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.
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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