It’s rivalry week, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for some of the top schools in the nation during college football Week 13.
Unlike what we typically see every week, there is a tremendous slate of games Friday to enjoy as an extension of the Thanksgiving holiday.
The best among them includes Washington and Washington State, who will go head to head for the right to represent the Pac 12 North in the Pac 12 Championship Game Friday afternoon. At the same time, Nebraska will take on Iowa in a must-win affair to have any shot at winning the B1G West.
Saturday is still loaded with key games, as usual.
The biggest is obviously the monumental clash between Michigan and Ohio State. The Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama should be a blast as well.
We’ll be examining the key storylines for these games and more heading into college football Week 13.
1. Can Michigan beat Ohio State without Wilton Speight?
If last weekend was any indication, it will be very difficult for the Wolverines to prevail Saturday in Columbus if Speight is not healthy and/or does not play. In his stead against Indiana, John O’Korn was abysmal, going 7-of-16 for just 57 yards — the lowest total for a Michigan quarterback in a game since 2001 — with no touchdowns.
Speight is currently “day-to-day” with an injury to his throwing shoulder. He was reported to be out for the year, a notion that Harbaugh shot down before the Indiana game. However, the words he used then are the ones he is using now.
“I don’t have an update today, haven’t gotten the (evaluation) today,” Harbaugh said Monday afternoon, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. “It hasn’t changed, it’s a day-to-day process and evaluation. He’s been better every day. That’s from my eye. He’s gotten better every day. Now, again, to clarify: I’m not a doctor. I don’t have a medical degree. I never took medical classes.”
Classic Harbaugh speak.
If Speights cannot play, then it’s reasonable to assume Michigan’s defense is going to have to play its best game of the year for the Wolverines to win.
Ohio State features a dominant defense that flies to the football. As strong as Michigan’s rushing attack is, it will be hard pressed to consistently run the ball down the throat of the Buckeyes’ front seven — a unit that allows just 3.39 yards per attempt and has ceded just four touchdowns on the ground all year long.
Of course, it’s not crazy to think the Wolverines can shut down Ohio State’s offense. Featuring the top-ranked defense in the land in both yards and points allowed, they play disciplined football and are going to make life extremely difficult for a struggling J.T. Barrett.
This one is shaping up to be a defensive slugfest. Michigan will lock up the B1G East with the win. Ohio State needs help from Penn State if it wins. Both teams are desperate, as a loss could potentially signal the end of their playoff hopes.
All year long, Michigan appeared destined to come out on top. Now? We’re not so certain of the outcome.
2. MSU poised for upset special in Happy Valley?
Despite what has been the worst season at Michigan State since the John Smith era, the Spartans have played much better down the home stretch than their 3-8 record suggests. They played Michigan tough and came within a two-point conversion from beating Ohio State last weekend.
With that in mind, an upset over Penn State Saturday is not out of the realm of possibility.
Penn State is on quite a roll, though, winning seven straight games. The Nittany Lions have a ton to play for, too, because they can move into first place in the B1G East with a win if Ohio State beats Michigan.
The key for Michigan State will be slowing down Saquon Barkley and the rest of Penn State’s excellent running backs. That’s not something that has been done of late, however. Barkley has averaged 174 total yards per game in his last four starts, scoring seven touchdowns.
However, if Barkley does struggle to gain yards, then the Spartans will have a chance to force Trace McSorley into a key turnover or two.
That said, we’re expecting the Nittany Lions to finish out their regular season in style with a win at home.
3. Iowa has the formula to upset Nebraska at home
The easiest way to kink up Nebraska’s offense is to force turnovers in the passing game.
Tommy Armstrong has a chance to play Friday after missing Week 12 with a hamstring injury. He represents both the team’s best hope and its potential doom. He has the tendency to throw the ball into trouble and is not particularly accurate.
This was seen against Wisconsin and Ohio State — two teams that feature top defenses — when Armstrong combined to complete just 16-of-46 passes for 227 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions.
Iowa comes into this game featuring one of the stingier pass defenses in the nation. The Hawkeyes have allowed just over 206 yards per game through the air, 15 total touchdowns in 11 games and have averaged an interception per contest. Opposing offenses have averaged less than 19 points per game, and we saw how good the defense can be against Michigan a couple weekends ago. It is also coming off a shutout last weekend against Illinois.
