Last weekend was a lot of fun (aside from the Duck game). There were so many double-digit favorites for their not to be crazy upsets. The top-10 was not spared and the PAC-12 is now without an undefeated team.
I had a tough week, especially. I made mistakes in the past, and I didn’t learn from them the first time, but here are picks I feel good about and arrived at using a different methodology.
Rusty’s Record: 22-20
Sean’s Record: 25-17
Rusty’s Record: 1-5
Sean’s Record: 2-4
S: Oregon (+7) at UCLA
This is a tough line. Oregon's offense is all of a sudden Illinois-esque. UCLA's defense resembles 11 traffic cones. Both teams have been disappointing in the past few weeks.
So what unit do I trust most out of the two teams' offenses and defenses? I think it's Josh Rosen and the UCLA offense. So I was tempted to take UCLA.
But, logically, with the Oregon offense as currently constructed, this is one of the few remaining games that I think the Ducks really have a shot at winning. So I have to steer into that feeling. Ducks plus the points. Time for the offensive coaching staff to adjust to its personnel and get some consarned first downs. (Yes, "consarn" is an old-timely swear word.) Let's do this.
R: Oregon at UCLA (-7)
There are a lot of positives for Oregon heading into this game. UCLA’s defense is atrocious against the run. Just absolutely awful. They rank 102nd in rushing success rate and 129th in rushing explosiveness. According to Bill C. at Football Study Hall, UCLA also ranks 90th in S&P+ pass defense. So a lot of strengths match up here. The Bruins dropped games to Stanford and Arizona where both teams had minimal to no threat through the air and they still couldn’t stop them.
UCLA’s defense’s recent history bodes well for an offense that is fully committed to the run because of the lack of any passing attack. Coaches have said that Burmeister has practiced better than he plays, but some people do play different when they’re on the big stage.
It’s too difficult to place any emphasis on Oregon’s advanced stats, which projects the Ducks to win by 2 points, because most of the stats were generated while Herbert was quarterback. The offensive output the last two weeks is very concerning. The lone bright spot is that the offense took it to Cal’s defense in the second half of their game, going exclusively on the ground. However, I just don’t have faith in this offense to score more than 10 points.
S: Michigan (+10) at Penn State
Michigan's offense is piss-poor-awful. They have had a really hard time moving the ball on everyone they've played, especially Michigan State and Indiana in the past two weeks. Penn State's defense isn't necessarily deep, but they're nasty and can can create turnovers. But still: Neither team can score 30 in this game. It'll be at most a 7-point game. Take those points in this bruiser. Call it Penn State 27, Michigan 20.
R: Michigan at Penn State (-10)
Michigan’s offense is probably as bad as Oregon’s. But the defense is their defense is top notch and can create short fields. Speith is out of the game again, forcing Michigan to use their backup in what was a less than stellar performance. John O’Korn heads up the 114th offensive team in terms of efficiency and is in the middle of the pack for explosiveness, field position, and is 90th in finishing drives. The offense is entirely dependent on the running game and getting explosive plays. I don’t think the speed of the Nittany Lion defense is going to allow Michigan to get huge gains like they did against Indiana last week.
Saquon Barkley is one of the few running backs who can really transcend the position. Running backs are largely the result of how effective the offensive line is at opening holes. However, Barkley is a threat out of the backfield, on special teams, and makes the line better with the way he makes people miss, sets up blocks, and runs away from people. Barkley has a really good offensive coordinator who leads one side of the ball that has been a lot of fun to watch this year.
The matchup between the Michigan defense and the Penn State offense will determine the game. Jonathan Franklin has been a fantastic coach this season and his most notable efforts have been the pettiness. He trashed Pitt after he beat them, iced the opposing kicker to preserve a shutout, had Barkley out making plays only for PR purposes, and is all about sending messages. This is a game that Franklin wants to win so badly and win by a ton. He wants to bury the Wolverines in Happy Valley. It’s a white-out at State College and Michigan could see this one get away from them early.
S: USC at Notre Dame (-4)
This feels like a luck-runs-out game for USC. They have been flirting with disaster for several weeks now: turnover-prone and inconsistent. That won't work against a super-good Notre Dame defense. USC's playcalling also has been suspect. A team with an excellent run game shouldn't throw the ball 50 times in a one-point win over Utah!
Will Sam Darnold start playing like 2016 Sam Darnold, and take care of the ball? Probably. Will that all of a sudden happen under the lights in South Bend? Doubtful. Lay those 4. USC is banged up and can be run on.
R: USC at Notre Dame (-4)
USC is still riding they hype train from last year. Sam Darnold was the clear top draft pick and the Trojans were going to keep rolling through the next season. I bought it. It’s still possible. But so far this year the Trojans have struggled in most of their games this season. Western Michigan pushed them to the fourth quarter, Texas took them to overtime, they needed a huge fourth quarter against the Golden Bears, and last week Utah was a successful 2-point conversion away from winning the game.
The Trojans have honestly been through a lot of grinding games this year. Darnold has been pretty turnover prone as well, which doesn’t make things easy. Notre Dame is going to take advantage of any mistake that is made at home. The offense has had to be methodical this year on offense. USC is in the middle of the country in explosiveness both through the ground and air.
Notre Dame’s lone loss is to a Georgia team that is on track to be the only challenger to the Crimson Tide. In their loss to Georgia, Notre Dame didn’t run the ball well, and they have been running a lot better since then. USC isn’t as dominant as Georgia is against the run and in terms of their defensive success rate.
Vegas is also really big on Notre Dame. They are ranked higher in both S&P+ and Vegas. I like Notre Dame to win a close one by a touchdown. This is going to be a really fun game.
