The first playoff rankings dropped after Week 10 in college football. Interestingly enough, the No. 2 and 3 teams in those rankings will now meet in Week 11 when LSU visits Alabama for what has become the biggest Saturday yet for this season.
Beyond the rivalry game between these two heavyweights, undefeated Penn State has to travel to play undefeated Minnesota; undefeated Baylor takes to the road to play rival TCU; and Oklahoma and Georgia, who are currently waiting on the outside of the top four in the playoff rankings, each have challenging games against conference opponents.
This week is likely to serve in winnowing out the contenders for the four playoff places. Wins by Baylor and Minnesota would begin to upset the normal order and create intrigue for the last few weeks. The big early games could hurt the teams currently ranked two through four and lead to additional excitement for Oklahoma and Georgia when they play under the lights in prime time. Whatever happens Saturday, there will be blood, guaranteed.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Penn State (-7) at Minnesota — 12 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Penn State (8-0)||Minnesota (8-0)|
|When Penn State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Minnesota has the ball||Defense||Offense|
The Golden Gophers began the year with an inauspicious start, narrowly beating FCS power South Dakota State and then scraping by in one-possession games against Fresno State, Georgia Southern, and Purdue before finally starting to administer some big-margin victories against Big Ten opponents. They’ve yet to play any of the better teams in the conference, such as fellow Big Ten West contenders Iowa or Wisconsin, so this is their biggest test of the year by a significant margin.
Much like he did at Western Michigan, P.J. Fleck has built the Golden Gophers around a spread RPO concept, and towards the end of the 2018 he found some offensive linemen that have helped power the system in 2019. From the center to the left side of the Gophers line you’ll find big Minnesota natives, but right guard Curtis Dunlap and right tackle Daniel Faalele hail from IMG Academy down in Florida, and they are probably the most massive tandem in the college game. Dunlap is 6-foot-5, 345 pounds, while Faalele is 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds! The Minnesota run game is mostly inside and outside zone with RPOs attached for quarterback Tanner Morgan, typically involving slot receiver Tyler Johnson (626 receiving yards, seven touchdowns) running quick outs, slants, and hitches into spaces vacated by defenders trying to sneak up to stop the run.
It has been a tricky riddle to crack for opposing defenses, largely because the offensive line has been very successful at punishing opponents that try to hang back to stop the pass. Lead running back Rodney Smith has 889 rushing yards at 5.9 yards per carry with seven touchdowns, while his primary backup Mohamed Ibrahim is at 307 yards at 4.7 yards per carry with six more touchdowns. Penn State has tended to match these sorts of offenses with single-high coverages that drop down a safety to help outnumber the run without yielding easy space on the perimeter; they’ve also mixed in a lot of five-man blitzes this season using their athletic linebacker corps to create one-on-one matchups for their defensive line.
That’s the heavyweight bout of this game, literally and figuratively, that should determine the outcome. If Minnesota is for real, they’ll need to show it by withstanding the waves of big defenders that the Nittany Lions can throw into the trenches to stuff their run game. Another area of interest will be on the hashmark, where Johnson may face either Penn State’s Sam linebacker Cam Brown or else their nickel Lamont Wade.
On the other side of things, Minnesota has also been playing surprisingly good defense this season. Strong safety Antoine Winfield has been deployed in a variety of fashions, sometimes dropping into the box, sometimes blitzing, and other times playing over the top. He’s leading the Gophers in tackles and also has two sacks, five interceptions, and a forced fumble. Minnesota utilizes a 4-3 under design on defense that asks nose tackle Micah Dew-Treadway and strongside end Winston DeLattiboudere to hold the point so that the Gophers’ linebackers can diagnose, close, and tackle.
