Saturday Six-Pack: A Group of Five Feast

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What a fun, unpredictable college football season it’s been. College football autumns fly by in a flash, but the chaos unfolding from week to week in 2017 has made this particular campaign go plaid.

Just two weeks remain in the regular season, and the College Football Playoff landscape is as uncertain as when we kicked off in August. Certainly more chaos looms on the horizon, but this week’s edition of the Saturday Six-Pack is less about the teams contending for college football’s final four than it is the Group of Five.

See, the week before Thanksgiving marks a dubious tradition in college football: SEC Buy Week. Much of the self-proclaimed best conference uses a weekend when the rest of the nation is steeped in conference play to face opponents from Conference USA, the Sun Belt and FCS in paycheck games.

Such is the luxury of the 8-game conference schedule. Buy Week has its championship benefits, to be sure: The week Oregon lost to Stanford and K-State was blown out by Baylor in 2012, Alabama faced Western Carolina. The Crimson Tide are once again in the national championship, and they face Mercer on Saturday.

Fellow SEC Playoff contender Auburn faces Louisiana-Monroe. And, in fairness to the SEC, it’s worth noting Clemson faces The Citadel. That’s three prominent Playoff candidates locked in early September-quality contests. And Oklahoma…well, in Big 12 play, Oklahoma draws a Kansas team that I’m not certain could hang with Mercer or The Citadel, and definitely not ULM.

Fear not, college football faithful. You need not fast in preparation for Thanksgiving. At least one College Football Playoff contender, Wisconsin, faces a Top 25 opponent; another, Miami, draws an upstart Virginia team. USC has an outside shot of factoring into the chase, but must survive a rivalry matchup with Josh Rosen and UCLA. And Notre Dame, ahead of the Trojans in line for a shot, meet Navy — a program that always gives the Fighting Irish fits.

There’s plenty of opportunity for chaos this weekend, but projecting chaos is a fool’s errand. Thus, the majority of this week’s Saturday Six-Pack is dedicated to the Group of Five. Conference championship chases are in full effect, and unlikely bowl dreamers have the opportunity to score major wins.

2017 RECORD

Last Week: 2-4, 1-5 ATS

Overall: 42-35, 40-34 (note: FCS games previewed early in the season had no lines)

SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: New Belgium Trippel Belgian Style Ale

Feast Week approaches, making this a good time to start thinking about Thanksgiving beers. Belgian ales go great with the traditional Thanksgiving fare, especially turkey.

No. 24 MICHIGAN at No. 5 WISCONSIN

Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT

TV: FOX

Line:  Wisconsin -7.5

Seemingly every season, a new overachieving program emerges late in the national championship chase to give radio and TV agitators a target for their bellyaching. Last year it was Washington, in 2015 it was Iowa, and in 2017, it’s the Wisconsin Badgers.

Some of the kvetching over Wisconsin’s undefeated start is laughable; Wisconsin has been a routinely excellent program for more than a decade, and has won with a pretty consistent identity. Nothing about the 2017 Badgers deviates from the script, with the offense building around a terrific feature running back, Jonathan Taylor; and the defense stifling opponents at just 13.4 points per game, third-lowest yield in the nation.

Nevertheless, I’ve heard some dubious takes on Wisconsin; before Georgia’s loss at Auburn last week, Paul Finebaum was already complaining an undefeated Wisconsin did not deserve a Playoff bid ahead of two SEC teams, for example.

So long as the Badgers keep winning, however, they’re fine, and that’s due in part to finishing the season with a much more challenging slate than they opened with. Michigan is the second ranked opponent Wisconsin sees in as many weeks. Now, Iowa and Michigan finishing ranked is more important for Wisconsin’s Playoff resume than them being ranked during the matchup. With wins over Iowa State and Ohio State, and taking Penn State down to the wire, the Hawkeyes have proven worthy of Top 25 consideration.

For Michigan, finishing in the Top 25 is important for the forecast of the Michigan football’s future. Despite double-digit-win seasons in each of Jim Harbaugh’s first two campaigns, the vultures started circling before the season. The same punditry that crowned Harbaugh King of College Football decried Michigan’s narrow losses to Ohio State and Florida State to close 2016, begging the question can Harbaugh win the big games?

