The Game, Bedlam Headline High-Stakes Rivalry Showdowns
NCAA - Rivalries are the lifeblood of college football. No other sport has as many, and there's a case to be made that none are as fierce. It's odd, then, that these rivalries are so different—there's hardly anything that can be said of all of them. Some are tightly knit: in-state rivalries take place across the sport, and down in Division II, Henderson State and Ouachita Baptist walk from one stadium to another to face off. Others are cross-country showdowns: USC and Notre Dame do battle in football's greatest intersectional rivalry, for example. There are wildly tight rivalries (Wisconsin and Minnesota are separated by two wins in their 130 games) and ridiculously lopsided ones (Oklahoma quintupled Oklahoma State's win total in Bedlam last year). Some are hot-blooded, such as Oklahoma-Texas and Alabama-Auburn, while others are closer to traditional get-togethers, such as Utah and Utah State's Battle of the Brothers. The only thing these games all have in common is that fans on both sides never want a win more than one particular week of the season.
Rivalry Week, the final slate of the regular season, is chock-full of such matchups, and it has become such an institution that we almost take it for granted. But the games scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend are always in flux, and every year there are teams that end up without a proper date to the dance. Conference realignment and school egos have gotten in the way of classics such as Oklahoma-Nebraska and Pitt–Penn State, which has led to some awkward scenarios. Nebraska faces Iowa to end their season now, in what may be the only rivalry to feature a standing ovation from the losing team's fans (in 1979, following a two-score Cornhuskers comeback). Meanwhile, Pitt is stuck with Syracuse, whose status as a rival is a subject of fierce debate on both sides. Neither is a tragedy, but there'll be more than a few forlorn thoughts of what could have been this Saturday.
Fortunately, most teams do face one of their most hated opponents this week. That includes pretty much all of the top playoff contenders: No. 1 Georgia takes on in-state rival Georgia Tech, No. 2 Ohio State gets a College GameDay date with No. 5 Michigan, No. 3 Alabama visits storied foe Auburn, No. 6 Notre Dame pairs up with Stanford, and No. 7 Oklahoma State looks to turn the tide against No. 10 Oklahoma. There are stakes beyond the CFP, too: four pairs of teams are facing each other in effective bowl play-in games this week, including longstanding rivals Florida and Florida State as well as budding nemeses Maryland and Rutgers. Other games are set to decide divisions: Oregon State could sneak by Oregon in the Pac-12 North, Minnesota has a shot to unseat Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, and Western Kentucky and Marshall will duel for the C-USA East. Wherever you look, from titanic playoff previews to bowl-eligibility struggles and everything in between, the grandest finale in sports will be in full swing.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Ohio State (-8) at Michigan—Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)
|When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Michigan has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Every rivalry series has its own lore and history, and The Game—the one between Ohio State and Michigan, not between Harvard and Yale—has perhaps the most famous. The early years of the contest were defined by long Michigan winning streaks, but throughout the second half of the 20th century, the two teams were more or less even. From 1950 to 2000, the Wolverines won 26, lost 23, and tied twice. Then the new millennium began and Ohio State completely flipped the script; they have won 17 of the last 19 meetings (including a vacated game in 2010) and could match the longest winning streak in rivalry history this year with their ninth on the trot. Late-career Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke, and Jim Harbaugh have all tried their hand at upsetting the Buckeyes, but they have had little success. Despite the recent lopsidedness, some of the games have been nail-biters, but lately, Ohio State has delivered emphatic shellackings: wins by 62-39 and 56-27 marked their first times surpassing 50 points in the rivalry's history.
If there were ever a time for the Wolverines to get the monkey off their back and finally beat Ohio State, this would be it. Of course, that was true in 2018 too ... but never mind that. After a tough loss to Michigan State that left Michigan fans furious with officiating errors, this team has rebounded impressively, delivering dominant wins over Indiana and Maryland and evading a challenge from Penn State. It's still a bit difficult to say how good Michigan is, exactly, and a definitive Buckeyes victory such as the one they just delivered over the Spartans is certainly a possibility. But the Wolverines are a solidly built team, and they know how high the stakes are. A close game, or even a foundation-shaking win, isn't off the table by any stretch of the imagination.
