auburn's play-action throws over the top?
- Can Auburn's stout defense keep up their success going against Alabama's elite offensive line?
- If this game comes down to Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, can he make the big plays to win?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama
Clemson (-14) at South Carolina -- 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
South Carolina was having a very promising Year 2 under head coach Will Muschamp until star wide receiver Deebo Samuel broke his leg in the third game of the year against Kentucky. Since then the Gamecocks have struggled to find explosiveness on offense and have scored 20 or fewer points in five of eight contests. They have been solid on defense, but have been vulnerable against the run. They are smaller than perhaps they'd like to be going up against the heavyweights in the SEC.
Stopping the run will be their main focus this week against Clemson. Clemson has predictably leaned more on the run game this year without Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Watson's replacement Kelly Bryant has thrown for only 7.2 yards per pass with 10 touchdowns to five interceptions. The Tigers have been more potent on the ground, with Bryant and running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne running for more than 600 yards each and combining for 26 total rushing touchdowns.
Their spread-option rushing attack has carried them in every game this season, particularly when they have been able to get the ball to Etienne in space. Stopping it is as much about team discipline on defense as it is about sending help from the secondary. South Carolina will need to play a clean game up front while forcing Bryant to keep the ball as much as possible and not get it into the hands of his running backs.
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The Clemson defense is the main reason why South Carolina may struggle to make much of this rivalry matchup. Both Tigers defensive ends (Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant) have 7.5 sacks on the year, and strongside linebacker Dorian O'Daniel has added another 5.0 coming off the edge while also leading the team in tackles. The Tigers can bring a lot of pressure on defense, particularly from the edges, and are pretty stout up the middle with linebacker Kendall Joseph and a pair of run-stopping safeties in Van Smith and Tanner Muse. South Carolina's normally plodding offense is going to struggle to run the ball well enough to light up the scoreboard on Clemson, unless they can get to the perimeter and outside of the Tigers' contain defenders. If that can happen a few times, the Muschamp's defense may be able to keep them in the game.
- Can South Carolina keep the ball out of the Clemson running backs' hands on the option without getting gashed?
- How does South Carolina attack Clemson in space without Deebo Samuel?
- Can Clemson start to build more of an offensive identity around star running back Travis Etienne in time for their title game bout with Miami?
S&P Outright Pick: Clemson
Notre Dame (-2.5) at Stanford -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
Notre Dame got back on track after their crushing loss in the rekindled rivalry matchup with Miami two weeks ago, narrowly beating Navy 24-17 thanks to running back Josh Adams and a strong defensive effort led by nickel/safety Julian Love. The Irish have played pretty solid defense all year, but their offense has been somewhat hit-or-miss, largely depending on whether or not their opponent can handle their offensive line and run game.
When opponents can't handle Adams or quarterback Brandon Wimbush keeping the ball on the option, than the Irish can become an overwhelming force that just washes opponents away. When teams can stop up the run game, then Wimbush's limitations as a passer start to matter and the Irish can get bogged down. That will be Stanford's hope in this contest.
The Cardinal have not been as stout in run defense as in past years, mostly because they have struggled to replace star defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Their formula for victory this season has been to stop big passing plays and lean on running back Bryce Love to break off some long runs. That formula has produced victories over Washington and Cal in recent weeks and also got them within three points of Washington State, but they couldn't generate enough offense against the Cougars to pull that victory out.
Notre Dame needs to land a knockout blow against Stanford to maintain an edge in resume over USC as an at-large playoff team. The Irish whipped USC head-to-head, but may struggle to compare resumes if USC wins in the Pac-12 title game. Beating Stanford decisively, as USC did, would help keep Notre Dame ahead for consideration in the event that there's a blood path in front of them that eliminates multiple teams.
The Irish have been solid in run defense this year. They will have an interesting question to answer in terms of how exactly they want to scheme up the Stanford offense. The challenge the Cardinal present is that they often load up the front with extra blockers that might be offensive linemen, tight ends, or fullbacks, and then they force you to load the box with extra defenders. Then if they block a play well enough to spring Love, there aren't as many deep defenders to limit the damage when the explosive back takes off. It's a challenge to find the right combination of getting beef up front to stand up to the Cardinal blockers without sacrificing so much speed that you can't track down Love on the occasions when he gets loose.
Notre Dame will probably try to play off a bit, yield some yardage, and hope to limit the big runs. That could turn this into a close-fought, grind-it-out kind of contest unless the Irish run game just blows Stanford away. If it comes down to quarterback play in the fourth quarter, it could very well be anybody's game.
- Can the Stanford run defense contain Notre Dame and keep this game close?
- Can young quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and K.J. Costelle avoid costly turnovers?
- How will Notre Dame seek to contain Bryce Love and the Stanford run game?
S&P Outright Pick: Notre Dame
Washington State at Washington (-10) -- 8 p.m. (FOX)
Washington's hopes of a playoff berth probably evaporated when they drew a big test of their gaudy statistical profile against Stanford and came up short in a 30-22 defeat. They were able to run the ball reasonably well on the Cardinal defense, but had a long drought starting just before the second half that included four punts and a fumble and allowed Stanford to pull away. Meanwhile, their highly rated defense barely managed to hold down Bryce Love, who ran 30 times for 166 yards, and at the cost of getting gashed by Stanford wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for 130 yards.
Stopping the Cougars offense should be more straightforward and within the lane for the Huskies' undersized defense, which is led by 6-foot-0, 222-pound inside linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven and safeties Tyler Rapp, Ezekiel Turner, and JoJo McIntosh. The Huskies like to get extra linebackers and defensive backs on the field in nickel and dime sub-packages while leaning on big defensive linemen Vita Vea (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) and Greg Gaines (6-foot-2, 322 pounds) to allow them to control the line of scrimmage. The Cougars may allow them to push the envelope pretty far in their efforts to get speed on the field with their Air Raid offense coached by Mike Leach.
This Cougars offense hasn't been as potent as it was in previous seasons under Leach, mostly due to a lack of depth at receiver. Tavares Martin Jr. leads the team with 769 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, but there's no proven threat behind him. The Huskies will likely look to double-team him with a safety and a linebacker, play another safety deep over the top, and force the Cougars to throw to other targets or run the ball while facing daunting one-on-one matchups against the Huskies' athletic defensive backfield and massive line.
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The Huskies are in for more of a fight on the other side of the ball trying to establish a run game against the aggressive Cougars defense, which is led by star defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa. Hercules helped the Cougars shut down the Stanford run game outside of one big Bryce Love run and has 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks thus far on the season. At 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, he's undersized for an interior defensive linemen, but he makes up for it with lightning speed off the ball and some grappling techniques he learned as a high school wrestler in Hawaii.
Washington leans very heavily on their own running game to set the table for the rest of their offense and to give quarterback Jake Browning open targets in the passing game. They don't really have a receiver who can command a double-team or be a go-to target on third down, with the closest being Dante Pettis (706 receiving yards, seven touchdowns). If the Huskies struggle to run the ball against Hercules and the fast, swarming Cougars defense, then they'll be no better off than the Cougars offense trying to do likewise against the speedy Huskies defense.
- Can the Huskies run the ball against defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa and Washington State?
- Will Cougars quarterback Luke Falk be able to get the Air Raid passing game going against the Huskies' speedy defense?
- Can the Huskies get their pass-rush going at home and spoil their rivals' conference championship hopes?
S&P Outright Pick: Washington
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 13
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread||Ian's Pick against the spread|
|Central Florida||10||South Florida||Central Florida||South Florida||Central Florida|
|Ohio State||12||Michigan||Ohio State||Michigan||Michigan|
|Clemson||14||South Carolina||Clemson||South Carolina||Clemson|
|Notre Dame||2.5||Stanford||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|Washington||10||Washington State||Washington||Washington||Washington State|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 2-4
S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 39-33
Ian Picks against the spread last week: 3-3
Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 31-41