Saturday Six-Pack: Welcome, October Football

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Allow me to preface the first Saturday Six-Pack of October with this inscrutable fact: October owns.

I spent this past Sunday as I do every Oct. 1, setting up Halloween decorations around the homestead. It’s tradition in my household to add something to the collection every year, and for the first time, my son picked.

My love of October has gone through various changes incarnations. As a youngster, I loved picking out a costume and mapping a trick-or-treating route. That morphed into binging on horror films and causing a ruckus with friends as a teenager, which became a whole different but equally fun kind of debauchery in college.

And then there’s the sports scene. March has the single greatest event with the NCAA Tournament, but October’s the best month for sports with the MLB Playoffs, start of the NBA season and college football hitting its stride with conference play.

Strange as it may seem, I fondly remember the Chicago Cubs tearing my heart out in 2003: Without such heartache then, a World Series championship in 2016 may not have felt as gratifying. In the same fashion, a heartbreaking college football Saturday in this autumn days might be the catalyst for great memories years later.

At least, that’s how you can spin it to yourself if you have to endure a gut-wrenching loss in this pivotal juncture of the season.

2017 RECORD

Last Week: 6-0, 5-1 ATS

Overall: 22-19, 24-14 ATS

Week 4 was dismal for the Six-Pack, going 4-2 against the number but 0-6 in predicting winners. The first perfect slate of the season in Week 5 provided a nice bounce-back, and pulled the season-long record back above .500.

THE SATURDAY SIX-PACK: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale

A toast to all the haters of pumpkin-flavored whatever. I enjoy certain controversial sundries of October, like candy corn and the assortment of pumpkin offerings: pumpkin coffee, pumpkin muffins and pumpkin beer.

All this month in the Saturday Six-Pack, I am paying homage to the most divisive of beer styles. Up first: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale.

DUKE at VIRGINIA

Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT
TV: ACC Network
Line: Virginia -2.5

In one of the more surprising twists of the early season, Duke and Virginia are jockeying for bowl positioning. Were that not odd enough, the Blue Devils and Cavaliers have two of the more intriguing quarterbacks in the ACC between Daniel Jones and Kurt Benkert.

Now, a David Cutcliffe-coached quarterback thriving isn’t out of the norm. And indeed, Duke’s Jones has shown flashes of breakout potential, as Shane Mettlen suggested in his ACC Notebook.

The real surprise, however, is the play of Virginia’s Kurt Benkert. The East Carolina transfer tore his ACL immediately ahead of the 2015 season, then exited the Pirates ship with the unexpected firing of head coach Ruffin McNeill. Benkert started for the Cavaliers last season and put up respectable numbers: 21 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions with 2,552 yards. The Wahoos’ dismal 2-10 finish cast a pall on his promising efforts, though.

With Virginia off to a 3-1 start, including a rout at Boise State their last time out, the Cavaliers look much improved. And Benkert individually is dealing, boasting the nation’s best touchdown-to-interception ratio at 10-to-1, and completing two-thirds of his attempts.

Duke’s been good against the pass, holding opponents to 48 percent completions. The Blue Devils also have more interceptions (8) than passing touchdowns allowed (7). Virginia needs the offense that showed up at Boise State, and not the version that appeared against Indiana, when Benkert managed just 3.9 yards per attempt.

Coming in fresh and confident, I like the Cavaliers to get to a shocking 4-1. With an October stretch of North Carolina, Boston College and Pitt, Duke looks like the highest hurdle between the Wahoos going into November atop the ACC Coastal.

PREDICTION: Virginia 31, Duke 24

No. 23 WEST VIRGINIA at No. 8 TCU

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
TV: FS1
Line: TCU -13

TCU went from completely overlooked beyond a handful of knowledge Big 12 sources, to one of the most buzzed-about teams in college football following the Frogs’ win at Oklahoma State two weeks ago.

TCU has now dominated two prominent opponents on the road, and done so in completely different fashion. Against Arkansas, the Horned Frogs defense locked down anything and everything the Razorbacks attempted. At Oklahoma State, the TCU offense ran wild: 11-of-19 third-down conversions, 253 yards rushing and 44 points.

Gary Patterson appears to have his best team since the 2014 squad that contended for a College Football Playoff berth. The Frogs might be the best of the Big 12, but an always-treacherous road trip to Manhattan looms next week, and the game at Oklahoma on Nov. 11 suddenly feels like a championship-defining moment.

At least, that’s the case if TCU gets past West Virginia. It’s odd to overlook a Top 25-ranked opponent, but West Virginia’s had a tendency to start strong in September and fade by October. Last season’s quietly impressive run to 10 wins, a high-water mark for the program since moving to the Big 12, might be the indicator of the Mountaineers turning the corner.

That may be. But after a TCU defense featuring such playmakers as Ben Banogu, Ridwan Issahaku and Travin Howard limited Oklahoma State Heisman contender Mason Rudolph, Will Grier may have his work cut out for him.

PREDICTION: TCU 34, West Virginia 20

No. 13 MIAMI at FLORIDA STATE

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
TV: ESPN
Line: Miami -3

2009 marked the end of an era for Florida State football. Bobby Bowden, the man who elevated the previously struggling program from the depths of winless seasons to a national powerhouse, went on a farewell tour before handing the reins to Jimbo Fisher.

The Seminoles struggled in 2009, barely reaching a bowl game in order to keep the program’s streak of above-.500 finishes in tact. That year also marked the last time Florida State lost Miami.

Rarely does the coach-in-waiting thing work, but Fisher saw immediately results replacing the legend Bowden at Florida State. The Seminoles won ACC championships every year from 2012 through 2014, with a BCS title sandwiched between. Miami, on the other hand, has been struggling to recapture past glory.

