by Ian Boyd
It's Rivalry Week in college football! "The Game" takes place this weekend between Michigan and Ohio State with all sorts of possible implications, while several other big-time games take place in addition to the week's typical rivalry battles. Week 12 didn't do much to shake up the picture with much of the SEC on their "bye week" playing smaller programs, although Citadel gave Alabama all they wanted for two quarters before predictably crumbling in the second half.
Washington State had a 69-28 statement win over Arizona to set up their home game showdown with the Washington Huskies for the Pac-12 North title. Oklahoma State upset West Virginia, which turned Texas vs. Iowa State into a de facto semifinal game for the Big 12 championship. Texas' victory in that game, a crushing 24-10 win over the Cyclones, all but guaranteed their entry into the final provided they win at 3-8 Kansas this Friday. Now West Virginia's home finale against Oklahoma is the other de facto semifinal game in the Big 12 title hunt, with the winner advancing to play (probably) Texas in the title game in championship week.
Finally, there was drama in the Big 10 East. Ohio State needed overtime to edge out Maryland 52-51, while Michigan got an early scare from Indiana before ultimately putting the Hoosiers down 31-20. That battle will likely go down in the ages as one of the biggest in the rivalry's exceptionally storied tradition.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Oklahoma (-2) at West Virginia -- Friday 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Oklahoma (10-1)||West Virginia (8-2)||F/+||5||17||S&P+ rating||23.2||13.7||Special teams S&P+||27||22||When Oklahoma has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||1||50||S&P+||1||65||IsoPPP+||1||33||Rushing S&P+||1||85||Passing S&P+||3||49||When West Virginia has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||82||13||S&P+||77||7||IsoPPP+||41||12||Rushing S&P+||51||33||Passing S&P+||85||16|
Since West Virginia entered the Big 12 in the 2012 season, they have been involved in some of the craziest shootouts of the league's history, starting with a 70-63 win over Baylor in Year 1. Their series with Oklahoma at home in Morgantown has also produced some exciting games, particularly the 50-49 Sooners victory in 2012 in which West Virginia wide receiver/running back Tavon Austin had over 500 yards of offense. They struggled to keep pace with Oklahoma in subsequent home games, losing 45-33 in 2014 and 56-28 in 2016, but the issue has typically been stopping Oklahoma rather than scoring on them.
That should be the case again this season. West Virginia has played sporadic defense, but this is perhaps the best offense that Dana Holgorsen has coached since he took over the program despite also including the worst single performance of his career on the road at Iowa State. Quarterback Will Grier has thrown for 3,325 yards at 9.6 yards per attempt with 33 touchdowns and eight interceptions, with three receivers around 680 yards or better. The run game has also come alive in the last three weeks, with three running backs at 400 rushing yards or better, paced by Kennedy McKoy, who's coming off a 21-carry, 148-yard, two-touchdown day against Oklahoma State.
The Mountaineers are hard to cover up. They start by finding a mismatch in the passing game before coming back to the run game when teams start playing safeties deep over the top against all of their receivers. The Oklahoma defense might be completely overmatched.
The Sooners have been crumbling on defense over the back half of the season, getting even worse after firing longtime defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, whose unit was picked apart by Texas in the Red River Shootout. They have given up 40 points or more in each of their last three games, including last week at home against the 3-8 Kansas Jayhawks, and required that their own offense play flawless football in order to produce wins. They're beat-up, there's little coordination between the different levels of the defense, and the effort up front against Kansas was decidedly lacking.
Of course, none of that has mattered recently, as Oklahoma's quarterback Kyler Murray has been guiding his offense to 49.5 points per game while throwing for 3,310 yards at 11.9 yards per attempt with 33 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has also run for 739 yards (before removing sack yardage) at 7.1 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns, and is fairly close to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the Heisman running with a chance to take the lead if he can guide his Sooners to a Big 12 championship. The Sooners have a fantastic offensive line and plenty of skill talent at running back and wide receiver, but the biggest challenges come from the trouble teams have tackling Murray, who is one of the all-time quickest players that the game has ever seen at the quarterback position.
