by Ian Boyd
Last week in college football was reasonably quiet. Oklahoma and Ohio State had to fend off challenges from divisional rivals and Oklahoma had to stop a two-point conversion attempt to pull out their victory, but it was mostly a chalk weekend. Alabama and Georgia both dispatched their opponents (Mississippi State and Auburn) and continued along their collision course in the SEC title game. Perhaps the most interesting outcome was Northwestern edging out Iowa and securing the Big 10 West division after Wisconsin lost against Penn State.
Week 12 is generally known around college football now as the "SEC bye week" in which all the SEC teams get their fourth non-conference opponent on the schedule, which is invariably a much smaller school that serves as a respite from the grind of the conference season. Consequently, this week's slate of games is partly a list of tripwires for playoff teams and partly a collection of games that will shape league championships, the Big 12 in particular.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Ohio State (-14) at Maryland -- 12 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Ohio State (9-1)||Maryland (5-5)||F/+||8||63||S&P+ rating||17.9||3.3||Special teams S&P+||41||9||When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||7||32||S&P+||10||42||IsoPPP+||92||48||Rushing S&P+||78||55||Passing S&P+||13||40||When Maryland has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||41||71||S&P+||32||93||IsoPPP+||115||7||Rushing S&P+||42||29||Passing S&P+||74||106|
The noon game featuring Ohio State has been pretty compelling television this season, with the Buckeyes regularly struggling to handle their Big 10 opponents every week yet always managing to put them away. Last week they predictably struggled to move the football on the icy turf in East Lansing against the sturdy Michigan State defense. Really, Ohio State won the game by virtue of the Spartans intentionally taking a safety to avoid a punt block and bad field position, then fumbling the ball to start consecutive fourth-quarter drives. Suddenly a 7-6 defensive slog was 9-6, then 16-6 after a fumble in their own end zone, and it snowballed from there.
This week the Buckeyes are coming off a charged week in which reporter Brett McMurphy penned a story accusing head coach Urban Meyer of looking the other way during a racially charged altercation between a now-fired assistant coach and a player who subsequently transferred. It has been a tough season for Ohio State with a lot of off-the-field distractions and then some identity questions that have resulted as a result of them losing their quarterback run game in the transition from veteran dual-threat J.T. Barrett to star passer Dwayne Haskins.
Maryland is another interesting test of their ability to fashion a new, workable offensive identity during the season. The Terrapins have a very stout defensive front led by strongside end Byron Cowart and linebacker Tre Watson. They play a lot of old-school, under-front defense designed to control the run game and encourage passing against a three-deep pass defense. The Buckeyes are good at throwing the ball on most any defense, at least between the 20s, but they want to run the football. The trap that the Terrapins will lay will be to encourage the Buckeyes to run the ball for minimal or negative results while trying to force the issue.
The other interesting challenge here for the Buckeyes is Maryland interim coach Matt Canada's offense, which works like a spread-option offense but operates with the quarterback under center and by making liberal use of the jet sweep play. Ohio State has really struggled to get their defensive line and linebackers in sync with their run fits, and when combining those errors with man coverage on the back end, they've been prone to giving up yardage in chunks on run plays. If they aren't ready for Maryland's unique brand of offense, they could be in real trouble on defense, and their attention has surely been split some by the off-field distractions and the looming matchup with the Michigan Wolverines next week.
- Will Ohio State look to force the issue with the run game or just throw the ball around all day?
- How will Ohio State's defense handle the unique and often explosive Maryland offense?
- Does Maryland have Ohio State's full attention or will they get caught looking behind them and looking ahead to Michigan?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
Syracuse at Notre Dame (-10.5) -- 2:30 p.m. (NBC)
|Overall||Syracuse (7-3)||Notre Dame (10-0)||F/+||41||6||S&P+ rating||7.1||20.5||Special teams S&P+||1||54||When Syracuse has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||62||8||S&P+||39||3||IsoPPP+||79||6||Rushing S&P+||44||15||Passing S&P+||67||8||When Notre Dame has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||31||20||S&P+||68||27||IsoPPP+||94||39||Rushing S&P+||76||68||Passing S&P+||63||26|
The Fighting Irish had to get through Florida State last week without emergent star quarterback Ian Book but handled the Seminoles with relative ease, putting them away 42-13 while running back Dexter Williams ran for 202 yards and two scores. Book is back this week for the Orange, who have put together a strong season that included a narrow four-point loss to the undefeated Clemson Tigers.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers has been able to adapt his unique style of spread offense to make the most of dual-threat quarterback Eric Dungey. The big senior has thrown for 2,193 yards at 7.2 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions -- solid enough production though not awe-inspiring, but then he has added 690 rushing yards (before removing sack yardage) and 12 more rushing touchdowns. He has also led the Orange to a 21st ranking nationally in passing-down offense, using his legs to help keep the Cuse drives rolling.