For Michigan to pull off the upset, they'll have to limit Ohio State's offense. The unit is clearly the best in the nation after scoring 49 in the first half against Michigan State, and it has shown no signs of slowing down. The Buckeyes lead the nation in EPA per play (0.48) and drive (2.72), and they're flying high in success rate (third) and explosiveness (12th). Oregon and Penn State gave the offense some trouble, but it's instructive to examine the efforts of the defense that punched the furthest above its weight: Nebraska. Against the Cornhuskers, Ohio State scored just 26 points, totaled -2.22 offensive EPA, and had just two explosive plays, both passing. Nebraska allowed 484 yards and a 46% success rate, but critically, they almost entirely prevented big plays. The Buckeyes averaged just 1.4 highlight yards per carry (additional rushing yardage after gaining 4 or more yards on a run). Compare their performance the previous week against Penn State: 481 yards, nearly identical to the Nebraska game, but seven explosive plays (six passing) and 6.8 highlight yards per carry. Breaking open a game with a single long run or pass is what the Buckeyes do best, and if a defense can limit that, the offense becomes a lot more pedestrian.
Easier said than done, of course. CJ Stroud has one of the best deep balls in college football: he's averaging 12.2 yards per pass on attempts at least 10 yards downfield with 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions. The receiving corps puts in work, too: among the 20 Big Ten pass-catchers with at least 10 deep receptions, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba are third and sixth in yards per route run. In the same group, Chris Olave's average depth of target (36.1 yards downfield) and yards per catch (35.0) both rank second overall. Stroud and his top trio make for one of the most imposing passing attacks in college football, with deep threats available no matter what defenses do. And if a team manages to cover big passes, the Buckeyes can just hand the ball off to TreVeyon Henderson, whose 29 rushes of 10 or more yards are second in the conference.
Michigan will need a lot to slow that group down, but if they manage to do so, it'll likely be by the performance of Aidan Hutchinson, the core of the Wolverines' lineup. Hutchinson is a traditional edge rusher in the heart of a very traditional defensive alignment; only one Michigan defender has taken more than 50 snaps in the pass rush and in coverage, and the player in question (Josh Ross) still takes about 85% of those snaps in the secondary. Hutchinson has only appeared in coverage on 25 plays this season, but his 310 snaps as a pass-rusher lead the team, and he has brought pressure on a whopping 53 plays, producing nine sacks. Stroud is still excellent under pressure (his 9.3 yards per attempt in such situations rank seventh in FBS), but he hasn't faced a pass rush as potent as Michigan's all year. If the Wolverines can get to Ohio State's flourishing quarterback, they might just have a chance to turn the tide of one of the sport's greatest rivalries.
- Can Michigan's two-headed rushing attack, led by Hassan Haskins (1,063 yards, 13 TD) and Blake Corum (778 yards, 10 TD), move the ball consistently against the Buckeyes?
- Will Stroud continue to dominate against a tough challenge in the Wolverines' pass defense (eighth in EPA allowed, 13th in success rate allowed)?
- Can Cade McNamara (13-for-40 for 12.9 yards per attempt on passes over 20 yards) create deep threats to stretch the Ohio State secondary thin?
FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 4.6
Florida State at Florida (-2.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|When Florida State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense|
For two once-proud in-state rivals who have found their way to 5-6 records this season, the same question can be asked: what happened when October came around? Florida, to that point, looked every bit the top-10 team their ranking indicated: they were 3-1, their only loss coming by two points to top-ranked Alabama, and had just beaten a Tennessee team that would prove to be a fairly solid win. Meanwhile, Florida State was enduring its worst start in modern memory, losing to Notre Dame, FCS Jacksonville State, Wake Forest, and Louisville en route to their first 0-4 start since 1974. For those peering ahead to the two teams' season finale in Gainesville, a Gators blowout like in the previous two meetings (41-14 and 40-17) seemed likely.
