by Ian Boyd
There are certain matchups in college football that draw prime-time television coverage regardless of the point spread. This week will feature such a contest when Ohio State travels to Lincoln to take on Scott Frost's Cornhuskers. Nebraska has not shown much this season, but there's still enough shine and intrigue around the program for their battle with the Buckeyes to be of great interest.
In Week 4 we were treated to a similar contest when Notre Dame was a 14.5-point underdog traveling on the road to play the Georgia Bulldogs. That game proved worthy of the prime-time slot as the Irish hung around deep into the fourth quarter and had possession at midfield at the end of the game down only six points before turning the ball over on downs.
Elsewhere in college football, Texas defeated Oklahoma State at home despite a pair of fumbled punts that led to Cowboys touchdowns, while USC maintained command of the Pac-12 South with a 30-23 victory over Utah despite losing quarterback Kedon Slovis to injury and having to turn to their third-string signal caller. The Michigan Wolverines and Texas A&M Aggies saw their seasons take huge punches, with the Aggies dropping a home game against Auburn, one of a few big games in which they'll be favored, while the Wolverines were stomped on the road against Wisconsin.
This week the conference games get rolling outside of the Pac-12 and we'll have a few bouts between teams jockeying for position in their leagues.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Penn State (-6.5) at Maryland -- Friday, 8 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Penn State (3-0)||Maryland (2-1)|
|When Penn State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||64||6|
|Passing success rate||53||13|
|When Maryland has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||6||95|
|Passing success rate||21||78|
Penn State is in a potentially strong position to capitalize on the state of the Big 10 in 2018. While the Nittany Lions haven't exactly come roaring out of the gate, they are currently undefeated and playing very strong defense. Their offense also has considerable growth potential given that they have first-year starters in the backfield and a young wide receiver corps led by redshirt sophomore K.J. Hamler. Hamler has been manning the slot and has 10 catches for 245 yards and a pair of touchdowns so far this season, while tight end Pat Freiermuth has another 10 catches for 140 yards and two more touchdowns. It's hard to cover those two in the middle of the field given the threats from the Penn State run game, spearheaded by sophomore running back Journey, Brown who has 21 carries for 175 yards at 8.3 yards per carry with two touchdowns. There's some definite explosiveness to the skill talent in State College, and as young quarterback Sean Clifford grows increasingly confident distributing the ball, the Nittany Lions offense will improve.
The defense was strong a year ago and has picked up where they left off, fueled increasingly by a dynamic linebacker corps and top cornerback John Reid, who has a sack and a pair of interceptions already this season. Given the struggles of Michigan and Michigan State already this season, Penn State could be poised to contend with Ohio State for the Big 10 East, if they can first get past the Terrapins on the road.
Maryland is under new leadership on offense, both on the field and on the sideline, for the third time in three years. After running a shotgun-option offense in 2017 and Matt Canada's jet sweep-heavy and under-center offense in 2018, Maryland hired Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley as head coach to run an RPO spread in 2019. They've also installed Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson at quarterback. That transition is still working out the kinks, but there is some firepower on the Maryland roster; they dropped 70 points on Howard and 63 on Syracuse. Tight end Tyler Mabry has been a strong red zone target with three touchdown catches, often running pop routes off run plays up the middle of the defense.
The Terrapins defense has been fairly sturdy thus far, holding Syracuse and Temple to 20 points apiece in their non-conference schedule. They know how to match up against spread passing attacks and will likely make Clifford work to find receivers other than Hamler or Freiermuth in key spots and on third down.
Penn State has some size and veterans up front on both sides of the ball; they figure to come out ahead if this game comes down to which squad can win in the trenches. The margin by which they win up front will likely tell the story of how high their ceiling is in the Big 10 this season.
- Can Penn State beat up a big Maryland offensive line and stop their passing game before it starts?
- Will Penn State's young talent on offense start to get going or does this unit need more time?
- Maryland's star running backs Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake against the big, athletic Penn State linebacker corps.
FEI Outright Pick: Penn State by 7.6
USC at Washington (-10) -- Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||USC (3-1)||Washington (3-1)|
|When USC has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||55||43|
|Passing success rate||11||92|
|When Washington has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||84||23|
|Passing success rate||71||10|
As promising and effective as USC's transition to the Air Raid offense had been before the Utah game, it really stood out as an impactful move for the Trojans after it helped them beat the Utes 30-23 despite losing starting quarterback Kedon Slovis to a concussion early in the game. Third-string quarterback Matt Fink stepped in and threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns with a single interception.
