OHIO STATE at NEBRASKA
Ohio State was looking like a freight train heading into last weekend’s showdown, receiving nearly all the money against a reeling Penn State team coming off the first nine-OT game in FBS history. As just under three-touchdown favorites, the outcome was not expected to be in doubt heading to the fourth quarter, but it was as the Buckeyes led by only three before prevailing in a hard-fought 33-24 victory. However, this could be good for the Buckeyes, as they might have gotten a bit fat and happy after five weeks of smashing inferior opponents. Ohio State finally faced some adversity in conference play and came out the other side. However, Ryan Day’s team must clean up some things. Just like the Oregon game, the Buckeyes struggled to finish drives and were only 5-for-14 on third down. And the defense far too frequently could not get off the field on third down, giving up 11 of 16 against Penn State. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s hopes for bowl eligibility look all but gone as Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin remain on the schedule for the 3-6 Cornhuskers. The seat got substantially hotter for Scott Frost as Nebraska lost at home 28-23 as 7.5-point favorite against Purdue. Nebraska was held to six points in the second half, and Adrian Martinez threw four interceptions. Nebraska could never get a running game going against a Purdue team that gave up 290 on the ground to Wisconsin the previous week. Meanwhile, Purdue's anemic rushing offense, which came in ranked 129th nationally, ran for 116 yards and eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground for the first time against a conference opponent since last November. That looks to be bad news against an Ohio State bunch that rushes for over 200 yards per game. Ohio State opened as a 16-point favorite, and some support showed for Nebraska, bringing it down to 15. The Buckeyes have this game and one against Purdue before a potential showdown of Top 5 teams when Michigan State comes to Columbus on Nov. 20. Ohio State has won six straight against the Cornhuskers, including a 52-17 victory last year in Columbus, covering as a 27-point favorite.
— Wes Reynolds
INDIANA at MICHIGAN
Jim Harbaugh fell to 2-13 against AP Top 25 teams and is now 3-9 combined against Michigan State after his Wolverines blew a 30-14 lead Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Michigan, which had relied primarily on the running game in its 7-0 start, proved it could make big plays in the passing game against a higher-end opponent and threw for 406 yards as the Spartans emphasized stopping the run. The Wolverines gained 552 yards and still lost. Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III should also probably send flowers to the Michigan football office for supplying most of the scenes on his Heisman Trophy highlight reel as Walker ran for 197 and scored five touchdowns. Now No. 9 Michigan must gather itself and realize it has yet to be eliminated from Big Ten championship game contention. The Wolverines have a get-right game as 2-6 Indiana comes to the Big House. Indiana is still winless in the conference, a remarkable disappointment for a team that began the season in the Top 25. The Hoosiers’ first five losses were against teams that had been in the Top 10 at some point, but the 38-35 loss at Maryland, which had lost three games in a row, showed that any chance of building on last season is gone. The only good news is that Indiana might have a quarterback for the future in true freshman Donaven McCulley. After a shaky beginning for a freshman making his first start on the road, McCulley got more comfortable in the second half and threw two touchdown passes despite playing behind an offensive line that has not been up to par all season. Indiana’s defense was supposed to be its strength, but injuries have taken their toll as the Hoosiers allowed 498 yards (419 through the air) to Maryland. The turnover regression monster has hit Indiana as it has forced only eight turnovers in eight games after gaining 20 takeaways in eight games last year. Indiana broke a 24-game losing streak against Michigan with a 38-21 victory last season, holding the Wolverines to just 13 rushing yards. However, Indiana has not won in Ann Arbor since 1967. Michigan opened as a 17-point favorite, and the line has risen to 19. The Hoosiers would have to win out for bowl eligibility. Michigan still has a great deal to play for, and this line looks like it has more room to climb before any potential buyback comes on Indiana — if it comes at all.
