Thanksgiving Six-Pack: College Football Gives Us Reason for Thanks

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A happy Thanksgiving to all readers of The Open Man and your extended families. T’is a bittersweet edition of the Six-Pack, a special Thursday-Friday installment spotlighting this holiday slate. 

College football is winding down, and it seems as though the 2017 season passed even more quickly than usual. This has been an especially fun, exciting and chaotic campaign, making saying farewell so soon especially difficult. 

Rather than lament it’s ending, Thanksgiving weekend is an ideal time to express gratitude for the many excellent things the 2017 season provided. There were upsets galore, countless thrilling games and heart-stopping finishes, and memorable individual performances destined to live on in the sport’s lore. My season began on a professional level with UCLA rallying from down 41-10 to beat Texas A&M, a game that will rank highly when I update my list of favorites I’ve ever worked

I was also front-and-center for Texas’ touchdown to take the lead at USC, only for Sam Darnold to engineer a game-tying drive and force overtime in the rematch of the 2006 Rose Bowl Game. I also had the opportunity to work the USC-Utah game, in which a stop on a two-point conversion attempt decided it. I had the opportunity to witness Khalil Tate, Rashaad Penny, Josh Rosen, Ronald Jones II; so many stars who helped shape the fall of 2017. 

The 2017 season also gave us reminders of what it means to be good to one another and have, at a time when hatred and ugliness has seemingly become more of a norm on the day-to-day. The Wave at Iowa, Rashaad Penny turning the spotlight on him as a Heisman contender to the grieving families in Las Vegas, and so many others using their position in the sport to make a positive impact on the world. 

This college football season once again validated my enjoyment of the sport for its sheer entertainment value, but it also restored some of my dwindling faith in our society. So yes, on this Thanksgiving weekend, I am very much thankful for football. 

Now, the Six-Pack is typically a light-hearted look at games around college football, so with my feelings sufficiently expressed, let’s transition to the picks, shall we? 

2017 RECORD

Last Week: 4-2, 2-4 ATS

Overall: 46-37, 42-38 (note: FCS games previewed early in the season had no lines)

THANKSGIVING SIX-PACK: Sierra Nevada Celebration

If you’ve followed the Six-Pack throughout the season, you know I am a fan of Sierra Nevada. I’ve yet to try a Sierra Nevada that wasn’t excellent, but the brewery’s Fresh Hop IPA winter seasonal release is my A-1 favorite. This is my Thanksgiving weekend go-to, an unofficial toast to what I deem the true beginning of the holiday season — Christmas music playing in retailers, be damned. 

For one last time in the fall, we celebrate a full college football slate, and it’s one that starts Thursday night after many of us have wrapped our first helping of Thanksgiving dinner. 

 

OLE MISS at MISSISSIPPI STATE

Kickoff: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN

Line: Mississippi State -14.5 

If there was ever a more glaring indication of what TV contracts hath wrought on college football, it’s the state of affairs on Thanksgiving day. Seriously, this is woeful: one game. ONE GAME. And, just like the previous five years, that one game is not Texas-Texas A&M.

Both Texas and Texas A&M attempted to replace the Thanksgiving tradition with various knockoffs, like the Longhorns facing TCU in 2012, 2014 and 2016, with Texas Tech interspersed on the odd years. The Aggies responded like a jealous boyfriend dragging his new girlfriend to an event he knows his ex will attend, playing LSU on Thanksgiving Day 2014.

These were attempts to fill the void conference realignment created that failed to live up to the original, yes. But they still provided us with Thanksgiving college football. Now, the holiday’s punted to the NFL — well, with the exception of the Egg Bowl.

TV money drove a wedge in the Big 12 Conference, fueling Texas A&M’s departure amid some strong-arming on the part of Texas brass. A&M joining the SEC helped prop up the conference as the decided winner of the last round of realignment. The primary pillar, however, was ESPN. The Worldwide Leader now owns college football on Thanksgiving Day, and it’s showcasing its bell-cow (pun intended) conference partner.

For those of you into conspiracy theories, there’s one you can mull over while recycling the tinfoil your turkey’s cooked in.

OK, that’s five grafs and zero meaningful mention of either Mississippi State or Ole Miss. For shame, me. Both programs exceeded expectations coming into 2017, though that’s pretty much been the M.O. of Dan Mullen throughout his tenure in Starkville. Ole Miss exceeding expectations in this, a season that could have understandably gone far off the rails, is a bit more surprising.