One thing working in West Virginia's advantage is their unique 3-3-5 stack defense that has been utilizing 5-foot-9, 190-pound Jovanni Stewart as one of the linebackers and then 5-foot-11, 225-pound star David Long (18.5 TFL, seven sacks) on the other side. Middle linebacker, meanwhile, has been a revolving door of some thicker, tougher locals. There's some speed up front here to help try and confuse the Sooners offensive line and chase down Murray. West Virginia has also been quite good at limiting big plays with some heady play from cornerbacks Josh Norwood and Keith Washington, who have combined for 18 pass break-ups, and deep safety Kenny Robinson, who's the second-leading tackler behind Long.
This game probably comes down to whether the Mountaineers can stop big plays well enough to allow their speed up front to inflict drive-killing negative plays or pressure Murray into turnovers. A few turnovers or punts in this game from either team would probably the difference. One other factor helping West Virginia is the weather forecast, which will be cold and maybe wet. Those types of conditions likely help whichever team brings more fight into the game, and Oklahoma only tends to bring much fight on one side of the ball.
- The weather in Morgantown could be cold and rainy -- does that benefit the hometown defense in a shootout?
- Can West Virginia's small and speedy defense help them against Kyler Murray?
- How healthy is Oklahoma? Will star wide receiver Marquise Brown and running back Trey Sermon be ready to go?
- The fourth quarter, when these teams are probably going to be trading haymakers, with the last team with the ball probably winning.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma
Washington at Washington State (-2.5) -- Friday 8:30 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Washington (8-3)||Washington State (10-1)||F/+||9||14||S&P+ rating||15.7||13.4||Special teams S&P+||120||81||When Washington has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||33||78||S&P+||32||43||IsoPPP+||60||37||Rushing S&P+||41||81||Passing S&P+||23||13||When Washington State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||18||5||S&P+||9||14||IsoPPP+||6||42||Rushing S&P+||11||60||Passing S&P+||33||30|
There's a lot at stake in this rivalry game, perhaps more than any of the other big rivalry games taking place this weekend (with one notable exception). Washington missed out on their hopes of competing for the Playoff, but they can still win the Pac-12 if they beat their in-state rival and then advance to the league title game against Utah, whom they already pounded earlier this season. Washington State is playing for the pride of beating their rival (against whom they are 32-72 all time); their fifth Pac-12 title; a potential Playoff berth if teams ahead of them lose; and some Heisman votes for quarterback Gardner Minshew. This should be an intense and well-fought game.
The Huskies have been leaning on their run game this season as the passing attack with fourth-year starter Jake Browning simply hasn't been the weapon it was back in 2016, when he was throwing to John Ross and leading them to the Playoff. Running back Myles Gaskin has run for 906 yards, and back-up Salvon Ahmed has added 489 yards and seven touchdowns at 6.0 yards per carry. Washington State has not played fantastic run defense this year, but has been good at keeping opponents in front of them and forcing turnovers. They have picked off nine passes and forced 13 fumbles, of which they have recovered eight.
When Washington State has the football, it'll be strength-on-strength, as the Huskies have leaned on their defense this season as much as the Cougars have leaned on Minshew and the offense. The Huskies secondary is the main strength of their team, along with their speedy and rangy inside linebacker tandem of Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett. They have picked off just six passes but forced 18 fumbles and recovered eight of them. The starting defensive backs have broken up 24 passes, so this is a team that has been exceptional at playing over the top and breaking on the ball even if they haven't picked off many passes.
Minshew's Heisman campaign begins with the fact that he has thrown for 4,325 yards at 7.5 yards per attempt with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Three of his top receivers have 600 yards or more and, crucially for this game, running backs James Williams and Max Borghi have a combined 833 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns to go with their 820 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns.
