In the minds of many, the upcoming weekend is the best of the College Football season. No, it's not the beginning of the CFP (which, this year, is 100% certain to get it 100% wrong) but the weekend when most conferences crown their annual champion leading to many locker room celebration and the triggering of bonus payout clauses in coaching contracts.
Currently there are two (2) of the Ten (10) FBS conferences that don't have a championship game. Fortunately for one of them (Big XII) the annual Bedlam matchup between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is a de-facto Championship since they are the only two teams with either zero (OU) or 1 (OSU) conference loss. There will be no "co-champions" in the Big XII this year. What's going to keep them out of the CFP is that, no matter who wins, the eventual conference champion is going to have 2 losses overall, with no OOC marquee wins to show for it.
As for the SunBelt? Sorry guys. Better luck next year. Appalachian State has already claimed at least a share of the crown, they just don't know who, if anyone, they will be sharing it with. Both Troy and Arkansas State have games this weekend that determine which of them, or if both of them, can join the Mountaineers at the top.
Unfortunately, again this week, the SEC gives us yet another week when their premier team (Alabama) finds a walkover opponent (Florida). All that's missing is a 6-7 figure payment from Tuscaloosa to Gainesville as an incentive for the latter to get rolled by the Tide.
On to the games. (Note: MOST (not all) of these games are neutral site games. Be sure to check on that before you dive in. In many cases I've factored that in even if I didn't mention it here)
MAC: Western Michigan (-18.5) @ Ohio. Not enough credit is given to Frank Solich who continues to win, at Ohio, at the pace he won at Nebraska before being summarily dismissed by a team that hasn't been the same since. He is an underrated coach who seems to be happy in his current role. The same can't be said for P.J. Fleck, who is a poor-man's Tom Herman who is now facing, for the first time, real, honest-to-goodness speculation that he's going to be rowing the boat elsewhere next season. (Oregon would be a GREAT fit IMO).
A few years back I remember a Houston team, then coached by Kevin Sumlin, who walked into their conference championship game with rumors swirling that their head coach was departing. The result was a blowout of an unfocused, unprepared Cougar squad by a well-coached Southern Miss team.
The difference here is that I think P.J. Fleck is a better coach than Sumlin. It will be close, because Solich can coach, but I think Fleck gets the conference crown that has heretofore eluded Kevin Sumlin.
Western Michigan 38 Ohio 30.
Pick: Ohio to cover +18.5
PAC 12: Colorado @ Washington (-7.5). Except for developing issues unwrapping a Trojan, this has been a dream season for the Huskies. But Colorado has been stellar as well, before breaking against the same team. (OK, sorry). But while Colorado has a "happy to be here" factor working for it Washington enters this game with some real pressure. The consensus for the Huskies is "win, and you're in" to the College Football Playoff. Head Coach Chris Peterson is no stranger to big game situations, but he's typically come into them as an underdog when he was in charge at Boise State. We honestly have zero frame of reference for the Mike McIntyre coached Buffalo because, to be honest, this is the first truly "big" game they have played in almost a decade.
If anything, the common opponent litmus test (which is somewhat useless in college football but I'll mention it anyway) tells us that Washington has been better against the same, excepting the aforementioned Trojans. Washington is better at QB, RB, WR, O-line, TE, DB, DL, LB and Special Teams. Colorado should be playing fast and loose.
Washington is listed as the Home team but this is really a neutral-site game.
Colorado 24 Washington 28.
Pick: Colorado to cover +7.5 and the UNDER.
American: Temple @ Navy (-3). The conventional wisdom surrounding the Group of 5 teams is that if Western Michigan wins, then the Broncos are the shoo-in to receive the New Year's Six guarantee. The fly in the ointment here is Navy, who have a better resume than does WMU and who play in a tougher conference to boot. In fact, head's up on a neutral field, there are few that would probably take WMU over the Mid-Shipmen. And I can guarantee you there are fewer Power 5 teams who would rather face the latter over the former to boot.
Temple is a team that started off rough, with a loss to Army, but which rebounded nicely once conference play started. They also avoided playing Houston this year, which helped them a lot. One problem for Temple is that they're suffering the curse of good G5 teams. Head Coach Matt Rhule is suddenly a hot commodity for P5 programs looking to upgrade.
