We’ve finished six weeks of the college football regular season, and there are six weeks remaining when Week 7 is over.
If the season is a mountain then, we’ve reached the summit. Figuratively, that might be appropriate, considering there are three matchups of unbeaten teams: Alabama at Tennessee, Penn State at Michigan and Oklahoma State at TCU.
To put that in perspective, the rest of the season combined can only have a max of five unbeaten matchups.
That makes declaring a Game of the Week a tough ask. They’re all huge games, and all will have an impact on the College Football Playoff race.
By every predictive system, however — FPI, SP+, Elo — it’s the SEC game that rises above the others. Both the Crimson Tide and the Volunteers are bona fide top 8 teams, and the winner will be in such great shape that even a loss down the stretch (Tennessee must play Georgia, Alabama faces Ole Miss, and the SEC title game is a possibility) would still leave a CFP-type résumé.
(Lines from Caesars Sportsbook as of Wednesday; all times Eastern)
Game of the Week
No. 3 ALABAMA (-7) at No. 6 TENNESSEE, 3:30 p.m., CBS: I’m basing this pick on the assumption that Bryce Young will play for the Crimson Tide and be something close to 100%. That’s far from a sure thing, as reports say Nick Saban and Alabama have Young on a “pitch count” in practice to limit stress on his injured shoulder.
But the pick is also based on the fact that Tennessee’s attack is based on flummoxing defenses with misdirection and then speeding up to increase fatigue and confusion. Does that sound like something a Saban-coached defense would do? Hendon Hooker is having a tremendous season and would be in the top two of the Heisman voting if the Volunteers can pull this off, but this is the best defense he’s faced, both talented and well-coached.
If Young doesn’t play, or if he’s ineffective, the game will come down to whether the Tide’s rushing attack (No. 1 in the nation at 6.99 yards per carry) can move the sticks and slow down the game against the Vols’ rushing defense (No. 7 at 2.79 ypc allowed).
I’ll bank on Bama without a lot of conviction. Tennessee will score, but I don’t think it’ll score in the high 30s or 40s like it has against everyone else. Alabama has been devalued because of some close wins, but I think that actually gives us value here.
The pick: Alabama 35, Tennessee 27
OLD DOMINION AT COASTAL CAROLINA (-12), noon, ESPNU: Two-part trivia question: (a) Of the 15 remaining unbeaten teams, which is the only one not ranked in the AP Top 25? (b) What book did the name “Chanticleer” come from?
OK, so I gave away the first one. Coastal Carolina is 6-0 behind another fabulous season from quarterback Grayson McCall and a defense that has done just enough. The Chants have really only struggled in one area, and that’s pass defense, where their 8.6 yards allowed per attempt is 120th in the country.
Good thing for them that Old Dominion doesn’t have much teeth in its attack. The Monarchs are 62nd in the nation in passing offense, but that ranking drops to No. 86 on a per-play basis. If McCall and company race out to a lead, ODU isn’t built to come back. Lay the points.
(The answer to (b) is The Canterbury Tales, as all you English majors surely knew.)
The pick: Coastal Carolina 41, Old Dominion 20
TULANE (-12) at SOUTH FLORIDA, 4 p.m., ESPNU: If the oddsmakers want to continue to underrate the Green Wave, we’ll continue to take advantage.
After a pretty easy winner laying 3½ last week against East Carolina, the Wave hits the road — where they’ve been very effective this year. But this pick is just as much about the opponent as it is Tulane.
South Florida isn’t very good offensively. The Bulls are worse defensively. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger mismatch between two defense: Tulane is No. 9 nationally in yards per play allowed; South Florida is No. 128, fourth from the bottom.
The pick: Tulane 35, South Florida 14
ARKANSAS STATE at SOUTHERN MISS (-4½), 7 p.m., ESPN+: This line was 3½ earlier in the week, but this bet should still be good with the extra point. Southern Miss has faced a better schedule than Arkansas State (at least if you discount the buy games they played, USM at Miami and ASU at Ohio State) and fared better statistically, even though the teams’ records are similar.
The Golden Eagles have done it with defense, surprising Tulane and limiting Miami for most of the game. They laid an egg at Troy last week, in large part because of four turnovers, but that makes this a good buy-low opportunity.
Arkansas State has allowed 40+ in four of its five games against FBS opposition (plus 29 to Old Dominion, which we already mentioned has offensive struggles), so Southern Miss’ woes on offense may find a cure. This line is only a couple of points above the standard home-field advantage margin, which isn’t enough.
The pick: Southern Miss 31, Arkansas State 21
No. 16 MISSISSIPPI STATE at No. 22 KENTUCKY (+4), 7:30 p.m., SEC Network: The second tier of the SEC has a tendency to yo-yo with results. It happened last year when Auburn beat Arkansas, Arkansas beat Mississippi State but State beat Auburn. The teams are close enough and talented enough that you can expect bounce-backs.
That’s where we’re going with this. Kentucky suffered an ugly loss to South Carolina last week, but Wildcats quarterback Will Levis is expected to return from injury. More important, Kentucky’s defense has proven that it can shut down explosive attacks, doing it to Florida and (to a lesser extent) Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs are underrated in general, but this line is too high for what’s sure to be an emotional home game for UK. I’m only picking one underdog this week, so as a bonus take the Wildcats to win outright.
The pick: Kentucky 27, Mississippi State 24
No. 7 USC at No. 20 UTAH (-3½), 8 p.m., Fox: I’ve picked against the Trojans a couple times already this season and gone 1-1 ATS. Now they’re underdogs against Utah, which will surprise folks who only look at late West Coast scores and rankings.
Here’s the case for the Utes: Statistically, they have a very similar profile to USC, outside of forcing takeaways, which the Trojans have done to an unsustainable degree (that regression has already started; after an amazing +14 turnover differential through four games, USC is even in its past two).
The difference is that Utah has faced by far a tougher schedule, traveling to Florida and UCLA while USC has seen most of its opponents crater (Fresno State and Stanford are 1-4, Arizona State is 2-4). The common opponents are Arizona State (both teams won fairly easily on the road) and Oregon State (took USC to the wire at home, lost badly at Utah).
If the Trojans can win this one, I’ll finally believe they’re for real. But I’m too stubborn to admit it yet.
The pick: Utah 37, USC 28
LAST WEEK: 6-0 straight up, 3-2-1 against the spread
THIS YEAR: 25-11 straight up, 19-16-1 ATS