That's important because the Cougars' ability to win this game is going to depend on picking up steady gains underneath when the Huskies are dropping everyone deep. If Minshew can operate with precision and patience throwing timely checkdowns and screens, then that represents the best chance for Washington State to score enough points to avoid another game like last year, when the Huskies picked off the Washington State quarterback three times while Gaskin ran wild in a blowout.
- Can the Cougars win and do so in a fashion that gives them a chance to impress the Playoff committee?
- Can Jake Browning navigate the ball-hawking Cougars secondary without committing any turnovers?
- The matchup underneath between the Huskies linebackers and the Cougars running backs in the passing game.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington State
Michigan (-4) at Ohio State -- Saturday 12 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Michigan (10-1)||Ohio State (10-1)||F/+||4||8||S&P+ rating||25.1||17.9||Special teams S&P+||15||34||When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||14||51||S&P+||23||38||IsoPPP+||37||123||Rushing S&P+||25||68||Passing S&P+||7||93||When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||5||7||S&P+||2||5||IsoPPP+||31||89||Rushing S&P+||9||57||Passing S&P+||6||11|
This is the 21st time in this rivalry that both teams have come in ranked in the top 10 . This century has included two historic matchups with implications as big as this one, the first being the ultra-hyped 2006 game when the Buckeyes went into Ann Arbor ranked No. 1 and beat the No. 2 ranked Wolverines in a 42-39 shootout. Ohio State was propelled by that game into the championship, where they were ironically drubbed by Urban Meyer's Florida Gators. The next was the 2016 game that went into double overtime before the Buckeyes pulled out a win at home 30-27, relying heavily on a controversial fourth-down conversion which quarterback J.T. Barrett picked up by a mere inches (he did get it, by the way). Again, the Buckeyes were propelled into the Playoff over Michigan, but only to take another beating, this time at the hands of Clemson, 31-0.
Right now the Wolverines are ranked No. 4 and the Buckeyes are No. 10 in the AP poll, but the winner will represent the Big 10 East in the league title game against Northwestern and have a clear path to the Playoff. This is essentially a de facto quarterfinal game for the national championship, especially if you assume that either team is likely to beat Northwestern. There's a lot on the line for Ohio State, who has had a strong record this season, but has had to escape disasters against the likes of Minnesota, Nebraska, and most recently Maryland. They haven't looked like a great team, but they can erase all of that as well as many of the questions about Meyer's commitment and health with a win here.
Meanwhile, Michigan has been on a "revenge tour" across the Big 10, beating every opponent in the league (except Northwestern) by at least 11 points and averaging a +24-point margin in Big 10 play. They have lost six consecutive games to the Buckeyes and 15 out of 17 this century. Jim Harbaugh and his team will be smelling blood in the water in this game after coming close the last few years.
Two decisive points that have pushed this game in Ohio State's direction over the last two years have been their quarterback run game and the inability of Michigan quarterbacks to make plays. In 2016, Barrett ran the ball 30 times for 125 yards and a score on the Wolverines, and the only solution the Buckeyes had for Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown's man blitzes was quarterback runs and option plays where the Wolverines defense didn't have a player accounting for Barrett. Meanwhile, a beat-up Wilton Speight averaged 6.1 yards per attempt for Michigan while throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The following year, Barrett ran for 67 yards and a score before getting hurt and watching his replacement Dwayne Haskins pull off a key 22-yard scamper while leading a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Meanwhile, Michigan quarterback John O'Korn threw for 6.1 yards per attempt with a touchdown, an interception, and several misses on open receivers that could have broken the game open.
This season, Ohio State will be leaning on Dwayne Haskins, who has been terrific but doesn't present anywhere near the same kind of running ability as Barrett. He'll have to navigate Michigan's bevy of man blitzes and press coverage outside on his speedy but small wide receiving corps. The problem for Ohio State all year has been a dearth of answers on offense without Meyer's go-to solution of using the quarterback in the run game to gain a numbers advantage at the point of attack. Michigan is going to come hard after the Ohio State passing game with their blitz package and explosive rushers like defensive end Josh Uche and linebacker Devin Bush, as well as defensive end Chase Winovich if he's healthy.