Navy's Triple option offense is difficult to prepare for, unless you have an extended period to prepare. Temple, unfortunately, doesn't. But I think their defense is just good enough to keep this game from morphing into a blowout early, provided the players and coaches haven't been too busy pondering life without Rhule.
Temple 27 Navy 34
Pick: Navy to Cover -3.
Conference USA: Louisiana Tech @ Western Kentucky (-9.5). There was a (brief) time when C-USA was the unquestioned premier Group of 5 conference in the land. They had Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville, and (briefly) TCU. Winning this league meant that you had a very, very good football team and they had a stronger argument of being the "sixth" power conference than the American does today.
Sadly, the last round of expansion gutted them, they picked up the dregs of other conferences and soldier on without much exposure and one of the worst television contracts in college football. People forget that these two teams played each other, back in early October, with Tech taking a 55-52 win over the Hilltoppers, AT Western Kentucky.
That was the last game Western Kentucky lost however, as the team, coached by Jeff Brohm, went on a tear and started playing their best football at the right time. Meanwhile, the Skip Holtz coached Bulldogs did what Skip Holtz teams do and faltered down the stretch, losing an inexplicable game to Southern Mississippi last week. Were they looking ahead?
I don't think so.
La Tech 24 Western Kentucky 42
Pick: Western Kentucky to cover -9.5.
Mountain West: San Diego State University (-6.5) @ Wyoming. Let's talk for a minute about last week. It's never good for a conference, especially one that's been hyped as being "all that" all year to have their two "best" teams housed at identical moments right before they match up in the championship game. But that's what happened as SDSU got humiliated by Colorado State 63-31 and Wyoming got hammered 56-35 by New Mexico.
These teams played each other two games prior, with Wyoming winning by one point, 34-33
at home. Prior to that however the Cowboys lost 66-69 to UNLV at the Big Craps Table in Las Vegas. It's safe to say that neither team has done much to distinguish itself.
Wyoming Head Coach Craig Bohl, formerly of NDSU-multiple-FCS-National-Championships fame, is a good football coach who knows how to prepare his team for big games. The Aztec's Rocky Long doesn't have that pedigree, and early returns show that focus is a problem. What the Aztec's do have going for them is Donnel Pumphrey, the best running back in the country you might not have heard of, or seen.
Wyoming doesn't have that kind of game-breaking ability, but they did gift the college football world with the safety dance which was one of the better things to come out of the football season. Add to that the fact they're very well coached, and I think we have a game that's much, much closer than the odds-makers think.
SDSU 35 Wyoming 32.
Pick: Wyoming to cover +6.5
Bedlam (Big XII de-facto Championship game) Oklahoma State @ Oklahoma (-11.5) Since 1999, when Bob Stoops took over as HC of OU, this series has tilted heavily toward the Sooners and the scores have traditionally not been all that close. In fact, the recent trends for this game are that when the Sooners win, they win big and when the Cowboys win, they win close. Sure, there are aberrations (2011's 44-10 shellacking of OU by OSU for example) but on balance those trends hold.
Bedlam is also a "rivalry" game that's decidedly one-sided, with OU holding a 85-18-7 advantage. Over 110 games that equates to an OSU win every six years. To be fair however, OSU has done better in recent years, taking seven of the last 23 games. That equates to a win every 3 1/2 years. So OSU has gotten better, and when they have talent they are fairly competitive with the Sooners.
This year I think the Cowboys have some talent, especially on offense. And the Sooners, despite having a good season, are not what they once were on defense. Of course, the Cowboys aren't getting the turnovers they once did so my gut-feeling is that this is going to be a shootout. But not a crazy, bet the rent on the over kind. (the O/U number for this game is currently around 77 depending on the book)
OSU 42 OU 49
Pick: Oklahoma State to cover +11.5 Maybe throw a little at the OVER but not much.