Penn State has an absurdly talented collection of young running backs and of course their own lightning-quick slot receiver K.J. Hamler operating in space on the perimeter. They’ve had a bye week to prepare for this game and probe for ways to try and attack the Gophers defense. The most straightforward way of doing that would be to attack the boundary corner lined up with Winfield, who regularly has to play man coverage. That has not been the name of the game for Penn State, who prefers to utilize Hamler as their primary constraint for the run game and tight end Pat Friermuth after that.
But the Gophers are going to be all over that and make Penn State either force their way up front with the run game or else find their outside receivers for some big plays on the cornerbacks.
- Will Minnesota’s massive offensive line hold up playing against one of the nation’s best defensive fronts?
- How will Penn State cover Minnesota’s RPO game on the perimeter to slot receiver Tyler Johnson?
- Will Penn State be able to hit the Gophers defense outside or will they try to impose their will in the middle of the field with the option run game and spectacular slot receiver K.J. Hamler?
FEI Outright Pick: Minnesota by 1.8
Baylor (-2) at TCU — 12 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Baylor (8-0)||TCU (4-4)|
|When Baylor has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When TCU has the ball||Defense||Offense|
There are numerous regards in which this really doesn’t look like a good matchup for TCU, who nevertheless are slight favorites at home against undefeated Baylor. The Horned Frogs have shown a weakness for giving up the big play while the Bears have inflicted more than their fair share of big plays. TCU has struggled to generate a pass-rush, with the entire depth chart at defensive end producing just 2.5 sacks on the year, and they’ve also been very spotty against the zone-read play which yielded big gains for Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Baylor doesn’t live off the zone-read, but it’s certainly a part of their offensive package, while their weak spot of late has been yielding pressure with their inexperienced offensive tackles.
On top of those troubling matchup issues for the Horned Frogs, star receiver Jalen Reagor got dinged up some last Saturday against Oklahoma State and starting quarterback Max Duggan injured the middle finger on his throwing hand. Both are expected to play, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be 100%. Finally, the Frogs lost a trio of backup quarterbacks: Justin Rogers to the transfer portal and Michael Collins to injury against Oklahoma State, while Alex Delton quit the team. If Duggan can’t play at something close to his normal level, the next man up for the Frogs is probably walk-on Matthew Downing. TCU also has Ohio State transfer Matthew Baldwin, but he has only just been cleared to practice for the first time in months and probably isn’t available.
The Bears may get starting left tackle Connor Galvin back for this game. If he plays and is on form, it’s one more reason to think that the Frogs just don’t have what it takes to hand the Bears their first loss of the season.
On the other hand, TCU head coach Gary Patterson is pretty good at finding ways to get his team to punch above their weight and Baylor is surely unused to the pressure of trying to play to a nationally competitive standard every week. The Bears only narrowly won home games this year against Iowa State (23-21), Texas Tech (33-30), and recently against West Virginia (17-14). They’ve struggled to land many impressive wins even while avoiding losses, and playing on the road against TCU in a rivalry game will certainly be an intense atmosphere.
The Frogs will aim to leverage a very skilled and experienced secondary in this contest to take away the explosive Baylor passing game and perhaps mix in some man coverage to free up linebackers to bring blitzes against the often suspect Bears pass protection. West Virginia sacked Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer eight times last contest; some were a result of bad protection and others were made possible by Brewer’s failure to get the ball out. That allowed the Mountaineers to overcome their own hopelessness at picking up ground against Baylor’s good defense.
The Bears defense doesn’t have a ton of weaknesses. Nose tackle Bravvion Roy and defensive end James Lynch have dominated the trenches all year and allowed them to play a lot of drop-eight coverages from a 3-2-6 base dime package. A similar approach by Texas shut down TCU a couple of weeks ago, only for the Longhorns to give the game away with several poorly executed blitzes that the Frogs burned for big gains and touchdowns. TCU will not only need Duggan and Reagor to be healthy but to have their best game of the year to make real headway and score enough to win.
- How healthy are TCU’s quarterback and star receiver Matthew Duggan and Jalen Reagor?