Meanwhile, Michigan has finally got their run game going like Harbaugh has always wanted, with lead running back Karan Higdon already at 1,106 rushing yards on the year. Quarterback Shea Patterson has added 2,177 yards at 8.5 yards per attempt with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions while reliably executing the Wolverines passing attack and seizing on the opportunities it presents. Ohio State has been a mess on defense this year, regularly blowing their run fits and struggling to play the kind of lockdown man coverage that they had been building a reputation for in previous seasons. None of the matchups in this game look particularly promising for Ohio State.
- Can the Ohio State defense patch its leaks against what will undoubtedly be a highly targeted game plan from Jim Harbaugh?
- How will Ohio State protect Dwayne Haskins and their offense when Michigan brings press coverage and pressure up front?
- Sideline shots of Urban Meyer in physical agony after plays that go poorly for the Buckeyes.
- Schematic wrinkles, trick plays, and rivalry-game hits. Both teams are going to throw the kitchen sink at each other.
S&P Outright Pick: Michigan
Auburn at Alabama (-24) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Auburn (7-4)||Alabama (11-0)||F/+||19||1||S&P+ rating||14.4||30.3||Special teams S&P+||44||95||When Auburn has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||61||1||S&P+||47||6||IsoPPP+||72||95||Rushing S&P+||84||4||Passing S&P+||56||5||When Alabama has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||13||2||S&P+||14||2||IsoPPP+||83||3||Rushing S&P+||23||4||Passing S&P+||15||1|
This game has been a good one since Gus Malzahn entered the fray as a foil to Nick Saban's Alabama. Malzahn is 2-3 as a head coach against Saban, with three losses to the Tide sandwiched between his two victories, including last year's 26-14 triumph that put Auburn in the SEC title game. Malzahn has been a great rival for Saban because his teams have embraced a style that is so counter to the Saban process. Whereas the Tide always field a highly multiple defense with dozens of sub-packages, rules, and adjustments, the War Eagle offense tends to operate with tempo, spread spacing, and highly adjustable offensive calls designed to find leverage and hit it with execution. Auburn has also tended to field big, powerful athletes on their offensive and defensive lines that can actually hang with the monsters from Alabama and give the Tigers a fighting chance.
This year could be different, of course, as reflected in the 24-point spread benefitting Alabama. One major difference between this year and previous seasons is how devastatingly explosive this Alabama offense has been with Heisman frontrunner Tua Tagovailoa at the helm. They have more explosiveness at the wide receiver positions than usual, and Tagovailoa has been making the most of it, throwing for 2,865 yards at 12.1 yards per attempt with 31 touchdowns and two interceptions on the year. Yet they can also still run the football with both Damien Harris and Najee Harris at 600-plus rushing yards and over 6.0 yards per carry for each.
Auburn has liked to play aggressive, clamp-down coverages with their safeties staying tight to the line and helping rob inside routes or else firing downhill into run fits, but the Tide are going to seek out matchups to throw the ball down the field at all four receiver spots (including tight end, where Irv Smith Jr has 586 yards and seven touchdowns) and make the Tigers use the backpedal more this week. You can't really play Alabama run-first like you could in the past because they are so aggressive about pushing the ball down the field on early downs like a true spread passing team. Instead, Auburn may have to trust their defensive front to hold up with secondary run support coming a touch later than normal.
That side of the ball may not be the biggest issue for Auburn this year, though. Instead it could be the matchup between their offensive line and the Alabama defensive line. Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham has been sacked 20 times this season, and Auburn has struggled to establish a run game and will now face one of the biggest and most talented defensive fronts that they'll ever see. The Tide tend to field historically great defensive lines almost every year, but this season is certainly amongst the best. Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs are currently at 27.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks on the year, while outside linebacker Christian Miller has another 10 and 7.0.
