Ohio State, Clemson, USC Defend CFP Hopes in Rivalry Week

Clemson Tigers RB Will Shipley
Clemson Tigers RB Will Shipley
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 13 - In some seasons, Rivalry Week is a massive feast, overflowing with consequential matchups, complicated playoff scenarios, and hatred across every corner of the nation. This year's edition is more like a tasting menu—there are plenty of interesting games that run a wide variety of reasons for intrigue, but the level of all-around excitement isn't quite as high as usual. Admittedly, that's by the standards of a weekend that stacks up to the opening rounds of March Madness as the best on the sports calendar; there's still plenty to enjoy on the schedule, even if a major shakeup to the playoff picture isn't all that likely at this point.

For those with an eye on the potential for chaos, three games stand out this week. First is, of course, the headline showdown between undefeated Ohio State and Michigan, sitting second and third in the College Football Playoff rankings and pursuing the Big Ten East title and a cakewalk in the conference championship game to lock in a playoff bid. The only thing detracting from this momentous edition of The Game is the fact that, if things break right in the next two weeks, there's no guarantee the loser doesn't find a spot in the bracket anyway. To that end, both fanbases will be keeping an intent eye on the other one-loss teams they'd need to beat out for a spot: Clemson, which is trying to maintain a seven-game winning streak against a dangerous South Carolina team, and USC, which is looking to reverse recent history and defeat Notre Dame for the first time since 2016. In the best-case scenario for fans of chaos (and the worst-case scenario for the poor playoff committee), we could be dealing with 11-2 conference champions Clemson, USC, and LSU; 13-0 champions Ohio State and TCU; 12-1 Georgia; and an 11-1 Michigan that would be trying to slip in for a likely first-round rematch with the Buckeyes.

It's fair to say, however, that the odds are stacked against an outcome as messy as that. The Tigers and Trojans are both favored, the former prohibitively so, and a dubious LSU-over-Georgia upset next week would be required to put the committee in a first-round rematch bind. Playoff spots can't be won this week, only lost, so it's worth keeping in mind the smaller dramas playing out across college football this week. The biggest games in the Group of 5—Tulane's visit to Cincinnati in a possible championship preview and Coastal Carolina's duel with James Madison for first place in the Sun Belt East—aren't traditional rivalries, but they're both fascinating matchups. In the Power 5, a Sunflower Showdown for the ages leads a delightful assortment of smaller matchups, from the Egg Bowl to the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe to ... well, whatever Oregon-Oregon State is called nowadays. The fate of the playoff standings may not hinge on every top game this week, but there are high stakes of every sort in a regular-season finale brimming with drama.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Tulane Green Wave at Cincinnati Bearcats (-1.5)—12 p.m. Friday (ABC)

Overall Tulane Cincinnati
2022 F+ 25 33
When Tulane has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 41 23
2022 EPA/pass 57 17
2022 EPA/rush 21 54
When Cincinnati has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 22 70
2022 EPA/pass 58 37
2022 EPA/rush 56 110

If the tiebreakers for the Pac-12 Championship Game haven't given you a headache by now, the scenarios in the AAC surely will. The winner of this game is assured the top seed and will host the title game next week, but the race for second is cluttered. UCF and Houston, both 5-2 in conference play, are facing opponents they should handle easily in the final week, which would put them at 6-2 and in a tie with the loser of Tulane-Cincinnati. Most outcomes are simple enough, but in the event of a tie between UCF, Tulane, and Houston, or between Cincinnati and Houston, the shot at a conference title and a Cotton Bowl bid would come down to a select group of computer rankings. It's also worth noting that a tie involving UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston would favor the Knights thanks to the CFP committee dropping them only two spots for a loss to Navy this week—a controversial decision, to put it lightly.

In any case, the teams in this game are in the driver's seat. For either, a win would secure their spot and home-field advantage for next week, along with an overwhelming advantage for the New Year's Six spot should they win that game as well. The path to this point has been difficult—Cincinnati has fallen from the rankings twice, while Tulane didn't earn a place until Week 8—but the Bearcats and Green Wave are both 9-2 and have each lost just one conference game. Both have made it to this point on the strength of skillful defense and punchy offense, but the similarities largely end there.

