We’re getting close to Heisman Trophy finalist season, championship picks, and playoff selections. Week 14 brought a little less COVID intrigue to the season, other than giving us the BYU vs. Coastal Carolina game, and now we wait to see how the season resolves and what sort of postseason the sport is able to build.
BYU vs. Coastal Carolina was undoubtedly the big story of the weekend. The Cougars took the game against the undefeated Chanticleers on short notice and created a sort of Group of 5 championship exhibition of sorts. Shockingly, BYU got a lot more than I think they bargained for and went down 22-17. A fascinating matchup in the game was between BYU’s star nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, a 6-foot-4 and 321-pound behemoth, against Coastal Carolina’s center Sam Thompson, who’s 5-foot-9 and 290 pounds. With loads of double teams, option schemes, traps, and passes mixed in, the Chanticleers came out OK in that matchup. They also avoided BYU’s potent offense, led by Zach Wilson, by holding the ball for 37:51 of game clock and turning over the Cougars with an interception, a fumble, and a turnover on downs. It was a fun game and a huge win for the undefeated Sun Belt team — what a season it has been for that conference.
Elsewhere, Alabama obliterated LSU; Iowa State and Oklahoma locked up places in the Big 12 Championship Game; and Ohio State helped their meager resume by whipping Michigan State 52-12. This week we’ll get some matchups that should make for an enjoyable Saturday, including some great rivalry battles, but The Game has been canceled due to COVID issues at Michigan. That will raise interesting questions about whether Ohio State can play in the Big Ten Championship Game or be selected for the playoff.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Georgia (-13) at Missouri — Saturday, 12 p.m. (SECN)
|Overall||Georgia (6-2)||Missouri (5-3)|
|When Georgia has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||15||107|
|Passing success rate||94||39|
|When Missouri has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||13||67|
|Passing success rate||72||34|
Georgia’s season was transformed this year by injuries that sapped their roster of the strength necessary to compete with fellow SEC heavyweights Alabama and Florida. The Bulldogs got whipped in both contests by the potent passing attacks from the Crimson Tide and Gators and couldn’t keep up with their own offense. One major shortcoming for the Bulldogs was the unavailability of transfer quarterback J.T. Daniels, who was limited in fall camp by injury and got the call to start after the Florida defeat crushed Georgia’s season.
In two games since against Mississippi State and South Carolina, Daniels has thrown 54 passes for 540 yards at 10.0 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and one interception. His ability to stand tall in the pocket and stretch the field vertically gives Georgia an extra dimension that Stetson Bennett lacks and was inconsistent from Jake Fromm in 2019. From here on out Georgia stands out as a team that is building something impressive and downright scary for the rest of the SEC for the 2021 season, when Daniels will return at the helm behind a more experienced offensive line after a full offseason of work in offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s system and with Georgia’s receivers.
Missouri’s season has quietly been pretty promising for first-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz. They settled on redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak over TCU transfer Shawn Robinson, sacrificing speed and dual-threat ability for improved passing. Drinkwitz has been able to keep the run game going just fine without Robinson’s ability to handle option concepts, mixing in a variety of blocking schemes and angles for star running back Larry Rountree III, who has 170 carries for 835 yards at 4.9 yards per carry with 11 rushing touchdowns as the main weapon on offense.
He’ll face a real challenge making that work against Georgia, who returns nose tackle Jordan Davis healthy for this game to help free up speedy linebackers Monty Rice and Nakobe Dean to track Rountree’s trajectory from the backfield. The Bulldogs, when healthy and going strong on defense, are very good at limiting opposing rushing attacks to minimal gains that don’t move the chains efficiently. Missouri will be up against it trying to find angles and edges and it may come down to how well Bazelak finds targets such as Keke Chism down the field when they are getting man coverage from the Georgia secondary.
Missouri’s defense has had a solid year and are a similarly interesting test for the Georgia offense and Daniels as a passer. Drinkwitz went viral online for a video where he reacts with joyful exuberance to the news of Dallas cornerback Ennis Rakestraw committing to his Tigers. Rakestraw has been an immediate boost to their defense, breaking up six passes as a freshman starter on the outside. Missouri has had a nice run of good inside linebackers in recent years, and they are maintaining it thus far under Drinkwitz with Nick Bolton leading the way this season with a team-leading 80 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks and joined by big Devin Nicholson.
The 2020 Tigers cannot hold their own in the box against Georgia’s big, powerful offensive line but will probably be willing to test their corners against Daniels and the Bulldogs passing game in order to bring a safety down. Most of the best Tigers, including the names mentioned above and young edge rusher Trajan Jeffcoat, are either underclassmen or otherwise have a year or two of eligibility remaining. With a young team and first-year head coach, there’s nothing to stop them from playing aggressively and taking some lumps while developing for future seasons. That’s a dangerous combination for Georgia if they aren’t healthy and focused enough to give them their normal shot.