Alabama has also picked off 13 passes. Their young secondary has been rounding into form in perfect time to take on an Auburn passing attack that has often carried this team and which they leaned on heavily to beat Alabama a year ago. The offensive line is a primary problem, but the biggest missing piece for Auburn this season and for this game has been an inside runner who can pick up tough yards against stout fronts like the Alabama unit. Last year Kerryon Johnson got 30 carries against Alabama that he translated into 104 yards and a score at only 3.5 yards per carry. He wasn't explosive, but his ability to fight for positive gains was essential. This year, JaTarvious Whitlow has been the closest the Tigers have had to that. He has tended to feast on the easier opponents, with only 17 carries for 42 yards in their last two SEC games against Texas A&M and Georgia. Without a big game from Whitlow, Auburn probably can't put the points on the board they'll need to even cover the spread.
- Can Auburn block Alabama well enough to have a chance on offense?
- How will Auburn try to approach this historically explosive Alabama offense?
- Will Gus Malzahn be able to find a way to attack the Alabama defense, or will they be overmatched?
- A big day from Tua Tagovailoa as he chases the Heisman trophy.
S&P Outright Pick: Alabama
LSU at Texas A&M (-2.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (SECN)
|Overall||LSU (9-2)||Texas A&M (7-4)||F/+||10||23||S&P+ rating||14.3||13.4||Special teams S&P+||5||37||When LSU has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||47||49||S&P+||72||33||IsoPPP+||99||127||Rushing S&P+||94||7||Passing S&P+||64||89||When Texas A&M has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||7||29||S&P+||11||22||IsoPPP+||9||58||Rushing S&P+||21||27||Passing S&P+||2||21|
Since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, they have used this game as a sort of replacement for the old Thanksgiving rivalry game against the Texas Longhorns, to rather disappointing results for the Aggies. LSU has won every single game by an average margin of about 15 points. The Aggies shelled out $75 million this last offseason for Jimbo Fisher, and gave another big contract starting at $1.8 million per year to defensive coordinator Mike Elko, to finally get the Aggies over the hump against the top competition they face every year in the SEC West. Of course, Year 1 might be early for Fisher and his Aggies to overcome the Tigers, but the matchups suggest this could be the year.
LSU is a little beat up, like most teams, with starting cornerback Kristian Fulton and defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko both out for this game. Losing Fehoko is particularly rough for a defensive front whose weakest point this year is probably in run defense. In comparison, the Aggies are relatively healthy and coming off consecutive wins over the manageable but respectable Ole Miss Rebels and UAB Blazers.
The Aggies have looked like a typical Jimbo Fisher team, beating opponents up in the middle of the field with a unique, pro-style run game featuring Trayveon Williams (1,326 rushing yards at 6.1 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns) and leading receiver tight end Jace Sternberger (729 yards, eight touchdowns). Their double-tight end formations are unique and hit opponents with different angles and timing then your typical spread offense, and with different types of run/pass conflicts, linebackers and safeties have to concern themselves with tight ends that may either be coming downhill at them to block or else to blow by and run a route on play-action. Managing the Aggies offense largely comes down to how well a team holds those concerns in check. The Tigers should be better off here than many other teams, though, because even without Fulton they may be able to match up in man coverage on the Aggies receivers and free up safety Grant Delpit to erase Sternberger and support the run.
Texas A&M's defense this season has been solid, but more on their game when stopping the run than holding up in pass defense, most famously against Auburn when they gave up a couple of late touchdown drives to Jarrett Stidham in an agonizing fourth-quarter collapse. They'll match up pretty well against LSU on the ground, where the Tigers have been solid but inconsistent at running the football. The contest between quarterback Joe Burrow and the A&M secondary will be another matter entirely. LSU hasn't been particularly frightening or explosive throwing the ball this season, although they have tended to get the job done in their nine victories. They'll need a big day with some of the downfield connections they hit in victories over Auburn and Georgia to really get after the A&M defense and open up this game.