The Cincinnati team that reached the playoff last season was built on a balance that helped them escape threats from numerous opponents, but this year's team has leaned more heavily on its defense. The unit is led by the Pace brothers: Deshawn, who emerged last year as a versatile playmaker for Cincinnati, and Ivan Jr., who had a similar breakout for nearby Miami-Ohio and joined his brother on the Bearcats this season. Ivan is easily the best defender on the team: he's currently in position to lead the American in tackles a year after leading the MAC, and he's also the team's top player in tackles for loss and sacks while tying for second in pass breakups. Deshawn's excellence in pass defense—having allowed just 5.8 yards per attempt on the most passes of any Cincinnati linebacker—complements his brother's effectiveness on the ground well, giving the Bearcats a uniquely versatile duo to man the middle of the field. With the Pace brothers leading the way, this defense ranks top-20 in both success rate and explosiveness against the run and the pass, making it one of the best all-around units in the nation.

Tulane's defense is also exceptional, allowing 19.5 points per game to Cincinnati's 19.7, but its success has come in a very different way. The Green Wave are the ultimate example of "bend, don't break," allowing a 40.4% success rate (50th in FBS) but an explosive-play rate of just 7.2% (third). The national average tackle rate is around 15.5%, but Tulane's top three tacklers (Dorian Williams, Nick Anderson, and Larry Brooks) have rates of just 7.7%, 3.2%, and 11.3%. The defensive line allows a 50.0% opportunity rate (the percentage of runs that gain 4 or more yards), but only 15.1% of those carries make it to the open field (10 yards past the line of scrimmage).

In the passing game, the average team completion rate allowed sits just above 60%; the Green Wave are led by Macon Clark, who has allowed 40 completions on 50 targets, and is 89th in completion rate allowed. Their saving grace is the ability to shut down successful passes before they turn the game on its head. Clark has allowed just 6.3 yards after catch per reception, and others are even more impressive: Jarius Monroe and Jadon Canady, Tulane's next-most-targeted defensive backs, have held opponents to 3.9 yards after catch per reception. This methodical style has proven effective for the Green Wave so far, as they have held nine opponents under 30 points and five (including Kansas State) under 15, and if it can limit a Cincinnati offense that struggles to generate big plays, Tulane's superb season could end at the top of the AAC.

Watch for:

  • Can Ben Bryant (7.9 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns, seven interceptions) keep the Bearcats rolling on offense with a steady performance?
  • How well will the Green Wave test Cincinnati's lack of rushing depth (only one player, Charles McClelland, with over 20 carries and 5.0 yards per carry)?
  • Will Tulane's offensive line (53rd in front-seven havoc rate allowed) be able to hold off Ivan Pace Jr. (21.3% pressure rate, highest among players with 100 pass-rush snaps)?

FEI outright pick: Tulane by 6.3.

Michigan Wolverines at Ohio State Buckeyes (-7.5)—12 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Michigan Ohio State
2022 F+ 3 2
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 16 7
2022 EPA/pass 29 6
2022 EPA/rush 14 6
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 5 3
2022 EPA/pass 5 3
2022 EPA/rush 1 5

You couldn't make this story up. On one side, playing on the road and trying to overcome the vast majority of its recent history in this revered rivalry, is a Michigan team that feels it has been disrespected all season. On the other, the host that's favored despite having lost decisively last year, is an Ohio State team that feels much the same. Both have hit bumps in the road—Michigan flirted with disaster against Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois, whereas Ohio State did so against Notre Dame, Northwestern, and Maryland—but both have made it here undefeated, the first time that has happened since 2006. The Wolverines' offense is excellent, but their defense might be the best in the country; the Buckeyes' defense is excellent, but their offense might be the best in the country.