Should the Wolverines finish the regular season with losses to Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, Michigan would head into the offseason with that answer ringing out a resounding no. While Michigan has the defensive prowess to capitalize on Alex Hornibrook’s inconsistent passing, and perhaps limit the damage Jonathan Taylor can inflict, Michigan’s inability to mount a consistent offensive attack will eventually open the flood gate for the Badgers.

PREDICTION: WISCONSIN 31, MICHIGAN 21 

SMU at No. 21 MEMPHIS

Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT

TV: ESPNNEWS

Line: Memphis -16

No. 21-ranked Memphis is undefeated since losing to the American Athletic Conference buzzsaw that is UCF back in September. The Tigers and Knights could meet again in December for the American championship, but Memphis has not yet sewn up the West division.

Houston sits one game back and could conceivably win the West with a pair of Memphis losses to close out the regular season. SMU still has a path to the American Championship Game, too, and that also includes Memphis losing twice. The Mustangs can contribute to that blueprint Saturday in the Liberty Bowl.

Yards and points should be plentiful, with both Memphis and SMU boasting Top 14 passing offenses. Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller is one of, if not the best pass-and-catch tandem in college football. Miller has 11 touchdown receptions and over 900 yards in nine games.

Speaking of tandems, SMU’s wide-receiver duo of Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn is the most prolific pass-catching punch in all of college football. Chad Morris’ potent aerial attack will test the Memphis secondary in a manner it has not seen since Josh Rosen and UCLA on Sept. 16.

That game was a high-scoring affair, pushing a combined 90 points. Expect a similar result, with the homestanding Tigers surviving to stay on pace for a Top 25 rematch in the American Championship.

PREDICTION: MEMPHIS 48, SMU 41 

NEW MEXICO STATE at LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE

Kickoff: 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN3

Line: New Mexico State -4.5

New Mexico State’s tenure in the Sun Belt Conference has just three games remaining. With the NCAA opting to allow conferences to play championship games without divisions, the Sun Belt opted to no longer host football-only affiliates and Western outposts Idaho and New Mexico State.

Idaho is dropping down to FCS and joining the Big Sky Conference in football, the league in which the rest of its sports already play. The solution isn’t so simple for New Mexico State, which participates in the WAC elsewhere — the WAC, of course, dropped football in 2012, necessitating New Mexico State’s move back to the Sun Belt. Dropping to FCS is not a plausible solution, but neither the Mountain West nor Conference USA showed interest.

Thus, NMSU will join BYU, Army and UMass among the unaffiliated independents. In the meantime, the Aggies have an opportunity to cause some havoc in the Sun Belt, and earn their first bowl-game invitation in 57 years.

NMSU quarterback Tyler Rogers is the third-most prolific passer in FBS at 354.4 yards per game. With ULL coming in ranked No. 116 nationally against the pass, giving up more than 270 yards per game, Rogers should be able to carve up the Ragin’ Cajuns defense — assuming he avoids interceptions. Rogers has thrown 15 on the year.

The Aggies need to establish Larry Rose III on the ground to open up the field for Rogers to attack with the pass. The one-two punch should be enough to keep New Mexico State’s bowl-game hopes alive.

PREDICTION: NEW MEXICO STATE 42, UL-LAFAYETTE 34 

ARMY at NORTH TEXAS

Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT

TV: beinSports

Line: North Texas -2.5

Two head coaches deserving consideration for national awards square off for the third time in 13 months in an unofficial rubber match. Seth Litrell’s Mean Green provided the more stunning blemish on Army’s surprising 2016 docket, beating the Black Knights 35-18 in October. That win helped push North Texas to bowl eligibility, where the Mean Green and Black Knights squared off again.

Jeff Monken’s team got its payback in a 38-31, overtime win at the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Surprising 2016 seasons for both programs provided the launching point for stellar 2017 campaigns. Army comes into the rubber match at 8-2, while North Texas clinched the Conference USA West’s spot in the league championship game last week. The Mean Green are 7-3 and owners of one of the most exciting finishes of this season.

That comeback drive to down UTSA provides a fitting snapshot of the Mean Green this season. North Texas plays a fun, uptempo style that’s producing 36.8 points per game, 22nd-most in FBS. Mason Fine is the 18th-most prolific passer in the nation at 280.4 yards per game, with 22 touchdowns.

Saturday’s contest marks a clash of styles, with Monken bringing Army’s multifaceted option offense to counter the potent passing attack of UNT. Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw paves the way at 1,228 yards and nine touchdowns, but Darnell Woolfol has returned from injury to add another element to the look also featuring Andy Davidson and Kell Walker. All three are over 440 yards on the season.