- Georgia’s quarterback J.T. Daniels, whose play this year gives the Bulldogs National Championship hopes for 2021.
- Is Georgia going to be healthy enough up front to shut down Missouri’s multi-faceted rushing attack?
- Georgia’s young star receiver George Pickens back in the lineup and facing Missouri’s star freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw.
FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 11.1
Navy at Army (-6.5) — 3 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Navy (3-6)||Army (7-2)|
|When Navy has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||115||4|
|Passing success rate||117||59|
|When Army has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||91||66|
|Passing success rate||76||124|
College football’s greatest rivalry! It’s hard not to enjoy this game for all the pageantry and the accepted terms in which both teams pummel each other with triple-option football until one overcomes the other. Navy holds the edge in the series and won in 2019, but Army won the three years prior and even when they don’t seem particularly strong tends to make this into a real game. Neither team generates an advantage against the other due to different tactics in this game; each squad knows how to defend the triple option and what’s going to happen.
This year, though, might be something of an exception. Navy’s season has gone horribly wrong, starting with a 55-3 thrashing at the hands of BYU, after which head coach Ken Niumatololo revealed that his team hadn’t practiced any live reps going into the game as a COVID precaution. The lack of a real fall camp to fine-tune the skills needed to grind out wins with triple option football or good defense has been evident all year in the play of the Midshipmen.
Meanwhile, Army has been pounding away with 260-pound fullback Jakobi Buchanan (383 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and 230-pound Sandon McCoy (227 rushing yards, 3.4 yards per carry, 10 rushing touchdowns). The Black Knights have rolled with three different quarterbacks this season and had some success with each of them due to the steady plodding nature of the run game with traps and fullback dive plays.
As a useful illustration of where these teams are this season, the Knights are 11th nationally in third-down offense with a conversion rate of 51.2% while Navy is 96th with a rate of 35.9%. Navy has struggled mightily to replace star quarterback Malcolm Perry, who had 295 carries last year for 2,017 yards at 6.8 yards per carry with 21 rushing touchdowns. Niumatalolo’s version of the triple option tends to fare best when the quarterback is a real weapon off tackle, while the Army game is all about running fullback dives and unbalanced sets and keeping it up on third-and-2 or even fourth-and-3. They’re betting you can’t stop them from picking up 10 yards in four tries.
The Midshipmen don’t have a quarterback selected for this game yet, and the pooled efforts of Perry’s replacements have run for just 151 yards all season at 2.9 yards per carry. That drop-off is massive and a perfect illustration of their struggle to master their basic identity this season without the benefit of a normal offseason. The saving grace for Navy in this game is their own defense, which has been decent and could give them some chance of disrupting the Army attack. The heart of their defense is inside linebacker Diego Fagot, a 6-foot-3, 240-pounder who has 67 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and three sacks. They regularly stunt him up over the center and let him blitz A-gaps to blow up opposing designs.
Behind him, safety Kevin Brennan is often on clean-up duty and patrols at the second level to eliminate big plays from developing. Brennan will be needed in this game to clean up the pitch game while Fagot is their only real hope of stopping the Army fullbacks between the tackles and preventing the Knights from controlling the game and the clock with multiple extended drives. If this is a lower-scoring slog then Navy has a chance; if it’s about precision in the triple option, they’ve shown all year they aren’t that team this season.
- Who will get the nod at quarterback for Navy in college football’s most intense rivalry game?
- Can Navy’s star linebacker Diego Fagot allow the Midshipmen to eliminate the Army inside run game?
- The pageantry, attendees, and trick plays from option football sets.
FEI Outright Pick: Army by 13.7
North Carolina (-3.5) at Miami — 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||North Carolina (7-3)||Miami (8-1)|
|When North Carolina has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||11||68|
|Passing success rate||12||27|
|When Miami has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||95||93|
|Passing success rate||21||59|
Clemson and Notre Dame are locked in to face each other in the ACC title game, but Miami is still 8-1 and North Carolina has had a great year, so this game still means something for establishing the rest of the pecking order for the conference. The Tar Heels have been propelled mostly by their offense this season — offense and pass rush.
Tar Heels offensive coordinator Phil Longo comes from the Air Raid tree but has an aggressive system that pairs vertical option routes with running plays on RPOs. Quarterback Sam Howell has thrown for 3,129 yards at 10.5 yards per attempt this year with 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions. He’ll hit Dazz Newsome (46 catches, 601 yards, five touchdowns) over the middle and Dyami Brown (51 catches, 932 yards, eight touchdowns) on the outside, and opponents get left in a bind. The damage North Carolina can do throwing to those guys downfield on RPOs is great, but if you try to back off your defenders to cover them up, the two-headed running back tandem of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter has a combined 266 carries for 1,841 yards at 6.9 yards per carry and 23 touchdowns.