The list of comparisons could go on, but suffice to say that this might be the best edition of The Game ever played. Despite the high stakes, in many ways, it's difficult to find an appropriate framing for this matchup. Vegas has Ohio State as a considerable favorite, and metrics largely agree, but Michigan doesn't feel like an underdog in many ways. Part of what makes this so strange is that, regardless of both teams being 11-0, this feels like their first real chance to prove themselves. The Buckeyes' only ranked opponents are Notre Dame (whose early-season form left much to be desired) and Penn State, which is also the Wolverines' only ranked win—and has no ranked wins of its own. Both teams' statistical dominance, those occasional scares notwithstanding, provides the benefit of the doubt for their high ranking, but only now will we get a firm gauge of how good they are, right at the end of the regular season.

More specifically, we'll get a better look at the units leading the way for these teams: Ohio State's offense, averaging 46.5 points and scoring 40 or more in nine games, and Michigan's defense, averaging 11.7 points allowed and allowing 20 or less in 10 games. The Buckeyes' attack has been exceptional, and when the run game clicks, it's almost impossible to stop. On the other hand, the Wolverines have been perhaps the most well-rounded when it comes to holding back opposing offenses: in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness, whether facing the run or the pass, they rank top-five in FBS in every category. Outside of a lack of big plays (66th in both front seven and defensive back havoc rate) and some questionable tackling in the secondary, Michigan's defense has been virtually flawless.

Something has to give, and there's a good chance it happens in the trenches. The Wolverines won this game a year ago by physically dominating Ohio State up front on both sides of the ball, which included holding their run game to just 64 yards on 30 carries (including sack yardage). C.J. Stroud had a strong performance in that loss, passing for 394 yards on 49 attempts with two touchdowns, but Ohio State's offense faltered because the run game didn't hold up to Michigan's front. Those Buckeyes were averaging 198 yards on the ground per game before they ran into the Wolverines' defense; these Buckeyes are averaging 204 yards on the ground, and now they're facing their demons once again.

The Ohio State running back corps is a very different group from last season's, however. In 2021, TreVeyon Henderson took over a hundred more carries than any other rusher, and he was generally expected to remain the workhorse back this season. But injuries, along with moments of ineffectiveness (19 yards on four carries against Toledo; 19 yards on 11 carries against Maryland) have changed the Buckeyes' philosophy. While Henderson has remained the feature back when available, alternates Miyan Williams and Dallas Hayden have seen similar usage and posted similar numbers. With 212 more yards on just 10 more carries, Williams has made a strong case as Ohio State's first offensive choice, but both he and Henderson are questionable for the Michigan game after injuries suffered against Maryland. Whatever combination of rushers the Buckeyes have—and however they split their touches—will be up against the national leader in EPA allowed per rush. Finding a way to break through the Wolverines' stalwart defensive line with their stable of superstar running backs is critical for Ohio State to avoid a repeat of last season in one of the biggest games of the year.

Watch for:

  • Can Michigan (+12.0 plays per game margin) use its reliable run game (fifth in success rate behind Blake Corum's 1,457 yards) to wear down Ohio State's defense?
  • Will J.J. McCarthy (leading a passing offense that ranks 68th in explosiveness) be able to match C.J. Stroud's threat through the air (fourth in success rate and explosiveness)?
  • Will the Buckeyes (10th in line yards per carry on offense, 15th on defense) or the Wolverines (17th on offense, 19th on defense) hold sway at the line?

FEI outright pick: Ohio State by 4.9.

South Carolina Gamecocks at Clemson Tigers (-14.5)—12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall South Carolina Clemson
2022 F+ 36 15
When South Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 43 17
2022 EPA/pass 53 14
2022 EPA/rush 59 21
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 58 35
2022 EPA/pass 45 72
2022 EPA/rush 121 38

The path for Clemson to make the playoff is clear: just win out. Climbing into the top four from the position they're in now might be tough—especially considering other teams will have better opportunities to impress in the conference championships—but it shouldn't be difficult for them to, at the very least, put forth the best final impression they can. South Carolina and North Carolina, their final opponents of the season, should both provide solid wins while being unlikely to wreck the Tigers' résumé by pulling off an upset.

