NOTRE DAME at NORTH CAROLINA
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly would have signed up for this deal in August: With a win in Chapel Hill, N.C., the Fighting Irish are essentially in the four-team College Football Playoff. By virtue of their upset victory over Clemson on Nov. 7, the Irish can lose once down the stretch and still reach the playoff. Of course, Kelly does not want his team’s fate riding on a probable rematch with the Tigers in the ACC title game, so beating the Tar Heels is imperative. It’s not going to be easy because North Carolina sophomore Sam Howell is the most accomplished quarterback the Notre Dame defense will have faced this season. Howell passed for 38 touchdowns with seven interceptions as a freshman, and he has completed 67.7% of his passes with 23 touchdowns through eight games. Howell is not as talented as Clemson freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, who threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish in his second career start, but he has far more experience. Is Notre Dame senior Ian Book sneaking back into the Heisman Trophy race? Book has passed for 1,818 yards and 11 touchdowns with one interception while ranking second on the team in rushing with 364 yards and six TDs. Freshman running back Kyren Williams (777 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) is emerging as a star. The Tar Heels can attack on the ground as well, with Michael Carter and Javonte Williams each averaging 7 yards per carry. This figures to be an offensive fireworks show, with the total opening at 64. North Carolina totaled 742 yards in its 59-53 victory over Wake Forest on Nov. 14. Circa Sports opened the Irish -3 and the line was bet to -5.5. Notre Dame definitely has the stronger defense. The Irish also have no black eyes on their resume, unlike the Tar Heels, who were upset by Florida State and Virginia in October road games.
IOWA STATE at TEXAS
Brock Purdy has put Iowa State on the brink of playing for the Big 12 championship. The Cyclones quarterback is not as hyped as Texas senior Sam Ehlinger or Oklahoma freshman Spencer Rattler, but he has a chance to beat both of those stars this season. In the preseason, all of the league title hype was focused on the Longhorns and Sooners, teams that now sit below Iowa State in the standings. After a three-game winning streak, the Cyclones are 6-1 in league play as they head to Austin for a high-stakes showdown. Purdy passed for three touchdowns Saturday as Iowa State put a 45-0 beating on Kansas State, which was down to its third-string quarterback. Texas had an unexpected bye week when its game at Kansas was canceled because of COVID-19 issues. The week off was unsettling for Longhorns coach Tom Herman, who addressed recruiting problems amid speculation about his job status. Herman said rumors that he could be replaced by Urban Meyer, his former boss at Ohio State, are hurting his efforts to build the program. Nothing Herman said can help his cause. The reality is he probably has to run the table to keep his office chair after this season. Ehlinger has 22 touchdown passes and is also the Longhorns’ leading rusher with 323 yards. Herman’s offseason plans to reinvent the offense have failed. Iowa State coach Matt Campbell had plans to knock off the league’s heavyweights, and he’s halfway there. Purdy and the Cyclones upset the Sooners 37-30 in early October. Texas, which has won three of the last four in the series, opened as a 2-point favorite. This is basically a coin-flip game that will be won by the quarterback who makes more key plays, so Ehlinger gets a slight edge.
OKLAHOMA at WEST VIRGINIA
Freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler was nearly flawless in Oklahoma’s 28-point victory over Oklahoma State. Rattler passed for 301 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions as the Sooners extended their winning streak to five games. Oklahoma also was able to ride running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who ran for 141 yards, but coach Lincoln Riley’s offense was not forced to win a shootout for a change. The Sooners enjoyed a dominant performance by their defense, which limited the Cowboys to 246 total yards. The week after a rivalry game is sometimes a letdown spot, and the Sooners should be on upset alert as they head to Morgantown, W.Va., to face a Mountaineers team on the rise. Oklahoma escaped with a 59-56 win at West Virginia two years ago. The Mountaineers’ Neal Brown is a tough-as-nails coach who typically thrives in the underdog role. West Virginia was a 6-point underdog in a 17-13 loss at Texas two weeks ago, when the decision went down to the final seconds. Jarret Doege, who completed 35 of 50 passes for 317 yards against the Longhorns, threw for two touchdowns and rushed for one in a 24-6 victory over Texas Christian last week. Brown’s defense has allowed a total of 33 points in the last three games. The Mountaineers are developing one of the Big 12’s best defenses, so Rattler will be feeling more pressure this week. Early betting action showed on the underdog. Oklahoma opened -13 and the Circa Sports line immediately dipped to -11.5.
