College football rivalry week is always so bittersweet: It’s what we’ve been waiting for, and the buffet of games we get on this week is incredible. Meaningful games, day after day, hour after hour, with bowl or championship implications in so many of them.
But then, when Saturday ends, it’s just about over. Sure, championship week is fun, and who doesn’t like bowl games, but we’ll have seen the last chaotic Saturday of college football season until next Labor Day weekend.
Before you shed those tears, however, there are some great games to watch. The BIG ONE, of course, is No. 2 Ohio State against No. 3 Michigan, a battle of unbeatens with the Buckeyes favored by 7½ points.
Elsewhere, No. 4 TCU, No. 5 USC and No. 6 LSU must all win to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive. All three are favored by varying degrees: Horned Frogs -10 against Iowa State, Trojans -5½ vs. Notre Dame and LSU -10 at Texas A&M.
But Ohio State-Michigan is the focus of what should be a great day. Let’s get to it (and start to turn some close-bet luck around while we’re at it).
(Lines from Caesars Sportsbook as of Wednesday)
Game of the Week
No. 3 MICHIGAN (+7½) at No. 2 OHIO STATE, Noon, FOX: It’s incredibly easy to go back and forth on this pick. Ohio State’s elite offense and the Buckeyes’ desire to get revenge for last year’s game should let them separate from Michigan, right? No, the Wolverines’ defense is too good to give them more than a touchdown against anybody.
In the end, I think both of those statements might be true. Eventually, CJ Stroud and company will make some plays against the Michigan defense, and the Wolverines might struggle to move the ball, especially if star running back Blake Corum is out or limited with the knee injury he suffered last week against Illinois.
But to expect Ohio State to win by more than one score seems to be asking too much. Michigan is a hard team to blow out, and though Georgia turned the trick in the Orange Bowl last year, the Wolverines may have learned some lessons from that game. Here’s to a back-and-forth game that keeps us on the edge of our seats — and ultimately is decided by a single possession.
The pick: Ohio State 28, Michigan 23
RICE at NORTH TEXAS (-14), 2 p.m., ESPN+: I’ve been high on the Mean Green all year long, taking over 6 on their win total in the preseason, and I need a win here to avoid a push.
I’m doubling down, picking UNT not only to win but to cover a couple of touchdowns. Rice is among the nation’s worst teams in defending the run, and outside of the three service academies, North Texas averages the most rushing attempts in the country. The Mean Green hasn’t always been terribly efficient rushing, but they’ll meet a movable object here.
And if Rice decides to load up against the run? North Texas is willing to throw from time to time, and the Owls are among the nation’s worst at defending that, too. Tough to see how this one doesn’t get out of hand.
The pick: North Texas 34, Rice 13
LOUISVILLE (+3) at KENTUCKY, 3 p.m., SEC Network: It’s hard to know what to make of Kentucky’s season. There seems to be a general idea that the Wildcats have had a good season — won early at Florida, a close call at Ole Miss, a reasonably good showing against Georgia — but looking back on it, the results are not especially good. This team could be fighting for a .500 season if not for a weird roughing-the-punter call against Missouri three weeks ago.
Louisville, on the other hand, has come on strong as the year has progressed. The Cardinals have won five of their past six, with the only loss at Clemson. That includes a win at NC State last weekend without starting quarterback Malik Cunningham. He’s considered day-to-day for this one, but even if Brock Domann has to start again, Louisville is capable of winning.
That’s partly because Kentucky doesn’t have the ability to separate from anyone on offense. The Cardinals popped a couple of big special teams plays last week, and something like that could make a difference here. In any case, take the three points.
The pick: Louisville 24, Kentucky 17
No. 21 OREGON STATE (+3) at No. 9 OREGON, 3:30 p.m., ABC: One of the nation’s most underrated teams takes part in one of the nation’s most underrated rivalries — and only in college football can you say such things as, “I like the Beavers to win the Civil War.”
Oregon State is 8-3 with field goal losses to USC (at home) and Washington (on the road) and victories over both halves of the Mountain West title game. This is a good team having a great year, and they’d love nothing more than to cap it off with an exclamation point against a top-10 rival.
The Ducks managed to beat Utah last week despite quarterback Bo Nix being hobbled in one of the grittier wins of the year, and they can earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game with a victory here. But Nix still doesn’t figure to be 100%, especially with his normally efficient scrambling ability. That and a hostile home-field environment could tilt the balance in favor of the Beavers.
The pick: Oregon State 31, Oregon 30
No. 15 NOTRE DAME at No. 6 USC (-5½), 7:30 p.m., ABC: Those hoping the Trojans fall out of the CFP picture won’t want to read this, but it seems USC has gone from being overrated at the start of the season to slightly underrated now.
Meanwhile, it’s suddenly time for everyone to love Notre Dame again. The Irish have been much better in the second half of the season, to be sure, highlighted by a beatdown of Clemson on Nov. 5, but the truth is this is still a wildly inconsistent team, capable of routing the Tigers but also losing to Marshall and nearly blowing a big lead against Navy.
When it comes down to it, Caleb Williams and USC simply have more consistency and explosive abilities than the conservative Irish offense. This won’t be a runaway by any stretch, but I expect the Trojans to have the game in hand by the final two minutes.
The pick: USC 38, Notre Dame 30
No. 10 TENNESSEE (-14) at VANDERBILT, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network: Hendon Hooker is out for the season, and the Volunteers’ robust national title hopes were dashed in a 63-38 shocker at South Carolina last week. So the chance of a letdown is very, very real.
With that as a caveat, I just don’t understand this line. If this game had been played last week with Hooker healthy, Tennessee might have been a 30-plus point favorite. Hooker is extremely valuable, but no player is worth 15 points by himself, and the results of last week shouldn’t skew a line that much either.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel often has feasted on less talented defenses, and while Vanderbilt has played hard under first-year coach Clark Lea, this certainly qualifies as one. Even with Joe Milton at quarterback, there should be enough space for the Vols to move the ball easily. Classic bounce-back opportunity for the Vols and extreme value on this line.
The pick: Tennessee 45, Vanderbilt 20
LAST WEEK: 4-2 straight up, 2-4 against the spread
THIS YEAR: 49-23 straight up, 34-37-1 ATS
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