by Ian Boyd
College football's Week 9 didn't hold anything particularly shocking. The Texas-Oklahoma State game matched the adjusted stats over the rankings, although the Longhorns nearly pulled the game out late after getting ambushed in a 17-7 first quarter for the Pokes. Georgia rolled over Florida in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, while Washington State maintained their charge for their first Pac-12 title by defeating the Cardinal on a late field goal.
Penn State desperately needed a win against Iowa with this week's road trip to Michigan still looming and then a home date with Wisconsin immediately following that contest, and they got it. Their battle with the Wolverines in Week 10 is one of several big-time games this weekend. Georgia and Kentucky will resolve who sits atop the SEC East; Texas and West Virginia are playing for Big 12 championship game implications; Oklahoma and Texas Tech are doing likewise in Lubbock; Notre Dame gets another stiff challenge in Northwestern; and then our marquee game is Alabama's trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU.
This is by far the biggest week in college football yet. The first playoff rankings just dropped and named Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Notre Dame as the top four with Michigan, Georgia, and Oklahoma all sitting just outside. All of these teams have a big game this week save for Clemson (taking on Louisville) so the rankings are about to get turned over in a hurry.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Georgia (-9) at Kentucky -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Georgia (7-1)||Kentucky (7-1)||F/+||3||18||S&P+ rating||20||8.5||Special teams S&P+||14||77||When Georgia has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||4||8||S&P+||6||3||IsoPPP+||9||14||Rushing S&P+||13||9||Passing S&P+||5||12||When Kentucky has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||16||74||S&P+||22||109||IsoPPP+||9||87||Rushing S&P+||77||48||Passing S&P+||6||106|
Each division within the SEC this year has a team that is hanging around near the top thanks to excellent defensive play and an option-oriented offense that can pound the ball on the ground. The West has Mississippi State, while the East has been dealing with Kentucky's spread-option system. If Kentucky can pull this game out, they have a home stretch with only one other conference game (at Tennessee) and then non-conference games against Middle Tennessee State and rival Louisville to end the year, so game is a de facto SEC East title game. Georgia also only has one other SEC game remaining, but theirs is a rivalry game at home against Auburn, which should be a win but won't be a gimme.
Last week Kentucky faced off against Barry Odom's well-coached Missouri defense and their ground game got shut down, forcing quarterback Terry Wilson to win through the air, throwing for 267 yards at 8.6 yards per attempt. They actually looked beaten late, but a highly controversial defensive pass interference call gave them new downs and life on the Missouri goal line that they used to throw the game-winning touchdown pass in a 15-14 victory. Wild stuff. They don't want to rely on heroics in the passing game to beat Georgia, as the Bulldogs have been playing excellent football in their secondary this season. Where Georgia has been vulnerable is in their run defense, where they are replacing star Roquan Smith with some younger talent that hasn't always found the ball consistently. They've also had to replace 2017 nose tackle John Atkins, so the middle of their defense has been vulnerable against the run game. The only problem for Kentucky is that the Bulldogs will likely get their safeties heavily involved and make Terry Wilson prove he can beat man coverage.
The big battle in this game and the main hope for Wildcats fans is the clash between their defense and Georgia's offense. Not because Georgia's offense is weak or vulnerable, as it is not, but because Kentucky has been so good on that side of the ball this season. The Wildcats have a lot of upperclassman veterans on their team along with star outside linebacker Josh Allen (14.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), who consistently helps them get off the field with the havoc he causes.
Georgia has had injury issues along their offensive line, but they are still mauling opponents up front in their inside zone run game, with running backs Elijah Holyfield and D'Andre Swift combining for 1,025 yards and nine touchdowns thus far on the year. A typical Georgia inside zone play sees massive movement across the front, particularly where center Lamont Gaillard is helping to double-team some poor soul into the turf. Beyond that, the Georgia passing game has also been effective with quarterback Jake Fromm continuing to excel throwing back-shoulder fades to big targets outside while also improving over 2017 in throwing in the seams. This will be a stiff challenge for Kentucky as Georgia is built to simply overpower teams -- it's not enough to always be in the right spot.
