Saturday Six-Pack: College Football Midterms

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The 2017 college football season last weekend reached its midway point for many of the 130 teams in FBS. The remainder will be halfway through their slates by day’s end Saturday.

In college parlance, this time of year marks midterms. We have a sense now as to which programs are on course for an A-grade this season, and which need to put on a pot of coffee, chase it with Red Bull, and prepare for some all-night cram sessions.

The midpoint also provides a fitting time to reevaluate some preseason projections. First, the good!

TCU and Tulane were two of my surprise teams to watch. TCU is on course to win the Big 12, and at 3-2, Tulane is seeing immediate returns on hiring Willie Fritz. San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny headlined my breakout player candidates. Penny’s now a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.

As for the bad…

Oregon State was one of my surprise teams to watch, and Malik Zaire got a Heisman dark-horse shout out. Yikes.

They can’t all be winners, though the Saturday Six-Pack has been winning as of late.

2017 RECORD

Last Week: 3-3, 4-2 ATS

Overall: 25-22, 28-16 ATS

SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: Ballast Point Pumpkin Down

The Saturday Six-Pack’s month-long ode to pumpkin beers continues, this time with a Scottish Ale from Ballast Point. Originally a San Diego-owned local brewery, Ballast Point went national last year. A more readily available product has not yet impacted the quality.

No. 24 TEXAS TECH at WEST VIRGINIA

Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT
TV: ESPNU
Line: West Virginia -3.5

Geographically, Texas Tech and West Virginia are the two furthest Big 12 schools. As far as their football identities, however, the two feel like mirror images.

Both are known as the epicenter for offensive innovation, each reaching its peak in the latter half of the previous decade; West Virginia in 2007, Texas Tech the following year. They lost the head coaches responsible for that success, both of whom clashed with administration and boosters. Each has had success in the years since — more in West Virginia’s case than in Texas Tech’s — but neither has reached the heights of a decade ago. The Red Raiders and Mountaineers both took Big 12 front-runners to the brink — Oklahoma State in Tech’s case, TCU’s in West Virginia’s — but each ultimately fell short.

That makes this one pivotal for remaining near that upper tier of the Big 12, and falling back to the lower half, where each program has pretty consistently resided over the last half-decade.

This matchup should be exciting: Nic Shimonek and Will Grier are putting up some of the most impressive numbers of any quarterbacks in college football, with Shimonek amassing 1,811 yards passing (third-most in FBS) and 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions.

PREDICTION: West Virginia 42, Texas Tech 35

No. 12 OKLAHOMA vs. TEXAS

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
TV: ESPN
Line: Oklahoma -9

One week after Oklahoma’s earth-shaking upset loss to Iowa State, the Sooners find themselves somewhere they have not been in ages: Looking up at rival Texas in the Big 12 Conference standings.

Yes, with a pair of close wins over Iowa State and Kansas State, Tom Herman’s Longhorns join TCU atop the Big 12 standings. Anarchy rules in the Cotton Bowl!

Todd Orlando’s defense has improved mightily, and immediately, since surrendering 51 points to Maryland Week 1. Texas held San Jose State scoreless, limited Iowa State — which notched 38 at Oklahoma — to just 7, and the 61 points USC and Kansas State totaled came in a pair of double-overtime games.

It’s not necessarily surprising, so long as you detach yourself from Week 1. The Texas defense is loaded with four-and-five-star talent like Poona Ford, Malik Jefferson and DeShon Elliott, and Orlando introduced new looks that have produced results.

Texas already limited one preseason Heisman candidate quarterback, keeping USC’s Sam Darnold in check for much of the Sept. 16 meeting in Los Angeles. But the Horns also limited the USC run game that night, which might prove difficult against the multifaceted Oklahoma backfield. Both Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams are averaging around 75 yards per game. It’s not quite Joe Mixon/Samaje Perine levels of production, but it’s enough to keep the defense honest against Baker Mayfield.

So long as Mayfield avoids turnovers — and he hasn’t thrown an interception this season — the Texas offense will struggle to score enough to keep pace with Oklahoma.

PREDICTION: Oklahoma 34, Texas 21

GEORGIA TECH at No. 11 MIAMI

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
TV: ABC
Line: Miami -6.5

Prior to the season in a Patreon-exclusive podcast, I tabbed one of these two teams to win the ACC Coastal. I won’t explicitly state which, but I offer this clue: Miami was never won the division since moving to the ACC from the Big East. Infer what you will (or subscribe!).

Georgia Tech should really be 4-0, having absolutely dominated Tennessee on Labor Day night. A handful of misfires in that one, coupled with Paul Johnson’s refusal to play it safe in overtime, resulted in a loss. The Yellow Jackets have been rolling since, albeit against one FCS opponent and two of the ACC’s weaker opponents. A cancelled matchup with UCF would offer a lot more insight into the true performance of a defense allowing just 11.3 points per game over its last three.

Still, the Wreck’s defensive front deserves praise. Anree Saint-Amour and Antonio Simmons combine for eight tackles and five sacks on the season. Tech needs every bit of pressure it can generate on Miami quarterback Malik Rosier, whose heroics at Florida State compensated for the loss of budding star running back Mark Walton.

