Articles By David Fox
One of the great Thanksgiving traditions is snickering at who is playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions.
The list of Lions quarterbacks starting on Thanksgiving is a list of draft busts, journeymen, career backups and former stars whose best days had gone by.
Giggling at Lions quarterbacks on Thanksgiving, though, is getting tougher. Thank you, Matthew Stafford.
To fill that void is our (somewhat arbitrary) ranking of the quarterbacks who have started on Thanksgiving for the Lions since the NFL merger (1970).
To be clear, we’re looking at their entire career, not just their starts on Thanksgiving nor their tenures with the Lions. You’re welcome, Daunte Culpepper.
1. Matthew Stafford (2009, 2011-14)
Stafford has made the most starts for the Lions on Thanksgiving since Joey Harrington and delivered the Lions' first Turkey Day win in a decade with a 40-10 win over the Packers in 2013. After nine straight losses, Detroit has won two Thanksgiving games in a row under Stafford. Give the Lions' all-time leading passer a keg (to carry).
2. Dave Krieg (1994)
The longtime Seahawks quarterback made one Thanksgiving start for Detroit, and it was one of the Lions’ best. Subbing for Scott Mitchell, Krieg went 20-of-25 for 351 yards with three touchdowns in a win over the Bills. By then, Kreig was a 36-year-old QB with three Pro Bowl selections and an NFC Championship Game behind him.
3. Daunte Culpepper (2008)
Remember the Culpepper era in Detroit? We didn’t, either. From 2000-04, Culpepper was a rival to Peyton Manning. After that? Not so much. By 2008, the three-time Pro Bowler made five starts during the Lions’ winless season in 2008. Culpepper was 0-10 as a starter in two seasons for the Lions.
4. Jon Kitna (2006-07)
Kitna entered the league in 1997, and he was still on an NFL roster at age 41 in 2013. The Cowboys signed him away from being a high school math teacher and coach at Lincoln High in Tacoma, Wash. — during winter break, of course. Kitna then donated his $53,000 Cowboys salary to the high school. Oh, and he started on Thanksgiving for both the Lions and Cowboys during his career. You’re a cool teacher, Mr. Kitna.
5. Joe Ferguson (1986)
Ferguson made five career starts for the Lions in his mid-30s, well after he played for the Bills from 1973-84. He led the league in passing in 1977 and touchdowns in '75 and pulled the Bills out of the doldrums. But he also had a knack for throwing interceptions in the playoffs and also during the 1982 regular season when he threw 16 picks.
6. Scott Mitchell (1995-97)
Mitchell enjoyed his best season in 1995 with 4,338 yards and 32 touchdowns, including a win over Minnesota on Thanksgiving. He started three full seasons for Detroit and hung around the NFL for five more years until 2001. He resurfaced as a 366-pound contestant on "The Biggest Loser" in 2014.
7. Greg Landry (1970-72, 1974, 1976-77)
Landry spent 10 seasons with the Lions, only four as their primary quarterback. After spending 1968-84 in the NFL, he was an assistant in the pros and in college until 1986. Bet you didn’t know there’s a National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, and Landry’s in it. Now you know.
8. Erik Kramer (1991-92)
He started 15 games in three seasons for the Lions, including twice on Thanksgiving and three times in the playoffs. He didn’t become a full-time starter until age 31 for the Bears.
9. Gus Frerotte (1999)
The journeyman Frerotte is one of 14 quarterbacks to throw a 99-yard pass. In that way, he’s just like Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Jim Plunkett and Otto Graham.
10. Rodney Peete (1993)
Peete bounced around the league as a backup for most of his 15 seasons. He finished with a 45-42 career record, which for this list is pretty good.
11. Eric Hipple (1981-83, 1985)
Hipple played his entire career for the Lions, going 3-1 on Thanksgiving and 25-29 otherwise.
12. Gary Danielson (1978, 1980, 1984)
The CBS college football commentator started three non-consecutive Thanksgivings for the Lions and had a couple of nice seasons in 1978-80.
13. Bill Munson (1973)
Munson played for the Lions from 1968-75, started 48 games and yet only one of them came on Thanksgiving. In his first two seasons in the NFL in 1964-65 for the Rams, Munson threw 29 total interceptions. A decade later, he led three game-winning drives for the Lions in 1974 alone.
14. Charlie Batch (1998, 2000-01)
We could have sworn Charlie Batch was still a backup somewhere. He’s not.
15. Joey Harrington (2002-05)
Harrington started four Thanksgiving games for the Lions. He finished two of them. He’s on TV now.
16. Bob Gagliano (1989-90)
For Detroit in two years: 11 starts, 16 touchdown passes. For three other NFL teams in five years: Two starts and one touchdown pass Also played two years in the USFL.
17. Shaun Hill (2010)
Hill started one season while Stafford was hurt, threw 12 interceptions, including two against the Patriots on Thanksgiving.
18. Chuck Long (1987-88)
He started twice on Thanksgiving and went a combined 8-of-20. His 2.8 passer rating in 1988 is the worst for any Lions QB on Thanksgiving since 1970. Led the NFL with 20 interceptions in 1987.
19. Joe Reed (1975)
Enjoyed one extended look as a starter in 1975 and threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
20. Jeff Komlo (1979)
A ninth-round pick, Komlo threw 23 interceptions and went 2-12 in his lone season as a starter in the NFL as a rookie. His story didn’t end well.
An optimist might say Notre Dame is right where it needs to be.
The Irish are No. 6 in this week's College Football Playoff rankings, the same spot eventual champion Ohio State was at this point last season. The two teams ahead of Notre Dame will play each other, and a third will play a one-loss, No. 11 team on the road in the last week of the season.
On the other hand, Notre Dame has every reason to be nervous.
After Tuesday’s rankings, there’s reason to believe the Irish could finish 11-1 with a win over potential Pac-12 champion Stanford and still get left out of the Playoff.
Certainly, the Playoff committee is not beholden to any week’s rankings. For example, this week when Notre Dame slipped from No. 4 to No. 6 despite a win over Boston College. But No. 3 Oklahoma would presumably be safe with a win over 10-1 Oklahoma State, and the committee seems to have set up a play-in game between Iowa and Michigan State, provided the Spartans clinch the Big Ten East against Penn State this week.
Although there’s no reason to hold the committee to what it did last year, it’s tough to ignore how TCU ended up one of the odd teams out. The Horned Frogs clobbered a bad Iowa State team in the last week of the season while Ohio State won the Big Ten championship with a 59-0 win over Wisconsin. Even a lopsided win wasn't enough to stop the Buckeyes from leapfrogging TCU into the top four.
Like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Notre Dame won’t play during the final week of the season on Dec. 5, leaving the Bedlam Game and Notre Dame-Stanford as the last statements for all three teams. In other words, where the Bedlam winner and Notre Dame stand this time next week may be where they end up in the final rankings. And that doesn’t take into account Baylor, lurking at No. 7 with a chance at the Big 12 title playing that week against Texas.
Notre Dame could lose to Stanford and render the entire debate moot, but the Irish may not want to leave any doubt when they head to Palo Alto.
Here are some other thoughts on this week's rankings:
The big wins mean more than a bad loss
What we learned last season when Ohio State’s loss to a mediocre Virginia Tech seemed not to matter late in there year was on display again. The forgiveness of an early loss to a bad team was repeated again as Oklahoma moved up to No. 3 this week. The Sooners’ 24-17 loss to 4-6 Texas on Oct. 10 — a game that wasn’t even that close — doesn’t seem to hold sway over the committee. Apart from the loss to Texas, the Sooners have defeated Baylor (9-1) and West Virginia (6-4) soundly and Tennessee (7-4) on the road. Last week, Oklahoma needed TCU, with its backup quarterback and without its All-America receiver, to miss a two-point conversion to win. Even an identical opponent — Notre Dame beat Texas soundly in Week 1 — didn’t seem to help the Irish vault over OU. “It’s more a function of how Oklahoma has performed since that loss,” selection committee chair Jeff Long said. “They’ve overcome that loss with their play on the field and wins they’ve accumulated.” In other words, as long as a team can prove that early loss was a fluke, it's OK.
The committee isn’t giving the SEC a pass
This is worth reiterating if only because there’s a sentiment that SEC teams receive the benefit of the doubt. Clearly the committee has not been impressed with the SEC East and to a lesser extent the SEC West. Despite needing overtime to beat FAU and eking out wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina, the Gators are still in the top 10 of both polls. For the committee, the Gators slipped from No. 8 to No. 12 this week. The top conference in the rankings in terms of numbers has been the Big Ten for three consecutive weeks. The SEC this week had four top 25 teams compared to five in the Big Ten and Pac-12.
Undefeated still counts
Somewhat definitively, Long said the committee views Oklahoma as a better team than undefeated Iowa. The difference between Iowa and Michigan State, though, came down to one team being undefeated and one having a loss. Michigan State has three top 25 wins, and two top-10 wins on the road (Michigan and Ohio State). Iowa has one top 25 win altogether, over No. 16 Northwestern on the road. The difference, Long said, was Iowa being undefeated. Although the committee has repeatedly shown that it will rank undefeated power teams behind one-loss teams, having a zero in the loss column counts.
Ohio State is still getting the benefit of the doubt
The Buckeyes don’t have a top 25 win but still checked in at No. 8 despite a loss to Michigan State in a listless performance that is starting to become the trend of the season. Despite a hole in Ohio State’s résumé, the committee still may view the Buckeyes as a potential playoff team if they can get into the Big Ten title game and beat Iowa.
The AAC isn’t guaranteed a spot as the Group of 5 representative
The American Athletic Conference still has the highest ranked Group of 5 team by nine spots with Navy at No. 15, but the league has gone somewhat haywire. Navy needs to beat unranked one-loss Houston to go to the AAC title game and either Temple or USF could win the AAC East. Should Navy lose to Houston and/or USF win the AAC, that might open the door for a potential MAC, Conference USA or Mountain West champion to steal a big-time spot that was assumed to be sealed for the AAC.
New Year’s Six Projections
Orange Bowl semifinal: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Iowa
Cotton Bowl semifinal: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Rose: No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Stanford
Sugar: No. 12 Florida vs. No. 7 Baylor
Fiesta: No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Michigan
Peach: No. 8 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Navy
Rivalry week will bring about its share of icy handshakes and frosty interactions, and that has nothing to do with the looming winter.
As much as rivalries have to do with close games, traditional matchups, hated fanbases and trophy games, they pit coaches with differing styles — both in demeanor and on-field scheme — who have to recruit against one another and beat each other to win conference and national championships.
This year will mark the first meeting between Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, a matchup that may produce one of college football's all-time best coaching rivalries. The reasons are easy to see why: They coach at rival schools. They’re both elite coaches who expect to be competing for national championships at the end of every season. And both of these coaches have accrued plenty of other personal rivals over the years.
Of course, the gold standard for coaching rivalries is one between Ohio State and Michigan, between Woody and Bo. Urban and Jim might not have a Ten Year War, but they should end up on this list sooner or later.
Woody Hayes vs. Bo Schembechler
Woody vs. Bo is the template for great coaching rivalries. The Ten Year War took an already heated Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and elevated it to one of the best in sports. To Hayes, Michigan was “the school up north.” To Schembecher, Ohio State was simply “ohio.” Hayes and Schembechler had two rival schools in Rose Bowl contention every season when the two met at the end of the year. They had a shared history with Hayes coaching Schembechler at Miami (Ohio). They respected each other, but neither coach could stomach a loss in The Big Game.
Steve Spurrier vs. Bobby Bowden and Phillip Fulmer
To Spurrier, every coach was a rival. He sparred with Ray Goff and Dabo Swinney, but none of his rivalries were more heated than his matchups with Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer. It helped that the Florida-Tennessee game was the gateway to the SEC title, and Florida-Florida State was a gateway to a national championship. The cracks at his rivals — “Free Shoes University,” “you can’t spell Citrus without U-T” — were enough to make the sideshow entertaining. But from time to time, it could get personal, with Spurrier on multiple occasions accusing Florida State of cheap shots and intentionally injuring his players.
Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll
The rivalry reached its peak when Harbaugh joined Carroll in the NFC West, but it got its start when Harbaugh at Stanford put the bull’s eye on Carroll’s USC program. Even before his first season at Stanford, Harbaugh theorized Carroll would last “one more year” at USC before going to the NFL. Carroll, of course, fired back, “If he's going to make statements like that, he ought to get his information right.” Harbaugh doubled down and said: “We bow to no man. We bow to now program here at Stanford University.” The Cardinal defeated USC 24-23 in 2007 for one of the most stunning defeats in college football history, a moment that signaled the rise of Stanford and the erosion of Carroll’s dynasty at USC. Two years later, Harbaugh elected to go for a two-point conversion to go up 55-21 in a win over USC. During the postgame handshake, Carroll admonished Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” and the rivalry was born. Harbaugh had a 2-1 edge in college, but Carroll’s Seahawks went 5-4 against Harbaugh’s 49ers in the pros.
Urban Meyer vs. Nick Saban
The beef between Meyer and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin provided better material during Meyer’s time in the SEC, but Kiffin didn’t stay long enough in Knoxville to call it a true rivalry. Meyer and Saban don’t snipe at each other publicly, but they’re not pals, either. One is an old-school defensive guy. The other one of the primary figures in the rise of the spread offense. Any list of the top coaches in the sport today starts with these two, in either order. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve met three teams in de facto national championship semifinals. They split their meetings in the SEC championship game in 2008 and 2009, and Meyer won in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal on the way to the national championship.
Gary Patterson vs. Art Briles
The rise of Baylor and TCU’s admission to the Big 12 revived one of the Southwest Conference’s best rivalries. The Frogs already heald a grudge against former Texas governor and Baylor grad Ann Richards for exerting pressure to keep TCU out of the Big 12 when the league originally formed. In the here and now, though, Patterson and Briles have been up for the moment. Patterson is the defensive mind. Briles is the offensive guru. And neither has much of a filter.
Joe Paterno vs. Jackie Sherrill
The rivalry between the former Penn State coach and former Pittsburgh coach could be distilled into one off-hand remark Paterno thought was off the record. Paterno said in 1979 he wouldn’t retired and leave the game to “the Switzers and the Sherrills.” Paterno late apologized to Switzer and wrote a forward to his book. Paterno also said he and Sherrill had problems that ran deeper. “We've had one or two incidents outside of coaching that I'd rather not go into. But when I said 'certain things,' I meant an attitude — an emphasis on winning, an emphasis on how much a coach should make,” Paterno told the New York Times. “Some people interpreted what I said as meaning that they were cheating. But that was not the case both for Switzer and for Sherrill.” Paterno and Sherrill eventually made amends with Paterno inviting his former Pitt rival to address his team in 2004.
Darrell Royal vs. Barry Switzer
Switzer and Tom Osborne were friendly even in the throes of the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry in 70s and 80s. Switzer and Bedlam rival Pat Jones got along fine. Even Royal and Arkansas coach Frank Broyles were friendly during nearly 20 years of Southwest Conference matchups. Switzer and Royal, though, squeezed plenty of animosity into the four years they overlapped at Oklahoma and Texas. Royal in 1976 accused Switzer of spying on Texas practices and offered to resign if the OU could pass a lie detector test. Turns out Royal was partially correct — an OU booster in disguise actually was spying on Texas practices.
Darrell Royal vs. Frank Broyles
Royal and Broyles weren’t rivals in that they despised one another — far from it. The Texas and Arkansas coaches were downright chummy even though they had the longest rivalry in modern college coaching at 19 years. Royal went 14-5 during that span.
Bret Bielema vs. Gus Malzahn
As rivalries go, there’s not much here that would have been obvious. Auburn and Arkansas both claim several rivalries that are more heated. Bielema and Malzahn never really crossed paths before the two became SEC head coaches. Then, Bielema claimed in 2013 hurry-up offenses like Malzahn’s contribute to the concussion crises. Malzahn called such a claim a joke, and from there the rivalry became a test of which football philosophy would prevail.
Thanksgiving hasn’t been the same since the Texas A&M and Missouri started hanging out with the SEC. Or since West Virginia and Pitt started rolling with the Big 12 and ACC, respectively.
Conference realignment ended a handful of traditional rivalries, either because of scheduling conflicts or acrimonious relationships.
In other words, no more Texas-Texas A&M. No more Border War.
Rivalry week isn’t what it used to be, and, frankly, we’d wish everyone would just get along. Here’s a look at what conference changes have cost the sport in terms of history and tradition.
Last played: 2011
Played on Thanksgiving in most years, this heated rivalry ended when the Aggies left the Big 12 for the SEC. The 2012 season maked the first time since 1915 that A&M and Texas haven’t been in the same league — both were charter members of the Southwest Conference and then the Big 12. Few rivalries run as deep in the traditions of each school. Both fight songs mention the other (“Goodbye to Texas University. So long to the Orange and White” in the Aggie War Hymn, “And it’s goodbye to Texas A&M” in Texas Fight). Bevo has been kidnapped through the course of the rivalry, so has Reveille. Long in the shadow of the Longhorns, Texas A&M broke with Texas to join the SEC. Coaches for both programs have expressed interest in resuming the rivalry, but there's too much animosity between the powers that be to expect an Aggies-Longhorns Thanksgiving in the near future.
Last played: 2011
Just because the Border War (now the Border Showdown) doesn’t rise to the same level of national attention as Michigan-Ohio State or the Iron Bowl, that doesn’t make it any less nasty across all sports. Before Missouri left for the SEC, Kansas-Missouri was the oldest rivalry West of the Mississippi. The series has included brawls, conniving and upsets over the years. But now it’s just a Cold War. While he won’t be the final say, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self has indicated he wouldn’t mind of the Jayhawks never played Missouri again.
Last played: 2014
The Michigan-Notre Dame series has been marked by lulls from 1944-77 and 1910-41, but the two teams have met nearly every year since 1978. The series was an apparent casualty from Notre Dame’s agreement to face four or five ACC schools every season. It remains to be seen how the arrangement will affect Notre Dame’s other traditional games against Michigan State and Purdue. Notre Dame has indicated its top rivalries to preserve would be those with USC, Navy and Stanford.
Last played: 2014
Louisville and Cincinnati have been travel partners for most of their history, sharing conference affiliations in the Missouri Valley, the Metro, Conference USA, the Big East and for a year the American. That ended when Louisville bolted for the ACC. The Ohio River rivalry separated by 100 miles is also the home for one of the better non-Big Ten trophy games with the Keg of Nails. With Bobby Petrino back at Louisville and his former boss Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati, this one could be a good personal grudge match.
Last played: 2011
The Aggies lost a host of old Southwest Conference matchups when they joined the SEC — though they did get one back with Arkansas in the SEC West, plus the continuation of the series with LSU. Baylor-Texas A&M isn’t missed as much as Texas-Texas A&M, but the Battle of the Brazos has deep roots. Baylor was the closest co-educational school to Texas A&M when College Station was an all-male campus before 1911 — so do the math. From 1958-90, the series was more competitive than one might thing, and the Aggies 31-30 win in 1986 was regarded as the game of the ‘80s by Texas Football magazine. As with all Texas rivalries, there’s a political element here with the governorships (Ann Richards for Baylor and Rick Perry for Texas A&M) in play.
Rivalries making a Comeback
Last played: 2014 (bowl game), 2008 (regular season)
Next meeting: 2021
The two programs have played only three times in the regular season since Arkansas left the Southwest Conference in 1992. The most recent meeting was a 31-7 Arkansas win in the Texas Bowl last season. The rivalry was at its best when the top two coaches for each school — Darrell Royal at Texas and Frank Broyles at Arkansas — overlapped from 1958-78. In 1969, No. 1 Texas defeated No. 2 Arkansas 15-14 on Dec. 2 of that season. In that famous game, President Richard Nixon attended and declared the Longhorns national champions. Unless there's another postseason matchup between the two, the Hogs and Horns won't play for a period of 13 years during the regular season. There are no plans to play afte 2021.
Last played: 2008
Next meeting: 2019?
Once the longest running series in the Sunshine State ended when the SEC moved to an eight-game schedule. The Gators kept their annual series with Florida State, set in motion by the state legislature (Miami also continued to play FSU every year well before both were in the ACC). Florida and Miami played every year from 1938-87, ending just as both programs achieved national prominence. The two teams met intermittently since, but they’ve played only five times since the series ended. Reports have indicated that Florida and Miami will open the 2019 season with a matchup in Orlando, but the deal is not yet official.