- How will Georgia's rebuilt defensive front handle Kentucky's option run game?
- Can Kentucky handle Georgia's downhill run game and big targets outside?
- Trick plays and aggressive play calls -- the SEC championship game is on the line for both teams.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Georgia
West Virginia at Texas (-1.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||West Virginia (6-1)||Texas (6-2)||F/+||17||36||S&P+ rating||12.2||5.7||Special teams S&P+||72||85||When West Virginia has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||16||47||S&P+||7||42||IsoPPP+||14||63||Rushing S&P+||35||32||Passing S&P+||16||62||When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||26||40||S&P+||58||47||IsoPPP+||41||111||Rushing S&P+||75||103||Passing S&P+||33||40|
The adjusted stats finally got to Texas, with the Oklahoma State Cowboys upsetting them a week ago in Stillwater. The Pokes benefitted from an explosive first quarter in which they put up 17 points going against Texas' second-team cornerbacks, who were absent due to team discipline. Then they pulled out the victory late by executing several zone-read plays that the Longhorns kept being surprised by. The Texas defense has had some real holes this season -- they start eight seniors in the preferred dime package they've been utilizing against the Big 12's spread offenses, but have a hole in the middle. Middle linebacker Anthony Wheeler and nickel P.J. Locke have combined to give them a slower tandem in the middle of the field that they've struggled to consistently address against the spread tactics of opposing teams that allow them to isolate those two in crucial situations against the run (Wheeler) or pass (Locke).
West Virginia is particularly good at using spread tactics to isolate questionable defenders, particularly in the passing game where quarterback Will Grier has thrown for 2,272 yards and 25 touchdowns while spreading the ball around to three different wide receivers who have 500-odd yards on the year in Gary Jennings, David Sills V, and Marcus Simms. They've been explosive all year except against Iowa State, who maintained two deep safeties over the top throughout the game and virtually erased the West Virginia offense, holding them to 40 total yards on passing plays (including sacks, of which there were seven).
Texas will probably play things differently, dropping junior safety Brandon Jones down some to help Wheeler and Locke match up underneath while hoping for a bounce-back game from senior cornerback Kris Boyd. The left cornerback has 10 pass break-ups on the year with a single interception and has vacillated between shutting down his side of the field for entire games and having games like the Oklahoma State contest where he allowed his man to go for 100 yards. Boyd had a great game a year ago against Sills in a Texas road win at Morgantown, and if he can repeat that performance it makes this game simple for the Longhorns.
The Texas offense had a slow start and strong finish against Oklahoma State, thanks largely to the play of quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who found his tight end and running back when the Cowboys would bracket both of the Longhorns' top targets Lil'Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson. Those two both go 6-foot-5 or better and have given small Big 12 defensive backs fits all year. West Virginia has a small but versatile 3-3-5 defense that they'll scheme up to try and shade over/under brackets on those two receivers, but the big question will be how they hold up against Texas' run game. The Longhorns have a big, veteran front; a big, veteran tight end; and an emerging two-headed run game of quarterback Sam Ehlinger (235 pounds) and freshman running back Keaontay Ingram (463 rushing yards at 5.9 yards per carry).
Iowa State wore out the smaller Mountaineers run defense with double-tight end sets and big running back David Montgomery. If Texas can replicate that at home they could wear out West Virginia and pull out a win that puts them in the driver's seat for a Big 12 championship game appearance. Both of these teams have been very inconsistent playing at home or away, and if that trend holds in this game that'd be another decisive factor.
- Can Texas cornerback Kris Boyd lock down half the field and erase West Virginia's spread spacing?
- Will West Virginia show on the road or bomb like they did in Ames, Iowa?
- How does Texas look coming after a road upset?
- Can Texas block West Virginia's shifting and swarming 3-3-5 defense?