There might not be a more entertaining contest on the docket this Saturday. Army can frustrate opponents with its unorthodox style. North Texas ranks 72nd against the run, so expect the Black Knights to be able to move the ball and control tempo to take the rubber match. The Black Knights also will move toward their best season since 1996 — which was also the first season in which these two programs met.

PREDICTION: ARMY 35, NORTH TEXAS 28 

FIU at FAU

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT

TV: beinSports

Line: FAU -14.5

The Shula Bowl pits two of the youngest programs in FBS head-to-head, playing for the Don Shula Award: a massive plaque with one half of each team’s helmet on either side.

FAU has been the focus of plenty of national attention, almost exclusively the result of Lane Kiffin’s Twitter account. Yes, Kiffin has been particularly froggy on social media this season, and he’s had the green light to do so with the Owls winning consistently. A victory over rival FIU Saturday lands FAU in the Conference USA Championship Game for the first time in program history.

There are not many sentences that include both the names Lane Kiffin and Howard Schnellenberger, but Kiffin’s first FAU team setting a new benchmark of success for the fledgling program Schnellenberger built would do it.

Of course, the coach’s name continuously comes up, but truth is Kiffin has a very talented roster. Owls running back Devin Singletary is one of the best rushers in college football at 1,360 yards, and his 22 rushing touchdowns are most in the nation. Defensive end Leighton McCarthy has been excellent on the other side, producing 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks on the season.

For as much attention as Kiffin’s success has gained nationally, first-year FIU head coach Butch Davis having the Panthers bowl eligible with two games to play might be the more impressive feat. FIU administration chased off former Kiffin Alabama colleague Mario Cristobal shortly after leading the program to its first two and only bowl games in history, opting to leave the program with Ron Turner.

To call FIU football in the Turner era grim would be a vast understatement. The Panthers deteriorated rapidly, making this single-season turnaround all the more impressive. Davis’ track record in South Florida suggests he could build FIU into a perennial winner in C-USA, and who knows? Perhaps a New Year’s Six competitor, in due time.

Until that day comes, FAU owns a distinct advantage in talent. The home crowd in Boca Raton also promises to be especially raucous with a special on craft beer for those in attendance. This could be the hipster version of the White Sox nickel-beer riot, only with long hipster beards.

PREDICTION: FAU 41, FIU 21

Air Force at No. 25 Boise State

Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET/7:15 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN2

Line: Boise State -17.5

Boise State is highly unlikely to get into the Group of Five New Year’s Six conversation, but the Broncos’ finish to this season plays an important part on the College Football Playoff landscape nonetheless.

Washington State owns an early-season win over Boise State, giving the Cougars’ resume a boost. Washington State has an exceedingly difficult path to get into the Playoff conversation, but getting to the Pac-12 Championship Game means beating Washington. Knock off USC for a second time, and Boise State finishes ranked, that gives Washington State Top 25 victories over Stanford; Washington; USC twice; and Boise State. A conference champion with almost half of its wins coming against ranked teams would be incredibly difficult for the committee to overlook.

Boise State winning out also means the Broncos beating Fresno State — and that, in turn, opens the door for San Diego State to get into the Mountain West Conference Championship. That could be a boon for Stanford, which faced the Aztecs early in the season. If Stanford gets to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the better the Cardinal’s profile, the better it is for USC.

That’s a lot of words on the Pac-12; apologies for deviating too far off topic, because this Mountain West matchup is compelling enough on its own. Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun has had Bryan Harsin’s number the past three seasons, introducing some surprise wrinkles to the Falcons’ option offense to throw the Broncos off-balance.

 

Air Force’s option comes into Boise State rolling up 310 yards per game on the ground, but a Broncos defense ranked No. 18 in FBS against the run needs to be prepared for the seldom-used pass from the Falcons.

Boise State comes in off the emotional high of rallying in the fourth quarter to down Colorado State, ensuring a place in the Mountain West Championship Game. The Broncos face a difficult final stretch to lock up home-field advantage, but they should be able to survive against Air Force. The tandem rushing attack of Alex Mattison and Montell Cozart give Boise State offensive firepower to go with stifling defense.

PREDICTION: BOISE STATE 38, AIR FORCE 24