KENTUCKY at GEORGIA
Who’s John Calipari, anyway? Mark Stoops might become the toast of Lexington with his Wildcats still unbeaten into mid-October. But we wonder if anyone will be able to go heads up (and that’s Kentucky’s style) with a Georgia team that has been stomping opponents like Godzilla. Arkansas recently found out the folly of playing the Bulldogs mano a mano, with Georgia defensive tackles Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt and Jalen Carter dominating like one of Vince McMahon’s champion tag teams that take turns wrecking the opposition. Stoops has been getting good mileage out of a bulletproof offense built around the hard running of Chris Rodriguez, but five of Georgia’s six foes have been held under 100 yards rushing, including just 46 last week by capable Auburn. And while he’s an upgrade from last year’s QB merry-go-round, we’re not sure Penn State transfer Will Levis will be even remotely effective if Rodriguez and the rushing spigot are shut off. Meanwhile, Kirby Smart’s offense, while not especially flashy, is certainly functional and operates just as well with QB Stetson Bennett instead of the ailing JT Daniels. Some team might provide a difficult matchup for Georgia later in the season, but we don’t think it’s this week.
FLORIDA at LSU
The war drums are beating ever louder in Baton Rouge, and Ed Orgeron is the target. Some SEC observers wonder whether this might play out as it did at Auburn with Gene Chizik almost a decade ago, as very little goodwill exists in LSU’s support base. Backers are starting to conclude that last year’s Tigers and this year’s 3-3 version are more likely what LSU will look like under Orgeron in the future than the 2019 dream season. Even with the offense trying to establish the run last week at Kentucky when Tyrion Davis-Price rushed for 147 yards, QB Max Johnson is no Joe Burrow, and the once-proud LSU defense was trampled by a basic Wildcats offense that pounded out 330 yards on the ground in a thumping 42-21 win. If revenge is a factor, Florida has it after its playoff hopes went up in smoke last December as 23-point dog LSU scored a 37-34 road shocker. Though Dan Mullen’s defense was undergoing worrying attrition late last season, the Gators (save for their ghastly 15 penalties) might have beaten the same Kentucky team that just whipsawed the Tigers. Florida QB Emory Jones is getting more confidence in his throwing ability after burning Vandy for four TD passes last week. The Gators are ramping up for their fast-approaching Georgia showdown.
CLEMSON at SYRACUSE
Nothing is coming easily for Clemson, which has yet to cover a spread in 2021 and has a six-game losing streak against the line since late last season. That is worth mentioning in the context of facing Syracuse, which has often given Dabo Swinney a hard time in recent years even when the Tigers were riding very high. On another Friday night four years ago at the Carrier Dome, Dino Babers notched perhaps his signature win with the Orange in a 27-24 stunner over Clemson. Much of the ACC appears as closely matched with the Tigers as it has been in a decade. Swinney’s offense has been sporadic, with shaky line play contributing to stop-start production and quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei simply not being afforded the protection Trevor Lawrence was the last few seasons. Syracuse has provided evidence it can compete after recent efforts at the Carrier Dome included a win over then-unbeaten Liberty and a narrow miss Saturday in overtime against still-unbeaten Wake Forest. Babers has also adjusted from his form of the Air Raid to a more ground-oriented offense that better fits the personnel. Syracuse is showcasing freshman RB Sean Tucker, among the nation’s leaders with 791 yards, and Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader is an effective option at QB after early-season starter Tommy DeVito went down with an injury.
MIAMI at NORTH CAROLINA
Mack Brown’s North Carolina team is in danger of fading out of the picture for the Duke’s Mayo or Cheez-It bowls after various pundits tabbed the Tar Heels a playoff dark horse last summer. It has become apparent over the last six weeks that QB Sam Howell misses much of last year’s supporting cast, including RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who have graduated to the NFL. Howell’s Heisman Trophy campaign has been over for a month. The kicker this week is that Miami might be able to give UNC a run for its money in the overhyped category, which has become common for the Hurricanes. With QB D’Eriq King out for the season, Manny Diaz has turned to freshman QB Tyler Van Dyke, perhaps not a bad option and who when last seen nearly led a late comeback against Virginia. Mostly, however, the Heels surely aren’t the same team as last season, when they dropped a 62-26 bomb on Miami while piling up nearly 800 yards of offense. But this year’s Tar Heels look like impostors, and if they couldn’t beat a struggling Florida State last week in Chapel Hill, it won’t be any easier against revenge-fueled Miami.
