by Ian Boyd
The big surprise of Week 7 was unquestionably LSU's big win over Georgia, punctuated by a 59-yard run by quarterback Joe Burrow on a zone-read play that fooled the Georgia defense badly and set up a touchdown run by the running back when they ran the play again. Other surprises included Texas struggling to put away Baylor (although the Longhorns lost starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger on the opening drive) and Michigan State upsetting Penn State on the road with a late comeback victory.
S&P+ hasn't loved the performances of LSU, Texas, or Michigan State this year, yet those teams keep producing wins. The ability of some of those teams to overcome the factors that normally determine games will be put to another serious test this week as the Spartans host Michigan and contend for the Paul Bunyan Trophy while LSU hosts Mississippi State.
Elsewhere around the country, there are a few tricky games for conference title contenders. Oregon effectively ended the chances of a Pac-12 team making the playoff last week when they beat Washington, but now they have to travel to Pullman and take on Washington State, which has been stronger than anticipated this year. Oklahoma is coming off a crushing loss to Texas in the Red River Showdown and then a bye week where new defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil looked to overhaul their playbook to salvage the season; his first test will be a speedy but error-prone TCU team on the road. Clemson has to take on a well-rounded North Carolina State team, and Ohio State has to take its defense that has really struggled with the spread into West Lafayette, Indiana, to play the explosive Purdue Boilermakers.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Michigan (-7) at Michigan State -- 12 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Michigan (6-1)||Michigan State (4-2)||F/+||9||19||S&P+ rating||20.4||8.4||Special teams S&P+||16||36||When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||13||21||IsoPPP+||32||21||Rushing S&P+||12||8||Passing S&P+||19||25||When Michigan State has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||1||75||IsoPPP+||26||27||Rushing S&P+||51||102||Passing S&P+||75||55|
Since Jim Harbaugh entered the fray, this rivalry game has only intensified, with his three clashes with Mark Dantonio's Spartans resulting in a 2-1 advantage for Michigan State. The first contest ended in a dramatic 27-23 Spartans victory after Michigan's punter fumbled the snap and got hit hard enough to cause him to somehow lateral the ball to a Michigan State, player who returned it for the game-winning score. The following year Michigan coasted to a 32-23 victory over a bad Michigan State team, but then the Spartans rebounded and beat the Wolverines again in a 14-10 contest in Ann Arbor that was ugly and marked both by bad conditions and bad offensive play.
On the surface, this doesn't look like a particularly close matchup. The Wolverines have superior quarterback play now that Shea Patterson is at the helm and just blasted a solid Wisconsin team 38-13 while rushing for 320 yards on a hurting Badgers defense. Michigan State just shocked Penn State on the road while playing great defense against the Nittany Lions' own potent run game, but their offense was a mess and they were extraordinarily lucky that none of their four fumbles were recovered by Penn State and that only one of the 16 passes that Penn State defenders got their hands on was intercepted.
Yet for all that, no one would be shocked if this game was a grueling battle in which the Spartans had a chance to eke out a win. Michigan State is playing good defense this year and has been effective at forcing offenses to try and push the ball through against their big defensive tackles and downhill linebackers. Nose tackle Raequan Williams has six tackles for loss on the year, 3-technique Mike Panasiuk is a difficult player to move, and middle linebacker Joe Bachie leads the team in tackles playing behind them. It's a difficult defense to attack for college offenses that are built around the run game. Passing the ball on the Spartans is tricky this season as well thanks to the steady maturation of boundary cornerback Justin Layne.
Michigan will undoubtedly carry some tricks into this game on offense to try and pry open the Spartans defense and create opportunities to run the football and wear down a defense that is normally protected by its own aggressiveness combined with the Michigan State offense's preference for draining clock. Throwing to tight end Zach Gentry is one way that they might try to thwart the Spartans' designs, particularly from spread sets that force the Spartans linebackers to cover in space rather than triggering downhill to stuff run plays.
The other side of the ball is a particularly lopsided mismatch that could spell doom for the Spartans if they don't protect the football better than they did against Penn State. Michigan is currently the No. 1 defense in the country and has been bringing a lot of pressure this season. They're well adept at inflicting negative plays on opponents and Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke may not survive another game in which he has to throw the ball 50 times like he has the last two games. Lewerke has thrown seven interceptions already this season but the number could rise much higher if the Wolverines bring pressure and hold on to errant passes.
- Will Michigan be able to move the ball on the Spartans defense and pull away?
- How will Michigan State's struggling offense handle the pressure from the Michigan defense?
