As we enter the second half of the college football season, we are starting to get a clearer picture of who the contenders are across the country, but still are waiting for some key tests to determine who will have a shot at conference and national titles later this year. We’ll get some answers to those questions this weekend, as the midseason version of rivalry week in college football provides us with some very intriguing matchups that will have major implications on title races.
Penn State (+4.5) at Ohio State, 12:00 p.m. ET (FOX)
The game of the day will be on Big Noon in Columbus as two of the three undefeateds in the Big Ten East will meet in a very important game for the Big Ten and national title race. The Nittany Lions have been a buzzsaw this season, but also have not been really tested yet, especially on the road. Their two toughest games on paper came at home in Happy Valley, where they dominated West Virginia and Iowa, and the Buckeyes represent a considerable step up in talent from those two teams. That said, Penn State’s defense is a hellacious group and this year’s Ohio State squad has some real questions on offense. Notre Dame stymied them by applying pressure to QB Kyle McCord and making it difficult to move the ball on the ground, and while the passing game has come around some of late, it’s likewise been against lesser competition.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State’s been great again this year on defense and Drew Allar and the Penn State offense will have their biggest test by far. To this point, Penn State has not had to fully unleash their downfield passing attack to put points on the board, but Ohio State figures to dare James Franklin to open things up with Allar and see if the young QB can make big plays for Penn State without making a big mistake on the road. Of the two teams, Ohio State is the one that’s faced the stiffest test this year and won, but that was in part due to Notre Dame’s insistence on shooting itself in the foot on the final drive. I would expect both teams to play fairly conservatively, as both know turnovers and mistakes could swing this game, but I think the team that can overcome that conservative instinct and create a couple of explosive plays on offense will be the one that comes out on top.
UCF (+17.5) at Oklahoma, 12:00 p.m. ET (ABC)
Oklahoma just got a resounding win over their rival Texas and now welcomes in a UCF squad that’s lost three straight and can’t buy a stop on defense. The Sooners absolutely could do what they’re supposed to here and blow the doors off of the Knights, but this spot raises a lot of red flags for me. It would be real easy for Oklahoma to sleepwalk into this one and suddenly find itself in a dogfight with an undermanned UCF squad, so I’d at least keep an eye on the scoreboard here and be ready to activate a second screen if this one gets interesting.
Minnesota (+3.5) at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Have you ever wanted to watch two teams that are allergic to moving the football play for a giant bronze pig? Of course you have. This battle for the Floyd of Rosedale currently has the lowest point total (30.5) in college football history and it might get lower by the time we reach kickoff. Sure, you could watch a game with two competent offenses and “points” being scored, but this is history right here. This is Big Ten West football at its finest in the final year of the division. People always talk about back-and-forth shootouts being “exciting” football, where the last team with possession wins the game. Nah, nah. Real excitement is watching a game where the team that’s on offense is the least likely to score and they’re mostly just trying to survive three downs until they can punt and get their real scoring unit (the defense) back on the field.
Tennessee (+8.5) at Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
If you aren’t cultured enough to appreciate Minnesota-Iowa, then you’ll probably be over on CBS for Tennessee-Alabama. The Tide will be looking for some revenge after last year’s classic in Knoxville, but these are two very different teams from a year ago. Alabama had some well-documented early season struggles, but they are starting to find a little something, as Nick Saban gets back to his roots of having his team play mean as hell defense while the offense, mostly, exists to run the dang ball and occasionally let Jalen Milroe rip a 50-yard bomb downfield. Tennessee, meanwhile, hasn’t found the same consistent explosiveness with Joe Milton taking over for Hendon Hooker, as they’re still capable of rolling up points, but also go through serious cold spells. That doomed them against Florida on the road, and Milton will face an even bigger test in Tuscaloosa. He’ll have to be at his best for the Vols to go back-to-back against Alabama for the first time in two decades, but the Tide certainly aren’t operating at their peak either. If Tennessee can find a way to move it consistently and force Alabama to open up the passing game, that’s the formula for beating the Tide this season. If not, Alabama will be very happy to slow things down and lean on Tennessee for four quarters.