PITTSBURGH at VIRGINIA TECH
Halfway through the season, no one in the ACC expected Pitt to be among the top contenders. And not even QB Kenny Pickett’s close friends and relatives were dreaming of him being mentioned in the Heisman Trophy conversation. But Pitt is scoring 52 points a game, and Pickett is posting eye-opening numbers, including 19 TD passes and just one pick. Moreover, the Panthers have bossed Virginia Tech for most of the last decade, covering six of the last seven meetings, including a 47-14 romp at Heinz Field last year when Pickett passed for 404 yards. This game will test the recuperative powers of the Hokies, who suffered a near-miss last week against Notre Dame that could have some carryover and has to be considered a missed opportunity by under-fire coach Justin Fuente. His early-season win over North Carolina is not looking nearly as impressive in retrospect, and he risks falling to .500 with another loss. Perhaps that dynamic will fuel another desperate effort by Tech, but matching yards and points with the red-hot Pickett looks like a difficult task.
NC STATE at BOSTON COLLEGE
NC State dumped Clemson in overtime last month in Raleigh, survived a subsequent letdown spot against Louisiana Tech and is tied atop the ACC Atlantic Division. Still, this looks evenly matched, as Boston College has not missed QB Phil Jurkovec, out since mid-September with a hand injury but ably replaced by Dennis Grosel. The backup led wins over Temple and Missouri and had the Eagles on the doorstep in a tight loss at Clemson. But Jeff Hafley’s Eagles are making their mark on defense, allowing a mere 17 points and barely 300 yards per game, ranking among the national leaders in both categories. This could result in some slow going for Wolfpack QB Devin Leary, who can always lean on a stable of runners led by sophomore Zonovan Knight, who has run for 491 yards. The dynamics suggest the season’s recent low-scoring pattern will continue after the Wolfpack and Eagles have gone Under in seven of their last nine meetings. Expect these two to be involved in the sort of trench fight that has marked a competitive series across the last decade.
UCF at CINCINNATI
This matchup once looked like it could be the game of the year in the American Athletic Conference but now has more the look of the next phase of Cincinnati’s coronation as conference king for the second straight year. Fate stepped in the wrong way for UCF, with Gus Malzahn minus do-everything QB Dillon Gabriel, down with a broken collarbone, and freshman Mikey Keene summoned from the bullpen. That’s not the only key injury for UCF, which has also lost top RB Isaiah Bowser and top wideout Jaylon Robinson. Keene did enough to bail out the Golden Knights last week against East Carolina thanks to a game-winning 64-yard drive, but it was another non-cover for UCF in a recurring theme the last couple of years as the Knights have dropped 18 of their last 25 spread decisions. The Bearcats didn’t quite cover in a narrow win at Orlando last season, though that was against the prolific Gabriel. No question that Desmond Ridder is the best QB on the field, and Luke Fickell knows his team has perhaps the best shot a Group of 5 entrant has had to crash the College Football Playoff. Not having to worry about facing an elite passer in Gabriel, Cincinnati likely will have no trouble, though the oddsmakers have put this number in the three-TD vicinity, which makes it the most points UCF has received since 2016 at Michigan. So we’re wondering if the spreads have overadjusted, as that is the main argument against a Cincy recommendation these days.
ALABAMA at MISSISSIPPI STATE
Handicapping is a scramble in the wake of Alabama’s shocking loss at Texas A&M last week. Obviously, there’s scant evidence to cite. Since 20013, Nick Saban is 3-3 against the line in games immediately after a defeat, not counting season openers after a bowl or playoff loss. A quick Crimson Tide recovery would seem in order after letting heretofore modest Aggies backup QB Zach Calzada torch them at Kyle Field. Mike Leach’s Mississippi State team might present a better matchup, as Leach’s offense doesn’t even bother to establish a running diversion, instead encouraging second-year QB Will Rogers to whip the ball around the field. Averaging 63 passes across his last three games, Rogers looks like a potential candidate for Tommy John surgery, though his numbers are impressive at nine touchdown passes and just one pick in that span. Saban, however, had no trouble concocting a game plan to keep the Bulldogs’ offense in check last season when pitching a 41-0 shutout at Bryant-Denny Stadium. With QB Bryce Young still on course to become a Heisman finalist and the offense continuing to score at a healthy 44.3 rate, Alabama has enough firepower to cruise, and expect its defense to tighten considerably against an unbalanced foe. Saban hasn’t lost to Mississippi State since his first Tide team in 2007 was dumped by Sylvester Croom’s Bulldogs, and it’s up to the Tide to keep itself relevant in the polls before an expected shot at now top-ranked Georgia in the SEC title game.
