Picks for Saturday's biggest games
No. 8 Ohio State at No. 10 Michigan
Line: Ohio State -1.0
The potential atmosphere of this matchup was greatly altered after the Buckeyes were defeated by Michigan State in Week 12. The College Playoff chances for both teams are still alive, but each will need to win this game, and require an upset by Penn State in East Lansing. This shapes up as a relatively even matchup on paper, but a few patterns exist that could play a significant role in the outcome of this game. The most significant of such factors — can the Michigan offensive line open running lanes on first down (and) will the Wolverines look to blitz Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett?
It’s true that Michigan’s defense has allowed 25.1 percent less rushing yards per game than the Buckeyes, but that number dips to nine percent less on a per rushing attempt basis. When facing Big Ten competition this season, Ohio State has been particularly stout (less than 3.0 yards per attempt) in short and medium situations defending the run on second-and-third downs. First down has been the area of vulnerability as the Buckeyes have allowed 5.7 yards per attempt and 3.1 yards after contact. The Wolverines offensive line has graded out as the 85th-best unit in the country in run blocking this season. They will need to see a significant level of improvement for victory and would be wise to attack the interior of Ohio State’s front-seven.
As for whether Michigan will decide to blitz Barrett, the decision could be the deciding factor in the game. Many of the better QBs in the country respond positively to a defense allocating additional players to blitz situations, but few have been quite as efficient as Barrett. Consider that Barrett has not allowed a single sack or thrown an interception in the face of the blitz this season and such situations have resulted in Barrett tossing 4-of-7 TDs on the year.
In a game likely to be decided by field position and the ability to avoid mistakes, a single blitz recognition by Barrett could provide the decisive score. In Big Ten action, Michigan has blitzed opposing QBs 16 percent above the NCAA average and Barrett’s 51 percent increase in yards per passing attempt in response will be the decisive factor. Ohio State and Michigan will battle in the trenches throughout the afternoon and a late TD in Ann Arbor will give the Buckeyes the victory and a small amount hope should the Nittany Lions upset the Spartans.
Prediction: Ohio State 19, Michigan 17.
Penn State at No. 5 Michigan State
Line: Michigan State -10.5
The OSU at Michigan rivalry game is not, by far, the only Big Ten matchup played on Michigan soil Saturday and offering major conference implications — as Penn State is the only thing standing in the way of the Spartans meeting Iowa for the conference title. In order for the Nittany Lions to have chance in this game, they will need quarterback Christian Hackenberg to attack the Michigan State secondary — in particular, to depths of 20-plus yards and possibly the right side of the field. The Spartans have allowed 36 percent of total passing yards and 58 percent of pass TDs to the third-level of the defense. MSU Safety Montae Nicholson (75 percent completion – 10 missed tackles in coverage) and LCB Arjen Colquhoun (16.6 yards per reception – 5 TDs) provide the areas of vulnerability.
Hackenberg has a +7.0 passing grade within the PFF grading system on 20-plus yard throws, contributing 33 percent of his passing yards, and 36 percent of his TD total. As for Michigan State, the fact that they were able to go into Columbus and steal a victory on a 41-yard field goal with 4:07 remaining in the fourth quarter is impressive. What is more extraordinary is that they were able to do so without QB Connor Cook. The Buckeyes played perfectly into the game plan of the Spartans, allowing the pace of the game to be greatly decreased.
If Cook is unable to play in Week 13, they will again focus on slowing the pace of the game to shadow the inexperience of QBs Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry (8-of-16, 89 yards, 1 TD at OSU). It should be noted, even were they to have had Cook, Michigan State did not have the luxury of facing an average Penn State secondary while in Columbus. Without Cook, the passing game was greatly limited. If Cook is out again, the Spartans will lose out on a chance to attack subpar play from Nittany Lions safeties Marcus Allen and Jordan Lucas. The current information points to Cook not playing and iffy at best, lending the opinion that the Spartans will display a significant decrease in energy following their emotional Week 12 victory, and for Penn State to show better preparation in order to take advantage of a disabled Spartan offense.
Prediction: Penn State 20, Michigan State 17.
No. 13 Florida State at No. 12 Florida
Line: Florida State -2.5
You’d find a remarkable challenge in searching for a weakness in the Florida defense led by PFF College’s second-overall graded interior lineman (Jonathan Bullard) and a secondary featuring CB Vernon Hargreaves III and SS Marcus Maye. The same cannot be said for the offense, as QB Treon Harris grades out as the 65th-best QB (out of 77 qualified) within the Power-5 since taking over for a suspended Will Grier. In addition, the entirety of the offensive line has posted grades south of -3.1 on the season and bottom-25 in the country.