S&P+ Outright Pick: West Virginia
Penn State at Michigan (-10.5) -- 3:45 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Penn State (6-2)||Michigan (7-1)||F/+||10||5||S&P+ rating||15||21||Special teams S&P+||61||35||When Penn State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||41||3||S&P+||22||1||IsoPPP+||31||3||Rushing S&P+||9||5||Passing S&P+||69||2||When Michigan has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||13||19||S&P+||21||29||IsoPPP+||50||36||Rushing S&P+||54||11||Passing S&P+||15||15|
Michigan has been rolling since their Week 1 loss to Notre Dame, with one contest in which they struggled (on the road against Northwestern) followed up by big wins over Maryland, Wisconsin, and rival Michigan State. The weak offensive tackle play that plagued them against Notre Dame has shored up, while transfer quarterback Shea Patterson has looked increasingly comfortable in head coach Jim Harbaugh's offense. The Michigan defense has continued to be dominant, as it has been for the last few years since Don Brown took over the coordination of that unit.
Penn State has struggled some on offense, particularly in the passing game where the losses of wide receiver Daesean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki have proven more difficult to overcome than that of star running back Saquon Barkley. They've continued to run the ball at a high level, plugging in running back Miles Sanders and continuing to lean on a spread-option playbook that maximizes quarterback Trace McSorley's quickness and toughness running between the tackles.
The battle between Michigan's defense and Penn State's offense will be a feature of this week. The Nittany Lions administered a whooping here in 2017, causing confusion in the run game for the Wolverines with some option looks and punishing them with some deep shots to Barkley and Gesicki in the passing game. Brown and the Wolverines have been smarting over that loss ever since, and whether or not Penn State's new offensive coordinator can find some fresh edges could be a crucial factor in this game.
On the other side, Penn State's defense has come along very well this year with talented young outside linebackers Micah Parsons and Cam Brown growing on the job every week. They held Iowa's tight end-heavy passing attack to 205 yards on 49 passes at 4.2 yards per attempt and two interceptions but no touchdowns. Those linebackers and their veteran secondary will get another challenge in Michigan's offense, which favors tight end Zach Gentry but now adds star receiver Tarik Black back from a broken leg. If Black is healthy and ready to go, which is certainly questionable, it's one more weapon for an offense that has been improving over the course of the year.
This figures to be a defensive struggle due to Penn State's stout defensive line and experienced secondary potentially limiting Michigan's run game explosiveness.
- Can Penn State find fresh ways to attack Michigan's defense after shocking them in 2017?
- The young Penn State linebackers against Michigan's pro-style spread formations and tight ends.
- Quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Trace McSorley dueling with their dual-threat skill sets.
S&P Outright Pick: Michigan
Notre Dame (-9.5) at Northwestern -- 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Notre Dame (8-0)||Northwestern (5-3)||F/+||7||47||S&P+ rating||17.1||1.4||Special teams S&P+||56||122||When Notre Dame has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||27||24||S&P+||34||28||IsoPPP+||63||43||Rushing S&P+||66||31||Passing S&P+||41||37||When Northwestern has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||14||83||S&P+||6||105||IsoPPP+||17||117||Rushing S&P+||15||114||Passing S&P+||10||83|
Notre Dame made the first playoff rankings and have been absolutely cruising since turning to quarterback Ian Book and boosting their passing game production. Book has thrown for 1,481 yards at 8.7 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns to four interceptions while also adding three rushing touchdowns. The Irish run game has also picked up steam since Dexter Armstrong joined the lineup; he has rushed for 512 yards in just four games. Notre Dame always seems to have NFL-caliber offensive linemen and wide receivers under head coach Brian Kelly, but Book's ability to run some spread-option run game while distributing the ball as a passer has really unlocked the full potential of the roster.
Of course, Northwestern is a tough defense that hasn't allowed anyone to just run them over. Big defensive end Joe Gaziano has been a difficult player for opponents to account for at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, and he has helped inside linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher keep clear of blocks while leading the defense in tackles. Cornerback Montre Hartrage has 12 pass break-ups on the year and he mans the left side, while strong safety J.R. Pace has picked off three passes and broken up five more from his perch in the deep field. They're going to look to deny big plays from the Irish and try to turn this into a lower scoring game in which their own quarterback, Clayton Thorson, can make enough big throws to win.