The firing of Hugh Freeze could have devolved into a 2012 Arkansas situation — especially considering Freeze was dismissed less than two months before the season, not the almost five Arkansas had to adjust when John L. Smith replaced Bobby Petrino.

The Rebels lost a nip-and-tuck contest at Texas A&M last week, making the Egg Bowl a must-win for their bowl aspirations. Bowl positioning and the Golden Egg are at stake for Mississippi State, which has played two emotional games in the last couple weeks. One ended in a last-minute loss to Alabama, the other a potential program-changing defeat handed to Arkansas. Might the Bulldogs be zapped?

It’s a situation somewhat akin to 2013, when a ranked Ole Miss, fresh off a close loss to Vanderbilt, fell in overtime to a Mississippi State bunch in need of the Egg Bowl to reach the postseason. The difference this time is that on one side — the side needing a win for a bowl — lines up one of the single worst rushing defenses in college football.

Ole Miss is surrendering 240.9 rushing yards per game off a 5.43 yard-per-carry clip. With Nick Fitzgerald powering a Mississippi State ranked No. 17 nationally on the run.

PREDICTION: Mississippi State 41, Ole Miss 21 

NORTHERN ILLINOIS at CENTRAL MICHIGAN

Kickoff: Friday, Noon ET/9 a.m. PT

TV: ESPN

Line: Northern Illinois -3 

One of the most consistent programs of the preceding 12 years, Northern Illinois endured a decline in 2016 that sparked some speculation head coach Rod Carey was on the hot seat heading into 2017. Any such talk has since subsided, as the Huskies returned to form. Northern Illinois can win the MAC West, but needs help from Western Michigan at the same time the Huskies are tussling with surprising Central Michigan.

The Chippewas improved to 7-4 last week, reeling off their fourth consecutive win. After a lackluster start, Michigan Wolverines transfer quarterback Shane Morris has been excellent during Central Michigan’s winning streak, throwing 11 of his 23 touchdowns with just one interceptions. Picks plagued Morris earlier in the season — and that could be a pivotal point in Friday’s contest, as well. 

That aforementioned consistency emanating from DeKalb commanded national attention in 2012 and 2013, when the Huskies became the first (and only) MAC program to earn an invite to a BCS bowl. Marshall got jobbed in 1999, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Northern Illinois’ controversial inclusion in the Orange Bowl set the stage for quarterback Jordan Lynch to run to New York City and the 2013 Heisman Trophy ceremony. Lynch is the last non-power conference representative to be a Heisman finalist. Keenan Reynolds got jobbed in 2015, but that’s a discussion for another time.

While 2012 and 2013 marked the peak of Northern Illinois’ dominance in terms of national exposure, those seasons were actually tucked in the middle of a six-year run of championship game appearances for the Huskies. After a one-year layoff from Detroit, NIU could be headed back. 

Northern Illinois visits Central Michigan showcasing an impressive, diverse offense. I covered the Sept. 30 NIU-San Diego State game, after which Aztecs head coach Rocky Long said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Huskies won the MAC. In that contest, Northern Illinois attacked with a potent passing game. Wide receiver Spencer Tears showed his ability to break off long plays.

“With the speed we’ve got at receiver, we can run past the DBs every time,” Tears told me. 

It’s not a weapon Northern Illinois uses much, instead relying on a 191.82-yard per game rushing attack. Running back Jordan Huff and quarterback Marcus Childers complement one another and mix up the look to throw defenses off-balance, which could factor in against a CMU run defense ranked No. 99 nationally. 

Central Michigan’s uptick in offensive production will keep the host Chippewas close, but the interceptions that weighed on Morris early in the season could be factor with Northern Illinois coming in ranked 15th in the nation with 14 picks as a team. Their aggressive pass rush lends to forced passes.  Look for the nation’s leading sacker, Sutton Smith, to cause Central Michigan problems. 

PREDICTION: Northern Illinois 38, Central Michigan 31 

 

WESTERN MICHIGAN at TOLEDO

Kickoff: Friday, Noon ET/9 a.m. PT 

TV: ESPN

Line: Toledo -13.5 

Start your Black Friday early with a conference championship-implicated dose of MACtion! The simultaneous starts for games that decide divisions is pretty cool, adding a dash of Premier League drama to the college football calendar. One of the most fun days of my professional career was working the UCLA-Stanford game at the Rose Bowl, while Arizona and Arizona State met in Tucson at the same time.

