The college football season enters the second half of its schedule this weekend, with the implications of conference matchups weighing heavily on College Football Playoff hopes. This weekend, in particular, four Top 25 teams battle it out in games that will likely greatly affect their chances of making the playoff.
In the SEC, No. 2 Georgia meets No. 13 LSU. The Bulldogs are entering the toughest stretch of their schedule, with games against the Tigers, No. 14 Florida, No. 18 Kentucky, and No. 21 Auburn over the next month. The Tigers, on the other hand, are coming off a loss to the Gators last week and need a win here to keep their hopes of a potential playoff berth alive.
Another big game comes out West, where the No. 17 Oregon Ducks host the No. 7 Washington Huskies in a game that could eventually decide the Pac-12 North Division. Both teams have one loss, but the Huskies are undefeated in conference play to this point, while the Ducks lost to Stanford.
To get insight into those games and the Temple-Navy clash in the American Athletic Conference set to air on CBS Sports Network on Saturday, we caught up with CBS Sports Network analyst Randy Cross. (Editor’s Note: The conversation below has been lightly edited for the sake of brevity and clarity.)
CBS Local Sports: Looking more nationally now, a pair of Top 25 matchups are slated for Saturday. We’ll start with Georgia vs. LSU. The Tigers are coming off a tough loss to Florida and now face the Bulldogs. What’s the biggest thing to watch for in this game?
Randy Cross: Well, it’s going to be a rough week of practice for LSU defensively, because they’re as talented as any team in the country, but they’re coming off a week in which they gave up 215 yards of rushing to Florida. Ed Orgeron, Dave Aranda and company will likely make practice not a pleasant place to be after that performance. And you’re getting ready to play a team like Georgia, who has that running game as part of their DNA. That’s who they are.
Georgia has a big offensive line, and they throw three or four A-list-quality running backs at you. That’s the assignment when it comes to playing Georgia. You can say that you have to stop Fromm and Fields and the receivers, but if you don’t make Georgia do something besides run it, that’s all they’re going to do.
CBS Local Sports: The other game features Washington’s stingy defense going up against Oregon and a prolific offense triggered by quarterback Justin Herbert. Who do you think gets the better of this matchup when they meet on the field on Saturday?
Randy Cross: If Mario Cristobal’s offensive line shows up and is tough and physical the way they have been this season, giving Herbert time to “smile and dial” it up the way he likes it, they’re going to make things really rough on Washington. Washington is good. Chris Petersen has his fundamentally sound style back in vogue. He is doing in Washington what he did back in Boise, and it’s taken hold there. The team is really good. But, I personally think Oregon is going to be the team to beat in that matchup.
CBS Local Sports: Interesting, why do you think Oregon is the team to beat here?
Randy Cross: They have shown so far that, of the two teams, they’re on more of an upward tick offensively. When you have a guy like Herbert, who is being mentioned as the potential number-one-overall draft pick, that’s big. They (Oregon) are a program going the right way. Not that Washington isn’t. I just look at Oregon as the hot hand.
CBS Local Sports: On CBS Sports Network, Navy takes on Temple in an AAC showdown. Navy has struggled this season on the defensive side of the ball. What’s the biggest reason for those struggles in your mind?
Randy Cross: The biggest problem they run into is they’re just on the field a little bit too often. It’s a trickle down [effect] with them, because when the offense isn’t on the field, that is going to put the pressure on the defense. One thing you haven’t seen out of them this season is those long, methodical, prolonged drives, especially last week against Air Force. That’s an offense that’s not built to be down 21 points.
CBS Local Sports: Coming into this game against Temple, the Owls had their own struggles early in the season. What are you watching for in this matchup?
Randy Cross: Temple has actually been getting their offense going in the last couple of weeks. They scored 35 two weeks ago against Boston College, 49 last week against ECU for the largest margin of victory in an AAC game. I think they’re feeling pretty optimistic, and they’re a team that is known for their running and their defense. They have some big guys up front in that front seven, and they have some thumpers at linebacker and safety. Especially playing an opponent like Navy, that is going to be a tough, physical game. Temple is built for that.
CBS Local Sports: That improvement for the Owls in the past couple of games on offense, what do you think is the biggest reason for it?
Randy Cross: They have a new quarterback in Anthony Russo, because they have had some injuries there. The guys that were injured have come back, so you’re never quite sure who you are preparing for when it comes to quarterback. On top of that, the offensive line has played a lot better. And anytime you get a quarterback who gets hot, like Russo has, it’s something that you can kind of ride as an offense.
CBS Local Sports: Final question for you on this game. Zach Abey looks to be questionable going in. How big of a loss is that if he can’t go against the Owls?
Randy Cross: He’s such a huge piece of the offense when it comes to third downs, short yardage and goal-line situations that it’s a big miss for them if he can’t play. If you want to do what this offense and team under Ken Niumatalolo has done when a bad performance comes along, they basically reset. They go back to basics, meat-and-potatoes running downhill offense, and nobody that they have does it better than Zach Abey. So, to have that available would be a great option. But, if he’s not going to be there, it’s a disadvantage. Hopefully the whole questionable-to-probable listing means we’ll see him and both teams at full force.