— Wes Reynolds
UTAH at STANFORD
Tavion Thomas rushed for four touchdowns as Utah took a big step toward winning the Pac-12 South by overpowering UCLA 44-24 on Saturday in Salt Lake City. Thomas finished with 160 yards on the ground, and the Utes rolled up 290 rushing yards while totaling 469. Cameron Rising, who passed for 179 yards and accounted for two touchdowns, is 4-1 as the starting quarterback. Utah’s season started to turn around in mid-September when coach Kyle Whittingham benched Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer and promoted Rising, whose ability to run makes the offense more difficult to defend. The team also seems to believe in Rising. On the flip side, there are few reasons to believe in Stanford, which has lost three in a row. The job status of coach David Shaw should be in question. Shaw is a play-calling dinosaur who still schemes an overly conservative offense. Shaw’s lack of aggression and affinity for field-goal attempts hurt Stanford in its 20-13 loss to Washington. The Cardinal ran the ball 27 times for 71 yards (2.6 per carry) as Shaw hesitated to let talented quarterback Tanner McKee make plays. The highlight of Stanford’s season was an upset of Oregon on Oct. 2, but that was the Cardinal’s last win. Utah (5-3, 4-1) leads its division and has defeated the next three teams in the standings — Arizona State, UCLA and USC — so the Utes are in good shape with a favorable schedule down the stretch. Utah opened -6.5 for Friday night’s game in Palo Alto. Even for home-dog players, it’s tough to make a strong case to support Shaw. Don’t be surprised if the line reaches 7.5.
— Matt Youmans
TEXAS at IOWA STATE
The honeymoon is over for Steve Sarkisian. Texas has dropped three in a row, putting its first-year coach in the critics’ line of fire. While the Longhorns’ defense has been a debacle, Sarkisian’s offense also deserves some blame. Texas has scored a total of 48 points in the last two games, losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State, after the come-from-ahead 55-48 defeat to Oklahoma on Oct. 9. The running attack was a major failure against Baylor as Bijan Robinson was limited to 43 yards on 17 carries. Casey Thompson also threw a costly interception, and the Longhorns converted only 3 of 14 third downs. Sarkisian, hailed as an offensive genius, must do better. On the other sideline is Matt Campbell, who’s not such a hot name in coaching searches anymore. Texas (4-4) and Iowa State (5-3) are the most disappointing teams in the Big 12, but the winner of this game in Ames will feel good about something. In a 38-31 loss at West Virginia, the Cyclones allowed 492 total yards, including 370 through the air. It’s no surprise the bright spot was running back Breece Hall, who carried 24 times for 167 yards. The Texas defense is unlikely to slow Hall, so the Longhorns will have to try to win a shootout. Circa Sports opened the total at 59 — a number likely to rise — with Iowa State favored by 6.5. The recommended plays would be Over and Texas + 7, with some books opening the line a tick higher than Circa.
— Matt Youmans
MICHIGAN STATE at PURDUE
If it appears the price is cheap on Michigan State this week, it is for a reason. The Spartans are in a classic letdown spot as road favorites off an emotional win over a rival. Michigan State moved up to No. 5 in the AP poll after its 37-33 comeback victory over Michigan. Circa Sports opened the Spartans -3 at Purdue, and the rest of the market is sticking with that number. The Boilermakers, who knocked off then-No. 2 Iowa on Oct. 16, tend to play spoilers and thrive as underdogs. Still, this is a problematic matchup for Purdue’s defense. Kenneth Walker III, who went into last weekend leading the nation with 142.4 rushing yards per game, ran wild on the Wolverines. Walker carried 23 times for 197 yards and five touchdowns. Aside from occasional key receptions by Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed, the Spartans got no big plays from quarterback Payton Thorne, who threw two interceptions. Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell completed 34 of 45 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-23 win at Nebraska. O’Connell bounced back from a poor performance against Wisconsin on Oct. 23, when the Boilermakers fell flat after their upset win in Iowa City. This is a major opportunity for Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who has struggled the last two years and needs one win to secure bowl eligibility. Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, who has his team in the playoff picture, will spend the week talking to his players about avoiding a letdown and focusing on this opponent instead of thinking ahead to Ohio State. The spot is far better for the home dog, but Walker and the Spartans might prove too powerful on the ground.
