Saturday Six-Pack: Don’t Leave, College Football!

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Don’t leave us, college football. The world needs you now more than ever.

Championship Week, the Army-Navy Game and the bowl season still remain; not to mention the always exciting FCS Playoffs kicking off Saturday. However, this is the last complete college football Saturday of 2017. 

The 2017 season to date has been one of my favorite campaigns in recent memory, and certainly my favorite of the College Football Playoff era. Look for a future column detailing what specifically made this particularly season special. 

In the meantime, the Saturday Six-Pack isn’t winding down; as mentioned, Championship Week awaits. But with this being the last regular-season Saturday, it’s time to go out strong. This is a loaded Saturday, as Rivalry Week often provides. This year, the national championship implications wrought by an autumn of chaos reach a head this Thanksgiving Saturday. 

2017 RECORD

Overall (pending Friday’s full results): 46-38, 42-39 ATS (note: FCS games previewed early in the season had no lines)

SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: Anchor Our Special Ale

The end of Thanksgiving begins the transition to the December holiday season, and with it, a market for winter-themed brews. San Francisco-based Anchor Brewery produces one of the best with its Our Special Ale.

OHIO STATE at MICHIGAN

Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT

TV: FOX 

Line: Ohio State -12

Few rivalries can match the pure animus that shapes The Big Game. Ohio State and Michigan’s rivalry (or Michigan and Ohio State’s rivalry, depending on your allegiance) dates back 120 years and 113 games, and features some of the most iconic figures in the sport’s history. 

Current head coaches Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh have each staked their place in this era of college football. Harbaugh set the foundation for Stanford as a national power and Meyer boasts three national championships at two programs, as well as a perfect season with a third. However, the perceived failures of Jim Harbaugh in his time at Michigan loom over Michigan, as it seeks to end a five-game losing streak to Ohio State. 

Coming into 2017, Michigan hit the double-digit-win mark each of Harbaugh’s first two seasons, a feat last accomplished in 2002 and 2003. Still, that didn’t stop the same Takes Industrial Complex that launched a fleet of aggregation tracking Harbaugh’s every move from 2015 through 2016 from doing one of the more jarring about-faces I can remember following.

This year’s Wolverines roster was the single least experienced in the nation, and the expectation coming into the season was that Michigan would not hang with divisional front-runners Penn State and Ohio State. Losing games to Ohio State and Florida State by a combined four points, coupled with the assumption that would be the case was enough to spark preliminary conversation of a potential hot seat.

Michigan can still win its bowl game and finish 9-4 but a loss to Ohio State all but ensures an offseason overflowing with predictably lame prattling about Harbaugh’s future. 

Well, brace yourself. Barring Ohio State just not showing up, as was the case in the loss at Iowa, the Buckeyes have the firepower to challenge a good Michigan defense. If Ohio State doesn’t score right out of the gate, Michigan’s offensive inconsistency will lead to the dam eventually bursting for a flood of Buckeyes — much like the Wolverines’ loss to Wisconsin last week. 

J.T. Barrett will get his first opportunity to play in a Big Ten Championship Game, and close out his Ohio State career undefeated in The Big Game. 

PREDICTION: OHIO STATE 34, MICHIGAN 17

No. 1 ALABAMA at No. 6 AUBURN

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

TV: CBS

Line: Alabama -4.5

Thanks to legendary moments like the Camback and Kick-Six, Paul Finebaum gaining a national platform, and the ESPN documentary Roll Tide/War Eagle, the Iron Bowl became college football’s most prominent rivalry over the past decade. This season’s installment has the framework to be another classic. 

Auburn’s deconstruction of previous No. 1 Georgia dramatically changed the complexion of the College Football Playoff race. Whereas it previously appeared the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide were on a collision course to an undefeated showdown in Atlanta, after which the loser was still ensured a spot in the final four, Auburn’s emergence as an SEC West contender alters the dynamics.

Though Auburn looked more impressive in its rout of Georgia than Alabama has through any of its first 11 wins, the Tigers come in banged up. Running back Kerryon Johnson  has played through a hamstring injury much of the season, and linebacker Jeff Holland limped to the sidelines in last week’s paycheck game against UL-Monroe. 

The injuries on the Tigers side somewhat levels the playing field, as Alabama has been banged up for the better part of the month. It very nearly cost the Crimson Tide in Starkville two weeks ago, with a multidimensional Mississippi State rushing attack  giving a heavily depleted linebacker corps fits. 

Auburn’s similarly constructed to attack in a variety of ways on the ground, with quarterback Jarrett Stidham providing an effective enough passing attack to force defenses to honor that facet of the offense. The Tigers can and will score some points on Alabama, but the question is if where they can register enough to build a sizable enough cushion to weather the inevitable Crimson Tide storm. 

Mississippi State failed to, despite opportunities. No matter how many injuries there might be on the Alabama roster, giving Nick Saban’s teams even the slightest window is a recipe to lose. Jalen Hurts showed his late-game mettle at Mississippi State, and he should have the chance to solidify himself as an Iron Bowl legend. 

PREDICTION: ALABAMA 30, AUBURN 28 

ARIZONA at ARIZONA STATE

Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. ET/1:30 p.m. PT

TV: Pac-12 Network

Line: Arizona -2

For the uninitiated, allow me — an Arizona native whose first live college football game was an Arizona-Arizona State contest — to explain the acrimony of this rivalry. 

Other college football rivalries have more history behind them, more celebrated moments. These are two programs that rarely factor into the national conversation. This season’s matchup of a 7-4 Arizona and 6-5 Arizona State is right in line with the historic norms in the roughly 40 years since the two made the Pac-8 10. 

