OKLAHOMA at KANSAS
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley made the quarterback switch that everyone expected and started Caleb Williams last weekend against Texas Christian. Williams, the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Sooners since 1990, earned the promotion after sparking Oklahoma to a comeback victory over Texas. The benching of Spencer Rattler might have seemed to be the obvious move, but it was certainly odd considering Rattler entered the season as the Heisman Trophy favorite. Williams passed for 295 yards and four touchdowns in the Sooners’ 52-31 victory over the Horned Frogs. He also had a 41-yard touchdown run. Oklahoma rolled up 525 total yards, but its shaky defense allowed 529, so not all the Sooners’ problems are solved. Riley will likely play both quarterbacks against Kansas, which poses no threat as a 38-point home underdog. The Jayhawks have lost five in a row, falling by margins of 27, 52, 19, 38 and 27 points. Oklahoma crushed Kansas 62-9 last year. When this game gets out of reach, Rattler will get some playing time, and he’s not the typical backup who will just hand off the ball and run out the clock. Still in the playoff hunt, the Sooners are seeking style points and blowout wins, so it’s probably wise to avoid the ugly dog in this Big 12 mismatch.
— Matt Youmans
UTAH at OREGON STATE
In late September, when Utah’s season was headed in the wrong direction, Cameron Rising came to the rescue. The Texas transfer moved his record to 3-0 as the starting quarterback by rallying the Utes to a 35-21 victory over Arizona State last weekend. The Utes outscored the Sun Devils 28-0 in the second half to take over first place in the Pac-12 South. Rising passed for 247 yards and two touchdowns and added 59 rushing yards. He connected on 13 of 15 passes after halftime, and the Utah defense allowed only 97 total yards in the second half. Preseason expectations for Utah were high, but Baylor transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer turned into a bust and was benched after early losses to Brigham Young and San Diego State, then quit the team. Coach Kyle Whittingham has the Utes back on track as they head to Oregon State. Utah will host UCLA on Oct. 30 in the most important game left in the South Division race, so this is a tricky sandwich spot for the Utes. It would be a mistake to overlook the Beavers, who are 3-0 at home and had a bye week to prepare. The Utes opened -3, and while the price might appear cheap on the road favorite, this is a favorable scheduling situation for Oregon State. When these teams met last year in Salt Lake City, Utah escaped with a 30-24 win as a 14-point favorite.
— Matt Youmans
OREGON at UCLA
The next two weeks could define coach Chip Kelly’s fourth year at UCLA. The good has far outweighed the bad, but the Bruins’ biggest games are straight ahead. After hosting Oregon at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, the Bruins will hit the road to play Pac-12 South leader Utah on Oct. 30. UCLA (5-2) appears headed for its first winning season under Kelly, and a conference title is not out of reach. Kelly had by far his most success at Oregon, posting a 46-7 record in four years, but he’s 0-2 against the Ducks as UCLA’s coach. The Bruins nearly pulled an upset last year before falling 38-35 as 17-point underdogs at Oregon. The point spread has taken a dramatic shift this year. Circa Sports opened the Ducks -1 on Sunday before sharp money moved the Bruins to -2.5. The betting market has soured on Oregon, which is 1-5 ATS. The Ducks stunned Ohio State 35-28 as 15-point road dogs Sept. 11 for their only point-spread cover this season. The Bruins are 2-2 in Pasadena after back-to-back home losses to Fresno State and Arizona State. UCLA raised its road record to 3-0 by beating Washington 24-17 on Saturday as Dorian Thompson-Robinson accounted for three touchdowns and Zach Charbonnet rushed for 131 yards. Thompson-Robinson was an efficient 21-for-26 passing for 183 yards and ran for 87 yards. A Bruins defense that has looked bad at times was much better by limiting the Huskies to a season-low 267 yards. Oregon’s offense will be tougher to contain, even with star running back CJ Verdell out with a season-ending injury. Travis Dye replaced Verdell last week and carried 19 times for 145 yards as the Ducks, 14-point favorites, rallied to beat California 24-17. Anthony Brown passed for 244 yards and rushed for 44 more, so UCLA’s defense will have its hands full with Brown and Dye. The sharp money that showed on the Bruins seems to be there for good reason. UCLA deserves to be a small favorite and should get the win.
