B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Questions for Week 13
It's the first weekend after the first unveiling of College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings, which means it's time to begin the sprint to the finish line.
Only three weeks remain until conference championship weekend, so time is running out to dethrone Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State as the presumed CFP quartet. But both Alabama and Notre Dame face a ranked opponent this week. A major shakeup could be on its way.
Who will win the Iron Bowl and the big Notre Dame-North Carolina game?
Could Clemson be in some trouble in a rematch from four years ago?
How will the Heisman front-runners look 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 what should be another stellar weekend of collegiate pigskin.
What Is Going to Happen in This Year's Installment of the Iron Bowl?
The wrinkle, of course, is that Alabama will be without head coach Nick Saban after a positive COVID-19 test. (Before we dive into football #analysis, we here at Bleacher Report hope that Saban is healthy and back on the sideline soon.)
It's hard to know what kind of impact this will have. It seems reasonable to believe the absence of the best coach in the history of the sport would be sizable. And yet, when it comes to how this team operates—and specifically the way this offense operates—it seems likely that Alabama should be its usual dominant self.
It is a luxury to have offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as a fill-in. Beyond being able to power one of the nation's most potent attacks, Sarkisian is not new to the job. (In fact, we're probably an offseason or two away from him being a head coach in a good situation once again.)
I just don't think Auburn has the players or the talent to counter what Alabama is about to throw at it. To be clear, not many do. And while the Tigers have rebounded since early struggles, Alabama is a different beast entirely.
Alabama wins big.
Six weeks ago, the possibility of Nick Saban not coaching against Georgia because of a positive COVID-19 test was a legitimate game-changer. With all due respect to Steve Sarkisian, the thought of anyone other than Saban making halftime/in-game adjustments isn't as intimidating. And I can't imagine Alabama would have finished that game on a 24-0 run without Saban.
This time around, it wasn't a false positive. Saban is definitely out for this game. But halftime adjustments won't be as crucial because Auburn isn't as good as Georgia.
I'm not saying the Tigers are a bad team, and there's no denying they have improved considerably since that 27-6 loss to Georgia on Oct. 3. However, while they have improved from OK to "might get an invite to a New Year's Six bowl" good, Alabama has gone from great to "clear favorite to win the national championship."
That once atrocious Crimson Tide D has been basically impenetrable as of late, holding the competition to 20 total points over its last 14 quarters. There's just no way Bo Nix is going to carve up Alabama's defense as well as Mac Jones is going to torch Auburn's.
I would love it if this is a competitive game, but I don't think it will be. Alabama 42, Auburn 23.
Will No. 2 Notre Dame Still Be Undefeated After Facing North Carolina?
Yes, because Notre Dame is the real deal. I downplayed the Fighting Irish the entire first half of the season, but playing without Trevor Lawrence is not the reason Clemson lost to them. The Tigers lost that game because this is a good football team and because quarterback Ian Book wills his team to win. His veteran savvy makes him the most underrated player in college football. Stats don't tell the whole story with him.
The Irish also have a quality defense, and they'll need it against the Tar Heels, who can put up points with the best of them.
The problem for UNC coach Mack Brown is they can't stop anybody. The Heels are atrocious defensively, and they have shown no signs of getting better. That means Book and Co. are going to have plenty of ease scoring points.
Notre Dame struggled early in the season to find offensive weapons. As the season has matured, so have the playmakers on that side of the ball. That will be the difference in a win over UNC.
It may be close for a while, but the Irish will pull away in the second half and win easily. Brown's team simply isn't ready to compete on this level yet.
Notre Dame will get the win.
But it won't come easily.
I've mentioned this previously in the week, but it's going to be weird watching Notre Dame play on a Friday. Excluding bowl games, that hasn't happened since Nov. 27, 1981. Now, compared to playing in the ACC during a global pandemic, kicking off on a different day of the week shouldn't be much of a curveball. But if it throws the Fighting Irish off at all, North Carolina has more than enough offense to pounce.
