Debate season is upon us in college football. The College Football Playoff committee released its first batch of weekly rankings on Tuesday night. The four playoff spots are currently inhabited by two SEC teams, one independent, and an ACC team. Which means Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 fans are currently muttering under their breath about schedules and “SEC bias”, etc. My advice? Hold off on your criticisms for now. You likely realize this, but it’s worth reiterating: the first edition of the rankings don’t matter all that much.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s look ahead to a Saturday that looks, quite frankly, awesome. It’s chock full of Top 25 match-ups throughout the day and we could see results that shake up the rankings for next Tuesday.
#7 Penn State @ #24 Michigan State (+8.5), Saturday 12 p.m. (FOX)
The Nittany Lions suffered a heartbreaking loss on the road last week to Ohio State after holding a 35-20 lead entering the 4th quarter, only to fall 39-38 to the Buckeyes. Saquon Barkley started the game strong with a 97-yard kickoff return, but was mostly shut down after that. He’ll look to get back on track this weekend when the team heads to East Lansing.
There’s still plenty on the line for Penn State. They can’t afford another loss if they have playoff aspirations. We haven’t seen a two-loss team in the playoff since its inception in 2014. So, the rest of their schedule becomes an elimination bracket. Drop one of these games, against teams they’ll be favored over, and your hopes of the playoff are gone.
After a disastrous 2016 season, this year’s Spartans have looked more like the scrappy, defense-first Mark Dantonio groups of old. The defense is particularly stingy against the run, allowing just 89.8 yards per game (3rd nationally) and just 2.83 yards per rush. If they do that this weekend, they’ll be in this game. Penn State’s defense showed some cracks last weekend, but Ohio State has a different level of weapons than this Michigan State team does.
#21 Stanford @ #25 Washington State (-2.5), Saturday 3:30 p.m. (FOX)
These two Pac-12 teams are still in the hunt for the North division title. Stanford actually currently sits atop the division by virtue of having one more win than Washington while both have one loss. Washington State, at 4-2, needs to win this game in order to stay alive in the division race. So, this is basically a knockout game in Pullman. Let’s have some fun.
Stanford barely escaped Oregon State last week, 15-14, thanks to a last second touchdown pass from Keller Chryst to JJ Arcega-Whiteside.
The biggest takeaway from that game is just how important running back Bryce Love is to this team. Without Love in the lineup, the Cardinal managed just 222 yards of offense against a Beavers team that had been allowing opponents double that at 446.3. As of right now, Love is a game-time decision, which will likely go a long way in deciding this game.
Washington State was shredded on the ground by Arizona’s QB Khalil Tate last week, but Keller Chryst doesn’t offer anywhere close to the same threat as Tate. This will come down to whether Love plays, and if he does, how effective he is.
#4 Clemson @ #20 North Carolina State (+7.5), Saturday 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
The Tigers were put in a playoff spot by the committee ahead of other one-loss teams largely because in their loss, their QB Kelly Bryant was injured. Bryant is back in the lineup now and the Tigers face a dangerous N.C. State squad that we’ve already seen take out Louisville earlier this year.
Bryant offers a similar run-threat to Jackson, though not nearly as elusive. However, Bryant also has a better complement of skill position weapons and a better offensive line than Jackson does. So, while the Wolfpack dominated Jackson and Louisville to the tune of a 39-25 win, this week will be a much tougher task.
Particularly because the Clemson defense, which ranks 6th in scoring defense (13.6 PPG), also leads the nation in sacks (32). That defensive front, featuring Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant, is dominant. They can also collapse the pocket from anywhere as Wilkins and Lawrence can beat guards or centers on the inside and Ferrell and Bryant can come off the edge. Ryan Finley has played well this season, but this will be his toughest task to date.
#5 Oklahoma @ #11 Oklahoma State (-2.5), Saturday 4 p.m. (FS1)
Bedlam. In Stillwater. With the chance to stay alive for the Big 12 title on the line. Two veteran quarterbacks leading explosive offenses with defenses that have dropped off a bit after starting the year strong. This should be fun.
These teams rank 1st (Oklahoma) and 4th (Oklahoma State) in passing efficiency this year, 2nd (OK State) and 3rd (OU) in passing yards per game, and 5th (OK State) and 11th (OU) in passing yards per completion. Basically, what I’m saying is, these guys can sling it. Baker Mayfield is always fun to watch with his added scrambling ability and the Mason Rudolph-James Washington connection is good for a few ‘wow’ plays per game.
The defenses both allow 24+ points per game, so you can likely expect plenty of scoring from this one. Also, a big game from one of these QBs in this match-up could propel them higher in the Heisman conversation as we come down the stretch.
#19 LSU @ #2 Alabama (-21), Saturday 8 p.m. (CBS)
Here we go. Alabama has rolled through the rest of the SEC to the tune of an average margin of victory of 40 points. Let that sink in. The closest game for them so far was an eight point win against Texas A&M. The rest of their SEC opponents haven’t gotten closer than 32 points.
So, what happens when the Tide meet the Tigers? Well, generally, a pretty close game. Last year it was a 10-0 finish. In 2015, the game was 13-10 at halftime before the Tide pulled away with a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter. In 2014, Alabama won 20-13 in OT.
This season, Alabama looks like your typical Nick Saban juggernaut. The backfield depth is unbelievable, the defense is another crop of former four and five-star recruits that you hadn’t heard of before this year because they were behind other four and five-star recruits. For LSU, Derrius Guice has taken over the feature back role after Leonard Fournette was drafted by the Jaguars and, despite plenty of offseason talk of changing the offense, not a ton has changed. This is a team heavily reliant on the defense and running game, which is great, except that’s trying to beat Alabama at its own game. Not many teams are capable of doing that. We’ll see if LSU can on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.
#13 Virginia Tech @ #10 Miami (+2.5), Saturday 8 p.m. (ABC)
Miami has been playing a high-wire act recently, barely escaping with wins to stay undefeated. Whether or not they can do so against Justin Fuente’s Hokies team will be fascinating to watch.
#22 Arizona @ #17 USC (-7.5), Saturday 10:45 p.m.
If you haven’t watched Wildcats QB Khalil Tate yet, you need to. He has started the last four games and compiled 840 yards rushing with 14 total touchdowns and 1,583 total yards. No, those numbers aren’t a misprint. He’s been doing stuff like this consistently.