- Rivalry game shenanigans -- this game has been wild recently.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Michigan
Oklahoma (-8) at TCU -- 12 p.m. Saturday (ABC)
|Overall||Oklahoma (5-1)||TCU (3-3)||F/+||5||36||S&P+ rating||21.1||6.7||Special teams S&P+||35||106||When Oklahoma has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||1||14||IsoPPP+||1||79||Rushing S&P+||7||70||Passing S&P+||2||79||When TCU has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||77||94||IsoPPP+||55||106||Rushing S&P+||33||29||Passing S&P+||87||105|
Texas exposed a lot of cracks in the armor of the Oklahoma Sooners, particularly on defense, where they looked incapable of putting up a fight against a physical front or a balanced attack, but also at times on offense, where the Sooners got mixed play from Heisman candidate quarterback Kyler Murray. Facing a heavy pass-rush, Murray made a pair of turnovers that ended up making the difference in the game. He at times looked rattled trying to read coverages or deliver throws.
Against Gary Patterson's TCU Horned Frogs, the question for Murray is how well he can perform in the pocket. Texas played a three-down defense and often utilized dime personnel to flood the field with athletes who could spy Murray or run him down out of the pocket, but where the 5-foot-10 Oklahoma signal-caller really gets into trouble is when he's trapped in the pocket and is unable to utilize his elite quickness and can't see where the ball should go. With their 4-2-5 defense and speedy defensive ends, TCU can play this game to try and trap Murray in the pocket and see how well he holds up making reads and throws while surrounded by the massive bodies of his own offensive line and opposing pass-rushers.
The other challenge for Oklahoma in this game is TCU's offensive speed, which matches the extreme explosiveness of Oklahoma's own offense with multiple Frogs skill players who are capable of running by defenders. Oklahoma will be breaking in a different approach on defense, albeit one based on simplicity and soundness to allow their athletes to play fast, and their normal habits of missing open-field tackles and losing leverage on offensive players can burn them very badly against this TCU offense.
On the flip side of this matchup, TCU's quarterback Shawn Robinson turned the ball over four times against both Ohio State and Texas and threw two picks in TCU's last contest, a 17-14 defeat against Texas Tech. Oklahoma may not aim to confuse him or muddy his reads like those defenses did, but Robinson's proclivity for turning the ball over could easily cost TCU this game. Additionally, while TCU has played good defense this year, Oklahoma is extremely explosive on offense. Murray and wide receiver Marquise Brown are both guys who can run true 4.4 40 times and score from anywhere on the field, while the offensive line is big and experienced and the running backs numerous and powerful.
This could turn into a shootout, in which case it's a matter of execution and composure down the stretch between Murray and Robinson, which is not the outcome that Patterson wants. Both teams have had extra time to prepare for this game and will be coming in looking to throw everything but the kitchen sink into it.
- How will Kyler Murray handle TCU's pass-rush and well prepared defense?
- Can TCU's 4-2-5 defense handle a particularly fast and explosive Oklahoma offense?
- Can Oklahoma's "rebuild on the fly" defensive efforts handle a particularly fast and explosive TCU offense?
- Which quarterback protects the ball better?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma
North Carolina State at Clemson (-17) -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||North Carolina State (5-0)||Clemson (6-0)||F/+||20||4||S&P+ rating||11.8||23.7||Special teams S&P+||124||66||When North Carolina State has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||30||5||IsoPPP+||76||86||Rushing S&P+||70||75||Passing S&P+||4||48||When Clemson has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||10||29||IsoPPP+||52||122||Rushing S&P+||11||109||Passing S&P+||20||76|
Clemson and their freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence get another test with North Carolina State coming into town for this game. The Wolfpack are undefeated and led by senior quarterback Ryan Finley, who has thrown for 1,621 yards at 8.7 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns to only three interceptions. They've been strong on both offense and defense this season and will bring a very big and physical defense into this game to challenge the Clemson offense.
Since Lawrence took over, the Clemson offense has leaned on the run game, particularly running back Travis Etienne, who now has 761 yards on 9.2 yards per carry with 11 rushing touchdowns. Last week against Wake Forest, the Tigers gave three running backs 10 carries apiece and each one produced at least 100 rushing yards on the Demon Deacons defense. For his part, Lawrence has been effective at finding big outside receiver Tee Higgins when defenses play man coverage to get help inside on the Clemson rushing attack.
North Carolina State has more options, in part because they have some solid cornerbacks outside that might hold up, but perhaps moreso because their defensive front is big and physical, led by defensive end James Smith-Williams, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound problem with six tackles for loss on the year. The Wolfpack will also play big linebackers and safeties who can hit and tackle around the box. If they can prevent Lawrence from beating them deep on play-action, they fare a much better chance than most of Clemson's other opponents at stopping up the run game.
The Clemson defense has played well since getting carved up in the middle of the field by the Texas A&M Aggies back in the beginning of the year. Their defensive line continues to be one of the best in the country, with waves of blue-chip athletes to throw at offensive lines, while the defensive backfield is rounding into form more with repeated snaps together. North Carolina State will present a tougher challenge, though, for their ability to nail down coordinator Brent Venables' pattern-matching coverages. Finley is very experienced and has faced Clemson before, while his wide receiver corps (led by Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers) is big and also highly experienced. It has not been unusual for potent passing attacks to give this Clemson defense trouble, which helps make this an intriguing matchup.
- Can Clemson run the ball on North Carolina State's big defensive front?
- Will Ryan Finley and the North Carolina State passing game be able to attack a young Clemson secondary?
- How will Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence handle a defense of this caliber?
S&P Outright Pick: Clemson
Mississippi State at LSU (-6.5) -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Mississippi State||LSU||F/+||16||13||S&P+ rating||13.3||13.3||Special teams S&P+||3||104||When Mississippi State has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||47||13||IsoPPP+||101||44||Rushing S&P+||1||87||Passing S&P+||95||28||When LSU has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||10||43||IsoPPP+||59||57||Rushing S&P+||1||60||Passing S&P+||38||41|
LSU has easily had one of the tougher schedules in the nation, drawing Miami out of conference and facing the two best teams (Georgia and Florida) of the SEC East. They don't get much of a rest after the Georgia win with Mississippi State coming to town. The Bulldogs are coming off a bye week that came after a 23-9 bruising of Auburn in which quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was given 28 carries and produced 195 rushing yards and two scores.
Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs passing game have not been particularly fearsome this year. He has averaged only 5.8 yards per attempt with just four touchdown passes and three interceptions. However, he has rushed for 513 yards before removing sack yardage, and running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams have added 675 rushing yards at almost 7 yards per carry.
LSU has played strong run defense this year, but Georgia's main running backs did manage to go for 128 rushing yards on 19 carries at 6.7 yards per carry. For the most part, the Tigers did their work by discouraging Georgia from getting into running plays by stacking the box and daring the Bulldogs to beat them throwing the ball around with quarterback Jake Fromm against LSU's NFL-laden secondary. The Tigers will doubtlessly play a similar game against Mississippi State and look to play sound defense with numeric advantages around the box against Fitzgerald and the option run game.
Mississippi State's defense has been responsible for a lot of their success, most recently playing the same trick as LSU in goading Auburn into throwing the ball early and often and then holding Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham to 5.6 yards per attempt with zero touchdowns on 38 passes. Defensive end Montez Sweat has been dominant this season with 7.5 sacks through six games, and their secondary is filled with active safeties who see action in their sub-packages that get a lot of athleticism on the field. They want to cheat numbers into the box and encourage an offense to throw the ball against their pass-rush and secondary.
The Tigers may try to address that with RPOs and play-action that get quarterback Joe Burrow reading defenders after the snap and handing off or pushing the ball wide. The Tigers have had a rotating cast of targets this year out wide, but Justin Jefferson remains the top threat. He had a 108-yard day on Georgia working against some very good cornerbacks. The Tigers will do what they've been doing every other week and hope to inflict enough big plays to come out ahead in a defensive struggle. LSU has also leaned heavily on the quarterback run game with Burrow as a means of putting them over the top, particularly with red zone and short-yardage carries where utilizing the quarterback gives the offense a numeric advantage to punch the ball in.
- Can LSU find enough big plays at the right times to pull out another close win?
- Will Mississippi State be able to attack LSU's defense with the option run game and avoid having to throw successfully to win?
- LSU special teams have been helpful in putting them over the top this season.
S&P Outright Pick: LSU
Oregon vs Washington State (-2.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Oregon (5-1)||Washington State (5-1)||F/+||54||27||S&P+ rating||8.1||8.7||Special teams S&P+||77||60||When Oregon has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||12||74||IsoPPP+||19||45||Rushing S&P+||53||31||Passing S&P+||7||64||When Washington State has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||91||13||IsoPPP+||2||21||Rushing S&P+||30||74||Passing S&P+||2||31|
At one point this offseason it appeared as though Washington State head coach Mike Leach, whose coaching tree dominates the Big 12 and much of college football, was going to break through in his career and end his days as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Then that fell through due to politics back in Knoxville and Leach had to scramble to rebuild a staff and roster at Washington State that had taken a lot of hits from a lot of factors. He pulled in grad transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew, who is college football's leading passer right now with 2,422 passing yards. He has also thrown 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The Cougars have spread the ball around to lots of players, and regularly throw to their running backs, but Davontavean Martin has been their main weapon with 440 receiving yards followed by the speedy Easop Winston and then big Dezmon Patmon outside (426 yards and 370 respectively). It's a classic Mike Leach offensive team that excels at spreading the ball around in the passing game and picking apart defenses that worry about stopping the run every other Saturday.