Trade out North Carolina for Vanderbilt (a somewhat less impressive win, admittedly) and that describes precisely Tennessee's situation from a week ago. The Volunteers were in position to make a strong playoff case by taking care of business, but they suffered a stunning 63-38 loss to the Gamecocks, firmly knocking them out of CFP contention. Now South Carolina is attempting to repeat that feat, bringing an abrupt end to a fringe contender's precarious playoff chances. It won't be easy—they'll be playing in Death Valley, facing a rival Clemson team which has run up a 71-26 score on Louisville and Miami since its one loss—but it's no more impossible than beating Tennessee was supposed to be.

It's hard to look past quarterback Spencer Rattler as the key to the Gamecocks' chances. The Oklahoma transfer has been largely unremarkable this season, but he reminded the nation why he was once considered a top draft pick and Heisman Trophy favorite as he torched Tennessee for 438 yards and six touchdowns. Clemson's defense, however, is a world removed from the Volunteers', and Rattler will have to beat one of the best secondaries in college football to put South Carolina in position to win. Safety Barrett Carter and corner Nate Wiggins have both handled over 40 targets for the Tigers, and they have been up to the challenge, allowing just 6.5 yards per target and 4.8 yards after catch per reception. The rest of Clemson's coverage is a little more susceptible, but not very much so. There's nobody like Volunteers linebacker Juwan Mitchell, who gave up four completions for 76 yards on four targets last week, to pick on.

On the other side of the ball, the key offensive weapon for Clemson to unleash is running back Will Shipley. Amid an up-and-down season by quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, Shipley has been a rock, ranking second in the ACC with 960 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. His 189 total yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse—including a 50-yard go-ahead score in the fourth quarter—almost singlehandedly won that game for Clemson. But the toll of those 27 carries against the Orange, a career high for the 20-year-old, has shown itself since: he has averaged only 74 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per carry in the last three games, marking his longest streak without a 100-yard game this season.

South Carolina's run defense has been a serious liability this season—they're 113th in EPA allowed per rush and 128th in success rate allowed on the ground—which could provide an opportunity for Shipley to return to form. The upside of the Gamecocks not getting to play Tennessee's porous defense is getting to play Clemson's inconsistent offense, and shutting down the pass should be a possibility. But to give their offense a chance, they need to find a way to contain Shipley, one of the most consistent and explosive running backs in the country. If they can do that, the Gamecocks might have a shot at their second playoff-redefining upset in as many weeks.

Watch for:

  • How much pressure can the Tigers' talented pass rush (14.0% havoc rate, 3.0 sacks per game) produce against a weak South Carolina offensive line?
  • Will the Gamecocks be able to lean on their passing attack against a Clemson defense which has adeptly handled a high 52.9% passing play rate?
  • Can Uiagalelei step up and lead the offense if Clemson finds itself in a situation where it must rely on his arm?

FEI outright pick: Clemson by 6.0.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers at James Madison Dukes (-14.5)—12 p.m. (ESPNU)

Overall Coastal Carolina James Madison
2022 F+ 63 60
When Coastal Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 34 38
2022 EPA/pass 1 18
2022 EPA/rush 83 2
When James Madison has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 79 64
2022 EPA/pass 97 55
2022 EPA/rush 85 113

There's a great deal to be said about the stakes this game was robbed of. Thanks to the NCAA's difficult-to-rationalize rules prohibiting rising athletic programs from postseason eligibility, James Madison won't be able to win their division, make the Sun Belt Championship Game, or secure a bowl bid until 2023 at the earliest. This has been an excellent season for the Dukes, but it's the only one that will end with a winning record this week. Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina has already clinched the Sun Belt East, having overcome a series of narrow wins and a decisive loss to Old Dominion to start 9-1 and reach the AP top 25. Rather than a championship shot and the glory of a first-year division title, the most James Madison has to win is a "share of first place," words that should never be used at a level higher than the Ivy League.

