by Rafid Farjo (Twitter: @rafid_313)
It is rivalry week, the best part of college football. The Game, The Iron Bowl, the Egg Bowl, Bedlam, and more. In a year with the murkiest playoff picture to date, it just matters that much more. The Game in Ann Arbor noon Saturday between (3) Ohio State and (5) Michigan will serve as a defacto playoff game, with the winner booking a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship next week, while Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati, and Alabama will look to keep winning and reserve their own respective spot in the playoff picture. Going into the looming chaos, we preview the week of college football ahead using odds and lines provided by Draftkings Sportsbook.
The Game: (9) Ole Miss @ Mississippi State
The Play: Ole Miss ML (+113)
Why: The Egg Bowl is bound to be a thriller per usual. Mike Leach and his now in-form Air Raid take on Lane Kiffin and Heisman candidate Matt Corral. Corral has led the Rebels to a 9-2 record and with a win, would likely earn a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game. The Ole Miss offense has been consistent throughout the year, ranking 17th in offensive EPA/play at 0.156. They also are 6th in total offense. Not only can they pass (28th in EPA/pass), but are effective at rushing the ball behind QB Matt Corral who leads the country in total QB rush EPA and a trio of running backs each with over 500 yards and 5 YPC on the season. With that said, the improvements on defense as of recent are what gives confidence. Ole Miss’ defense still is overall poor, ranking 80th in defensive EPA/play, but they are 21st in EPA/pass allowed at -0.079. In the past 5 weeks as well they have only allowed 19.6 PPG, including a dominant showing against Texas A&M where they forced 2 interceptions and gave up just 5.6 yards/pass attempt. Mississippi State is very pass heavy, leading the country with 54.6 pass attempts/game and will likely not aim to change styles (or may not be able to sitting at 70th in rush EPA/play and 129th in total rush offense) against a poor Ole Miss rush defense that is 124th in EPA/play. Both teams are good and will have some chances in the game, but behind the veteran leadership Corral and the poor matchup for the Bulldogs offense, Ole Miss should pull away.
The Game: (16) Iowa @ Nebraska
The Play: Iowa ML (-110)
Why: Nebraska is probably the best 3-8 team ever, but regardless, they’re still just 3-8 without their star starting QB and only getting 1 point against a good Iowa team. Adrian Martinez is out for the Huskers and has been the true focal point of their offense thus far. He is both the team’s leading passer and rusher, and has accounted for 67.2% of Nebraska’s total offense this season. The Huskers, without a QB that has thrown over 15 passes on the roster and no running backs with over 500 yards on the season, will presumably struggle without Martinez. Facing a stout Iowa defense won’t help. The Hawkeyes are 5th in EPA/play on defense and stand 5th against the rush and 8th against the pass. They have allowed over 25 points in a game just once this season (27 allowed against Wisconsin). While the Iowa offense is notably anemic (120th in EPA/play, 93rd in SP+), the team recently underwent a quarterback switch from Spencer Petras to Alex Padilla and has seen some sudden improvement. After turning the ball over almost twice a game in their first 8 games, they have only turned the ball over twice combined in the past 3 games that Padilla has participated in. While Padilla is admittedly not an exciting or “great” quarterback by any metric, he takes care of the ball and with a talented supporting cast and strong defense around him, that will matter in a rivalry game. RB Tyler Goodson leads the Hawkeyes backfield with 86 YPG and for the most part, Iowa has found sneaky ways to score, including both a defensive and special teams touchdown last week. With Martinez, this game should’ve been exciting, without him Iowa has no excuse not to win.
The Game: Boise State @ (21) San Diego State
The Play: Boise State -2.5 (-110)
Why: San Diego State has clawed their way to 10-1 but it has been far from easy, with 6 of 9 wins against FBS opponents coming by one score (+63 point differential against FBS opponents, but skewed by +42 points in the opening 2 weeks of the season against Arizona and New Mexico State). Likewise, Boise State has also put together a nice season at 7-4 after a rough start, by winning 5 out of 6 games marked by upsets over (13) BYU and Fresno State. Both squads are led by strong defense. San Diego State is 9th in defensive EPA/game with -9.4 while Boise State is 28th with -2.5 EPA/game. Neither team is particularly dynamic on offense, but the Broncos have a solid advantage. They sit 59th in offensive SP+ but have shown skill through the air ranking 34th in EPA/pass behind QB Hank Bachmeier, who himself is 22nd in total QB EPA at 59.87. San Diego State is 105th in offensive EPA/play and has scored over 23 points just once in the past 6 weeks, while only facing one opponent the caliber of Boise State in that period. This line may seem odd to some, but there is good reason for Boise State to be a road favorite at the one-loss Aztecs.
