B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Questions for Week 11
While Week 10 of the 2020 college football season was full of marquee showdowns with obvious national championship implications, Week 11 is more like a minefield which could knock a few teams out of the running.
Several of those mines have already been defused. The original schedule of four AP Top 5 teams playing on the road has been whittled down to just one after Alabama, Ohio State and Texas A&M all had their games canceled or postponed.
No. 2 Notre Dame still has to play a road game, though. So do No. 9 Miami and No. 10 Indiana.
Will any of those title contenders bite the dust? What about the two Pac-12 teams still dreaming of making the College Football Playoff? Or the six ranked Group of Five/Independent teams in action this weekend?
Bleacher Report's college football experts—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Joel Reuter and Brad Shepard—have predictions for each of those questions and more in advance of a huge weekend of collegiate pigskin.
Per usual, the one big prediction we can't make is how many games will actually be played. Ten were canceled or postponed in Week 10, and 10 more have already fallen by the wayside this week. Stay safe and stay smart out there, folks. The rest of the college football season is depending on it.
No. 13 Wisconsin at Sub-.500 Michigan: Who You Got?
This has been such a weird season so far for Wisconsin. The Badgers came out and thrashed Illinois. Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz was darn near perfect in the process, giving them a ton of positive publicity and folks talking about how they may be the biggest challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten.
Then came COVID-19, and they haven’t played in weeks.
Now, who knows what to think of them?
The good news for Wisconsin is it returns to play a Michigan team that is searching for answers. The Wolverines appear to have a developing star at quarterback in Joe Milton. However, they cannot run the football, and the defense has been awful. Throw in all the speculation swirling about Jim Harbaugh and the Chicago Bears this week, and there is way too much going on to feel good about Michigan's chances in this one.
Wisconsin is going to win by at least two scores, something like 34-21.
Two weeks ago, I absolutely could not wait for this game. Mertz looked awesome in a 45-7 blowout of Illinois, and Michigan had emerged as an early College Football Playoff threat in a 49-24 road win over Minnesota.
Then the Wolverines played terribly in back-to-back losses while the Badgers had to cancel two games because of a COVID outbreak. Now it feels more like, "Really? This is the most intriguing game of the week?"
It's still a huge game for both sides, though.
Despite the cancellations, Wisconsin remains on the constantly decreasing list of viable CFP candidates. But lose this game and the Badgers can pretty much kiss that dream goodbye. (Maybe they could still mess around and sneak in with wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and—in the conference championship—Ohio State. If they can't beat this Michigan team, though, do you honestly see that happening?)
At Michigan, it's really starting to feel like Jim Harbaugh is coaching to save his job at this point. I know we're probably in a "Boy Who Cried Wolf" situation after years of us wondering if he might be on the hot seat, but a 1-3 start without even having played Ohio State or Penn State might be a bridge too far.
And I've got Wisconsin winning 31-24. The Badgers might be a little rusty, but that's easier to shake off than whatever the heck is going on with Michigan lately.
Do No. 10 Indiana and No. 23 Northwestern Both Improve to 4-0?
I picked Michigan to beat Indiana last week and the Hoosiers walked away with a convincing 38-21 victory over the Wolverines. I'm not going to make that mistake again. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns in a breakout game in that win, but it's the running game that will propel the Hoosiers to victory on Saturday.
The Michigan State defense is allowing 161.3 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry, and they have allowed a staggering 11 rushing touchdowns in three games. Stevie Scott has been a workhorse out of the backfield for Indiana, carrying the ball at least 20 times in each game. Saturday should be where he finally breaks through with a 100-yard game.
I'm less optimistic about Northwestern in a tough road matchup against Purdue, but I think the Wildcats will squeeze out a close victory. Boilermakers quarterback Aidan O'Connell threw for 371 yards while completing 29-of-35 pass attempts against Illinois two weeks ago, but now he squares off against a Northwestern secondary that has piled up eight interceptions in three games.
I think both teams will win by fewer than 14 points, but they will continue on with their undefeated seasons.
Indiana just had an emotional win over Michigan, snapping a 24-game losing streak against the Wolverines and jumping into the AP Top 10 for the first time in more than 50 years. And now the Hoosiers are inevitably starting to peek ahead to next Saturday's colossal showdown with Ohio State.