The Tar Heels have averaged 6.75 offensive touchdowns over their past four games. And even though Notre Dame has a considerably better defense than most of the ACC, it's hard to imagine the Fighting Irish completely shutting down this freight train—especially considering ND allowed 40 and 31 points in its two most recent games.
It's really just a question of whether Notre Dame's offense can keep pace, and I believe it will. Ian Book has been rock-solid at QB lately, and Kyren Williams has been the leader of a potent rushing attack. In a "survive and advance" sort of road game, Notre Dame will do just that in a 38-35 victory.
No. 13 Iowa State or No. 17 Texas in the Pivotal Big 12 Clash?
The Cyclones absolutely demolished Kansas State last week, outgaining the Wildcats by a 539-149 margin in total yardage while tossing a 45-0 shutout at a team that spent three weeks in the AP Poll earlier this year. Talk about momentum.
Breece Hall leads the nation with 1,169 rushing yards, and he's done it at 6.6 yards per carry. He is a clear difference-maker who is about to face a Texas defense that has limited opponents to 118.6 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.
The Longhorns held Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard to 72 yards on 25 carries two weeks ago and they have allowed just two 100-yard rushers on the year. On the other side, Iowa State is allowing just 105.8 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry, so this one could come down to quarterback play.
Brock Purdy probably has the higher future ceiling as an NFL prospect, but Sam Ehlinger is the more consistent and experienced option under center in this game. He'll lead the Longhorns to victory in one of the biggest games of what feels like a 10-year collegiate career.
I'll say this finishes Texas 31, Iowa State 27.
Is it possible the Big 12 still has a College Football Playoff pulse? If No. 11 Oklahoma and No. 13 Iowa State both win out to force a rematch in the Big 12 championship, it might be a No. 7 vs. No. 9 sort of game with feasible playoff implications.
(For the record, I will lose my voice from screaming in anger if a Big 12 team gets the No. 4 seed over undefeated Cincinnati. But let me try to play up the importance of this game.)
For that scenario to come to fruition, though, Iowa State needs to win this road game against Texas, and I don't see that happening.
Just like Joel, I've got my eyes focused on the Breece Hall vs. Texas front-seven battle. I can't imagine the Longhorns are going to completely bottle up the nation's leading rusher, but if they can hold him to something like 95 yards and one score as opposed to his usual allotment of 150 yards and two touchdowns, that should do the trick, considering Texas is averaging north of 40 points per game on the year.
It's going to be a great game, though, and I'm glad we'll all be watching it together on Friday afternoon—unless you only have one screen and really want to watch Massachusetts vs. Liberty or Nebraska vs. Iowa for some reason.
Which of the 4 Heisman Favorites Has the Best Week?
Note: The four favorites are Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Trask, not necessarily in that order.
Most of these quarterbacks are facing decent pass defenses this week. But not Justin Fields, so the nod here is to him and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Kyle Trask should light up Kentucky, but the Wildcats have some solid pieces on the back end of that defense. Pittsburgh has been solid, too, so Trevor Lawrence may have a tough time shaking off a month's worth of rust. Mac Jones plays Auburn, and who knows what to ever predict in that wacky rivalry?
Last week against a better-than-expected Indiana team, Fields tossed three interceptions in a very un-Heisman-like performance. This week, he gets to face the Illinois Fighting Illini, who may have gained a bit of false hope in last week's domination against a bad Nebraska team.
The Illini are just 84th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, and now they have to face their stiffest test yet—an elite quarterback who has a chip on his shoulder after the turnovers a week ago. He's going to have a massive day, and the Buckeyes will roll.
The best statistical day will belong to Fields. He has something to prove after a woeful three-interception performance in a close call against Indiana, and Illinois is the perfect opponent for him to eviscerate. The Illini secondary has been serviceable in recent weeks against Minnesota, Nebraska and Rutgers, but don't forget this is the team that let Graham Mertz throw for five touchdowns with just one incompletion (on a dropped pass, no less) in his first career start. I could see Fields racking up six touchdowns in this one.
But the player who does the most to help his Heisman case will be Jones.