— Matt Youmans
SAN DIEGO STATE at HAWAII
It finally happened, but it took eight games until San Diego State’s weak quarterback play was exposed in a loss. The Aztecs were whipped by Fresno State, and the 30-20 final was misleading because San Diego State trailed 20-0 in the second quarter and by 17 points with 1½ minutes left. With their strong defense and ground attack, the Aztecs are built to bully bad teams like Hawaii. There was a positive development in the Warriors’ 51-31 loss at Utah State as quarterback Chevan Cordeiro returned from an extended injury absence to pass for 296 yards and three touchdowns. Hawaii totaled only 12 rushing yards, and its defense surrendered 564 yards. The Aztecs (7-1) fell out of the AP Top 25. Lucas Johnson, who threw two interceptions against Fresno, is the team’s better option at quarterback. Greg Bell is one of the top running backs in the Mountain West, and he’ll be the focus of San Diego State’s game plan this week in Honolulu. The last game on Saturday’s betting board always attracts solid action, and this one kicks off at 8 p.m. PT. Hawaii stepped up as a home dog to stun Fresno State 27-24 on Oct. 2, and Cordeiro’s return gives the Warriors a shot to pull another upset. The Aztecs opened -7 at Circa Sports, but some books opened 7.5.
— Matt Youmans
AIR FORCE vs. ARMY
The same narrative that has applied for more than a decade in the Army-Navy bloodbaths has mostly fit this version of the scraps for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy as well: All West Point-vs.-Annapolis battles have landed Under since 2006, as have the last seven between the Black Knights and the Falcons. So we wouldn’t necessarily sour on another Under for this edition at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, home of the MLB Ranger. It figures these clashes would be lower-scoring, with dueling options keeping the clock and chains moving and few incomplete passes. Air Force notched another Under in these matchups this season with its 23-3 win at Navy. The concerns for the Falcons are on the injury front. Coach Troy Calhoun saw QB Haaziq Daniels and top rusher Brad Roberts knocked out of a bitter home loss to San Diego State on Oct. 23, and their status this week is undetermined. In the absence of Daniels, backup QB Warren Bryan ignited a second-half rally against the Aztecs, suggesting Air Force would unhesitatingly go to battle with its backup QB. This is also perhaps the best defense Calhoun has had, ranking third nationally. Army’s challenge will be to get its ground game moving after scoring only 23 points the last two years against the Falcons. But Jeff Monken has been better able to deploy an aerial diversion in the last couple of games with alternative QB Jabari Lewis, who tossed three TD passes in the recent track-meet loss to Wake Forest. It looks like another service academy grinder and a chance for Air Force to win back the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2016.
— Bruce Marshall
WAKE FOREST at NORTH CAROLINA
Mack Brown hardly seems the “I told you so” type, but we who refused to heed his warnings about overhyping the 2021 Tar Heels are being proven wrong after UNC hits November at .500 and struggling to merely gain the attention of the minor bowls, a far cry from the Orange Bowl of last season. In a curious turn of events in the ACC, underrated Wake Forest has matched its best start at 8-0 since 1944 and is now ranked in the Top 10 for the first time in school history, performing as many expected the Heels would. Meanwhile, Demon Deacons QB Sam Hartman, off another 400-yard effort last week against Duke, is getting some Heisman Trophy mention and not Brown’s more ballyhooed Sam Howell. More Wake fireworks likely await in Chapel Hill, as only downtrodden Duke has tallied fewer than 35 points against the bullet-riddled UNC defense since early September, a chilling prospect considering the Hartman-led attack is scoring 43.4 ppg. Dave Clawson’s offense isn’t in Mike Leach Air Raid mode, either, as Hartman is conscientious in using a serviceable running game in a play-calling plan that leans close to 60-40 favoring the run. A stable of north-south backs led by Christian Beal-Smith and Justice Ellison, both gaining better than 5 ypc, provides proper balance. And with so much of Howell’s supporting cast from 2020 now in the NFL, the Heels haven’t had the same sharp edge as a year ago. In an already strange 2021 season, could Wake run the table into December and actually get into the playoff conversation?