That means this game at Michigan State has "Trap!" written all over it.
Yes, the Spartans just had their butts handed to them on a platter in a 49-7 loss to Iowa, and they have a negative-seven turnover margin on the season. But this is uncharted territory for Indiana.
A team like Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State would have no problem circling the wagons for this "minor" game sandwiched directly between two major ones, because those annual contenders are accustomed to having a target on their back and needing to bring their "A" game every week. Indiana is not, and I think Michigan State pulls off the upset by an identical score of its win over Michigan two weeks ago: 27-24.
Northwestern is in a similar boat with a big game coming up against Wisconsin next weekend. However, I have more faith in a Wildcats defense that is much better than Indiana's. It also helps that Pat Fitzgerald has been "The Hunted" in the past, boasting three 10-win seasons in the last decade. They should be ready for a road win over Purdue.
The Highest-Ranked Team to Lose in Week 11 Will Be...?
No. 2 Notre Dame was a tempting pick. It's the ultimate letdown spot at Boston College a week removed from conquering Clemson. However, I think the Irish will find a way to win and stay unbeaten.
Instead, I’m going to go with No. 9 Miami. The Hurricanes are much improved over the past couple of years and a great deal of fun with D'Eriq King playing quarterback. Seriously, King is electric. But picking against him is only business.
This is a great situation for Virginia Tech. Coming off a weird loss to Liberty, I like the Hokies to bounce back. Offensively, I think Virginia Tech should be able to move the ball with ease. And while Miami should score points as well (the over looks nice), Virginia Tech will have an advantage at home.
Since facing Clemson, the Hurricanes just haven’t been the same. We saw that last Friday against North Carolina State, and I expect we will see it again in Blacksburg. There will be plenty of points, the game will take roughly seven hours, but it’ll be fun football.
Virginia Tech 41, Miami 35.
You know, it's possible that no ranked team will lose, since there are no head-to-head matchups this week. (With the rate at which games are getting postponed, I suppose it's also possible that no ranked teams will even play.)
I've already picked No. 10 Indiana to lose at Michigan State, though, and I suspect that will be the most noteworthy upset of the week.
No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Clemson, No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 8 BYU are all off this weekend. No. 2 Notre Dame should be able to handle its road game against Boston College. No. 7 Cincinnati (versus East Carolina) should cruise to victory. And while I love me some Arkansas this year, I can't see the Razorbacks winning at No. 6 Florida.
The only tough call is No. 9 Miami at Virginia Tech, as each of those teams has had more than its fair share of duds on defense this season. I trust the 'Canes to win a close one.
Will No. 11 Oregon, No. 20 USC Keep Undefeated Pac-12 Championship Dream Alive?
Short answer: Yes.
Defending Pac-12 champion Oregon looked anything but sharp in a season-opening 35-14 win over Stanford, but that game played out the way many will this season, because the Ducks are simply more talented than everyone on their schedule. Even when they aren’t at their best, they are going to win more often than not.
This weekend will be no different.
Washington State has a good-looking young playmaker at quarterback in Jayden De Laura who can win games with both his arm and his feet, but the Cougars are going to see a major uptick in competition going from the opener against Oregon State to this week’s game against Oregon. The game will not be all that competitive.
For USC, it’s going to be about coming down from that high of the comeback win over Arizona State to play Arizona. On paper, there's little to suggest the Wildcats will be able to keep this close. But after the opener with Utah was canceled, this is the first time we will get to see them play, so who knows?
It’s possible Grant Gunnell is going to come out flinging darts or that the defense has taken a major leap forward since last year. But don’t count on it. The Trojans will win big.
Prior to Washington State's win at Oregon State, I think most people expected Wazzu and Arizona to be the two worst teams in the Pac-12 during this abridged season. So, yes, I fully expect both Oregon and USC to beat those teams this weekend, even though the favorites are both playing on the road.
In particular, USC is going to lay the smack down on Arizona.
The Trojans were all out of sorts in the first 55 minutes of their opener against Arizona State, but I expect them to bounce back from that "Survive and Advance" affair with a statement win over the Wildcats—who they have beaten by double digits in three of the last four years.