Walton’s absence for the remainder of the season casts a pall on The U’s pursuit of an ACC championship, leaving the bulk of responsibility on Rosier and the defense. The good news for the ‘Canes: The defense has been fantastic, limiting opponents to 17.3 points per game and just 3.8 yards per rush. The latter yield will be the key to a Miami win: limiting Georgia Tech’s option attack.

Per usual, Georgia Tech ranks right near the top of rushing offenses in college football at 396 yards per game. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall has been a wizard captaining the option, averaging 130.75 yards per game. Marshall will keep Tech right there, but Miami’s defense should squeak out enough to give Rosier and the offense an opportunity to win another thriller.

PREDICTION: Miami 27, Georgia Tech 23

TEXAS A&M at FLORIDA

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT
TV: ESPN2
Line: Florida -3

This evening SEC encounter is most noteworthy for Florida debuting some absolutely trash uniforms, as well as baseball caps that would look quite at home at Florida-Georgia Line concert. Also, the point spread favors Florida, which I find utterly staggering. The Gators have not looked particularly good. They managed no offensive scores in a blowout loss to Michigan, needed minor miracles to beat Tennessee and Kentucky; things appeared to start clicking against Vanderbilt, with Lamical Perine and Malik Davis combining for five rushing touchdowns.

But then LSU came to town, riding a fiery train wreck down the rails with Ed Orgeron battling a dissenter on his radio show, and the Gators scored just 16 points in a loss.

Texas A&M is also coming in off a loss, but there’s more positive to glean in taking Alabama — which had been an Eater of Worlds heading into last week’s matchup in College Station — down to the final play, than there is in losing to a team fresh off a defeat to Troy (which managed just 8 points in a loss to South Alabama on Wednesday).

Vultures circle Kevin Sumlin in the form of reports James Franklin is being pursued for a job not yet vacant. I’ll have more thoughts on this at The Open Man later, but it’s somewhat staggering given Sumlin has never won fewer than eight games in his tenure at A&M. The Aggies are currently 4-2, losing a one-point heartbreaker after injuries mounted and a one-possession decision to the best team in college football.

Establishing the run against a Florida defense allowing 4.3 yards per carry shouldn’t be as challenging as it was against Alabama. Couple that with Florida’s offensive inconsistency, and Texas A&M will pull to 5-2 despite the buzzards overhead.

PREDICTION: Texas A&M 31, Florida 24

UTAH at No. 13 USC

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
TV: ABC
Line: USC -12.5

USC quarterback Sam Darnold made his starting debut a little more than a year ago in a 31-27 loss at Utah. Had Troy Williams not led the Utes on a 15-play, 93-yard drive, culminating in a strike to Tim Murphy for a game-winning touchdown, the Trojans would have played for the 2016 Pac-12 Championship.

In the 15 games since, USC is 14-1. Recent struggles aside, Darnold was excellent during that run, too. Throwing three touchdown passes and incorporating a variety of new targets into the offense during last week’s 38-10 romp over Oregon State might be the catalyst that kick-starts Darnold back to 2016 levels. USC needs it against a stout Utah defense, keyed by a front seven that will challenge an injury-depleted Trojans offensive line.

Saturday’s prime-time ABC contest could became a war of attrition in that sense. Utah puts an outstanding defensive line against a USC offensive line without veteran Viane Talamaivao, but the Trojans counter on the opposite side of the ball with an equally aggressive front.

Utah’s surprising inability to run as effectively this season as it had in years past exacerbates the inconsistencies of the “throw game,” as Kyle Whittingham likes to call it. Tyler Huntley and Darren Carrington were cooking somewhat, and Carrington remains one of the leading pass-catchers in college football. But USC’s deeper corps of receivers should make the difference in this one.

PREDICTION: USC 34, Utah 21

BOISE STATE at No. 19 SAN DIEGO STATE

Kickoff: 10:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. PT
TV: CBS Sports Network
Line: San Diego State -6.5

San Diego State head coach Rocky Long wasn’t interested in deeming this the most important game the Aztecs have played in a while — not when earlier dates this season against Arizona State, Stanford and Air Force all got similar billing.

OK, so they’re all important. But while winning each of the past two Mountain West Conference championships, San Diego State has not gone through Boise State, which Long noted is the league’s “brand name” team. Drawing the Broncos, with the Aztecs sporting a Top 20 ranking and in pursuit of both a third MWC title and potential New Year’s Six bowl bid, just might up the ante a bit.

Boise State has been excellent defending the run this season, and San Diego State excels going to the ground. Rashaad Penny’s a burgeoning Heisman candidate with his six 100-plus-yard games in six outings this season. But the emergence of change-of-pace back Juwan Washington as a big-play threat in recent weeks, including a kickoff return for a touchdown and a 96-yard performance last week at UNLV, establishes a new element to the San Diego State offense.

The Boise State offense has been inconsistent, and quarterback Brett Rypien has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. With San Diego State’s secondary thriving on takeaways, this could be the pivotal point of this contest.

PREDICTION: San Diego State 24, Boise State 17