OREGON at USC
Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis has worked a few miracles for USC this season, the latest coming Saturday in a 43-38 victory over UCLA. Slovis’ 8-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds left beat the Bruins at the Rose Bowl and handed a bad beat to underdog bettors who took 3.5 points. UCLA went ahead 38-36 in the final minute before Slovis hit two big pass plays to steal the win and cover. Slovis passed for 344 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. The Trojans have made a habit of living on the edge. USC escaped upset bids in its first two games with last-minute comeback victories over Arizona State and Arizona. A College Football Playoff invitation remains highly unlikely for the Trojans (5-0) as they enter the Pac-12 title game in Los Angeles. USC was favored by seven points against Washington before the Huskies pulled out of the game Monday, citing COVID-19 problems. Oregon (3-2) is the replacement as the North Division representative, and the new line is USC -3 to -3.5. The Ducks enter on a two-game losing streak after falling to Oregon State and California. Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough has shown promising flashes in his first season as Justin Herbert’s successor, but the Ducks have not had a big-play offense and were held to 17 points in the loss to the Golden Bears. While it’s never easy to lay points with USC coach Clay Helton, the Trojans have a slight talent advantage and should win. Helton might need another last-minute comeback drive by Slovis.
STANFORD at UCLA
Bouncing back after losing a rivalry game is tough enough, but the way UCLA fell to USC last week will make coach Chip Kelly’s job even tougher. The Bruins snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after taking a 38-36 lead in the final minute. UCLA surrendered two big plays, including Kedon Slovis’ 8-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds left, and stunningly failed to cover as a 3.5-point home underdog in a 43-38 setback at the Rose Bowl. Kelly will need to use some motivational tricks to get his players off the mat. The Bruins produced a lot of positives offensively, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson completed 30 of 36 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns. But Thompson-Robinson, who also rushed for 50 yards, threw two costly interceptions. A running attack led by Demetric Felton and Brittain Brown totaled 185 yards. UCLA was better than USC for more than 59 minutes, but that’s little consolation, and will one loss now turn into two? It’s fair to expect the Bruins (3-3) to be emotionally flat after blowing the biggest game of their season. A winning regular season is on the line for both teams. Stanford (3-2) has won three in a row after narrow victories over California (24-23), Washington (31-26) and Oregon State (27-24). Davis Mills passed for 292 yards and ran for two touchdowns to help beat the Beavers in Corvallis, Ore. Cardinal coach David Shaw credited his team for overcoming “all kinds of odds” while playing most of the season on the road. Stanford has played only one home game because of COVID-19. UCLA is the more talented team and a deserving favorite, but the 7-point line looks high. Stanford’s trend is to play close games, so give the underdog a look.
CLEMSON vs. NOTRE DAME
A movie sequel rarely tops the original, and this season’s first Clemson-Notre Dame duel was arguably the best game of the season to date. The Fighting Irish won 47-40 in double overtime Nov. 7 after senior quarterback Ian Book capped a dramatic 91-yard drive with a tying 4-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds left in regulation. Notre Dame’s win as a 5.5-point home underdog sets the stage for the sequel, which might not live up to the hype yet could never be as bad as “Caddyshack II.” Something was missing in the teams’ first meeting — Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who figures to be the star of this show. With Lawrence sidelined by COVID-19, freshman D.J. Uiagalelei passed for 439 yards and two touchdowns. Uiagalelei was not the reason the Tigers came up short. Clemson’s defense allowed 518 total yards and its star running back, Travis Etienne, was limited to a season-low 28 yards on 18 carries. Book triggered the Irish attack by accounting for 377 total yards (310 passing, 67 rushing), and freshman Kyren Williams carried 23 times for 140 yards and three touchdowns, including a 65-yard run in the first minute. The Tigers were beat up with defensive injuries at the time but are closer to full strength now. Lawrence returned to start the last two games and completed 64.4% of his passes for 598 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson outscored Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech by a combined 97-27. The Irish avoided potential flat spots on the road by following the Clemson upset with double-digit wins at Boston College and North Carolina. The ACC made a business decision by giving Clemson and Notre Dame byes last week and advancing both teams to the league title game. If the Tigers and Irish each claim spots in the four-team playoff, they could meet for a third time. Clemson is favored by 10.5 to 11 points, and oddsmakers inflated the line based on the popular expectation that the Tigers will win the rematch with Lawrence leading the way. Notre Dame is a likely playoff team even with a loss, although a bad showing in a blowout could change things. The Irish defense is legit, so the underdog should put up a good fight.