USC knows it can't just eke out wins in a mediocre conference and expect to reach the College Football Playoff. At No. 20 in the AP poll, the Trojans have a lot of ground to make up to get into the Top Four, and blowing out teams like Arizona is the only way to make that climb.
Do Any of the Ranked Group of Five / Independent Teams Take an L in Week 11?
Although it might be a nerve-wracking weekend for Louisiana and SMU, both should survive while the others four teams in question pick up relatively painless wins.
My primary concern with Louisiana is an offense that regularly slows in the red zone. The Ragin' Cajuns are 6-1, and that's great! But their red-zone touchdown rate is just 56.7 percent. It's a big reason they've played five one-possession games instead of winning more comfortably. Fortunately for them, though, South Alabama is middle of the pack or worse in most defensive categories.
SMU hosts Tulsa, which escaped East Carolina with a controversial win, yet competed with Oklahoma State and toppled UCF on the road. This is a tough matchup for SMU because Tulsa has a formidable run defense and incredible length and talent in the secondary. Opponents are averaging just 6.3 yards per pass attempt on the Golden Hurricane this season.
Tulsa's offense makes too many mistakes for me to pick the upset, but I'm expecting a close finish.
Let's put these six games into three buckets.
Bucket No. 1 is "Ranked Team Wins By At Least Two Touchdowns," and it is the fullest bucket. As previously stated, I expect No. 7 Cincinnati to destroy East Carolina. (Though it does bear mentioning that ECU inexplicably put up 638 yards and 43 points in nearly upsetting the Bearcats last year.) I also expect No. 22 Liberty to pummel Western Carolina, which lost its two games against FBS opponents by a combined score of 107-3 last year. And No. 16 Marshall should have no problem blowing out Middle Tennessee.
Bucket No. 2 is "Ranked Team Should Win, But It Might Be Close." I've got the two Sun Belt games in this bucket: No. 15 Coastal Carolina at Troy and No. 25 Louisiana vs. South Alabama. Troy has lost two of its last three games and was obliterated by BYU (48-7) earlier this season. And against competent opponents, South Alabama has both allowed a ton of rushing yards and struggled to establish any rhythm of its own on offense. CCU and ULL should prevail, but the Ragin' Cajuns seem to love playing close games, and there's no guarantee the Chanticleers will cruise to victory on the road against an opponent with a winning record.
And Bucket No. 3 is "Give Me the Upset, Although It's Not Actually An Upset If You Ask Vegas." That's where No. 19 SMU at Tulsa lands. Poor Tulsa hasn't been able to get into any sort of rhythm this season with games getting postponed left and right, but that's a good squad. The Golden Hurricane already won a road game against UCF, so we know that secondary can hold its own against a potent passing attack. And the Mustangs defense has not been good, allowing at least 23 points in all seven games played against FBS opponents. I've got Tulsa winning 30-27.
Which Player Does the Most to Help His Heisman Case This Weekend?
Before I make my selection, let's make sure we're clear about who is not playing this weekend due to byes, postponements or cancellations: Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, Travis Etienne and Zach Wilson.
Phew. It's a lot.
So the answer, with those names unavailable, is pretty simple: Kyle Trask.
Florida's quarterback has been a statistical machine in 2020, and there's no reason to believe that won't continue against Arkansas.
While Trask might not garner the same hype as others who are off this week, his numbers feel Heisman-worthy. Coming off a 474-yard performance against Georgia, Trask has thrown for 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions in five games. He has yet to throw fewer than four touchdown passes in a game, putting up Joe Burrow-esque numbers.
In a week that is light on excitement, Trask is poised to shine. Even though the status of tight end Kyle Pitts (concussion) remains in question, Trask will perform with plenty of other weapons to utilize.
My stat line prediction: 27-of-41, 377 yards, five touchdowns. Just another day at the office.
As Adam noted, most of the Heisman candidates aren't playing.
But this is now-or-never time for Notre Dame's Ian Book.
