Like Hank Scorpio on a video chat with the UN, this college football Saturday stands before the Playoff in possession of the Doomsday Device.
Last weekend featured an incredible seven matchups between Top 25 teams. The Saturday Six-Pack is once again stocked entirely with showdowns between ranked opponents. Last time, such a slate all but eliminated an entire conference from the College Football Playoff conversation. Consider the Big Ten the 59th Street Bridge.
With so many marquee matchups once again lining the Saturday slate, it’s possible — likely, even — that college football’s chaos has only just begun. Five of the Top 10 teams in the College Football Playoff play in Six-Pack games, with a sixth, Alabama, also involved in a ranked matchup. The echoes of 2007 have reverberated at various times through the 2017 season; it’s time now for the Doomsday Device to flip into action and bring about uncertain to the championship picture.
Speaking of chaos, last week was the worst for the Six-Pack by a considerable margin. Both straight-up and ATS picks remain above .500 for the season, and since I’m not fraudulently shilling picks for shady websites, I will gladly trade my record for Playoff madness. Be forewarned.
Last Week: 1-5, 1-5 ATS
Overall: 40-31, 39-29 (note: FCS games previewed early in the season had no lines)
SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: Green Flash Hop Head Red
This Saturday’s Six-Pack is, in fact, a four-pack, in honor of the College Football Playoff. Four teams, four bottles. GET IT?
Anyway, Green Flash is another San Diego-based brewery — this part of the world is a mecca for independent brewing — and Hop Head Red combines IPA bitterness with red ale malt. It’s a nice combination and makes for a good late-autumn beer. The red coloration also represents the crimson about to pour throw the streets of college football, because chaos is on its way.
No. 12 MICHIGAN STATE at No. 13 OHIO STATE
Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT
Line: Ohio State -16.5
Big Ten East foes meet off diametric opposite results last weekend. Michigan State delivered the first of what one can only hope to be several Playoff-shaking upsets in the month of November, stifling Saquon Barkley en route to a rain-delayed victory over Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ Playoff aspirations were already tenuously positioned, losing the week prior in a rollicking, fourth-quarter comeback from Ohio State.
The Buckeyes seemed to have a relatively clear path to their third College Football Playoff in just four years of the system’s existence — then, Iowa happened. The Hawkeyes’ bludgeoning of the Buckeyes in Iowa City last week wasn’t necessarily the biggest upset of the season in terms of shock value, but it was by virtue of sheer dominance. Ohio State looked utterly hapless on both sides of the ball, and quarterback J.T. Barrett’s sudden ascent to Heisman Trophy contention halted as quickly as it restarted.
In the history of the Playoff, there are two prominent examples of teams back-dooring their way into the final four: Ohio State in 2014, jumping two different Big 12 programs in the final poll, and 2016, advancing despite not winning its conference (or division). If a team was a prime historical candidate for becoming the first two-game loser to make the field, it’s Urban Meyer’s bunch. And the Buckeyes have the opportunity to rehab their resume with marquee games against Michigan and Michigan State, as well as the Big Ten Championship Game opportunity those wins would provide.
Interestingly enough, Michigan State controls its own destiny by virtue of the Penn State win last week, and defeating Michigan last month. Sparty also has a resume remarkably similar to that of Ohio State: a conference loss to a Big Ten West opponent (not bad for the lesser division) and a non-conference defeat against a top Playoff contender. That’s where the similarities end, however.
Michigan State wins games keeping the score low. The Spartans’ offense is middling at best, despite quarterback Brian Lewerke coming off a 400-yard passing game against Penn State. I don’t see a repeat of that performance against the Buckeyes. Likewise, Ohio State struggled at Iowa with Barrett throwing four interceptions. While Michigan State has the defensive chops up front to generate pressure, I’m anticipating a bounce-back game from the Buckeye quarterback.
PREDICTION: OHIO STATE 31, MICHIGAN STATE 21
No. 15 OKLAHOMA STATE at No. 21 IOWA STATE
Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT
Line: Oklahoma State -6.5
Iowa State’s already proven to be a dream-wrecker this season, positioning both Oklahoma and TCU for elimination status this weekend. But the Cyclones’ legacy of futzing up national championship plans goes back further: There was the Seneca Wallace-led team’s defeat of Iowa in 2002, which factored into that season’s BCS plans. Then, in 2011, Oklahoma State had a manageable road to New Orleans and the BCS Championship Game before a mid-November trip to Ames changed that.
Memories of 2011 linger, with Oklahoma State still holding onto slim, but not necessarily dead Playoff chances. The Cowboys’ Bedlam loss to Oklahoma complicates the road to the final four, but Oklahoma State had an opportunity to win that game. Forcing a rematch in the stupid and unnecessary Big 12 Championship Game, Oklahoma State absolutely could win a mulligan. If enough things break right, Mike Gundy will finally get that national championship opportunity.
Breaking right starts with beating a Top 25 Iowa State, which is such a weird thing to type in the month of November and it not be in reference to Steve Prohm’s team. The Cyclones started slow a week ago at West Virginia; which, really, who can blame them? Rumor has it hotel showers in Morgantown dispense grain alcohol rather than water, and the beds on which visiting teams sleep are set on fire at 5 a.m. in lieu of a traditional wake-up call.
Returning home to Jack Trice Stadium and still holding onto a feasible path to the Big 12 Championship Game, Iowa State’s offense should come alive much earlier this week than it did last. Oklahoma State’s defense has been good against the run, holding opponents to below 3.5 yards per carry, but Cyclones running back David Montgomery is one of the nation’s best at finding yards after contact. Coupled with the defensive feistiness that held TCU in check and gave Oklahoma just enough trouble to spring an upset in Norman, Iowa State should rebound and stay on course for a surprise Big 12 title opportunity.
PREDICTION: IOWA STATE 33, OKLAHOMA STATE 30
No. 1 GEORGIA at No. 10 AUBURN
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: Georgia -2.5
It’s been awhile since I spotlighted a Georgia Bulldogs in the Saturday Six-Pack, so allow me to take this opportunity to apologize. My early-season forecast for Georgia as a team and Kirby Smart individually was way off; I expected the Bulldogs to be good on defense, boring and ineffective offensively, and slog their way to an SEC East by virtue of the division being so collectively terrible.
The SEC East is indeed still terrible; in fact, I would contend this year’s SEC East is collectively worse than 2015 or 2016, but at least has one great team in Georgia. And, yes, Georgia is great. I was wrong.
And, to that end, I do not anticipate a hiccup on the way to an inevitable clash of Student vs. Senpai between Kirby Smart and Nick Saban at next month’s SEC Championship. Auburn’s proven itself insomuch as the Tigers took Clemson to the wire in Death Valley early in the season, whereas Georgia went to Notre Dame and won that game. The Bulldogs have dismantled all comers since, the exception being a somewhat competitive game with South Carolina last week. The defense is predictably salty, the run game is powerful and mean, and quarterback Jake Fromm is a damn revelation.
Ironically, given Gus Malzahn’s track record at the position, quarterback play tips the scale in Georgia’s favor against Auburn. Jarrett Stidham has been fine for the Tigers, certainly better than any of the previous successors to Nick Marshall playing on the Plains the last two seasons. Stidham was downright fantastic last week, carving up Texas A&M for three touchdowns on 20-of-27 passing. But Georgia’s defense is significantly better against the pass than A&M, so a performance more comparable to Stidham’s nightmare game against LSU seems likelier than repeating his lights-out showing in College Station.
With Georgia’s defense holding opponents to 3.06 yards per carry and 89 rushing yards per game, Auburn’s Kam Martin and Kerryon Johnson may find establishing the ground attack a futile endeavor.
PREDICTION: GEORGIA 28, AUBURN 21
No. 20 IOWA at No. 8 WISCONSIN
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: Wisconsin -12.5
Wisconsin is undefeated, but doubt follows the Big Ten’s most clear hope for a College Football Playoff berth into its first truly marquee matchup of the season. The Badgers have followed the Wisconsin football script to a T along the way to a perfect first two months, combining stifling defense (13.3 points allowed per game) with a prolific rushing attack, manned by a Heisman Trophy contender (freshman Jonathan Taylor).
Missing from Wisconsin’s resume, however, are substantive wins. The victory over Northwestern on Sept. 30 looks much more impressive than it did at the time, but thus far, the Wildcats are Wisconsin’s benchmark. That’s not great when compared to fellow Playoff contenders like Oklahoma, which won at Ohio State and Oklahoma State; or Notre Dame, a team that thumped USC and NC State; or Miami, who went into last week the closest comparison to Wisconsin, but left last Saturday with a signature win over Virginia Tech.
Conversely, visiting Iowa comes in having been through the wringer. The Hawkeyes have played the ninth-most difficult schedule, compared to Wisconsin’s 68th-ranked slate. Iowa’s fifth-most impressive opponent, Northwestern, is Wisconsin’s toughest. And while it hasn’t always gone according to plan, with Iowa racking up three losses against its brutal docket, the Hawkeyes have always acquitted themselves well. The losses to Michigan State, Northwester and Penn State came by a combined 16 points.
Iowa’s proven it can hang in high-pressure games against quality opponents, and it’s proven it can win such games, too. Last week’s rout of Ohio State pairs with an early-season defeat of what has turned out to be an excellent Iowa State bunch. With quarterback Nate Stanley coming off a five-touchdown performance, and the excellent two-way play of pass-catching running back Akrum Wadley, the Iowa offense has the capacity to be the best Wisconsin has seen this season.
The Hawkeye defense is also the toughest the Badgers have met up to this point. Taylor’s an excellent back, but quarterback play for the Badgers has been suspect. Alex Hornibrook’s high interception numbers do note bode well against a defense boasting 13 picks on the season, ninth-most in the nation. Josh Jackson has a prime opportunity to solidify himself as an All-American with a big game against the Badgers.
PREDICTION: IOWA 27, WISCONSIN 21
No. 3 NOTRE DAME at No. 7 MIAMI
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Notre Dame -3.5
A certain 1988 game that lives in college football lore as one of the sport’s all-time classic does NOT resonate in 2017. No, the label given to that matchup of Fighting Irish and Hurricanes won’t be repeated here at The Open Man — not because it’s quasi-problematic, but because it’s just so stupid. Moreover, it doesn’t reflect the nature of the Notre Dame-Miami matchup.
I also will not invoke any tired College Football Twitter jokes about Mark Richt’s managerial acumen as it pertains to The U’s Playoff chances. That said, I expect the talk of Miami crashing the final four to end at home this week.
Notre Dame has been an absolute buzzsaw the last few weeks, routing two very good teams in USC and NC State, and hanging almost 50 points on an excellent Wake Forest defense. Brian Kelly has what appears to be his best Notre Dame team by far. Yes, the 2012 squad went undefeated in the regular season, playing a schedule that included Pac-12 champion Stanford and co-Big 12 champion Oklahoma. But that Irish bunch needed some favorable breaks, and slogged its way through some ugly victories — the regular-season finale against a USC quarterbacked by Max Wittek comes to mind.
This year, Notre Dame’s offense resembles the uptempo, high-flying units Kelly had when Cincinnati won a pair of Big East championships last decade. Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush are as exciting a rushing tandem as exists in college football this season. And while Wimbush’s passing has been consistently shaky, the play of what might be the best offensive line in the nation ensures the Irish need to pass minimally.
Can Miami force Wimbush to become a passing quarterback? The Canes are holding opponents to under four yards per carry, a solid average considering they drew Georgia Tech’s triple-option just a few weeks ago. However, the methodical approach Tech employs differs dramatically from Notre Dame’s explosiveness, which has produced the most rushing plays of 50-plus yards in college football this year, tied with Arizona and Stanford.
Should Notre Dame force Miami into a shootout, the Hurricanes have not shown the offensive capacity to keep pace.
PREDICTION: NOTRE DAME 38, MIAMI 27
No. 6 TCU at No. 5 OKLAHOMA
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Oklahoma -6.5
Fresh off the heels of one Top 10 win, Oklahoma finds itself in another such contest. The keys to the resurrected Big 12 championship are at stake, with the winner of this Top 10 showdown in Norman taking control of the conference lead. This really should be a de facto championship, but because people making a lot more money than I made a foolish decision, this might be the first iteration of a sequel.
Baker Mayfield solidified himself as the clear front-runner for this year’s Heisman Trophy with last week’s heroics in Bedlam. Mayfield is having a historic season with 28 touchdown passes against five interceptions, completing better than 71 percent of his pass attempts, and averaging a shade below 12 yards per attempt en route to over 3,200 yards. Combined with a multifaceted backfield, which includes Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon, and the recently returned from injury Abdul Adams, Lincoln Riley has what just might be the perfect Lincoln Riley offense.
To say Mike Stoops’ defense made just enough stops to beat Oklahoma State last Saturday would be technically true, though Mason Rudolph’s opportunity to take the lead in the fourth quarter was less about the Sooners defense stepping up than Rudolph just missing a pass. The Sooners have been awful defensively. TCU isn’t sexy on the offensive end; quarterback Kenny Hill has been serviceable at best, and the run game is unspectacularly efficient. Darius Anderson is breaking off six yards per carry, at least.
If TCU can score, however, it might be trouble for Oklahoma. The Horned Frogs boast the nation’s best run defense, giving up barely over two yards per carry. With Ty Summers and Travin Howard, TCU’s linebacker corps might quietly be the best in the nation — and that’s without Montrel Wilson for the last two weeks. Can bottling up the rushing attack be the difference?
Not necessarily; Oklahoma’s worst rushing performance was at Ohio State in Week 2, and Baker Mayfield simple went Super Saiyan.
Another such performance against an excellent opponent would basically ensure Mayfield the Heisman.
PREDICTION: OKLAHOMA 35, TCU 28