— Bruce Marshall
MISSOURI at GEORGIA
It could be tough to explain how we could possibly make a case for Missouri, now sporting a debilitating 11-game spread losing streak, on the road against top-ranked Georgia. But knowing what’s left of the Tigers’ support base has likely disappeared after Mizzou couldn’t even cover a spread last week against Vanderbilt, oddsmakers have discounted the Tigers so much that they’re practically daring us to back them in Athens. Keep in mind the early price, hovering close to 40 points, is more than Georgia has scored in any of its last four games. Yes, the difference between these defenses couldn’t be more stark. Missouri hardly plays any of it, ranking 124th, while Kirby Smart’s unit is near the top nationally in every relevant stat category, including the one that means the most, scoring defense at a microscopic 6.6 ppg. But before completely discounting the Tigers, keep in mind that there are plenty of worse attacks in the country that don’t feature weapons like RB Tyler Badie, closing in on 1,000 yards rushing, and QB Connor Bazelak, perhaps on his way to 3,000 yards passing. Remember, too, that Georgia has dropped a couple of spread decisions between the hedges laying shorter prices than this against South Carolina and Kentucky. Sure, the Bulldogs should win handily and maintain their unanimous top spot in the polls. The question is whether the spread has simply moved too high to create any value on a Georgia recommendation, even against this foe.
— Bruce Marshall
OREGON at WASHINGTON
Washington backers were celebrating after the Huskies covered a spread last week in an unsightly win at Stanford. That’s news because Jimmy Lake’s team had been looking like the most overhyped team in the country for much of the season and had covered only two of the previous 11 games since Lake succeeded Chris Petersen. That had left many Pac-12 pundits scrambling for answers, thinking Lake’s considerable recruiting prowess would translate to leadership on the sideline. But Lake showed progress, especially a brave decision to let QB Dylan Morris throw into the end zone in the last 25 seconds instead of settling for a risky field-goal try to win the game. The daring maneuver worked as Morris lofted a perfect strike to Jalen McMillan from 20 yards out to notch the winning score. But only against defense-shy Arkansas State have the Huskies moved in anything but fits and spurts, with Morris unimpressive with 11 TD passes and eight picks. Meanwhile, Oregon is still in the mix for a playoff spot if it can run the table and has been encouraged by recent work from former BC transfer QB Anthony Brown. He passed for a career-high 307 yards in last week’s blowout of Colorado as the Ducks posted a season-best 568 yards of offense. Brown had also featured in wins over Cal and UCLA, rallying the Ducks with a pair of fourth-quarter TD drives to beat the former and accounting for 381 yards of offense against the latter. The concern for Oregon backers is that the Ducks have consistently undershot oddsmaker expectations except for the rousing September win at Ohio State and the recent success against the Bruins. In a long and heated rivalry like this one, Ducks backers would be a bit more comfortable laying this price, hovering around a TD, had their team been a bit more successful against the number this season.
— Bruce Marshall
LSU at ALABAMA
Even as the playoff committee insists that margin of victory has no bearing on the rankings, try telling that to Nick Saban, who has been around long enough to value poll optics and has decided to keep his foot on the accelerator since the loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 9. QB Bryce Young was still in the game late and throwing TD passes against Mississippi State and Tennessee with the Tide ahead by three touchdowns or more. Or maybe Saban just wants Young to win the Heisman Trophy. Whatever, don’t expect Saban to show much mercy to LSU, especially as he knows he won’t have to worry about Ed Orgeron exacting revenge as they continue to search for his successor in Baton Rouge. Saban’s long memory was also reflected last season when he showed no mercy in a 55-17 romp over the Tigers to atone for the 46-41 loss Joe Burrow & Co. had laid on the Tide en route to the national title in 2019. Saban has generally shown little empathy for the program he led almost a generation ago, covering six of the last eight against LSU and losing only once outright since the 2011 regular season. Recent efforts suggest Orgeron and offensive coordinator Jake Peetz have tried to slow the pace and establish the run. But after Ole Miss limited LSU to 77 yards rushing, Orgeron might have no choice but to let QB Max Johnson wing it in Tuscaloosa. Good luck with that. Remember, Saban has also won and covered his last seven straight against SEC foes at home.
— Bruce Marshall