Conference Uncommon Games
S: Arizona (-3) at Cal
I don't think anyone can stop Khalil Tate and the Arizona offense right now. The dude has come out of nowhere to befuddle defenses with his legs, and do enough with his arm (74.8% completions) to take advantage of any defense's weakness.
To its credit, Cal turned in a marvelous performance against WSU last Friday. But a lot of that success I think was due to WSU just being in a serious, mistake-prone funk. Arizona will surprise Cal with its speed. And that's enough to get the win on the road here.
R: Arizona at Cal (+3)
I wrote off the Wildcats at the start of the year, and so did a lot of the PAC-12 coaches in their anonymous survey answers to Athlon Sports at the beginning of the year. Khalil Tate has filled in wonderfully as the starting quarterback by rushing for over 200 yards in his last two starts. He’s basically a glorified running back at this point. He’s only thrown the ball 26 times in total the last two games.
I think Cal is going to be able to make Arizona completely one-dimensional. Justin Wilcox has done a great job leading the defense at every school he coached at and Coach Azz is a huge plus. Cal is going to force Arizona to throw the ball. They’re going to dare Tate to win the game through the air. ZCal made WSU one-dimensional. WSU had been a very efficient team on the ground so eliminating the running game was an achievement.
Arizona took advantage of a bad UCLA run defense last week but they are playing a different animal this week on the road. They’re not going to have same opportunities against this defense. I like Cal to win and would bet the money line.
S: Arizona State (+8.5) at Utah
Arizona State probably doesn't win this one, but I don't trust Utah's offense to score enough points to cover 9 here. ASU's defense took a huge stride forward beating Washington last week. Their offense has enough talent to score 21 points in this game. I think this is a tight game decided in the last few minutes. The fact that I get more than a touchdown with a Sun Devil squad on the rise makes this feel like a good pick - at least for now!
R: Arizona State (+8.5) at Utah
Maybe this pick has a little bit of recency bias. Arizona State’s defense smothered washington’s offense. It wasn’t due to luck either. The Sun Devils were simply better at all three levels of the defense. The defensive line got pressure on Browning and Browning had nowhere to throw it as every washington receiver was draped by a Sun Devil defensive back. I’m trying not to do too much revisionist history now that we are past the midway mark but in hindsight ASU played really good teams so far. Their losses are to Stanford, Texas Tech, and San Diego State. Those are three good teams.
Utah lost a close thriller lost a close one last week to USC. They were a single play away from getting a signature win on the season. It looks like senior Troy Williams will be starting right now, replacing the freshman who took his starting spot at the beginning of the season. Williams had four touchdown passes last year against Arizona State in a win, but that ASU team was getting crushed by injuries. I like Utah to win but the game will be closer than the experts think.
Wild Car Picks
S: West Virginia (-9.5) at Baylor
I was hesitant to go this direction, but I realized I shouldn't still be scared of Baylor after they gave Oklahoma a scare several weeks ago. WVU is playing really good football. Despite them not having a marquee defense, they have a good secondary (as is a Dana Holgorsen staple) and can stiffen up as a unit when needed: it gave up only 7 second-half points to the high-flying Texas Tech offense last week. I don't love laying double digit points on the road, but I don't see Baylor scoring more than 20, and I think The Mountaineers' Will Grier has the goods to score as many as he wants on the Bears. Lay the points.
R: Purdue (-8) at Rutgers
Rutgers snapped their 16 conference game losing streak last week with the win over Illinois on the road. The Scarlet Knights offense has been the biggest problem this year as the least explosive offense in the country and the 86th success rate. The defense is more in the middle of the road, ranking 43rd in efficiency, 61st in explosiveness, but 92nd in points per drive inside the 40. This is a much better Rutgers team than the one we saw last year, but they’re going to take another one in the L column.
Purdue has been one of the most improved teams this season and their offense has been the biggest reason why. They have scored points against everybody and they will be able to score a lot against Rutgers. Their advanced states leave one with the impression that they are slightly above average but my eyes have told me a different story this year. They are great at stopping the run on defense, although some explosive plays get through. I think they match up well against Rutgers there. The Knights won’t be able to take advantage of the Boilermaker weakness of keeping opponents in long down and distances through the air. Purdue ranks 109th in defensive passing success rate.
S: UCF (-6.5) at Navy
The Knights are undefeated outright and against the spread. So, I'm betting on UCF until they don't cover a spread. Future Nebraska head coach Scott Frost is crushing it! He took over a UCF squad that was 0-12 in 2015. In his first year, the Knights went 6-6 and made a bowl game. Now, they're an undefeated top-20 team, are playing great defense, and are the highest scoring team in college football.
R: UCF (-6.5) at Navy
Scott Frost is going to be one of the hottest coaching candidates this off-season. Almost every team with a vacancy is going to go after him. According to S&P+, UCF is the ninth-best team in the country. The defense is great at keeping offenses to long downs and distances, although they have been prone to giving up explosive plays, especially on the ground. I think the Knights are going to be able to lean on their defensive backs to play on island so that they can load the box to get the Midshipmen off the field.
Navy’s biggest weaknes this game is going to be in their pass defense. The rank 94th in pass defense S&P+ and are one of the worst in the country at preventing explosive plays. In classic triple-option form they have the worst passing success rate but the most explosive passing offense.
The advantage the UCF offense has over the Navy defense is greater than the difference, if any, between the Navy offense and UCF defense. I see a game where Navy gets down early and has to try and claw their way back in. Scott Frost’s team isn’t going to let them get back into it and will win by 14 or more points.