While this game deciding the division outcome would have made sense and added drama, there's still something worth playing for. The Chanticleers are the best-positioned team to pick up the pieces in the event of an underwhelming champion from the AAC, having suffered fewer losses than any other Group of 5 team. If they can go into Harrisonburg and win this week, then take down what will likely be a 10-2 Troy next week, they'd have a strong case against a team like three-loss UCF. Coastal Carolina's lack of quality wins—only recently, against 7-4 Marshall and 6-5 Appalachian State, have they defeated teams with winning records—will make it difficult to reach the top, but the opportunity for two late additions to their résumé is a valuable one.

Of course, picking up those wins will be difficult under the Chanticleers' current circumstances. Grayson McCall, who in 2021 averaged an NCAA-record 11.9 yards per pass attempt, was injured against Appalachian State and ruled out for a month or more. Despite commanding an offense that had experienced heavy turnover after leading a 22-3 run in 2020 and 2021, McCall was having another statistically remarkable season before the injury—for the second time in his career, he had 20 touchdowns and only one interception by the three-quarter point of his team's season, making him the first quarterback this century to achieve that feat twice. (The eight players who have done it once include Caleb Williams, Justin Fields, Tua Tagovailoa, and Marcus Mariota, which is a good example of the statistical company McCall keeps.)

With their defining star down, the Chanticleers blew a 17-0 lead over Southern Miss and needed a literal last-second touchdown to escape unscathed; Jarrett Guest, their starter in lieu of McCall, averaged 11.6 yards per attempt but threw two interceptions. Head coach Jamey Chadwell has expressed confidence in the quarterback situation, but Coastal Carolina—already a run-first team, passing on only 39.9% of plays—threw just 15 times to 42 carries against Southern Miss. It's hard to believe that the Chanticleers feel they can lean on the passing attack, which could be a decisive weakness against the Dukes.

James Madison has struggled in the secondary, with extreme boom-or-bust tendencies that have led to a 32.7% success rate (sixth) but a staggering 12.0% explosive-play rate (105th) on passing plays. Setting aside other concerns about his performance, Guest did have a decent deep ball on display against the Golden Eagles, and Coastal Carolina will look to make full use of it in this game. Reliability and a significant downfield threat through the air will be critical if James Madison continues to roll against the run: the Dukes have allowed the lowest rushing success rate in the nation (26.2%) and the seventh-lowest explosive-play rate (8.2%). Linebacker Taurus Jones, who has two forced fumbles and only five missed tackles, has been a standout, but the depth of this run defense is its main strength. James Madison should be able to keep a middling Chanticleers rushing corps in check, putting immense pressure on Guest to keep the offense riding high and lead Coastal Carolina to the final week with their Cotton Bowl hopes intact.

Watch for:

  • Can Dukes quarterback and two-time transfer Todd Centeio (9.6 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions) put the finishing touches on an inspiring breakout year?
  • Will James Madison's offensive line be able to hold off the Chanticleers' deep, dangerous pass rush (eighth in front-seven havoc rate with eight multi-sack players)?
  • Can the Dukes' relatively inefficient running backs beat out Coastal Carolina (43rd in rushing explosiveness allowed) in the open field?

FEI outright pick: James Madison by 1.5.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish at USC Trojans (-5.5)—7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame USC
2022 F+ 29 14
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 50 78
2022 EPA/pass 54 66
2022 EPA/rush 82 128
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 31 2
2022 EPA/pass 15 7
2022 EPA/rush 75 1

You probably heard a lot about Caleb Williams after USC's crucial win over crosstown rival UCLA last week, and rightfully so. The Oklahoma transfer has been incredible this season, averaging 9.0 yards per attempt with 33 touchdowns and three interceptions. Williams has 3,480 passing yards through the Trojans' first 11 games, putting him ahead of Matt Barkley, Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer, Sam Darnold, and every other 21st-century USC quarterback at that point of the season. He showed out against the Bruins, going 32-for-43 with 470 passing yards, three total touchdowns, and an interception, and has placed himself firmly in the Heisman debate while leading the Trojans directly into the CFP conversation.