Florida State has suffered through equally poor play along their offensive line, but the majority of their issues center on the sixth-worst overall performance in pass protection on the season. The shift to the strong-vertical arm possessed by QB Sean Maguire has presented the offense with the ability to stretch the defense — adding a 36 percent increase to his yards per attempt average in the face of the blitz. Unfortunately for the Seminoles, they will not be facing – to put it mildly – a porous secondary on the level of a Syracuse or North Carolina State. Florida’s secondary can confidently be placed within the top-five of such units in the country and opposing QBs are eight percent more likely to record an INT than for a pass to reach the endzone.
Florida also holds a significant advantage in its pass rushing efficiency, producing the fifth-most sacks in the nation this season. The Gators have allowed four opposing running backs to eclipse 100-yards on the ground this year and FSU RB Dalvin Cook should be able to add to that number. The outcome of this game will decided by field position and, to a greater extent, turnover margin. On the season, Florida ranks as the 13th-best in turnover margin (+0.91) in comparison to a 43rd rank for Florida State (+0.36). A three-to-one advantage in that area and playing in “The Swamp” will be enough for the Gators to take an 11-1 record into the SEC Championship game.
Prediction: Florida 28, Florida State 25.
No. 6 Notre Dame at No. 9 Stanford
Line: Stanford -3.5
Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room, Stanford is far better than their 13th-rank in the AP poll, and the top two-loss team in the country. The only teams able to defeat the Cardinal this season are Northwestern and Oregon, with both teams seeing the top-two increases within the CFP rankings following Week 12, and both proving to be a significant challenge for any team this season. RB Christian McCaffrey has been far better than he has been given credit and will likely present the Fighting Irish with their most significant challenge out of the backfield this season.
Notre Dame ranks 69th-best at limiting rushing yardage this season and, while they faced-and-defeated the No. 2 rushing attack from Navy’s triple-option in Week 6, will square-off with a challenge unique to any they have faced this season. The Stanford philosophy includes a West Coast-style, multiple tight end, H-back heavy offense, and currently ranks as the FBS’ 13th-best in passing efficiency this season. Combine that with the nations 16th-best rushing attack and the formidable challenge is obviously apparent. Both teams have had issues in turnover margin and each have also showcased slightly above-average play in defense of the pass.
In what will likely be an extremely competitive game, the decisive answers to learn are: Will Irish QB DeShone Kizer’s up-and-down play factor positively, and what level of impact will McCaffrey provide on special teams? With Kizer’s play showing a significant drop-off since his big Week 10 game against Pittsburgh, look for Stanford to secure a statement win at home with a miniscule opportunity remaining to get the CFP committee’s attention.
Prediction: Stanford 32, Notre Dame 27.
No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 11 Oklahoma State
Line: Oklahoma -7.0
With the consensus opinion that the Big-12 would essentially beat itself up with an end-of-season schedule matching Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU proving accurate — should anything less be expected from this tremendous face-off of one-loss teams? Two of the top-five passing offenses fielding the No. 2 (Mason Rudolph) and No. 3 (Baker Mayfield) PFF College graded passing-specific QBs will vie for the right to be the Big-12s first representative in the CFP.
Mayfield suffered a brain injury last week in a big win over TCU and his availability – and potential effectiveness – will dictate the outcome of this game. Oklahoma was able to secure the victory over TCU behind the dominating ability of RB Samaje Perine to accumulate yardage and control the clock. That said, the Sooners were only able to reach the endzone once after Mayfield went down, and scoring at that rate will clearly not be enough to counter what Rudolph will provide for the Cowboys.
If Mayfield is able to play, will he display the same effectiveness highlighted by a 32-to-5 TD-to-INT season? He will face a noteworthy challenge from Oklahoma State’s top-15 pass rush, providing a level of attack they’ve yet to face this season, and presenting the possibility of further injury to the previous damage taken by Mayfield. With Oklahoma playing at such a high-level during the late stretch of the season, were Mayfield healthy, picking against the Sooners would be a mistake. However, backup QB Trevor Knight was atrocious last week in replacing Mayfield, and the potential for playing without Mayfield – for any amount of the game – pushes the advantage in favor of the Cowboys playing in Stillwater.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 37, Oklahoma 28.
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