Then September ended and Florida State woke up. The Seminoles dissuaded fears of a winless season with a last-second field goal to beat Syracuse, then conjured a collected victory over North Carolina. Wins over UMass, recovering rival Miami, and rebounding Boston College followed, as did surprisingly competitive games against Clemson and NC State. All of a sudden, 0-4 has transformed into 5-6, and a remarkable return to bowl season is on the table. The path might still be difficult, though, if it weren't for the fact that Florida underwent a parallel switch in momentum. In their first game of October, they dropped a road game at Kentucky for the first time since 1986, beat Vanderbilt, then promptly lost their next four conference games in a row—to LSU, Georgia (that one's forgivable, at least), South Carolina, and Missouri. Oh, and they threw in a bewildering 70-52 shootout with middling FCS team Samford for good measure. The Gators haven't won outside the state of Florida since they beat Tennessee in 2020, and they have now fired head coach Dan Mullen after the latest stage of the collapse, a 24-23 overtime loss to Missouri.
All this drama sets up a Sunshine Showdown with unusual stakes. In a game that saw both teams enter in the top 25 in every season from 1990 to 2003, this meeting will be the third of the last 10 with neither team ranked. If the winner goes on to lose in their bowl game, it would mark the first year in which both teams finished below .500 since 1961, which marked the fourth game in a series that will see its 65th meeting this week. Nevertheless, bragging rights and a bowl bid are on the table, and if history is any indication, the Gators and Seminoles will put everything they have into this game, whether they're contending for a spot in the playoff or the postseason.
Florida State's most lauded improvement has been on offense—they averaged 23 points per game in their first four games and have put up 31 per game since—but the defense has done pretty much the same thing, going from 31 points allowed per game to 23. While the offense has swapped back and forth between Jordan Travis (the leading passer in Games 1, 5 to 8, and 10 to 11) and McKenzie Milton (who led in Games 2 to 4 and 9), the defense has rallied around Jermaine Johnson II. Used sparingly as a linebacker for Georgia in 2019 and 2020 (he ranked 19th and 17th on the team in total snaps), Johnson was shifted into a pass-rushing role upon his arrival at Florida State. He has seen 666 snaps this season, third-most on the Seminoles, and his 381 pass-rushing snaps lead the team. He has earned that upgrade to an everyday starter, too: with 64 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks, he ranks either first or second in every major front-seven stat. His 43 quarterback pressures and 24 quarterback hurries lead Florida State, and his improvement has led the way for the defense as a whole. Across the last three games, he has put up 16 pressures, 10 hurries, and three sacks, and he hasn't missed a tackle since October 9.
If they're to deal with Johnson and the rest of Florida State's much-improved pass rush, the Gators will need their offensive line to come up big. Pass blocking has been a strength this season; 11 players have taken at least 20 snaps in pass protection, and none have allowed quarterback pressure on more than 6% of their plays. Florida's opponents have managed a mere 2.7% sack rate, sixth in the nation. Emory Jones may struggle under pressure—he has thrown 40% of his interceptions in such situation despite only 25% of his passes coming under pressure—but he generally doesn't face it often enough to become a problem. The line has faltered lately, though, allowing 10 or more pressures in its last two FBS games after doing so only twice in its first eight. The Gators must step up in the trenches to protect Jones and save their season, as two classic rivals clash with bowl eligibility on the line for both.
- Can the Gators' pass rush, led by defensive end Zachary Carter (21 quarterback hurries, 7 sacks) affect the Seminoles' quarterback?
- Will Jones be able to pick up the pace—he's averaging 3.35 seconds on pressured throws to 2.62 on others—and avoid frequent pressure?
- Can Florida State's solid run defense (22nd in EPA) slow down the Gators' multifaceted rushing attack?
FEI Outright Pick: Florida by 4.4
Western Kentucky at Marshall (-2)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|When Western Kentucky has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Marshall has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Western Kentucky's comeback after a 1-4 start was a bit more predictable than Florida State's—the Hilltoppers faced off against Army, Indiana, Michigan State, and UTSA in their early four-game skid, but they haven't met an opponent without a losing record in their ensuing six-game winning streak. Nevertheless, their surge has been impressive to watch, and it has added more drama in a season that has proven to be Conference USA's swan song. UTEP has reached bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014, Old Dominion has somehow won four in a row after over a thousand days without an FBS win, Charlotte upended Duke early in the season, and UTSA stunned UAB in the dying seconds of their game last week to remain undefeated. And then, of course, there's the chase for the East division. Reigning winner Marshall started slowly, dropping non-conference games against East Carolina and App State before coming up short against Middle Tennessee in their conference opener. Since then, though, the Thundering Herd have won five of their last six, putting them in position for a winner-take-all game against rival Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers initially dominated when the two were paired up for Rivalry Week—an unusual pairing brought about by the fact that Western Kentucky usually plays its main rival (Middle Tennessee) and Marshall often doesn't play its main rivals (Ohio and West Virginia) at all. The first conference game produced a historic 67-66 shootout, but Western Kentucky went on to win comfortably the following two years by scores of 49-28 and 60-6. The rivalry shifted out of the season finale after that, though, and Marshall took the next four games, though last year's 38-14 win was the only one to come by more than one score. The game's return to the end of the season is a welcome one, made more so by the fact that the Hilltoppers and Herd will be playing for the division title and a shot at the conference championship.
The star of the show is, without a doubt, Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe. One of many players and coaches imported from Houston Baptist's high-flying FCS offense, Zappe averaged 8.5 yards per attempt with 15 touchdowns and one interception against an unusual schedule in fall 2020. (Despite playing for an FCS team, he faced three FBS opponents in the four-game slate and averaged 291 yards per game against them.) Those in the know tabbed Zappe for a breakout, but nobody saw this season coming: 48 touchdowns (10 ahead of every other FBS quarterback), only nine interceptions, and 422 yards per game. Credit the lights-out Hilltoppers line for some of that success, though—they have allowed the lowest sack rate in football and only 60 quarterback pressures all year. That's quite important considering that when pressured, Zappe's 4.1 yards per attempt rank 126th of 139 quarterbacks with at least 50 pressured dropbacks.
The receiving corps has been key, too. Jerreth Sterns (1,511 yards, 12.3 yards per catch, 12 TD) leads the nation in receiving yardage, and his 123 catches place him over 30 ahead of the field. In particular, he has added a critical deep threat; Zappe is 37 for 65 (56.9%) on passes over 20 yards downfield, and Sterns is responsible for 13 of those receptions on 15 targets, producing 453 yards and four touchdowns. The Hilltoppers vastly prefer the short passing game, ranking third in passing success rate and 111th in passing explosiveness, but Zappe's reliability near the line (an 86.4% completion rate on passes of under 10 yards) only makes them more dangerous downfield.
That presents an interesting matchup for Marshall's pass defense, which is significantly better up front than on deep passes. The Herd are allowing just 6.4 yards per attempt (15th in FBS), but they have run thin in the secondary. Cornerback Micah Abraham has been great, breaking up 10 passes and allowing only 12.2 yards per catch despite facing the second-longest attempts of Marshall's primary coverage defenders. The Herd haven't found a lockdown safety, though: Nazeeh Johnson, E. J. Jackson, and Brandon Drayton have all rotated in, and they're allowing a 64.5% completion rate for 8.4 yards per attempt as a group. Zappe has been a menace for opposing safeties—of his 189 passes beyond 10 yards, 89 have come down the middle, and he has totaled 1,350 yards and 15.2 yards per attempt on those throws. If Western Kentucky can get past the Marshall secondary, they'll be well on their way to a dramatic showdown with UTSA in the conference championship game.
- Can Western Kentucky's defense continue to successfully bend (97th in success rate allowed) without breaking (ninth in explosiveness)?
- Will Herd quarterback Grant Wells be more willing to take downfield shots and try to break open the Hilltoppers' defense?
- Rasheen Ali (206 carries, 5.5 yards per carry, 3.6 yards after contact per carry) is pivotal to Marshall's offense; can Western Kentucky limit him in the trenches?
FEI Outright Pick: Marshall by 3.6
Oregon State at Oregon (-7)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|When Oregon State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Oregon has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Over the past couple of seasons, it often felt as if Oregon State was right on the verge of turning things around. The Beavers' last bowl was in 2013, and in 2018 they brought in Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith to right the ship after Gary Andersen's disastrous two-and-a-half-year stint as head coach. Progress wasn't obvious over the first three seasons—the team went 2-10, 5-7, and 2-5—but Oregon State seemed close to a breakthrough. In 2019, they lost three of five one-score games, and only one of their seven losses came by more than two scores. 2020 brought more close-game drama, most of it disappointing: their losses came by 10, 6, 6, 3, and 13 points, while they pulled off wins by 4 and 3 (the latter over rival Oregon). They ended up 2-5, yet came 43 points from going undefeated and earning a shot at their first Rose Bowl since 1964.
To the delight of underdog fans everywhere, the Beavers have finally arrived this season. After a loss to Purdue in the opener that turned out far better than it looked at the time, Oregon State ripped off four straight wins, then rebounded from a Washington State setback to hand Utah its only conference loss. Letdowns against California and Colorado delayed the long-awaited reward of bowl eligibility, but the Beavers took care of business against Stanford to punch their ticket. Then, as Oregon State shocked Arizona State to reach 5-3 in the Pac-12, Utah rolled Oregon to hand the Ducks a second conference loss, suddenly clearing out the Beavers' path to an unlikely division title. The scenario is now clear: if Washington State loses to Washington on Friday night, they'll fall out of the tiebreaker that could be created if Oregon State pulls the upset over Oregon on Saturday. If the Beavers can do it, they'd secure a miraculous division title—their first ever—and a chance to win their conference outright for the first time since 1956, when it was called the Pacific Coast Conference and the school was known as Oregon State College.
Of course, that's easier said than done when the opponent at hand is the 11th-ranked team in the country. But as good as Oregon is, the Beavers have a mismatch against their defense. The Ducks have faced rushes on only 45.6% of defensive plays, the 17th-lowest rate in FBS, but they struggle to defend the run game, ranking 57th in EPA allowed and 77th in success rate allowed on the ground. The Beavers have an excellent rushing attack—11th in EPA per play, third in success rate—and the key is one of the best offensive lines in college football. Judging by PFF's run-blocking grades, the unit is excellent all around; six of the 12 top-graded players in the Pac-12 are from Oregon State, including league-leader Marco Brewer. The overall numbers back up that conclusion, as the Beavers lead the nation in line yards per carry (3.29) and success rate on power runs (91.2%).
Oregon has a powerful, heavy-hitting defense led by superstar Kayvon Thibodeaux, but the run defense is lacking. Mykael Wright (293 snaps in run protection), Noah Sewell (291), and Verone McKinley III (289) have been the major forces against opponents' rushing attacks, but each has missed 15% of tackles or more. Against Utah last week, PFF graded nobody better than a middling 73.2 in run defense, and the team as a whole missed over 20% of its tackles. The Beavers should have a huge advantage up front, particularly in the middle, as they have averaged 7.1 yards per carry on runs to either side of the center. (That includes 3.7 yards before contact!)
Of course, there's another side to the Ducks' weakness against the run: their dominant attack on the edge. Thibodeaux, with 24 quarterback hurries, five quarterback hits, and six sacks on just 220 plays in the pass rush, is the cornerstone, but Brandon Dorlus (324 snaps in the pass rush, 28 hurries, three hits, three sacks) and Sewell (84 snaps, 17 hurries, nine hits, four sacks) have put in work as well. Quarterback Chance Nolan is relatively poor against pressure—he averages 6.1 yards per attempt under those conditions, tied for 62nd and well below his rank of 14th with a clean pocket. And as good as the Beavers are at the heart of the line, the edge is another question; they allow pressures on nearly a third of Nolan's dropbacks. If the Ducks can bring the heat to Oregon State's backfield, they should be able to neutralize the passing game and seal the Pac-12 North title.
- Will the Beavers (45th in passing EPA allowed) keep Anthony Brown (7.6 yards per attempt, 14 TD, 4 INT) from adding solid passing yardage?
- Can the rock-solid Oregon run game (second in success rate), led by Travis Dye (937 yards, 12 TD), produce reliable offensive drives?
- Is Nolan's deep passing enough to make the Oregon State offensive explosive against a Ducks defense that prevents big plays well?
FEI Outright Pick: Oregon by 5.7
Wisconsin (-7) at Minnesota—Saturday, 4 p.m. (FOX)
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Minnesota has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Few rivalries are closer than Wisconsin-Minnesota. Despite being the most-played game in FBS history, it's currently so tight that the Badgers just broke the tie to take the lead two years ago. The story of the rivalry, though, is defined by long streaks: Minnesota opened the series with a 37-17-5 run up until the 1950s, when things became more even. From 1950 to 1993, Wisconsin won 22 games and Minnesota took 19. Then Barry Alvarez overcame a stunning Gophers upset in 1993 to finish the season 4-0-1 and deliver the Badgers' first Rose Bowl win ever, and the tide turned. Minnesota won once more in 1994; since then, Wisconsin has won 23 of the last 26, including a winning streak so long that the Minnesota players who broke it in 2018 didn't remember their team's last win in the rivalry.