— Matt Youmans
SAN DIEGO STATE at AIR FORCE
San Diego State remains in the Top 25 only because of its 6-0 record. The betting market is not fooled by the Aztecs, who are winning ugly games with pitiful production from their quarterbacks. Air Force is unranked yet favored by four points in this Mountain West matchup. The Falcons have won four in a row, and their 24-17 win Saturday at Boise State was their most impressive performance. The Falcons rushed for 307 yards and completed only one pass for 59 yards, but their defense stifled the Broncos on the blue turf. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun will load the box on defense to stop the run because the Aztecs’ quarterbacks are not reminding anyone of Justin Herbert and Dak Prescott. Lucas Johnson and Jordon Brookshire combined for 170 yards passing last week in San Diego State’s 19-13 double-overtime win at San Jose State. Johnson delivered the win after Brookshire was benched late in the game. The Aztecs ran the ball 36 times for only 70 yards, and they will have similar problems against the Air Force defense. It seemed this might be a good spot to play the home dog against an overrated Aztecs team, but the oddsmakers got it right and made the Falcons favorites by more than a field goal.
— Matt Youmans
USC at NOTRE DAME
A two-quarterback rotation has been working for Notre Dame, so coach Brian Kelly said he would stick with the same plan this week. Jack Coan is expected to start against USC with freshman Tyler Buchner also getting playing time. Coan and Buchner combined to lead the Fighting Irish to a 32-29 win at Virginia Tech before a bye week. “Coan continues to be the guy that we feel like gives us the best chance to win,” Kelly said of the Wisconsin grad transfer. Coan has completed 62 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, but he was benched in the second half of a 24-13 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 2. Buchner threw two interceptions in the Virginia Tech game before Coan rallied the Irish to the win. Notre Dame needs better play from its offensive line and more big plays from star running back Kyren Williams, and Kelly said he made adjustments to the line during the week off. In the preseason, USC-Notre Dame looked like it would be the marquee matchup on this week’s schedule. In reality, the Irish (5-1) are out of the playoff picture, and the Trojans (3-3) are hoping to land in any bowl with a strong finish. USC quarterback Kedon Slovis was a Heisman Trophy candidate in the preseason, but that hype is history. Slovis passed for 401 yards in his last start, a 42-26 blowout loss to Utah. The Trojans’ struggles are mostly on defense, and a bye week was not enough time for a quick fix. The Irish have won three in a row in this rivalry, including 30-27 as 10-point home favorites in 2019. USC has the potential to stay in this game against a pedestrian Notre Dame offense, but it’s just a guess which Trojans team will show up. Sharp money showed early on the Irish -6.5.
— Matt Youmans
NEVADA at FRESNO STATE
A big-time quarterback duel could turn this Mountain West matchup into one of the most entertaining games of the week. Jake Haener, who led the way to an upset win at UCLA in September, has 20 touchdown passes for Fresno State. Carson Strong, who has knocked off Boise State and California on the road, has 16 touchdown passes for Nevada. Strong threw for 395 yards Saturday as the Wolf Pack pulled away to beat Hawaii 34-17 and cover the 14.5-point spread in Reno. The Bulldogs were 6.5-point underdogs in a 37-26 loss to Nevada last year. In a high-stakes game with conference title implications, Fresno opened as a 3-point favorite and the number has not budged. Nevada’s run defense has been a weakness in recent weeks, and the Bulldogs can exploit that area with Haener’s scrambling ability and running back Ronnie Rivers’ big-play talent. Fresno deserves to be favored due to its stronger ground game and home-field advantage. Strong and Haener are emerging as NFL prospects — and Strong could be drafted in the first two rounds — so this is a showdown worth watching Saturday night. The only ranked team in the Mountain West is San Diego State, but Fresno and Nevada each have higher power ratings.