SEC: Alabama (-24) @ Florida. The SEC (L)East is weak. So weak that they offered up Florida, a team absent a college offense, as a sacrificial lamb to the fighting Sabans. There's really not much to say about this game except that it's going to be on TV, and it will (likely) be the last SEC game called by Verne Lundquist. It's a shame he didn't get a better one. Maybe the Gators will surprise, but I can't see how.
Bama 35 Florida 3.
Pick: So many touts talk about "5 star" and "4 star" games etc. For me this is a 1/100th star game. If you must, Bama to cover -24, and take the UNDER (currently at 41) because this is going to be a one-handed offensive game.
ACC: Clemson (-10) @ Virginia Tech. Almost a mirror image of the Pac-12 Championship game, except that Clemson, the team with everything to lose, has been involved in the CFP before.
New Head Coach Justin Fuente took his act from Memphis and did just about the best job you can replacing a legend. The old saying in coaching: "You don't want to be the man who replaces the man, you want to replace the man who replaced the man" (Hi, Tom Herman) seems to not apply to Fuente early.
Of course, the difference between Frank Beemer and Mack Brown is that the former left his successor with some talent to work with, while the latter did not. Also, Fuente doesn't have prominent donors calling him a "coordinator" due primarily to his skin-tone wither. It just does to show how some schools, despite having a resource advantage, can be a cess-pool while others, with less resources, might not be.
Clemson, on the other hand, has everything. Resources, talent, a committed head coach. Everything except a dominant performance this year. This is a team that's been so good, it's hard to imagine that they're catching shade of not blowing out opponents by 50 every week.
As good as the Hokies have been, I think they get a lesson here in just how good they're going to have to be in order to beat the likes of Clemson and Florida State.
Clemson 38 Virginia Tech 13
Pick: Clemson to cover -10
B1G: Wisconsin (-2.5) @ Penn State. This is not the B1G championship game you were looking for. That was actually played last week when Ohio State rode 3-Wilton Speight turnovers, and some untimely Wolverine defensive lapses, to a win. Because, title-game aside, the question of who the best team in the B1G is was answered in the Horseshoe.
That said, Penn State went and messed up the apple cart by squeaking out a win over an Ohio State team that didn't react well to the white out. That game should serve as a reminder to all: It's hard, damn hard, to win a conference game on the road against a better-than-average team.
So that leaves us with the 3rd and 4th best teams in the conference, meeting up to play for the trophy, while Ohio State (probably) beats them both our for the B1G's slot in the CFP as the committee again moves the goalposts to a different location to benefit helmet schools. C'est la vie folks.
What this game does promise to provide is a pretty stiff defensive challenge for both teams. Amazingly, the O/U for this game currently rests at around 47, making that play just about the best line I've seen all year.
I'm predicting a FG fest, with maybe a TD (or two) sprinkled in for good measure, maybe even of the defensive or special teams variety.
Wisky 16 Penn State 6
Pick: Wisky to cover -2.5 and the UNDER. (Which probably means the game will go over by the 2nd period)
Other games of some interest....
Fun Belt/Sun Belt.
Remember I stated that the Sun Belt didn't have a championship game and that both Troy and Arkansas State had a chance for co-titles. Yeah, I think they both get there but one school has a much tougher (and less tragic) road.
Troy (-7) @ Georgia Southern. The Eagles of Ga. Southern had a new coach this year, Tyson Summers, who inherited a lot of young talent from former HC, and current Tuland head man, Willie Fritz. Still, Troy. Troy 38 Georgia Southern 24. Pick: Troy to cover -7.
Arkansas State (-24) @ Texas State. Earlier in the season Texas State had a tragic bus crash that injured one player and 5 others. Fortunately, the injuries were minor but it was a fitting symbol for the Bobcats season, where they are widely regarded as the worst FBS program. Here's hoping they turn it around next year because San Marcos is a great town, what Austin used to before it morphed into the pit it is today. Arkansas State 49 TxSt 10. Arkansas State to cover -24.
One last pick:
Big XII: Kansas State @ Texas Christian University (-4.5). To my mind this is potentially the best line of the week. This is, essentially, Bill Snyder's last regular season game and you know the players want to send him out with a win. Add to this the fact that TCU is one of the more disappointing teams in CFB this year? K-State 27 TCU 24. Pick K-State on the ML.