Oregon hasn't been great at stopping the run or pass against anyone this year, but they made enough stops against Washington to pull out a 30-27 overtime victory last week and have been able to mix in enough tackles for loss on the year while limiting big plays to kill opposing drives. They've also been persistent in trying to pound the ball downhill with their run game in order to suck in defenses and clear up space outside for Justin Herbert to use his howitzer arm to spray the ball around. Washington kept Herbert from beating them deep, but he did manage to protect the ball and beat them with a touchdown pass in overtime.
Washington State has not recovered as well on defense from the losses of superstar defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa or coordinator Alex Grinch (poached by Ohio State) and will probably have to try and win this game in a shootout. This Oregon team has been effective on offense but not as explosive as the famous teams coached by Chip Kelly and his successors, so there's a chance of victory in a game played in the 30s.
- How will Oregon's defense adjust to a team that will throw the ball 50 times?
- Can Washington State handle Oregon's balanced offense?
- NFL quarterback prospects from both teams in Oregon's Justin Herbert and Washington State's Gardner Minshew.
S&P Outright Pick: Washington State
Ohio State (-13.5) at Purdue -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Ohio State (7-0)||Purdue (3-3)||F/+||3||39||S&P+ rating||20||7.5||Special teams S&P+||20||69||When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||4||84||IsoPPP+||64||90||Rushing S&P+||73||42||Passing S&P+||5||92||When Purdue has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||41||17||IsoPPP+||8||Rushing S&P+||126||21||Passing S&P+||120||34|
Ohio State's struggles with spread offenses this season continued against Minnesota, whose freshman quarterback Zach Annexstad threw for 218 yards at 9.5 yards per attempt, and whose freshman running back ran for 157 yards at 6.8 yards per carry. If not for two interceptions by Annexstad and a fumble by star receiver Tyler Johnson (119 receiving yards), the Golden Gophers had a very good chance of taking Ohio State down in Columbus last Saturday.
The issues have been primarily focused around Ohio State's love of man coverage and base 4-3 defensive packages combined with an inability to effectively man up good receivers with a young and struggling group of cornerbacks and safeties. They're also prone to missing gap assignments up front at linebacker and allowing runners to get free into a secondary with only one proven safety.
These are all big problems to have against an offense like Purdue's, which has a nasty and unique style of spread offense that is balanced between run and pass and is filled with misdirection plays to abuse a young and inexperienced team. In particular, they have a freshman wide receiver named Rondale Moore who has 558 receiving yards, 139 rushing yards, and six touchdowns this season. Moore is 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds and Purdue loves to move him around and get him the ball in a variety of ways. Ohio State doesn't have a lot of obvious solutions for him either, especially since the Boilermakers will often play him alongside 6-foot-5, 245 pound tight end Brycen Hopkins. If you play nickel then you face covering Hopkins with an inside linebacker, but asking a linebacker to try and track and tackle Moore is arguably even worse. The game could hinge on how Ohio State matches up with these skill talents.
Purdue's defense has not been very good this year though, and may not be particularly likely to hold up against Ohio State's strengths on offense nor to exploit their weaknesses. Ohio State's issues have centered around their dearth of short-yardage options now that they aren't playing a running quarterback who can execute option or single-wing runs to help them out when they need to pick up 3 yards or less. But conversely, said quarterback Dwayne Haskins has thrown for 2,331 yards with 28 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this season.
Ohio State is flinging the ball like we've never seen from this program and picking up yardage in chunks with a deep and fast wide receiver corps. Purdue can turn this into an up-and-down shootout of a game, but that still may not go their way given Ohio State's own explosive passing attack combined with a still-strong run game.
- How does Ohio State match up and play man coverage on Purdue's tight end and slot receiver combination?
- All the ways that Purdue gets Rondale Moore the football in space.
- Dwayne Haskins is building a Heisman candidacy with every game the Buckeyes win while he throws for 400-plus yards.
- Purdue's head coach Jeff Brohm loves to run trick plays.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 8
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick
against the spread
| Ian's pick
against the spread
|Clemson||17||North Carolina State||Clemson||North Carolina State||North Carolina State|
|LSU||6.5||Mississippi State||LSU||Mississippi State||LSU|
|Washington State||2.5||Oregon||Washington State||Washington State||Oregon|
|Ohio State||13.5||Purdue||Ohio State||Purdue||Purdue|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 1-5
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 23-19
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 5-1
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 26-16