Last played: 2010
Next meeting: 2021
Consider this: there’s a whole generation out there that never watched Nebraska and Oklahoma face off on Thanksgiving. As the Big Eight’s preeminent powers during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, one program in the rivalry was a consistent foil for the other. At one point, the winner of this game won the Big Eight in 31 of 36 seasons, including the 1971 Game of the Century between the No. 1 Cornhuskers and No. 2 Sooners. The formation of the Big 12 ended this game as an annual event, and Nebraska’s departure for the Big Ten ended regular meetings altogether. A sliver of good news, though: The series has been scheduled for a non-conference home-and-home in 2021-22.
Last played: 2000
Next meeting: 2016
This used to be the biggest rivalry game for both schools, but it was at its best in the late 1970s and '80s when Pitt was a national title contender under Jackie Sherrill and Johnny Majors. Penn State coach Joe Paterno was not the biggest fan of Sherrill, and Pittsburgh was not the biggest fan of the Eastern football league Paterno hoped to establish. Pitt joined the Big East instead. When Penn State joined the Big Ten, it all but ended the series.
Last played: 2011
Next meeting: 2022
Separated by 80 miles, the Backyard Brawl was turned up a notch when Pittsburgh stopped playing its other top rival, Penn State. With both teams in the Big East and the game taking place in the final week of November in all but one year since 1997, the rivalry took a new look. The most significant game in the rivalry, though, was in 2007 when a then-No. 2 West Virginia team lost its bid to the national championship thanks to a monumental 13-9 upset to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team.
Virginia Tech-West Virginia
Last played: 2005
Next meeting: 2017
The Hokies and Mountaineers were regular foes when the two programs were independents and then as Big East rivals. This is each team’s No. 2 rival at best with the Commonwealth Cup and Backyard Brawl taking top billing for both fanbases. But they did play for the Black Diamond Trophy since 1997, and played a classic matchup in 1999 when Mike Vick led a game-winning drive in the final 23 seconds. The series will resume on a neutral field in 2017 and then as a home and home in 2021-22.
If rivalry week means anything, it's to expect the unexpected. Games that on paper should go one way will end up as close calls or outright upsets. Picking rivalry week is not for the faint of heart.
The Athlon Sports College Football Experts Club presented by Nexium & Advil gives you the chance to compete with your friends and our experts each week.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
Navy at Houston
Houston’s prolific dual-threat Greg Ward Jr. wasn’t healthy enough to take the load of quarterback duties against UConn as backup Kyle Postma struggled to keep the Cougars offense moving in their first loss of the season. Ward’s health will be key as Navy tries to shorten the game with the triple option. Mistakes may be at a premium in a game between two of the top four teams in turnover margin. With a trip to the AAC title game on the line, Navy is playing more consistent football right now.
Fox’s pick: Navy 44–35
Iowa at Nebraska
Iowa has clinched a spot in the Big Ten title game, but it won't overlook Nebraska. A year ago, Iowa led Nebraska by 17 late in the third quarter when the Huskers mounted a comeback that ended with a 37–34 win in overtime. Iowa’s run game is as healthy as it has been all season, and quarterback C.J. Beathard has been efficient for most of the season despite a host of bumps and bruises. The Hawkeyes have to be concerned, however, about a defense that has allowed 400 yards in three consecutive games after allowing an average of 287.6 in the first eight. Nebraska already has played the role of spoiler once this season, handing Michigan State its only loss of the season. The Cornhuskers are looking to close Mike Riley’s disappointing debut season with three consecutive wins and a bowl appearance.
Fox’s pick: Iowa 35–27
Oregon State at Oregon
Perhaps no team in the country is on a better hot streak than Oregon since the return of quarterback Vernon Adams. The Ducks have averaged better than nine yards per play against Stanford and USC. Oregon State, allowing a Pac-12-worst 6.3 yards per play, is in trouble.
Fox’s pick: Oregon 56–28
Baylor at TCU
Baylor looked every bit as dangerous with Chris Johnson at quarterback as it did with Jarrett Stidham — and Seth Russell before that. TCU put up a valiant effort last week against Oklahoma without Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson, but the rally ultimately came up short. With or without Boykin, TCU may be in trouble due to its overmatched defense.
Fox’s pick: Baylor 48–28
Alabama at Auburn
Don’t expect Alabama to overlook its chief rival, primarily because Alabama still needs to beat Auburn (or needs Ole Miss to lose) to clinch the SEC West. The Tide have shown little vulnerability in the last two months, holding opponents to an average of 2.1 yards per carry just as running back Derrick Henry has vaulted himself into the front of the Heisman race. Auburn is getting better, too, on both sides of the ball. The maligned defense has held its last two SEC opponents to 4.04 yards per play. And quarterback Jeremy Johnson, benched earlier this season, has regained the confidence of the coaching staff. Will it be enough to shock the Tide?
Fox’s pick: Alabama 42–20
UCLA at USC
The Pac-12 South is on the line in the battle for Los Angeles. This game is a toss-up as far as we’re concerned. Both teams have been unpredictable, but the Bruins have won three in a row in the series — all by double digits. USC, though, has the home field advantage as was on a hot streak before running into the Oregon buzz saw a week ago.
Fox’s pick: USC 38-35
Florida State at Florida
Strictly speaking, Florida is a College Football Playoff contender. The Gators have one loss (on the road by seven to LSU), a marquee win (by 28 over Ole Miss) with opportunities for two statement wins in the last two games (Florida State and Alabama and Ole Miss in the SEC title game). The reality during the last three weeks couldn’t be further from the truth. Since beating Georgia, Florida has hardly looked like a 10–1 team with an outside shot of playing for a national title. The Gators’ offense has been dormant against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and FAU, averaging 4.6 yards per play with eight turnovers during that span. Florida also will need to overcome a rash of injuries on the defensive line while facing a Heisman-contending running back in Dalvin Cook.
Fox’s pick: Florida State 28–10
Texas A&M at LSU
LSU has gone from No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings to full-on crisis mode in a matter of three weeks. The Tigers are riding their first three-game losing streak since 1999 when the Tigers lost eight in a row in the final season under Gerry DiNardo. All signs pont to this being the final season under coach Les Miles, who has lost at least three SEC games in his last three seasons. Texas A&M has won three of four, but those wins include flailing South Carolina, FCS Western Carolina and a field goal fest at Vanderbilt. This game may be a referendum of sorts on coach Kevin Sumlin and quarterback Kyle Allen, who re-acquired the starting job last week against the Commodores.
Fox’s pick: Texas A&M 28–17
Georgia at Georgia Tech
Oddly enough, Georgia and Georgia Tech both need this game to send their fans home with something, anything, positive to say about this season. The Yellow Jackets are further in the hole with their worst season since 1994. Georgia could win nine games in the regular season, but the Bulldogs have been out of the national and SEC picture since October.
Fox’s pick: Georgia 28–21
Ole Miss at Mississippi State
Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen have turned the Egg Bowl into a must-see rivalry even for those outside of the state of Mississippi. The rivalry will feature two ranked teams for the sixth time in history and for the first time in consecutive years. Expect a hero’s welcome for quarterback Dak Prescott, arguably the best player in Mississippi State history, in his final home game just a week after a 508-yard performance in a win over Arkansas. Ole Miss has won three of four since its loss at Memphis on Oct. 17, but the Rebels will need its streaky defense to show up in order to contain Prescott to pick up their first win in Starkville since 2003.
Fox’s pick: Mississippi State 35–31
North Carolina at NC State
After clobbering Duke and Miami, North Carolina needed overtime to escape Virginia Tech. We’re willing to credit some of that to Virginia Tech giving a little extra in the final game in Blacksburg for Frank Beamer. NC State has been streaky this season. The Wolfpack failed to score 20 points against Louisville, Virginia Tech and Florida State but scored 41 on Clemson. If the good version of Jacoby Brissett shows up, the Pack can give UNC a game.
Fox’s pick: North Carolina 41–31
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
The season didn’t start the way Volunteers’ fans envisioned with four losses in the first seven games, but Tennessee is on the verge of its first eight-win season since going 10–4 in 2007 under Phillip Fulmer. Vanderbilt brings a stout defense that should give Tennessee’s inconsistent offense trouble, but the ‘Dores are averaging 3.28 yards per play in the month of November, worst in the country.
Fox’s pick: Tennessee 28–7
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
Oklahoma’s offense under Baker Mayfield has been unstoppable since the loss to Texas. The Sooners have averaged 604 yards per game over the last six, and that includes a half of ineffective football behind a backup quarterback against TCU. The Cowboys pride themselves on their pass rush and ability to come up with the big play in shootouts, but giving up 642 yards to Texas Tech, 663 to TCU and 700 to Baylor is not advisable in any situation.
Fox’s pick: Oklahoma 44–34
Notre Dame at Stanford
Notre Dame’s five turnovers against Boston College was alarming, but the Irish have been one of the most consistent offenses in the country. Notre Dame had success moving the ball against a stout BC defense … at least until it reached the red zone. Instead, Notre Dame’s defense will be under the microscope. The Irish haven’t played a ton of explosive offenses this season with the exception of Clemson in a loss and USC, which racked up 590 yards and 7.7 yards per play.
Fox’s pick: Stanford 35–28
Wisconsin at Minnesota
Wisconsin will try to end a bizarre season with a sign of normalcy. The Badgers have won eight games this season with smoke and mirrors and not with their trademark run game, which ranks 104th nationally. They’ll try to finish the season by defeating Minnesota and claiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 12th consecutive year. Minnesota’s season has been no less eventful, as the Gophers look to extend their bowl streak to four seasons despite changing coaches midseason. Minnesota is flirting with a losing season, but the Gophers have been close against top teams this year, losing one-score games to TCU, Michigan and Iowa.
Fox’s pick: Minnesota 24–17
Clemson at South Carolina
South Carolina will look to salvage its season, which now includes a four-game losing streak and a loss to The Citadel, by destroying Clemson’s hopes for a national championship. South Carolina’s run game has been non-existent in the last two games, so it’s hard to imagine the Gamecocks summoning enough offense to counter a fast and physical Brent Venables defense.
Fox’s pick: Clemson 42–17
Ohio State at Michigan
Ohio State’s bid for a back-to-back national championships suddenly has devolved into damage control. Running back Ezekiel Elliott apologized for his criticism of the coaching staff after he received only 12 carries in the 17–14 loss to Michigan State. Coach Urban Meyer tried to move on from the controversy, saying he agreed with his star running back not getting enough touches against the Spartans. Certainly, the timing of such a dust-up is not ideal with Michigan looming. Michigan’s run defense isn’t what it was back in September and October, but Ohio State may still be inclined to feed Elliott. That, after, all was the winning strategy all season. Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ own run game has gone quiet in recent weeks. Only the improved play of quarterback Jake Rudock, considered a liability at the start of the season, has kept the Wolverines in contention for the Big Ten East and a major bowl spot. If Michigan State losses to Penn State later in the day, the winner in Ann Arbor will play Iowa for the Big Ten title.
Fox’s pick: Ohio State 35–31
Colorado at Utah
Utah’s Joe Williams was productive in the absence of running back Devontae Booker, but the Utes struggled to finish drives in a loss to UCLA. With Utah out of the Pac-12 South mix and Colorado out of bowl contention, both teams may struggle to find energy.
Fox’s pick: Utah 21–14
Northwestern vs. Illinois (Chicago)
If Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit, who took over for Tim Beckman a week before the start of the season, is going to make a bid to be the permanent coach, this may be the most important game. The Illini are on the verge of bowl eligibility despite the turmoil at the start of the season. Beating Northwestern would be impressive — and not just because it’s a rivalry game. The Wildcats have managed to lean on their defense and the running of Justin Jackson to go 9–2. The Wildcats are seeking their first 10-win regular season since going to the Rose Bowl in 1995.
Fox’s pick: Northwestern 24-14
Penn State vs. Michigan State
Mark Dantonio says quarterback Connor Cook is “close” to a return from a shoulder injury, but the Michigan State coach never let on that his veteran signal-caller would miss last week’s game. In other words, don’t believe Cook is playing until he takes the field. Penn State is stout up front on defense, so this will be a tall task for any quarterback. The Nittany Lions will head to a second consecutive bowl game under James Franklin, but he’s feeling the heat for another lackluster offense despite the presence of pro prospect Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Franklin is also seeking his first signature win as the Nittany Lions’ head coach.
Fox’s pick: Michigan State 28–20
Last week: 13-7
Season to date: 179-61
Former Oregon State wide receiver Mike Hass remains one of the Pac-12’s most prolific receivers, and if his post-playing career vocation goes well, he’ll continue to slip in the record book.
Hass is one of two Pac-12 receivers with three consecutive 1,000-yard receivers, winning the Biletnikoff Award in 2005. His 1,532 yards in 2005 was a record at the time, one that’s been exceeded twice, by USC’s Marqise Lee in 2012 and Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks in 2013.
Since retiring from the NFL in 2011, Hass has kept himself in the sport — and impacting the next generation of receivers, even if they don’t know it. Hass returned to Portland where he started working with Nike as a developer for football gloves.
Hass, who appeared on the cover of the 2005 Athlon Sports Pac-12 football preview annual, talked to Athlon about working with Nike, walking on at Oregon State and the moment he was put on scholarship.
What do you do for Nike?
I develop football gloves, of all things.
When you say you develop football gloves, do you mean the design and look or the “Sport Science” part of it?
I would say more like the technology part of it, so to speak: The fit, the function, the costing, the manufacturing and engineering.
How did you get started with it?
I got done playing, and I was a Nike athlete when I was in the NFL. I had connections and some friends that worked there. I started networking and meeting the right people and finding my place with the company.
What would a normal day or week be for you?
A lot of meetings, answering emails, usually from Asia. We’re negotiating manufacturing, costing and then going back to Portland to make sure the gloves fit and form properly for the players and that the sizing is OK.
So do you test the gloves yourself?
That’s one of the things that helped me get the job. I used them for 15 years and whatnot. When samples come in, I can try them. We rely on the athletes out there to give us the insights but I can at least put them on and figure out if something is wrong.
Was this in line with your academic background or something you targeted for after your playing career?
My background was civil engineering at Oregon State. While it’s not civil engineering by any means there are definite aspects of school that I use in my day to day job, just in putting things together, solving problems.
I know Oregon State is a Nike school, but do any of your OSU friends have any opinions on you working for the most visible Oregon backer in the world?
I’ve got to do a lot of stuff for Oregon. We do so much stuff for them compared to any other school. There are times when I want to sneak some gloves through for the Beavers, but I need to get the right people on board for that one.
You played for Mike Riley when he was getting started at Oregon State. What are Nebraska players getting to know about this guy?
That he’s genuine. A lot of times coaches in the college profession churn you through and spit you out when you’re done. I think his program allows you to grow as a man. You’re cared about. He’ll be a good fit there.
Were you surprised he left after being there for so long and turned down other opportunities?
Yes and no. Change was a good thing in this situation. He was getting a lot of criticism. I think a lot of it has to do with what’s happening down the road with Oregon and their success. Oregon doesn’t have the money and the things that Oregon does. There are things to improve in that aspect. It’s a good change for him.
Do you still keep in touch with the Oregon State program and people there?
Sure. They’ve had the same equipment manager for I don’t know how long, maybe 20 years. I like to go down there and meet those familiar faces. The coaching staff has changed, so I need to meet with them and keep that relationship going. I’ll always be a Beaver and fan.
You were a walk-on at Oregon State. Now it seems like any time a walk-on gets a scholarship, it’s a YouTube video and people see that moment in real time. What do you recall about the time you were put on scholarship?
It’s a big deal. It’s what every walk-on’s goal is. I remember mine. It was my redshirt sophomore year and we were out at practice, and they drew up a pass play for me, and James Newson, a receiver who was the No. 1 guy at the time, said if you catch this one you’re going to get a scholarship. They ran the play, and I caught the ball and Coach Riley called it in and announced it in front of everybody. It was a cool experience and one I’ll never forget.
Do you ever watch those walk-on videos whenever they come up? Does it take you back?
Definitely. They’re cool. As a young man who’s worked his ass off when no one would give him a chance, it’s always cool to see guys own it. Guys come out of high school and get stars put on them and some don’t pan out and some to. But those guys actually earned it.
I had remembered you won the Biletnikoff in 2005, but I forgot what a monster year it was. You had 300 more yards than anyone else and your peers that year were Dwayne Jarrett, Greg Jennings and Jeff Samardzija. What do you remember about that year?
That was the season we wanted to have. We didn’t go to a bowl game. We only got to play 11 games. I wish I had another game to put more yards on that total. I remember we had a young team on defense, and it was frustrating to put up points and then have a defense that was going through growing pains.
Do you have your Biletnikoff Trophy? Where do you keep it?
It’s in my house, in my office. It has the program to it (from the ceremony) that I keep with other awards that I had accumulated through my career, NFL game ball and those things.
If last year’s College Football Playoff rankings are in any way a guide _ and there’s no guarantee that its is — this week might be the turning point.
The Nov. 18 rankings in 2014 had Nos. 1-2-3 lined up perfectly. Although Alabama, Oregon and Florida State would move around in the final three weeks, they’d end up exactly where they were on Nov. 18.
This was also the time last season when Ohio State started to make its ascent, which would end in the top four.
Should any of this matter in this year’s Playoff process? Probably not. Different teams. Different résumés. Different opponents in the final two weeks.
That said, what seems to be clear is that Clemson, Alabama and Notre Dame are in win-and-you’re-in territory.
Everything else is just a guess.
1. Notre Dame is going to be the great mystery
Many of the committee’s pet phrases — game control, body clock and so on — have come up in the spur of the moment, but in writing as one of the criteria is “conference championships won.” That, of course, is irrelevant to Notre Dame, and how much that will impact the Irish in the final rankings isn’t clear. True, the Irish lost to their toughest opponent — No. 1 Clemson on the road — but clearly the committee thinks highly of Notre Dame’s wins. No. 16 Navy has rocketed up the top 25, and No. 24 USC entered the rankings this week. If No. 11 Stanford and USC both reach the Pac-12 title game, and Notre Dame has victories over both, would the committee go so far as to give partial credit for a Pac-12 title?
2. Maybe Baylor’s not out of it after all
Dating back to last season, Baylor has vexed the selection committee with its lackluster non-conference schedule. The September schedule, which included SMU, Lamar and Rice, would seem to erase a margin of error for Baylor. Yet the Bears lost their first game of the season, 44-34 to Oklahoma in Waco, and fell merely to No. 10. With games remaining at No. 6 Oklahoma State, at No. 18 TCU and Texas, maybe the Bears can climb six spots — as long as the Sooners lose. Baylor’s strength of schedule is ranked 76th by Sagarin, and the Bears lost at home to the best team they’ve faced. A competitive game, however, “validated the strength of Baylor,” committee chair Jeff Long said.
3. North Carolina is going to have trouble
With blowout wins over Miami and Duke, the Tar Heels have climbed at least in public notoriety in recent weeks. In a vacuum, moving from unranked to 23rd to 17th is no small matter, but the Tar Heels are little more than a fringe contender. North Carolina lost to a 3-7 South Carolina team, played two FCS opponents and avoided Clemson and Florida State in the ACC schedule. That’s a good way to get to 9-1 and perhaps win the Atlantic, but not a good profile for the top 10. And with a semifinal in the Orange Bowl, the ACC doesn’t have an automatic tie-in for a host bowl. The Heels may have to beat Clemson in the ACC title game to guarantee a major bowl — and it won’t be a semifinal.
4. Right or wrong, Ohio State is getting the benefit of the doubt
This could have been noted in any of the first three weeks the Buckeyes were ranked No. 3, but the committee is going with the eye test on this one. Iowa has road wins over two teams that have been in the committee’s top 25, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Ohio State is the only team in this week’s top 16 that hasn’t even played another CFP top 25 team. Many of the same players who won last year’s championship are still in Columbus, but this isn’t exactly indicative of “starting with a fresh piece of paper,” as the committee likes to say.
5. The final spots are worth watching
The final 5-8 spots are always interesting, if only as a peek into strength of schedule. Three three-loss teams entered the rankings with No. 22 Ole Miss, No. 23 Oregon and No. 24 USC. And getting close to that territory is one-loss TCU at No. 18. A team that was ranked in the top 10 two weeks ago might be in danger of slipping out. TCU lost its only significant game in the committee’s estimation and escaped close calls with Texas Tech and Kansas State.
