The new playoff rankings don't suggest too many big-time showdowns left for the college football season. Minnesota and Baylor, two unexpectedly undefeated teams, went down against Iowa and Oklahoma, the latter in a dramatic comeback from a 28-3 deficit. Oklahoma's comeback victory was truly amazing to behold -- a pair of Baylor second half three-and-outs sandwiched a play in which the Bears running back picked up a big gain on the first play of the drive before fumbling the ball to the Sooners. Between those events and the Sooners launching four 10-plus-play drives and then a nine-play field goal drive, the Bears barely ever had the ball in the second half, and their offense could only watch helplessly as Jalen Hurts kept running through their defense and erasing their lead.
Elsewhere in college football, the biggest events were in the SEC. Georgia took down Auburn 21-14 and is now in great shape for the playoff unless they should lose to Texas A&M or in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama began to build their resume as potentially the most worthy one-loss team only to lose star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to a horrifying hip injury. Their matchup in the Iron Bowl against Auburn sans Tagovailoa now looms as a huge game for the playoff committee.
This week will feature some conference title-shaping contests as well as multiple "chaos" games in which playoff contenders face tough opponents that could knock them out and throw the hierarchy of the current rankings into disorder.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Penn State at Ohio State (-19.5) -- 12 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Penn State (4-5)||Ohio State (7-2)|
|When Penn State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
There are two big questions to answer about Ohio State in this game. One is whether they are truly that much better than Penn State as the Vegas spread or stat projections suggest. To be favored by nearly three touchdowns over a team with Penn State's talent is pretty remarkable -- are the Buckeyes really that much stronger than their fellow Big 10 East contender? In some sense, there's mostly only downside for Ohio State in this game because the expectations and standards for this team have become quite high.
The other question is how they'll handle an opponent that can play really high-level run defense. Minnesota shocked Penn State because they didn't try to win by running the ball, instead counting on the Nittany Lions swarming their run concepts and mixing in extra heavy doses of vertical RPOs and play-action. Indiana mimicked that tactic and threw for 371 yards. Ohio State has some deadly play-action dimensions to their offense as well, but quarterback Justin Fields has yet to throw the ball 30 times in a game. If Penn State can slow up the Ohio State run game, what then? Also, can Penn State slow down the Ohio State run game to begin with, or is that too great a challenge?
Usually in big-time matchups like this, particularly in the postseason, a defense is so dialed in on the offensive playbook that they can make the run game very difficult, and the offense needs the passing game (or a running quarterback) to add an extra gear to their offense. It'll be very interesting to see which of those two options Ohio State elects; smart money would be on more quarterback run game.
Ohio State will look for opportunities down the field though, and the game could be decided by how well Penn State holds up. After consecutive weeks of getting torched deep through the air, it's probably a good guess that the Nittany Lions will be extra aware and cautious that they are sound on the back end in this contest. The Buckeyes may get receivers open deep anyways because they have fast athletes and the stress of their run game and deep play-action attack is so great, but it's doubtful that they'll have guys running free as Indiana did a week go.
The other interesting wrinkle to this game is how well Ohio State can run the ball on Penn State. The Nittany Lions will definitely be well versed on the Buckeyes run game, and their linebackers and defensive line can be an absolute load coming downhill. This is a tougher front to block than Ohio State has played this season save for Wisconsin, so there will be helpful returns here on what works and what doesn't in terms of run defense.
Beyond the barometer that Penn State will supply for the Ohio State offense, there's the other side where the highly ranked Buckeye defense will take on the spread-option Nittany Lions offense. Penn State likes to create a variety of two-man games with their option playbook, such as a handoff or quick toss to star receiver K.J. Hamler, option runs by Sean Clifford, or pop passes to tight end Pat Freiermuth.
The Buckeyes will look to lock much of that down with man coverage, but it does expose them to getting isolated and beaten if the Nittany Lions have any matchups that work out to their advantage. The obvious one is whether or not Ohio State can cover Hamler, perhaps in particular if Penn State puts him in the boundary slot where the Buckeyes tend to cover receivers with linebacker/safety Pete Werner rather than corner/safety Shaun Wade. The other potential matchup is in the run game; if the game is lower scoring, can the Nittany Lions get enough offense running power and zone read plays with Clifford and their young running backs?
- Can Ohio State throw the ball over the top of the Penn State defense like Minnesota and Indiana did, or will Penn State shore that up?
- How does Ohio State's top-ranked rushing attack look against the Penn State defensive front?
- Can K.J. Hamler beat Ohio State's man coverage and keep Penn State in this contest?
FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 27.9
Texas A&M at Georgia (-13.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Texas A&M (7-3)||Georgia (9-1)|
|When Texas A&M has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Georgia has the ball||Defense||Offense|
This was an interesting season for Texas A&M, coming off a promising Year 1 under new head coach Jimbo Fisher, whom the Aggies hired away from Florida State by paying a king's ransom in the form of a $75-million, guaranteed contract. In Year 2, rather than plugging in transfers again at the essential tight end position or de-emphasizing bigger sets, Fisher has gone with a youth movement. The Aggies have leaned on some freshman tight ends, featured freshman running back Isaiah Spiller after an injury to starter Jashaun Corbin, and have employed a strategy designed to milk the clock. The Aggies are ninth nationally in time of possession and regularly run the clock down to five seconds or less before snapping the ball.
Texas A&M's schedule this year perhaps gives a glimpse into why they'd pair ball control and the run game with a young offensive roster. They drew Clemson, Georgia, and LSU on the road while hosting both Auburn and Alabama. Through three of those contests they are 0-3, with the road trips to Georgia and LSU looming. Perhaps Fisher decided that maintaining narrower margins while building up the younger players was a better option than going all in on a spread passing attack for a year and risking some games where the Aggies gave up 40 or 50 points.
Georgia will be happy to embrace a lower-scoring grind with the Aggies, as that's how they play regardless. A glimpse at the IsoPPP numbers shows that Georgia has a strict "no explosive plays" policy that extends even to their own offense. The Bulldogs are effective in the passing game, but they aren't looking to chuck the ball around and score lots of points; they prefer to maintain possession, move the chains, and give opponents limited chances against their own fantastic defense.
Texas A&M doesn't have a great chance against that Georgia defense; the Bulldogs cover exceptionally well and run to the football with good angles and awareness as a unit while refusing to yield ground across the defensive line. Where the Aggies have hope is in their own defense limiting the Bulldogs and keeping things close enough that one of Kellen Mond's patented scrambling throws down the field can make the difference.
Aggies defensive tackle Justin Madubuike has had a big year with 12.5 run stuffs and weak-side linebacker Buddy Johnson has added another 14, playing in the feature positions in defensive coordinator Mike Elko's under defense. The Aggies like to mix zone blitzes in with their base defense and have a pair of 210-pound safeties in Demani Richardson and Leon O'Neal Jr that they mix into the run fits from their deep alignments. The play of strongside defensive end DeMarvin Leal, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound freshman, will be huge; he'll be asked to anchor the edge against Georgia's big tackles and downhill run game. If the Aggies' waves of big defensive linemen can stop the Bulldogs from finding traction in the run game, then this contest gets interesting.
- Can Texas A&M's big but young defensive line hold up against the Georgia run game?
- Kellen Mond's improvisational playmaking against a Georgia defense that will likely swallow up Texas A&M's main play calls.
- Can either team get enough possession and snaps to allow Georgia to cover this large spread?
FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 15.4
Texas at Baylor (-5.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Texas (6-4)||Baylor (9-1)|
|When Texas has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Baylor has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Since Texas lost on a game-ending field goal at Iowa State, the stakes in this contest are somewhat diminished in terms of the effect on the standings. Baylor can clinch a place in the Big 12 title game either by beating Texas or winning at Kansas in the last game of the season. The Longhorns need to win this game, win their finale against Texas Tech, and then see Baylor lose a third consecutive time against Kansas. Not impossible, but not probable. What's on the line in this game is more pride and stature for these respective programs. For Baylor to lose to both Oklahoma and Texas this season would mar an otherwise brilliant breakthrough under head coach Matt Rhule as those two programs are the big-time powers in the Big 12 conference. For Texas, they would rather not yield ground to an in-state program by losing this game.