SAN DIEGO STATE at SAN JOSE STATE
It’s not a big surprise that one of these teams is 5-0 and ranked in the Top 25, but that team figured to be San Jose State. The Spartans, who went 7-1 and won the Mountain West in 2020, were expected to contend for the conference title again with the return of coach Brent Brennan and quarterback Nick Starkel. Something has gone wrong for San Jose, which is 3-3 and off a 32-14 loss at Colorado State. An arm injury sidelined Starkel the last two weeks, but he was playing poorly before the injury, so the team’s problems run deeper. Despite weak production at quarterback, San Diego State is unbeaten with a quality victory over Utah. The Aztecs get into the meat of the league schedule now, however, and it will be interesting to see whether they can survive the grind without much of a passing attack. Jordon Brookshire went 11-for-24 for 130 yards passing in the Aztecs’ 31-7 win over New Mexico last week, when Greg Bell carried 21 times for 111 yards. San Diego State’s quarterbacks have combined for only 605 passing yards and four touchdowns through five games. Bell has rushed for 520 yards and five touchdowns. As usual, the Aztecs are winning with their ground game and a stingy defense. San Diego State is an 8-point favorite in this Friday night matchup. It’s tough to lay the points with a mediocre offensive team, but the Spartans are showing no signs of being live home dogs.
ARIZONA STATE at UTAH
In a strange twist, the best thing to happen to Utah might have been the benching of quarterback Charlie Brewer, a Baylor grad transfer who was supposed to elevate the Utes’ offense to the next level. Brewer was a bust, and he quit the team after getting demoted during a Sept. 18 loss at San Diego State. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called an audible and went to Texas transfer Cameron Rising, who’s 2-0 as the starter. Rising lit up the USC defense Saturday, passing for 306 yards and three touchdowns in Utah’s 42-26 win in Los Angeles. The Utes led 35-10 after three quarters in by far their best performance of the season. Utah is 2-0 in conference play, setting up a pivotal showdown with Pac-12 South leader Arizona State (5-1, 3-0) in Salt Lake City. The Sun Devils have posted five double-digit wins, but they might be a bit overvalued in the betting market as 1-point road favorites. The Devils beat Stanford 28-10 on Friday, when the Cardinal offense crossed midfield 10 times yet had little to show for it. Stanford’s Tanner McKee passed for 356 yards, so Arizona State’s secondary can be exposed by a good thrower such as Rising. The key for Utah will be containing Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels, who passed for 175 yards and ran for 76 against Stanford. Arizona State has faced only one strong defensive team and lost that matchup at BYU. The Utes’ defense can slow Daniels, and it appears their offense is on the upswing with Rising.
UCLA at WASHINGTON
The buzz about the Bruins has quieted after home losses to Fresno State and Arizona State, and the truth is coach Chip Kelly’s team has done nothing special. UCLA has four wins over opponents (Hawaii, LSU, Stanford and Arizona) that are currently unranked, and LSU’s demise has diminished the significance of even that accomplishment. The Bruins do run the ball exceptionally well, which is what Kelly’s offensive philosophy is all about. UCLA rolled up 329 rushing yards Saturday in a 34-16 win over Pac-12 doormat Arizona. Brittain Brown ran for 146 yards on 12 carries, and Zach Charbonnet had 117 yards on 21 carries. The running attack helps to reduce the volatility in the play of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who has big-time playmaking ability but also makes costly mistakes. UCLA will sink or swim the next three weeks, first at Washington and then against Oregon and Utah. The Huskies (2-3) were overhyped by most prognosticators, and their season-opening loss to Montana was more of a sign of what was to come than some kind of fluke. Washington has two unimpressive wins over Arkansas State and California and a lot of negative numbers on both sides of the ball. Dylan Morris is getting exposed as a mediocre quarterback (58.9 percent completions, seven touchdowns, six interceptions), though he could look better against a bad Bruins defense. Jimmy Lake is certainly an inferior coach to Kelly. After a bye, Washington is a 1.5-point favorite, but UCLA is the slightly superior team due mostly to its running attack.
OKLAHOMA STATE at TEXAS
Steve Sarkisian is considered an offensive mastermind, but Texas’ first-year coach needs to practice psychology this week as his team attempts to recover from a demoralizing defeat. The Longhorns blew a 21-point lead in a 55-48 loss to Oklahoma that also dealt a bad beat to bettors who had Texas + 3.5. Sarkisian will probably focus on the positive performances displayed by his offense. Casey Thompson, who continues to mature as a young quarterback, passed for 388 yards and five touchdowns. Bijan Robinson ran for 137 yards and again showed he’s among the nation’s most talented running backs. Freshman Xavier Worthy had nine receptions for 261 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown on the Longhorns’ first play. But Texas’ defense yielded even bigger numbers to an Oklahoma offense that totaled 662 yards. The Longhorns go home and need to show resilience against a 5-0 Oklahoma State team that is a 5-point underdog. The Cowboys, led by quarterback Spencer Sanders and running back Jaylen Warren, are in a better situational spot after getting a bye last week. Oklahoma State has lost the last two meetings with Texas, 41-34 in overtime last year and 36-30 in 2019, and both games were wild. The Longhorns will experience a hangover from the Oklahoma fiasco, so that coupled with a terrible Texas defense makes it difficult to lay the points. Sarkisian is facing his first major crisis. The improbable loss to the Sooners will be talked about all week around Austin.
AUBURN at ARKANSAS
After two crushing defeats, Arkansas must get off the mat and keep swinging. A week after a humbling 37-0 loss at Georgia, Arkansas took Mississippi to the wire on the road and fell 52-51 when KJ Jefferson misfired on a two-point conversion pass with no time left. The call to go for the win by Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman was a gamble that backfired, but Pittman probably decided his defense was worn out and could not make a stop in overtime. Jefferson was phenomenal, passing for 326 yards and three touchdowns and running 20 times for 85 yards and three touchdowns. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the last two games took too much of an emotional and physical toll on the Razorbacks. Jefferson poured an enormous amount of effort into the Ole Miss game. Arkansas’ 4-0 start included upsets of Texas and Texas A&M. Auburn followed its upset win at LSU with a 34-10 loss to Georgia. It was predictable to see Tigers quarterback Bo Nix struggle against the Bulldogs’ relentless defense. Nix passed for 217 yards with one interception, while star running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter were held to a combined 46 yards on 15 carries. There are few soft spots on the SEC schedule, and these teams are in the middle of brutally tough stretches. Arkansas rates as the better team, but not by much, and the Razorbacks are in for another street fight as 3.5-point home favorites.
HAWAII at NEVADA
Nevada quarterback Carson Strong is showing he was worthy of so much preseason hype. Strong has completed 69 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns for the Wolf Pack, who are 4-1 with victories over Boise State and California. Strong threw for 377 yards and six touchdowns Saturday as the Pack pounded New Mexico State 55-28. Strong sat out the fourth quarter when Nevada was outscored 21-3 and blew the cover as a 29-point favorite. Hawaii was off last week after its 27-24 upset of Fresno State in Honolulu. The Warriors won without quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, who had an undisclosed injury. Cordeiro is expected to return for this game. This is a double-revenge situation for Nevada, which was upset by Hawaii the last two years. When the teams met in Reno in 2019, the Warriors rolled to a stunning 54-3 win as 2.5-point underdogs. Nevada has a lot to play for now and should be focused considering the recent history in this Mountain West rivalry. The Wolf Pack deserve to be favored by double digits, though the opening line of -16 looks a little high. Of course, Cordeiro’s status needs to be monitored. It’s doubtful Hawaii could hang inside the number without Cordeiro. Strong is leading an explosive offense.