Both of these teams also have an ace up their sleeves in the quarterback run game. Kellen Mond is a dynamic runner who's good on the scramble or designed runs, Joe Burrow is less explosive but has done serious damage for the Tigers catching teams with option and direct snap runs at key moments this season. The team that wins that exchange may come out ahead in a close matchup.
- LSU strong safety Grant Delpit vs. Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger.
- Can LSU's run defense handle Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams?
- Which team hits their opponent's weak spot harder? Will A&M run on LSU, or will the Tigers land deep shots passing on the Aggies?
- Can Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond or LSU quarterback Joe Burrow make the difference with their feet?
S&P Outright Pick: Texas A&M
Notre Dame (-10.5) at USC -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Notre Dame (11-0)||USC (5-6)||F/+||6||53||S&P+ rating||21.3||6.5||Special teams S&P+||61||43||When Notre Dame has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||22||54||S&P+||27||37||IsoPPP+||39||85||Rushing S&P+||72||52||Passing S&P+||25||30||When USC has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||8||90||S&P+||3||55||IsoPPP+||7||30||Rushing S&P+||16||87||Passing S&P+||8||59|
These two programs are looking to end their seasons on decidedly different notes. Notre Dame is untouched after what looked like a brutal gauntlet of a schedule came up limp when Florida State, Stanford, and now USC all proved to be down and incapable of offering up big-time matchups for the Fighting Irish. With a win here, the Irish lock down a Playoff berth as potentially the only undefeated team pending how Alabama and Clemson fare in their big end-of-year rivalry contests and league title games.
Meanwhile, USC is sitting at 5-6, needing to beat the Irish to secure bowl eligibility, and fielding questions about whether head coach Clay Helton will be fired after the season. The Trojans are pretty beat up and have been leaning on an inconsistent run game that regularly forces freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels to try to win the game for them, which has yielded a season in which he's thrown for 2,312 yards at 7.4 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. A defense oriented around pressure is without star outside linebacker Porter Gustin and lacks another premier pass-rushing talent. The most challenging aspect of handling the Trojans is the pressure they put on teams in the box with shallow safety alignments and press coverage from the cornerbacks, and then the connection between Daniels and leading receiver, freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, which was developed when they were high school teammates.
Notre Dame isn't likely to struggle with that thanks to a talented secondary that has picked off 10 passes this year and a pass rush that can spring leaks from blitzing linebackers (Te'von Coney and Drue Tranquill have 7.0 sacks), star defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (6.0 sacks), or from their defensive ends (the main three have 13.5 sacks). This is it for Notre Dame, no looming championship game to hold their attention, so they'll be gunning all out to make a big statement win on the road in prime time.
The Irish offense will also be a load for the Trojans, starting outside where the USC cornerbacks are going to have to deal with big receiver Miles Boykin (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and a bruising run game led by Dexter Williams (844 yards, 6.7 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns). Quarterback Ian Book returned last week against Syracuse after missing a week with injury and threw for 292 yards and two scores while guiding the Irish past a scrappy and athletic Orange squad.
The one big advantage the Trojans will have in this contest is a team playing for bowl eligibility and potentially the job of their head coach and staff. Those are powerful motivators, and a team as talented as USC could show up in a surprising way if they bring their A-plus game on their homefield.
- Can USC's freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels make plays against an elite Notre Dame defense?
- How will USC's pressuring defense handle Notre Dame's size at wide receiver?
- Will we get an A-plus game from a USC team that is fighting for bowl eligibility and perhaps their coach's job?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 13
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick
against the spread
| Ian's pick
against the spread
|Oklahoma||2||West Virginia||Oklahoma||Oklahoma||West Virginia|
|Washington State||2.5||Washington||Washington State||Washington||Washington|
|Texas A&M||2.5||LSU||Texas A&M||LSU||LSU|
|Notre Dame||10.5||USC||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 40-32
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 5-1
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 43-28