It's jarring but not necessarily surprising how effective USC's different quarterbacks have been this season working in Graham Harrell's Air Raid with the high caliber of receivers that the Trojans are putting on the field. They'll have their toughest task yet facing the Washington Huskies, who have been playing great "bend don't break" pass defense for years and typically given the Air Raid Washington State Cougars fits. The Washington secondary has been rebuilt in light of losing multiple key pieces from the 2018 unit, but they did return Myles Bryant, who has two picks and leads the team in tackles. The other young defensive backs have come along nicely, particularly Elijah Molden, who played as a dime defender a year ago and is now in the nickel while Bryant moved back to safety.
The Trojans receivers will be a much sterner test than Washington has faced yet. Michael Pittman Jr. leads USC with 437 yards and three touchdowns on 37 targets while Tyler Vaughns has 370 yards and two scores from 39 targets. Amon-Ra St. Brown fills out the corps with 207 yards and three more scores. All of them are capable of consistently winning one-on-one matchups, making it very difficult to cover them all at the same time. Presumably the Huskies will conservatively drop back to try and force Fink to hold the ball while his internal clock is running and his offensive line is having to pick up different four-man blitz calls.
The USC defense has been less effective this season after losing most of their key players from recent years. Their battle with Jacob Eason and the Washington offense will be crucial for USC's chances of winning this game, but also might be telling about the state of the Huskies unit.
Washington struggled to move the ball against Cal's tough defense in the Pac-12 opener and have once again been more of a rushing team overall than an explosive passing squad, despite adding Eason's big arm to the equation. One of their more dangerous elements has been throwing to tight end Hunter Bryant, who has 285 yards thus far on the year. The Trojans have big safeties and fast linebackers in the middle of the field that can challenge Washington and limit their ability to control the game between the hashmarks. To come out of this as the clearly superior Pac-12 squad, the Huskies will need Eason to work the ball outside to senior wideout Aaron Fuller.
- How will Washington fare against comparable athletes recruited to USC?
- Can Matt Fink execute the Trojans' Air Raid passing attack against Washington's secondary?
- If USC can slow down the Huskies run game, can quarterback Jacob Eason win the day for them throwing down the field?
FEI Outright Pick: Washington by 10.7
Mississippi State at Auburn (-10.5) -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Mississippi State (3-1)||Auburn (4-0)|
|When Mississippi State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||28||10|
|Passing success rate||42||34|
|When Auburn has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||95||37|
|Passing success rate||38||85|
Auburn and Mississippi State have a fair amount in common in 2019. Both teams have stout defenses and power-spread rushing attacks, and both teams have struggled at quarterback. For Mississippi State the main issue has been the health of quarterback Tommy Stevens, who has been spotty since injuring his shoulder early in the year and was pulled for backup Garrett Shrader against Kansas State in the Bulldogs' defeat two weeks ago after throwing a pair of interceptions. The Bulldogs had a bye in Week 4, so there's hope that Stevens will be healthier and back on form for this contest against the Tigers defense.
Auburn's issues at quarterback are different and simply a matter of having a true freshman at the position in Bo Nix. The young signal-caller has been able to spread the ball to the edges just well enough to protect Auburn's run game and has also used the option effectively, with 24 carries for 149 yards at 6.2 yards per carry and a touchdown.
Both teams depend on their quarterbacks mostly to serve as constraints for the two main stars of this show, running backs Kylin Hill (Mississippi State) and JaTarvious Whitlow (Auburn). Whitlow has 408 rushing yards at 5 yards per carry while Hill has 546 yards at 6 yards per carry. Both teams have big, experienced offensive lines and a variety of shotgun spread option schemes designed to create openings for these big backs to power between the tackles. In terms of defending this approach, both teams also like to play in nickel personnel and match up outside in order to force opponents to win up front. The Auburn defensive line, headlined by tackle Derrick Brown, is perhaps the best in the country. Mississippi State also has a stout group; big inside linebacker Erroll Thompson has four run stuffs this season.
So it'll be strength on strength with both teams looking to bash their way through the A and B gaps inside against some of the bigger, tougher interior defenders in the country. In such a game, the scoring will probably be low and things may hinge either on which quarterback makes plays in the passing game or simply which one avoids mistakes.
Most of the advantages go to Auburn unless Stevens is healthy and ready to land some shots in the passing game, particularly to Osirus Mitchell, a 6-foot-5 outside receiver with 244 yards and three touchdowns this year. If Mississippi State can get that dimension to their offense humming at last, then this becomes a closer battle and an opportunity for the Bulldogs to re-assert themselves as a potential SEC West contender after their slip-up against Kansas State.
- Is Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens healthy and ready to give the Bulldogs a boost in attacking Auburn's defense?
- Strength on strength when either team's power run games try to find room on the ground against a pair of sturdy defensive fronts.
