It’s November, and in college football, November means it’s time to get down to business.
The Southeastern Conference rubber hits the road this week in both divisions, with LSU facing Alabama to most likely decide the West title (Ole Miss still has a shot) and then the real showdown in the East: Tennessee (No. 3 in the human polls but No. 1 in the first CFP rankings) travels to face Georgia (the inverse — No. 1 in the human polls but No. 3 in the CFP).
That means you could actually market this game as No. 1 against No. 1. And it feels like that big of a deal. It’s like a movie: The big, bad reigning champion Bulldogs face the visiting Volunteers, who aren’t exactly lovable underdogs historically but have been wandering in the college football wilderness for 20 years.
There are big games elsewhere — the Big 12 seems to have one every week, and this Saturday it’s Texas favored on the road at Kansas State, a line that doesn’t make any sense to me (meaning I’ll probably stay away from it.) Clemson has perhaps its stiffest remaining hurdle to the CFP with a trip to Notre Dame.
But if this week’s schedule is the sun, the SEC’s two big games are an eclipse.
(Lines from Caesars Sportsbook as of Wednesday)
Game of the Week
No. 3 TENNESSEE (+8) at No. 1 GEORGIA, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS: I’ve got to admit, I’m flummoxed by this one. It’s the biggest game of the year to date (and only Michigan-Ohio State will threaten it for the whole season), so I’m going to make a pick, but there’s not a high degree of confidence. HOW’S THAT FOR A SALES PITCH!?
Before the season, I was much higher on Tennessee than most. I have futures tickets on them to win the SEC East and the conference as a whole. But even I didn’t expect them to be this good, and I’ve been burned by betting against them in games against LSU and Kentucky.
I also was a bit lower on Georgia than most. The Bulldogs had an all-time great team last year but lost so much talent that it seemed they couldn’t help but take a step back. If they have, it’s only been a small step; Georgia is 8-0, and all but one of the eight wins has been by 17-plus points.
So what to do here? The one weakness for either team is Tennessee’s pass defense. And despite their reputation as a tough, grind-you-into-a-pulp offense, the Bulldogs are quite successful throwing the ball. So that matchup seems to favor Georgia.
But I’m done picking against the Volunteers, at least for now. Even if they give up points, they’ve proven over and over again that they can rack up points on good defenses. This is a step up in competition, but no reason I see Tennessee can’t take this down to the wire.
The pick: Georgia 34, Tennessee 30
FLORIDA at TEXAS A&M (-3½), Noon ET, ESPN: Call me crazy, because I know it’s in vogue to laugh at all things Aggie these days, but I still see Texas A&M as closer to the team that hung with Alabama than the one that looked hapless against Appalachian State and played Yakety Sax for the whole first half at South Carolina.
A&M nearly knocked off Ole Miss last week, and that shows me that the team, no matter what else, hasn’t quit on Jimbo Fisher.
That’s not to say Florida has abandoned first-year coach Billy Napier, would you believe the Gators are also just 1-4 in SEC play? They also just don’t have the level of A&M’s talent. The Aggies, for all of their struggles early in the season, have averaged 386.4 yards per game in SEC play, and Florida has allowed 460.2.
It’ll come as a surprise to some Saturday, but A&M is in a good spot for a cathartic victory here.
The pick: Texas A&M 35, Florida 24
No. 2 OHIO STATE at NORTHWESTERN (+38), Noon ET, ABC: This is where I call you crazy if you think the Buckeyes cover this number in a letdown spot — after the big win at Penn State and before the finishing stretch — in a game where rain and wind could become a factor.
The Buckeyes will control this game, no doubt — but can’t you just see a scenario where they jump out to a 17-0 lead by running the ball eight times a drive and soaking up the whole first half? That trend would get even more pronounced in the second half, making 38 just far too big a number for a game in which the total has already dived from an opening number of 62½ to 57½ as of Wednesday afternoon.
CJ Stroud’s Heisman candidacy and the need to put up some numbers is the only thing that gives me pause, but it’s also possible that doing that could backfire into some mistakes if the weather is as bad as it looks. This is a win-and-get-home spot for the Buckeyes.
The pick: Ohio State 38, Northwestern 10
No. 20 SYRACUSE at PITTSBURGH (-3½), 3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network: The Orange were one of the best stories in the country through their 6-0 start, and they followed that up by scaring the dickens out of Clemson before making a couple of crucial mistakes (and suffering a horrible no-call) to cost them a chance at leaping into the Top 10.
Instead, this seems to be going the other way. Injuries have hurt Syracuse: Star cornerback Garrett Williams is out for the season, and questions remain about quarterback Garrett Shrader after he was removed from a loss to Notre Dame at halftime because of a supposed injury. Cuse coach Dino Babers seems to be inviting a QB controversy by saying that Shrader could have played against some opponents, but instead he went to backup Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, who was inconsistent in the second half.
Against that backdrop, this is a tough matchup for the Orange anyway. Babers has never won at Pittsburgh, and the Panthers are better than their 4-4 record indicates. They’ve out-gained opponents in two of the four losses, and a third was an overtime loss with basically even yardage against Tennessee (man, how different would this season be had Pitt pulled that out.)
These teams also happen to have some of the biggest home/road splits in terms of yards per play of any in the country. The Orange have had the better season, but signs point to the Panthers in this spot.
The pick: Pittsburgh 27, Syracuse 20
WEST VIRGINIA at IOWA STATE (-7), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+: The Mountaineers were last seen scaring TCU before coming up just short in an upset bid (and losing the cover in heartbreaking fashion, bad enough to keep WVU bettors up at night). This is a natural letdown spot, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that West Virginia has several injuries, especially at running back and linebacker.
Iowa State hasn’t had the season it has become accustomed to under Matt Campbell, dropping to 3-5 with a loss to Oklahoma last week, but this is a bit like the Pitt situation. The Cyclones out-gained both the Sooners and Texas the week before that but have been bit by the turnover bug.
West Virginia’s defense may provide a reprieve, and at home, in a desperate spot to maintain hopes of bowl eligibility, I think we’ll see Iowa State’s best effort of the year here.
The pick: Iowa State 33, West Virginia 17
MICHIGAN STATE at No. 16 ILLINOIS (-16½), 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN: We knew the Big Ten West was wide open at the beginning of the year but did anyone see the Illini being the team that took control? Credit to Bret Bielema, who has a team molded in his identity and has Illinois with a game lead over Purdue, which comes to Champaign next week.
In the meantime, the Illini are laying a huge number here, especially for what should be a low-scoring game in potentially bad weather. But Michigan State, as you’ve probably heard, is a hot mess. The Spartans suspended eight players in the wake of a nasty assault on a Michigan player in the stadium tunnel after last week’s game, and it’s tough to have much faith either in the remaining talent or the Spartans’ morale level after something like that.
Besides, if the weather does get bad and this is a grind-it-out, sloppy affair, that perfectly fits with what Bielema and Illinois want to do. They’ll take their No. 1-ranked defense and an offense that runs the ball frequently against a terrible run defense and an opponent that has plenty of reasons to roll over.
The pick: Illinois 31, Michigan State 6
LAST WEEK: 5-1 straight up, 3-3 against the spread
THIS YEAR: 38-16 straight up, 26-27-1 ATS