New Year’s Six Projections
Orange Bowl semifinal: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Notre Dame
Cotton Bowl semifinal: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Ohio State
Rose: No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 11 Stanford
Sugar: No. 6 Oklahoma State vs. No. 8 Florida
Fiesta: No. 7 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Michigan State
Peach: No. 16 Navy vs. No. 10 Baylor
The College Football Playoff race isn't close to being determined. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, teams are playing themselves in and out of contention. This has been a season of crazy finishes and heated competition on and off the field.
The Athlon Sports College Football Experts Club presented by Nexium & Advil gives you the chance to compete with your friends and our experts each week.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
Michigan at Penn State
The Wolverines’ stifling defense has been ordinary in recent weeks. By a wide margin, Michigan has allowed more rushing yards in the last three games (579) than it did in the first seven (453). Opponents in those last three games have averaged 4.75 yards per carry against the Michigan defense. The Wolverines’ slump coincides with a Penn State offense that is slowly becoming more consistent. The Nittany Lions are averaging 6 yards per play in conference games this season, compared to 3.72 a year ago. This may come down to which quarterback — Jake Rudock for Michigan or Christian Hackenberg for Penn State — can crack the opposing defense.
Fox’s Pick: Michigan 28–20
Cal at Stanford
The implications of the Big Game have been dampened by Stanford’s loss to Oregon, likely knocking the Cardinal out of the playoff picture. The Pac-12 North title, though, is still in play as Oregon and Washington State have new life in the race. Cal ended its four-game losing streak with a rout of Oregon State and 453 passing yards and six touchdowns from Jared Goff. Cal may be able to pick up yards against the Stanford defense, but the Bears have showed little indication they’ll be able to contain a player like Christian McCaffrey.
Fox’s Pick: Stanford 42–28
Louisville at Pittsburgh
Louisville has quietly put together a four-game winning streak after a 2–4 start. A road trip to Pitt, however, figures to be the toughest test for the Cardinals in the second half of the regular season. Quarterback Kyle Bolin and running back Brandon Radcliff have taken charge of an improved Louisville backfield in the last two weeks. The most dynamic player on the field, though, will be Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd, who added a new dimension to the Panthers’ offense with his production in the run game.
Fox’s Pick: Louisville 31–24
UCLA at Utah
Few teams are more confounding than UCLA. Nevertheless, the Bruins control their own path to the Pac-12 Championship Game by virtue of playing Utah and USC to finish the season. UCLA’s defense had major lapses in losses to Washington State and Stanford, but the real question is if the Bruins’ offense can get efficient production against the Utah defense. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in rush defense while freshman quarterback Josh Rosen will try to avoid turnovers against a team that leads Pac-12 in interceptions.
Fox’s Pick: Utah 27–20
North Carolina at Virginia Tech
North Carolina finally has our attention just in time to go to Blacksburg for Frank Beamer’s final home game as the Hokies’ head coach. In other words, this will be an intriguing game if only for the intangibles involved. On the field, North Carolina has been clobbering teams on the way to an ACC Atlantic title. Despite Virginia Tech’s pedigree in the secondary, the Hokies may have trouble slowing an offense averaging 8 yards per play in the last two games.
Fox’s Pick: North Carolina 38–21
Mississippi State at Arkansas
Since a 2–4 start including losses to Toledo and Texas Tech, the Hogs have won four in a row and could finish second in the SEC West. This year’s Arkansas team, though, has a more well-rounded offense compared to last year’s squad that also got hot in November. Both quarterback Brandon Allen and running back Alex Collins have played the role of hero. After Alabama overwhelmed Mississippi State for nine sacks, quarterback Dak Prescott will try to regroup against a lackluster Arkansas defense. The Hogs are last in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and have allowed a league-high 22 rushing touchdowns.
Fox’s Pick: Arkansas 31–27
Georgia Tech at Miami
Despite this season’s dual embarrassments of a 58-point loss to Clemson and a 38-loss to North Carolina, Miami can still play for a decent bowl with a chance to get to eight regular season wins and a 5–3 ACC record. That’s more than Georgia Tech can say, as the Yellow Jackets will miss the postseason for the first time since 1996. There’s little reason to put trust in either of these teams, but at least Georgia Tech isn’t losing in blowouts. Five the Jackets’ losses have been by one score.
Fox’s Pick: Georgia Tech 28–20
Purdue at Iowa
The Hawkeyes are coming off their worst defensive performance of the season, allowing 434 total yards and 7.6 yards per play to Minnesota. That’s a week after another pedestrian defensive game, by Iowa’s standards, against Indiana. In its last three games, Purdue beat Nebraska and played a one-score game with Northwestern. For the sake of keeping quarterback C.J. Beathard and others healthy, Iowa will hope this turns out like other routs against Purdue this season.
Fox’s Pick: Iowa 41–21
TCU at Oklahoma
Oklahoma seems to get stronger by the week while TCU’s season is hanging by a thread. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is starting to get Heisman attention, but the Sooners’ defense was just as impressive against Baylor. OU neutralized Corey Coleman and intercepted Jarrett Stidham twice. TCU’s Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson could be the most dangerous run-pass-catch duo in the country when healthy, but they’ve been hobbled. The stars are aligning for the Sooners.
Fox’s Pick: Oklahoma 44–35
Northwestern at Wisconsin
The race to keep up with Iowa in the Big Ten West is a matchup between two top-notch defenses and offenses that are still, in Week 12, trying to find identities. Wisconsin’s problem is easy to pinpoint. The Badgers have a young offensive line and have had limited contributions from running back Corey Clement. The Badgers expect Clement, who rushed for 949 yards last season, to play despite injuring his hand in an off-campus altercation last week. Northwestern would like to rely on running back Justin Jackson, but the passing game has struggled. The Wildcats pulled quarterback Clayton Thorson last week after two interceptions against Purdue. Yards will be tough to come by, though. Wisconsin is third in the Big Ten at 4.5 yards allowed per play. Northwestern’s defensive pace has slowed since the first month of the season, but the Wildcats are allowing only 291.5 yards per game and 4.2 per play when not facing Michigan and Iowa.
Fox’s Pick: Wisconsin 21–14
USC at Oregon
Oregon is heating up just as the window has opened for USC to win the Pac-12 South. Since the return of Vernon Adams, the Ducks have been progressively more efficient on offense — from 5.82 yards per play against Washington four weeks ago to 9.1 against Stanford. No question USC has been better under interim coach Clay Helton but the three close wins against the weaker teams in the Pac-12 — by 6 over Cal, by 8 over Arizona and by 3 over Colorado — are cause for concern.
Fox’s Pick: Oregon 42–31
Baylor at Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State will try to replicate what led to a 49–29 win over TCU two weeks ago by pressuring Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham and forcing turnovers. Meanwhile, Stidham will look to adjust after throwing two picks and getting sacked twice against Oklahoma. Baylor’s defense won’t face as dangerous and offense as it did last week against OU, but Stidham may be facing a better defense — and on the road.
Fox’s Pick: Oklahoma State 41–38
Arizona at Arizona State
From the “where has this been all season” department, both Territorial Cup teams ended three-game losing streaks last week: Arizona in an overtime upset of Utah and Arizona State with a fourth-quarter comeback against Washington. Combine Arizona’s inconsistent offense with Arizona State’s pressure defense, and the Sun Devils may come out on top.
Fox’s Pick: Arizona State 31–24
LSU at Ole Miss
LSU was No. 2 in the first College Football Playoff rankings two weeks ago, but the Tigers have lost to Alabama and Arkansas by a combined 31 points, the latter at home. Most staggering has been the results in the run game on both sides of the ball for LSU. The Tigers have been outrushed 599–114 in two losses, effectively pushing Leonard Fournette aside in the Heisman race. The Rebels’ 43–37 win at Alabama in Week 3 now seems like a distant memory after Ole Miss lost to Florida, Memphis and Arkansas in the last games. Ole Miss’ defense has rarely been at full strength all season, so the Rebels are hoping the off week will allow them to regroup.
Fox’s Pick: Ole Miss 35–28
Michigan State at Ohio State
Both teams have work to do in order to make this the true heavyweight bout fans have been seeking all season. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was critical of his offensive line after a 28–3 win over Illinois. The timing for calling out the pass protection makes perfect sense. The Spartans aren’t as strong defensively as they’ve been, but they are 13th in sacks per game (2.9). Michigan State has its own problems protecting the passer in part because of season-long injuries on the line. The result has been a bum shoulder for quarterback Connor Cook, who was 6-of-20 with an interception against Maryland last week before he was finally pulled to preserve him for this week. Michigan State needs Cook healthy if the Spartans are going to atone for a loss to Nebraska to weeks ago and make a run at the Big Ten East.
Fox’s Pick: Ohio State 35–24
Texas A&M at Vanderbilt
The Aggies and Commodores have both made the switch to freshman quarterbacks in recent weeks and the results, predictably, have been mixed. Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur is the hotter hand right now, completing 13-of-26 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Kentucky. The goal for the Commodores will be to rely on their defense to make this an ugly game for Aggies freshman quarterback Kyler Murray. Vanderbilt has been tough on top-tier opposing quarterbacks this season, much less signal-callers who are struggling. Despite his recruiting profile, Murray falls into he latter category. He threw two interceptions against Western Carolina, giving him five picks and 4.8 yards per attempt in his last two starts.
Fox’s Pick: Texas A&M 21–14
Tennessee at Missouri
Missouri’s defense has been elite for most of the season, and the Tigers’ run game had their best two games of the year in the last two weeks. The difference, though, was the passing game. Drew Lock completed 19-of-28 passes for 244 yards with a touchdown and an interception, the first time in four games Mizzou quarterbacks completed half of their passes. Now, the question is if Missouri can keep that momentum in what will be coach Gary Pinkel’s final home game. Tennessee sleepwalked through a 24–0 win over North Texas. The game was never in doubt, but the Volunteers amassed only 409 yards against one of the worst defenses in college football. Tennessee is under pressure for a strong finish this season and will face two of the SEC’s best defenses in Mizzou and Vanderbilt.
Fox’s Pick: Tennessee 27–27
Colorado at Washington State
Let’s go ahead and put Washington State on upset alert. Colorado is still struggling to win in the Pac-12, but the Buffaloes are getting better. Colorado is fifth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. If the Buffs can get after Luke Falk, they’ll have a chance.
Fox’s Pick: Washington State 42–28
Wake Forest at Clemson
The Tigers haven’t been sharp against overmatched teams from NC State and Syracuse, which isn’t uncommon for heavy favorites at this stage of the season. Wake hasn’t scored 20 points in a conference game all season, so one can guess how this is going to go.
Fox’s Pick: Clemson 41–10
Boston College vs. Notre Dame (Fenway Park)
Boston College’s season may be notable for just one thing — an astounding lack of balance. The Eagles lead the nation in total defense and rank last in total offense. Perhaps BC’s defense will do enough to give Notre Dame trouble, but as the Eagles’ 3–7 record indicates, they can’t score enough to make it matter.
Fox’s Pick: Notre Dame 24–7
Last week: 15–5
Season to date: 166–54
Tyler Ulis may be the most unique player John Calipari has coached in the last decade at Kentucky or Memphis. Since Derrick Rose in 2005-06, Calipari point guards for the most part have been big and physical — and one and done. In 2015-16, the 5'9" Ulis, a sophomore, will be Calipari’s floor general a year after averaging 3.6 assists in 23.8 minutes per game in UK’s platoon system. Ulis joined Athlon Sports to talk about his new leadership role, his confidence even as an undersized point guard recruit, and his outlook on the Wildcats’ upcoming season.
Now that you’ve had time to reflect, how do you view last season’s accomplishments? That was clearly a great team, a great Kentucky team, but one that lost in the Final Four to another good team.
As a whole, we did a great job. We made history. It was fun playing with those guys. I got better individually, and playing with seven people who went to the pros, it was a special team. This year I think we’re going to come out and compete like we did last year but not fall short.
One thing that was evident at the SEC Tournament was how loose and relaxed you guys were. Was it always that way last season?
No, it wasn’t always that way. When we got to the SEC Tournament everybody started playing a lot better as a team. That comes with playing together all year. Eventually you want to click, and we started playing really good basketball.
So you felt like the SEC Tournament was a turning point, even though you didn’t lose during the regular season?
We were at our best in a lot of games during the regular season, but in the SEC Tournament we came out every game and played well. Everybody came in and did their job. For the most part, everyone played well.
Why do you think things changed then in terms of attitude?
We just had more chemistry as a team as the season went on. We were going on trips. Our guys started playing games together, started playing Super Smash Bros.
There was a moment during the SEC Tournament where you stared down Auburn’s 7'2" center Trayvon Reed. What do you remember about that moment?
I was standing on the block and he pushed me a little bit, so I pushed him back. We exchanged a few words. That’s about it.
How often has that happened in your career where you’ve stared down a bigger player?
It doesn’t happen often. But when it does happen, people are going to make a huge deal of it because of my size.
After last season, coach John Calipari told you, “Get your guys and let’s do this again.” Can you describe that interaction?
He texted me. It might have been right after the game (the loss in the Final Four to Wisconsin) or that night. It was a good moment because I felt like he trusted me with the team this year and he felt like we could do this again.
How did it feel to watch seven of your teammates go to the NBA Draft when you were returning to school?
It was a good feeling when guys that you played with saw their dreams come true and knowing you can do the same. I’m happy for all those guys, happy they got drafted. It worked out for the best for everyone. They helped me get better. I’m going to miss practices with those guys because it was non-stop competition.
Did you watch the draft and text those guys?
Oh yeah, of course. I congratulated them and tweeted them.
Was it weird to watch almost your entire team leave all at once?
It wasn’t weird. Those guys were ready. I figured they would be leaving because we had so many great players. They were ready to take their game to the next level.
Do you feel like this year’s team has to be your team?
I feel like that’s the way it’s got to be. Me, Alex (Poythress) and Marcus (Lee). We’ve got a lot of young guys coming in and a lot of people left. Derek (Willis) is going to have to step up, but he doesn’t have that much experience. Once everybody gets used to playing the game of basketball together, it will be the same way it was last year. We’ll have a ton of talented players who will share leadership.
A huge part of your game is your vision and playmaking ability. When was the first time you realized you could see things other guys couldn’t or could see plays develop better than other guards?
At a young age. High school, middle school, ever since I’ve been playing I’ve been known as a high-IQ guy, so I always used that to my advantage, like bigger guys always use their size as an advantage. I was always the smallest guy. That was always my gift. I always played that way, trying to find my teammates, trying to get everyone involved.
What was the first sense of validation that you could be a high-major player and the point guard at a place like Kentucky?
I’ve always felt like that. I’m very confident in my game. I can play at a high level. My parents always told me I’m going to get there. I’ve always had the confidence that my friends and family had. I just waited around for all the offers to come in.
You mentioned your confidence. Your height has been a topic ever since you were a recruit. How did that confidence in your abilities and your future develop?
I don’t know. But I just have been playing so long. I trust my game and I trust in myself and know everything is going to work itself out.
When you were being recruited, you said that a primary reason you went to Kentucky was Calipari’s record of developing point guards. Where are you in that development?
Just make sure I stay healthy. Get more flexible. Get my body together. Get in the weight room, gain weight. Try to polish my game in every way. Right after the season ended, I got with the strength coach and we did a lot of work over the summer. I went back home, and my best friend back there worked me out a lot. We were in the weight room every day. I’m just trying to get stronger. Regardless of my size, I am pretty strong. I’m just trying to go out there and show it.
More than any position on the court, point guard has an identity that comes with it. For you last season, do you feel like you had one even though you were coming off the bench?
I felt like I developed an identity in practice because guys know what you’re doing. And they trust you, trust your game and trust you with the ball in your hands. With me and Andrew (Harrison) playing together, that could have gone wrong because we’re both point guards, but I trusted him and he trusted me.
You’ll have another big freshman point guard this season in Isaiah Briscoe. What did you learn from Andrew in how to handle that dynamic?
Andrew didn’t have to accept me coming in and taking some of his minutes. He never made a big deal about it, never made a problem of it. He just accepted it, and we both played together.
You’ve mentioned your size and how it becomes a big deal. Do you ever get tired of people asking you about your size and how stories always bring it up?
Not anymore. I’m not really focusing on what people say. I just try to listen to my family, my friends and coaches. I’m not trying to live up to anybody’s expectations. I feel like I know what I can do, and no matter what my size is, at the end of the day, you have to know how to play the game.
Was there ever a time when that bothered you?
Of course. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I wasn’t getting recruited highly early in my career, and that was because of my size. That’s what a lot of people said. I kept at it, and kept working and it all worked out.
What was the toughest place to play last season?
LSU and Georgia and Texas A&M were pretty tough games. I actually like away games. I like the crowd and when they boo you. I like to feed off that.
Who was the toughest team to guard last season?
Probably Ole Miss. Everyone I guarded against Ole Miss seemed like they made a shot. It was a rough game.
Where would you want to play college basketball if not Kentucky?
Right now, this is where I want to be. I love it here. I grew up a Michigan State fan. That’s probably where I would want to be if I wasn’t at Kentucky.
For fans who checked into college basketball last season just in time for March Madness, the sport appeared to be in pretty good shape.
Three of the four regional finals were decided by single digits, as were two of the three games at the Final Four in Indianapolis. Average TV viewership for the NCAA Tournament reached its highest point in 22 years.
Georgia State and UAB were the early underdog darlings, but by the final weekend, the mid-majors gave way to nine eventual first-round NBA Draft picks and four current or future Hall of Fame coaches in the Final Four.
Popular teams. Star coaches. Future pros. Close games. Compelling storylines. Villains.
Judging by three weeks of postseason play, the game had rarely been so compelling.
But for those you who were watching from November through February — and if you’re the type of person who buys this magazine, you probably were — you are well aware that these NCAA Tournament classics were not the norm for the 2014-15 season. For example, who can forget this unforgettable stretch of games in December?
• Wisconsin 49, Marquette 38 on Dec. 6
• Washington 49, San Diego State 36 on Dec. 7
• Eastern Michigan 45, Michigan 42 on Dec. 9
• Cal 45, Wyoming 42 on Dec. 10
• Nebraska 56, Cincinnati 55 in double overtime on Dec. 13
And that was just one week.
All of those games involved major programs. All five also involved bad offense (teams shooting less than 35 percent from the field) and a glacial pace (fewer than 120 total possessions in regulation).
Even higher-scoring, up-tempo games weren’t immune to slowing to a crawl when coaches hoarded timeouts until the final moments or when officials huddled around a tiny television at the scorer’s table. It wasn’t unusual for the final minute of a game to stretch to 15 minutes of real time.
If the pace of play in the sport isn’t in a state of crisis, it’s at least at a crossroads. Even in this era of tempo-free statistics that have revealed that points per game is not a true measure of effective offense, the downward scoring trend has been alarming.
Starting this season, the NCAA hopes the rules won’t be to blame if the game is unwatchable.
For 2015-16, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a handful of rules designed to increase the pace of play, reduce the sport’s physicality and speed up end-of-game situations.
“We’re trying to get the balance between offense and defense to swing more to the offensive side,” says Belmont coach Rick Byrd, chair of the playing rules committee.
Scoring has been on a progressive decline during the last 15 years. Teams averaged 67.5 points per game in 2012-13, the lowest average since 1952. After a brief uptick to 71.0 points per game in 2013-14, scoring returned to snooze-inducing levels at 67.6 points per game a year ago. The scoring average (per team) has been greater than 70 points per game only once since 2003.
During the height of the sport’s popularity, teams averaged better than 70 points per game every season from 1986-87 through 2002-03. That’s the era of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill at Duke, Jerry Tarkanian teams at UNLV, Rick Pitino teams at Kentucky and pro pipelines at UConn and Arizona.
Those teams played with a 45-second shot clock until 1993-94 and a 35-second shot clock thereafter.
Reducing the shot clock to 30 seconds — still short of the 24 seconds used by the NBA and FIBA — is the clear headliner of sweeping rules changes and directives to the officiating community designed to speed up the game.
But it might not be the most significant change.
The real power to tip the game back in favor of the offense belongs to hundreds of de-centralized independent contractors better known as referees.
“I don’t see 35 to 30 being a huge player at all,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “I think how the officiating will be called is where we’ll see the biggest difference, the freedom of movement and less physicality. I don’t see the shot clock being a major deal.”
The rules committee has urged the officials to clean up physical play in the post and has mandated that players be stationary when they set a screen and be allowed greater freedom when they are moving without the ball. Most important, the committee reinforced a rule guideline from 2013-14, forbidding a player from keeping a hand or arm on an opponent, putting two hands on an opponent, hand-checking and using an arm to impede a dribbler.