The Northwestern offense has really struggled this season due to a lack of a run game. Bennett Skowronek is their big outside target (6-foot-4, 211 pounds), but he has been held to a single touchdown, as has the similarly big Cameron Green (6-foot-3, 237 pounds). Flynn Nagel has been their best target with 711 yards but only a pair of touchdown catches. On the year Thorson only has 10 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while regularly being asked to throw the ball 40 or 50 times a game in order to try and move the football for this largely impotent offense. Chances are they won't find much against Notre Dame's top-flight secondary and defense.
- Can quarterback Clayton Thorson make enough throws to keep Northwestern in this game?
- How will Ian Book and the Irish offense look against the stout Northwestern defense playing at home?
- How will Notre Dame handle the pressure and expectations of their playoff ranking on the road?
S&P Outright Pick: Notre Dame
Alabama (-15) at LSU -- 8 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Alabama (8-0)||LSU (7-1)||F/+||2||6||S&P+ rating||26.3||12.7||Special teams S&P+||92||3||When Alabama has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||2||11||S&P+||2||8||IsoPPP+||4||5||Rushing S&P+||8||21||Passing S&P+||2||3||When LSU has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||43||50||S&P+||20||67||IsoPPP+||108||83||Rushing S&P+||16||78||Passing S&P+||4||56|
This is the big one, perhaps the most consequential regular season game of the season given Ohio State's struggles and how they may impact the stakes of their upcoming contest against Michigan. Alabama has owned this rivalry this decade with only a few exceptions and controlled LSU in a 24-10 victory a year ago. The Tide have made a leap on offense this year with Tua Tagovailoa already eclipsing 2,000 yards and hitting on 25 touchdown passes with zero interceptions despite never finishing a game as Alabama has been scoring over 50 points a game and putting opponents away before the fourth quarter more often than not.
The Tide have their normal run game with a pair of highly dangerous running backs in Damien Harris and Najee Harris but also a very explosive cast of receivers including leading target Jerry Jeudy, explosive freshman slot Jaylen Waddle, and then athletic tight end Irvin Smith Jr. They've done a lot of their damage this year by using play-action and double moves to fling the ball down the field and rack up quick touchdowns while leaning on their defensive depth to hold up with increased pace.
LSU has by far the best defense they've faced though, in particular because of their secondary, led by 6-foot-3 cornerback Greedy Williams and do-it-all safety Grant Delpit (also 6-foot-3). Alabama lacks big receivers other than their tight ends and may struggle against LSU's ability to play press coverage outside and deny them the space to run the routes they've used all year to blow away opponents. Delpit is another big problem for the Tide for his ability to match up on the tight ends, help stop up the run game, and also blitz (four sacks on the year). The bright spot for the Tide in terms of matchups is in the fact that star LSU linebacker Devin White will miss the first half after incurring a targeting penalty in the second half of his last game. To make this battle even more fascinating, LSU is coming off a bye, giving them extra time to prepare both for Alabama and for playing without White for a half.
Alabama is also coming off a bye week and will have much less to prepare for in dealing with the LSU offense. The Tigers continue to score just enough to win every week with timely big plays and then some extra margin generated by their usage of quarterback Joe Burrow in the run game in short-yardage scenarios or the red zone to help them find some running room. They have a lot of young talent across the offense but will be matched by major talent from Alabama.
The Tide haven't been as dominant in run defense this year, but LSU doesn't have the kind of run game they've had in previous years to take advantage. Their hope will need to be in landing some big plays against a Tide secondary that has yielded big plays much more often this year.
One other area of note is special teams, where Alabama has struggled and LSU has excelled. LSU's field goal kicker Cole Tracy has been brilliant this season and already kicked a game-winner in a big game and punter Zach Rosenberg has put 14 punts inside the opponents' 20 with eight kicks of 50 yards or more. In a close contest, LSU can generate some big advantages over the course of the game for their ability to kick the ball.
