College football betting, Week 12: Picking USC-UCLA and five other top picks

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Southern California tight end Lake McRee, from left, defensive back Briton Allen (25) and wide receiver Michael Jackson III celebrate a touchdown against California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)

Oh, Pac-12. Just when it looked likely that you’d put a team in the College Football Playoff for just the third time, some vintage “Pac-12 After Dark” struck last Saturday, with both Oregon and UCLA losing as double-digit favorites, and now those CFP hopes are on life support again.

In fact, only USC really has a chance from the West Coast, and it would require the Trojans to win out impressively and possibly get some help, perhaps in the form of a TCU loss, to reach the final four.

That starts this week with a game against crosstown rival UCLA, which was in the hunt until it spit the bit against Arizona. Will the carnage continue? No matter what, the Pac-12 will be forced to have a rooting interest in a game between two teams that have abandoned it for the Big Ten.

Elsewhere, plenty of other teams must win to stay in the CFP hunt: TCU, Tennessee, Clemson, North Carolina and LSU. All are favored by varying degrees, but the penultimate week of the regular season is sure to bring some more carnage.

Speaking of carnage, two late-night results cost me a really good day, and we landed on 3-3 against the spread for the third straight week. Let’s dig in and see if we can rise above.

(Lines from Caesars Sportsbook as of Wednesday)

Game of the Week

No. 7 USC at No. 16 UCLA (+2½, 8 p.m. ET, FOX: It’s too bad the Bruins couldn’t take care of business against Arizona, because it takes a lot of luster off of this game. It’s still the biggest Crosstown Rivalry game in years, but instead of everything being on the line for both teams, only the Trojans have that pressure.

From a betting perspective, though, we shouldn’t overlook that point. UCLA has nothing to lose and would love to take their rival down with them. USC is only No. 7 in the CFP rankings but has a clear path to the top four if it can keep winning. So the Trojans are going to feel a lot more heat.

Statistically, everything points to a close game. The teams both have top-10 offenses, mediocre defenses (UCLA’s grades out slightly better) and similar strengths of schedule. The Bruins have home field (for whatever’s it’s worth) and less pressure. In a game that should come down to the wire, take the points.

The pick: UCLA 37, USC 33

Best bets

ILLINOIS at No. 3 MICHIGAN (-18), Noon ET, ABC: One of my golden rules of betting is that when two teams with similar styles meet up, the more talented team has a huge advantage.

Both the Illini and the Wolverines would like to run the ball, play lockdown defense and throw the ball only when necessary. It just so happens that Michigan is a heck of a lot better at it. Illinois’ two-game losing streak has seen it fall out of the top spot in team defense rankings, and guess who moved up to No. 1? That’s right — Michigan.

Of course, to say the Wolverines offense is “just good enough” is to do it an injustice. Michigan is No. 19 nationally in yards per play and is more than a full yard better per snap than Illinois. That, home field and the need for some style points means this line should be more like 21 or even higher.

The pick: Michigan 37, Illinois 14

KANSAS STATE (-7½) at WEST VIRGINIA, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN+: After picking against West Virginia at home last week, I had a chance to go to the game — great experience, despite freezing cold — and the Mountaineers promptly beat Oklahoma outright as 8-point underdogs.

But now that their good-luck charm (me) is gone, we’re going to try this again. Truth be told, the SP+ post-game win expectancy for WVU in that game was less than 30%, so they were a bit lucky even with the breakout performance from backup quarterback Garrett Greene, who’s more of a runner than starter JT Daniels.

Kansas State has the advantage of being ready for Greene, however, and although K-State has been as up and down as any good team in the country, it feels like it’s time for the Wildcats to stay at a high level. And if they do, they’ve been significantly better than West Virginia in almost every statistical category.

The pick: Kansas State 31, West Virginia 20

No. 2 OHIO STATE at MARYLAND (+27½), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC: You fade the Buckeyes at your own risk, but it’s also been to your own profit. Ohio State is only 1-2 against the spread on the road and must cover a big number here against a Maryland passing defense that ranks top 20 in the nation.

The Terrapins’ offense has struggled lately behind Taulia Tagovailoa, who may still be nursing a knee injury he suffered last month. But we know Maryland has the possibility of a quick-strike offense, and it will only take two or three big plays to keep this one close enough.

What’s more, Maryland (6-4 overall) has been 4-1 at home with a two-point loss to Purdue, so they’ve been a much better team in College Park. And Ohio State might have a certain Big Game they’re looking ahead to, which can’t hurt when you’ve got the underdog.

The pick: Ohio State 41, Maryland 21

WESTERN KENTUCKY (+5½) at AUBURN, 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network: Auburn has saved itself from total embarrassment this year by coming up with a win when Missouri fumbled at the goal line in overtime and by beating the broken-down Aggies of Texas A&M.

But the truth is, this has been the most disappointing team in the SEC by a significant margin, and even though the Tigers have played better the past couple of weeks, focus may be waning as Auburn winds down under interim coach Cadillac Williams and the Alabama game sits on the horizon.

And if focus is waning, Western Kentucky is the wrong team to play. The Hilltoppers spread you out on defense and wait for a blown coverage, and they’ve done that at a huge rate.

The last time WKU played a power conference team, it threw away a game down the stretch against Indiana. The Hilltoppers might not win this one, but there’s no reason to think this game doesn’t come down to the wire.

The pick: Auburn 28, Western Kentucky 27

GEORGIA TECH at No. 13 NORTH CAROLINA (-21), 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Last week, Georgia Tech lost by 21 points at home against lackluster Miami — and the game was only that close because of a last-minute Yellow Jackets touchdown. Now they’re only getting 21 on the road against the red-hot Tar Heels, who need style points if they’re going to stay on the periphery of the national championship contender.

Make that make sense.

North Carolina is having one of the quietest great seasons you’ll ever see, starting 3-0 (remember that wild 63-61 win over App State with 33 points in the final four minutes?), then losing a shootout to Notre Dame. But while everyone forgot about them, the Heels have rattled off six straight ACC wins, scoring at least 27 points in each one. They’ve clinched a spot against Clemson in the ACC title game and with just one loss, are three wins and a couple of dominoes away from reaching the CFP.

Drake Maye (3,412 yards passing, 34 touchdowns, three interceptions) is a Heisman candidate, and he and North Carolina will want to put on a show here.

The pick: North Carolina 45, Georgia Tech 14

LAST WEEK: 3-3 straight up, 3-3 against the spread

THIS YEAR: 45-21 straight up, 32-33-1 ATS

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