It’s a serious dilemma most easily solved by a team that can play man coverage. RPO-running teams often struggle to pick up steady gains on the ground if they can’t generate light boxes and angles for their runners with perimeter and vertical pass options that force defenses to dare them to run. There’s also the option of playing two-high and asking the linebackers and defensive linemen to hold up without the cavalry, but that’s a difficult way to approach the problem for most programs.
Miami tends to bring the calvary when they need to stop the run. Their leading tacklers are safeties Bubba Bolden, who hangs out in the boundary and drops down to help stop up the run, and fellow safety Amari Carter. Third safety Gurvan Hall often mans up a slot as the nickel underneath, and they are effective covering the middle of the field. The challenge is matching Brown outside; the Miami pass rush is good with ends Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche, but you generally can’t get pressure in time to stop a vertical RPO. You have to take away the first read for the quarterback and at that point the lack of protection can bring the offense down.
On the other side of the equation, North Carolina hasn’t played great defense, but their pass defense numbers have been solid. The pass rush is good, the Fox brothers (Tomon and Tomari) have a combined 9.5 sacks, linebacker Chazz Surratt has another six, and then four other Tar Heels defenders have at least two sacks apiece. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman loves to bring pressure in groups of four and five while dropping defenders off the line of scrimmage on zone blitzes. They get creased against the run at times and struggle to make consistent stops, but they do regularly thwart passing designs.
It’s a tough matchup, though, against Miami, whose run game is actually somewhat inconsistent at moving the chains but very effective at generating space and punishing teams for big plays. Quarterback D’Eriq King has 467 rushing yards and four touchdowns and is a constant threat to break free into open grass. The Hurricanes have also been able to get receiver Mike Harley going; he has 43 catches for 653 yards and five touchdowns and brings some additional explosiveness to the offense. What happens when a boom-or-bust run defense faces a boom-or-bust spread running concept?
- Can Miami match up with North Carolina’s skill talent in offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s RPO offense?
- Will the North Carolina blitzing defense bring down Miami’s offense or get caught by their speed at quarterback and receiver?
- Old rivalries — North Carolina head coach Mack Brown once fired Miami head coach Manny Diaz when they were at Texas together earlier in the decade.
FEI Outright Pick: Miami by 5.5
Wisconsin (pick ’em) at Iowa — 3:30 p.m. (B1GN)
|Overall||Wisconsin (2-2)||Iowa (5-2)|
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||51||36|
|Passing success rate||90||38|
|When Iowa has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||1||33|
|Passing success rate||8||42|
Wisconsin vs. Iowa has been a good rivalry in the era of the Big Ten West division. The game has often determined the division crown and the victor gets the Heartland Trophy, a brass bull, one of college football’s many ridiculous and fantastic trophies and traditions. The Badgers have won seven of the last eight games, albeit generally by pretty narrow margins, and consequently have run the West division during that span of time with four division crowns to Iowa’s one.
Both of these teams are the purest form of Big Ten West squads: they have great play along the lines, typically good tight ends, good linebackers, and then their ceiling in a given year often hinges on the relative quality of the out-of-state skill athletes that have been recruited to the program. In general, you don’t identify either team with explosiveness, but hard-nosed defense and physical rushing attacks. In the case of Wisconsin, it’s typically about the power run game, while Iowa under Kirk Ferentz is a wide zone running team.
This year it’s finally Iowa that has the better featured talent on their roster. The Badgers have circled around to Jalen Berger at running back and he has run for 267 yards at 5.9 yards per carry and a score in some recent action. Iowa has more of a committee, but Tyler Goodson is the main guy with 656 yards at 5.0 yards per carry and six scores while veteran Mekkhi Sargent adds another 381 yards at 6.0 yards per carry and seven touchdowns. The passing game for Wisconsin looked like it might be a difference-maker in their Week 1 beatdown of Illinois, but since then quarterback Graham Mertz has averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns to four interceptions.
Iowa’s defense in 2020 is about as good as it generally is and will be a very stern test for the Badgers. Nebraska made a little headway against them a couple of weeks ago by getting their passing game going when the Hawkeyes were sold out to stop the run. Wisconsin will struggle if the Hawkeyes can play back in base defense and force them to earn their way down the field without breaking big plays with throws over the top or sweeps to the perimeter paired with the power run game. Weakside linebacker Nick Niemann will be key for the Hawkeyes in limiting both.
Neither quarterback stands out in this matchup as both teams are breaking in younger players. Iowa returned a lot of quality receivers from a good 2019 passing attack with Nate Stanley, but Spencer Petras has not made the most of it with 1,358 yards at 6.2 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Iowa’s cadre of skilled receivers have been less of the emphasis and Ferentz has tried to support Petras with the run game instead. It has worked out fairly well, but came up short against Northwestern, which will likely keep the Hawkeyes from winning the West again and advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game. They’ll have to make the most of a chance to beat Wisconsin and bring home the brass bull.
Wisconsin has played terrific run defense this year. Their ability to play some press-man coverage outside with Rachad Wildgoose and Faion Hicks has made it very difficult to deal with their collection of sturdy linemen, linebackers, and safeties in the middle of the field. Iowa may not be able to do much about it with Petras at the helm, but perhaps they can extend some drives with the play-action rollout game.
- Can either of these struggling offenses score against the very sound and strong defenses lined up across from them?
- Does either team have the rushing attack or quarterback to put them over the top in a low-scoring mud fight?
- The presentation of the Heartland Trophy, a brass bull that goes to the annual winner of this contest.
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 0.4
USC (-3) at UCLA — 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||USC (4-0)||UCLA (3-2)|
|When USC has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||32||119|
|Passing success rate||39||22|
|When UCLA has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||49||29|
|Passing success rate||33||63|
This rivalry game has some fun stakes with the Trojans sitting at 3-0 with a chance to play for the Pac-12 championship if they can beat their crosstown rivals to conclude the season and finish 4-0. Of course the Colorado Buffaloes are also 4-0 on the season and the Pac-12 has a potential problem on their hands if the Trojans win this game and advance to the title.
Colorado had both their Arizona State and USC games cancelled due to COVID issues for their opponent. The Buffaloes added San Diego State into the schedule so they could play more games and won that contest. If USC is able to finish 4-0 in Pac-12 play while Colorado finishes 3-0, the Trojans will advance but there will be a brouhaha over the legitimacy of this title — particularly when other teams and conferences have shown some flexibility to move games and schedule additional contests. None of that matters, though, if the Trojans lose to the Bruins as they won’t have an extra league win over Colorado.
The Bruins are 3-2 and enjoying far and away their best season yet under Chip Kelly, who’s in Year 3 now as the head coach. After going 3-9 and 4-8 in his first two seasons, Kelly now has the Bruins with a winning record and a chance to spoil the season for their rival. This year’s Bruins have been able to run the ball more effectively than in years past. Lead back Demetric Felton has 578 rushing yards at 5.2 yards per carry and five touchdowns while understudy Brittain Brown adds 290 at 6.4 yards per carry with three touchdowns. Quarterback Dorian Green-Thompson has been able to protect the ball and has a found a huge boost being able to throw to tight end Greg Dulcich, who has 16 catches for 312 yards and two scores. The Bruins’ two losses this season were higher-scoring games and the offense has kept them in every contest.
USC’s defense has been solid this year under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who was fired from his job at Texas after a calamitous 2019 season. Orlando has not yet generated much pressure with his aggressive blitz schemes, but the Trojans have played solid defense with returning safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao roaming in the middle of the field and cleaning up behind the blitzes. Hufanga in particular leads the team in tackles and has three interceptions hovering around the box as the strong safety while Pola-Mao tends to play on the back end as the deep safety. Juco transfer defensive end Nick Figueroa has been their most disruptive presence with six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Kelly’s strategy will be to try and confuse the Trojans with his spread-option schemes and keep Hufanga out of the picture by sending tight end Dulcich out on routes for Green-Thompson to hit if Hufanga doesn’t honor that threat and noses around the box against the run game.
UCLA will need a good plan for scoring points as their own defense will be up against it trying to stop the USC attack. Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis has picked up where he left off in 2019 with 1,257 passing yards at 7.6 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns to two interceptions. USC has been able to move the ball consistently in the air spreading it around between four different receivers, many of which are big, chains-moving targets that are difficult to match up against. The top guy is Amon-Ra St. Brown, a former five-star recruit from local private school powerhouse Mater Dei high school. St. Brown has 26 catches for 331 and four touchdowns and helps bring some explosiveness and speed to the equation opposite Tyler Vaughns. On the inside, Slovis has 6-foot-5 tight end/slot hybrid Drake London and 6-foot-3, 220-pound former five-star Bru McCoy.
The Bruins defense this season has settled on using sub-packages with multiple defensive backs to try and contain opposing offenses, which is a good start in facing this Trojans offense.
- UCLA tight end Greg Dulcich going up against USC strong safety Talanoa Hufanga.
- Can UCLA match up with all of USC’s dangerous receivers in the Air Raid offense?
- Pac-12 Championship Game implications — there’s a lot of drama around the process but a UCLA win would negate it.
FEI Outright Pick: USC by 1.9
FEI PICKS: WEEK 15
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|North Carolina||3.5||at Miami||Miami||Miami||Miami|
FEI picks against the spread in Week 14: 4-2
FEI picks against the spread this year: 43-32-1
Ian’s picks against the spread in Week 14: 3-3
Ian’s Picks against the spread this year: 41-34-1