This was supposed to be a point of emphasis two years ago, but after only a few months, officials fell back into old habits, and hand-checking was back. The game continued to be physical on the perimeter. Coaches continued to push the envelope with ball screens that were illegal — by the rule book — but in practice could continue with impunity. Post play became a wrestling match.
“There’s a whole lot of different opinions about what rules would be good and what rules would be bad, but no one has come to me and said the game needs to be more physical,” Byrd says. “We’ve just sort of incrementally got to a point where a lot of physical contact that is illegal in the rule book is being allowed on both sides.”
The NBA issued a similar edict in 1999, urging a tighter interpretation of the rules on physical play and improving the flow of the game. Over time, scoring boomed; since 2008-09, the league average (per team) has topped the 100-point mark four times.
“The NBA, they hit it on the head and hit it out of the park when they changed the plan altogether and scoring went up and appeal went up and it became a much more enjoyable game for the fans,” says Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who coached in the NBA from 2000-03.
The fear is that the officials will settle back into their old ways and the game will change only for a short time. Even if officials intend to call the game by the letter of the law as planned, the desired effect of more freedom of movement for offensive players might not be fully realized for a couple of years.
“It took two-and-a-half years from what we’re told by NBA folks by the time they were comfortable with what they got,” Byrd says. “We’re going to have to be patient.”
The move to the 30-second shot clock has been lauded by many in the college basketball world — but beware of some unintended consequences. A number of coaches have said that the reduced clock will contribute to more zone defense and bring about an even slower game.
When the NCAA implemented the first shot clock at 45 seconds in 1985-86, scoring shot up from 69.2 points per game in 1984-85 to more than 76 points per game in a matter of four seasons.
Yet when 10 seconds were shaved off that shot clock in 1993-94, scoring increased for a season and then began its decline. The shorter shot clock and the scoring drop may only be a coincidence. Around the same time, players and coaches started to push the boundaries on physical defense, leading to the current predicament for officials.
Still, the decline is evidence that a shorter shot clock isn’t a cure-all.
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland fears that the officiating directives on physical play will result in more foul calls that will further slow the game to a crawl. He also believes that more teams will play zone defense.
“I think we’re going to see more zone, and what zone does is slow the game down,” Howland says. “You’re going to see more pressing and falling back into a zone and trying to get you to use more clock in the backcourt and then you have less time to attack the zone.
“I think you’re going to see less scoring, not more scoring.”
There’s also a fear that the goal of more possessions in a game — and thus more scoring — will diminish the effectiveness of unconventional offenses and random nature of the game. More possessions generally increase the likelihood that a more talented team will win a game. Teams that compensate for a deficit of talent with unorthodox, slower styles of play or more sets, cuts and passing might see their advantage diminished.
In part, that’s why the drastic move to the 24-second shot clock used by the NBA was not seriously discussed — even if some coaches would like the college game to go that direction.
“What I would be concerned about personally is if (the shot clock) goes any further it takes away the identity of the college basketball game from an offensive standpoint, the different kinds of offense people can run,” Byrd says. “You’re getting down there on the edge where Princeton can’t do their stuff very long. They would have to do what everybody else does and go one-on-one and use ball screens.”
On the other hand, pressing teams like VCU or Arkansas might have an edge when teams don’t have as much time to run offense in the halfcourt. And it’s tough enough to score against a team like Virginia in 35 seconds, much less 30.
“You can make a case that it helps the offensive-minded and you could make a case that it helps the defensive-minded because they don’t have to guard as long,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says. “Over the course of time, the good coaches will be the good coaches and they’ll win the games.”
The idea, though, is that the college game had to do something, and that’s where other rules changes will leave less to the imagination.
The coaches lost a timeout in the second half and lost their ability to call a timeout during live play.
The goal is for the final minute of game time not to drag on for 15 minutes and alienate viewers looking for buzzer beaters.
Byrd says eliminating the five-second closely guarded rule was done to help the referees. Officials were trying to call the five-second rule while trying to call fouls, travels and double dribbles. The officiating of the five-second rule was so ineffective and inconsistent that the NCAA just ditched the rule.
Makes sense, but again, beware of some unintended consequences.
“We could see an NBA approach if you have a dominant ball handler like a John Wall,” Stallings says, “someone that is so superior that without there being a five-second (closely guarded) call on the dribble, they sit there and pound the ball like LeBron did in the NBA Finals and then they try to make a play in the final seconds of the shot clock.”
In that case, some coaches just don’t want to turn the college game into NBA Lite.
“I’m puzzled with the infatuation with the NBA,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins says. “We continue to go in that direction, and I think we have a better game. We have a game that is more pleasing to the eye. … There’s something to be said for someone who does a great job of guarding, playing in the halfcourt and doing those things.”
Panic, though, might not be in order. The game could open up only marginally as a result of rule changes.
The NIT, College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com Tournament all used the 30-second shot clock after last season, and the impact was marginal.
In a piece for Deadspin, tempo-free statistics analyst Ken Pomeroy examined scoring in those tournaments compared to past years and compared to the NCAA Tournament.
Scoring in the NIT and lesser tournaments are generally higher than the NCAA Tournament anyway, but the difference was 5.6 points per game more in the smaller tournaments, adjusting for matchups and expected points, Pomeroy wrote. That’s 2.4 points per game more than the normal difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT/CBI/CIT.
Could an extra two-and-half points per game be on the horizon in 2015-16?
“The differences that we saw in the (smaller) tournaments are reasonable to assume that’s what we’ll see in the regular season,” Pomeroy says. “When you watch a game with a 35-second shot clock, there’s not much urgency. There’s some dead time early in the possession. I think that’s where things will change.”
Pomeroy’s study also indicated that offensive efficiency was not negatively impacted in the NIT, CBI and CIT with the 30-second shot clock.
Judging the shot clock by the minimal changes in the smaller tournaments would be hasty, though.
Stallings, whose team lost in the NIT quarterfinals to Stanford, says he didn’t change any strategies going into the tournament — there simply wasn’t enough time.
“I did like it; I think I’ll like it more when we play with it more,” Stallings says. “We got up against the shot clock a few more times than we would during a normal game. I also liked that we told our guys that the clock’s going to be running here and you’ve got to be aggressive, and they seemed to respond well to that.”
And if that nudge means fewer games decided in the 40s and 50s and more open play, the NCAA hopes March Madness isn’t the only time the sport is played at its full potential.
Since the selection committee last met, five undefeated teams took their first loss of the season. In theory, this should give greater clarity to the weekly proceedings, but the week-to-week horse race is never short on surprises.
This week, the new top four of Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame separated themselves from the competition in the eyes of the committee. That’s not too far off popular sentiment.
But the committee also jumped Iowa into its top eight, seemingly giving the Hawkeyes a shot at the playoff if they can win out. The committee also continued to punt on making any strong statements about the Big 12.
Oklahoma State jumped from No. 14 to No. 8, a sizable move in a vacuum, but this is also an undefeated Power 5 team that just beat the No. 8 team by 20 points.
1. Iowa’s not in as much trouble as we thought
The Hawkeyes moved up from No. 9 to No. 5 and one spot out of the Playoff scenario. The snarky response is that Iowa’s 35-27 win over Indiana must have been impressive for the committee. Perhaps. More than likely, the committee reevaluated wins over No. 18 Northwestern and No. 25 Wisconsin, both on the road. Committee chair Jeff Long stated that Iowa had a better strength of schedule to date than Baylor, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Houston. A week after Long mentioned Baylor’s “explosive” offense as part of the reason the Bears were ranked sixth last week despite a weaker schedule, Long said Iowa is “not flashy (but) they’ve been solid on both sides of the ball.”
2. The Big 12’s backloaded schedule gamble is indeed a gamble
Long called Oklahoma State’s 49-29 win over TCU to be the "first piece of real strength" the committee had seen out of the undefeated Cowboys. Long also has stressed for two weeks in a row the difficulty of evaluating a Baylor team that hasn’t faced a team with a winning record. Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma all will face each other in the final month of the season. And it may not help that the league is top heavy — Texas, Iowa State, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Kansas State and Kansas are a combined 11-24 in the league, and only one of those wins (Texas over OU) is over the top four teams in the conference. Long also let slip that Ohio State is ranked in the top three in part on the eye test. The Buckeyes haven’t played a significantly tougher schedule than Baylor, TCU or Oklahoma State, yet they’re securely in the top four.
3. Notre Dame-Stanford is setting up to be a CFP elimination game
Other than Iowa, the two biggest beneficiaries from two top 10 teams losing last week were Notre Dame and Stanford. Notre Dame moved into the top four — and Long said the top four was clearly better than teams ranked fifth through eighth. Stanford moved from No. 11 to No. 7 with a 42–10 win over a bad Colorado team. The Cardinal face Oregon and Cal at home, so Stanford’s schedule before a Nov. 28 matchup with Notre Dame (which faces Wake Forest and Boston College). If both teams win their next two games before that meeting in Palo Alto, that could be a play-in game for Notre Dame and erase any doubt that a one-loss Pac-12 champion Stanford gets into the Playoff.
4. Speaking of Stanford...
This week’s top 25 confirmed what we kind of suspected: Stanford is getting a bit of a pass for its 16-6 loss at Northwestern in Week 1. Long noted that Stanford played that game at 9 a.m. Pacific time with an 11 a.m. kickoff in Evanston. The toll on Stanford’s body clocks was “significant,” Long said, though individual committee members weighed it differently. It probably doesn’t hurt Stanford’s case that the Cardinal have been dominant for most of their ensuing eight-game winning streak.
5. Navy’s win over Memphis must have been mighty impressive
Four Group of Five teams were ranked last week, but the highest-ranked a week later was one that wasn’t in the top 25. Navy debuted at No. 20, ahead of No. 21 Memphis, No. 22 Temple and No. 24 Houston. The Cougars, curiously, are the only undefeated team of the bunch. Navy defeated the former No. 13 team, Memphis, 45-20.
CFP Bowl Projections
Orange: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Notre Dame
Cotton: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Ohio State
CFP Host Bowls
Rose: Iowa vs. Stanford
Sugar: Baylor vs. LSU
Fiesta: Oklahoma State vs. Utah
Peach: Navy vs. Florida
After a week in which five previously unbeaten teams lost, the season is getting more clarity and yet championships and playoff spots are as hotly contested as they've been all year. This is a season of crazy outcomes and heated competition on and off the field.
The Athlon Sports College Football Experts Club presented by Nexium & Advil gives you the chance to compete with your friends and our experts each week.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
College Football Podcast: Week 10 Recap
Michigan at Indiana
Michigan is among the nation’s best defensive teams because of a physical approach and plenty of talent, but the Wolverines also haven’t faced a ton of fully functioning offenses, particularly an effective spread offense. BYU and Michigan State are the only top-50 offenses Michigan has faced this season. Indiana ranks 30th, but the Hoosiers have played stretches this year without quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard. If anything this might give UM a barometer of how it will fare against Ohio State. Indiana is winless in the Big Ten, but the Hoosiers have proven they can play with anyone for three quarters. Unfortunately for Indiana, those fourth quarters have been problematic — to put it lightly.
Fox’s pick: Michigan 38–24
Arkansas at LSU
The loss to Alabama was humbling for all around for LSU. Fournette had his worst game of the season. Brandon Harris threw his first interception of the year and completed only 6-of-19 passes. The defense also gave up a season-high 250 rushing yards. Arkansas is playing with the most confidence it has had all season. The Razorbacks are getting hot at the end of the season just as they did last season when the Hogs shut out LSU and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks in November. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has suddenly fallen in love with the passing game, mainly because he has a quarterback who can do some damage. Brandon Allen has completed 52-of-76 passes for 975 yards with nine touchdowns and an interception in his last two SEC games, wins over Auburn and Ole Miss. Will Allen put up similar numbers against LSU on the road? Probably not, but it will be interesting to see Arkansas try.
Fox’s pick: LSU 28–24
Memphis at Houston
Memphis’ loss to Navy exposed what we’ve known for a few weeks: The Tigers were only going to go as far as their defense would carry them. Navy was the perfect team to exploit Memphis’ weakness, rushing for 374 yards and controlling the clock with the option. Three turnovers by Memphis didn’t help. Houston’s offense could be even more effective against the Tigers. The Cougars and Baylor are the only teams in the country that rank in the top 10 in both rushing and passing offense — and Houston has played a more challenging schedule relative to its talent level. This is an entertaining game that should end in Houston’s favor.
Fox’s pick: Houston 56–42
Utah at Arizona
In a game that flew under the radar because of its time slot and teams involved, Utah put up an impressive performance by scoring 34 points on an above-average Washington defense on the road. The Utes got back to what they do best, forcing turnovers and playing solid defense. Arizona has few answers this season. The Wildcats pressed USC last week, but Arizona’s defense can’t get off the field, and the quarterback situation has been uncertain for most of the season.
Fox’s pick: Utah 35–21
Clemson at Syracuse
The only risk for Clemson is that spending two weeks at No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, clinching the ACC Atlantic and beating their chief competition before the postseason results in some kind of emotional letdown. Syracuse has lost six in a row and ranks 13th in the ACC in total offense and 14th defense.
Fox’s pick: Clemson 42–10
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
The Wildcats’ season has come unraveled. Kentucky has lost four in a row, the last three by an average of 27 points. If the Wildcats are going to rebound and get to six wins, the next two weeks (Vanderbilt and Charlotte) are their best chance to do it. The Wildcats expect running back Stanley “Boom” Williams to return, but they’re also mulling a quarterback change after Patrick Towles had one of the worst starts of his career against Georgia last week. Despite a 3–6 record, Vanderbilt has one of the SEC’s better defenses, and head coach/defensive coordinator Derek Mason has been able to devise schemes to keep opposing quarterbacks off balance.
Fox’s pick: Vanderbilt 14-10
Oklahoma at Baylor
Buying into Oklahoma is a tricky proposition. The Sooners have a way of showing well for a few weeks and then collapsing soon after — look no further than the loss to Texas earlier this season. Despite our better judgment, we’re back on the Sooners’ bandwagon. The Sooners have been dominant on both sides of the ball, albeit against Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State. Here’s what’s to like about OU right now: A balanced offense that can play in a shootout behind quarterback Baker Mayfield or slow the pace of the game with Samaje Perine in the run game. Jarrett Stidham looks like he’ll be fine as Baylor’s quarterback of the future, but he’ll be asked to take on the Sooners in a game with Playoff implications in only his second start.
Fox’s pick: Oklahoma 41-38
Oregon at Stanford
The marquee game in the Pac-12 the last few years won’t have the same luster it’s had in the past. Oregon’s three losses are to blame, but the Ducks are getting better. This is clearly a different team with a healthy Vernon Adams at quarterback. The Ducks put up 777 yards against Cal last week and 501 two weeks ago against Arizona State in overtime. This game will be more competitive than many will expect, but Stanford had Oregon’s number when both were at their best in 2012-13.
Fox’s pick: Stanford 41–28
Pittsburgh at Duke
These teams were once in front of the pack for the ACC Coastal, but both have lost two in a row. Duke has lost in more spectacular fashion, first on the wild kickoff return against Miami and then in a rout against rival (and current Coastal leader) North Carolina. Pitt lost to Carolina and Notre Dame, making this a de facto elimination game in the Coastal. Neither team is particularly great. Trust the team with more overall balance and may be less susceptible to an emotional hangover.
Fox’s pick: Pittsburgh 28–21
Miami at North Carolina
The Tar Heels are rolling now, mainly behind the play of Marquise Williams. He’s accounted for seven touchdowns in the Heels’ pair of wins over their chief competition for the ACC Coastal, Pitt and Duke. The defense has been the turnaround story of the year. Brad Kaaya has returned for Miami, but even with their star quarterback, the Hurricanes limped to a home win over Virginia. A let down might be a concern for the Heels, but this is also the last home game of the season for UNC.
Fox’s pick: North Carolina 38–24
Georgia at Auburn
The question heading into the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” is which team will be able to extend its momentum. Georgia ditched the Fauton Bauta experiment at quarterback and installed a plan in which Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey shared QB duties and running backs Sony Michel and wide receiver Terry Godwin took direct snaps. The result was 5.5 yards per play and 390 yards of total offense in a 27–3 win over Kentucky. At the same time, Auburn had its best rushing day of the season with 311 yards behind the emergence of Jovon Robinson, but the Tigers quarterback position will be in question. Starter-turned-backup Jeremy Johnson stepped in to completed 13-of-17 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in place of an injured Sean White.
Fox’s pick: Auburn 28–21
Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Oklahoma State has a few more believers after the Cowboys intercepted TCU’s Trevone Boykin four times in the Pokes’ breakout game. What will Oklahoma State do with their newfound attention? The Cowboys have one last road game before Oklahoma and Baylor and it’s against the same team and coach who ruined their national championship hopes in 2011. The Cowboys played close games with lesser competition earlier this year, so they’d be advised to leave no doubts in Ames.
Fox’s pick: Oklahoma State 42–20
NC State at Florida State
Jacoby Brissett may have unfinished business after playing the best game of his career in a loss to Florida State last season. The Seminoles won’t be caught off guard this time around, but they will be facing a rare bit of adversity for the first time in several years. The Seminoles lost earlier this year to Georgia Tech, but they haven’t had to play many seasons under Jimbo Fisher where their major goals — the national title and ACC championship — are out of reach.
Fox’s pick: Florida State 38-31
Washington State at UCLA
UCLA remains one of college football’s great mystery teams: Look like title contender one week, a dud the next. Meanwhile, we know what Wazzu is: an Air Raid team with questionable defense. That’s not enough to win every game, but it will win many. UCLA has faced a similar scheme an flourished in a 40-24 win over Cal on Oct. 22. UCLA has every reason to win this game, but we simply have a hunch. Washington State has won three of four, the only loss by two to Stanford.
Fox’s pick: Washington State 49–42
Florida at South Carolina
Florida is coming off a dismal offensive performance against Vanderbilt in a 9–7 win. South Carolina has been more competitive under interim coach Shawn Elliott, beating Vanderbilt and playing one-score games at Texas A&M and at Tennessee. That said, facing the South Carolina defense has been a nice confidence booster for SEC offenses. The Gamecocks are allowing a league-worst 454.6 yards per game in conference play. If there’s any upset potential it’s because Florida’s offense picks up where it left off against Vanderbilt and the absence of defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard — Florida’s top player in the front seven — allows quarterback Perry Orth and running back Brandon Wilds to pick up yards on the ground.
Fox’s pick: Florida 21–10
Maryland at Michigan State
The Spartans shouldn’t have too much trouble with a Maryland team that has lost six in a row and whose only victories are over Richmond and USF. If anything, this game could be a confidence builder for the Michigan State secondary that has been burned for 628 yards and five touchdowns the last two weeks. Maryland has thrown 25 interceptions in nine games this season, five more than any other team and 10 more than any other Power 5 team. The Terrapins thrown an interception every 11 passes — an astounding rate for a major team.
Fox’s pick: Michigan State 31–13
Alabama at Mississippi State
Alabama’s 25–20 win last year was the closest game the last six meetings, but Alabama led 19–0 at one point and intercepted Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott three times. Prescott has been far more secure with the football during his senior season, throwing only one interception to 18 touchdown passes. Prescott has proven he is the top quarterback in the SEC, but the Bulldogs don’t have much else. Prescott leads MSU with 418 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground; no one else on the roster has more than 220 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Alabama is coming off arguably the best defensive performance of any team this season, considering the opponent. Heisman frontrunner Leonard Fournette managed only 1.6 yards per carry against the Crimson Tide. Prescott presents a different challenge, but with the exception of the Ole Miss game, Alabama’s defense has been arguably the best in the country.
Fox’s pick: Alabama 31–14
Wake Forest at Notre Dame
Wake Forest has a decent defense, but the Demon Deacons’ offense is dismal. This is a team whose high point was beating Boston College 3-0 because the Eagles were even more inept on the goal line. Notre Dame will have to try hard to lose this one.
Fox’s pick: Notre Dame 38–10
Minnesota at Iowa
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard is battling through bumps and bruises, but he’s about to get some help. Leading rusher Jordan Canzeri is on track to return this week from a ankle injury, joining a running back corps that returned LeShun Daniels Jr. two weeks ago. The run game that was down to a third-stringer could be healthy for the stretch run. Minnesota has lost three in a row and four of the last five games, but included in that mix are games against three ranked teams (Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State) and one close call with the Wolverines. Minnesota has put more on the arm of quarterback Mitch Leidner in recent games, and it’s easy to see why: Three of Minnesota’s last five opponents have held the Gophers to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Leidner is averaging 299.7 passing yards per game in the last three with mixed results.
Fox’s pick: Iowa 35–21
Last week: 16-4
Season to date: 151-22
A second-generation Georgetown fan, Kevin Rieffel has been watching Hoyas basketball for his entire life even though he grew up in Philadelphia.
In the days before ESPN2 was in every house, he and his father would drive to sports bars as far away as Maryland to watch John Thompson coach against Syracuse or St. John’s. At least once a year, they’d see a game in person, either in D.C. or near their home at Villanova.
Rieffel, naturally, went to Georgetown as an undergrad, and after he finished law school in Philadelphia, he became a season ticket holder.
Now, on his first trip to a Georgetown home game this season, Rieffel will ask a favor: He wants to step onto the floor — re-sanded and re-painted for this season — and take a free throw.
“If I get one request, it’s going to be that I can take a shot on it,” Rieffel says.
Georgetown would be foolish not to grant his request, considering Rieffel, a patent attorney in Philadelphia, is the person who designed the program’s new court on his lunch breaks.
When Georgetown opened a contest to submit designs for its new floor, fans flooded the Hoyas’ athletic department with radical ideas — all-grey courts, stripes, an oversized bulldog logo at midcourt, a dog collar for the center court circle, and coach John Thompson III sitting on Game of Thrones’ Iron Throne (really).
The fan-submitted designs were garish in part because the contest was all in good fun and in part because fans surely were following the lead of new wild court designs that have been popping up in recent years across the country.
Oregon plays “deep in the woods” on a pattern that looks more like the view from a sleeping bag than a court for a major program. Xavier and Memphis run the floor across their respective city skylines. Notre Dame plays on an oversized shamrock. UCF and Oakland have brought the blacktop indoors. Cal State Bakersfield went blue. Manhattan has gone green.
Rieffel, though, had a feeling Georgetown wouldn’t go with an all-grey court with a silhouette of the National Mall (George Washington, which shares the District of Columbia with Georgetown, already has the latter on its home court).
Instead, Rieffel remembered a pattern from his youth watching Georgetown as the Hoyas entered the Allen Iverson era — the kente cloth pattern than ran down the sides of the jersey and shorts in the mid-’90s. Back then, Nike introduced the kente cloth, a pattern with origins in West Africa, to the Hoyas’ uniforms as a homage to Georgetown basketball’s place in the African-American community in the ’80s and ’90s.
Rieffel, who had been bouncing floor concepts off other Georgetown fans online, remembered the kente cloth. One of the designs he submitted featured a slightly larger block G at midcourt and the kente cloth pattern in the free throw lane.
Georgetown’s athletic leadership, including Thompson, was immediately attracted to Rieffel’s design.
“It’s a little throwback to those days, and that design is unique to Georgetown,” says Brian McGuire, Georgetown’s associate athletics director for facilities and operations. “I don’t think anyone else has used that look in college basketball. It’s a little bit of throwback, and it’s a little bit new. It was subtle enough and classic that it wasn’t off the deep end.”
Though Georgetown stayed with a traditional look, some basketball programs have embraced more radical approaches with their court designs. Georgetown went with history and subtlety. Some schools have gone for eyeballs.
Either way, the wave of creative court designs is another indication of just how important branding and marketing are in today’s collegiate athletics environment.
“A basketball floor is a billboard,” San Jose State athletic director Gene Bleymaier says. “It’s a mural. It’s an opportunity to have some fun and make something relevant to your university.”
Bleymaier would know. He was the athletic director who turned Boise State’s football field blue in 1986. As the AD at San Jose State 27 years later, Bleymaier had five oversized Spartan warriors painted on the San Jose State basketball court. The redesign was so radical that the Spartans’ athletics logo — the kind of logo that’s normally at center court — has been pushed from the center circle to near the sideline.
Not all the new court designs in recent years are as gaudy as San Jose State’s, but they are becoming more and more common, from the smallest of Division I basketball programs to conference tournaments all the way to the Final Four.
The court for SEC Tournament last season featured a sideline-to-sideline logo bleached into the wood. The Missouri Valley Tournament in St. Louis featured a rendition of the Gateway Arch painted across the entire floor. Even the Final Four in Indianapolis featured a two-tone look.
Connor Sports, an Illinois-based manufacturer of sports floors for colleges, pro teams and events, estimates that it works on 26 Division I floors a year, not including courts for the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, conference tournaments or early-season events.
In the last few years, requests from colleges have gone from simple shading and logos to more ambitious designs.
“The trend is that it’s not a playing surface,” says Lauren Gillian, brand manager at Connor Sports. “It’s a work of art, and (colleges) want to incorporate that into their programming.”
As usual, the mainstreaming of an outlandish design finds its origin in Eugene, Ore.
When Oregon opened its Matthew Knight Arena in 2011, the most striking part of the facility was the floor.
Nearly the entire court was taken up by some kind of design element, chiefly a perimeter of pine trees meant to honor Oregon’s Tall Firs team that won the first NCAA championship in 1939.
The concept was ambitious enough on a blueprint. The execution — which fell into the hands of Connor Sports — was another thing. Painting a floor like Oregon’s, and the others that followed, requires giant stencils, layered paint schemes and an assurance the colors will be suitable for television.
“It was challenging in a sense that it was something you’d never seen before,” Gillian says of Oregon. “We’re talking overlays upon overlays upon overlays to get that forestry effect that they wanted.”
Before Oregon, courts on and off college campuses had some subtle design elements painted onto the floor, comparatively speaking. The Ducks, though, opened the door for schools to ask places like Praters Athletic Flooring to push the boundaries.
“Oregon hits and either people hated it or loved it,” says John Praters, president of the athletic flooring firm based in Chattanooga, Tenn. “With us, we didn’t care either way. As long as the attention is on the floor, it’s a good thing because people are saying, ‘Maybe we can do that.’ Oregon has brought more attention than any other one.”
Other designs aren’t as intricate as Oregon’s, but they are — um — eye-catching.
Eight years ago, former Cal State Bakersfield athletic director Jeff Konya was searching for a way to differentiate his program from the slew of California-based mid-majors. Bakersfield’s program dated back to 1971 and had won three Division II national titles, but the Roadrunners didn’t join Division I until the 2006-07 season.
Bakersfield went the same route as Boise State football — and then some. The entire court was painted blue, save for the free throw lane. At center court, an oversized Roadrunners logo stretched from 3-point line to 3-point line in the foreground, with the outline of the state of California in the background and a ‘B’ where Bakersfield is located. If that wasn’t enough, Bakersfield used the court for an advertiser, adding McDonald’s golden arches near the sideline. The current iteration of the court, dyed by Praters Flooring, is only slightly less busy; Bakersfield removed the outline of the state of California and changed the full-bodied Roadrunner logo to an angry-eyed Roadrunner head.
Bakersfield hasn’t won much on that court, but the look has made an impression.
“I knew we hit a home run with the look when opposing teams would start taking selfies with the court in the background and we started to get an increase in terms of camp participation,” Konya says. “People just wanted to be around the court.”
Konya moved across the country last year to accept a job as the athletic director at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. His new school’s basketball program was more established — the Grizzlies have been to the NCAA Tournament three times since 2005 — but Konya wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to market the school.
But unlike a power program like Oregon, Oakland can’t exactly pay Nike, Under Armour or an outside firm for design concepts for its floor, so the Golden Grizzlies asked the same person who had been designing game brochures, event invitations and social media graphics.
She also happened to be a graduate assistant.
Konya enlisted Sarah Merritt, a former soccer player at Division III Alma College in Michigan, to pitch designs for a new floor at the O’rena. The best three would come up for a fan vote.
Merritt came up with one design with an oversized Grizzlies head bracketed by the outline of the state of Michigan on a traditional court and another with the name Oakland and the Grizzlies head stained into a conventional court look.
The winner, though, was an all-black court with the Grizzlies logo at center court. The rec center blacktop look, Merritt says, was aimed directly at recruits.
“I was recruited, so I know how geeky we are about what we wear and what we play on,” Merritt says. “If you want to try and get recruits, you have to do something crazy and different.”
Oakland’s is a different look, but it’s not even the only blacktop-inspired court in the game. When Central Florida rebranded from the Knight logo to a stacked U-C-F, the athletic program looked to its in-house art director to take a swing at a new look for the court in 2013.
Carlos Phillips had worked on design elements around stadiums and practice fields, the athletics website and on tickets and promotional materials. No project would be as visible as the UCF basketball floor.
He studied the Brooklyn Nets’ court and floors in Europe for inspiration before coming up with a blacktop. The stained wood outside the 3-point lines, though, is more gray than black. The reason: TV cameras.
“My first drafts were painted black,” Phillips says. “It’s very shiny and it would have been very hard for TV. That was one thing we wanted to consider. That’s why we didn’t go all black, because of the reflection.”
Many schools have used their floor to convey a sense of location for their universities — both for the eyes of basketball recruits but also for prospective students.
Xavier doesn’t have the luxury of having the name of its city in its school name. That belongs to rival Cincinnati. So how does Xavier hope to educate people who wouldn’t otherwise know that the Musketeers play in the heart of a metropolitan area?
The school painted the city skyline on its basketball court.
Xavier searched for a Cincinnati skyline that was just right and stumbled upon one from a designer in Spain. The Musketeers tracked down the designer, paid for the rights to the design and turned it into a stencil for the floor at the Cintas Center.
“What it does for us, you can look at it and know Xavier University is in an urban center, a metropolitan area,” says Brian Hicks, Xavier’s associate athletic director for external relations. “That was something we felt strongly about.”
Basketball fans and recruits could be forgiven for not knowing much about Florida International University. The Panthers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1995, and they’ve been a non-factor for the most part while playing in three different conferences.
Yet if anyone happens to watch an FIU basketball game, they should know the campus is a quick trip from the ocean.
“I said, ‘Listen, I want water. I want sand. And I want palm trees,’” FIU athletic director Pete Garcia says he told his staff in 2013. “I want those three things.”
He got all of it and more with a basketball court that looks more like a postcard than a playing surface. Miami-based FIU has run with the theme. Seating sections are named after streets on South Beach. One half of the arena is painted to look like the ocean and the horizon line. The other half looks like the hotel-laden Miami Beach backdrop.
Manhattan briefly considered the New York skyline for its new court at Draddy Gymnasium, but the Bronx-based college decided to go another direction. When the Jaspers sanded their court down this offseason, they painted the floor Kelly green from 3-point line to 3-point line.
“We wanted to own the color green,” Manhattan athletic director Noah LeFevre says. “The color is a large part of our identity. From our perspective, the more green we could involve, the better.”
And here’s the thing about new court designs — many times they’re not new courts at all.
A basketball floor has a lifespan of about 15 to 20 years, but it will usually require some kind of repair and maintenance after each season. Floor designs — including 3-point lines or conference or sponsor marks — can be sanded down and re-painted.
Many courts are portable — they are disassembled in the arena, packed up on a truck, and sent to a warehouse where they are re-assembled and sanded, painted, stained and sealed over the course of 1-3 weeks.
The total cost to refurbish a court can range from a $25,000 for basic repairs up to $80,000 for a complete repaint. The entire process can range from a week to three weeks.
Figures like that make court designs an expensive change. Northwestern, for example, abandoned its purple-stained arc at Welsh-Ryan Arena after three seasons.
When Long Beach State was down to its final year of its old court in 2012, the 49ers took their branding to another level. The school’s marketing already leveraged its status as the only Division I program with the word “beach” in its name.
Not content just to say “The Beach” in signage, Dedan Brozino, Long Beach State’s former senior associate athletic director for external relations, wanted to show it. Though he’s not a graphic designer by trade, he sketched a new design for the court at Walter Pyramid with four palm trees — two facing the crowd on each side of the court.
“At the time we thought it would be negatively received, and if it is, it will be a one-year and done deal and we’ll go back for the traditional look,” says Brozino, who left Long Beach State to work for the Rose Bowl Operating Company.
On the contrary, when Long Beach State bought a new court before last season, the 49ers stained the palm trees onto the new floor with all four on the side of the court facing TV cameras.
What started as an experiment for Long Beach State and other schools is now standard operating procedure for dozens of programs. If one program can turn its court into a beach and others can turn their floors into blacktops, what’s next?
Praters believes the next step is in decals, once the scourge of the NCAA Tournament and other events. Praters says his firm has been able to build decals that won’t cause players to slip.
That means colleges can mix and match for sponsors. Or they can change a center logo for special events — for example, schools could change their logo to pink for breast cancer awareness or change it to camouflage to honor the military.
For a peek further into the future, take a look at the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers project 3D graphics onto their floor for pregame hype and lineups, and there’s no doubt at least one college or two has started to think about adding such a feature to their own arenas.
That might be a few years down the line. An NBA-level pregame graphics show is as much a lighting and projection issue as it is a flooring issue. But once a college is ready, don’t be shocked to see a court act as a canvas.
“These questions come about very often for us,” Gillian says. “We’re always thinking about what can we do to make the court the star.”
Preseason predictions are an inexact science, particularly in college basketball.
Stars leave. Coaches change. Players develop. That’s always been the case. Now, impact freshmen and transfers have proven to be gamechangers. Teams can turnover their rosters on a year-to-year basis and still compete with teams full of veterans.
This season appears to be especially tricky. For the first time in several years, there is no consensus at the top. As many as four teams have earned a No. 1 ranking from major publications.
As Athlon Sports releases its preseason college basketball annual, we still like to look at the landscape of picks around the country, and this season is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable in recent years.
|2015-16 College Basketball Preseason Top 25|
|2015-16 Conference Champion Predictions|
Call us crazy, but something has been missing this season.
We can’t say it’s been a lackluster season — not even close. Wild finishes in Durham, Ann Arbor and Atlanta in the last three weeks have made this a season to remember.
It’s not a season that seems to be marching to an inevitable end, either. Every conference as at least two teams with hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. Even the American Athletic Conference has given us three teams in the first top 25.
No, what the season has been lacking is definitive statements by the top 15 or so contenders.
That’s about to change, starting this week. LSU-Alabama and Florida State-Clemson are true statement games. That will be followed by a round robin among the top four teams in the Big 12.
If the big games follow the trend of the craziness of the first two months, buckle up.
|1.||Nov. 7||Tuscaloosa, Ala.|
In the eyes of the selection committee, this is a top-four matchup, and we might not argue. Leonard Fournette faces the Alabama run defense. Derrick Henry faces the LSU defense. This already hurts.
|2.||Nov. 27||Fort Worth, Texas|
For two seasons, this has been the Big 12’s best rivalry. Art Briles and Gary Patterson don’t particularly like each other, and if freshman Jarrett Stidham steps in like his predecessors at Baylor, this could be the highest-scoring game between Playoff contenders.
|3.||Nov. 21||Columbus, Ohio|
No series has been more important in the Big Ten during the last three seasons, and this one could be a matchup of undefeated teams to determine the Big Ten East title.
|4.||Nov. 7||Clemson, S.C.|
The Seminoles can still win the ACC, but Clemson is on a path to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers have no more than two ranked teams left, Florida State and a potential ACC Coastal foe in the title game. A loss here likely ends Clemson’s bid for the Playoff.
|5.||Nov. 28||South Bend, Ind.|
The Irish were ranked No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff ranking, but Stanford at No. 11 has just as legitimate a shot at reaching the semifinal. The Cardinal have been on a hot streak since a bizarre loss to Northwestern. Wins over Notre Dame and the Pac-12 South champion could seal the deal.
|6.||Nov. 21||Norman, Okla.|
Another key Big 12 game has been one of the more competitive series: Five of the last six matchups have been decided by one score.
|7.||Nov. 21||Ann Arbor, Mich|
Meyer vs. Harbaugh I: The Wolverines’ loss to Michigan State probably knocks Michigan out of the Playoff race. Michigan’s defense and home-field advantage give the Wolverines plenty of ability to spoil the Buckeyes’ season.
|8.||Nov. 21||Oxford, Miss.|
If LSU defeats Alabama, this could be the game that determines the SEC West title. If not, it’s still a game that plays into Fournette’s Heisman race and a spot for a major bowl game.
|9.||Nov. 7||Stillwater, Okla.|
How legitimate is Oklahoma State in the four-way crowd atop the Big 12? The two-quarterback system is unconventional, but it scored 70 on the road against Texas Tech.
|10.||Nov. 14||Waco, Texas|
Oklahoma already has a loss to a bad Texas team on the résumé and Baylor’s non-conference schedule is so poor that this might be an elimination game for the Playoff. Baylor has won the last two meetings by a combined 63 points.
|11.||Nov. 28||Gainesville, Fla.|
The Gators may be able to walk to Atlanta and a 10-win season with Vanderbilt, South Carolina and FAU remaining. If the Gators can beat Florida State for only the second time since 2009, they’ll go to the Georgia Dome with more on the line the SEC title.
|12.||Nov. 21||Stillwater, Okla.|
Even if Oklahoma State is out of the Big 12 race by the time Baylor visits Stillwater, this will be a key game for the Bears. Baylor’s offense sometimes stumbles on the road, and this will be first of the Bears’ two big road tests.
|13.||Nov. 28||Stillwater, Okla.|
The wild finish in the Bedlam Game last year relieved pressure on Mike Gundy and put it on Bob Stoops. This is always a heated rivalry, but it could have national title implications for the first time since 2011.
The Tigers could face two ranked AAC foes on the road in November. We’re expecting this one to be the more entertaining game when Paxton Lynch faces off against Greg Ward Jr.
|15.||Nov. 28||Tuscaloosa, Ala.|
This game won’t live up to the preseason hype when many thought it could be for the SEC West. Auburn is getting better by baby steps, enough to make weird things happen in a rivalry game? We can hope.
The Tigers’ offense is one of the most productive in the country while Temple has a stifling defense. These two teams could meet against in the AAC title game for a trip to a major bowl game.
|17.||Nov. 28||Starkville, Miss.|
The Egg Bowl is more interesting than it has ever been — especially if Ole Miss is still in the SEC West hunt. Ole Miss knocked Mississippi State out of the top four last season. Dak Prescott is equipped to return the favor this season.
|18.||Nov. 21||Salt Lake City|
Josh Rosen goes on the road against a stout Utah defense. The Utes remain the leaders in the Pac-12. Which UCLA and which Utah shows up?
|19.||Nov. 28||Los Angeles|
Interim coach Clay Helton has USC thinking about reaching the Pac-12 title game for the first time. The Trojans could be the spoiler of the conference with both Stanford and Utah seeking a CFP spot or a major bowl game.
|20.||Nov. 21||Palo Alto, Calif.|
Washington State’s Air Raid came to upsetting Stanford. Did the Cougars establish a blueprint for Jared Goff to beat the rival Cardinal?
The month of November may end up having more games between College Football Playoff contending teams than the first two months combined.
Besides being great entertainment, those November matchups — starting this week with Alabama-LSU, Florida State-Clemson and others — will clear up a top 25 that is short on any real answers.
That the selection committee’s first College Football Playoff top 25 is a bit of a mess is to be expected and it’s by design. The Big 12 and Big Ten have backloaded schedules. Rivalry games and conference championship games promise to blow up the rankings as well.
With that said, here’s what we learned out of the first set of rankings:
1. The Big 12 got bad news
Sorry, Baylor, the committee still thinks your non-conference schedule should keep you out of the Playoff. Despite dominating results, the Bears are ranked behind two one-loss teams, Alabama and Notre Dame. Yet committee chair Jeff Long said No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 TCU’s explosive offenses gave those teams an edge over No. 9 Iowa, another undefeated team with a stronger strength of schedule. That said, Baylor is ahead of undefeated Michigan State, a team that has played close games against lesser competition despite a win over No. 17 Michigan.
2. The Big 12 got good news
No. 6 Baylor, No. 8 TCU, No. 14 Oklahoma State and No. 15 Oklahoma will all play each other in the final month of the season. That’s an awful lot of résumé building for one month of the season. Alabama and LSU have similar opportunities, as does Ohio State, but the Big 12 has the most to gain.