Defending Mid-American champion Western Michigan will concede the crown this year, falling short of a West division repeat in head coach Tim Lester’s debut season. Still, the Broncos can impact the MAC Championship scene with a win over Toledo on Friday.

The Rockets come in atop the West division, as anticipated before the season, and in control of their own destiny. A win sends them to Detroit for the first time since 2004, which is quite remarkable given the quality teams Tim Beckman, Matt Campbell and now Jason Candle oversaw.

Toledo scores points in bunches, coming in averaging 38.8 points per game. That’s No. 12 in the nation, and tops in the MAC. The loss of quarterback Zach Terrell and historically productive wide receiver Corey Davis, along with P.J. Fleck leaving for the Minnesota job, forced a philosophical change at Western Michigan. Lester introduced a multifaceted rushing approach that ranks 23rd nationally, and has the Broncos scoring 36.1 points per game; second-best in the MAC.

A good, old #MACtion shootout could be on the horizon, though Western Michigan’s offense has been somewhat hamstrung on the back-half of the schedule. Quarterback Jon Wassink’s collarbone injury forced freshman Reece Goddard into the starting lineup, and where Wassink added nearly 16 yards per to the run game, Goddard averages just 2.71.

On the flip-side, veteran Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside has again been one of the most dynamic passers in college football. He’s thrown 22 touchdowns against just two interceptions , averages 10 yards per pass, and complements the explosive rushing of 1,000-yard ball-carrier Terry Swanson. 

PREDICTION: Toledo 45, Western Michigan 28 

MISSOURI at ARKANSAS

Kickoff: Friday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT

TV: CBS

Line: Missouri -10 

What a fascinating tale of two coaches. Barry Odom, tabbed to replace longtime Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel following Pinkel’s sudden retirement, felt like a mere placeholder until Missouri boosters and brass could make a more splashy hire. After all, Odom was a basically career-long assistant to Pinkel without head coaching experience, entrusted with an SEC program that twice played in the conference championship game. Way too much job for the resume, right?

Well…

Missouri was bad in 2016, going 4-8 with losses that included a 51-point deluge from MTSU, and giving up 63 points to Tennessee — that’s late-season Tennessee, which had mostly fallen apart at that juncture, mind you.

With the Tigers universally slated for the cellar of the SEC East, it seemed heading into the season that Odom was destined for the coaching carousel. Instead, he’s led an impressive turnaround that finds Missouri bowl eligible and a winner of five straight games. Pulling the team out of a tailspin at 1-5 speaks favorably of the job Odom’s done. He has an opportunity to finish the conference slate at .500, should the Tigers beat Arkansas for a second consecutive season.

While Odom’s inspired confidence, Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema’s done the exact opposite over the course of this season. Arkansas fell out of bowl contention, letting a lead slip away against Mississippi State last week. With athletic director Jeff Long ousted a week ago, Bielema is all but certain to be replaced. The question is will he exit Fayetteville with a win, or another loss.

Arkansas comes in at 4-7 with just one SEC win: a one-point decision scored over Ole Miss, the week prior to rallying to beat Coastal Carolina by the same margin. That 38-37 victory over the Chanticleers joined other such impressive wins as Florida A&M and New Mexico State. Bielema came to Arkansas with an impressive resume, having led Wisconsin to three consecutive Rose Bowls, but his efforts to implement a brand of football similar to that which he oversaw in Madison did not play in Fayetteville.

If nothing else, leading last week’s loss to Mississippi State into the second half suggests the wheels have not completely fallen off. However, the Razorbacks still had a bowl game to play for. With that ship having sailed, Arkansas could be prone to a Thanksgiving hangover. Coincidentally, a loss to Missouri to cap last regular season began the hot-seat talk for Bielema; another should end the saga.

Drew Lock will carve up a Razorback defense that has been dismal over recent weeks, and comes in ranked No. 111. Lock, who comes in with a nation-leading 38 touchdown passes, should easily pad that number.

PREDICTION:  MISSOURI 48, ARKANSAS 28

USF at No. 15 UCF

Kickoff: Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT

TV: ABC

Line: UCF -10 

The War on I-4 seems like such a natural rivalry, but it’s only in its infancy — and not simply because USF and UCF are still relatively young programs. Their campuses separated by less than 100 miles, USF and UCF first met in 2005. It was the first in a four-game non-conference series, which the Bulls dominated. The 2007 installment was particularly lopsided, with a USF team that peaked at No. 2 in the polls that season smacking a UCF bunch that featured national rushing leader Kevin Smith, 64-12.