Book's numbers—259.1 total yards, 1.9 total touchdowns per game—are a joke compared to the other Heisman candidates, but he got a lot of new national attention in leading the undefeated Fighting Irish to a come-from-behind victory over Clemson. If he's able to go on the road and somewhat light up a respectable Boston College defense, that could really get the momentum rolling in his favor.
We know he can throw the ball. Book had 34 passing touchdowns last season. Notre Dame has simply been more committed to its potent ground game this year. With Michael Mayer and Javon McKinley emerging as major receiving threats over the past three weeks, though, perhaps the Fighting Irish will begin taking to the air a bit more often.
Over/Under 699.5 Combined Passing/Rushing Yards for D'Eriq King, Hendon Hooker?
D'Eriq King is averaging 319 combined yards per game on the year, and Hendon Hooker has piled up 305 total yards on average during the past four games—though VT only has a 2-2 record during that stretch.
The Hurricanes tallied 620 yards in their 44-41 victory over NC State last weekend with King throwing for 430 and rushing for 105 more, so it's not out of the question that King could get 75 percent of the way to 700 yards on his own.
The Hokies had 418 yards in last week's loss to Liberty. Hooker accounted for 217 passing yards and 156 rushing yards. If Virginia Tech winds up playing from behind, as will likely be the case, he could be airing it out throughout the second half.
Look for them to eclipse that 699.5 threshold and perhaps even push toward 799.5 if things stay competitive.
Using the numbers Joel noted above, that puts the "against average defenses" expected total at 624.1 combined yards.
However, both of these defenses have struggled to contain competent quarterbacks.
The Cardinals didn't win either game, but Louisville's Malik Cunningham had at least 300 passing yards and three touchdowns against both Miami and Virginia Tech. Liberty's Malik Willis just had 200-plus passing yards and 100-plus rushing yards against the Hokies. NC State—with its backup quarterback—almost reached 300 passing yards in the process of scoring 41 points against Miami last week.
Moreover, both quarterbacks enter this game fresh off a gem.
So, yeah, I'm all about the over here. Even if the line was set at 799.5 yards, I'd be tempted to take the over.
Which Matchup Between Unranked Teams Will Be Most Entertaining?
I'm most interested in Wake Forest's trip to North Carolina.
While the Tar Heels have faded on the national scene because of two losses, they're still a 5-2 team scoring 40.9 points per game with two running backs, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, averaging 100-plus yards per game. Sam Howell hasn't matched his best-case scenario as a Heisman Trophy contender, but the sophomore has an outstanding 10.3 yards per pass attempt. North Carolina is flat-out fun to watch.
This is an interesting test for the Heels, who need to navigate a suddenly impressive Wake Forest defense. The unit has forced three-plus turnovers in four straight games—all wins—and the Demon Deacons own a ridiculously good plus-14 turnover margin in six games.
Can they somehow continue to sustain that pace? I'm saying no in a UNC victory, but I'll be watching during the noon window.
Note that the terminology we're using here is "most entertaining." It's not "most important" or "best football."
And, I must say, the dumpster fire of 0-3 Penn State at 0-2 Nebraska is going to be all sorts of entertaining.
One of these teams opened the season in the AP Top 10 with aspirations of playing for a national championship. The other was so gung-ho about playing football in 2020 that it stomped its feet and threatened to leave the Big Ten when the league decided that maybe football during a pandemic wasn't the best idea. And now one of them is going to be winless at the midpoint of the Big Ten's eight-game season.
If it's Penn State falling to 0-4, I have to wonder if the fans would completely turn on James Franklin.
The Nittany Lions have been hemorrhaging players to the transfer portal over the past few years. I mean, they lost 33 players in the past two years, including 5-star recruits Justin Shorter and Ricky Slade. And the only guy they added via transfer during those two years was current punter Jordan Stout. Meanwhile, recruiting is starting to slip. Penn State had the No. 6 class in 2018, the No. 12 class in 2019 and the No. 15 class in 2020, and it hasn't signed any of the top 10 recruits from Pennsylvania in the 2021 class.
Maybe it's just a bad start to a weird year and PSU will bounce back fine next season. Or maybe this is the beginning of the end, because it's kind of tough to keep the status quo when you're not recruiting as well and you're losing a bunch of the guys that you do successfully recruit.
Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite.