USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder breaks down the five matchups to watch.
USA TODAY Sports
As the weekend known for feasts moves along, Saturday brings a second consecutive day with a compelling college football menu.
One noted rivalry game stands out above the rest — and we’re pretty sure you can guess which one that is — but several others will affect the national picture as well.
We’ll stipulate that a number of inter-conference state rivalry match-ups have their particular points of interest. Florida and Florida State will be looking to enhance their cases for a major bowl invitation, South Carolina has a chance to put a serious damper on Clemson’s résumé before the Tigers play for the ACC title, and Louisville QB Lamar Jackson could use a big final outing against Kentucky to re-establish control of the Heisman race.
All these are worth keeping an eye on, to be sure. But here are the Saturday contests that will have the most impact on the playoff hunt.
No. 4 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State
Saturday, noon ET, ABC | Pregame.com odds: Ohio State by 6½
Yep, this is the big one. The loser will be out of the mix altogether. The winner isn’t necessarily guaranteed a place among the top four, but a Michigan win would provide the Wolverines’ ticket to the Big Ten title game. A Buckeyes’ victory, as has been well-documented, could complicate matters.
The Buckeyes would appear to be in better shape in terms of available personnel, though last week’s close call against Michigan State reintroduced some misgivings in the overall effectiveness of the offense. QB J.T. Barrett does generally make the key plays when he needs them, but the operation runs more smoothly when all-purpose back Curtis Samuels touches the ball. The Wolverines are well aware of this as well, of course, so he can expect some additional attention from LBs Ben Gedeon and Jabrill Peppers.
Michigan’s passing attack looked far less formidable when QB John O’Korn was pressed into service for the injured Wilton Speight. Buckeyes’ S Malik Hooker and Co. aren’t easy to throw against anyway, so Michigan is going to need big contributions from RBs De’Veon Smith and Chris Evans. The OSU defense must also be alert to the guest appearances by Peppers in the Wolverines’ backfield.
No. 20 Utah at No. 9 Colorado
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox | Pregame.com odds: Colorado by 10
The Buffaloes are one step away from their improbable Pac-12 South title. The Utes can only spoil the party in Boulder now, but they can count on plenty of positive vibes being sent their way from the Los Angeles area as a CU loss would hand the division to USC.
Buffs’ QB Sefo Liufau delivered the game of the season last week in the win against Washington State. He might have to do it again; the Utes have been more sound on the defensive side, last week’s lapses against Oregon notwithstanding. Liufau’s biggest concern figures to be Utah DE Hunter Dimick, but another solid outing from RB Phillip Lindsay would help him avoid frequent encounters. Utes’ QB Troy Williams can struggle with accuracy at times, and he might have more trouble if Buffs’ LB Jimmie Gilbert is permitted too much access to the backfield.
Michigan State at No. 8 Penn State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN | Pregame.com odds: Penn State by 12½
Around the time this clash in State College kicks off, matters in Columbus will be just about settled and the Nittany Lions will have an idea whether they are still playing for the Big Ten East championship. Their followers will be rooting hard for the Buckeyes during the pregame period, but OSU’s faithful will be pulling just as hard for the Spartans if their team should prevail in the earlier tilt.
The inspired performance of the Spartans’ defense a week ago, particularly with senior LB Riley Bullough heathy again, is the biggest reason to suspect PSU could be in for a battle. The Nittany Lions’ offensive line has been somewhat banged up, so they’d like to establish a rhythm quickly to allow RB Saquon Barkley and QB Trace McSorley to operate. The Spartans’ passing game has been spotty at best all season, so their best chance to move the ball with regularity will be in the hands of RB LJ Scott.
Minnesota at No. 6 Wisconsin
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN | Pregame.com odds: Wisconsin by 15
Whether or not the Badgers need this win to clinch the Big Ten West, they know for sure that they need it to maintain any chance to reach the playoff. The Golden Gophers can’t win the league but would love to bring home Paul Bunyan’s Ax to cap off a successful campaign.
As most contests involving the Badgers have been, this is likely to be low-scoring and hard-hitting. Minnesota is comfortable in that type of old-school affair as well, though Wisconsin usually has more weapons to make plays in the clutch. Golden Gophers’ LB Jonathan Celestin will lead the effort to contain Badgers’ RB Corey Clement, but he must also beware of TE Troy Fumagalli taking underneath passes. Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner isn’t always the most accurate passer but is coming off a solid outing in a win against Northwestern. Badgers’ DBs D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso, however, will be ready to pounce on any errant tosses.
No. 16 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS | Pregame.com odds: Alabama by 17
OK, really this one won’t really affect the playoff picture at all. The Crimson Tide can withstand a loss here and still make the foursome with ease as long as they handle Florida in the SEC finale next week. The Tigers, however, won’t lack for motivation as they try to ruin Alabama’s perfect record and enhance their own case for a Sugar Bowl invitation.
Nick Saban won’t say so, of course, but the Tide can be forgiven for going through the motions a bit against Chattanooga last week. That will not be the case in the Iron Bowl as both lines will be in a lather from the opening snap. Auburn hopes to have both RB Kamryn Pettway and QB Sean White available, and they’ll be needed to give the Tigers any chance to mount anything against the Tide’s star-laden defensive front. On the other side, Auburn will need a supreme effort from DE Carl Lawson to disrupt Alabama QB Jalen Hurts.
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