Notre Dame should have an interesting time matching up on Syracuse's extra wide receiver splits and getting numbers to the box to stop the run. They have a very effective secondary though, and safety Alohi Gillman is third on the team in tackles behind their two inside linebackers Tevon Coney and Drue Tranquill because they regularly involve him in the mix. Syracuse's normal formula of using horizontal stress with the quick passing game to create angles for their two-headed run game may struggle against the Irish defensive line, speed at linebacker, and aggressive safety run support.
On the other side of the ball, Syracuse has been improved on defense this season but might be overmatched against Notre Dame's offense, particularly with Book at the helm. The main key to Ian Book playing is that wide receiver Miles Boykin is unleashed. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound senior has averaged 77 receiving yards per game when Book is in versus 48 per game with back-up Brandon Wimbush.
In Syracuse's advantage is a very fast, Tampa-2 defense that features a lot of speed at linebacker to handle spacing combined with a defensive end combo in Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman that has combined for 24 tackles for loss and 16 sacks. If Notre Dame can't get the ball out quickly in the pass game or run the ball effectively on the Cuse fronts, Book could get into real trouble trying to buy time to find passing lanes down the field while those defensive ends are bearing down on him.
- How healthy is Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book?
- Notre Dame's top-flight defense trying to handle all the spacing and spread-option run schemes from Syracuse.
- Can Notre Dame run the ball and avoid dealing with the Syracuse pass rush on passing downs?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame
West Virginia (-5) at Oklahoma State -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||West Virginia (8-1)||Oklahoma State (5-5)||F/+||11||38||S&P+ rating||15.6||10.7||Special teams S&P+||28||79||When West Virginia has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||9||101||S&P+||5||78||IsoPPP+||14||93||Rushing S&P+||25||93||Passing S&P+||11||57||When Oklahoma State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||44||26||S&P+||54||7||IsoPPP+||47||24||Rushing S&P+||66||31||Passing S&P+||43||34|
This game has major implications for the Big 12 title race. West Virginia wants to avoid any defeats to avoid getting caught in a three-way tiebreaker scenario with Texas and Oklahoma, in which they are unlikely to fare well because their only victory against the two of them is by a one-point margin. They also don't hold a tie-breaker edge over Iowa State, so any defeats that put them even with the Cyclones (if Iowa State beats Texas) puts them in a bad spot.
One week after coming within a made extra point OR converted two-point conversion from taking down Oklahoma on the road, the Cowboys are coming back home still needing another win to become bowl-eligible. They have this contest and then a road trip against TCU to hit that goal, either of which is plausible but far from guaranteed. This game looks like a shootout that should be pretty compelling.
Oklahoma State has been pretty solid on offense all year, particularly as their next star receiver Tylan Wallace has gained confidence and redshirt senior quarterback Taylor Cornelius has gotten better and better at finding him down the field. Meanwhile, West Virginia has tended to be a different team on defense when they're on the road, yielding at least 30 points in each of their trips to play Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Texas. Between their difficulties on the road, Oklahoma State's feistiness at home, and the looming home game against Oklahoma that might settle everything anyways, West Virginia has a lot going on around this game.
The main strategy on defense this year for West Virginia has been to keep their "bandit" and "spur" safeties near the box while playing three-deep with the free safety and cornerbacks, but that's a tough proposition against Wallace, who excels at shredding off coverage with his lightning-quick route breaks. Bracketing Wallace is also difficult because of the solid Cowboys run game, which regularly involves Cornelius on option plays like the zone-read.
West Virginia is generally pretty comfortable in a shootout though, owing to their own ability to get some balance on offense, and more importantly because of the precision of their own redshirt senior quarterback Will Grier. The Mountaineers have been very effective all year at creating matchups for their top three wide receivers, especially big David Sills V who leads the team with 697 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. They're well adept at moving those guys around on sweeps or just flipping positions in order to get the matchups they want, such as Sills running a fade route on a smaller and overmatched defender.
Eventually teams tend to give up and play two-deep coverage over the receivers, allowing the Mountaineers to run the football with their running backs. Oklahoma State has been at their best on defense when they can crowd the line and get safeties Malcolm Rodriguez and Kenneth Edison-McGruder, their second- and fourth-leading tacklers, involved in stopping the run. If they can hold up at corner and nickel well enough to allow those guys to hang tight then this game isn't going to go well for the Mountaineers. If not, then it becomes yet another high-paced Big 12 shootout that could depend on who gets the ball last.
- How much energy and game-planning does West Virginia have for this game? Holding anything back for Oklahoma?
- Can West Virginia stop the run without giving up big yardage outside to wide receiver Tylan Wallace?
- How will Oklahoma State handle Will Grier and West Virginia's vertical passing attack?
- Lots of points and end-of-game and play-calling decisions.
S&P Outright Pick: West Virginia
Duke at Clemson (-28) -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Duke (7-3)||Clemson (10-0)||F/+||36||2||S&P+ rating||4.5||29.1||Special teams S&P+||97||63||When Duke has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||55||2||S&P+||52||1||IsoPPP+||49||9||Rushing S&P+||79||1||Passing S&P+||65||6||When Clemson has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||38||17||S&P+||46||11||IsoPPP+||83||45||Rushing S&P+||56||13||Passing S&P+||36||32|
This game seems closer than the spread. Clemson has started to get a lot of love from Vegas because of their capacity for blowing out ACC teams with their combination of defense and explosive offense. If you're not ready to handle Clemson's athleticism they can bury you in a hurry.
Running back Travis Etienne has been devastating this season, already at 1,076 rushing yards with an 8.5 yards per carry average and 15 touchdowns. The Tigers run normal spread plays, but pairing the running threat of Etienne with rangy and far-hitting pass options for freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence makes it very difficult to get the needed numbers in the box to stop Etienne. The better defenses, like Boston College last Saturday, have aimed to load the box anyways and make Lawrence beat them consistently. That requires very good defensive back play but it's a better bet, especially in the cold weather, than trying to sit back in coverage and survive against the Clemson run game.
Duke has been solid at playing coverage this year but is not getting a lot of pressure and may struggle to hold up against Clemson's offense over the course of a game. In the event of a shootout, the Blue Devils are not hopeless, but they are not consistently a high-scoring team. They're at their best running the football with the spread run game, heavily involving big quarterback Daniel Jones, who had 15 carries for 186 yards last week against North Carolina.
Clemson has been pretty devastating across the defensive line this season. They are a tough team to beat with a spread run game. They have big, rangy linebackers and then a big safety in Tanner Muse who tends to hang around the box fairly often to help squelch opposing rushing attacks. Deep play-action will need to be a big part of the Duke formula to help their run game out and to get points on the board to keep pace with the Tigers offense.
- Can Duke follow up on Boston College's success of limiting the Clemson offense?
- Will Duke be able to keep pace offensively against the aggressive Clemson defense?
- Playoff implications? A loss dooms Clemson but do they need more convincing wins to help pad the resume?
S&P Outright Pick: Clemson
Cincinnati at Central Florida (-7) -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Cincinnati (9-1)||Central Florida (9-0)||F/+||21||7||S&P+ rating||10.1||18||Special teams S&P+||69||17||When Cincinnati has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||65||35||S&P+||75||45||IsoPPP+||105||27||Rushing S&P+||75||36||Passing S&P+||97||59||When Central Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||5||3||S&P+||19||4||IsoPPP+||36||38||Rushing S&P+||5||41||Passing S&P+||12||16|
Cincinnati has quietly had a pretty strong season this year under Luke Fickell, largely because his defensive culture has taken hold and produced a very solid unit out in Ohio. That makes them an interesting foil for the "defending national champion" Central Florida Knights, who have been on another offensive tear this season.
Fickell's Bearcats are running multiple fronts at opponents, flipping between three- and four-down schemes while actively engaging all three linebackers on the edge and playing some two-deep pattern-matching coverages behind them. It's a difficult coverage scheme that allows them to be aggressive on the edges while playing the safeties back, but they tend to execute it at a high level and have a pair of physical cornerbacks in Cam Jefferies and Coby Bryant who are able to show hard in the flats where this scheme can be vulnerable.
The Knights haven't missed a beat without Scott Frost. Quarterback McKenzie Milton has thrown for 2,309 yards and 21 touchdowns this year in new head coach Josh Heupel's spread offense, which is mirrored after the Art Briles Baylor scheme and made Drew Lock into a record-holder at Missouri last year. They continue to be a team that spreads the ball around to multiple skill players; they have five different running backs or receivers with at least 400 yards on the year. Cincy's approach will be to attack Milton and try to keep the ball contained in the box, where Central Florida's sub-200 pound running backs and quarterback may be less comfortable than on the edge.
On the flip side, Central Florida has played good defense this season despite losing cornerback Mike Hughes and linebacker Shaquem Griffin to the NFL. The name of the game has just been sound defense and safety Richie Grant making a lot of tackles from his free safety position. They don't have anyone as disruptive as Griffin, but defensive lineman Titus Davis gets a lot of penetration up front and has helped them kill some drives with negative plays.