Although a different Kevin Smith, I’m still quite certain the maker of Clerks blamed the Knights’ poor performance on hater film critics who didn’t like Tusk. 

The War went on armistice following the 2008 meeting, until the two programs landed in the same conference with the formation of the American. USF had long been on a higher tier as a member of the Big East, with UCF playing first in the MAC, and later Conference USA. That changed in 2013 with the formation of the American Athletic Conference.

In something of a cruel twist, the last automatic bid into a BCS bowl for the old Big East/current American went to UCF; USF never earned that AQ bid. This season offers a similar snapshot, with USF entering the season as the odds-on favorite to win the Group of Five’s automatic berth into the New Year’s Six, only for UCF to bypass the Bulls.

The invitation is now the Knights’ to lose, thanks to a potent offense under former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost. Quarterback McKenzie Milton has quietly put up some of the most impressive statistics in college football, completing a shade below 70 percent of his pass attempts for 2,928 yards with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions, as well as five rushing touchdowns.

But while the Knights’ nation-leading average of 48.2 points per game garners much of the attention, unbeaten UCF also plays some stifling defense. Defensive backs Kyle Gibson and Mike Hughes combine for seven of UCF’s 16 interceptions, slamming the door on the trap linebacker Shaquem Griffin and Co. set. USF has capable play-makers on offense, namely dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers’ production has dipped from a season ago, when he was putting up numbers comparable to those of Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. He is completing just 53.5 percent of his pass attempts, though he should once again rush for over 1,000 yards. 

Still, the USF offense has had a tendency to grow stagnant far too often for the Bulls to be able to keep pace with the Knights. UCF wins big to remain on pace for a New Year’s Six bowl. 

PREDICTION: UCF 49, USF 24 

VIRGINIA TECH at VIRGINIA

Kickoff: Friday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN

Line: Virginia Tech -7 

Nov. 29, 2003 was a milestone date — and not simply because that’s when I turned 21 years old and had Peppermint Schnapps shots forced on me by friends, making it so I can no longer taste peppermint without feeling a bit queasy. 

No, that date’s significant because it marks the last time the Virginia Cavaliers won in this Commonwealth Clash. Virginia Tech has absolutely owned Virginia, not just winning 13 straight and 17-of-18, but dominating for a good chunk of that stretch. 

Virginia seemingly made some headway as the Frank Beamer era wound down, losing four games from 2012 through 2015 by a combined 20 points. But in the first seasons of head coaches Justin Fuente and Bronco Mendenhall, the Hokies trashed the Wahoos, 52-10, Virginia functioning as little more than a stepping stone for Tech on the way to the ACC Championship Game. 

Expect a much more competitive Clash in 2017. Virginia’s reinvigorated behind Mendenhall’s unorthodox style, having already sewn up bowl eligibility and playing a much more exciting brand of football than Charlottesville has seen in recent years. Still, the Cavaliers have hit a rough patch, dropping 4-of-5 since a 5-1 start that included a blowout win at currently ranked Boise State. Virginia started hot last week against undefeated Miami, but faltered down the stretch. 

Turnovers plague Virginia in losses. In recent defeats against Miami, Boston College and Louisville, the Cavaliers have coughed up possession seven times. 

Virginia Tech comes in ranked — a huge boon for the ACC teams jockeying for College Football Playoff positioning — but not necessarily playing great. Offense is Fuente’s calling card, and his presence restored a Hokie offense that had grown painfully ineffective in the final decade of Beamer’s illustrious tenure. However, Tech has slowed down here in recent weeks, starting with a 10-point output at Miami. The Hokies followed up with just 22 points in a loss to Georgia Tech, and managed just 20 against a dreadful Pitt defense. 

Virginia needs to heighten the pace and dare Virginia Tech to score. Kurt Benkert’s shown the ability to do exactly that against quality defenses like Boise State and Miami. He can also be erratic.

Predicting when that side might surface is a risk, and a rivalry game would seem the opportune time. Chalk it up to nothing more than a hunch, but I like Benkert to lead Virginia to its first win over Virginia Tech since 2003. Break out the Peppermint Schnapps, y’all. 

PREDICTION: Virginia 31, Virginia Tech 28