The unofficial end of The U as The U arguably came against Florida State. The Hurricanes won a 16-14 nail-biter in the 2004 Orange Bowl, the penultimate victory in a six-game streak. First indications Miami was done as a national powerhouse also surfaced against Florida State, courtesy of a 10-7 snoozer in 2005 most notable for Brent Musburger’s lascivious discovery of Jenn Sterger and C.J. Perry — the latter of whom went on to become WWE manager Lana.

Alum Mark Richt’s return to Miami as head coach has restored some of the swagger, some of the defensive prowess that made the Hurricanes national championship contenders in the 1980s and early 2000s. Florida State entered this season with such aspirations, but losing Deondre Francois to injury Week 1 vs. Alabama and a home setback against NC State suggest Fisher’s facing the first quasi-rebuilding year of his career.

If Miami’s to end its seven-game losing streak to Florida State, it needs to happen Saturday.

Despite the freshman tendencies of quarterback James Blackman, exacerbated playing behind a porous offensive line (18 TFL allowed last week at Wake Forest), Florida State still has championship attributes. Chief among them: an incredible defensive front, which has limited opponents to just 3.35 yards per carry. Miami’s budding Heisman dark horse, Mark Walton, may find running lanes difficult.

Defense must set the tone for the Hurricanes. The front line of R.J. McIntosh, Trent Harris and Chad Thomas could tee off on Blackman, setting up the ‘Canes to win a field-position battle on which Wake Forest was unable to capitalize a week ago.

PREDICTION: Miami 20, Florida State 14

SMU at HOUSTON

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT
TV: CBS Sports Network
Line: Houston -6.5

This week’s installment of Remember When spotlighted the time Heisman winner Andre Ware played only a half, and Houston decimated post-Death Penalty SMU, 95-21.

Houston again has a Heisman contender on its roster, only now it’s defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Houston isn’t the type of squad to score 95 points in this era, either. In fact, the Cougars have just a touchdown more than that through four games on the 2017 season.

If a team in this American Athletic Conference is going to put up basketball point totals, it’s SMU. The Mustangs come in ranked No. 3 nationally in points per game at 48.2. Head coach Chad Morris, once the highest paid assistant in college football for his offensive acumen at Clemson, brought the same genius to Dallas. Behind quarterback Ben Hicks, who has 14 touchdown passes, and the rushing tandem of Ke’Mon Freeman and Xavier Jones, the Ponies are running.

Hicks lit up Houston last season, the quarterback’s coming-out party and the biggest win of the Morris era to date.

Setting another high-scoring pace behooves the Mustangs, but doing so against an Ed Oliver-led defense proves difficult. Texas Tech managed only 27 points, surviving a 27-24 contest for Houston’s only loss on the season. Arizona managed just 16.

In both games, and last week at Temple, Houston’s inability to move the ball effectively nearly cost the Cougars. The defense should again set the tone for UH, but offensive inconsistency should make this one competitive.

PREDICTION: Houston 28, SMU 24

MICHIGAN STATE at No. 7 MICHIGAN

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
TV: ABC
Line: Michigan -10

Big Brother finally got the best of his little bro last season, with Michigan beating Michigan State for the first time since a 12-10 grinder in 2012. Of course, the majority of Sparty’s opponents won last season.

Michigan State’s dramatically improved from a season ago, evident in last weekend’s win over a good Iowa team. Despite the Hawkeyes losing a couple of heartbreakers to East division opponents, I still like their chances of escaping the West, but I digress.

Anyway, Michigan State’s back to playing physical defense. In perhaps the greatest reflection of his coaching genius, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has a side that lost 10-of-11 starters from a season ago (!!!) playing some of the best football in the nation. The Wolverines are holding opponents to 13.5 points per game, and last time out, limited an improved Purdue offense to just 10.

Michigan State, which has typically flourished with running-back tandems carrying the offensive load for head coach Mark Dantonio, is led in rushing by quarterback Brian Lewerke. L.J. Scott has never quite produced at the level of Sparty’s 2015 Playoff season.

Similarly, Michigan’s offense…well…

The Wolverines have just four passing touchdowns in four games and five rushing scores. Against a defense like Michigan State’s the output should be paltry. A repeat of 2012 does not seem far-fetched.

PREDICTION: Michigan 14, Michigan State 10

STANFORD at No. 20 UTAH

Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET/7:15 p.m. PT
TV: FS1
Line: Stanford -4

Despite being the two closest Pac-12 programs in terms of style, Stanford and Utah have not played since 2014. The renewal of this series is a welcomed addition to the Pac-12 After Dark lineup. The MUSS should have Rice-Eccles rocking, as the always-outstanding Utah defense attempts to slow fast-gaining Heisman contender, Bryce Love.

Love exited September already over 1,000 yards rushing, rolling up 303 in a win against Arizona State. Utah’s been significantly better against the run than either UCLA or ASU — opponent against which Love totaled almost 600 yards — but the Utes have not been impenetrable.

Arizona managed 200 yards at a 4.8-per carry clip, almost double Utah’s season-long average against the rush. The Wildcats controlled that game in many respects, losing primarily because of an inability to pass effectively.

K.J. Costello entering the lineup with Keller Chryst injured seems to have revitalized Stanford offensively. The Stanford line needs to give Costello an operable pocket to establish enough of a passing threat to give Love breathing room.

Against a line with Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, that’s much easier said than done. In the same regard, Utah needs to buy its quarterback — whether that’s Troy Williams or Tyler Huntley — time to throw. Arizona, a team not known for its pass-rush acumen, made life difficult on the Utes quarterback.

Harrison Phillips and Co. could establish residency in the Utah backfield.

This one likely comes down to which offense can make a big play in the fourth quarter. I put my chips in with Bryce Love.

PREDICTION: Stanford 27, Utah 24