ALABAMA vs. FLORIDA
Only one team in this SEC title game has national-championship hopes and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, and that team is no longer Florida. The Gators were victims of one of the season’s most stunning upsets Saturday when 23-point underdog LSU pulled off a 37-34 win with a third-string freshman quarterback making his first start. Florida’s Kyle Trask passed for 474 yards and two touchdowns but was intercepted twice in a crushing defeat. It’s a difficult result to explain, yet it’s certainly possible the Gators were caught looking ahead to Alabama, which continues to roll and has won each of its 10 games by 15 points or more. The Crimson Tide whipped LSU 55-17 on Dec. 5 and just wiped out Arkansas 52-3. Alabama opened as a 12-point favorite over Florida last week, but the line has ballooned to 16.5 and 17 after the Gators’ recent poor performance. Is the line move an overreaction? It’s tough for any bettors, sharps or squares, to fade a Tide team that is 8-2 ATS and has covered seven straight games with ease. Alabama coach Nick Saban’s defense has allowed a total of 36 points in the last five games. Mac Jones, who has completed 76.4% of his passes with 27 touchdowns and three interceptions, enters the week as the Heisman favorite. His No. 1 target is DeVonta Smith, a speedster who has 83 receptions and 15 touchdowns. Jones and Smith will probably connect for several big plays against Florida’s suspect pass defense. The ground attack is another way for the Tide to demoralize defenses, with Najee Harris rushing for 5.9 yards per carry and 22 touchdowns. Trask is the type of quarterback who makes a 17-point underdog attractive, but he will be facing a dominant defense and must trade shots with Jones and the nation’s most explosive offense. It’s a tall task for Trask, and it’s a guessing game to predict Florida’s emotional state after the flop against LSU. These teams have not met since the SEC title game in 2016, when the Gators were 23.5-point dogs and Saban won the mismatch 54-16. Saban is a cash machine, so most bettors will probably pay the increased tax to back Alabama.
BOISE STATE vs. SAN JOSE STATE
Using an attacking defense and a relentless running game, San Jose State continues to stack up wins for coach Brent Brennan. The Spartans are not 6-0 by using smoke and mirrors. It looked as if the Spartans were headed for a humbling loss Friday in Las Vegas, where Nevada led 20-7 late in the first half and threatened to tack on another score. A short field-goal miss started the Wolf Pack’s downfall. Shamar Garrett opened the second half with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and San Jose outscored Nevada 23-0 after the break to win and advance to the Mountain West title game, which will be played on the same Sam Boyd Stadium field in Vegas. Location familiarity should be an advantage for the Spartans, who will be underdogs for the fourth time this season. Circa Sports opened Boise State -8 before the line dropped to -6.5. The teams were scheduled to meet Nov. 28 in Boise, but the game was canceled at the last minute because of COVID-19. The Broncos were 11-point favorites in the game that never happened. San Jose’s Nick Starkel passed for 306 yards and two touchdowns last week to outduel Nevada quarterback Carson Strong. Tyler Nevens rushed for 184 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown, as the Spartans outgained the Wolf Pack 506-398. On a snowy Saturday night in Wyoming, the Broncos held the Cowboys to 146 total yards and did just enough to grind out a 17-9 win. Sophomore quarterback Hank Bachmeier made his fourth consecutive start after an early-season injury sidelined him in Boise’s blowout loss to Brigham Young. It’s tempting to follow the Cinderella story and take the Spartans, but + 7 is the buy price and there’s not much point-spread value after the line adjustment to 6.5.