SAN JOSE STATE at BOISE STATE
It’s difficult to revive a dying football program that lacks fan support and financial resources, but Brent Brennan is working a minor miracle at San Jose State. In his first two years, Brennan went 3-22. The arrow started pointing up last season, when the Spartans finished 5-7, and Brennan is 4-0 out of the gate this season. San Jose is 3-0-1 against the spread, with upsets of Air Force and San Diego State. Nevada leads the Mountain West at 5-0, with San Jose and Boise State each at 4-0 in league play before this meeting on the blue turf. Arkansas graduate transfer Nick Starkel has completed 70% of his passes with nine touchdowns, but the Spartans’ strength has been their defense. The Broncos will present a different challenge, however, because of Hank Bachmeier’s passing ability. San Jose has faced four run-based offenses with weak quarterbacks. After a two-game absence, Bachmeier returned Saturday to pass for 278 yards in a 40-32 win at Hawaii. The Broncos, 14-point favorites, fell asleep at the wheel and failed to cover after rolling to a 33-9 lead early in the third quarter. Mysterious officiating assisted the Warriors in their comeback, so Boise should have won by a much larger margin. The Broncos were 16-point favorites in a wild 52-42 win at San Jose last year, when it was becoming evident Brennan was building a more competitive team. Are the Spartans for real? This step up in class will be telling. Circa Sports opened Boise -14 and early betting support for San Jose moved the line to -12, so Brennan has made believers of some bettors.
NEVADA at HAWAII
In a rare Saturday afternoon appearance on CBS, Nevada seized the opportunity to be on a national stage by beating San Diego State 26-21 in a thriller that was decided by a last-minute goal-line stand. Carson Strong passed for 288 yards and two touchdowns to continue his stellar sophomore season. Strong has completed 70.2% of his passes for 1,805 yards and 14 touchdowns with two interceptions to help lift the Wolf Pack to 5-0. Nevada has played three games in Reno and two in Las Vegas, so this trip to Honolulu will be the team’s first venture out of the state this season. Strong gets the headlines, but the Wolf Pack defense is doing its part and held the Aztecs’ powerful rushing attack to 109 yards and 3.1 yards per carry. Hawaii has a weak run defense by comparison. The Warriors had allowed 886 rushing yards over three games against San Diego State, New Mexico and Wyoming before getting burned by Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier through the air last week. Hawaii sophomore quarterback Chevan Cordeiro finished with impressive stat lines in a 40-32 loss to Boise, passing for 253 yards and three touchdowns while adding 90 rushing yards, but he led the offense to only three points in the first half and started piling up yards only after the Broncos built a 24-point lead. The Warriors have been blown out by San Diego State and Wyoming, so the Circa Sports opening line of Nevada -2 was curious, to say the least. Sharp bettors pounced and pushed the number to -6.5, where it probably should have opened. Oddsmakers sometimes make mistakes. The verdict will be revealed late Saturday night. The road team has won two in a row in this series. Nevada prevailed 40-22 in Honolulu in 2018, but the Warriors put a stunning 54-3 whipping on the Wolf Pack last year in Reno.
OREGON at OREGON STATE
What they used to call the Civil War has been Oregon-dominated in recent years, with the Ducks running up an eight-game series winning streak that OSU finally snapped in 2016, and the Ducks winning three in a row since. Many of the results were lopsided, but not last year, when the Beavers hung within 24-10, comfortably inside a 19-point spread. Perhaps that signified a new, more competitive era for the rivalry. Nothing in the first few weeks of this truncated 2020 Pac-12 season suggests anything different. The Beavers picked up where they left off last year when they covered nine of their last 11 games for coach Jonathan Smith. They finally were rewarded with their first straight-up win of the season in an exciting comeback against Cal last week. Running back Jermar Jefferson continues to be a workhorse, gashing the Golden Bears for 196 yards and ranking among the nation’s top 10 rushers with better than 126 yards per game. Nebraska transfer quarterback Tristan Gebbia confirmed his versatility with three TDs — one passing, one rushing and one receiving. Not quite sure about a rebuilt Oregon defense that has let Washington State and UCLA move pretty freely the last couple of weeks and now is minus star freshman linebacker Noah Sewell. The pressure is on new quarterback Tyler Shough to keep the Ducks offense humming after UCLA held the rushers to 2.6 yards per carry. With Oregon State having covered 11 of 14 since early last season, there’s a case to be made for the Beavers here.