3. The committee’s analysis of strength of schedule and big wins is still lacking
Repeatedly, Long justified rankings with wins over teams with winning records. Alabama has defeated three (Wisconsin, Georgia and Texas A&M) and Florida has defeated two (Ole Miss and Georgia). Though Long later clarified that the Tide beat a Georgia team with Nick Chubb on the road while Florida did not face Chubb, this continues a troubling trend of the way the committee defines strength of schedule and landmark wins. A case could be made for Florida with a win over No. 18 Ole Miss and loss to No. 2 LSU should be ahead of Alabama, whose best win is over No. 19 Texas A&M and whose loss is to the Rebels. No. 3 Ohio State has three wins over teams with winning records: Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Penn State. The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide probably pass the eye test for members of the committee — and that’s fine — but a blanket statement about opponents’ winning record is flimsy reasoning.
4. Iowa is already in trouble
The committee, this week at least, seems enamored with explosive offenses and wins over .500 teams. The Hawkeyes aren’t going to turn into Baylor and TCU overnight, and their remaining schedule has no teams with winning records on the schedule. Iowa’s two remaining 4–4 opponents (Indiana and Minnesota) are a combined 1–7 in the Big Ten. A Hawkeyes win over an undefeated Michigan State or Ohio State would seem to bring few guarantees.
5. We’ll see the Group of Five race take shape in real time
The early polls last year didn’t have Group of Five teams in the top 25 until the final weeks. The first committee this season had four: No. 13 Memphis, No. 22 Temple, No. 24 Toledo and No. 25 Houston. Remember, a team has to be the highest-ranked champion not simply the highest-ranked team. Conceivably, the AAC could have enough teams beat each other up, including an unranked team in the league title game, to allow a potential MAC champion Toledo to take a major bowl slot.
CFP Bowl Projections
Orange: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Alabama
Cotton: No. 2 LSU vs. No. 3 Ohio State
CFP Host Bowls
Rose: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Sugar: Baylor vs. Florida
Fiesta: Notre Dame vs. TCU
Peach: Iowa vs. Memphis
The College Football Playoff picture is starting to get some clarity, and the competition off the field among fans is nearly as heated as the competition on the field on game day.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
Rutgers at Michigan
Was the Minnesota game a fluke for Michigan or a sign of the Wolverines regressing to the mean? After a dominating defense carried the way for Michigan through he first half of the season, Minnesota outgained the Wolverines 461–296. The lackluster offense can be attributed in part to an injury to starting quarterback Jake Rudock and a shaky performance by backup Wilton Speight, but 461 yards to Minnesota? That’s a concern. First and foremost, Michigan needs to jumpstart its run game. Two of the Wolverines’ worst three performances on the ground this season have come in the last two games. Rutgers’ offense is in even worse shape. Quarterback Chris Laviano has led one offensive touchdown drive in the last two games against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Fox’s pick: Michigan 28–10
Florida State at Clemson
The most important game of the ACC season in shrouded in mystery. Florida State hasn’t committed to either Everett Golson or Sean Maguire as the starting quarterback, and running back Dalvin Cook has been hobbled with an ankle injury. Both Golson and Cook missed the Seminoles’ last game against Syracuse. Clemson gave up 41 points to NC State, including one touchdown on a kickoff return and two others on short fields. The Tigers, though, answered each time. Clemson has demonstrated time and time again that it’s ready for the stretch run while Florida State may be starting over.
Fox’s pick: Clemson 41–28
Utah at Washington
Washington made a statement with a 49–3 rout of Arizona last week, perhaps giving us some reservations about picking Utah. The Huskies have a solid defense, and freshman quarterback Jake Browning is coming into his own. Even though Arizona was without running back Nick Wilson, Washington still impressed by holding a Rich Rod offense to 2.9 yards per carry. Both teams will try to ugly the game up with turnovers. The advantage goes to the team with the veteran quarterback.
Fox’s pick: Utah 27–14
Kentucky at Georgia
Georgia’s move to start Faton Bauta against Florida proved to be disastrous, and it remains to be seen if he’ll get another shot at the job. Kentucky had two tough losses through the first six games of the season, but those close losses have turned into blowouts the last two weeks. The Wildcats lost by a combined score of 94–37 to Mississippi State and Tennessee, and now Kentucky will be without starting running back Stanley “Boom” Williams.
Fox’s pick: Georgia 24–17
Navy at Memphis
Navy is not getting the attention of undefeated Temple, Houston and Memphis, but the Midshipmen — whose only loss is to Notre Dame — is every bit the American Athletic Conference contender as the other three. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds’ next touchdown, his 78th, will break the career record, not for quarterbacks, but for everyone who has played major college football. Navy will look to control the clock with the option and keep Memphis QB Paxton Lynch off the field, and we’ve seen little out of the Tigers’ defense that shows Memphis can slow Reynolds. Then again, Navy has played only two top-50 offenses and one of them, Air Force, was another service academy.
Fox’s pick: Memphis 41–35
Arizona at USC
Arizona is going back to the drawing board on offense. Nick Wilson has been hurt, and Anu Solomon is coming off the worst performance of his career in a 49–3 loss to Washington. Rich Rodriguez said he’s changing his approach with Solomon after two sub-par performances. USC has played its best football of the season under interim coach Clay Helton, but the Trojans need to overcome a hand injury to one of their best playmakers, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Fox’s pick: USC 42–28
LSU at Alabama
As usual, this game should be a tense, physical matchup that will be determined by which team can run successfully and which team puts the pressure on a first-year starting quarterback to make a play in a pressure situation. Alabama and LSU rank first and second in the SEC in rush defense, each holding opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Yet neither has faced an elite running back like they’ll see on Saturday between Heisman contenders Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry.
Fox’s pick: Alabama 24–20
TCU at Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State scored 70 points on the road against a not-terrible Big 12 opponent, and the Cowboys still have doubters. That’s with good reason. Wins over Texas, Kansas State and West Virginia were all by a touchdown or less, and Texas Tech put up 53 points against the Pokes. The Cowboys are good, but they haven’t shown exactly what separates this team from the other three Big 12 contenders. TCU, though, can stake a claim on having the best quarterback and wide receiver in the Big 12 (though Baylor’s Corey Coleman may object to the latter). All signs point to this being another Big 12 shootout, but the team with Trevone Boykin will have the advantage.
Fox’s pick: TCU 56–42
Vanderbilt at Florida
The Commodores’ defense can’t be overlooked. Vanderbilt held Western Kentucky and Houston to their lowest scoring and yardage totals all season. Trouble is, Florida did the same against Ole Miss and Georgia. The Gators aren’t getting world-beating quarterback play from Treon Harris, but the Commodores duo of Johnny McCrary and Kyle Shurmur have been turnover prone all season.
Fox’s pick: Florida 31–7
Arkansas at Ole Miss
For the first time this season, the Rebels ran the ball well against two SEC opponents, albeit against two of the three worst run defenses in the league. And despite three takeaways against Texas A&M two weeks ago, Ole Miss has been on the wrong end of the turnover margin in each of the last six games and at minus-10 overall since the Alabama win. Arkansas beat UT Martin last week as expected, but the Hogs gave up a season-high 519 yards in the process.
Fox’s pick: Ole Miss 31–21
South Carolina at Tennessee
After weeks of frustration, Tennessee finally got the lopsided win it needed with a 52–21 win at Kentucky. Now, the Volunteers will try to extend a modest two-game win streak against South Carolina. The Gamecocks have their issues, but Perry Orth (192 passing yards, 90 pre-sack rushing yards) gave their offense a spark against Texas A&M. The overall talent for the Vols should be too much.
Fox’s pick: Tennessee 37–20
Cal at Oregon
Cal’s momentum has come to a halt with three consecutive losses in the Pac-12 South to Utah, UCLA and USC. Is Oregon better than any of those teams? Perhaps not. The Ducks look awfully ordinary on offense and just plain awful on defense. That might help Cal quarterback Jared Goff get back on track, but after two close road wins over Washington and Arizona State, Oregon may be ready to reboot its season when it returns to Autzen.
Fox’s pick: Oregon 38–30
Penn State at Northwestern
Northwestern and Penn State both have nice records and stout defenses, but neither bas been a sure commodity. Northwestern’s offense failed to reach 200 yards against Michigan and Iowa, so it will be looking to acquit itself against Penn State. Behind a strong defensive front, the Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in tackles for a loss by a wide margin and rank fifth in total defense. The offense has been a work in progress, but quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been on a hot streak of late, averaging 9.9 yards per attempt the last three weeks. Not surprisingly, this trend coincides with freshman running back Saquon Barkley’s return to the lineup.
Fox’s pick: Northwestern 24–21
Duke at North Carolina
Miami’s improbable win over Duke means this won’t be the ranked Duke-North Carolina game Tobacco Road would have hoped to see, but it’s no less meaningful. North Carolina is undefeated in ACC play, and Duke can lead the Coastal with a win over the Tar Heels. North Carolina has been under the radar, especially after an inexplicable season-opening loss to South Carolina, but the Heels have been stout on both sides of the ball. Coordinator Gene Chizik has turned around the offense, and quarterback Marquise Williams has responded to a near-benching with three straight weeks of standout play.
Fox’s pick: North Carolina 31–27
Iowa at Indiana
When quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard are healthy — as they are now — Indiana’s offense is among the best in the country. Iowa counters with cornerback Desmond King, who is tied for the national lead with seven interceptions. The big question will be if Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who has been hobbled with a groin injury, is healthy enough to answer punch for punch if this turns into a back-and-forth affair.
Fox’s pick: Iowa 35–24
Arizona State at Washington State
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk passed for 601 yards against Arizona State in only his second career start. The Sun Devils’ pressure, though, contributed to four interceptions. Falk will be a different quarterback this time around. He’s thrown only six picks in 448 attempts after throwing seven in 243 attempts last year. Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici can match Wazzu’s Air Raid, especially against that vulnerable Cougars defense.
Fox’s pick: Washington State 49–42
Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
This game might not be pretty with Notre Dame coming off a slugfest with Temple and Pittsburgh coming off a loss to North Carolina. Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer continues to acquit himself as the Irish’s No. 1 QB and not just a sub for Malik Zaire. Meanwhile, Pitt’s vulnerability on both sides of the ball finally caught up with the Panthers against North Carolina.
Fox’s pick: Notre Dame 31–21
Auburn at Texas A&M
Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin benched Kyle Allen last week and turned to his freshman — a freshman who has the benefit for playing the two worst defenses in the league in his first two starts. Murray flourished against South Carolina, passing for 223 yards and running for 156. Auburn finally got defensive end Carl Lawson back last week, and while he was disruptive (three QB hurries), Ole Miss still put up 558 total yards in the Tigers’ loss.
Fox’s pick: Texas A&M 42–28
Michigan State at Nebraska
Purdue was supposed to be the type of opponent that would help Nebraska turn its season around. Instead, the Cornhuskers lost 55–45 to the Boilermakers and are in a state of disarray just before facing a rested and undefeated Michigan State team. Nebraska’s run game has gone cold the last two weeks with 82 yards against Northwestern and 77 against Purdue. Michigan State’s defense isn’t as stout as it has been in recent years, but the Spartans still rank in the top 30 against the run. On the bright side for the Huskers, Nebraska expects to get Tommy Armstrong Jr. back at quarterback after backup Ryker Fyfe turned the ball over five times in his first career start.
Fox’s pick: Michigan State 38–21
Minnesota at Ohio State
Ohio State will need to return to Cardale Jones at quarterback after J.T. Barrett was suspended for a game due to a DUI citation. Jones was shaky in September, ultimately leading to Barrett taking a larger role as Ohio State’s season went on. Perhaps buoyed by the emotion of a rivalry game with Michigan and the departure of coach Jerry Kill, Minnesota played its best game of the season against Michigan before a clock management snafu at the goal line contributed to a 29–26 loss. Quarterback Mitch Leidner has topped 300 passing yards in back-to-back games for the Gophers, which usually isn’t a great sign for Minnesota, but he came up with a gutsy effort against the Wolverines that gave Minnesota chance for the upset.
Fox’s pick: Ohio State 35–14
Last week: 16–4
Season to date: 135–18
Say this for an interesting SEC offseason: The league lost one of its two best coaches to the NBA and the coaching lineup as a whole improved.
Florida coach Billy Donovan is now coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder, leaving the Gators in a rebuilding situation under new coach Mike White. Facing White will not only be a Kentucky team ready to contend for a national title and resurgent teams at Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, but also two first-year coaches who have Final Fours on their résumés.
A handful of SEC schools have been tasked with improving their basketball product in recent years, and they’ve responded with key coaching hires. Mississippi State jettisoned Rick Ray and replaced him with former UCLA coach Ben Howland. Tennessee hired a new coach out of necessity stemming from NCAA issues but brought in longtime Texas coach Rick Barnes. Alabama hired a former NBA coach of the year in Avery Johnson. And two years ago, Bruce Pearl made his return to the league at Auburn.
Oh, and LSU adds the consensus No. 1 freshman to the mix.
In 2014 and 2013, the SEC produced only three NCAA Tournament teams in each field. After producing five NCAA teams and a team in the Final Four for the second consecutive season, the SEC promises to be a deeper league in the coming years.
All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
|2015-16 SEC Predictions|
The Wildcats won’t be as deep in 2015-16, but there is still more than enough talent to win a national title. Postseason: National Champion
Kevin Stallings has a roster built for success, with a dominant big man (Damian Jones) surrounded by a host of shooters. Postseason: Sweet 16
The Aggies are poised for their first NCAA Tournament invite of the Billy Kennedy era. Postseason: Second round
The Tigers have reloaded with a superb freshman class led by do-everything big man Ben Simmons. Postseason: Second round
|5.||Michael White’s first Florida team lacks elite talent but will still be a factor in the SEC. Postseason: First round||Team Preview|
|6.||Veteran guards will have to lead the way while young big guys adjust to more prominent roles. Postseason: First First||Team Preview|
|7.||The arrival of Ben Howland and top recruit Malik Newman will make the Bulldogs relevant in 2015-16. Postseason: NIT|
|8.||Stefan Moody is one of the premier players in the league. Others must step up to make this an NCAA Tournament team. Postseason: NIT|
This will be Frank Martin’s best team at South Carolina. Is that good enough? Postseason: NIT
|10.||No SEC team outside of Kentucky lost more firepower than the Razorbacks. Postseason: NIT|
|11.||Bruce Pearl’s rebuild at Auburn is far more challenging than the one he faced at Tennessee. Postseason: NIT|
Rick Barnes inherited a roster lacking talent. It could be a long winter in Knoxville.
|13.||There are some intriguing pieces for new coach Avery Johnson, but not enough to be much of a factor in Year 1.|
Two of the top three scorers transferred from a team that went 3–15 in the SEC.
Player of the Year: Ben Simmons, LSU
Best Defensive Player: Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
Most Underrated Player: Craig Sword, Mississippi State
Newcomer of the Year: Ben Simmons, LSU
Top Coach: John Calipari, Kentucky (full list)
Teams in the National Top 25: No. 1 Kentucky, No. 15 Vanderbilt, No. 25 Texas A&M
All-SEC First Team
G Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
G Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
F Ben Simmons, LSU
C Skal Labissiere, Kentucky
C Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
All-SEC Second Team
G Malik Newman, Mississippi State
G Danuel House, Texas A&M
G Kenny Gaines, Georgia
F Alex Poythress, Kentucky
F Cinmeon Bowers, Auburn
All-SEC Third Team
G Riley LaChance, Vanderbilt
G Charles Mann, Georgia
G Tim Quarterman, LSU
F Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
F Alex Caruso, Texas A&M
1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are back in the top spot nationally with a five-man class that includes elite big man Skal Labissiere.
2. LSU: No. 1-ranked prospect Ben Simmons and fellow five-star Antonio Blakeney lead the nation’s No. 3-ranked class.
3. Texas A&M: A quartet of top-100 ranked prospects give the Aggies a top-10 class.
4. Auburn: Bruce Pearl landed a top-20 class led by athletic forwards Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy.
5. Mississippi State: New coach Ben Howland has a top-20 class, including top-10 prospect Malik Newman.
6. Florida: The Gators have a top-25 class that includes four four-star prospects.
7. South Carolina: Five-star guard Perry Dozier headlines Gamecocks’ class.
8. Alabama: New coach Avery Johnson has a five-man class that is led by four-star wing scorer Kobie Eubanks.
9. Missouri: Kim Anderson has six recruits in the fold. Four-star point guard K.J. Walton is the highest ranked of the bunch.
10. Vanderbilt: Athletic center Djery Baptiste leads a diverse four-man class.
11. Georgia: Mark Fox convinced William Jackson to stay in Athens as the top recruit in a four-man class.
12. Ole Miss: Guard Donte Fitzpatrick out of Memphis leads a four-man class.
13. Tennessee: New coach Rick Barnes has every position covered in the Volunteers’ five-man recruiting class.
14. Arkansas: Four-star combo guard Jimmy Whitt is the Hogs’ only recruit.
The College Football Playoff picture is starting to get some clarity, and the competition off the field among fans is nearly as heated as the competition on the field on game day.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
College Football Podcast: Week 8 Recap
Vanderbilt at Houston
The Commodores are coming off the first SEC win of Derek Mason’s tenure with a 10–3 win over Missouri. A modest win streak, though, seems unlikely. Vanderbilt has a solid defense, allowing only five rushing touchdowns all season, but Houston has been a juggernaut in the American Athletic Conference. Under first-year coach Tom Herman, the Cougars are seventh in the country in rushing at 291.6 yards per game.
Fox’s prediction: Houston 28–10
Syracuse at Florida State
Florida State’s 28-game ACC win streak ended on a blocked field goal for a touchdown against Georgia Tech, but a new win streak should start anew. The Seminoles haven’t lost back-to-back games since a three-game losing streak early in 2011. Syracuse has been competitive against LSU and Pitt, but the Orange are riding a four-game losing streak that includes defeats to Virginia and USF.
Fox’s prediction: Florida State 42–14
Oregon State at Utah
Utah is coming off its first loss, a humble 42–24 defeat at USC, but truthfully, the Utes perhaps were never as good as their No. 3 ranking indicated. That said, Utah was undone by four interceptions in a road game against more talented if streaky team. After 17–13 home loss to Colorado, Oregon State has clinched a spot as the worst team in the Pac-12.
Fox’s prediction: Utah 35–10
South Carolina at Texas A&M
Texas A&M is a team in turmoil after managing just a field goal in a loss to Ole Miss. Aggies quarterback Kyle Allen has thrown four interceptions and completed just 43.2 percent of his passes in the last two weeks. The benching of backup Kyler Murray, though, has been puzzling and has hinted at dysfunction in College Station. Facing South Carolina won’t cure everything, but the Aggies should be able to end their losing streak.
Fox’s prediction: Texas A&M 31–13
Clemson at NC State
NC State’s four FBS wins are over Troy (2–5), Old Dominion (3–4), South Alabama (3–4) and Wake Forest (3–5). Clemson has shown no signs of a team aching for a let down, and the Wolfpack have shown no signs of being able to challenge an above-average team.
Fox’s prediction: Clemson 41–14
Texas at Iowa State
The Longhorns have found the answer for their beleaguered offense, and that’s run, run and run some more. Texas has thrown only 28 passes the last two weeks while rushing for 587 yards against Oklahoma and Kansas State. Meanwhile, throw out Northern Iowa and Kansas, and Iowa State is 228 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry.
Fox’s prediction: Texas 35–10
Notre Dame at Temple
This is the biggest game for Temple football … ever? The Owls are 7–0 and ranked facing a one-loss Notre Dame team that still fashions itself a playoff contender. Unlike the other American Athletic Conference undefeateds Memphis and Houston, Temple is doing it with defense, leading the AAC in rush defense and pass efficiency defense. This will be strength-on-strength against the Notre Dame offense. Receiver Will Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise may be the best Temple has faced this season at either position.
Fox’s prediction: Notre Dame 28–14
Oklahoma at Kansas
The Sooners have scored 44, 55 and 63 points in its last three Big 12 wins. The only reason Oklahoma won’t hit 70 against Kansas is if the Sooners don’t want to.
Fox’s prediction: Oklahoma 63–10
Colorado at UCLA
The Buffaloes have an above-average pass defense (10 interceptions) to go with the worst rush defense in the Pac-12. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen was brilliant last week against Cal, but, as with all freshmen, his consistency is always in question.
Fox’s prediction: UCLA 31–17
Maryland at Iowa
An off week gave Iowa a chance to heal, but not completely. Defensive end Drew Ott is still out for the season, and running back Jordan Canzeri is not expected back. Maryland put up a spirited performance against Penn State, but the matchup of the Terrapins passing game (a national-high 20 interceptions) against Desmond King (second nationally with six interceptions) is a nightmare for Maryland.