MINNESOTA at WISCONSIN
Minnesota and Wisconsin have the longest uninterrupted streak of playing each other in the FBS. The programs have faced off each year since 1906. These two were supposed to meet three weeks ago for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but COVID-19 problems at Minnesota forced a postponement. Despite not playing for three weeks and missing 33 players due to COVID protocols and injuries, Minnesota went on the road last weekend and beat Nebraska 24-17 as a 9-point underdog. The Gophers were playing their first game without star WR Rashod Bateman, who opted out Nov. 25, and were down to four defensive linemen and two tight ends. Big Ten rushing leader Mohamed Ibrahim was on and off the field after sliding into a fence after a run in the first half. He still ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Badgers continued to struggle on offense. For the third straight game they managed seven or fewer points, falling 28-7 at Iowa for their third loss in a row. Wisconsin gained 225 yards, just 56 on the ground. The defense was solid again, but the offense went 4-for-18 on third down and 1-for-4 on fourth down. Quarterback Graham Mertz continued to struggle with accuracy and read progressions. Nevertheless, Circa Sports opened Wisconsin -14, but the money has come for Minnesota, and the Badgers are now laying just -11.5. The Gophers are expected to get several players back from COVID protocols. Despite its struggles, Wisconsin is the better club but lacks playmakers on offense, and it is fair to wonder about the team’s mindset.
NORTHWESTERN vs. OHIO STATE
In an expected move, the Big Ten voted to waive its six-game requirement and allow Ohio State to represent the East despite playing only five games. The Buckeyes will face West champion Northwestern. The conference realized Ohio State was its only chance to make the College Football Playoff and reap the financial rewards. The Buckeyes’ rivalry game vs. Michigan was canceled, but they remained fourth in the CFP rankings, and winning the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis should keep them there. This game will be a rematch of the 2018 title game, when the Buckeyes rolled 45-24. Northwestern concluded its regular season with a 28-10 victory and cover over Illinois to claim the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the sixth straight year. The Wildcats ran 70 plays and 58 were on the ground as they tallied 411 yards (7.1 ypc). Northwestern’s defense ranks No. 2 in the FBS for scoring at 14.6 ppg. The Wildcats win by keeping the scores low, but that will be a challenge against a potent Ohio State offense that has not scored fewer than 38 points in any game. Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey has given Northwestern some stability, but the unit still lacks the ability to make big plays in the passing game. The Wildcats rank 106th in passing yards per game at 180.9 and have only two pass plays of 30 or more yards. Northwestern will likely need takeaways to stay in this one, but it is very proficient at forcing turnovers and has 12 interceptions in seven games. Only Indiana has a higher average in that category, and the Hoosiers forced three interceptions from Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields several weeks ago. Circa Sports opened Ohio State -20, and the line has danced between 20 and 20.5. The total has taken a bit of a dip from the opener of 60 down to 57, with early bettors considering the stout Northwestern defense plus potential early rust from an Ohio State offense that had an unexpected week off and was missing three offensive line starters last time out.
OKLAHOMA vs. IOWA STATE
While the Big 12 is out of the College Football Playoff, a New Year’s Six bowl bid will be on the line as Oklahoma and Iowa State meet in the conference championship game. It’s a rematch of their Oct. 3 meeting in Ames, where the Cyclones upset the Sooners 37-30 as 7.5-point home underdogs. Oklahoma had its annual goal of making the CFP, but a 1-2 start put that goal out of reach. Nonetheless, the Sooners have won six straight to reach the league title game for the eighth time in nine years (2006-10; 2017-20). Iowa State is making its first appearance in the game. In fact, Iowa State can win its first conference title in football since 1912, when the Cyclones won the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Matt Campbell has taken the program to a higher level with a combination of his recruits and those of predecessor Paul Rhoads. The Cyclones have 13 fifth-year seniors, while Oklahoma has just three. The Sooners had covered five in a row before a sloppy 27-14 win at Baylor two weeks ago. Iowa State has covered three in a row, including blowouts of Kansas State and West Virginia sandwiched around a win at Texas. Circa Sports opened Oklahoma -7, but support has come for Iowa State, and the Sooners are now just 5-point favorites. Oklahoma is the more experienced program on the big stage, but Iowa State is the more veteran team. However, will the moment be too big? Or has Campbell finally cemented the program on a different level?