- Late playmaking from Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, who has managed to make enough timely plays to keep the Tigers undefeated.
FEI Outright Pick: Auburn by 5.5
Kansas State at Oklahoma State (-4.5) -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Kansas State (3-0)||Oklahoma State (3-1)|
|When Kansas State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||16||67|
|Passing success rate||12||63|
|When Oklahoma State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||46||45|
|Passing success rate||4||34|
If styles make fights, then this will be one of the most fascinating games of the entire season. Oklahoma State made some adjustments this offseason to completely commit their defensive strategy to playing drop-eight coverages with dime personnel, eliminating explosive play, and daring opponents to work their way down the field against a "bend don't break" system designed for modern spread offenses. Their offense is designed to punish teams over the top throwing to star receiver Tylan Wallace (20 catches for 473 yards and six touchdowns) before unleashing running back Chuba Hubbard (642 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) and quarterback Spencer Sanders (347 rushing yards, three touchdowns). The Oklahoma State program is oriented around generating big explosive plays that lead to points on the scoreboard while preventing you from doing the same with your own offense.
Meanwhile, Kansas State hired North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman this offseason and he brought a similarly conservative approach on defense but then also an under-center, power-run offense. The Wildcats line up with two or three fullbacks/tight ends at a time and will run A-gap power downhill on their opponents over and over again before taking shots on play-action. While the Cowboys like to throw to set up the run, the Wildcats are still more traditional and aim to run the ball while occasionally taking shots in the passing game.
Kansas State defeated Mississippi State on the road with quarterback Skyler Thompson attempting only 19 passes while they ran the ball 34 times with their running backs. This style has taken hold quite nicely in Manhattan thanks to an experienced offensive line that was left over by legendary head coach Bill Snyder and a rebuilt running back room led by transfer James Gilbert. The Wildcats were expected to struggle in Year 1, but after blowing out their first two opponents and winning on the road against Mississippi State, they are poised to establish themselves as Big 12 contenders if they open up conference play with a win on the road against the Cowboys.
The threat to Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State is all too real. Last week the Texas Longhorns limited the Cowboys offense by maintaining a consistent double-team on receiver Tylan Wallace while pounding the ball on the ground against Oklahoma State's struggling defensive line. The Wildcats could employ a similar strategy on defense, forcing the freshman Sanders to find other targets while pounding away at the Cowboys defensive front and hoping to win in a slow-paced game with limited possessions for either team.
The best chance for the Cowboys to protect home field and get back in the win column would be from finding openings in the passing game to push the ball down the field. If they can score early and often they'll prevent this from being a contest of which team is most efficient in the run game like Kansas State would prefer, although they wouldn't be hopeless in that exchange either.
- Can Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders find his receivers down the field when the Wildcats park a deep safety over his favorite target, Tylan Wallace?
- How will Oklahoma State's defensive line hold up against the power run game from Kansas State?
- Can the playmaking from Oklahoma State's star athletes Spencer Sanders, Tylan Wallace, and Chuba Hubbard beat a team approach by Kansas State?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 3.4
Ohio State (-18) at Nebraska -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Ohio State (4-0)||Nebraska (3-1)|
|When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||20||44|
|Passing success rate||6||12|
|When Nebraska has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||3||49|
|Passing success rate||9||54|
Nebraska has been something of an enigma thus far in the season. They're coming off a 42-38 victory over Illinois in which they outgained the Illini 673-299 but lost four fumbles and yielded a 66-yard run early in the game, all of which breathed life into Illinois. The Huskers offense is working more or less according to plan with quarterback Adrian Martinez currently at 1,052 passing yards at 8.4 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns to two interceptions and 287 rushing yards at 5.6 yards per carry. The Nebraska backfield pairs that with "thunder" from Dedrick Mills (246 rushing yards and five touchdowns) and "lightning" from Maurice Washington (268 yards at 7.7 yards per carry).
Turnovers are the main issue -- Nebraska also lost two fumbles and threw an interception in their 34-31 late defeat against Colorado. The spread-option schemes employed by head coach Scott Frost will probably always have some tendency to yield turnovers from all the different hand-off pulls and pitches. The old Tom Osborne teams could be fumble-prone at times, but the Huskers will need to cut those down in big games to make their system work properly.
Nebraska's defense has not shown a major Year 2 leap as of yet, but they have been reasonably effective. The Davis brothers, Carlos and Khalil, have already combined for 4.5 sacks, and the linebacker corps has been able to pace the team in tackles, suggesting a consistent ability by the team to keep the ball funneled inside from their 3-4 defensive design. That'll be key in this game against Ohio State, which has fielded one of the better rushing attacks in the country through four games.
