In many ways, Week 7 was the first major shake-up of the college football season. No fewer than five unbeaten teams lost, including national title contenders Alabama and USC, and conference races came into focus across the country.
At least one more unbeaten team will lose in Week 8 also, as spotless Syracuse visits unblemished Clemson in the ACC’s top game.
For our Game of the Week, however, we turn our attention west, where Chip Kelly — remember him? — has his UCLA team at 6-0 but a 6-point underdog for a trip to his old stomping grounds of Oregon. The Ducks have somewhat quietly run off five straight wins since you probably last paid them any attention, sometime around the middle of the second quarter in their lopsided opener against Georgia.
Elsewhere, LSU and Ole Miss tangle, and the Big 12 has two more huge games, with TCU welcoming Kansas State and Texas visiting Oklahoma State.
Let’s get to it as I try to stop the slide from a strong early start and keep my record above .500 against the spread.
(Lines from Caesars Sportsbook as of Wednesday)
Game of the Week
No. 9 UCLA (+6) at No. 10 OREGON, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox: Oddsmakers have given the Ducks plenty of credit even after that nightmare in Georgia, favoring them in every game since, including in tough matchups against BYU and Washington State. And Oregon has repaid that faith, winning all five games since the opener and going 4-1 against the spread in that stretch.
Even against that backdrop, I’m not sure I understand the size of the number here. UCLA is also 4-2 ATS, and outside of a great escape against South Alabama has looked plenty impressive. Both of these offenses are excellent, but it’s UCLA that has paired it with a defense that ranks 23rd in yards allowed per play.
Of course, Autzen Stadium has been a house of horrors for the Bruins, who haven’t won there since 2004 — before Chip Kelly was even the offensive coordinator at Oregon.
Can that change this week? I’m not willing to go against a streak of that magnitude, but I do think it’ll be a close game and that the Bruins will have a chance in the end. In that case, give me the 6 points.
The pick: Oregon 34, UCLA 31
No. 21 CINCINNATI (-3) AT SMU, Noon ET, ESPN: One of the great things about college football (and one of the few real casualties we’d have in my book if we went to an expanded playoff) is that there are all sorts of meaningful goals for teams that aren’t necessarily in the national championship picture.
The biggest of those is probably to be the top-ranked Group of Five champion and thus earn an automatic berth into the New Year’s Six games. The American Athletic Conference in general, and Cincinnati specifically, are no stranger to that race, of course, and this is a huge game to that end. The winner here will remain with Tulane (isn’t that crazy?!) atop the AAC standings.
SMU has some things in its favor: A difficult schedule that includes games against Maryland, TCU and Central Florida; an offense that has put up at least 27 points in five of six games; and, of course, home-field advantage.
But the Bearcats have owned the Mustangs of late, going 4-1 in their past five both straight up and ATS, and Cincy has a big edge on the defensive side of the ball.
The pick: Cincinnati 37, SMU 27
INDIANA at RUTGERS (-3), Noon ET, BTN: My favorite pick of the week, because you can see people looking at this and thinking the Scarlet Knights stink and that Indiana has a couple of good wins, and hey, I’ll take the Hoosiers plus 3 points!
In reality, the opposite is true. The Hoosiers beat Illinois back on the opening Thursday of the season, yes, and they also have a decent win against Western Kentucky on their ledger. But according to Bill Connelly’s excellent SP+ system at ESPN, Indiana’s postgame win expectancy in those games combined was 36.1%. In short, the Hoosiers are very lucky not to be 1-6, and even the win against lowly Idaho was in doubt well into the second half.
Rutgers, meanwhile, is not as bad as recent history suggests. The Knights have a feisty defense, particularly against the run, where their 2.89 yards allowed per carry is No. 8 nationally.
The pick: Rutgers 30, Indiana 16
MARSHALL (+12½) at JAMES MADISON, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+: What an unbelievable first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision for the Dukes, who did in just seven weeks what some programs wait decades to do by cracking the top 25.
Then came last week, when JMU returned to Earth with a 45-38 loss at Georgia Southern. The Dukes return home Saturday for another stiff challenge against one of the first teams to make an immediate splash in a transition from a lower division in Marshall, which won the DI-AA championship in 1996, moved up and won four straight MAC titles in the late 1990s.
All signs here point to a very close game. These are the top two teams in the nation in rushing defense, and both offense rely heavily on running the ball.
James Madison does have some statistical advantages, but Marshall has played the more difficult schedule. This line just seems like way too many points.
The pick: James Madison 27, Marshall 23
MINNESOTA (+4) at No. 16 PENN STATE, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC: No conference in America has a disparity between its divisions as great as the Big Ten, where the Nittany Lions are a distant third wheel to Ohio State and Michigan in the East but the West is so wide open that even last-place Wisconsin isn’t out of it.
Minnesota has put itself in a bad spot with losses to both Purdue and Illinois, so this is a risky pick. But the Golden Gophers are too talented not to compete here. They’re sixth in total defense and should be able to turn this into a run game-and-D slog that Penn State won’t be able to escape with its middling offense.
It’ll be a close game, and usually at night you pick Penn State and the white-out crowd at Beaver Stadium, but … well, what the heck, the Gophers are due a break.
The pick: Minnesota 23, Penn State 21
WASHINGTON (-7½) at CAL, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: The bloom has come off of Washington’s rose quite a bit after a 4-0 start and No. 15 ranking. The Huskies lost at UCLA (no shame) and then at Arizona State (some shame) before holding off Arizona despite allowing 526 yards at home.
But the constant through the whole process has been offense, which Washington has produced week in and week out behind Michael Penix Jr., the Indiana transfer who’s having a tremendous off-the-radar season (67.4% completion, 2,560 yards, 20 touchdowns, four interceptions).
And if the Huskies put up points — let’s say 35 of them, which would actually be their lowest output this season — it’s tough to see Cal keeping up. The Bears did put up 49 on Arizona a month ago, but since then it was nine at Washington State and 13 in a dreary performance at previously winless Colorado.
The pick: Washington 35, Cal 20
LAST WEEK: 4-2 straight up, 2-4 against the spread
THIS YEAR: 29-13 straight up, 21-20-1 ATS