AUBURN at ALABAMA
With the exception of Auburn’s Cam Newton-led comeback win 10 years ago, the drama in recent Iron Bowls has come in the games at Jordan-Hare Stadium, not in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban has punished Gus Malzahn in four straight at Bryant-Denny Stadium, with Bama winning — and covering — each of those by close to 30 points per game. And rest assured Saban and quarterback Mac Jones haven’t forgotten last November’s beyond-bitter 48-45 loss at Auburn, when Jones was victimized by a pair of pick-sixes and the Tide missed a chance to force overtime when a short field-goal try by Joseph Bulovas hit the upright with two minutes to play. Saban was called for an illegal substitution in the final minute on a Tigers punt that allowed Malzahn to run out the clock. All that Alabama motivation aside, Auburn is going to have trouble keeping pace. With freshman running back Tank Bigsby iffy with a hip injury, it’s unlikely Malzahn will be able to slow down the game as he has been doing lately to help sophomore quarterback Bo Nix. It might take another pick-six by safety Smoke Monday, who brought back one of Jones’ mistakes last year and took one 100 yards against Tennessee last week, to keep the Tigers in the game. Better to trust Jones (18 TD passes and only three interceptions), who has proved capable of the sort of showcase efforts that impress Heisman voters. Besides, Bama showed the mean streak to handle these sorts of big numbers when running up 66 points on Kentucky last week. Also note the Tide has covered all four games in Tuscaloosa in 2020.
KENTUCKY at FLORIDA
SEC observers were quick to point out Kentucky’s offensive shortcomings earlier this season. Quarterback Terry Wilson returned from injury after being behind center during the 10-win season of 2018. But insiders knew that offense was carried by running back Benny Snell, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and scored 16 touchdowns, often taking direct snaps. Last year, another playmaker emerged in wide receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden, prompting Mark Stoops to junk his normal offense for an option package to suit Bowden, who soon became unstoppable. This season, with no Snell or Bowden on the roster, the Wildcats offense has predictably suffered. In fact, Kentucky’s best offense has often been its defense, keying victories vs. Mississippi State and at Tennessee with pick-sixes. The UK offense was held to fewer than 200 yards for the third time in six games Saturday at Alabama. So we’re reluctant to trust the Wildcats, especially as Florida quarterback Kyle Trask’s Heisman campaign could use another stat-stuffer like two weeks ago when he threw six touchdown passes against Arkansas. Trask has 31 TD passes to three interceptions, making it doubtful he’ll give Kentucky’s ballhawks many chances to swing momentum. Dan Mullen usually takes care of business at home, where Florida has covered eight of its last nine. And the Gators have lost to Kentucky only once since 1986.
COLORADO at USC
It’s too bad we didn’t get to see if Colorado’s unexpected 2-0 break from the gate was a mirage when last week’s game against Arizona State canceled. But it does appear as if first-year coach Karl Dorrell has something brewing in Boulder. The Buffs have displayed surprising offensive balance in their first two games, averaging 220 rushing yards per game with quarterback Sam Noyer emerging as a capable dual threat. It won’t be easy for Colorado to outscore USC unless it can pressure quarterback Kedon Slovis, who runs his offense like a seven-on-seven passing drill if allowed time to find exciting receiving targets such as Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London. However, the Trojans’ victories have come in two nail-biters against the Arizona schools and against a reloading Utah team coming off two canceled games. USC’s defense, which has hardly looked dominant, could be in trouble if the mobile Noyer can do damage with his legs, like Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels did in the opener. Dorrell’s last game as UCLA coach came in an ugly loss to the Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2007, ending an era in which he often didn’t have a chance against Pete Carroll’s powerhouse teams. That does not look to be the case this year. And while it still might not be the year Colorado finally beats USC as a Pac-12 member, the Buffs offer good value at early posted prices.
MISSISSIPPI STATE at OLE MISS
A quick recap of last year’s Egg Bowl should put this rivalry and Saturday’s renewal into context. Ole Miss was set to force overtime after Matt Corral’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Moore with four seconds remaining cut Mississippi State’s lead to 21-20. But Moore’s penalty for a crude celebration pushed back the extra point, and Luke Logan’s subsequent 35-yard kick hooked wide to give the Bulldogs the win. That embarrassing conclusion marked the end of coach Matt Luke’s tenure and led to the hiring of Lane Kiffin in Oxford. Subsequently, Mike Leach was hired to replace Joe Moorhead in Starkville, ushering in a new Egg Bowl era. Leach’s Air Raid offense finally showed signs of life last week at Georgia after being mostly stuck on the tarmac since an opening-week bombing raid at LSU. Freshman quarterback Will Rogers dinked and dunked his way to 41 completions in 52 attempts as the Bulldogs kept it close for their first cover in six games despite only 22 rushing yards. Kiffin’s offense seems much further along as the Rebels scored more than 50 points in each of their last two games with Corral throwing 10 TD passes and no picks, and Ole Miss rushing for nearly 200 yards per game in those blowouts of Vanderbilt and South Carolina. In the only previous meeting of these coaches, Leach prevailed as Washington State upset USC 10-7 at the L.A. Coliseum in 2013, just a few weeks before Kiffin was fired.