So if you had to put down a bet on the winner this year, the Badgers would be the obvious pick. But it has been an uncharacteristically up-and-down year for Wisconsin, less like their typical 10-win territory and more comparable to their 8-5 season in the year of that streak-snapping loss. Their 8-3 record consists of a 1-3 start and a 7-0 finish, so there's momentum here, but Minnesota has improved as well. After a 2-2 start that included a bewildering loss to Bowling Green, the Gophers have since gone 5-2, with only one letdown in the mix (an equally inexplicable 14-6 loss to Illinois). They're an underdog, but Wisconsin's advantage isn't insurmountable.
The key is getting past the Badgers' tenacious defense. While Wisconsin's offense has had a good run lately (52, 35, and 35 points in their last three games), the defense has been central to their winning streak. Nebraska's 28 points against the Badgers last week marked the first time any team had scored more than 14 on this defense since Michigan, seven games prior. The Badgers lead the nation in yards allowed per carry at the line (1.97) and in the second level (0.54), and they're fourth in EPA allowed and second in success rate allowed. Explosiveness has been a problem (they're 50th in that stat), but it's a major weakness for Minnesota's offense as well (they're 117th), so it shouldn't be too much of a concern.
The most likely angle of attack will be through the air, where Wisconsin's defense has been a little less perfect (ninth in EPA, third in success rate) than on the ground (second in EPA, first in success rate). Unfortunately, Tanner Morgan's deep ball is lacking: the Gophers' passer has seven interceptions and a 44.9% completion rate on passes of 10 yards or more. Digging a little deeper reveals a surprising correlation; six of Morgan's eight picks have come when Minnesota hasn't faced a blitz. Despite less pressure (22% of non-blitzed dropbacks compared to 36% of blitzed dropbacks) and comparable time to throw, he has been less accurate (53.2% completion rate to 65.9%) and efficient (5.7 yards per attempt to 11.0) on such plays. It's hard to be completely definitive, but it seems reasonable to infer that the veteran quarterback Morgan is good at punishing short-staffed coverage downfield.
The Badgers have one of the best blitzes in college football, perhaps unsurprisingly. With 151 snaps in the pass rush, linebacker Jack Sanborn is most frequently diverted to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and he's fantastic in that role, with 17 hurries, nine hits, and three sacks. But the importance of this strength can also be a liability: if an opposing quarterback is experienced and plays well under pressure, it can open up the passing game and prevent Wisconsin from keeping an offense from breaking out. And who fits that mold better than Nebraska's Adrian Martinez, who spooked the Badgers with a remarkable 28-point showing last week? He has faced pressure on some 164 dropbacks, the second-highest total in college football, and has averaged 9.9 yards per attempt, best among the 30 most-pressured quarterbacks. Morgan's pass protection has been much better—he has only been pressured 71 times—but he's averaging a mediocre 6.1 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and four interceptions on those plays. For Minnesota to find a rhythm against their archrival's ascendant defense, they'll need Morgan to come up big when the Badgers inevitably put him on the spot.
- Will Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz's surge (10.5 yards per attempt in his last three games) continue against a tougher opponent?
- Can Minnesota's run defense (20th in EPA, 18th in success rate) keep Braelon Allen (over four yards after contact per attempt in five straight games) contained?
- How much will the run-heavy Gophers (67.2% rushing rate, fourth-highest in FBS) go on the ground against the Badgers' imposing front seven?
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 5.5
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State (-4.5)—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When Oklahoma has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Oklahoma State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
If you like your rivalries weighty, this season's edition of Bedlam is the game for you. Sure, there are playoff stakes on the line—the winner could be one of the five or fewer contenders that reach Selection Sunday with fewer than two losses, which would put either team in prime postseason position. Yes, there's a critical conference championship spot to be decided—if Oklahoma loses, Baylor would sneak by with a win to put the Sooners' streak of Big 12 titles to an end. And, of course, there's a rivalry trophy to be won and bragging rights to be had.