MICHIGAN STATE at INDIANA
After beginning the season unranked, undefeated Michigan State is up to No. 10. The Spartans had a bit of money bet against them last week but had little problem at Rutgers, winning 31-13. They piled up 588 yards of offense, including three first-half touchdown catches by Jalen Nailor of 63, 65 and 63 yards. Wake Forest graduate transfer Kenneth Walker III, who was an under-the-radar Heisman Trophy candidate, is no longer under the radar. He ran 29 times for 232 yards and ripped off a 94-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to put the game out of reach. Now the Spartans will attempt to spoil another team’s homecoming as they visit Indiana. The bye week could not have come at a more opportune time for the Hoosiers. Indiana is off to a disappointing 2-3 start and is once again without QB Michael Penix Jr., out indefinitely with an ailing shoulder. Jack Tuttle will start. He went 1-1 as a starter last year, leading a victory at Wisconsin and coming up short in the Outback Bowl against Ole Miss. Quarterback is not the only position at which Indiana is battling injuries. The secondary, arguably the team’s best position unit, had several players banged up in the 24-0 defeat at Penn State. That group will need to be in the best of health facing Nailor, Jayden Reed and QB Payton Thorne. The Hoosiers won the Old Brass Spittoon last year in East Lansing by shutting out the Spartans 24-0, holding Michigan State to 191 total yards and nine first downs while forcing four turnovers. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers accumulated 433 yards. The Spartans opened as 3-point favorites at Circa Sports before it moved up to -3.5. More than likely, the line has some room to climb, but Michigan State was laying -5 last week at Rutgers and the number closed at 3.5 or 4. The total sits at 52. The Spartans are looking at a potential showdown of unbeatens against archrival Michigan in two weeks. Indiana is trying to get its season back on track amid a difficult schedule. This has the makings of a “pros vs. Joes” type of betting this week.
ARMY at WISCONSIN
Something must give as Army’s No. 2 rushing offense (318.2 yards per game) faces off with Wisconsin’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense (41.4 yards). Army has two weeks to prepare for the nation’s No. 2 overall defense (217.8 yards) after enduring its first defeat at Ball State 28-16. The Black Knights were 10-point favorites but were held to their lowest rushing total of the season at 213 yards. On the other side, Wisconsin’s game at Illinois last weekend was a get-right spot as the Badgers pitched a 24-0 shutout. The final score fails to indicate Wisconsin’s domination. The Badgers had a 30-9 edge in first downs and outgained Illinois 491-93. Wisconsin got back to basics with its running game, tallying 391 yards on 61 carries and controlling the time of possession 42:43-17:17. Nevertheless, quarterback Graham Mertz continues to struggle. He threw his seventh interception of the season against just two touchdowns and went only 10-for-19 for 100 yards. Perhaps going back to a run-heavy attack will be Wisconsin’s primary offensive identity as it is just not getting any plays in the passing game. But the running game is not necessarily guaranteed success since Army ranks third nationally at stopping the run (54 yards per game) and is ninth in total defense (276 yards). The total opened at a paltry 39.5 and was bet up to 43.5 before settling back at 41.5. The early betting has been one-way traffic on the Badgers from the opening number of -10 all the way up to -13. However, we will likely see buyback on underdog Army should the number get to -14. Service academy underdogs are always favorites of pro bettors.
PURDUE at IOWA
Iowa took control of the Big Ten West and put itself into College Football Playoff contention with a 23-20 comeback victory over No. 4 Penn State. The Hawkeyes are now ranked No. 2, their highest since 1985. Iowa has beaten three Top 25 teams and defeated a Top 5 team for the first time since beating No. 3 Ohio State in 2017. The Hawkeyes trailed 17-3 before knocking Penn State QB Sean Clifford from the game in the second quarter. Once again Iowa was relatively pedestrian on offense with just 305 yards, and the Hawkeyes rank 120th of 130 FBS teams in total offense. Defense continues to carry the day, as the Hawkeyes lead the nation with 20 takeaways, including a national-best 16 interceptions. Iowa also leads the country in turnover margin at an astonishing + 15. The Hawkeyes’ elite defense will face a Purdue offense that can move the ball. Purdue is 10th in the nation with 325.4 yards passing per game but has struggled to put points on the board. Purdue has scored 13 points in three straight games, which is the average amount Iowa’s No. 4 scoring defense gives up. The Boilermakers struggle to run the ball, ranking 122nd at 89.4 yards per game. Aidan O’Connell replaced Jack Plummer as the starting quarterback two weeks ago and threw for 371 yards but only one touchdown and committed two turnovers in a rainy homecoming loss to Minnesota. Purdue will have to be less one-dimensional on offense if it wants to play in a bowl game for the first time since 2018. Meanwhile, Iowa must come down from the high of the field-storming Saturday at Kinnick Stadium after its biggest win in several years. Iowa opened -11 at Circa Sports, and the line rose just a bit before settling at 11.5. Like Purdue, the Hawkeyes have their own offensive issues that have been masked by the defense forcing so many turnovers. This is largely the reason the total opened at 45.5 and promptly moved down to 44. How will Iowa handle prosperity coming off a monster win?