LSU’s bitter loss to Texas A&M last week changed the national championship conversation headed into championship week, but the most important question remains the same.
Can No. 3 TCU and No. 4 USC win one more game to earn their way into the College Football Playoff to join No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Michigan?
All four of those teams play in their respective conference’s championship game this weekend, but the Bulldogs and Wolverines likely are safely into the CFP even if they were to suffer upsets — and they would be big upsets, with Michigan favored by 16 over Purdue in the Big Ten title game and Georgia by 17½ over LSU in the SEC championship.
So that leaves the Horned Frogs and Trojans. USC gets things kicked off with the Pac-12 championship on Friday night against Utah. TCU follows early Saturday with the Big 12 title game against Kansas State. Both are small favorites. Both must win to keep national championship hopes alive. And both probably have plenty of fans around the country — outside of Columbus and Tuscaloosa, at least — who don’t want to see Ohio State and/or Alabama back their way into yet another CFP.
Let’s get to the last full picks column of the season and finish strong.
(Lines from Caesars Sportsbook as of Wednesday)
Game of the Week
No. 3 TCU vs. No. 10 KANSAS STATE (+2½), Noon Saturday, ABC: It’s possible (probable?) that much of the college football world wasn’t paying attention to TCU most of the season, but the Horned Frogs have been one of the more entertaining teams in the country. Think of your father’s Big 12, where every team was capable of scoring 40 points or giving up 40 in any given week.
Thing is, TCU has managed to win all of those crazy games. The Frogs beat SMU in a 42-34 shootout before anyone knew how good they would be. They scored 55 to pound Oklahoma, then needed to hold off Kansas and Oklahoma State in shootouts the next two weeks. They needed late heroics to win road games at West Virginia and Baylor.
In between all of that, TCU also beat Kansas State 38-28 on Oct. 22 in Fort Worth. This one will be down the road in Arlington, and you’d expect to see a lot of K-State purple join the TCU purple.
At the time of that first meeting, the Wildcats were a wildly inconsistent team, capable of blowing out Missouri and winning at Oklahoma but also losing at home to Tulane or barely sneaking past Texas Tech and Iowa State.
Since that time, though, K-State has turned on the afterburners. The Wildcats lost to Texas a couple of weeks later but have thumped Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas to get here, rising in the SP+ ratings from No. 20 to No. 9.
It’s that form, combined with statistical profiles that suggest this game should be very close, that have me leaning toward taking the points.
The pick: Kansas State 31, TCU 30
NORTH TEXAS at UTSA (-8½), 7:30 p.m. Friday, CBSSN: North Texas maximized its potential to reach this stage, but the Mean Green limped to the finish line, losing by 20 points at UAB three weeks ago and then, after a week off, barely holding off Rice at home to clinch the spot in the title game.
This one is also a rematch of an Oct. 22 game, with UTSA having beaten North Texas 31-27 at home in the first meeting. So why are the Roadrunners favored by double that margin? For one thing, despite needing a touchdown in the final minute to win, UTSA dominated that game, running 94 plays to North Texas’ 52 and out-gaining the Mean Green 495-347.
For another thing, beat the same Rice team that nearly knocked off UNT by a 41-7 score just the previous week. This is a better team with a solid home-field advantage.
The pick: UTSA 35, North Texas 24
No. 11 UTAH (+3) vs. No. 4 USC, 8 p.m. Friday, FOX: There are many college football fans who would be fine with a College Football Playoff without Alabama, Ohio State or Clemson — getting to that point would require TCU and USC both to win.
Unfortunately, that’s far from a given. I won a bet with the Trojans last week against Notre Dame, but this is a tougher assignment. First off, Utah is somewhere between 5-10 points better than Notre Dame by most computer rankings, and this is game is at a neutral site in Las Vegas.
One thing is for sure, and that’s to expect lots of points. These teams’ first meeting finished 43-42 Utes, they’re among the nation’s top 20 in yards per play and outside the top 80 in yards per play allowed.
The handicap of this one is similar to the Big 12 title game: In a contest that looks extremely close on paper at a neutral site, why not take the points?
The pick: Utah 38, USC 35
No. 1 GEORGIA (-17½) vs. No. 14 LSU, 4 p.m., CBS: My take here is that LSU’s disappointing loss at Texas A&M actually could help the Tigers here because the pressure of reaching the College Football Playoff is basically gone and Georgia may relax just a touch knowing the Tigers can’t take their spot. Not to mention, the spread has actually gone up from 15 to this 17½ number after LSU’s performance.
But despite all of that, I’m still laying the points. Part of that is that LSU will need to establish the run against the nation’s No. 1 run defense. Part of it also is that even though Tigers coach Brian Kelly said he’s hopeful Jayden Daniels can play Saturday after suffering an ankle injury against A&M, it’s hard to imagine a quarterback who relies on speed and mobility will be 100% effective less than a week after wearing a walking boot.
I’ve faded Georgia laying big spreads this year several times, but this is one case where it may be justified.
The pick: Georgia 37, LSU 17
No. 23 NORTH CAROLINA vs. No. 9 CLEMSON (-7½), 8 p.m., ABC: This is a hard one to handicap because both teams have gone from harboring (faint but legitimate) national title hopes to being completely eliminated from that conversation in a matter of two weeks.
Still, the ACC title and a berth in the Orange Bowl are on the line, and that means something no matter what else happens, you would think. So let’s examine how this could play out. It’s no big secret that when North Carolina has the ball, it’s the Tar Heels’ strong offense against the Tigers’ strong defense, and the opposite is true when Clemson has possession.
Ultimately, this line feels a little low. Clemson has been devalued because of its loss to South Carolina, but that was a strange game with two special-teams turnovers, and it’s hard to imagine that situation repeating.
The pick: Clemson 30, North Carolina 20
No. 2 MICHIGAN (-17) at PURDUE, 8 p.m., FOX: The easiest pick of last week was Tennessee -14 against Vanderbilt, thanks to a complete overreaction from the betting market after the Volunteers lost to South Carolina and Hendon Hooker was hurt.
Now we get a similar situation because there wasn’t enough of a reaction from the market. This isn’t as dramatic of an edge as that Tennessee-Vandy situation, but I don’t see how Purdue isn’t a bigger underdog in this situation. The Wolverines are a full yard better per play on offense and defense than the Boilermakers, who have some decent performances on their ledger but only reached the Big Ten title game because apparently, no one wanted to win the West Division.
Unless Michigan suffers a big letdown (and that certainly didn’t happen in last year’s Big Ten championship against Iowa after a similarly big win against Ohio State), it’s hard not to see this margin getting into the 20s.
The pick: Michigan 41, Purdue 14
LAST WEEK: 4-2 straight up, 4-2 against the spread
THIS YEAR: 53-25 straight up, 38-39-1 ATS