- Who will win the matchup between Baylor’s spotty offensive tackles and TCU’s struggling defensive ends?
- Can Baylor take advantage of some matchup advantages to win with style points that can impress the playoff selection committee?
FEI Outright Pick: Baylor by 1
LSU at Alabama (-6.5) — 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||LSU (8-0)||Alabama (8-0)|
|When LSU has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Alabama has the ball||Defense||Offense|
This is probably going to be the most hyped LSU-Alabama game since 2011, which is really saying something since this game has annually generated a ton of interest. The big difference this season is that the Tigers actually appear to have the sort of offense that could allow them to finally make headway against Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide defense. LSU won that 2011 game 9-6 and since then have lost this game every year while being shut out twice and never scoring more than 17 points. The Tigers’ regular emphasis on the power run game was always completely unavailing against Saban’s consistently massive and well-drilled defensive fronts.
This year the matchups are all wildly different and neither team looks like themselves. The Tigers are obviously a very different team, now running a pro-spread offense that has quarterback Joe Burrow at 2,805 passing yards already at 10.8 yards per attempt with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions. Rather than trying to block Alabama’s nose tackles and inside linebackers, they’ll ask them to rush the passer and play in space against 11 personnel sets that put receiving tight ends like Stephen Sullivan and Thaddeus Moss on the field. Interestingly enough, this year’s Alabama defense is probably the iffiest yet at both nose tackle and inside linebacker. Regular defections to the NFL combined with some bad injury luck have the Tide starting true freshmen at nose tackle (D.J. Dale) and both inside linebacker positions (Christian Harris and Shane Lee).
Given their lack of experience at linebacker and the stresses that LSU can put on that position with their tight ends in the passing game, it would make sense for the Tide to play this game in their dime package. The Tide often try to “solve” the spread offense by playing in dime with their best safety as the “moneybacker” who would cover the tight end while the best inside linebacker plays alone inside the box with four defensive linemen. LSU’s counter to schemes like that this season has been to pack in their tight end and big receivers in bunch formations and run downhill with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (683 rushing yards at 5.9 yards per carry with eight touchdowns).
Even if that approach by Alabama were successful in stopping LSU’s run game, it’s no guarantee that they’d successfully slow down the Tigers passing game. In previous contests with pro spread passing teams of this caliber — such as the Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence Clemson teams or Kyler Murray and the Sooners — Alabama has been lit up even while playing dime defense.
Things appear more optimistic for the Tide in maintaining dominion over LSU on the other side of the ball, where they’ve been wildly explosive in their own right and are welcoming back quarterback Tua Tagovailoa after another ankle surgery. Alabama has been powered this season by four different blazing fast receivers they can get on the field to hit with RPOs and play-action. The leader is Devonta Smith with 723 yards and nine touchdowns, followed by Jerry Jeudy (682 yards, eight touchdowns), Henry Ruggs III (513 yards, six touchdowns), and then Jaylen Waddle (297 yards, one touchdown) off the bench. Last season those guys (combined with now-NFL tight end Irv Smith Jr.) were too much for the Tigers to match up against.
This year the LSU secondary is a touch better, but will be missing star inside linebacker Michael Divinity, a significant part of the Tigers’ pressure schemes up front who was removed from the team this very week. Getting pressure with four figures to be the key to beating Alabama in this game, as Tagovailoa may have limited mobility and bringing blitzes that exposes defensive backs (even those as good as the members of the LSU secondary) is probably not a winning formula.
If LSU can’t pressure Tagovailoa and has to drop back and hang on against the Tide receivers, then this figures to be an up-and-down shootout that is more or less a complete departure from the 2011 defensive struggle that initiated this decade of the rivalry. In a way, that’d be particularly fitting as an encapsulation of how the game of college football has changed in the 2010s.
- How will Alabama try to defend the LSU spread passing game? Can they trust their young defensive front to hold up if they play in dime?
- Joe Burrow having Heisman-winning moments if he can get after Alabama’s defense like Desahun Watson and Trevor Lawrence did before him.
- How healthy is Tua Tagovailoa, and can LSU bother him with pressure and disguises like Georgia did back in the 2018 SEC Championship Game?
FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 11.5
Iowa at Wisconsin (-9.5) — 4 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Iowa (6-2)||Wisconsin (6-2)|
|When Iowa has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Defense||Offense|
With Alabama and LSU playing at roughly the same time, this game may not get much attention outside of the Midwest, but this is typically the game that settles the Big Ten West. This year Minnesota has emerged as another challenger, but both Iowa and Wisconsin will get their chances to knock off the Gophers after Penn State takes their shot in the noon game.
Wisconsin normally holds the edge here, simply because their state has several million more residents and thus a stronger recruiting turf. The Badgers have won six out of the last seven, which puts them in the lead in the all-time series (47-43-2) and has put them in charge of the Big Ten’s West division since its formation back in 2014.
Both teams are stocked full of stout Midwestern kids and try to control the game with ball control strategies on offense and then excellent defense keyed by great linebacker play. The Hawkeyes are a zone stretch team, the Badgers are more about power, and the Hawkeyes defense plays a lot of bend-don’t-break while the Badgers attack teams with zone blitzes that take advantage of their linebacker corps.
Wisconsin’s main vulnerability on defense, illustrated by their IsoPPP numbers, is when opponents can get the ball out in space where the Badgers’ skill athletes are not elite — articularly at safety, where Wisconsin’s main players have not been able to get their hands on too many passes. Unfortunately for Iowa, the name of the game for the Hawkeyes offense isn’t really to spray the ball around to speedy receivers. Instead the Hawkeyes will try to navigate the Badgers defensive fronts with their run game while trying to keep quarterback Nate Stanley in position to execute manageable situations on third down.
Michigan took the Iowa offense apart with blitzing and Penn State followed that success up some with multiple tackles for loss and another pair of sacks. Iowa’s ability to block the Wisconsin linebackers in the zone blitzes that define the Badgers defense is certainly a concern.
On the bright side for Iowa, their defense has been outstanding this season and figures to be capable of diagnosing and obstructing the Wisconsin offense. Iowa managed Wisconsin’s star running back Jonathan Taylor reasonably well in 2018, holding him to 113 rushing yards and zero touchdowns on 25 carries, but they were torched by then-quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who completed 17 of 22 passes with lots of play-action for 205 yards and three touchdowns.
The Hawkeyes will want to involve safety and Jack Koerner into the proceedings to ensure they can limit damage by Taylor; the question will be whether their secondary is easily attacked by Jack Coan and the Wisconsin passing game if Koerner is not dropping down the hash. Starting outside receiver Quintez Cephus has been a key piece for the Badgers in handling teams like Iowa; he has 27 catches for 410 yards and three scores this season. If Wisconsin can find him down the sideline and encourage Iowa into their old Cover-2 defenses, perhaps they’ll be able to make enough consistent gains on the ground to control this game.
- Will Iowa try to ground-and-pound the Wisconsin defense or can they get the ball to the perimeter with the passing game?
- Can Iowa’s offensive line block Wisconsin’s blitz package?
- How will Iowa defend Jonathan Taylor? If they bring strong safety Jack Koerner into the box, will Wisconsin be able to punish them on play-action like in 2018?
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 16.8
Missouri at Georgia (-17) — 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Missouri (5-3)||Georgia (7-1)|
|When Missouri has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Georgia has the ball||Defense||Offense|
LSU vs. Alabama taking place earlier in the day will raise the perceived stakes of this prime-time battle but really Georgia’s playoff path has always been fairly clear. Even with the loss to South Carolina, if the Dawgs can win out and beat whomever comes out of the SEC West in the conference title game (probably LSU or Alabama), they’ll virtually be a shoe-in for the playoffs. The real challenge is making sure they don’t drop any more games against feisty SEC opponents such as the Missouri Tigers. With one more big game looming in which the Dawgs have to travel to play Auburn on the road next week, it’d be easy to slip up in a game like this and allow the Tigers to hang around or deal some blows early.
Not that Missouri is a particularly fearsome opponent for Georgia, playing at home in front of a packed crowd that will be watching the biggest remaining home game on the 2019 slate. Missouri has struggled to make much of what would appear to be a dynamic group of ballcarriers such as running back Larry Rountree III and quarterback Kelly Bryant, formerly of Clemson. Bryant has had 65 carries for 301 yards at 4.6 yards per carry and one touchdown this season and is now battling a hamstring injury. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Missouri was more dangerous on offense a year ago with pocket-passing Drew Lock on the field and unlocking the abilities of receiver Jonathon Johnson or tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. Bryant has thrown for 1,845 yards at 7.3 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Mizzou defense has also slipped, no doubt hurt by losing star linebacker Cale Garrett for the season, although sophomore linebacker Nick Bolton has been excellent with 56 tackles and 15 run stuffs. The Tigers don’t have much of a pass rush this season and lack the sorts of playmaking defensive linemen that characterized the best Missouri defenses of the past. Notably, many of the best defensive line prospects coming out the state in the last several years have been leaving to go to school at Oklahoma, Penn State, Clemson, or even Texas.
Georgia’s offense may be a manageable task though for this group, which is still stout and benefitted from Texas defensive tackle Jordan Elliott transferring in over a year ago and joining Kobe Whiteside in helping to keep Missouri’s regularly strong linebackers clean to reach ballcarriers. The Dawgs simply haven’t had an explosive element to their otherwise strong offense this season, struggling to generate consistently long runs or to land knockout blows with the passing game. It’s very difficult, though, to keep Jake Fromm or D’Andre Swift behind the chains. Georgia tends to be a team that may not pull away from solid teams but won’t be held back either.
The Bulldogs defense is the main concern for Missouri in this game. Georgia has a very stout defensive front that doesn’t inflict many tackles for loss or sacks but doesn’t give up much yardage either. They held Florida to 21 rushing yards last week in their big rivalry game and have a pair of safeties in Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed that consistently close, tackle, and limit gains that opponents can make in the run game or throwing underneath. They’ll have a plan for Missouri’s zone-read run game that will force the Tigers to convert passing downs with Bryant.
- How will Georgia handle the pressure of playing under the spotlight of playoff rankings and speculation?
- Can Missouri get their ground game rolling against the big, sound Georgia defense?
- Can Georgia’s offense put together a big game against a stout Missouri defense and try to score some style points for the playoff committee?
FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 21.1
Iowa State at Oklahoma (-14.5) — 8 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Iowa State (5-3)||Oklahoma (7-1)|
|When Iowa State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Oklahoma has the ball||Defense||Offense|
It was two years ago when Iowa State last visited Norman with a new-look defense that they had just unveiled against the Texas Longhorns. The 3-3-5 “inverted Tampa-2” scheme limited Texas to 17 points and then slowed up Oklahoma in several key moments and allowed the Cyclones to pull off an upset win that put Matt Campbell’s program on the map. That style of defense is starting to spread across the country as a solution to the spread offense and is currently powering the 8-0 Baylor Bears. Last year the Cyclones again had a solid defensive showing (in relative terms at least) against Oklahoma but couldn’t score enough to win a 37-27 game. Not long after that game, the Cyclones made freshman quarterback Brock “Pump Fake” Purdy the starter and have gone 12-5 since.
Iowa State is still in contention to make it to the Big 12 Championship Game, but after dropping a home game to Oklahoma State they have to win out and beat both Oklahoma and Texas to get there. Interestingly enough, Oklahoma is coming off a bye week in which they had extra time to contemplate their own first loss of the year on the road against Kansas State. The Wildcats beat Oklahoma by getting the ball to the edge with some option-sweep plays and by playing a lot of fundamentally sound, traditional Tampa-2 defense. The Wildcats were able to limit the Sooners’ play-action passing game that has quarterback Jalen Hurts throwing for 12.9 yards per attempt.