In terms of sheer disdain between the fanbases, however, Arizona-Arizona State measures against any other rivalry. Palpable hatred permeates throughout the year across every sport, manifesting in the duel for the Territorial Cup; college football’s oldest rivalry game trophy. 

This season’s matchup pits two teams that already exceeded expectations by earning bowl eligibility, but that need to retain the Territorial Cup to truly deem this season a success. Arizona’s loss at Oregon last week deflated some of the Wildcats’ momentum since Khalil Tate took over at quarterback, as the Ducks brought an aggressive run defense that finally slowed the dynamic sophomore. 

Jim Leavitt may have provided Phil Bennett a blueprint, although executing a similar strategy is much easier said than done. Arizona State allowed 511 rushing yards to Arizona a season ago; and while that was a significantly worse Sun Devils defense, the Wildcats run game personnel is deeper and more explosive than in 2016. 

Conversely, Arizona’s improved defense struggles against the pass. That presents an opportunity for strong-armed quarterback Manny Wilkins and wide receiver N’Keal Harry. This should be an Old West shootout in the vein of Tombstone. My huckleberry is Arizona. 

PREDICTION: ARIZONA 45, ARIZONA STATE 40 

No. 25 BOISE STATE at FRESNO STATE

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

TV: CBS Sports Network

Line: Boise State -7

The BCS freezing out Tulane and Marshall in 1998 and 1999 never sat well with me. So, I was all-in on Fresno State as a contender in 2001 when its early-season wins over Oregon State and Wisconsin suggested the David Carr-led Bulldogs might kick down the door. Instead, the foundation for college football’s great non-power conference program was laid.

Boise State, still relatively new to Div. I-A football, stunned the Bulldogs on the blue turf to announce the program’s presence to the nation.

The rivalry for the Milk Can Trophy really began that day and has spanned three conferences: the Big West, Western Athletic and now Mountain West. Divisional scheduling put this series on hiatus since 2014, when the two met in a lackluster MWC Championship Game. They make up for lost time with two games in two weeks, both having already clinched their divisions.

Fresno State has an outside chance of winning home-field advantage for next week’s Mountain West Championship, but it’s well outside. First-year head coach Jeff Tedford faces a difficult choice: play for a win against a bitter rival in front of the home crowd, or keep the playbook close to the vest.

Boise State maintains some glimmer of hope for winning the Group of Five bid into a New Year’s Six bowl, but that too is highly unlikely. Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin said he does not intend to limit his team’s play-calling, but how much that’s the case could be the deciding factor.

Both teams flourish defensively, which is ironic given their reputations and roots. With the likelihood of a conservatively called game and their respective defensive acumen, expect a low-scoring contest.

PREDICTION: BOISE STATE 21, FRESNO STATE 14

No. 8 NOTRE DAME at No. 22 STANFORD

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT

TV: ABC 

Line: Notre Dame -3

When Notre Dame last had an opportunity to factor into the College Football Playoff conversation, the Fighting Irish left Stanford with their national championship aspirations dashed.

Might history repeat? Notre Dame looked like a world-beater just a few weeks ago, but getting blown out at Miami and struggling with Navy show weaknesses in the Fighting Irish that Stanford can exploit — assuming the Cardinal are healthy.

Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love has played through an ankle injury on the back-half of the season, still putting up monster numbers. The improved play of quarterback K.J. Costello in recent weeks has helped facilitate that, but Costello’s ultimately been inconsistent.

Of course, the same is true for Notre Dame and Brandon Wimbush. Despite playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the nation, and alongside Josh Adams — an injured Heisman contender in his own right — Wimbush has struggled to find a rhythm with the pass.

Put simply, the defensive line that can wear down an excellent offensive line on the other side wins. Notre Dame goes deeper, giving the Fighting Irish an edge.

PREDICTION: NOTRE DAME 30, STANFORD 27

No. 13 WASHINGTON STATE at No. 17 WASHINGTON

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT

TV: FOX

Line: Washington -10.5 

Oh, how far the Apple Cup has come in nine years.

In 2008, Washington and Washington State met in Pullman in one of the most infamous games in recent college football history, with the Huskies trying to avoid a winless season against a one-win Washington State bunch. 

Now, for a second consecutive season, the Pac-12 Championship Game comes down to the Apple Cup. Last year’s encounter was win-and-you’re-in, a proposition that was dashed for defending conference champion Washington in its Nov. 10 loss at Stanford. 

The Cardinal closed out conference play a week ago with the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Huskies, but Stanford is denied its fourth conference championship game bid in the last six seasons should Washington State win the Apple Cup. 

The Cougars have not won a league title since 2002 — coincidentally, the last season Washington State beat USC in Pullman. 

Washington State’s fascinating. The Cougars are 3-0 against teams currently ranked in the Top 25, but they were completely dismantled in both of their losses by quality opponents

Washington has been equally challenging to get a beat on. The Huskies looked thoroughly dominant on both sides of the ball in wins, but offensively inept in losses to Arizona State and Stanford. While quarterbacks often get too much credit or too much blame, depending on the situation, the Huskies have seemingly gone as Jake Browning’s gone this season.  

Washington State’s undersized but effective pass-rush defense, paced by All-America candidate Hercules Mata’afa, needs to establish the tone early. As odd as it might seem for Luke Falk and the potent Washington State offense, a lower score behooves the Cougars’ chances.

Spoiler has been a role in which Chris Petersen’s flourished much of his career. While it isn’t the cap anyone anticipated Washington to be wearing at this juncture in the season, it should fit the Huskies well.

PREDICTION: WASHINGTON 38, WASHINGTON STATE 31