The Game: Missouri @ (25) Arkansas
The Play: Missouri +14.5 (-110)
Why: Arkansas is an all-around better team, but not 14 points better. Missouri is playing well as of recent, winning 3 of 4 (loss to Georgia) against an SEC schedule and are coming off a confidence building win against their “rivals” Florida (quotations necessary because it’s only a rivalry to Missouri fans). QB Connor Bazelak for Missouri came into the season with very lofty expectations and admittedly has not met them, but has still been serviceable averaging 7.1 yards/pass attempt and 16 TDs. RB Tyler Badie has risen to the occasion though, with 126 rush YPG on 6.1 YPC, including 178 YPG the last 2 weeks. The Missouri defense has also improved on the season after a horrific start relegated them to still being 120th in EPA/play allowed despite that improvement. After allowing over 30 points in 5 straight games, the Tigers defense has only allowed over 30 points once in their past 5 matchups, which of course can be dismissed for being at the hands of Georgia. Yes, it is true that Arkansas is better and the EPA numbers do show it. The Razorbacks are 52nd in EPA/play with 0.044 compared to Missouri at 110 with -0.062 as well as SP+ where the Razorbacks are 36th compared to Missouri at 67th. Arkansas just does not seem to be 14.5 points better in a true rivalry game, especially not after cooling off of their red hot 4-0 start with 2 ranked wins (now 7-4). SP+ corroborates this prediction, favoring Arkansas by 9.9 points.
The Game: Penn State @ (12) Michigan State
The Play: Penn State ML (-124)
Why: Michigan State performed a magnificent disappearing act last week in Columbus, while Penn State was led by a backup QB to a resounding 28-0 win over Rutgers. The 0 allowed in the score column is why they will beat Michigan State on the road. The Nittany Lions are 11th in defensive EPA/play and are 3rd in scoring defense. Michigan State does have possibly the best running back in the country in Kenneth Walker III, but their offense actually isn’t actually all that efficient. They stand 40th in EPA/play (60th in total EPA/game) with 0.108, but are only 52nd in offensive rush EPA/play despite Walker’s success and are 31st in EPA/pass. Penn State is very strong against the pass ranking 9th in EPA/pass defensively. They also have significant experience facing dynamic power backs against Michigan’s Hassan Haskins and Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson but those squads could only muster 3.5 YPC and 4.7 YPC respectively against the Nittany Lion front. On offense, Penn State just is not very good, ranking 124th in EPA/play and matches up poorly against the Spartans 13th ranked rush defense, but Michigan State has a poor pass defense. They are 92nd in EPA/pass allowed and although not great, the passing game is where Penn State finds success behind a plethora of weapons including All-American WR Jahan Dotson. QB Christian Veilleux for Penn State was forced into a debut last week, but provided a necessary spark to the offense and looked good, completing 63% of his passes for 235 touchdowns and 3TD. More importantly, he had 0 interceptions. Off a 56-7 drubbing last week, there is certainly a chance the Spartans come out disappointed and flat, but regardless, the Nittany Lions match up very well and should find a way to win. SP+ favors Penn State by a field goal in this matchup, showing some value on this line.
The Game: (23) Clemson @ South Carolina
The Play: Over 43 total points (-110)
Why: Clemson’s offense is looking capable and the Gamecocks are no longer led by a graduate assistant for a quarterback. Over the past 4 weeks, the Tigers have put up 38 PPG despite not surpassing 21 in their first 6 games against FBS opponents. This resurgence has been led by the Tigers rushing attack which is now up to 71st in EPA/rush, impressive considering the team’s lackluster start. Last week against Wake Forest, Clemson rushed for 338 yards on 6.2 YPC. SP+, a metric that moves much faster to recent results in comparison to EPA/play, already has the Tigers 54th. South Carolina is decent against the rush but gives up a 56th ranked 0.02 EPA/rush which likely won’t help their cause of stopping Clemson.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, this dramatic offensive improvement has come at the hands of slight defensive regression. They still rank 11th in defensive EPA/play, but gave up over 400 YPG between their Louisville and Wake Forest matchups. South Carolina also has seen some offensive improvement recently behind a QB swap for Jason Brown. In his last start against Auburn, Brown amassed 10.1 yards/attempt and threw for 3 touchdowns on 15 attempts (while the Gamecocks other 3 QB amassed 7 touchdowns on 190 attempts against mostly inferior competition). Clemson should win the game by pounding the ball on their way to 27+ points, while the Gamecocks will scrap their way to a few scores, more than enough to reach the total of 43. SP+ predicts 46.1 total points for this game, and a Clemson win by 14.3 points.