Washington State (+20.5) at Oregon, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Once again, if the possibility of a defensive struggle offends you, then you can go to ABC for Wazzu-Oregon. The Ducks are looking to bounce back from a gutting loss to rival Washington last week and welcome in a Cougars team that started the season hot but have been leaky of late. Cam Ward is gonna need to find his early season magic if they’re gonna have a chance to keep this competitive, but if he can get in rhythm, this could go up-and-down in a track meet with Bo Nix and the Ducks.
Texas Tech (-3) at BYU, 7:00 p.m. ET (FS1)
The chances for shenanigans in this game are off the charts. I know there’s some big games in the night slate that have much greater impact overall, but given the way these two teams have played this year, I fully expect this to feature something incredibly funny/dumb/incredible in the fourth quarter.
Ole Miss (-6.5) at Auburn, 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Same principle as above, really. Ole Miss just cannot be normal at any given time and this game is on the Plains where weird stuff tends to happen. Add in the fact that Auburn is coached by Ole Miss’ former coach who was fired amid multiple scandals and you can pencil in something very strange happening that infuriates one of these fan bases.
Duke (+14.5) at Florida State, 7:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Without Riley Leonard there’s not as much excitement here, but Duke’s defense is legit and I’m genuinely excited to see how they fare going up against the best athletes they’ve faced yet, headlined by Keon Coleman. Florida State should eventually outlast the Blue Devils and pull away, but at least in the first half this could be an entertaining watch.
Michigan (-24.5) at Michigan State, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Michigan is a gigantic favorite with real national title hopes (and is suddenly dealing with a sign-stealing scandal) in East Lansing against a pretty bad Michigan State team. Surely that will go all according to plan.
Utah (+7) at USC, 8:00 p.m. ET (FOX)
USC got straight up punked last week by Notre Dame and now get to face a defense that’s equally tough to play against in Utah. The Utes offense is not good, especially on the road, but the defense is nasty as always and Kyle Whittingham’s goal in life is to make life miserable for other Pac-12 teams. We’ll see if Caleb Williams has a bounce back performance in him or if the book is out on how to slow him and the Trojans down by applying pressure and poking holes in the USC offensive line. There are a lot of potential outcomes to this game and all of them are pretty fascinating, whether that’s a huge game for Williams to get his stock back up or the beginning of a USC slide that raises some questions in L.A.
Clemson (-3) at Miami, 8:00 p.m. ET (ACC Network)
Two talented teams that love shooting themselves in the foot in key moments playing against each other is one of my favorite types of college football games. Clemson just ain’t Clemson right now, but Miami is also spiraling and if they can’t get right here and find the spark to show up at home against the weakest Clemson team in a decade, hoo boy, it might not be good for Mario.
Georgia State (+3.5) at Louisiana, 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
It’s a crowded night slate, but if those 7:30 games get out of hand like they’re supposed to, may I suggest taking a trip down to the Sun Belt where we’ve got a good one at Cajun Field in Lafayette. Georgia State has been rolling this season as one of the biggest surprises in the country, as they were not supposed to be good but are currently 5-1 and only sit behind James Madison in the standings. Darren Grainger is a really fun dual-threat QB and when they aren’t facing an elite defense (like Troy who shut them out), they tend to get up and down and put lots of points on the board. The Cajuns, meanwhile, can put up points in bunches themselves, led by Zeon Chriss (which, as an aside, is a sensational QB name) who likewise will get it done through the air and on the ground. I think this could be a really fun game and I’ve been a little afraid to draw attention to my Panthers out of fear this was a mirage, but I think they’re just a solid team and might go blow-for-blow in a shootout with the Cajuns.