But there are obviously some uncomfortable undertones to this matchup. With Oklahoma's impending departure to the SEC and both schools' silence on a potential non-conference scheduling agreement, this may well be the last Bedlam played in Stillwater for the foreseeable future. After year after year of disappointments in their biggest game, finally stealing a win—just months after the Sooners announced their switch—would be an immense relief for Oklahoma State. Conversely, after hearing about every single one-score win for week after week, Oklahoma would like nothing better than to waltz into Boone Pickens Stadium and lay down the law.
However this game turns out, though, it's unlikely to look like that last few seasons' meetings. Scores such as 62-52 and 48-47 are in the past now; the projected point total for this year's game is about 50. The reason: Oklahoma State's defense, which has gone from 97th to 61st to 34th to second in points allowed per game under Jim Knowles' coordination. The Cowboys' defense ranks highly in success rate (second), EPA (fifth), and explosiveness (11th), and its 0.01 EPA allowed per drive is second only to Georgia. Perhaps most importantly, Oklahoma State leads the nation in opponent third-down conversion rate, allowing only 23.2% of snaps to reach a first down. It's a stunning turnaround for a unit that had held the Cowboys back for over a decade.
The most important attribute of this group is versatility. Of the 10 defenders who have taken at least 300 snaps for Oklahoma State, all have taken at least 150 of those snaps in multiple categories between run defense, pass-rushing, and coverage. Malcolm Rodriguez, who has the most run defense snaps and fourth-most coverage snaps on the team, is the clear leader, with 95 tackles, 11.5 for a loss. But every bit of flexibility helps, and the Cowboys have it in spades. Like Rodriguez, Kolby Harvell-Peel, Devin Harper, Jason Taylor II, Jarrick Bernard-Converse, Tanner McAllister, and Christian Holmes all shift freely between stopping the run and dropping back into coverage. The defensive front is led by Tyler Lacy, an edge rusher with 30 total quarterback pressures, and filled out by Brock Martin and Brendon Evers. Almost every key player is a returning starter of several years, which has made this hybrid-heavy defense a resounding success.
But Oklahoma's offense is, as usual, on another level. There have been glitches for the Sooners this season—23- and 16-point clunkers against Nebraska and West Virginia, a scoreless first half against Kansas—but at its best, their offense is almost impossible to stop. Since taking over in the Red River Shootout, Caleb Williams has proven to be one of the best quarterbacks in college football, notwithstanding a dodgy outing against Baylor. With a clean pocket, he's untouchable: a 71.6% completion rate, 10.8 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns, and only two interceptions. But even under pressure, Williams is a star, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt and throwing six touchdowns to two picks. He has been one of the best players in college football this season, albeit in limited time. That being said, he may not be the best player on his own offense, with running back Kennedy Brooks demolishing opposing teams. Any stat you choose will have Brooks somewhere near the top—among players with 100 or more rushes, he's tied for 19th in yards per carry, 21st in yards after contact per carry, and tied for 10th in rate of rushes for over 15 yards.
Whether the Sooners can put up points or the Cowboys shut them down, Oklahoma's offense against Oklahoma State's defense is not a showdown to be missed. Hopes of championship glory, streaks to be broken or upheld, and good old-fashioned rivalry are all on the table in what may be the biggest Bedlam ever. It may well be the last time these rivals meet in Stillwater for a long while, and with both teams approaching new heights as the end of the season approaches, this game promises to be a good one.
- Can Cowboys starter Spencer Sanders (7.5 yards per attempt, 15 TD, 6 INT) finally stay on the field in Bedlam and keep the offense upright?
- Will Oklahoma's swarming pass rush, keyed by edge rusher Nik Bonitto (30 hurries, nine hits, seven sacks), bring pressure to the Cowboys' line?
- Can Caleb Williams get past Oklahoma State's secondary and give the Sooners more big plays in the passing game?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 9.0
FEI Picks: Week 13
|Ohio State||-8||at Michigan||Ohio State||Michigan||Ohio State|
|at Florida||-2.5||Florida State||Florida||Florida||Florida State|
|at Marshall||-2||Western Kentucky||Marshall||Marshall||Western Kentucky|
|at Oregon||-7||Oregon State||Oregon||Oregon State||Oregon State|
|at Oklahoma State||-4.5||Oklahoma||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State|
FEI's picks ATS in Week 12: 2-4
FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 35-37
Preston's picks ATS in Week 12: 2-4
Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 35-37