TEXAS A&M at TENNESSEE
While Alabama and Florida will battle for the SEC championship in Atlanta, No. 5 Texas A&M continues to lurk on the edge of the College Football Playoff. However, the Aggies will not only need to keep winning but will likely need at least one domino to fall to rise into the top four. Should Clemson or Ohio State be upset in their title games or Notre Dame get blown out in the rematch against Clemson, Texas A&M could come in through the back door. Unlike the other CFP contenders, the Aggies do not put up video-game numbers, but they do play solid fundamental football, which is why they even have a shot at the CFP after an early blowout loss at Alabama. Tennessee is looking to conclude a disappointing 3-6 season on a positive note. Coach Jeremy Pruitt is rumored to be on the hot seat, and the collar seemed to get a bit tighter as Auburn let go of Gus Malzahn and paid him a $21 million buyout. Tennessee’s offense has improved over its last two games since Pruitt has split the reps at quarterback between freshman Harrison Bailey and sophomore J.T. Shrout. The Volunteers finally broke a six-game losing streak with a 42-17 victory at winless Vanderbilt. Circa Sports opened Texas A&M -14, and that is where the spread has primarily remained. In this week’s CFP landscape, style points are unlikely to help Texas A&M. If the chalk in the top conference championship games (Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State) can hold serve, the Aggies are likely to settle for a New Year’s Six bid.
UAB at MARSHALL
The regular season lasted a week too long for Marshall, which took an undefeated record into December before getting rudely upended by sneaky-good Rice. It was humbling, too, as the 20-0 whitewash was the first time the Thundering Herd had been blanked since Toledo did it 42-0 in 2000. Perhaps it figured, as Marshall had danced around four COVID-19 postponements in a disjointed season that went better than expected for coach Doc Holliday. Holliday’s best early move was going with redshirt freshman QB Grant Wells, who was more than serviceable all season until running into Rice and throwing five picks. The price gives us pause, however, partly because Wells was so atrocious the last time we saw him but also because UAB has been so combative for coach Bill Clark, who might deserve a call from Auburn after steering the Blazers to their fourth straight bowl. UAB was not the point-spread force it has been in recent seasons, covering just two of eight, but that was mostly because the oddsmakers have caught up with Clark and routinely forced his team to overcome considerable spread hurdles. The challenge will be to dent a Herd defense that allowed the fewest ppg in the nation (11) and ranked second in rushing defense. The man to do it might be QB Tyler Johnston, participating in his third Conference USA title game in a row after passing for 217 yards and two TDs with no picks in beating the same Rice team last week that shut out the Herd. It would help the Blazers if RB Spencer Brown (740 yards and 10 TDs) is available after COVID issues, but we like the experience edge UAB has at QB with Johnston, especially as Wells’ confidence could be jarred after his horrific effort vs. Rice.
BALL STATE vs. BUFFALO
While it’s nice to be back in the Mid-American Conference title game and likely headed to a decent bowl, Buffalo is a bit worried that shrewd coach Lance Leipold, who has sustained the Bulls as a force in the MAC, will likely be targeted by suitors from Power Five schools. Leipold already is said to be on the short list at Illinois after Lovie Smith’s firing last weekend. In the meantime, Leipold’s team ran roughshod through the MAC and didn’t come close to losing in five games, with the only spread blemish an eased-up 25-point win over 31½-point dog Bowling Green. In fact, no foe came closer than 19 against the Bulls, who ran through the opposition like some of Tom Osborne’s old Nebraska teams. RB Jaret Patterson gained national attention for his 406 yards in a 70-point explosion Nov. 28 vs. Kent State. With 1,025 rushing yards and 18 TDs in just five games, Patterson is only part of a slashing 1-2 combo with Kevin Marks, who has almost 2,400 yards rushing in his career. All this running has made life easier for QB Kyle Vantrease, who hasn’t had to do much more than hand off but has found time to pass for a bit more than 2,000 yards and 14 TDs with just three picks in 13 career starts. Ball State will give it a go, however, with gunslinger QB Drew Plitt, who has passed for 4,592 yards and 37 TDs in the last two seasons. However, bowling-ball RB Caleb Huntley (5.5 ypc) has opted out, leaving the heavy lifting to bruising sophomore Tye Evans (4.5 ypc). All in all, we are reluctant to buck Buffalo and Leipold, who has fashioned a 30-13-3 spread mark the last three-plus seasons.