The matchup could be interesting also for the fact that Baylor has been diminished some over the course of Big 12 play by an injury that left them without left tackle Connor Galvin for several weeks, and then subsequently some wear and tear on quarterback Charlie Brewer in the games played without his blindside protector. In recent weeks Brewer has lacked range on his vertical tosses, which has a big impact for a team whose best dimension on offense is having multiple receivers that can beat you down the field in Denzel Mims (767 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns), Tyquan Thornton (613 receiving yards, three touchdowns), and Josh Fleeks (227 receiving yards, one touchdown).
Texas finally fielded a healthy secondary once more in their contest with Iowa State, utilizing heavy usage of their dime package once more to keep cornerbacks or good cover safeties locked in on the Cyclones receivers while blitzing both linebackers or the dime safety. Iowa State struggled to punish them due to their lack of a dominant outside receiver to win deep against the improving Texas cornerbacks and the struggles of their offensive line to handle the variety and athleticism of Texas' five-man pressures. Given Baylor's struggles along the offensive line and the limitations of Brewer to push the ball down the field when he can't step into his throws, Texas' improved health and pressure loom as a major factor in this game.
The Bears have made it this far primarily due to their defense, which made an enormous leap from a year ago while fielding eight seniors in a base dime scheme. Baylor mixes drop-eight, inverted Tampa-2 coverages that deny vertical passing lanes with some man coverage and man blitzes, similar to what Texas runs on the majority of their downs. Their inverted Tampa-2 sets are devastating due to their superior play at nose tackle (Bravvion Roy) and defensive end (James Lynch, 8.5 sacks). The Bears can get pressure rushing only three and their defensive line is strong enough to protect a linebacker corps of Blake Lynch, Terrel Benard, and Jordan Williams, all of whom are smaller and speedier players.
Texas will have to work their way down the field methodically, as Oklahoma did, in order to get points on the board on this defense. They may have the means to do it; against Iowa State they erased a 20-7 deficit by giving up on the run and leaning on four-receiver sets and spread passing with star quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Senior receiver Devin Duvernay is a deadly weapon in those sets at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds with 4.4 speed. He has caught 87 balls for 1,017 yards and seven touchdowns already this season and carved up Iowa State's inverted Tampa-2 and blitzes a week ago running option routes underneath and crossing routes against man coverage.
This could be more of a defensive struggle than expected with the Longhorns' newfound health in the secondary combined with Baylor's recent struggles and nagging injuries accumulated by Brewer, Mims, and some of their offensive linemen. Another factor that will be hard to anticipate before we see the game is how well the Bears have handled the psychological trauma of losing their first game of the year in a huge home contest where they held a 28-3 lead. Was that demoralizing or will they be confident and ready to avenge that loss?
- Can Baylor attack Texas' secondary down the field against the Longhorns' blitzing, dime defense?
- How will Texas handle Baylor's star defensive line and masterful bend-don't-break strategies?
- What will these teams look like coming off gut blow defeats against Oklahoma and Iowa State?
FEI Outright Pick: Baylor by 6.5
Michigan (-10) at Indiana -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Michigan (8-2)||Indiana (7-3)|
|When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Indiana has the ball||Defense||Offense|
This game comes at a favorable time and place for the Hoosiers: at home and in between the Wolverines playing their rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. Michigan blasted the down-and-out Spartans last week 44-10 and will be itching to finally show out against the Buckeyes. The Wolverines have only beaten Ohio State twice this century, the last occasion being in 2011 when Ohio State was in a transition year from Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer.
So there's a lot of question over how much of Michigan's attention the Hoosiers will get this week. Unless Penn State can beat Ohio State there's no chance of Michigan getting into the Big 10 title game even if they beat the Buckeyes; what would really make this season for the Wolverines would be to pull off wins in both rivalry games and finally get the Buckeyes monkey off their backs. Indiana is also a real challenge for their aggressive schemes on both sides of the ball.
The Hoosiers have been better with quarterback Peyton Ramsey healthy and at the helm; he has thrown for 300 yards or more in two of his last three games and also adds some power running with his 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame. Receiver Whop Philyor is the main weapon, a burner in the slot with 863 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Ty Fryfogle adds 502 more receiving yards as a bigger outside target at 6-foot-2, and they can also flex out big tight end Peyton Hendershot to move back and forth between spread and running sets.
Michigan tends to match up pretty well with these types of teams, using hybrid Khaleke Hudson to shadow tight ends while bringing endless varieties of blitzes. There are six different Wolverines starters on defense with at least three sacks; you can't orient your protection or run-blocking to stop one in particular because they can bring pressure from every angle into any gap. Indiana will need to be ready to throw the ball 40 times or so again and count on doing more damage than they take from the pass-rush.
The hope for Indiana is in their own blitzing defense getting to Shea Patterson and thwarting the Michigan run game. Michigan blew out the rival Spartans by leaning more into their passing game, with Patterson going 24-for-33 with 384 yards at 11.6 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Between Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell, Tarik Black, and Donovan Peoples-Jones Michigan has too many good receivers to keep under wraps. When Patterson is finding these guys in the passing game -- at which he has been inconsistent all year -- the Wolverines are pretty hard to beat. Fortunately for opponents, they've tended to stick to an often plodding rushing attack rather than putting the game in Patterson's hands.
If Jim Harbaugh and his staff feel better now about giving Patterson more agency and control of the game, we could see a very strong finish to the year from Michigan, starting with picking apart the aggressive but flawed Hoosiers defense and building additional confidence heading into a big game against Ohio State, where they'll likely be double-digit underdogs.
- Does Michigan continue to unleash Shea Patterson and the passing game or stick to the run?
- Can Michigan limit Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey and the Hoosiers' own passing game?
- How focused will Michigan be on Indiana with the Ohio State game looming around the corner in the season finale?
FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 8.6
SMU at Navy (-3.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|Overall||SMU (9-1)||Navy (7-2)|
|When SMU has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Navy has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Navy's status as the fourth-best passing offense by SP+ is an interesting dimension to this game. The Midshipmen are a triple-option team that doesn't throw the ball all that often, but when they do mix in play-action it tends to inflict a great deal of damage. Conversely, the SMU Mustangs have played a lot of aggressive defense this season that has left them exposed to big plays to the tune of that 129th-place ranking in IsoPPP.
The Midshipmen have their big matchup against Army next week, a classic rivalry game that has some extra oomph these days because of Army's solid play in recent years. This game is pretty important though, as the winner will be sitting in pole position to win the AAC West in the event that Memphis drops one of their final two games. The Tigers have beaten both SMU and Navy this season, but they dropped a conference game to Temple and still have a road game against South Florida and then a home date with Cincinnati left, so there's a lot of potential for a loss that would elevate SMU or Navy to the top spot.
It has been a special season for SMU, who've come alive in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes thanks in part to adding grad transfer quarterback Shane Buechele from Texas. Buechele has thrown for 3,195 yards at 8.2 yards per attempt with 28 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He has always been a very accurate passer who has thrived playing in this system with veteran receiver James Proche and some help from a run game anchored by Xavier Jones. Navy has had a rebound season thanks to putting their best runner, Malcolm Perry, at their quarterback position and watching him run off-tackle every week for 1,159 rushing yards and counting.
The SMU defense will probably struggle with Perry in the triple-option attack; they are a blitz- and movement-heavy defense that may commit some costly busts that leave creases for Perry or lead to the dreaded pitch on the perimeter that flanks the defense. On the other side, Navy's defense just got lit up by the Notre Dame passing game, yielding five touchdown passes to Ian Book, four of them heading to star receiver Chase Claypool, who simply overpowered the Midshipmen.
Navy is no stranger to the shootout, even though they often control the ball for long stretches with their run-heavy offense, so those potential play-action shots loom extra large. The Midshipmen would benefit from padding their margin with a few big passes over the top and could also create some hesitation that serves their run game. Another key factor will be turnovers, particularly from Buechele, who can be picked off by teams that can successfully bring pressure. Navy couldn't manage much against Notre Dame's offensive line, but the Mustangs are certainly a step down from that level and may be more vulnerable to their 3-4 defense and linebacker blitzes.
- How will SMU's bust-prone defense handle the stress of Navy's triple-option offense and play-action passing game?
- Can SMU quarterback Shane Buechele manage the pocket and protect the ball in a shootout?
- Results in Memphis' final two games -- if they slip then the winner of this game will be the AAC West champion.
FEI Outright Pick: Navy by 2.5
TCU at Oklahoma (-19) -- 8 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||TCU (5-5)||Oklahoma (9-1)|
|When TCU has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Oklahoma has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Oklahoma head coach and offensive guru Lincoln Riley is one of the only offensive coaches that TCU's Gary Patterson has yet to get the best of. Since Riley joined the Big 12 in 2015, he has beaten the Horned Horned Frogs by scores of 30-29, 52-46, 38-20, 41-17 (2017 Big 12 title), and 52-27. The distance between the two programs has seemed to widen with each new round, with Patterson's Horned Frogs increasingly further removed from being able to take down the mighty Sooners.
This week TCU will go on the road against the Sooners as massive underdogs after Oklahoma's dramatic win against Baylor that almost sewed up a Big 12 title game berth. Oklahoma would have to lose this game and the next against Oklahoma State in order to cede their place in the title game away, to the Cowboys. With a win here or in Bedlam, Oklahoma locks up a third consecutive trip to the Big 12 Championship Game.
TCU hasn't looked like a team particularly likely to give Oklahoma trouble. They struggled badly against Kansas State and Oklahoma State in earlier weeks, showing particularly bad fundamentals against the zone-read play, before rebounding with a win over Texas and a narrow overtime defeat against Baylor. Last week TCU's improved play continued with a win over Texas Tech. Patterson has been shuffling his defense around, inserting freshman defensive end Colt Ellison and sophomore weak safety Ar'Darius Washington over older, struggling veterans. The Horned Frogs had some big busts against Texas Tech but overall have shown more play-making potential with the younger core.
On offense, freshman quarterback Max Duggan has been growing of late and has started to use his arm strength to connect with TCU's speedy receivers Jalen Reagor and Taye Barber down the field more often. Barber caught eight balls for 137 yards in a win over Texas Tech last week and Duggan found Reagor on a deep post route for 55 yards.
Oklahoma has looked increasingly vulnerable every week on defense as teams have sorted out their new-look schemes and found ways to attack their small and vulnerable secondary. They've kept chugging along, in part by learning on Hurts in the run game. The powerful quarterback had 19 carries against Kansas State, 22 against Iowa State, and then 27 in the comeback win over Baylor. He has proven pretty durable so far, and Oklahoma may just continue to lean on him in order to get through this final stretch in pursuit of a fifth straight Big 12 championship.
The Sooners will also see wide receiver CeeDee Lamb return after he missed the Baylor game for unspecified reasons. Further exasperating the challenge there for the Horned Frogs is the fact that their star cornerback Jeff Gladney will miss the first half after being ejected against Texas Tech for targeting.
For all that, it's hard to see Patterson failing to put together one of his most precise game plans yet in an effort to finally take down the Sooners machine. The Horned Frogs have a lot of speed and disruptive potential on defense, and the Sooners have been an easier puzzle to solve this season, relying less on play-fakes and a brilliant passing game and more on the fact that Lamb and Hurts are exceptionally hard to tackle in space. If the Horned Frogs can pick up on what worked well for Baylor in the first half, or for Iowa State in the second half of their contest, perhaps TCU can limit Oklahoma enough that Duggan could match Hurts on the scoreboard.
- Option defense -- both teams have struggled with quarterback read schemes and both teams will utilize that dimension heavily in this game.
- Gary Patterson vs. Lincoln Riley -- this has been a one-sided affair for years, but this may be Riley's most easily game-planned offense.
- Will CeeDee Lamb play? And how will his second-half matchup with TCU's lockdown cornerback Jeff Gladney go?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 19.2
FEI PICKS: WEEK 13
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|at Ohio State||17.5||Penn State||Ohio State||Ohio State||Penn State|
|at Georgia||13.5||Texas A&M||Georgia||Georgia||Georgia|
FEI's Picks against the spread last week: 2-4
FEI's Picks against the spread on the year: 37-31
Ian's Picks against the spread in last week: 3-3
Ian's Picks against the spread on the year: 32-36