Dan Mullen’s return to “Stark Vegas” is the hot storyline. Mullen went 69-46 in nine seasons with the Bulldogs before ditching small-town Starkville for Gainesville. He’s off to a 3-1 start with the Gators. Joe Moorhead, former offensive coordinator at Penn State, also has started 3-1. What these teams have in common this season is a loss to Kentucky. Florida was stunned 27-16 as a two-touchdown home favorite against the Wildcats on Sept. 8. Mississippi State was a 10-point favorite in a 28-7 loss at Lexington last week. Moorhead’s offense had averaged 50 points and a Southeastern Conference-best 311.7 rushing yards per game before hitting a brick wall in Kentucky. Nick Fitzgerald was no Fitz-magic, limited to 16-for-32 passing for 145 yards with an interception. The Gators, who rolled over a terrible Tennessee team a week ago, are getting decent production from Feleipe Franks, who has 12 touchdown passes to two interceptions. Franks, however, has completed 52.6 percent and his lack of accuracy is a concern. The success of Florida’s running attack will decide its fate, with Dameon Pierce and Jordan Scarlett leading the way. Mullen might have an edge with his inside knowledge of Mississippi State’s personnel. The Bulldogs probably get the win, but laying 7 points is playing with fire.
This is a strong year for quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and Clayton Thorson and Shea Patterson are two of the best. Thorson and the Wildcats are underachieving, though. He has three touchdown passes and three interceptions for Northwestern, which is 1-2 and reeling from back-to-back defeats and the abrupt loss of running back Jeremy Larkin. Thorson is coming back from a knee injury, so his slow start is not a surprise. The news about Larkin, who’s retiring from football after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis, is a shock and a huge setback. Larkin carried the ball 72 times for 346 yards and five TDs and added 19 receptions for 127 yards. The Wildcats will get no pity from Jim Harbaugh, who bullied Nebraska 56-10 last week. Harbaugh has pounded a few lightweights since getting outfoxed by Brian Kelly in the Wolverines’ flop at Notre Dame. Patterson has completed 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns while running back Karan Higdon sets the pace for a deep and talented backfield. Michigan has an elite defense. Northwestern has a sputtering offense. It’s tempting to side with the Wildcats, who had a nine-game win streak before their recent slump that included a 39-34 loss to 21-point underdog Akron. Pat Fitzgerald is 17-9 ATS in his past 26 as a ‘dog and is off a bye. This is a lean to the Wildcats getting 14 points, but the loss of Larkin makes it a pass.
The Irish are not the lucky side in this matchup. The Cardinal improved to 4-0 with a miraculous 38-31 win at Oregon, which lost in overtime only because coach Mario Cristobal is a clock-management clown. Bettors on the Ducks took the worst beat of the season so far. Stanford’s supremely talented offense has had a problem with slow starts, mostly because coach David Shaw is extremely conservative. Shaw needs to go deeper in the playbook earlier in the game against a tough Notre Dame defense. K.J. Costello has an array of weapons, including physical wideout JJ Arcega-Whiteside and running back Bryce Love. Costello’s four touchdown passes helped the Cardinal top the Irish 38-20 last November. Shaw has won four of the past five in this series, but there’s an argument for Brian Kelly as the better coach. Kelly made a shrewd move last week by benching quarterback Brandon Wimbush in favor of Ian Book, who was 25-for-34 for 325 yards and two touchdowns while adding three rushing TDs. The Irish piled up 56 points and 566 total yards. Still, Book has only two career starts, against Wake Forest and North Carolina, and this Stanford game is his biggest stage by far. It’s not a good spot for Stanford after its Houdini act at Oregon, and the line was bet up to 5½ after opening at 3. While it’s tough to bank on Shaw, the points look attractive with the Cardinal.
OHIO STATE-PENN STATE
Urban Meyer’s return to the sideline has been surrounded by more drama and emotion than a typical high school prom night. What a mess in Columbus. Ohio State’s troubled athletic director, Gene Smith, is denying a report that the school is planning to make Ryan Day the coach-in-waiting behind Meyer. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That’s a big story. So is this — star defensive end Nick Bosa might not return this season. Bosa, a top NFL prospect, had core muscle surgery last week. The Buckeyes have been tested only once this season, and they caught some breaks in a 40-28 win over Texas Christian. Ohio State’s scoring average of 54.5 is inflated after home victories over Oregon State, Rutgers and Tulane. Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins (75.7 percent completions, 16 touchdowns, one interception) is a Heisman threat, yet he was not so great against TCU and the road trip to Penn State will be his most challenging test. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber give Ohio State the superior ground attack, although the Nittany Lions are surviving with Miles Sanders replacing the phenomenal Saquon Barkley. Trace McSorley’s passing accuracy is lacking, but he’s one of the nation’s top dual-threat QBs. Penn State coach James Franklin often finds ways to choke away his biggest games. Franklin is riding a 21-5 ATS run, though, and he’s worth a play getting 4 or more points. The home-field advantage is strong, and the Buckeyes might be fragile.
In what was supposed to be a blowout last week, the Huskies barely escaped with a 27-20 victory over Arizona State, an 18-point underdog. Washington coach Chris Petersen is preparing for a much different opponent this week, when Brigham Young visits Seattle. The Cougars are more physical than finesse, with a rugged defense and running back Squally Canada leading the charge in upsets at Arizona and Wisconsin. The win in Madison as a 23-point underdog was major statement by BYU, which will show no fear. The offensive struggles of Jake Browning and the Huskies are surprising. Washington has yet to find a groove, so give the Cougars a look as 17½-point ‘dogs.