UCLA at ARIZONA STATE
In the first week of December, Arizona State is hoping to play only its second game of the season and its first since Nov. 7. Because of COVID-19 issues, the Sun Devils have been sidelined since blowing a late lead in a 28-27 loss at USC nearly a month ago. Sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels passed for 134 yards and one touchdown and rushed 11 times for 111 yards against the Trojans. Aside from costly defensive and special-teams breakdowns, Arizona State was impressive in its debut. The long layoff has to be considered a negative, although coach Herm Edwards should have a healthy team if the COVID problems are in the past. Most teams in the Pac-12 have played three or four games at this point. UCLA improved to 2-2 straight up with three consecutive covers after beating Arizona 27-10 on Saturday. The Bruins played their second game without starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson because of coronavirus contact tracing, so redshirt freshman Chase Griffin got the call again and successfully managed the offense by passing for 129 yards and a touchdown. Griffin had no turnovers after throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble in his first start, a 38-35 loss at Oregon. The ground attack, led by Demetric Felton (32 carries, 206 yards) and Brittain Brown (16 carries, 72 yards), led the way against the winless Wildcats. Felton limped off the field after his last carry in the fourth quarter, but the extent of his leg injury is uncertain. UCLA needs Felton to have a shot to win at Arizona State. Thompson-Robinson might also return. Circa Sports opened the Sun Devils -3, and the line was bet to -5. Arizona State is the superior team, but it’s important to monitor the availability of key players on both teams this week.
SYRACUSE at NOTRE DAME
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly won’t say it, but his team essentially nailed down one of the four College Football Playoff spots by defeating North Carolina 31-17 on Saturday. The Fighting Irish will be big favorites in their final two regular-season games against Syracuse and Wake Forest. How big? Notre Dame is -33.5 this week against the Orange. Senior quarterback Ian Book’s performance was outstanding against the Tar Heels. Book passed for 279 yards and one touchdown while running eight times for 48 yards. During some of Book’s subpar early-season games, the Irish could always bank on freshman running back Kyren Williams and the defense. Williams carried 23 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns against North Carolina, which scored 14 points in the first quarter and was shut down the rest of the day. Notre Dame’s defense was dominant in the final three quarters and allowed only 298 total yards for the game. The Tar Heels entered the game averaging 43 points and 563 yards. In his 11th season, Kelly has 101 wins to move past Lou Holtz for second in program history, with Knute Rockne atop the Notre Dame list at 105. Book is 29-3 as the starter. The Irish should coast into the ACC championship game against Clemson, and both teams are expected to get playoff spots if the Tigers win the rematch. Syracuse is 1-9 with seven losses by double-digit margins. At this stage, Notre Dame needs to simply win and not worry about style points, so Kelly might pull starters early and keep players healthy, assuming this is a blowout.
STANFORD at WASHINGTON
With its Pac-12 title hopes in serious jeopardy Saturday, Washington rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit to defeat Utah 24-21. Dylan Morris threw three interceptions to put the Huskies in a hole, but he finished with 272 yards passing and two touchdowns to lead the comeback. First-year coach Jimmy Lake, who was promoted when Chris Petersen retired after last season, is proving to be the right man for the job. Lake is making solid in-game adjustments and is winning on the recruiting trail, so things are looking up for Washington. Still, the Huskies have some concerns as they move forward. Morris is not a dynamic playmaker, and the Washington defense allowed the Utes to rush for 215 yards and 5.1 per carry. The Huskies (3-0 SU, 1-2 ATS) opened as 11-point favorites against Stanford. After losses to Oregon and Colorado, the Cardinal found the win column by holding off California 24-23. Stanford blocked the potential tying extra-point kick in the final minute. Davis Mills passed for 205 yards and one touchdown, and Austin Jones rushed for 85 yards with two short touchdowns. The win is a needed boost for coach David Shaw, who has a 9-1 record in the rivalry against Cal yet has been overseeing a program in obvious decline. The Golden Bears outgained the Cardinal 241-95 in rushing yards and probably should have won the game, but special-team blunders cost Cal and let Stanford off the hook. Stanford and Washington have split their last four meetings, with the home team winning each time. The Huskies appear to be a good bet to win this game, but the price is high and the double-digit point spread is no bargain.
ALABAMA at LSU
With coach Nick Saban watching from home and admittedly yelling at the TV, top-ranked Alabama had few worries while rolling over Auburn 42-13 as a 24½-point favorite. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian ran the team with Saban sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test. Sarkisian punched up the right plays for quarterback Mac Jones, who passed for 302 yards and five touchdowns. Jones has completed 76.2% of his passes with 23 touchdowns and three interceptions for the season. Alabama’s defense has allowed only 33 points in the last 18 quarters since halftime of the Georgia game Oct. 17. “I feel great,” said Saban, who expects to be on the sideline in Baton Rouge, La., to get revenge. LSU beat the Crimson Tide 46-41 last season en route to the national championship, but this Tigers team is completely different and in disarray. LSU (3-4) is off a 20-7 loss at Texas A&M, avoiding a shutout on Terrace Marshall’s 3-yard touchdown catch with 38 seconds remaining. Marshall announced Sunday he’s opting out of the rest of the season to prepare for the NFL draft. He ranks third in the Southeastern Conference with 731 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Alabama, which has covered five consecutive games, opened as a 25-point favorite before the line ballooned to 28. LSU coach Ed Orgeron is in for a long night. It takes courage to bet on an underdog that is showing no life, while Alabama has outscored its last three opponents by a combined 146-16.
VANDERBILT AT GEORGIA
Our Nashville connections tell us some of the Vanderbilt brass is patting itself on the back for allowing soccer player Sarah Fuller to become the first female to play in a Power 5 football game Saturday at Missouri, where she line-drived a kickoff. (New Mexico’s Katie Hnida kicked a couple of extra points vs. Texas State in 2003.) But it also provided a smokescreen of sorts with the media, which was paying more attention to the Fuller story than Sunday’s humane dismissal of coach Derek Mason. Saturday’s 41-0 loss to the Tigers was the point of no return for Mason as the Commodores are closing in on their first winless season. Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch will get a brief audition to succeed Mason as the interim coach. That development was met with some enthusiasm by Vandy fans who believe Fitch, freed from Mason’s conservative parameters, will open up the offense as he did for Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech. Unfortunately for Fitch and the Commodores, Kirby Smart hasn’t forgotten about Vandy upsetting his first Georgia team in Athens in 2016. He has made sure it hasn’t happened since with three lopsided wins and covers against the Commodores by a combined 116-33 score. The Bulldogs offense is stirring again with USC transfer QB J.T Daniels at quarterback, scoring 38 points per game in a pair of wins while the ground game reawakened with 332 rushing yards last week at South Carolina. It’s a big price, but recent dynamics and series trends suggest the Bulldogs are up to the task.
BOWLING GREEN at AKRON
That’s no optical illusion you’re seeing with the point spread on this MAC basement battle. Yes, Akron is a slight favorite despite bringing a 21-game losing streak into this low-speed collision against Bowling Green. Say what? The background information hardly supports the opinion of the oddsmakers, even though these teams have much in common, both winless in 2020 and combining for only six spread covers since the beginning of the 2019 season. Remember, however, it was advantage Bowling Green last season, and not just a little bit, as the Falcons rolled at home 35-6. An early 6-0 Zips lead did not hold as BGSU, in a rare display of defensive might, stonewalled Akron’s offense, holding it to 100 yards for the game. The Zips didn’t help their cause with four giveaways. Akron’s hopes for revenge center on the porous Falcons run defense, which ranks 127th and last in the nation. It’s not even close as Bowling Green allows 334 rushing yards per game, almost 50 more yards than next-worst UMass. Akron’s slashing running back Teon Dollard is licking his chops as he averages almost 6 yards per carry. But the Zips’ rush defense won’t be mistaken for the Pittsburgh Steelers, either, ranking above only UMass and the Falcons. Bowling Green running back Andrew Clair ran for 118 yards last week against a stingy Ohio defense. There’s a chance neither team will be able to escape the gravity pull of the other, but if we have to make a case for one, it’s not going to be Akron.
FLORIDA at TENNESSEE
The first good news for Tennessee since the start of October might actually have been the postponement of last week’s game against Vanderbilt, which lost to Missouri instead. A loss to Vandy really could have ratcheted up the pressure on coach Jeremy Pruitt, whose honeymoon with the Vols base has ended in the midst of a five-game SU and spread skid in which Tennessee hasn’t come within single digits. Florida-Tennessee used to be a featured game on the SEC schedule, but it has been all Gators lately with three wins and covers in a row. Florida coach Dan Mullen has really taken care of business vs. Pruitt the last two seasons by a combined 81-24 score. In 2018, it was 47-21 Gators in Knoxville, and last year it was more of the same in Florida’s 34-3 cruise in Gainesville. The latter was the first college start for Kyle Trask, who passed for 293 yards and a pair of touchdowns after replacing an injured Feleipe Franks, who is now at Arkansas. Mullen likely will hit the accelerator again this week to impress pollsters and help the Heisman cause of Trask, who is up to 34 touchdown passes after last week’s breeze past Kentucky. Meanwhile, it’s apparent that Pruitt has no answers at quarterback. Jarrett Guarantano has thrown more pick-sixes (3) than touchdown passes (2) in the last four games, prompting a desperate move to freshman Harrison Bailey, who has two picks in 23 mostly feeble attempts.
TEXAS A&M at AUBURN
There’s an argument to be made for Auburn, as the Tigers have beaten A&M three in a row, including last year’s 28-20 decision at College Station. In that game, Auburn built a 28-10 lead in the fourth quarter and then held on as Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond led a belated rally en route to 335 passing yards. And with this week’s rematch at Auburn, note that coach Gus Malzahn has covered eight of his last 11 chances at home. But the reality is that Jimbo Fisher holds more of the cards this season than Malzahn, as the Aggies are poised to sneak into the College Football Playoff mix if any of the top-ranked teams slip. That sort of title talk disappeared long ago at Auburn, with sophomore quarterback Bo Nix not making expected progress in his second year. He has only one TD pass and three interceptions in his last two games. And Malzahn has been unable to lean on punishing freshman running back Tank Bigsby, who has been slowed by various bumps and bruises in recent weeks. Don’t be fooled by the rain and wind that had a lot to do with Mond’s reduced stats last week — just 11 of 34 passing and zero TDs — against LSU. But unless Al Roker is forecasting a similar storm to blow through Auburn on Saturday, Mond should return to form. The Aggies defense has contributed mightily to the five straight wins and covers, allowing just 11 points per game across the last four since a shootout win against Florida. Expect the streak to grow to six A&M wins and covers.
LIBERTY at COASTAL CAROLINA
Unbeaten Coastal Carolina has been marching through the Sun Belt, with second-year coach Jamey Chadwell reportedly on the radar of potential suitors, including in-state South Carolina, which is looking for a new coach. Stay tuned. But we’re not sure the Chanticleers have much of a class edge on Liberty, which is not a Sun Belt opponent and whose 2020 schedule has been a bit more challenging (including three ACC foes on the road) and has run up the same sorts of scores as Coastal in most weeks. The Chanticleers have been mighty good, especially freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, doing a pretty good impersonation of a young Drew Brees by firing 20 touchdown passes and just one pick in nine games. Coastal also has only one spread loss in 2020 — when laying an upper-atmosphere spread against FCS Campbell back in September. But we’re pretty sure that in the Sun Belt and against nonconference opponents Campbell and Kansas (especially Kansas), Coastal has not run into a defense anything close to Liberty’s. The Flames defense ranks ninth in the nation and seventh against the pass, allowing just 172 yards per game through the air, posing the most significant challenge McCall will face this season. As good as McCall is, we’re not even sure Coastal has a quarterbacks edge in this game because of former Auburn dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis, a “Hugh Freeze special” for Liberty, who has passed for better than 2,000 yards, run for almost 800 and accounted for 30 touchdowns, 20 passing, 10 rushing. The Flames are very tempting at this price, especially as Freeze has covered four straight and six of his last seven when getting points.
CLEMSON at VIRGINIA TECH
Trevor Lawrence played his first game in five weeks and said farewell to Death Valley by throwing for 403 yards and two touchdowns as No. 3 Clemson pulverized Pittsburgh 52-17 in Lawrence’s final home game. Senior running back Travis Etienne added two scores on the ground in his swan song. The Tigers led Pitt 31-0 after the first quarter by capitalizing on three interceptions from Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett in the first eight minutes. Dabo Swinney had been fired up all week about the Nov. 21 game at Florida State being postponed on the day of the game and clearly had his team take out its frustrations on Pitt. Whether the Florida State game can be made up is still in question, but the Tigers first must take care of business at Virginia Tech. Regardless, it seems inevitable that the ACC championship game will be a rematch between Clemson and Notre Dame. Virginia Tech has lost three straight and has had a week off to lick its wounds after a humiliating 47-14 loss at Pittsburgh, which had seven starters missing because of COVID-19. The Hokies are just 4-5, and coach Justin Fuente remains on the hot seat as the program seems to be going in the wrong direction. Tech’s 27-year bowl game streak is in jeopardy. Clemson opened as a 21-point favorite at Circa Sports, and it is now -22. The total also rose from 63.5 to 66.5. A wintry mix is forecast for Blacksburg on Saturday, which could keep the number in its current range.
OHIO STATE at MICHIGAN STATE
The No. 4 Buckeyes are 4-0, but they are in a tenuous position for both the College Football Playoff and the Big Ten championship game. When the Big Ten reinstated its football season in September, the conference instituted a six-game minimum requirement for teams to be eligible for the league championship game. Ohio State already has had two games canceled — Nov. 14 at Maryland and last Saturday at Illinois. The Buckeyes last played two weeks ago, when they held on for a 42-35 victory over Indiana. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’ Heisman candidacy took its first significant hit as he threw three interceptions in that game. Fields also has been out of sight and out of mind, having played just two games in the last month. He’s now priced at 10-1 at DraftKings to win the Heisman behind Florida’s Kyle Trask, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. While Fields and the Buckeyes are big favorites Saturday in East Lansing, they will not be able to take Michigan State for granted as the Spartans upset No. 8 Northwestern as nearly two-touchdown underdogs Saturday. Michigan State jumped ahead quickly and built a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. The offense stalled and the Wildcats took an early fourth-quarter lead before Michigan State prevailed 29-20. Ball security, which was a problem for Fields his last time out, will be vital for Ohio State as the Spartans forced four Northwestern turnovers. Ohio State opened as a 24-point favorite at Circa Sports, but early action came in for Sparty as the line dropped to 22 before returning to the initial 24 Monday. The total has also seen a drop from 62.5 to 59.5. Both side and total moves likely can be attributed to potential rust for Ohio State and potential inclement weather forecast for Saturday. Ohio State should receive more of the action later in the week because it needs the style points, having played fewer games than its fellow CFP contenders.
WEST VIRGINIA at IOWA STATE
Iowa State has not won a conference title since 1912 in the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The Cyclones are one win from clinching their spot in the Big 12 championship game. On Friday, Iowa State came back from a 10-point deficit for a 23-20 win at Texas. Quarterback Brock Purdy (25-for-36, 312 yards, TD) and running back Breece Hall (20 carries, 91 yards, TD) led the way as they have done all season, and Hall scored the game-winner with 1:25 remaining. Iowa State and Oklahoma seem to be on a collision course for the title game Dec. 19. However, West Virginia has a narrow path. The Mountaineers need to win in Ames and then have Texas lose once more and Oklahoma State lose its final two games. West Virginia has shown improvements in Neal Brown’s second year in Morgantown. However, the program is back to the point where it beats the teams it should beat (Oct. 24 at Texas Tech the exception) but cannot yet get it done against the upper-echelon teams in the Big 12. The Mountaineers have had three shots against ranked teams in the conference this season and have dropped all three. However, they get two more chances in the next two weeks — this week at Iowa State and against Oklahoma on Dec. 12. Circa Sports opened Iowa State at -8 and the early action on West Virginia drove the number to -7. The Cyclones have put themselves in position to be in position, but now the pressure is on to make program history.
INDIANA at WISCONSIN
The Hoosiers clinched consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1994 with a 27-11 victory over Maryland. However, the win came at a cost as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was lost for the season with a torn ACL, the same ACL that cost him most of 2018. Jack Tuttle, who transferred from Utah last season, will take over. Tuttle was a four-star recruit, the highest rated at the position in program history, with offers from programs including USC, Alabama, LSU and this week’s opponent, Wisconsin. The Badgers already have dealt with a quarterback injury this season as starter Jack Coan went down during fall camp. Graham Mertz, the highest-rated quarterback recruit in the history of the program, has taken over with mixed results. The Badgers have played only three games this season because of COVID-19, and each one has had a distinct performance from Mertz. In the opener vs. Illinois, he was marvelous in his debut start, throwing for five touchdowns on 20-of-21 passing. Against Michigan, he was solid in throwing for two scores and having no turnovers. Against Northwestern, he was poor and turned the ball over four times with three interceptions and a fumble. Wisconsin has had three games canceled because of COVID-19 and is currently ineligible to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game because of the conference’s six-game minimum rule. Despite several stops and starts in the Badgers season, Wisconsin is a sizable favorite here in a battle of top-20 teams. Circa Sports opened the Badgers at -14 before the number fell to -10. Once the injury news regarding Penix became confirmed, the line was adjusted back to -13 and the piggy-backers bet it up to -15. The total also has taken a dip from 49 to 45.5 with a new Indiana quarterback making his first start against a Wisconsin team that may show some rust. Plus, the Badgers have been stout defensively and have allowed only 11.6 points per game.