AIR FORCE at ARMY
Here’s a new experience for Army — playing a game immediately after facing blood rival Navy. Throw in the fact the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is on the line and you can see the psychological dilemma for coach Jeff Monken, who will have to do his best Vince Lombardi imitation to get his troops at a similar fever pitch this week. None of that bothers Air Force, which will relish the chance to be more emotionally primed than the Black Knights. Trips to Michie also haven’t much bothered the Falcons, who have won outright in eight and covered in nine of their last 10 visits. After a bit of uncertainty at the outset of this truncated season, Troy Calhoun has found some stability in sophomore Haaziq Daniels, who appears a competent option QB and able to sneak throws downfield. Recent thumping wins over New Mexico and Utah State also suggest Air Force is on the ascent, with the progress of QB Daniels one reason. Daniels will have to be good because the Army defense is rock-ribbed, ranking third in national scoring and fourth in overall defense, though a forgiving schedule has helped. But Calhoun’s defense ranks eighth nationally in total defense. Like last week’s Army-Navy game, this matchup has gone Under the last six years, so that might even be a featured recommendation this week as the clock will move with few stoppages due to incomplete passes. We suspect Air Force will bring home the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2016.
TULSA at CINCINNATI
We were supposed to get a preview of this American Athletic Conference title game last weekend at Tulsa, but the matchup was canceled due to COVID concerns in the Cincinnati program. So these two simply go right to the league title game at Nippert Stadium without a prelim. The Bearcats have had almost a month between games because Temple also canceled, and the last time Cincy was on the field was Nov. 21 at UCF. Could the Bearcats be rusty? And have they lost some of their edge after winning eight in a row? Dual-threat QB Desmond Ridder has been a consistent force all season and might rate the edge on Golden Hurricane counterpart Zach Smith, who returned from injury two weeks ago at Navy but was not particularly sharp, hitting only 10 of 25 passes. The defense will also be tough for Smith to crack, especially with Cincy ranking among the nation’s leaders in passing efficiency (second), points (fifth at 15 ppg) and overall (11th). But we’re not overly interested in laying this many points to a remarkably combative Tulsa team that has rallied from way behind to pull out wins and hasn’t lost outright since the opener at Oklahoma State, which the Golden Hurricane led into the fourth quarter. Tulsa’s form of resistance makes it an appealing recommendation, with several rallies and improbable wins. A 6-1 straight-up and point-spread mark confirms Tulsa is for real.
LOUISIANA at COASTAL CAROLINA
That was a super hoagie of a sandwich spot Coastal Carolina survived last week at Troy, a week after a rousing intersectional win in the battle of the unbeatens vs. BYU and a week before this Sun Belt title game in Conway, S.C. Cool freshman QB Grayson McCall was called on to bail out the Chanticleers after Troy forged a late lead, marching Coastal 75 yards in just 45 seconds to the winning TD without the aid of a timeout. McCall is not the only threat, as slashing CJ Marable has danced for 844 yards rushing and 12 TDs despite playing banged up at times. Recent form suggests he’s back, with 409 yards rushing and seven TDs in the last three games. Still, this is no automatic play on the 11-0 Chanticleers, especially as they’ve covered just three of their last nine as home chalk. ULL is 9-3 vs. the points in its last 12 as a dog, including covering five of the last six chances as a road dog. The Ragin’ Cajuns have plenty of firepower of their own, with QB Levi Lewis (2,128 yards passing, 17 TD passes) rushing for 310 yards and five scores while handing off to a trio of RBs combining for 1,743 yards and 17 TDs. After being frustrated the last two seasons in the Sun Belt title game against Appalachian State, Louisiana knows the ropes, and perhaps the third time is the charm for coach Billy Napier’s team.