PITTSBURGH at CLEMSON
We don’t often look for spots to recommend against Clemson. This season, however, is an exception, as the Tigers have covered only two of their first eight games in their worst spread start since 2008, the year Dabo Swinney took over for coach Tommy Bowden halfway through the season. There are a variety of reasons for this shortfall, including the excessive point-spread premiums attached by oddsmakers and various player absences, including two games missed by quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence is back, but a lot has changed in college football (and the world) since Oct. 24, when he last played. The Tigers lost their first regular-season game since 2017 (at Notre Dame) and dropped from the top spot in the polls. Plus Lawrence appears to have fallen behind in the Heisman race, with Florida’s Kyle Trask the new flavor of the month. This matchup is likely to be more competitive than most would think. Pitt has caused trouble for Clemson before, dealing the Tigers their only loss of the 2016 national title season — in Death Valley, no less — and Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi is a 61% underdog play the last five-plus seasons. The Panthers also have had more bite since the return of senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who passed for 404 yards in last week’s romp over Virginia Tech.
NEBRASKA at IOWA
The Cornhuskers thought they had turned the corner two weeks ago, getting their first win of the season by holding off Penn State. Those positive thoughts quickly went away as Nebraska lost 41-23 outright at home against Illinois as a 16-point favorite. The Illini never trailed and outgained Nebraska 490-392. The Cornhuskers were wearing their “Blackshirts,” but their defensive unit resembled anything but the “Blackshirt” defenses from the glory days as they were gashed on the ground for 285 yards. However, the offense was even worse as quarterback Luke McCaffrey committed four (three interceptions, fumble) of the team’s five turnovers. Scott Frost now has another decision to make at quarterback between McCaffrey and Adrian Martinez. He does not want to play musical chairs with his quarterbacks, but Martinez is the more experienced hand, and he may get the nod in a road game with the season on the brink of bottoming out. On the other hand, Iowa is on a three-game winning streak and ended its six-game series skid at Penn State with a 41-21 victory. As usual, it was not pretty for the Hawkeyes, but it was effective. Iowa forced four turnovers (+ 3 margin) and shut down Penn State’s running game (62 yards on 35 carries). Circa Sports opened Iowa -12, and it quickly moved to -14. The Hawkeyes will be trying to protect their five-game series streak against Nebraska and keep the Heroes Trophy in Iowa City. The last two meetings have each been decided by three points with Iowa kicking the winning field goal in each of the last two years. Iowa has never been this large a favorite against Nebraska. In 2018, the Hawkeyes laid -6.5 in a 31-28 victory.
LSU at TEXAS A&M
No. 5 Texas A&M will be playing for the first time in three weeks as games at Tennessee and vs. Ole Miss were postponed because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the Aggies program. The Aggies last played Nov. 7, when they went to South Carolina and thrashed the Gamecocks 48-3. Meanwhile, LSU’s Nov. 14 game vs. Alabama also was postponed due to COVID-19. The Tigers did win 27-24 last weekend at Arkansas. Backup quarterback TJ Finley (27-for-42, 271 yards, 2 TDs) hit Jaray Jenkins for a 13-yard touchdown with 3:59 left in the fourth quarter and the Tigers special teams blocked a 44-yard field-goal try with 1:24 left to seal the victory. LSU is still struggling to defend through the air, though, as Arkansas threw for 339 yards. The main sign of improvement for LSU was the offensive game plan, as the Tigers were able to control the clock with the running game and dominated the time of possession 41:43-18:17. Texas A&M now has its schedule back-ended because of the postponements but will have games in late December to keep itself in front of the CFP selection committee. The Aggies are right there to potentially pounce on one of those four spots should one of the front-runners slip up. Circa Sports opened Texas A&M as a 12-point favorite and has seen action up to -14. Jimbo Fisher has had memorable meetings in his two games against LSU as the Aggies’ coach. He won that memorable seven-overtime marathon 74-72 in 2018. Last year’s meeting was not such a positive memory, though, as LSU laid out the Aggies 50-7, which was Texas A&M’s largest loss in the history of the series dating to 1899.
MARYLAND at INDIANA
Indiana’s undefeated start ended as the No. 12 Hoosiers fell 42-35 at No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday. The Hoosiers made too many mistakes and turned the ball over too frequently, falling into a 35-7 hole early in the second half. However, the Hoosiers showed character and fight by playing a full 60 minutes and crawled back to make it a one-score game with a chance to tie or win at the end. There are things, both good and bad, that Indiana can take from that great effort in Columbus. On the good side, Michael Penix Jr. passed for 491 yards and became the first opposing quarterback to throw for 400-plus yards in Columbus since Purdue’s Jim Everett in 1985. Penix also threw for five scores, including three to Ty Fryfogle (7 catches, 218 yards). The Hoosiers defense also forced Heisman contender Justin Fields to throw three interceptions. Nevertheless, that same defense did allow 607 yards and 42 points. On offense, the running game continued to struggle with -1 yard on just 16 carries before Indiana was forced to abandon it. Here lies the challenge for an Indiana team that left it all on the field in Columbus. The Hoosiers cannot feel sorry for themselves and must realize there is still plenty to play for, including being able to clinch consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1994 and having the potential for a New Year’s Day bowl appearance. To do that, they must first get by Maryland, which must be champing at the bit to play any game, considering the Terps have not played since Nov. 7 in a 35-19 victory at Penn State. COVID-19 also has affected the Maryland program, including coach Mike Locksley, and the Terps have had their last two games — vs. Ohio State and vs. Michigan State — canceled. Maryland had been playing good football at the time, so the question is whether the momentum stopped. Circa Sports opened Indiana -15, and the line is now -14. The total opened 64.5 and now sits at 59 with the early bettors just getting down on a number not knowing how many players will be back for Maryland.
NORTHWESTERN at MICHIGAN STATE
Northwestern took control of the Big Ten West with a 17-7 victory over Wisconsin as a 7.5-point home underdog. It was not aesthetically pleasing on offense for the Wildcats, especially on the ground with just 24 yards on 23 carries, but once again the Northwestern defense carried the day. Northwestern’s defense (fourth nationally in scoring defense at 12.6 ppg) was on the field for over 37 minutes, but the defense was the Wildcats’ best offense as they forced five Wisconsin turnovers and held yet another opponent scoreless in the second half, the fourth time they have done so in five games this season. Northwestern moved up to No. 11 in the polls and travels to Michigan State to face a rebuilding Spartans program whose game at Maryland was canceled last weekend. Michigan State has scored only seven points in its last two games, including being shut out at home by Indiana, and now will face one of the nation’s best defenses. The Spartans will also need to clean up their act in terms of turnovers. Michigan State ranks 125th of 127 teams playing FBS football in turnover margin, averaging minus-2.25 turnovers per game. This is a dangerous proposition, considering Northwestern has 11 takeaways through its first five games. Circa Sports opened Northwestern -9, and it has been one-way traffic for the Wildcats as now they sit as 13.5-point favorites. This matchup also has the lowest total on the entire slate this weekend at 41.5. If this spread reaches 14, buyback should come for the Spartans despite their offensive woes and the impending decision of sticking with junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi or going to redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, who came in when Lombardi was pulled against Indiana last time out.
OHIO STATE at ILLINOIS
On the first drive of the second half Saturday, the Buckeyes took a 35-7 lead over Indiana in a showdown to essentially determine the Big Ten East title. However, the Hoosiers cut the deficit to 42-35 before the Buckeyes nailed down the win. Ohio State put up its usual stellar offensive numbers with 42 points and 607 yards of total offense, but Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (18-for-30, 300 yards, 2 passing TD, 1 rushing TD) did throw three interceptions and lost his Heisman Trophy front-runner status at least temporarily. Nevertheless, the Buckeyes remain No. 3 in the polls and have a clear path to the Big Ten championship game. Ohio State will be a massive favorite in each of its next three games starting with a trip this weekend to face Illinois. The Fighting Illini, after starting 0-3, have won two in a row, including a dominating 41-23 victory at Nebraska on Saturday as 16-point underdogs. Illinois got several players back from COVID-19 absences last weekend, including senior quarterback Brandon Peters, who passed for a touchdown and ran for one at Nebraska. The running game had been struggling for the Illini but piled up 285 yards on 52 carries Saturday. Illinois also had five takeaways, so Fields will need to protect the ball. The Buckeyes opened -30 at Circa Sports, but some action has shown for Illinois as Ohio State is now a 28- to 28.5-point favorite marketwide. The total for this one is also the largest on the board at 70. While the Buckeyes should have smooth sailing to the Big Ten championship game, they will not have the marquee wins they usually have because of the truncated schedule, with Indiana its best win, so style points could matter. Nevertheless, the oddsmakers know that and price them accordingly from the opening lines.