LAS VEGAS--For college football’s elite, it’s more than just winning a game this weekend. That’s because the only rankings that matter will appear for the first time on Tuesday, and the final-four committee will be playing close attention to what unfolds Saturday in Columbus, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; Clemson, South Carolina; and Ames, Iowa.
Ohio State is a 6½-point favorite at home against Penn State, a year after the Buckeyes were upset 24-21 at Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions went on to win the Big Ten championship, and they still remember being bypassed on selection day by the Buckeyes. The point here is that folks have been saying that the Buckeyes will gain redemption, but I’m thinking that Penn State is still fueled by last year’s snub.
Saquon Barkley leads the country in all-purpose yards, and he has scored a touchdown in 14 consecutive games for the Nittany Lions as they head into Columbus. A week ago Barkley and Penn State crushed Michigan 42-13. Urban Meyer is certainly aware of that. As he put it, Barkley is “as good an all-purpose running back as we’ve seen, and that’s 30 years.”
Still alive for the playoff, North Carolina State makes its first-ever visit to South Bend in what could be an elimination match. In a game between two 6-1 teams, Notre Dame is a 7½-point favorite. While the Irish are 6-1 ATS, the Wolfpack is only 3-4.
The most impressive stat coming into this game belongs to N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley. He has thrown the ball 248 times with no interceptions. His 313 straight passes without being picked off go back to last year, giving him the longest such streak in the country.
The showdown, though, will be on the line of scrimmage when Notre Dame has the football. NFL scouts say two Irish seniors – left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson – have “first round” written all over them. On the other side of the line is N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb – another top-five pro prospect. He and the rest of the Wolfpack defense will be challenged trying to stop Notre Dame’s Josh Adams, who has rushed for 967 yards, ranking him seventh nationally.
Clemson is at home, a 14-point favorite against a Georgia Tech team that could easily be undefeated. The Yellow Jackets lost a 42-41, double-overtime, season opener against Tennessee, and they lost two weeks ago at Miami 25-24.
The Tigers are coming back two weeks after losing at Syracuse. Clemson has not lost back-to-back games since 2011. That was 78 games ago, and they have no room for error now. As coach Dabo Swinney said, “The story is all about how you respond, how you grow, how you develop. When you get beat it’s an awesome opportunity to teach.”
The under-the-radar game that the committee may be paying more attention to than you might think finds TCU taking its undefeated record into Ames, Iowa, where Cyclones coach Matt Campbell has put together a very dangerous, 6½-point underdog. In my opinion the two blue-chip jobs that are opening at the end of this season are in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Knoxville, Tennessee. I have every reason to believe that Campbell’s agent has been contacted by the Cornhuskers and the Volunteers.
Remember, Campbell and Iowa State stormed into Norman, trailed twice by two touchdowns and rallied behind walk-on quarterback Kyle Kempt for a 38-31 upset of Oklahoma. Kempt has completed 69 percent of his passes, but this is easily the toughest defense that he has seen. That is Gary Patterson’s specialty at Fort Worth. Against Kansas last week TCU surrendered 21 total yards and only four first downs – two by penalty. A strong lean here to TCU.
The winners of these four games are going to see their names in bright lights. The losers will still be getting ready for bowl games, but they will probably not be Jan. 1 semifinals in Pasadena and New Orleans.
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It may not be the only way to a winning bet in the NFL, but backing an outstanding quarterback is as good a place as any to start your handicapping.
We saw it again when Carson Wentz threw for four touchdowns, and the Eagles beat the Redskins straight up and ATS. With 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions, Wentz is now being touted as the next “best thing.”
Quarterbacking again ballooned Thursday night, when Baltimore beat up on the Miami Dolphins 40-0. Before he was knocked out of the game and into concussion protocol, Joe Flacco went 10-for-15 for 101 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His counterpart – Matt Moore – threw two picks and was never a factor.
For their sake let’s hope the extra time before their next game at Tennessee allows the Ravens to get Flacco cleared to play. John Harbaugh may be betting on it. As he said Thursday night, “Joe had a concussion and a cut ear. They were stitching the ear up without anesthesia. He’s a tough dude.”
The one thing to be careful about with quarterbacks – both young and old – is the single most important word in their vocabulary. CONSISTENCY. Over the past 18 seasons the model of consistency has been 40-year-old Tom Brady. And his current injury aside, we can throw Aaron Rodgers and 13 consistent years into that exclusive club.
Which brings us to the curious case of Ben Roethlisberger. Back on Oct. 8 he threw for 312 yards, but he also served up five interceptions – two of them pick-6s. The favored Steelers were buried at home by Jacksonville 30-9. After that debacle Roethlisberger threw for only 252 yards at Kansas City. More important he cut his interceptions from five to one. That was a huge factor in a 19-13 victory that left the Chiefs with their first setback of the season.
See what I mean by consistency? When it comes to handicapping games, quarterbacks who have it are a pretty good place to start. That takes us to the upcoming night games.
The 5-2 Steelers (4-3 ATS) are a three-point favorite Sunday night visiting the rested 3-3 Detroit Lions (3-3 ATS). The biggest negatives for quarterbacks are obviously interceptions. Only DeShone Kizer (11) and Cam Newton (10) have more than Roethlisberger. Because of his inconsistency, the key difference here is the Steelers have been able to move the ball on the ground. The last two weeks Le’Veon Bell rushed for 313 yards in wins over the Chiefs and Bengals that helped Pittsburgh shake off the Jacksonville blues. One caution sign: The last five times the Lions have come off a bye, they have won.
On Monday night we find a huge quarterback mismatch featuring the player who is having the most consistent season of anyone in the NFL. Alex Smith and the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs (5-2 ATS) are back home and favored by seven against Trevor Siemian and the 3-3 Denver Broncos (2-3-1 ATS).
Where Siemian has thrown for only eight touchdowns with seven interceptions, Smith has 15 TD passes and no interceptions. Think about that. He has thrown the ball 228 times – eighth-most in the league – and has yet to have a pass picked off. And you can’t blame last Thursday’s loss to the Raiders on him.
The point of this exercise is that you’re not going to automatically win just by having a big-name quarterback. But it is a better place to start mapping your bets. Wentz is already the best young quarterback in the league, and he is on his way to establishing himself as a franchise quarterback. But even he lost this season to Alex Smith, who for me is the runaway leader for MVP.