Fox’s prediction: Iowa 35–10
Georgia Tech at Virginia
The Yellow Jackets should be thrilled to be facing an opponent with more than one loss. Georgia Tech’s last six opponents are a combined 37–5 this season, and only a wild finish against Florida State prevented the Jackets from a six-game losing streak. Virginia is 2–5 and may soon join team like Miami, USC, South Carolina and Maryland in the coaching carousel. The Yellow Jackets’ run game got back on track against Florida State and now face a team that’s giving up 4.6 yards per carry.
Fox’s prediction: Georgia Tech 38–17
Tennessee at Kentucky
Tennessee played well against Alabama, containing the Crimson Tide’s run game enough that the Vols had a chance to win. In a vacuum, a near-miss against Alabama on the road would be signs of progress for the Volunteers, but Tennessee fans are getting tired of near-misses. Kentucky can get big plays in the run game, but the Wildcats need more from the passing game if they hope to match up with a more talented Tennessee squad.
Fox’s prediction: Tennessee 27–21
Miami at Duke
David Cutcliffe rightfully has the reputation of an offensive guru, but Duke is winning with defense this season. The Blue Devils are one of three teams in the country holding opponents to fewer than four yards per play. Miami is wounded with an interim coach and a potential concussion for quarterback Brad Kaaya.
Fox’s prediction: Duke 31–21
USC at Cal
USC showed Utah what can happen when the Trojans are playing to their potential in a 42–24 rout. The defense had four interceptions and three sacks while the passing game was efficient once again. Plus, USC is two weeks removed from a 590-yard effort at Notre Dame. Cal’s hot start cooled in two matchups with Pac-12 South contenders on the road. Most concerning is the play of Jared Goff and the offense. Goff threw five interceptions against Utah, and the offense averaged a season-low 4.8 yards per play against UCLA.
Fox’s prediction: USC 38–28
Stanford at Washington State
Washington State has quietly become a contender in the Pac-12 North at 3–1. It’s not a surprise how: The Cougars are throwing the ball all over the place and playing limited defense. Stanford’s defense is shorthanded with injuries and not very deep, but the Cardinal’s physicality might be too much for a team that already has trouble stopping the run.
Fox’s prediction: Stanford 42–21
Arizona at Washington
Washington expects freshman quarterback Jake Browning to return from injury against Arizona. That should be as much of a lift to the Huskies’ offense as facing Arizona’s lackluster pass defense. Throw out a game against Oregon State, and Arizona is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 73 percent of their passes for 8.9 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Fox’s prediction: Washington 28–21
Oklahoma State at Texas Tech
The Cowboys are getting it done with defense, holding opponents to 53.6 percent passing with six touchdowns and eight interceptions and a Big 12-best four sacks per game. Texas Tech can move the ball, as usual, and Patrick Mahomes mobility cuts down on sacks. With the Pokes facing Texas Tech’s defense, this game could be the Big 12 shootout of the week.
Fox’s prediction: Texas Tech 45–41
Ole Miss at Auburn
The Rebels defense had its best game of the season, holding Texas A&M to a field goal. Perhaps that’s as much a reflection of the Aggies dysfunction as anything else. Auburn’s Sean White continues to play safe football, but he’s not getting a ton of help from his receivers. The Tigers are still desperate for an SEC win while the Rebels’ SEC title hopes have been rejuvenated. Auburn’s defense is just as bad as it was a year ago.
Fox’s prediction: Ole Miss 38–24
Georgia vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Cocktail Party has a way giving us the unexpected, usually with Florida spoiling Georgia’s hopes for a championship of some kind. This time, Florida is the team with hopes winning the East. The Gators proved at LSU that they can still be competitive with the best despite the shocking suspension of quarterback Will Grier. Georgia is trying to find its way on offense without Nick Chubb.
Fox’s prediction: Florida 28–21
Michigan at Minnesota
The Gophers have the Little Brown Jug and the Floyd of Rosedale in their trophy case right now, but both might be finding new homes with the way Minnesota has played of late. Michigan has had an extra week to get over its loss to Michigan State. On paper, this could get ugly with the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten (Minnesota at 20.4 points per game) against the best scoring defense (Michigan at 9.3 points per game).
Fox’s prediction: Michigan 28–3
Last week: 15–5
Season to date: 119–41
Charlie Whitehurst began his career at Clemson taking over for the immensely successful Woodrow Dantzler, who left school as the most productive quarterback in school history.
By the end of his college career in 2005, Whitehurst passed Dantzler by nearly 2,500 career passing yards. As Clemson continued to be an offensive powerhouse, Whitehurst watched his records fall to Tajh Boyd.
Whitehurst, who appeared on the Athlon Sports ACC preview cover in 2005 alongside the Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, led Clemson to two bowl games in three seasons, two bowl victories and two top-25 finishes. Now, Clemson is a College Football Playoff contender riding a streak of four consecutive 10-win seasons.
Whitehurst played for former coach Tommy Bowden but Whitehurst’s receivers were quickly becoming accustomed to their new receivers coach, Dabo Swinney. While Swinney built up the Clemson program, Whitehurst has spent a decade in the NFL, primarily as a backup.
In 2014 for the Tennessee Titans, Whitehurst started a career-high five games, but he’s become just as notable in Nashville for a style that looks like it belongs on a stage at a rock concert as much as on the football field. Nashville Lifestyles magazine named him one of the 25 most beautiful people for 2014, confirming that, yes, the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town.
How closely do you stay involved in the Clemson program?
I was at the Notre Dame game a few weeks ago. We were on a bye week, so I went to go see them. I try to watch them when I can. I know they’re undefeated and they’ve got a solid quarterback. Dabo’s done a heckuva a job since he’s been there. It’s fun to say you went to Clemson. They’ve got a real shot at it this year.
Were you on the sideline for the Notre Dame game or did you get a seat? The weather was not good.
It was pouring down rain. I got wet pregame. I was down there and watched them warm up and run down the hill, but I found some shelter after that.
You were there when Dabo was receivers coach. Did you have any interaction with him or did teammates tell you about him?
He always seemed like he took his job real seriously. I remember one of the receivers, I asked him how’s Dabo as the new coach, and he told me, “He’s making us take notes in there. He’s really tough on us.” That’s what everybody does now, but back then we were running the spread and we didn’t have many plays. We didn’t have notebooks or big playbooks, but Dabo had his receivers taking notes. I didn’t know that every other college in America was doing that. But Dabo, he was demanding of those guys. He pushed them really hard. I think it made them better. …
He had a little cart that he wheeled in, like a substitute teacher, and he’d make a presentation and give them game plan to the receiver. It was weird, but my point is that he’s always doing the extra thing.
He’s always been a high-energy guy. We lucked into him, but my gosh, he could be there as long as he wants to.
He’s kind of character, a great motivator. Did you notice any of that or was he so early into his career that he didn’t really show that side?
You noticed it because he was out there pushing his position group really hard. I remember when I left he was a guy everyone really respected, and you knew he was a little different. It doesn’t surprise me. You say character, but that is who he is. He’s not trying to put on a persona. He’s a motivator. People really relate to him. He’s a leader. When he got hired, I said, my God, what a leader.
Swinney reacted strongly to a question about “Clemsoning” — meaning, a team that starts out hot, raises expectations, and loses a game in a major upset. That term aside, something has changed for Clemson in the last five years where that team is able to handle success in a way it didn’t before. What have you seen that’s changed?
We’ll see how the season goes. Clemson’s had some really good seasons and been in some good situations and then you don’t win the big game, but there’s, what, six or seven teams in the last six or seven years that haven’t done that and they won the national championship. There aren’t 20 teams a year that don’t do that. But I get it. It takes a while. The recruiting takes a little time. The facilities, the coaches. It takes time to get talent in there. It takes time, and it’s hard to win every game.
Clemson is one of the top 10 teams in terms of producing NFL players. Do you have a relationship with these guys even if you didn’t play with them in college?
You try to talk to them before the game. But I’m the oldest one. I don’t think there’s a player in the NFL that I played with. There’s not a lot of guys I personally played with. You usually say hello.
Speaking of being one of the older Clemson guys still in the NFL, you’ve had a 10-year NFL career. Do you ever think, wow, I’ve got it pretty good.
I’m proud of how a lot of it has gone. How many people get out of the game and wish they had done more. I have some regrets and some things that could have been better. But to last 10 years, I am pretty proud of that.
You’ve gained a bit of local celebrity status in Nashville. What do you think of that?
I don’t know if that’s true or not.
Well, you were on a most beautiful people list.
I think when you grow your hair long and play quarterback, little things like that, it’s like “Who is this guy?” It’s a great town, if we can get this going in the direction we think it’s going, we’ll get a lot of support and it will be a lot of fun. It’s a great a football town.
Do you get recognized moreso than other backup quarterbacks?
I’m not sure. Maybe. I don’t have an issue with it or anything. I can go anywhere I want. You see people out at dinner who are in the music business, and who am I compared to some of those people?
If Iowa continues the current pattern of success under Fran McCaffery, a trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999 awaits this season.
The Hawkeyes have improved in each of McCaffery’s first five seasons as head coach. A losing season in Year 1 was followed by a winning season that included a victory in the NIT in Year 2. The Hawkeyes advanced to the NIT title game in McCaffery’s third season and to the NCAA Tournament a year later, where it lost in the First Four.
Iowa continued its ascent last season by finishing in a tied for third place in the Big Ten and by winning an NCAA game for the first time since 2001.
“That was the whole goal,” says 7'1" senior center Adam Woodbury. “The year before I got here they made the NIT and won a game. And then we were able to go a little further and a little further, and we’re trying to improve on things.
“I think that’s what everybody does except for a team like Duke. They can’t really improve on what they did last season. It’s a key to get better as a program and to sustain our success.”
Four starters return from last season, but All-Big Ten power forward Aaron White isn’t among them after using up his eligibility. His absence will create more scoring opportunities for senior forward Jarrod Uthoff, who was a third-team All-Big Ten selection last season, and for Woodbury, who has started 104 games as a Hawkeye.
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
It’ll take some getting used to not having White on the roster, but the team he left behind is loaded with size, experience and depth on the frontline. Uthoff is a star in the making, while Woodbury is an underrated and underappreciated presence in the post.
Uthoff can score facing the rim or with his back to the basket. His only shortcoming is that he’s too unselfish and passive at times.
Woodbury wasn’t asked to score much during his first three seasons, but that should change without White in the lineup. Woodbury runs the floor extremely well for somebody his size, and he worked hard during the offseason to improve his jump shot. He needs to attack the rim more often, but he passes well for a big man and brings toughness.
Sophomore Dom Uhl showed flashes last season while playing limited minutes. He is expected to get the first shot at replacing White in the starting lineup.
Junior college transfer Dale Jones also will be in the mix, along with 6'6" junior Peter Jok when McCaffery uses a smaller lineup. Jok started 21 games at shooting guard last season but is expected to play more at small forward this season.
Iowa Hawkeyes Facts & Figures
Last season: 22-12 (12-6 Big Ten)
Postseason: NCAA second round
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Big Ten projection: 7
Postseason projection: NCAA first round
When it comes to experience, Iowa’s backcourt compares favorably with every team in the Big Ten, and the country for that matter. Seniors Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons, along with Jok, have combined to start 122 games for the Hawkeyes, including 97 by Gesell, who plays mostly point guard. Gesell is probably the best all-around player in terms of offense and defense among the three, while Clemmons is the best defender and Jok the best shooter.
Redshirt freshman Brady Ellingson was a prolific 3-point shooter in high school, and that outside production is just what Iowa needs to complement the returning players. Clemmons said in June that he expected Iowa to use a three-guard lineup on many occasions this season.
Key Losses: G Gabriel Olaseni, F Aaron White
Top Players: G Mike Gesell, G Anthony Clemmons, G/F Peter Jok, F Jarrod Uthoff, C Adam Woodbury
This class will improve Iowa’s athleticism but has nobody of elite status. Shooting guard Andrew Fleming should provide a much-needed perimeter shooting threat, while Illinois natives Brandon Hutton, Isaiah Moss and Christian Williams will add quickness on the wing. Dale Jones averaged 16.9 points last season at Tyler Junior College in Texas and is a threat from long range.
McCaffery has brought stability, enthusiasm and expectations back to a program that was in shambles when he took over in 2010. Iowa will try to make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season, which hasn’t happened since 1990-93. At this stage, and with four starters returning, anything less than another trip to the NCAAs would be considered a disappointment and a step backward. This could be McCaffery’s best shooting team at Iowa. With Uthoff, Jok, Gesell, Clemmons, Ellingson and newcomers Andrew Fleming and Jones, Iowa has a stable of capable shooters. That should create better floor spacing and more room for Uthoff and Woodbury to perform near the basket.
Old-school ACC fans who remember the days of a Tobacco Road-focused lineup may find themselves pinching themselves at times this season.
Conference expansion in the ACC has been football focused, even if basketball powerhouses like Louisville and Syracuse have been added. This season, however, the three teams at the top are classic ACC basketball powers. Duke, North Carolina and Virginia are all poised to contend for the Final Four. All that’s missing is Maryland, a charter ACC team that will have a top-five team in the Big Ten.
The ACC will have plenty of intrigue beyond those top three. Louisville, now facing a lurid off-court scandal, needed two graduate transfers from mid-majors to stay afloat. Notre Dame expects to score in bunches again, even without Jerian Grant. Florida State and Miami have rebuilt after missing the NCAA Tournament, and NC State will be plenty talented.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
|2015-16 ACC Predictions|
|1.||Lost three one-and-dones, but Duke welcomes in another elite recruiting class that will be ready to contribute. Postseason: National Runner-Up||Team Preview|
|2.||Depth and experience should carry the Heels on a deep NCAA run. Nine players from a 10-man rotation return. Postseason: Final Four||Team Preview|
Had Justin Anderson stayed, the Cavs would be the ACC favorite. Still, the bulk of a 30-win team is back, and so is coaching wiz Tony Bennett. Postseason: Elite Eight
|4.||Every key player from an Elite Eight run is gone, but Rick Pitino added two of the nation’s top transfers. Postseason: Second Round||Team Preview|
|5.||Suffered some big losses after coming one basket away from Final Four, but Mike Brey still has plenty to build around. Postseason: Second Round||Team Preview|
|6.||Adding a top-10 recruiting class — including three freshmen who can help right away — will get the Noles back in the NCAA Tournament. Postseason: Second Round||Team Preview|
Every key player returns after reaching 2015 NIT title game. Postseason: First Round
|8.||NCAA penalties didn’t stop Orange from landing a strong recruiting class, but Jim Boeheim will miss nine ACC games. Postseason: First Round||Team Preview|
Losing leading scorer Trevor Lacey (who went undrafted) from the Pack’s Sweet 16 team was a major blow. Postseason: First Four
|10.||Coming off a rare down year. The roster boasts experience, but big questions remain on defense. Postseason: NIT|
Pressure is building on Brad Brownell after four straight years without an NCAA bid. Postseason: NIT
Expect improvement in Year 2 of the Danny Manning era.
|13.||Maryland transfer Seth Allen will help, and so will playing so many freshmen last year.|
Brian Gregory was given one more year — just barely. In his four years, Tech is just 19–51 in ACC play.
Firmly in rebuilding mode. Eagles will be one of the youngest teams in the conference.
Player of the Year: Brandon Ingram, Duke
Best Defensive Player: Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Most Underrated: Sheldon McClellan, Miami
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Ingram, Duke
Top Coach: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke (full list)
Coach on the Hot Seat: Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech (full list)
Teams in the national top 25: No. 2 Duke, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 5 Virginia, No. 23 Louisville
All-ACC First Team
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
G Marcus Paige, North Carolina
G Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State
F Brandon Ingram, Duke
F Zach Auguste, Notre Dame
All-ACC Second Team
G Derryck Thornton, Duke
G Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
G Sheldon McClellan, Miami
F Brice Johnson, North Carolina
F Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
All-ACC Third Team
G Damion Lee, Louisville
G Grayson Allen, Duke
F Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson
F Anthony Gill, Virginia
C Tonye Jekiri, Miami
1. Duke: The No. 2-ranked class nationally features four five-star prospects, including point guard Derryck Thornton.
2. Louisville: This diverse four-man class ranks No. 7 nationally, and there are big expectations for powerful guard Donovan Mitchell.
3. Florida State: Wing scorer Dwayne Bacon is the gem of Seminoles’ top-10 class.
4. Syracuse: The Orange just missed on the top 10 nationally but have four talented four-star prospects coming to campus.
5. Virginia Tech: Sitting just outside the top 25 nationally, the Hokies’ class includes four four-star prospects.
6. Wake Forest: Danny Manning landed two post players with potential and an athletic four-star guard in Bryant Crawford.
7. Notre Dame: Shooting, toughness on the perimeter and a physical inside presence are coming Mike Brey’s way.
8. NC State: Maverick Rowan is a sharpshooting scorer, and Shaun Kirk is a slashing athlete.
9. North Carolina: It is only a two-man class, but four-star prospect Kenny Williams is known for his shooting ability.
10. Clemson: Speedy point guard Ty Hudson is the top recruit in the Tigers’ class.
11. Boston College: The Eagles are loading up with a five-man class of three-star recruits.
12. Pittsburgh: Four-star guard Damon Wilson is known for his versatile play and scoring ability.
13. Miami: The Canes added a couple of high-potential forwards.
14. Virginia: Rugged and skilled big man Jarred Reuter is the Cavaliers’ lone recruit.
15. Georgia Tech: Brian Gregory is adding some size with Sylvester Ogbonda.
The College Football Playoff picture is starting to get some clarity, and the competition off the field among fans is nearly as heated as the competition on the field on game day.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
Washington at Stanford
Stanford is averaging 48.5 points per game in Pac-12 play, including more than 50 points at home the last two weeks. The Cardinal’s 16-6 loss to Northwestern in the opener appears to be an aberration as Stanford has the look of a national title contender. Washington is getting better, particularly on defense where the Huskies are averaging 10 tackles for a loss per game in Pac-12 play. The Huskies, though, don’t have the offense to hang with Stanford.
Fox’s prediction: Stanford 42-20
Washington State at Arizona
Time to start taking Wazzu a little more seriously. The Cougars lost to Portland State in the opener, but they swept the Oregon schools the last two weeks and had a third-quarter lead against Cal on the road three weeks ago. Arizona is still without linebacker Scooby Wright, and running back Nick Wilson didn’t play in a close call with Colorado. With Washington State’s passing game behind Luke Falk and Arizona’s offense, this should be a wild one.
Fox’s prediction: Washington State 49-41
Utah at USC
Utah is undefeated, but we’re skeptical about the Utes. Utah ranks 70th in total offense and 50th in total defense. The Utes dodged Cal by six points and beat Arizona State in a 34-18 victory that was closer than the final score indicates. Despite the turmoil in Los Angeles, USC held its own for a time against Notre Dame, but ultimately the Trojans’ inability to stop the run caught up with them. Utah will use the same strategy with Devontae Booker.
Fox’s prediction: USC 31-28
Tennessee at Alabama
Tennessee saved its season two weeks ago with a win over Georgia, but Alabama is quickly rounding into form as the class of the SEC. The Volunteers have allowed more than five yards per carry in each of the last two games, which isn’t a great trend ahead of a matchup with Derrick Henry. The Tide have a stifling run defense this season, meaning Josh Dobbs may need to hit some plays downfield for Tennessee to stay competitive.
Fox’s prediction: Alabama 41-28
Kentucky at Mississippi State
Every Kentucky game has been decided by one score, and the margin of error for Mississippi State is pretty slim. In other words, expect another close one. The Bulldogs, though, have Dak Prescott. He’s arguably the SEC’s MVP as Mississippi State is likely going to make a bowl game despite not having anything in the way of offense beyond Prescott.
Fox’s prediction: Mississippi State 31-28
Clemson at Miami
A case could be made that Clemson is the top team in the country right now. The Tigers’ 34-17 win over Boston College shouldn’t be overlooked — Clemson averaged 6.8 yards per play against an Eagles team that hadn’t allowed more than 3.8 in a game all season. Meanwhile, only one team, Notre Dame, has topped 300 total yards against the Tigers.
Fox’s prediction: Clemson 38-21
Iowa State at Baylor
Iowa State has faced Texas Tech and TCU the last two weeks, allowing 959 combined passing yards and 10 touchdowns. The Cyclones might not have much left for Baylor, which isn’t an ideal situation.
