By: James Ward
Miami Hurricances: Mark Richt has turned around Miami in just his second year in charge, but in order for the U to be “back”, they need to win a national championship. Next step: Can Miami beat Clemson in the ACC Championship? Underrated.
Lamar Jackson: In a year where the Heisman Trophy winner isn’t immediately apparent in mid-November, the 2016 winner is close to replicating last year’s success. Last weekend, Jackson became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. If Baker Mayfield falters, can Jackson get back in the mix? Underrated.
Pac-12: The conference’s top ranked team in this week’s College Football Playoff comes in at No. 11 and with Washington’s loss to Stanford, the Pac-12’s path to the playoff is murky at best. Overrated.
Ward’s Playoff Rankings:
1. Alabama: I still think the injuries on defense could hurt the Crimson Tide against stronger opponents, especially after watching Mississippi State run for almost 200 yards and three touchdowns last weekend. Nick Saban will have to work his magic on defense, but the offense is improving each week.
2. Miami: The Hurricanes appear to be playing their best football when it matters most. If you read this column last week, you know I wasn’t totally buying Miami, but their victory against Notre Dame was impressive.
3. Oklahoma: The loss to Iowa State is less stunning now that the Cyclones have played the rest of the Big 12 close. Baker Mayfield’s star status definitely helps the Sooners, but they still need to win the new Big 12 Championship game for a spot in the Playoff.
4. Wisconsin: Undefeated in the Big Ten and while the Badgers have plenty of haters, at the moment, they deserve to be among the top-4 teams. A Big Ten Championship against Ohio State is likely, but hopefully for Badgers fans, it goes better than the 2014 game.
5. Clemson: The Tigers are creeping into my top-4, but unlike the committee, I’m still punishing Clemson for losing to Syracuse earlier in the season. If the Tigers beat Miami in the ACC Championship, they’ll be in the College Football Playoff for the third straight year.
6. Ohio State: Last week’s stomping of Michigan State was enough for the Buckeyes to get back in the fold – sort of, but they need a lot of help to get into the playoff as a two-loss team.
Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know:
1. Before Georgia lost to Auburn last weekend, the No. 1 team in College Football Playoff ranking history had lost just once in the regular season. In 2014, Mississippi State lost to Alabama, knocking the Bulldogs out of the top spot. Both Clemson in 2015 and Alabama in 2016 were the top seeds in each ranking during the season.
2. The Heisman Trophy is won in November and not September, something we seem to forget every season. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is now No. 35 in the country in rushing yards after three straight disappointing games.
3. Using AP Poll Rankings, No. 2 Georgia and No. 3 Notre Dame both lost on Saturday, and it looked like No. 1 Alabama might lose as well. In the history of the AP Poll, the only time the top 3 teams all lost on the same day was Jan. 1, 1966.
UCF at Temple (+14): UCF is still undefeated, but after starting the season 6-0 against the spread, they have now lost three straight against the number. Temple has won their last two games (and covered) behind a massively improved passing attack with new starting quarterback Frank Nutile. The Knights are looking to go to 10-0 and this could definitely be a trap game as they face USF next week, another team vying for a New Year’s Bowl bid.
The UCF defense struggled against SMU’s passing attack, another game where they were favored by double digits and didn’t cover the number. Temple will score in this game. On the other side, the Owls defense isn’t as strong as in previous seasons, but they have limited opponents to just 25 points a game over the last two weeks. First year Temple head coach Geoff Collins has his team improving every game and the Owls are in a good position heading into Saturday. UCF head coach Scott Frost is now headlining the rumor mill about a potential off-season coaching position. This is a lot of points to cover for a potentially distracted UCF team on the road against a much-improved Temple team. Pick: Temple (+14)
Texas at West Virginia (-3.5): A noon kick in Morgantown for a Texas team that is 1-4 against teams above .500 this year, and while the Longhorns have been great against the spread, this number looks low. The Mountaineers are 2-1 at home against the spread in Big 12 play, with their only loss against the number coming versus an Oklahoma State team that hung 50 points on a beat up West Virginia defense. Tom Herman’s teams are great at covering, but the 3.5-point line looks like a number made with Herman’s propensity to cover in mind.
Texas star defensive back Holton Hill has been suspended for the rest of the season and it will hurt the Longhorns defense, especially against a Mountaineers offense that can score points on anyone. Quarterback Will Grier is one of the best quarterbacks in the country – he’s third in the nation in yards and second in touchdown passes. While Grier, has thrown 12 interceptions, four of them were in the Oklahoma State game. West Virginia has three wide receivers over 850 yards on the season and the injuries and suspensions to the Texas secondary will have a massive impact on this game. The Mountaineers will take control of this game early. Pick: WVU (-3.5)
Missouri (-9.5) at Vanderbilt: This line would’ve been scary in September, but the Tigers offense is playing as well as any team in the country. Quarterback Drew Lock has thrown 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the last four games, including drubbings of Florida and Tennessee in recent weeks. The Tigers ground game has really picked in up, including a 433-yard performance last week against Tennessee. While Vanderbilt was playing well earlier in the season (some people even thought they’d give Alabama a running – they lost 59-0), they’re 0-6 in the SEC with an average margin of defeat of 26 points. Last week, Kentucky ran for five touchdowns against the Commodores and this Missouri offense is capable of much more.
At the end of the season, I like to pick teams that are improving each week and playing for something. The Tigers will become bowl eligible with a win against Vanderbilt and after starting 1-5, reaching a bowl game would be a minor miracle. Coach Barry Odom fired his defensive coordinator after the second week of the season and the defense has steadily improved, allowing just 16.5 points per game in their four game winning streak. This is a tough matchup for Vanderbilt, now that Mizzou is playing well on both sides of the ball. The Tigers should win this game easily. Pick: Mizzou (-9.5)
BONUS PICK: Michigan at Wisconsin (-7.5): The Wolverines offense has been rejuvenated under new quarterback Brandon Peters, BUT they’ve played Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland. This Badgers defense will shut down Michigan’s rushing attack, forcing Peters to throw the ball, which isn’t a good thing for Jim Harbaugh’s team. Michigan will have issues scoring against Wisconsin and as long as quarterback Alex Hornibrook doesn’t turn it over, the Badgers should roll the Wolverines. Also of note, Wisconsin knows they need style points and while Michigan is in the middle of a disappointing season, a blowout against the Wolverines could help their case for the College Football Playoff. Pick: Wisconsin (-7.5)
Last Week: 1-2
Season Record: 19-15
Ward’s Winners Overall Record: 77-62-0
James Ward is 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).