NORTH TEXAS vs. APPALACHIAN STATE
In any other year, North Texas would not be going bowling with a 4-5 record, but this is a bizarre year. The NCAA normally requires teams to finish .500 in the regular season to be bowl-eligible, but the rule was rescinded because of the pandemic-riddled season. The Mean Green will head to the Myrtle Beach Bowl, their fourth bowl in five seasons for coach Seth Littrell. Littrell is 0-3 in bowl games but oversees one of the top offenses in college football. North Texas ranks seventh in the nation in total offense at 515 ypg and 27th in scoring at 35.1 ppg. The Mean Green topped Texas-El Paso 45-43 last week as Austin Aune passed for 302 yards and five touchdowns. Jaelon Darden had eight receptions for 173 yards and four TDs. Darden, who has 19 touchdown catches this season, announced Sunday he plans to declare for the NFL draft and sit out against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers (8-3) lost to three quality opponents — Coastal Carolina, Louisiana and Marshall — and deserve to be favorites against North Texas, which will miss Darden’s playmaking ability. Zac Thomas leads a rather pedestrian offense for Appalachian State, but its defense has allowed only 19.3 ppg, making this a clash of styles. The stronger defensive team is likely to win and extend Littrell’s losing streak in bowls. The inaugural Myrtle Beach Bowl will be played on the campus of Coastal Carolina, so the location favors the Mountaineers, who have won their bowl games in each of the last five years.
NEVADA vs. TULANE
Instead of earning a spot in the Mountain West title game and the chance to claim a trophy, Nevada (6-2) gets a sack of potatoes at the Idaho Potato Bowl. Sophomore quarterback Carson Strong has enjoyed an outstanding season for the Wolf Pack, passing for 2,587 yards and 22 touchdowns, yet there was nothing to like about his team’s collapse in the regular-season finale against San Jose State. Strong was throwing into the end zone with a shot to put Nevada up 27-7 at halftime, but the Wolf Pack settled for a short field-goal attempt that was a misfire, and then everything fell apart. Nevada lost four fumbles in the second half while getting outscored 23-0 in a 30-20 loss to the Spartans in Las Vegas. Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell is seeing his name tossed into the mix for big job openings, but his immediate task will be to refocus his depressed team for a minor bowl against a dangerous Tulane offense. Green Wave coach Willie Fritz is another hot coaching candidate who’s reportedly in the running for the Auburn opening. Fritz is shooting for his third straight winning season and third consecutive bowl win. Tulane (6-5) wrapped its regular season Dec. 5 with a 35-21 victory over Memphis as freshman Michael Pratt passed for 254 yards and two touchdowns while running for two more scores. With two efficient quarterbacks and a plethora of playmakers on the field for both teams, this matchup has the potential to turn into a shootout. Assuming Fritz is still coaching the Green Wave, he will want to put on a show and should have a few tricks up his sleeve.
CENTRAL FLORIDA vs. BYU
The betting public fell in love with Brigham Young and quarterback Zach Wilson early in the season, but the relationship has hit the skids the last two weeks. The Cougars (10-1) were double-digit favorites in a loss at Coastal Carolina, then failed to cover in a 28-14 victory over San Diego State. Wilson passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns — giving him 30 passing TDs for the season — against the Aztecs, who held the Cougars to their third-lowest point total of the year. Wilson passed Taysom Hill for No. 11 in all-time passing yards at BYU with 7,234 in three seasons. Wilson is 1-1 in bowls, beating Western Michigan two years ago and losing to Hawaii last year. The Cougars hoped to land in a New Year’s Six bowl but will settle for a trip to Florida before Christmas for the Boca Raton Bowl. Motivation will be a question mark, as is the case for many bowl teams, but the matchup against Central Florida should spark the interest of BYU’s players. UCF (6-3) has won two of its last three bowl games, including an upset of Auburn three years ago. The Knights also have a high-powered offense (44.3 ppg) that is capable of trading shots with the Cougars in an entertaining shootout. Wilson’s numbers are similar to those of UCF’s Dillon Gabriel, who has passed for 3,353 yards and 30 touchdowns with four interceptions this season. Outside of the four-team playoff, this quarterback duel will be about as good as it gets in the bowl season. Picking the right side is tricky, and though the total is sky-high, bet on a lot of points being scored.