- How will Alabama's speedy young wideouts handle being pressed on the road by LSU's big secondary?
- LSU star linebacker Devin White has to sit out the first half.
- Can LSU find any ways to move the ball on this defense?
- Special teams could make a big difference and LSU excels here.
S&P Outright Pick: Alabama
Oklahoma (-13.5) at Texas Tech -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Oklahoma (7-1)||Texas Tech (5-3)||F/+||4||28||S&P+ rating||22||7.6||Special teams S&P+||15||6||When Oklahoma has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||1||48||S&P+||1||79||IsoPPP+||1||80||Rushing S&P+||4||47||Passing S&P+||1||43||When Texas Tech has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||59||37||S&P+||59||16||IsoPPP+||29||98||Rushing S&P+||39||53||Passing S&P+||74||47|
I don't think Alabama vs. LSU will disappoint, but if it does then viewers should flip over to this high stakes Big 12 contest where Oklahoma has to travel to the always dangerous Lubbock, Texas, to face the Texas Tech Red Raiders. The last time Oklahoma came to Lubbock they barely came out ahead in a 66-52 shootout duel between Baker Mayfield and Pat Mahomes, whose legends have only grown in the NFL. It's likely that game will go down as an all-time great shootout, albeit one with poor defensive performances.
The 2018 Sooners are yet another highly explosive offense. Quarterback Kyler Murray has been picking teams apart with 2,329 yards at 12.7 yards per attempt and 28 touchdown passes to only three interceptions. He has also added 474 rushing yards (before removing sack yardage) at 6.7 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns. He has legitimate 4.4 40-yard dash speed and is impossible to catch while scrambling, which makes their passing game all the more deadly. The Sooners wideouts are lethal with another 4.4 track star in Marquise Brown (738 yards, seven touchdowns), glue-fingered Ceedee Lamb (674 yards, nine touchdowns), and then a pair of bigger targets in Lee Morris and Grant Calcaterra who regularly slip through the cracks for big plays while teams zero in on the big two. The Sooners also have a very talented offensive line and stable of good running backs who add a power dimension to their Air Raid passing attack. It's a lethal configuration that will likely score 40 points or more in Lubbock, despite the Raiders' improvements in the last year or so on defense.
Of course Texas Tech has a reputation for offense as well and is coming back home after a disappointing showing in Ames, Iowa (typical for Air Raid teams in the Big 12 this year). Freshman quarterback Alan Bowman has been pretty strong this year with over 2,000 passing yards, but also careless at times with seven interceptions including three against Iowa State. The Red Raiders have been able to help him along this year with big wideouts like Antoine Wesley (6-foot-5, 200 pounds and 977 receiving yards) and a bigger emphasis on the run game.
Oklahoma has tried to shore up their defense since getting their doors blown off by Texas, firing defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and moving towards playing a few simple quarters zone coverages in order to try and keep the ball in front of them and get safety help over the top for their diminutive cornerbacks. Against Tech's big receivers, they'll likely sit in Cover-2 for much of the day and make Tech prove that they can run the ball or pull a lot of tricks out of their hat to create some leverage to throw the ball down the field.
- Will Tech's improved defense be able to limit Oklahoma at all with their disguises in coverage and improved run defense?
- Kyler Murray on the move -- the Heisman candidate is absolutely electric when he's running around.
- Will Oklahoma's changes on defense help them control Texas Tech's Air Raid?
- Will Texas Tech be able and willing to win by running the ball if Oklahoma drops everyone into coverage?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 10
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick
against the spread
| Ian's pick
against the spread
|Texas||1.5||West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia||Texas|
|Michigan||10.5||Penn State||Michigan||Penn State||Penn State|
|Notre Dame||9.5||Northwestern||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|Oklahoma||13.5||Texas Tech||Oklahoma||Texas Tech||Texas Tech|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 31-23
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 3-3
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 32-21