By James Ward
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons hung with No. 5 Louisville for three quarters on Saturday before they were blown out in the fourth quarter. Already bowl eligible at 6-4, Wake Forest has Clemson and Boston College left on their schedule, as they try to win at least seven games for the first time since 2008. Head coach Dave Clawson has Wake Forest sitting in the middle of the ACC with the future looking up. Underrated.
Auburn: Since Auburn beat LSU, the feeling in college football surrounding the Tigers was optimistic as pundits gave them a chance to upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl at the end of the season. On Saturday, a mediocre Georgia defense held Auburn to seven points and injuries aside; the Tigers are not ready to contend in the SEC. Overrated.
Alabama: Is it possible that the No. 1 team in the country is underrated? Yes and Clemson, Michigan and Washington proved it. After a September scare to Ole Miss in Oxford, Alabama has dominated conference play. While other top teams play close games (and sometimes lose), Alabama has turned into the Peyton Manning era Colts, where the regular season is just a formality. Underrated.
Ward’s Playoff Rankings:
- Alabama: The Crimson Tide essentially clinched a spot in this year’s College Football Playoff when Auburn lost to Georgia last weekend. Even if the Tigers upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl, the Tide will still play for the SEC Championship and slay the SEC East winner.
- Ohio State: Ohio State loses a regular season game, Urban Meyer uses the loss as a rally cry and the Buckeyes rebound and look better than they did before. Wait, is this 2014 or 2016? After losing to Penn State, Ohio State beat Northwestern, Nebraska and Maryland by a combined score of 148-26.
- Clemson: A loss to unranked Pitt, but still in the College Football Playoff. That’s the situation with the Tigers right now. I agree with the committee’s decision to keep Clemson in the top 4 because they have three wins against teams in the top-25 of the College Football Playoff Poll, as well as a win against Troy, currently ranked No. 25 in the AP poll. However, another slip up for the Tigers would eliminate them from the playoff.
- Michigan: The Wolverines defense puts them among the college football elite, but the real question moving forward is the health of quarterback Wilton Speight. A report came out early in the week that Speight broke his collarbone and will be out for the season, but Jim Harbaugh has insisted that Speight is questionable for Saturday’s game.
First Four Out:
- Louisville: The Cardinals fumbled through three quarters against Wake Forest last weekend, but in the fourth quarter, Louisville demonstrated why they are one of the top teams in college football. Louisville trailed 12-10 through three quarters and still managed to win the game by 32 points because of their soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson and their largely underrated running back Brandon Radcliff.
- Washington: Did Washington peak too early? In 2014, Ohio State lost their second game of the season to Virginia Tech, but the Buckeyes played well when it mattered most and won a national championship. Also in 2014, Mississippi State started 9-0 and then lost three of their last four games to finish 10-3. Is Saturday’s loss to USC a speed bump en route to a playoff bid? Or is it a crack in the road that will derail Washington’s potential trip to Tampa?
- Wisconsin: The Badgers have two losses this season, but they still have the inside track to winning the Big Ten West and a rematch with either Ohio State or Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game. Running back is always a position of strength in Madison and now that Corey Clement is healthy, the Badgers have three running backs capable of carrying the load.
- USC: Too high for the Trojans? Maybe, but USC is playing as well as anyone in the country and quarterback Sam Darnold is the best quarterback in the Pac-12 not named Jake Browning. If USC plays as well as they did on Saturday against Washington, they are capable of beating anyone.
Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know:
- For the first time since Oct. 1985, Nos. 2-4 in the AP Top 25 all lost on the same date. No. 2 Michigan lost to Iowa, No. 3 Clemson lost to Pitt and No. 4 Washington lost to USC. Michigan’s loss must’ve felt familiar to head coach Jim Harbaugh, as he was the quarterback of the No. 2 Michigan that lost to No. 1 Iowa on Oct. 19, 1985.
- This week, ESPN announced a 30 for 30 documentary on the XFL will premiere on Feb. 2. The XFL was a short-lived football league run in part by WWE head honcho, Vince McMahon. I bring this up here because the XFL’s leading passer was current Western Kentucky head coach Jeff Brohm. Brohm has the Hilltoppers in line to play in their second straight Conference USA Championship game.
- On Saturday, Michigan State and Rutgers faced off with both teams looking for their first Big Ten Conference win. Michigan State won 49-0 and the gap widened between the two teams at the bottom of the Big Ten. This season, Rutgers has lost by a combined 185-0 against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.
Northwestern at Minnesota (+1.5): The Gophers are 7-3 and still have an outside chance to win the Big Ten West if they beat Northwestern and Wisconsin in the final two games of the season. Minnesota lost last week to Nebraska, but they actually led the Huskers in the 3rd quarter. The Gophers three Big Ten losses have come against Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska by an average of 5.5 points. It’s also important to note that the Gophers are 5-1 at home this year. On the other side, Northwestern has played well recently, but this is still a Wildcats team that started 1-3 with losses to Western Michigan, Illinois State and Nebraska at home.
This game figures to be decided by both team’s star running backs. Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Minnesota’s Rodney Smith are two of the best backs in the Big Ten, and they rank second and third respectively in rushing yards on the season. In six Big Ten games, the Minnesota defense has only allowed 708 rushing yards, while the Northwestern defense has allowed 984 rushing yards. The Gophers have also only allowed three rushing touchdowns in Big Ten play. In addition, Minnesota kicker Emmit Carpenter is one of the best in the conference. Carpenter is 37 for 37 on extra points and 17 of 19 on field goals this year. This game will be low scoring and it will be ugly, but I’ll take the home underdog in a battle of two evenly matched teams.
Virginia Tech (+1) at Notre Dame: Virginia Tech lost last week to Georgia Tech, while Notre Dame beat Army at the Alamo Bowl. This line is a direct correlation to last week’s results. Virginia Tech is in the driver’s seat to an ACC Championship game appearance, while Notre Dame is fighting to win out and get to six wins. Virginia Tech looked bad against the Yellow Jackets last week, but the triple option does that to teams and I am not worried it will carry over into this week. Remember, this is a Notre Dame team with a 2-2 record against the ACC this year, including a September loss to Duke in South Bend.
Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans has been one of the major surprises in college football this season. Statistically, his numbers are almost identical to Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett. Both quarterbacks have thrown for over 2000 yards, while rushing for over 600 yards. Evans will be a handful for an Irish defense that has given up big plays all year and at this point in the season, Notre Dame shouldn’t be favored against anyone. While a win against Notre Dame won’t clinch the ACC Coastal for the Hokies, Virginia Tech needs a win to avoid a late season losing streak and I think they’ll get one.
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (+10): I will never pick bad teams to cover. I will never pick bad teams to cover. I will never pick bad teams to cover. Ok. One more time and I will argue that Vanderbilt’s defense stops them from being lumped into the “bad teams to cover” rule. Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham is one of the SEC’s best defenders and while Ole Miss freshman quarterback Shea Patterson had an impressive debut against Texas A&M last week, the Commodores defense figures to hit him early and often. Vanderbilt is 1-5 in the SEC, but their biggest margin of defeat was nine points last week against Mizzou, and Mizzou scored a touchdown late in the game.
The Vandy defense is good enough to keep Ole Miss off the scoreboard and while their offense isn’t great, running back Ralph Webb will run with enough success to keep the Rebels offense off the field. Ten points is a lot and while the Commodores are towards the bottom of the SEC once again, it’s impossible to bet on a true freshman quarterback starting his career with two straight SEC road wins. Take Vanderbilt and the points.
Last Week: 1-2
Season Record: 15-18
Ward’s Winners Overall Record: 45-38-0
James Ward is the Associate Producer of the DA Show, as well as the Executive Producer of CBS Sports Radio Weekends and Sunday Morning Football. On Saturdays, you can find him in studio producing Eye on College Football and catching as many games as possible. Check him out on Twitter (@JamesWardCBS).