The Buckeyes have made the most of adding transfer quarterback Justin Fields' power and speed as a runner into their system; he has already scored six rushing touchdowns. His ability to run zone and power-read schemes has also helped clear space for running backs J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague III to run wild in their offense. Dobbins in particular has 477 rushing yards at 7 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns. The passing game has been coming along more slowly, but Fields has some arm strength and range to push the ball down the field on play-action.
Nebraska may be able to keep the Buckeyes inside the hashmarks, but whether they'll be able to get to the ball and bring down their runners could be another matter. The Ohio State defense has gotten off to a fast start with veteran safety Jordan Fuller and linebacker Malik Harrison leading the way, while defensive end Chase Young somehow already has seven sacks on the year.
The Buckeyes are still utilizing a lot of single-high safety blitz schemes, though that can be a tough tactic against spread teams that create one-on-one matchups and opportunities for the quarterback to get the ball out quickly into space against those schemes. Ohio State was prone to giving up big plays a year ago in schemes of that sort and has continued to do so in 2019. If Nebraska is going to show up big at home in an upset win over Ohio State, it'll likely be due to a struggle by the Buckeyes to line up against the spread-option in their new scheme and the Huskers punishing the blitz by getting the ball out into space.
- Will Ohio State be able to soundly defend the Nebraska spread-option from their new defense?
- Can Nebraska hold up in the box against Ohio State's explosive rushing attack?
- How do turnovers play into the outcome and can the Huskers finally avoid a bad turnover margin in a big game?
FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 22.7
Washington State at Utah (-5) -- 10 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Washington State (3-1)||Utah (3-1)|
|When Washington State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||5||36|
|Passing success rate||3||38|
|When Utah has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||113||26|
|Passing success rate||52||27|
The Cougars have gotten off to a fantastic start in 2019, at least on offense. They cratered as a defense last week against UCLA and gave up a 49-17 lead in an eventual 67-63 defeat, but they've scored well in every contest they've been in. Meanwhile, Utah was a favorite amongst many to win the Pac-12 South and perhaps the whole conference before going down to USC on Friday night.
This contest figures to be a higher scoring game given the matchups at play. Utah has been powered mostly by their ground game, featuring Zack Moss at running back and quarterback Tyler Huntley also getting pretty involved in the read game. Washington State has struggled to have any success stopping opposing rushing attacks and are currently allowing successful runs by opponents at one of the very worst rates in college football.
So the odds of Utah being able to control the ball and run clock are pretty solid. However, Washington State is executing their passing game at an even higher level than they were a year ago with Gardner Minshew. Whereas under Minshew the Cougars were "checkdown city" with running back James Williams as the leading receiver, this Washington State team is pushing the ball down the field. Five different wide receivers have at least 200 receiving yards and quarterback Anthony Gordon has thrown 21 touchdown passes and is averaging 9.9 yards per attempt.
The Utah secondary proved vulnerable to USC's Air Raid attack last week and consistently yielded passes even while dropping eight into coverage and trying to park defenders in every passing lane. The Cougars have a different Air Raid system than USC, but there is an awful lot of overlap and at least comparable talent and skill.
Assuming that Utah can run the ball effectively all night but that Washington State can throw it effectively, that would favor the Cougars since the passing game is a more efficient way to score points. If the Utes can play defense well enough to get some stops and bring special teams into the equation, they should have a more complete squad in this game. But having a more complete team doesn't matter if the opponent can throw the ball around for 400 yards and you have to match that with the run game.
Stakes are high for each team. The Utes need to win to stay in the Pac-12 South division race; they can't afford to spot the Trojans another game. Washington State is in a similar position after dropping the highly winnable UCLA game and still due to play the top teams in the North division before the season is over.
- Can either defense stop these offenses from doing what they want to do?
- If both offenses are humming, can Utah keep pace running the ball against Washington State when the Cougars are flinging it around?
- How will Utah adjust after the beating they took trying to play coverage against USC and the Trojan's Air Raid offense just a week ago?
FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 0.5
FEI PICKS: WEEK 5
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|Penn State||6.5||at Maryland||Penn State||Penn State||Penn State|
|at Auburn||10.5||Mississippi State||Auburn||Mississippi State||Mississippi State|
|at Oklahoma State||4.5||Kansas State||Oklahoma State||Kansas State||Oklahoma State|
|Ohio State||18||at Nebraska||Ohio State||Ohio State||Nebraska|
|at Utah||5||Washington State||Utah||Washington State||Washington State|
FEI's Picks against the spread last week: 5-0
FEI's Picks against the spread on the year: 15-7
Ian's Picks against the spread in last week: 2-3
Ian's Picks against the spread on the year: 10-12