Cincinnati is another team that is a run-first offense at heart, as a defensive coach like Fickell would want, but they use the shotgun spread and a dual-threat quarterback to implement that old-school philosophy. It hasn't yielded a particularly explosive offense, but lead running back Michael Warren II has already hit 1,000 yards on the year, while quarterback Desmond Ridder has added another 486 (before removing sack yardage). They tend to pound away at teams and keep Ridder's passing attempts lower, ideally under 30, and win games that are played in the 20s. They'll need one of their better defensive games to manage that against this Central Florida team.
- Can Cincinnati's defense contain the explosive speed in Central Florida's offense?
- How will Central Florida's safety-led defense hold up against the Bearcat spread option run game?
- Style points? The American conference gets the prime time slot this week to try and impress viewers on behalf of Group of 5 football.
S&P Outright Pick: Central Florida
Iowa State at Texas (-2.5) -- 8 p.m. (LHN)
|Overall||Iowa State (6-3)||Texas (7-3)||F/+||24||29||S&P+ rating||8.7||6.8||Special teams S&P+||73||43||When Iowa State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||64||65||S&P+||57||69||IsoPPP+||30||63||Rushing S&P+||108||57||Passing S&P+||30||70||When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||9||21||S&P+||26||24||IsoPPP+||13||110||Rushing S&P+||18||100||Passing S&P+||18||31|
These two teams are nearly mirror images of each other, but only one can advance from this game to the Big 12 final. Both teams are ostensibly run-centric spread squads that use blocking tight ends and dual-threat quarterbacks to allow them to pound the ball up front, yet both do all of their real damage throwing the ball down the field on RPOs and play-action.
For the Cyclones that means freshman quarterback Brock "pump fake" Purdy throwing to star wideout Hakeem Butler (6-foot-6) or Matthew Eaton (6-foot-4), whereas Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger does much of his damage working to Lil'Jordan Humphrey (6-foot-5) or Collin Johnson (6-foot-6). Butler is the class of the group with 816 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on just 36 receptions; his combination of size, speed, skill, and physicality is simply unfair and should see him drafted on the first or second day next April. Texas leans more on Humphrey, who's less speedy than Butler but is almost like a flex tight end, a matchup nightmare running option routes in the seams.
Texas tends to work its way down the field more methodically with steady runs, play-action tosses to their big receivers, and then Ehlinger picking up short yardage with his 230-pound frame. Iowa State relies on big running back David Montgomery's uncanny ability to break tackles in order to control the ball on the ground, but they score by throwing over the top to Butler and their receivers. Very importantly for this game's matchups, Montgomery will miss the first half of this game after trading punches with a Baylor player last Saturday, while Texas may be without receiver Johnson (knee injury) and possibly strong safety Brandon Jones (ankle sprain).
These defenses are also similar, both designed to confuse Big 12 quarterbacks and deny passing windows with eight defenders dropping back in shifting coverages before closing in on the run from depth with speedy safeties and linebackers. Iowa State has been much better at that formula this year, as the Longhorns have struggled at linebacker after losing NFL draft pick Malik Jefferson and at safety due to Jones' ankle injury.
It can probably be assumed that Texas' strategy in this game will be to bracket Butler over the top with freshman ball-hawking safety Caden Sterns (four interceptions and three pass break-ups) while daring Iowa State to manufacture enough offense to win by throwing elsewhere on star cornerback Kris Boyd or running the ball without David Montgomery. Meanwhile, the Cyclones will hope to contain Texas and challenge the generally methodical Longhorns to finish drives in the red zone with touchdowns. This game may simply come down to which quarterback handles the pressure and atmosphere of this game better -- which would favor Texas as the game is in Austin and Ehlinger is now the Big 12 record-holder for most consecutive passes thrown without throwing an interception.
Another interesting angle to this game is that it'll be hosted on the Longhorn Network, which has a more limited reach, while the prime time slot will be owned by two American teams in Central Florida and Cincinnati that the Big 12 declined to bring into the conference during the last round of expansion talks. This should be the Big 12's opportunity to own the night on television, but that will be more difficult due to this game being on the LHN.
- Iowa State freshman quarterback Brock "pump fake" Purdy working against the Texas defense in his first prime time road game.
- How will Texas look to stop star Cyclones wide receiver Hakeem Butler?
- Can either team generate enough offense to pull away or will this be decided late?
- Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger will hope to keep his no-interception streak alive against the best defense in the Big 12 and keep his team alive for the league championship.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Texas
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 12
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick
against the spread
| Ian's pick
against the spread
|Ohio State||14||Maryland||Ohio State||Maryland||Maryland|
|Notre Dame||10.5||Syracuse||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Syracuse|
|West Virginia||5||Oklahoma State||West Virginia||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State|
|Central Florida||7||Cincinnati||Central Florida||Central Florida||Central Floirda|
|Texas||2.5||Iowa State||Texas||Iowa State||Texas|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 2-4
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 36-30
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 3-3
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 38-27