Destroying Illinois is the expectation for Fields. He can improve his year-to-date numbers, but beating up on that opponent isn't going to wow the Heisman voters.
Jones torching a respectable defense in the marquee game of the week, though?
Oh yeah. The Heisman voters will take note of that.
With any luck for Jones, this will be the week that he surges ahead of teammates Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith—perhaps by throwing three touchdown passes to some combination of John Metchie III, Slade Bolden and Miller Forristall.
Will There Be a Repeat from 2016 of 5-4 Pitt Upsetting CFP Hopeful Clemson?
No matter how you feel about Dabo Swinney and his commentary on the postponement of the Florida State game, he seems pretty annoyed this week. Right or wrong, that's the feeling.
Clemson hasn't played since losing to Notre Dame, and Trevor Lawrence's absence is two weeks longer. Additionally, the Tigers cannot afford a second loss with regard to either the ACC standings or College Football Playoff picture.
Translation: This should be a very motivated Clemson roster that is trying to make a statement.
Motivation alone is not a winner. Considering the strength of Pitt's defensive line, this is a reasonable challenge for the Tigers. But they can lean on Lawrence to distribute the ball quickly and minimize the effectiveness of a disruptive Pitt front.
Though there was no justifiable case for doing it, I was really hoping the CFP selection committee would put Clemson at No. 2 in Tuesday's rankings in order to perfectly reset the scene of Pittsburgh's shocking road win from four years ago.
But, no, I don't see a repeat happening.
Things might look interesting early. Clemson hasn't played since Nov. 7. Trevor Lawrence hasn't played since Oct. 24. Some degree of rust would be understandable.
Once the Tigers shake that off, though, they should run away with this game. Pitt doesn't have the offensive firepower to make them pay for a slow start.
That might seem like an ill-informed remark since Pitt has scored 88 points in its last two games. However, one of those was against Virginia Tech's dumpster fire of a defense, and the Panthers only had one scoring drive of 50 or more yards in the 41-point game against Florida State.
Even though Clemson's defense has had some iffy stretches this season, it's plenty good enough to keep Pitt from scoring 30 points. And even if we assume a slow start, I find it hard to believe the Panthers can keep Clemson from eclipsing 30. I've got Clemson winning 41-24.
Which Game Between Unranked Teams Will Be Most Entertaining?
Is it weird if one of the games I'm most excited for in the middle of rivalry week is Kent State at Buffalo?
After five straight seasons of three or fewer wins, the Golden Flashes finally turned a corner with a 7-6 finish last year behind a stellar campaign from quarterback Dustin Crum. Back for his senior season, Crum has completed 75.3 percent of his passes for 838 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception during the team's 3-0 start. He also tacked on 164 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.
Amid those strong numbers, Kent State has scored 131 points the last two weeks.
From a standout MAC quarterback to arguably the best offensive player in the conference, Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson rushed for a staggering 301 yards on 31 carries with four touchdowns against Bowling Green in their last game. He had 1,799 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore and is working to build his draft stock in 2020.
The Bulls have outscored opponents 133-57 during their 3-0 start, picking up a handful of votes in the most recent AP Poll.
This one could be a race to 60 points and likely the best MAC game of the year.
In my eyes, this one's a toss-up between Kent State at Buffalo and San Jose State at Boise State. Since Joel already covered the former, I'll go with the latter.
Lost in the shuffle of teams like BYU, Indiana and Northwestern surprisingly ranking in the Top 15, I would argue that the most unexpected success story of the 2020 season is San Jose State.
After losing (among others) the starting quarterback, top running back and leading tackler from a team that finished below .500 for a sixth consecutive season, no one was expecting much from the Spartans. The best-case scenario looked like a 3-5 record. Yet, here they are at 4-0 with all four wins coming by double digits.
Now, they will attempt to do what few have been able to do in the past two decades: win a road game on the blue turf in Boise.
Heck, beating Boise in any venue would be new history for SJSU. The Spartans are 0-13 all-time in this series, and most of those games weren't even competitive. But they have a solid defense and a quarterback (Nick Starkel) who started games for both Texas A&M and Arkansas over the past three years. They should at least be able to make things interesting.