— Matt Youmans
OHIO STATE at INDIANA
No. 5 Ohio State moved up two notches without playing last weekend and is right back in the mix to be in the top four when the first College Football Playoff rankings are released Nov. 2. The Buckeyes have averaged 54.5 points in their last four games since losing to Oregon at home in early September. After the loss, coach Ryan Day took the defensive play-calling duties from coordinator Kerry Coombs. Last season Coombs’ defense gave up 491 passing yards to Michael Penix Jr. and Indiana, who nearly rallied from a 35-7 deficit but fell short 42-35. This season it might not be Penix taking the snaps, as he missed last week’s 20-15 loss to Michigan State and is week to week with a shoulder injury. Playing without its starting corners, Indiana’s stout defense was unable to overcome its anemic offense. The Hoosiers held a Michigan State attack that had been averaging 36.7 points, 217.2 rushing yards and 269.7 passing yards to 13 points — the other seven came on a pick-six. Indiana limited the Spartans to 100 rushing yards and 141 passing yards and forced two turnovers but committed three. The Hoosiers’ offensive line continues to be its worst position unit. It struggled to protect quarterback Jack Tuttle, who went 28 of 52 for 188 yards and two interceptions, and does not generate enough push in the running game. So you have a 2-4 team that could be struggling to find six wins for bowl eligibility, and it gets no easier with Ohio State coming to Bloomington on Saturday night. Ohio State has won 25 in a row against Indiana dating to 1988. The Buckeyes opened as 18.5-point favorites and the line slightly ticked up to 19 or 19.5. There is room for upward movement, but it seems oddsmakers just split the difference between 17 and 21 in case Penix is cleared to play. Will the Buckeyes take care of business like they should, or might they be flat and looking to next weekend’s game with Penn State in Columbus?
— Wes Reynolds
WISCONSIN at PURDUE
Purdue is ranked for the first time since 2007 as the Boilermakers (4-2) dominated No. 2 Iowa 24-7 on the road. The victory was no fluke, as Purdue piled up a 464-271 yardage edge. Aidan O’Connell passed for 375 yards, with 240 going to superstar receiver David Bell, who had 11 catches and a touchdown. Iowa had been ranked No. 1 in the nation with a + 15 turnover margin, but that changed as Purdue had four takeaways and the Hawkeyes were -3. Purdue generated four sacks and eight tackles for loss. Now the Boilermakers can prove they can handle prosperity as Wisconsin comes to town. The Badgers failed to cover as two-touchdown favorites against Army but by and large controlled the game. Wisconsin’s top-ranked rushing defense allowed Army’s No. 2 rushing offense only 179 yards. Wisconsin continues to get back to basics and run the ball, rushing for 198 yards Saturday. Much-maligned quarterback Graham Mertz threw for only 112 yards but for just the second time this season did not turn the ball over. This week’s total opened at 41.5 and quickly moved down for 39.5. That move looks reasonable considering Wisconsin and Purdue rate Nos. 2 and 13 in total defense, respectively. Wisconsin also ranks in the bottom 15 in passing offense, while Purdue is near the bottom in rushing offense. The Badgers have won 14 straight games in this series dating to 2004. But that did not stop early bettors from backing the ranked home underdog. Wisconsin opened -5 on Sunday, and now the line sits at 3. Purdue just went to Iowa and pounded the then-No. 2 team in the country, while Wisconsin still looks ugly on offense and is just 2-4 ATS, covering against Eastern Michigan and at Illinois. Yet the Badgers are still favored? This does have the look of a buy-low spot with Wisconsin and a sell-high with newly ranked Purdue.
— Wes Reynolds
COASTAL CAROLINA at APPALACHIAN STATE
We’ll check the recuperative powers of Appalachian State after the Mountaineers ran into Louisiana’s haymaker last week in a 41-13 loss. Absorbing that sort of beatdown, however, looks more like an outlier for a team that had never lost a Sun Belt game by such a large margin. The Mounties will return Wednesday night to Kidd Brewer Stadium, where they are 24-4 straight up in Sun Belt play since 2014. Coastal might not blink at such numbers as it has won all six of its road games over the last two seasons, covering four of those. App State will have to deal with the Grayson McCall-led Chanticleers’ offense that has scored 49 or more in five of its six wins and leads the nation in scoring at 48.8 ppg. After watching what previously misfiring Louisiana did to the Mounties’ defense last week, App State might need more help than banking on previous home successes to pull the upset. Coastal, ranked 14th in this week’s AP poll, should be on alert after a narrow escape at Buffalo. Whether QB Chase Brice can eliminate some of his inconsistencies will be a key factor in App’s bid for a mild upset. What they’re really worried about these days in Conway, S.C., is how the Chanticleers can hold on to coach Jamey Chadwell, a hot commodity with some higher-profile jobs already opening (like LSU) or perhaps to do so very soon (like Virginia Tech).
— Bruce Marshall
CLEMSON at PITTSBURGH
You would have won quite a few bar bets last summer if saying Kentucky, Wake Forest, Baylor, Purdue and UTSA would be ranked in a late October AP poll — and Clemson wouldn’t. With the season now past its halfway point, it doesn’t look as if Dabo Swinney and coordinator Tony Elliott will be able to solve the Tigers’ offensive lethargy, mostly springing from hard-to-plug leaks on the line. That has made it difficult to establish a running game and to prevent QB D.J. Uiagalelei from being under siege in the pocket. This has created a huge burden for another robust Brent Vanables defense, allowing fewer points than any team except Georgia, that is being forced into doing the heavy lifting to protect a 115th-ranked offense, confirming that it’s not business as usual in Death Valley. Speaking of teams ranked ahead of the Tigers, how about Pitt? The Panthers have looked at times like the best team in the ACC thanks in part to the unexpected successes of senior QB Kenny Pickett, who had never hinted at a Dan Marino side but whose 20 TD passes and one interception have fans dreaming about the Panthers’ first Heisman winner since Tony Dorsett 45 years ago. Odd to see Clemson catching points for the first time in ACC play since facing Lamar Jackson and Louisville in 2016, but the only title chase the Tigers seem to be involved in this season is the race for nation’s worst point-spread mark, in which Clemson is 0-7 and in a torrid chase with New Mexico and Missouri for pole position.
— Bruce Marshall
CINCINNATI at NAVY
There is some precedent for Navy knocking off a second-ranked team, but you’d have to go back to 1984 and a late-season shocker over then-unbeaten South Carolina for the last example. We doubt the same thing will happen to Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati team, which has risen to No. 2 in the polls and seems as if it wants to give the College Football Playoff selection committee reasons to certify its credentials by running up scores whenever possible. Temple and UCF have recently felt the wrath of 50-plus points from the Bearcats. If the school’s highest-ever ranking discombobulates Cincinnati, we suspect it won’t happen until later in the season when SMU and Houston take their swings at the Bearcats. Not the Middies, especially because they might lack QB Tai Lavatai, who briefly provided a spark for Ken Niumatalolo’s option in a recent three-game cover streak but was knocked out last week at Memphis and didn’t return in a 35-17 loss. Needless to say, everything and then some would have to go right for Navy to trade points with QB Desmond Ridder and Fickell’s offense, which is scoring at a brisk 43.5-ppg clip, sixth in the country.
— Bruce Marshall
NC STATE at MIAMI
Before completely dismissing Miami accomplishing anything in a massively disappointing season, the Hurricanes have displayed plenty of spunk in recent games without touted QB D’Eriq King, who is out for the year with a shoulder injury. Miami has nonetheless been getting very spirited leadership from freshman QB Tyler Van Dyke, who almost led late comebacks against Virginia and North Carolina and is proving no drop-off for Rhett Lashlee’s offense, which has also lost top rusher Cam’Ron Harris to a knee injury. Oddsmakers are keen to Miami’s recent competitiveness and have not discounted the Canes too much despite their 2-4 SU record. NC State might be wearing a target as the team to beat in the ACC Atlantic, still unbeaten in league play after thrashing Boston College on the road. Three Devin Leary TD passes were the latest indicator that the sophomore is emerging as a legit star. But expect Miami to be desperate Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium, where coach Manny Diaz reportedly still has the support of his troops but maybe not the fan base, which is getting agitated that Miami can’t forge a return to relevance. Diaz’s future with Miami likely rests with how the Hurricanes perform in the second half of the season.
— Bruce Marshall
OKLAHOMA STATE at IOWA STATE
Mike Gundy again proved adept in his preferred underdog role Saturday at Texas, rallying to win 32-24 and make him 13-4 in his last 17 chances getting points. This has been an underdog-oriented series against the Cyclones, with the short covering five of the last six meetings. But one wonders how many times the Cowboys can cut it close, having already been life-and-death with Missouri State, Tulsa and what appears to be the worst Boise State team of this millennium. But Jim Knowles’ defense more than Gundy’s offense has fueled the Cowboys’ surge to an unbeaten mark into late October, with the last four foes — Texas, Baylor, Kansas State and Boise State — held to a combined seven points in the fourth quarter. It might get a bit trickier in Ames against an Iowa State squad that almost has to view this game as its last chance to qualify for another Big 12 title game after an earlier loss to Baylor and contests to come against Texas and Oklahoma. But Matt Campbell has acknowledged prime-time performers, with RB Breece Hall apparently back in the groove after his 197-yard explosion Saturday against Kansas State and Brock Purdy completing a career-best 74 percent of his passes while tossing just one pick against nine TD passes in the last four games. It would be quite a feat for Gundy to pull off back-to-back upsets on the road, but the seasoned Cyclones will be difficult to outscore, especially if Iowa State is in desperation mode to stay relevant in the Big 12 race.
— Bruce Marshall
TENNESSEE at ALABAMA
At some point, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel might be made to feel like he is collecting golf balls at the driving range as SEC fans are unlikely to soon forgive Vols backers for throwing Titleists, even at Lane Kiffin. And we suspect Nick Saban must be more enraged than usual after a rare Alabama loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 9, as he had QB Bryce Young in the game and throwing TD passes deep into the fourth quarter when up by 30 last week against Mississippi State. So does this portend disaster for the Vols, who haven’t beaten the Tide since Mike Shula was on the Alabama sideline in 2006? We suspect this might not get embarrassing as Heupel has had the Vols on the improve and now running tempo as his teams at UCF did the last couple of years. The issue is the status of transfer QB Hendon Hooker, who had taken over the starting job with much aplomb before suffering a leg injury on the last drive as UT was rallying against Ole Miss. If Hooker can’t go, early-season starter and ex-Michigan transfer Joe Milton will get the call. Safe to say a UT recommendation would prefer Hooker be available, but in any event the back door looks like it could be wide open, and there are reasons to doubt that Saban’s SEC home cover streak can reach 10 games.
— Bruce Marshall
SOUTH CAROLINA at TEXAS A&M
Spared in the final moments from going into witness protection after barely avoiding the ignominy of a loss to Vanderbilt, South Carolina at least doesn’t have to hide its face this week. But it has become apparent to us and many SEC onlookers that the Gamecocks are running low on gas, as their mostly encouraging September was the result of a new spark imbued by first-year coach Shane Beamer that is proving hard to sustain. As the season grinds along, South Carolina is less able to hang in by emotion alone, and the exasperated locals spewed invective at offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield after the Gamecocks trailed Tennessee 35-0 before they could blink. Meanwhile, as Jimbo Fisher waits for electric freshman QB Haynes King to return from his broken leg, A&M suddenly has a viable option in sophomore Zach Calzada, who looked ready for the scout team a few weeks ago but has since paced a 40-ppg offense that beat top-ranked Alabama and routed Missouri. Effective use of RBs Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane, who both ran for over 100 yards against the Tigers, means Calzada hardly has to do things alone, and Mike Elko’s defense has reasonably handled every foe except the Crimson Tide this season.
Add SC’s ongoing spread woes in SEC action — 1-9 in its last 10 against the line — and perhaps laying this big price is bit easier to digest.
— Bruce Marshall
LSU at OLE MISS
We suppose the joke is on Dan Mullen, who had Florida prepared so poorly for LSU last week that it seemed he wanted Ed Orgeron to keep his job. What Mullen might have instead caused was AD Scott Woodward allowing Orgeron to see out the rest of 2021 rather than hitting the eject button immediately, which puts the Tigers in a very awkward lame-duck situation for the rest of 2021 while Woodward makes sure Joe Brady, James Franklin and Luke Fickell are prominent on his speed dial. Give Orgeron and coordinator Jake Peetz some credit, however, for realizing LSU wasn’t going anywhere with a Mike Leach all-pass offense and reintroducing the run, with Tyrion Davis-Price shredding the Gators for 287 yards and providing a diversion for Max Johnson, who fired three touchdown passes. Ole Miss looks like more of a challenge than Florida, and Lane Kiffin has escaped a tricky part of his SEC schedule unscathed save for an understandable loss at Alabama. And after slowing down what had been a revved-up Tennessee spread, D.J. Durkin’s defense won’t have to deal with that sort of tempo this week. Matt Corral’s Heisman campaign is still operational, as his 195 yards rushing last week put him within 5 of becoming the first SEC QB since Johnny Manziel to pass and run for 200 or more yards in a game. However, Corral is injured and questionable this week.
— Bruce Marshall