Without the deep lobs available (although the Sooners hit a pair of big passing plays on a trick play and a screen that broke loose), Oklahoma’s offense devolved into Jalen Hurts repeatedly scrambling for solid gains before being tackled short of the marker or end zone. He still ran for over 100 yards and a few scores, but the Sooners weren’t as overpowering as normal, which allowed the Wildcats to outscore them. Iowa State will almost definitely follow a similar strategy, aiming to play their inverted Tampa-2 coverages to keep the Oklahoma receivers in front of them before closing and tackling Hurts. They may also mix in some of their big blitz packages in hopes of confusing Hurts and picking up some sacks; the former Alabama quarterback has a knack for holding onto the ball if he doesn’t see his first read running open.
Iowa State may surprise spectators with their ability to corral Oklahoma’s normally super-efficient offense, but the truly interesting matchup in this game is between the Sooners defense and Pump-Fake Purdy. Oklahoma has played some very aggressive 5-1 and 5-2 defensive fronts this season that are philosophically a rebirth of the 46 defense that powered the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. With five defenders up on the line covering up all five offensive linemen, it has been difficult for opponents to double-team the Sooners’ lighter but ultra-quick defensive linemen such as Ronnie Perkins (a Missourian who got away from the Tigers) and Jalen Redmond. Star linebacker Kenneth Murray has been a crucial piece to this approach, and he blitzes to become one of the five defenders up on the line on maybe half of Oklahoma’s defensive snaps.
The problem for Oklahoma with this approach is, what happens if opponents break contain and get around the five down defenders, which Kansas State did regularly two weeks ago? That forced Oklahoma to play some more conservative Cover-2 defenses that were clearly less effective inIowa State will aim to break that contain by utilizing Purdy, fresh off a bye week, in the option game and also with multiple-tight end sets that extend the line Oklahoma is trying to defend. Charlie Kolar is the main Cyclones tight end, and he has been a load this season with 34 catches for 486 yards and five touchdowns.
Oklahoma may really struggle to match up with Kolar. Their nickel Brendan Radley-Hiles is the weak spot in their efforts to contain the ball in the 5-1 fronts due to his lack of size (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) and the safety behind him, Dellarin Turner-Yell, is questionable for this contest. The Cyclones could cause problems for Oklahoma, both by playing with double-tight end sets that extend the perimeter, and also by matching Kolar up against the nickel or substitutes that the Sooners have to put on the field.
Overall there’s a lot in this matchup that could give the Sooners some issues. They are playing at home though, and Hurts has been a load scrambling and in their counter run game with 852 rushing yards at 8.9 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns while receiver CeeDee Lamb has turned just 36 catches into 816 yards and 11 touchdowns. Their sheer athleticism and talent advantages have been enough in every game this season save for that recent road trip to Kansas State.
- Can Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts navigate Iowa State’s inverted Tampa-2 coverages and occasional big blitzes?
- How will Oklahoma defend the perimeter against Brock “Pump-Fake” Purdy and the option game?
- How will Oklahoma match up against Cyclones tight end Charlie Kolar and multiple-tight end sets by Iowa State?
- Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb, who has been one of the best players in college football this season.
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 12.4
FEI PICKS: WEEK 11
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|Penn State||7||at Minnesota||Minnesota||Minnesota||Minnesota|
|at Oklahoma||14.5||Iowa State||Oklahoma||Iowa State||Iowa State|
FEI’s Picks against the spread last week: 3-2
FEI’s Picks against the spread on the year: 32-24
Ian’s Picks against the spread in last week: 2-3
Ian’s Picks against the spread on the year: 24-32