As the number of unbeaten teams dwindles — there are 16 remaining in FBS college football — so does the number of opportunities for them to meet.
Those become the regular season classics that college football is so well known for: One team remains squarely in the national title race, the other (at best) loses all margin for error. Expanding the College Football Playoff will change that dynamic a bit, but any time teams meet more than a third of the way through the season without a blemish between them, it’s going to catch a lot of eyeballs.
There are only 12 chances for two unbeaten teams to meet for the rest of the regular season. Three of them are next week, which is shapes up to be a pivotal point in the race for the Playoff: Alabama at Tennessee, Penn State at Michigan and Oklahoma State at TCU.
But some of those 12 won’t materialize, with at least one team losing before then — in fact, it’s impossible for all 12 of them to happen with both teams unbeaten.
So cherish the ones we’ve got. And the only one we KNOW we’ll have comes to you from the unlikely place of Lawrence, Kansas, where the host Jayhawks have five wins already. That’s as many victories as the past three years combined, and Kansas hasn’t surpassed that total since an 8-5 season in 2008.
On the other side of the ledger is TCU, which thumped Oklahoma 55-24 last week, only to find that the even bigger games were yet to come. After the Horned Frogs visit Lawrence, they have the aforementioned showdown with Oklahoma State next week.
So it is that TCU-Kansas is the Game of the Week on a Saturday that brings us Texas-Oklahoma and Texas A&M-Alabama games that you probably had circled since July.
(Lines from Caesars Sportsbook as of Wednesday)
Game of the Week
No. 17 TCU (-7) at No. 19 KANSAS, noon, FS1: I’ll get this out of the way early: I’m a Missouri graduate and am therefore instinctually obligated to dislike Kansas. I have friends and even family who went to KU and don’t hold personal grudges, but man, I love to hate the school. The stupid made-up bird mascot that’s always printed way too big everywhere, the waving the wheat cheer that looks like a collective rapture and the meaningless Rock Chalk thing. Hate it all. Love to hate it all.
But I swear that’s not why I’m picking TCU! I would never let that sort of thing stand in the way of a good gambling record and you have my solemn word that this handicap is objective:
Kansas is lucky to be 5-0. It’s a great story (I hate it, but again, in the spirit of objectivity, it is great), but the Jayhawks have benefitted from a +4 turnover margin in their four games against FBS opponents and have won three despite being out-gained.
Jalon Daniels is a special talent, but Iowa State managed to bottle him up quite effectively last week — problem is, the Cyclones traveled inside the KU 30-yard line five times and only came away with 11 points, thanks to three missed field goals.
The Jayhawks are 59th in total offense and 79th in total defense, not a combination that usually screams 5-0. Meanwhile, the Horned Frogs have scored 38 or more points in all four games, including that 55-spot they put on the Sooners last week. Quarterback Max Duggan is rocking a 74.5% completion rate with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Daniels will find a way to keep Kansas in it, but TCU is the better team, and without some more turnover luck and home field magic (always possible!), the Horned Frogs should prevail.
The pick: TCU 41, Kansas 28
SOUTH FLORIDA AT No. 24 CINCINNATI (-27.5), 2:30 p.m., ESPN+: Betting spreads this big is always uncomfortable, but this is a total mismatch statistically.
Looking at yards per play, Cincinnati is No. 5 on defense and No. 24 on offense. South Florida is No. 127 on defense — fifth from the bottom — and No. 92 on offense. Drill a little deeper to find that USF allows 5.97 yards per carry, third from last in the country, and UC is No. 3 at 2.39 yards allowed per carry.
That’s the point that makes me more comfortable laying the huge spread. If the Bearcats get out to a big lead, a back-door cover is unlikely because Cincinnati will continue to grind out drives on the ground while South Florida won’t be able to get much going offensively.
The pick: Cincinnati 48, South Florida 10
EAST CAROLINA AT TULANE (-3), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU: The Green Wave has had two huge wins this season, winning at Kansas State in a complete stunner and then opening up American Athletic Conference play with a big win at Houston.
After the first one, they followed up with a stinker of a loss against Southern Miss that just screamed hangover. But it feels like this one will be different. For one thing, these college kids might have learned something from their mistakes the first time around. For another, they have an extra day of rest since that Houston game was on a Friday night.
And finally, Tulane — whether Michael Pratt or Justin Ibieta is back at quarterback or if third-stringer Kai Horton is back after throwing for three touchdowns in Houston — is better than East Carolina, which has only played one road game and slogged past South Florida despite allowing 455 yards last week.
The pick: Tulane 35, East Carolina 27
No. 11 UTAH at No. 18 UCLA (+3½), 3:30 p.m., Fox: The narrative here from fans who don’t watch a ton of West Coast football is that Utah is the more physical team with the better pedigree over the past 10 years and that UCLA has a flashy Chip Kelly offense that can’t compete when it gets hit in the mouth.
As Lee Corso would croon, “Not so fast, my friends!” The truth is that while Utah has a healthy lead in scoring defense, UCLA has been better on a per-play basis, ranking No. 16 nationally in yards per play allowed while Utah sits at No. 29. On offense, the Bruins have a similar edge: No. 13 in yards per play against the Utes’ No. 26.
The game isn’t that simple of course, and Utah’s schedule has been tougher, but at worst this looks like a matchup of fairly even teams. And UCLA is at home. So you’re GIVING me 3½ points? I’ll take ’em in what should be one of the best games of the day.
The pick: UCLA 31, Utah 28
No. 3 OHIO STATE at MICHIGAN STATE (+27), 4 p.m., ABC: This line keeps rising and rising, so if you want to wait until right before kickoff, you might get 28 points or more here. The public seemingly can’t wait to put its money on the explosive Buckeyes.
There is good reason to like Ohio State here, truthfully: This offense is humming on every cylinder even with a few injuries.
And on the flip side, Michigan State has struggled, getting hammered at Washington and at home against Minnesota. It’s possible the Spartans follow up their 11-win season from 2021 by missing a bowl game.
But at a certain point, the spread just gets too high. This is the Buckeyes’ first road game, it’s a tough environment, and if MSU is going to turn things around, competing here would be a good place to start. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Sparty get out to a shock lead in the first half. Ohio State likely will run them down and then some, but not in a total blowout.
The pick: Ohio State 41, Michigan State 24
No. 12 OREGON (-13) at ARIZONA, 9 p.m., Pac-12 Network: If Pac-12 After Dark™ is your thing, this is the game you’ll want to turn to after the kids go to bed. Two good offenses, two pretty terrible defenses a total of 69½ and lots of potential for chicanery.
The difference for me is that the Ducks have more potential for improvement. Some of their defensive ranking is due to the Georgia obliteration they received in the season opener; you can’t discount that, of course, but you also can’t discount that Oregon has been better in its past four games.
Arizona is improved, and I’ve been burned by them already this year, but I can’t get past this fact: Oregon, No. 8 in yards per rush, vs. Arizona, No. 128 in yards allowed per rush. That’s a recipe for a blowout, even on the road.
The pick: Oregon 49, Arizona 26
LAST WEEK: 4-2 straight up, 3-3 against the spread
THIS YEAR: 19-11 straight up, 16-14 ATS