Which Game Will Produce the Most Total Points?
I would first like to share my displeasure that any MAC game is played on a weekend this season. Nevertheless, there's a potentially great one Saturday at noon. Buffalo hosts Kent State in a matchup of two high-scoring offenses.
So far this season, Buffalo has scored 44.3 points per game. Running back Jaret Patterson has amassed 511 yards and eight touchdowns in three games, and Kent State has struggled a bit against the run in the last two contests.
And while Buffalo has a quality defense, Kent State's offense is scorching with consecutive 60-point outbursts. Dual-threat quarterback Dustin Crum has collected 1,002 yards of total offense and accounted for 12 touchdowns.
This feels like a 49-38 Buffalo win for 87 total points.
Once again, this is a toss-up for me with Kent State at Buffalo as one of the options. And once again, I'll allow one of my colleagues to have sole possession of that game and instead default to my other choice...
The Egg Bowl.
Sort of like picking against the New York Jets every week in an NFL suicide pool, picking a game featuring Ole Miss as the highest-scoring affair in any given week is probably a good move. All seven Ole Miss games have featured at least 54 points. Five of them had at least 75 points. Two eclipsed the century mark.
And while Mississippi State has had serious difficult moving the ball since that season-opening thrashing of LSU's defense, it's not like Mike Leach suddenly forgot how to run an offense. And the Bulldogs have shown some life in their last two games. In each one, they scored 24 points while QB Will Rogers completed better than 75 percent of his pass attempts.
Against an Ole Miss defense that has only held one opponent below 33 points, I expect to see a resurgence of the Air Raid offense. And between Matt Corral, Jerrion Ealy, Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss has too many weapons for Mississippi State to slow down.
In the history of a rivalry that dates back more than a century, the highest total was 75 points, achieved in both 2000 and 2016. But with these new coaches running the show, the Egg Bowl might hit 75 by the end of the third quarter.
Which Week 13 Big Ten Game Will Be Most Entertaining?
It's Penn State-Michigan, and frankly it's not even close. And no, it's not a great week for the conference in terms of matchups overall, but this would likely be my answer no matter what.
Now, let's reset our emotions for a moment. "Entertaining" does not mean "good." Although in this instance, I believe the football content has the potential to be outstanding.
How often do you have a game where both the winning and losing fanbases are destined to be miserable after? That is precisely what we have coming up.
Penn State is 0-5. Michigan is 2-3 (barely). The message boards for each have become magnificent dumpster fires. We've got hot seat discussions. We've got a bit of everything.
And yes, the game should be close. That is not to say it will be high-level football, but it will be competitive football.
The aftermath? Well, that will be the best part. No matter the victory, someone is going to be very mad, and I am here for it. You should be as well, unless, of course, you root for one of these two teams.
Adam's right about Penn State at Michigan. There will be hilarity over the mutual states of ineptitude, and we could all use a good laugh these days.
But for the less masochistic viewers who actually want to watch something resembling good football, the clear choice here is Maryland at Indiana.
I will admit, I was extremely hesitant to believe in the Hoosiers. Not much was expected in the preseason, and I watched nearly every snap of that opener against Penn State, in which the Nittany Lions had roughly three times the total yardage of the Hoosiers after the first 58 minutes. Up until last week's impressive showing against the Buckeyes, I stubbornly held onto my belief that this was just a smoke-and-mirrors team.
If the bandwagon will still have me, though, I'm in on Indiana as a possible College Football Playoff team, and I think they'll back that up with a strong win over 2-1 Maryland.
The Hoosiers weren't ranked quite as high as I was expecting on Tuesday, but No. 12 still puts them within striking distance—considering they could still make a really nice impression on the selection committee by comfortably winning at Wisconsin next week. They almost certainly either need Notre Dame to lose twice or hand Clemson its second loss of the season in order for the No. 4 seed to open up, but I could see the Hoosiers leapfrogging a bunch of teams over the next four weeks.