It is, however, not USC's passing (which is still excellent) but their rushing that ranks highest nationally. Thanks to the efforts of Travis Dye, Austin Jones, and Williams, the Trojans lead the nation in EPA per rush and explosiveness—one in every five carries gains 10 or more yards. Dye was spectacular in the first 10 games, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and racking up 1,086 yards when including his prodigious receiving numbers, but he suffered a season-ending injury ahead of the UCLA game, prompting a reshuffle of the talented rushing room. In his stead, Jones stepped up against the Bruins and ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns while adding 57 yards through the air, leading USC to its sixth straight 150-yard performance on the ground.

UCLA couldn't get the Trojans to miss a beat in the run game, but their defense against rushing plays has struggled all season, ranking 78th in EPA, 114th in success rate, and 96th in explosiveness. Notre Dame's run defense is the weak link on a unit that excels against the pass, but it should still pose more of a challenge: the Irish are 75th in EPA, 49th in success rate, and 58th in explosiveness against the run. Contributions from the vaunted defensive line of Isaiah Foskey and Jayson and Justin Ademilola, which has underwhelmed this season, will be key to shut down USC's depleted running back corps.

The Trojans may need that yardage on the ground, considering how strong Notre Dame's secondary has been. The Fighting Irish started the season by holding Heisman contender C.J. Stroud to just 6.6 yards per attempt, and they have shut down almost every other opposing passer capably. Drake Maye, also in the running for the Heisman, is the only quarterback to top 300 yards against Notre Dame, and since allowing 288 yards to Stanford's Tanner McKee, the Irish have given up just 159 yards per game and 5.5 yards per attempt in a five-game winning streak.

Cam Hart was the expected leader of this secondary, but fellow corner Benjamin Morrison has emerged as the biggest key to its success. As a true freshman, Morrison has been solid all season and picked off five passes in November—something only six other players have done since the regular season was expanded to 12 games in 2006. Among Notre Dame's regular defensive backs, he leads the way in both targets (46) and completion percentage allowed (41.3%). Alongside contributions from Hart (3.4 yards after catch per reception) and Brandon Joseph (52 yards on 14 targets), Morrison has guided the Irish to top-20 ranks in passing EPA, success rate, and explosiveness allowed.

Williams and a versatile USC receiving corps—where three players have over 500 yards, all on 15.0 or more yards per catch—are as strong a matchup for that secondary as any passing attack Notre Dame has faced this season. But with Dye still unavailable and Jones coming off a 21-carry day against UCLA (his highest volume in two years), the Trojans won't be able to lean on their rushing attack as much as they might like to. Williams can take on a heavy workload and lead the offense, but he may need a career performance to put away Notre Dame and keep USC in the playoff hunt.

Watch for:

  • Can the Trojans (125th in rushing explosiveness allowed) keep Audric Estime and Logan Diggs (1,480 yards, 5.4 yards per carry combined) from moving the ball consistently?
  • How much can Notre Dame's field-position advantage (averaging a start nearly 10 yards better than their opponents') buoy their offense and suppress USC's?
  • Will Drew Pyne (7.5 yards per attempt, 19 touchdowns, five interceptions) create big plays against a solid USC pass defense (33rd in explosiveness allowed)?

FEI outright pick: USC by 3.4.

Kansas Jayhawks at Kansas State Wildcats (-11.5)—8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Kansas Kansas State
2022 F+ 53 9
When Kansas has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 14 13
2022 EPA/pass 2 24
2022 EPA/rush 45 59
When Kansas State has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 101 22
2022 EPA/pass 104 25
2022 EPA/rush 117 80

The Sunflower Showdown hasn't often been a marquee game. From 1952 to 1992, Kansas and Kansas State combined to produce a record better than .750 exactly once. (In the same span, they racked up three 0-10 years and one 0-11 year.) The early 1990s saw both programs on the rise under the Jayhawks' Glen Mason and the Wildcats' Bill Snyder, but the rivalry peaked when No. 14 Kansas State stunned previously unbeaten No. 6 Kansas 41-7 in 1995. Since that season, the Jayhawks have gone over .500 just three times in the late 2000s, coinciding with the Wildcats' brief fall from grace before Bill Snyder returned to consistent success in Manhattan.