Fox’s prediction: Baylor 66-21
Missouri at Vanderbilt
It’s probably best to just avoid this game. Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary has thrown five interceptions the last two weeks, and Missouri has failed to score a touchdown each of the last two weeks. Both teams have good defenses … so take the under.
Fox’s prediction: Missouri 10-7
Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Pitt is quietly getting into the ACC race thanks to three straight one-score wins over underachieving Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia Tech. Pitt, which ranks seventh in the ACC in offensive and defensive yards per play, is doing just enough get by. That should be enough to beat a Syracuse team that’s lost three in a row.
Fox’s prediction: Pittsburgh 28-17
Kansas State at Texas
Who knows what we’re going to get out of either team. The same Texas team that lost 50-7 to TCU ran all over Oklahoma in a 24-17 win. And the same Kansas State team that put a scare into TCU lost 55-0 to Oklahoma. Kansas State has Texas’ number (6-1 vs. the Longhorns since 2006), but Charlie Strong is on the verge of turning the Longhorns around while Kansas State is still patching things together at quarterback.
Fox’s prediction: Texas 28-21
Indiana at Michigan State
Everyone has seen Michigan State’s unlikely win over Michigan, but few probably watched Indiana’s collapse against Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights scored the final 28 points in a 55-52 win. The Spartans already have a talent edge, and they’re the ones riding the momentum of a wild win. That said, Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld should be able to test a Michigan State secondary thinned by injuries.
Fox’s prediction: Michigan State 49-31
Western Kentucky at LSU
LSU’s run of good fortune in facing backup quarterbacks comes to an end in a big way. The Tigers haven’t faced a team’s No. 1 quarterback since Week 2 against Auburn, and even that comes with a caveat since Auburn soon benched then-starter Jeremy Johnson. That means LSU has truly faced just one No. 1 quarterback this season, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott. Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty is one of the nation’s most productive QBs, leading the Hilltoppers to at least 500 yards in all but one game this season. LSU has to be on guard.
Fox’s prediction: LSU 35-28
Texas A&M at Ole Miss
Both teams need a win, badly. Texas A&M hardly looked like a playoff contender in the loss to Alabama, and Ole Miss’ win over Alabama now seems like a distant memory. The Rebels will get a big leg up when offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil returns, just in time for a matchup with Myles Garrett. The focus, though, needs to be on the quarterbacks. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly has thrown six interceptions in four games since the win over Bama while Kyle Allen threw three interceptions against the Tide. The difference is that Texas A&M has a plan B in Kyler Murray.
Fox’s prediction: Texas A&M 42-35
Auburn at Arkansas
Auburn’s quarterback change from Jeremy Johnson to Sean White stopped the bleeding from a turnover standpoint, but Tigers still can’t stop the run. That’s not a good trend ahead of facing Arkansas. The Hogs managed just 44 rushing yards against Alabama, but that’s more a reflection of the Tide than Arkansas.
Fox’s prediction: Arkansas 35-24
Duke at Virginia Tech
This has been a season to forget for the Hokies, but things may be turning for Virginia Tech this week. Michael Brewer will return at quarterback after missing the last six games with a broken collarbone. Virginia Tech needs a spark in a big way, and that may be it.
Fox’s prediction: Virginia Tech 21-13
Northwestern at Nebraska
The Wildcats are close to closing the door on their dream season. Northwestern’s offense has been nothing short of inept the last two weeks, and even the Wildcats’ stout defense is starting to fail them. Michigan and Iowa rushed for a combined 495 yards and eight touchdowns against Northwestern. Nebraska has had its issues this season, but the Cornhuskers have a solid run game. As long as Tommy Armstrong avoids major mistakes, Nebraska should have the upper hand.
Fox’s prediction: Nebraska 35-10
Florida State at Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech’s run game got back on track against Pittsburgh with 376 yards and 9.4 per carry, but the Yellow Jackets still lost. Florida State isn’t dominating, but the Seminoles are the most turnover-averse team in the country.
Fox’s prediction: Florida State 31-21
Texas Tech at Oklahoma
Psst. Texas Tech is better than you think. The Red Raiders are plus-six in turnover margin and second in the Big 12 in takeaways. The Red Raiders still can’t stop the run, but Oklahoma — despite having Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon — prefers to air it out. This game has high shootout potential with former Red Raiders quarterback Baker Mayfield having the advantage for OU.
Fox’s prediction: Oklahoma 49-35
Wisconsin at Illinois
Wisconsin is patching together a successful season despite below average production from its offensive line and run game. Credit the passing attack and a stingy defense.
Fox’s prediction: Wisconsin 28-14
Ohio State at Rutgers
The return of Leonte Carroo has jumpstarted the Rutgers offense, but the Scarlet Knights are still lacking in so many other areas. All signs point to J.T. Barrett taking the first snaps for Ohio State, and if the Buckeyes are approaching their potential, this won’t be a contest.
Fox’s prediction: Ohio State 49-21
Last week: 12-8
Season to date: 104-36
More than most, Steve Taneyhill knows what South Carolina can be — both the good and the bad. As quarterback at South Carolina from 1992-95, he led the Gamecocks to their first bowl win in school history. From afar as a high school football coach in the state, Taneyhill has watched the highs of the Steve Spurrier era and the lows of the 1-21 stretch in 1998-99.
Taneyhill may be best known as one of the more colorful personalities in SEC history. Think of him as a pre-Johnny Manziel figure, just with a blond mullet.
Taneyhill appeared on the 1995 cover of Athlon Sports and since then has coached state title winners and first-round draft picks in South Carolina high schools. From his perspective as the coach of Union High, Taneyhill shared his thoughts of where the Gamecocks can go from here in the post-Spurrier era.
How much have you stayed involved with South Carolina?
When Spurrier got the job, he called me that first week and wanted me to come back around a little bit more. When (Lou) Holtz was there, he didn’t do that with former players. I think because I played when Coach Spurrier was at Florida and started four games against him and he heard maybe the rumblings that former players weren’t welcome, he invited me to come basically anytime I wanted. I started to go back when I could, but it’s hard during the season. I went for bowl practices and clinics and spoke to the team on numerous occasions. Pretty much anytime I’m around, Coach Spurrier welcomes me. We’re friends. I’ve gotten to know the staff because of that. There was a time when Brad Lawing (former South Carolina assistant, now defensive ends/outside linebackers coach at Florida State) was the only one I knew because he was there when I was there. But I’ve come to know G.A. (Mangus) and (Shawn) Elliott and (Steve Spurrier) Junior and those guys.
What was your relationship with Spurrier when you were a player, if any?
That was one of the weeks I always ventured down to the defensive rooms just to see the things they were doing because what he was doing at Florida was really and truly the first time that stuff in the passing game had started. My senior year, John Reaves, came to be our offensive coordinator. He had been at Florida, so we started running a lot of the same stuff. Even today, I call a couple of plays the same as they call them at Carolina because I got them from Coach Reaves who was with Spurrier.
What did you think when you heard the news that Spurrier had retired from South Carolina? Were you surprise that it happened or at least the way it happened?
I was surprised. I was down there last year during the bowl practice and talked to coach a little bit, and I thought after the bowl win he seemed excited. He had a little of that fire back. Coach Spurrier visited my school one day in January and we talked for a bit. I hadn’t saw him, and I figured everything was good. But as a fan, I hate to watch the game this Saturday and not see him on the sideline.
From your perspective as a high school coach in South Carolina or other coaches that you’ve talked to, is South Carolina at a crossroads? How do you view where South Carolina is going to go from here?
I have a player on my team who has been offered by South Carolina, a junior wide receiver (Shi Smith), he’s probably the top junior in the state. I have been witnessing his recruitinment. They offered my guy in the ninth grade. I don’t necessarily think it’s recruiting effort (that's missing). I think it’s recruiting (as in) who we sign. What we did in those 11-win seasons, we ought to be able to get on those national-level recruits. I don’t know where there at, but there not there. I just know how they recruit my guy, which is completely different because he’s an underclassman and the rules are different. I don’t think it’s effort in recruiting. It’s who we sign. Listening to Coach Spurrier and he said this is a recruiting business and he basically he said we need a younger guy. Recruiting is the lifeblood and if you don’t have it, it’s hard to compete in the SEC. We’ve got to sign some better guys. On offense, they ain’t got but one wideout that’s doing anything (Pharoh Cooper). On my team alone in high school, I’ve got five wideouts. I’m not saying they can play at South Carolina, but they can all play. I think wideout is one of the easier positions to recruit across the country just because everyone’s throwing the ball. I just look there and nothing against those other guys, but No. 11 is the only one making plays. I’m not down here, so I just don’t know. On offense, they don’t have many playmakers.
What is the recruiting landscape in South Carolina as far as where kids want to go?
I think the state of South Carolina every year has great defensive linemen and wideouts. You can find those kids in our state. Clemson’s not having any trouble getting wideouts. In our state, we have about 20 kids that go Division I and a lot of those kids play right away. As a kid here, when you get that letter, it’s not like in the state of Georgia, you’re looking for a letter from UGA. Here in South Carolina you’re waiting for both (South Carolina and Clemson) because the state is pretty much split. As a high school coach, I want a kid to go to Clemson or South Carolina. I want a kid to stay in the state. As a former Carolina player, I wish South Carolina would get the majority of the talent. It’s tough for me because I’ve lived two lives. I’m a high school coach, so I like everybody. I’ve never had a player play at South Carolina. I’ve had a player go to Clemson (the late Gaines Adams who played for Taneyhill at Cambridge Academy). I’m the coach who is this guy with everybody. And sometimes I’m the guy who played at South Carolina, so it’s a fine line.
How did you get into that double life and get into coaching?
It was definitely something I fell into. My dad was a basketball coach for 30 years, and my sister was a college basketball coach for 20 years. I never thought it would be me. I never thought I’d have enough patience to deal with it. Going back to when I played Arena Football, I got a call from a small private school in Greenwood, S.C., and they asked me if I’d be interested. I thought it would be better than playing Arena Football, so I gave it a shot. I kind of knew from the first day that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. It’s as close to playing as you can get. You’re still part of a team and have that competition every day and part of that routine that all athletes get into. I never thought I’d be a coach because of the patience that it takes to deal with players and parents and administrators. I’m happy that it happened.
When did you realize you had the patience to juggle all that?
I was in a great place at Cambridge Academy with great kids and great parents and a place that really wanted to win. We went 7-4 and everyone was excited and it just felt right. The next year we went 7-5 and made it one game further (in the playoffs) and the next year we won it all. You always want to get back to that. I’ve been fortunate to win it five times. That first year and seeing the kids and how excited they were, I had taken over a group that had never really won.
During your playing days you were known as a free spirit and trash talker, how do you feel when you watch a guy like Johnny Manziel when he was at Texas A&M or the reaction to Manziel?
I’ve been through it. That’s the first thing. You’re on a big stage as a young guy. He was having the time of his life having fun. Yeah, there was trash talk and celebrations and all that but it was just fun. A lot of people take a lot of things seriously — as long as you’re out there being successful and giving all that you’ve got. I was the same way. I’m going to battle and have fun at this thing. Now, there’s a lot more rules and you’ve got tone it down.
On a more serious note, Gaines Adams passed away five years ago. How has that changed your approach to the game? Adams was a defensive end at Cambridge Academy who signed at Clemson and was later selected No. 4 in the NFL Draft. Adams died Jan. 17, 2010 at age 26 due cardiac arrest caused by an enlarged heart.
I talked to my team just because of his story. Someone needs to tell that story. He was a guy no one looked at as a college football player or the fourth player in the draft, but he worked and didn’t take no for an answer and never backed down. That drove him. When it happened, it shook me pretty good because we were friends. I talked to him every Sunday when he was in college and every Monday when he was a pro player. What it did was, I always going to do my best to develop relationships with my players. It made me work a little harder to get to know all the kids because you never know when time’s up. In that situation, it was such a shock. After it was all said and done, I was in an OK place because we helped each other. I helped him and he helped me to become a better coach and understand the kids on a different level and get to know them better instead of being the guy on the field yelling at them all the time.
The college football season is heading for its most important week, and the competition off the field among fans is nearly as heated as the competition on the field on game day.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
College Football Podcast: Week 6 Recap
Iowa at Northwestern
Iowa’s run game and defense carried the Hawkeyes in two Big Ten wins over Wisconsin and Illinois. Kirk Ferentz’s team likely will need more from quarterback C.J. Beathard, who has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in the last two games, against Northwestern’s defense. The Wildcats offense has a long way to go after last week’s shutout against Michigan, but Northwestern will face a defense without its best player, Drew Ott, who is out for the season.
Fox’s prediction: Northwestern 21–13
Missouri at Georgia
After back-to-back losses to Alabama and Tennessee, Georgia needs this game not just to keep its head above water in the SEC East race but to maintain respectability. This will be the third time Missouri has faced Georgia not long after an injury to the Bulldogs’ starting running back. Nick Chubb broke out last season in a 34–0 rout of the Tigers. Sony Michel and Keith Marshall will look to replicate that with Chubb out this season. Missouri’s offense, meanwhile, ranks last in the SEC in yards per play (4.6).
Fox’s prediction: Georgia 24–14
Oregon at Washington
The Ducks are reeling after their third loss of the season, this one at home to arguably the lesser of the Washington schools. Meanwhile, Washington is celebrating after a 17–12 win over USC, which, as it turns out, has as much to do with the Trojans’ turmoil as the Huskies’ turnaround. This will be a matchup between Washington’s young and punchless offense (4.8 yards per play vs. FBS teams) and Oregon’s porous defense (5.8 yards per play). Oregon has won 11 in a row in the rivalry, but that may be about to change.
Fox’s prediction: Washington 35–28
Ole Miss at Memphis
Memphis has lost six in a row in the series, but the Tigers haven’t faced Ole Miss in the Liberty Bowl since 2009 and rarely with a top 25-caliber team. Both teams rank in the top 11 nationally in total offense and better than 525 yards per game. Memphis, though, doesn’t have a defense to match. Ole Miss has had its defensive lapses, but the Rebels still have the talent edge.
Fox’s prediction: Ole Miss 41–31
Alabama at Texas A&M
Alabama is six weeks into the season, and we’re not totally sure if the Crimson Tide is the best team in the SEC or simply one of the pack of solid, if flawed, teams. The Alabama offense turned in another uneven performance for three quarters against Arkansas. The Crimson Tide run defense has held all but one opponent (Georgia) to fewer than 100 yards on the ground, but Texas A&M’s offense — like Ole Miss — is built to challenge Alabama in the secondary and in tempo. Don’t look now, but the Aggies may have the SEC’s best defensive player (Myles Garrett), quarterback (Kyle Allen) and freshman (Christian Kirk).
Fox’s prediction: Texas A&M 31–28
Boston College at Clemson
Expect Boston College’s defense to put up a fight against Deshaun Watson. The Eagles are allowing only 7.2 points per game. BC, though, is averaging just six points against FBS opponents, the worst average in the country. Clemson’s defense suffered little drop off despite losing a host of players from last year’s standout squad.
Fox’s prediction: Clemson 31–7
Louisville at Florida State
The Cardinals are probably better than you think. Louisville’s three losses have come by a combined 13 points (Granted, it’s only FBS win is by seven over NC State). Florida State probably isn’t as good as you think, but the Seminoles still have Dalvin Cook, who is as adept at saving the day for FSU as he was in the Louisville game last year.
Fox’s prediction: Florida State 35–28
Virginia Tech at Miami
The Hokies put together a competent game offensively against NC State just in time to face a Miami team that’s allowing 5.6 yards per play against FBS competition. Virginia Tech’s defense is holding its own with cornerback Kendall Fuller out, but Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya may be the best QB the Hokies have faced since the opener against Ohio State.
Fox’s prediction: Miami 31–24
Nebraska at Minnesota
Minnesota may not have the best defense in the Big Ten, but the Gophers aren’t too far off the pace of Michigan and Northwestern. When the Gophers get good field position (i.e., when they’re playing Purdue), the offense can be functional. Nebraska, though, remains an enigma. The Huskers are getting gashed on defense and are minus-five in turnover margin — and their late-game collapses have led to four losses this season.
Fox’s prediction: Minnesota 24–17
West Virginia at Baylor
West Virginia’s promising season has gone sour with back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and that’s before a visit to Baylor in a revenge game. The Mountaineers’ passing game has gone cold, contributing to a minus-4 turnover margin (WVU was plus-9 in non-conference play)
Fox’s prediction: Baylor 41–21
Florida at LSU
The Gators’ season has been turned upside down by the season-ending suspension for quarterback Will Grier, who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs this week. Backup Treon Harris has starting experience, but he hasn’t thrown a pass since Week 2 and has completed just 53 percent of his career passes. This should be a defensive struggle, but Florida’s margin of error has diminished. That’s not ideal against a team with Leonard Fournette on the other side.
Fox’s prediction: LSU 20–14
Oklahoma at Kansas State
After a mystifying loss to Texas, Oklahoma faces a team that has matched up well with the Sooners. Kansas State has won two of the last three meetings, but oddly enough, Oklahoma hasn’t lost in Manhattan since 1996. The Sooners’ run game has gone dormant for some reason, and Kansas State is allowing a Big 12-low 105 rushing yards per game, a stat skewed in part by the Wildcats’ clock-chomping ball-control offense.
Fox’s prediction: Oklahoma 35–28
TCU at Iowa State
Pity the poor Iowa State defense, the Cyclones just lost 66–31 to Texas Tech and now get TCU and Baylor in back-to-back games. The Horned Frogs’ beleaguered defense should get a bit of a breather.
Fox’s prediction: TCU 63–21
Michigan State at Michigan
The rivalry has been lopsided in favor of Michigan State with the Spartans winning the last two matchups by 23 and 24 points and six of the last seven overall. Michigan is poised to change that trend. The Wolverines’ defense has been the most dominant unit in the country, albeit against offensively challenged teams like BYU, UNLV, Oregon State and Northwestern. Michigan State has the best offense the Wolverines have faced this year, but the Spartans are facing injuries all over the field, most critically on the offensive line.
Fox’s prediction: Michigan 28–10
Vanderbilt at South Carolina
South Carolina’s injury list remains worth monitoring. Running back Brandon Wilds was cleared to play against LSU but did not against the Tigers. Quarterback Connor Mitch returned to practice. Lorenzo Nunez (shoulder) did not play against LSU. Vanderbilt’s defense remains one of the more underrated units in the league.
Fox’s prediction: Vanderbilt 17–13
Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech
This is a matchup with arguably the most surprising team in the ACC against the most disappointing. The Yellow Jackets offense has been ineffective in four losses this season, averaging 3.4 yards per carry in the last four games. Pittsburgh is missing running back James Conner, but has made the offense work with efficient play from Nathan Peterman at quarterback. The Panthers are allowing just 2.9 yards per carry this season.
Fox’s prediction: Pittsburgh 28–20
Arizona State at Utah
Mike Bercovici rebounded from his lackluster start against USC with solid performances against UCLA and Colorado. The Sun Devils’ run defense also has clamped down for just 2.1 yards per carry and 62 yards per game in Pac-12 play. Utah’s Devontae Booker will have trouble finding running room, so the pressure will be on quarterback Travis Wilson, who threw two picks against Cal.
Fox’s prediction: Utah 31–27
Oregon State at Washington State
Statistically speaking, the Beavers’ pass defense is not bad. Oregon State leads the Pac-12 in fewest yards allowed per game and is fourth in pass efficiency defense. Facing Washington State — rather than Stanford, Arizona and San Jose State — is a different animal.
Fox’s prediction: Washington State 54–28
USC at Notre Dame
Notre Dame faces a USC team in crisis. The Trojans are coming of a listless performance in a loss to Washington, and coach Steve Sarkisian has taken a leave of absence stemming from concerns over his use of alcohol. The Trojans regrouped under an interim coach last season, and this is still the most talented team in the Pac-12. Notre Dame has kept itself afloat despite injuries, but most teams are beat up after a matchup with Navy or another physical team. Notre Dame will be no exception. The Irish are on upset alert.
Fox’s Prediction: USC 28–21
Penn State at Ohio State
Ohio State’s quarterbacks had a solid performance last week against Maryland even as Urban Meyer went with the unconventional plan of using backup J.T. Barrett as a red zone specialist. Ohio State’s defense has to find a way to prevent the lapses that enabled big plays the last two weeks. Penn State’s defensive front is salty, but we’re not yet believers in the offense, especially as the Nittany Lions’ running back depth has been tested.
Fox’s prediction: Ohio State 35–14
Last week: 17–3
Season to date: 92–28