To summarize, these teams both finished with a winning record four times in the 1990s—and have otherwise not done so since 1933. There's no guarantee yet of breaking that streak this season, as 6-5 Kansas needs a win here or in a bowl, but it's safe to say this is one of the most meaningful meetings in the rivalry's long history. For Kansas State, their hopes of forcing a rematch with TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game are on the line; for Kansas, their chances of that winning season and of snapping a 13-game losing streak in this game are at stake. In a way we haven't seen in nearly 30 years, and beyond that in nearly a century, this game matters to fans of both teams and of others alike.

Both teams' quarterback situations have been in a state of flux this season, though for somewhat different reasons. The Wildcats started with Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez, who was largely unremarkable as a passer but added enough on the ground to justify his starting role. Martinez was pulled early against TCU, however, and has only played one full game since due to lingering injuries; in his stead, Will Howard has been pressed into service at quarterback instead. Howard's struggles in relief of Skylar Thompson over the last two seasons held the Wildcats back, but he has completely turned his career narrative around this season, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions while leading Kansas State to a 3-1 record in his appearances. While Martinez was briefly reinstated against Texas in the hope of maintaining an extra year of eligibility for Howard, the backup's performance on the field has become essential to the Wildcats' excellent year. After passing for 294 yards on 27 attempts in a banner day for the offense, he has left no doubt that Kansas State will burn his redshirt in the final week of the regular season.

The Jayhawks have a little more uncertainty as to who they'd like to start, thanks to injuries that have hit them even harder. Jalon Daniels (9.1 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions, plus 353 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns) was exceptional in Kansas' 5-0 start, but his season was derailed by an injury that left him unavailable until last week. In a reversal from 2021, when Daniels emerged after starter Jason Bean went down, it has been Bean standing out with Daniels unavailable. The backup has similarly strong numbers—9.5 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, plus 222 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns—and while Kansas went just 1-4 in his full games, the offense didn't miss a beat (32.2 points per game under Bean, 37.0 against weaker competition under Daniels).

Daniels returned in the Jayhawks' blowout loss to Texas last week, and although some fans have clamored for Bean to take over as the full-time starter, it seems likely that Kansas will ride with its first choice as long as he's healthy (which has been a question for both quarterbacks over the last few weeks). Whomever the Jayhawks throw out will be up against a tenacious Wildcats secondary led by shutdown corner Julius Brents, who has three interceptions and has allowed just 6.3 yards per target. If Howard's magical season continues, Kansas could easily find itself in need of an explosive passing attack to keep up, regardless of which quarterback leads the way.

Watch for:

  • Can the Jayhawks' deliberate, run-first style slow down the pace of Kansas State's offense?
  • Will explosive Wildcats running back Deuce Vaughn create big plays against a Jayhawks run defense that holds up well in the defensive backfield?
  • How well will the complementary threats of Howard and Vaughn keep Kansas State's offense on the field when they need to find key yardage?

FEI outright pick: Kansas State by 15.1.

FEI Picks: Week 13

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Preston's
Pick ATS
at Cincinnati -1.5 Tulane Tulane Tulane Cincinnati
at Ohio State -7.5 Michigan Ohio State Michigan Michigan
at Clemson -14.5 South Carolina Clemson South Carolina Clemson
at James Madison -14.5 Coastal Carolina James Madison Coastal Carolina Coastal Carolina
at USC -5.5 Notre Dame USC Notre Dame Notre Dame
at Kansas State -11.5 Kansas Kansas State Kansas State Kansas

FEI's picks ATS last week: 2-4.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 27-42-1.

Preston's picks ATS last week: 2-4.

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 36-35-1.

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