Nebraska, entering a hostile environment and at less than full health, will have a hard time pulling off a win in this game. The Hawkeyes are peaking. We expect them to win their eighth game this year and third in a row.
4. Wisconsin should keep rolling against Minnesota
The Badgers have come awfully close to going undefeated this year, losing to two of the top teams in the nation in consecutive weeks by just two combined touchdowns.
They’re at home Saturday to host the Golden Gophers, a team that has yet to beat a team of any real consequence. Minnesota was unable to take on the challenge of Nebraska a couple weeks back, the same team the Badgers handled a few weeks ago.
Now, every game is different. So we cannot just say because team A beat team B and team C lost to team B that Team C has no chance against Team A. That said, the Badgers are rolling right now, having won their last three games by at least two touchdowns and their last two by at least four touchdowns.
Corey Clement and the Badgers’ offensive line have begun to brush defenses aside like a snow plow handles the finest powder Mother Nature can conjure. The past six games, starting with Ohio State, Clement has averaged 121 yards on the ground with six touchdowns.
Minnesota’s defense is stout but unprepared for the assault it will endure this weekend. On the other side, Minnesota’s offense should be smothered by the defense of the Badgers, which has allowed a total of 27 points in the past four games.
We fully expect Wisconsin to roll at home on its way to the B1G Championship Game, where it will face either Penn State, Ohio State or Michigan.
5. Toledo looking to launch rockets into Western Michigan’s perfect record
Despite a perfect record to this point, Western Michigan could potentially miss out on the chance to play for the MAC title with a loss Friday evening in Kalamazoo against Toledo.
The Rockets have lost two games this year but only one in conference play. Should they find a way to win on the road in this one, then they would claim the tiebreaker over the Broncos and would face either Ohio or Miami (OH) in the MAC Championship Game.
It’s worth mentioning that the Broncos haven’t come close to losing a game this year since Week 1 when they shocked Northwestern. Since that one-point victory, no team has come within two touchdowns of Western Michigan.
Toledo might have a chance, though, if somehow the defensive secondary can get a handle on all-world receiver Corey Davis, who’s been unstoppable this year for the Broncos. Davis and quarterback Zach Terrell have excellent chemistry, and Terrell is coming off a career day passing against Buffalo last weekend. The two have combined on 75 receptions for 1,202 yards and 16 of Terrell’s 27 total touchdown passes.
Of course, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Toledo certainly has that. Led by junior Logan Woodside, the Rockets have put up over 536 yards and 39 points per game this year.
We should see plenty of fireworks in this MAC showdown Friday evening in Michigan.
6. Will Lamar Jackson bounce back from two poor starts in a row?
Examining Lamar Jackson’s 2016 race to the Heisman Trophy, there can be no doubt the Louisville quarterback got well ahead of the field. He got so far out in front that it seemed like nobody could possibly catch him, and that’s not likely to change.
Unless Jackson has a third poor game in a row on Saturday early against the Kentucky Wildcats.
Heading into Week 11, Jackson had tallied 45 total touchdowns and was an absolute lock to claim the trophy. Since then, he’s added just two more to his collection and struggled mightily against Wake Forest and Houston.
What has happened to Lamar Jackson? #Cardinals
First 9 games: 437 yards per game, 45 TDs
Last 2 games: 271 yards per game, 2 TDs pic.twitter.com/UsOUcoGE8C
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 22, 2016
It will be quite shocking if Jackson doesn’t rebound in a huge way on Saturday against Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t slowed many offenses down this year and are particularly vulnerable to being gashed on the ground. They cede more than five yards per carry and 220 yards per game.
Jackson should have a field day. If he fails to impress against a defense as porous as this, then it’s not crazy to think that a guy like Deshaun Watson or Dede Westbrook could sneak in and make it a real race at the end.
7. Colorado looks to wrap up Pac 12 South against Utah
The Buffaloes have been one of the biggest and most welcome surprises of the 2016 college football season. After finishing in last place in the Pac 12 South last year, they have a chance to wrap up the season as the division’s top team with a win over Utah — the team most pegged to claim the crown.
Featuring a tremendous pass defense and a balanced offensive attack, Colorado has lost just twice all year and only once in conference play, knocking off the likes of Stanford and Washington State in the process. This, after just one win in the Pac 12 last year.
Of course, a loss to Utah Saturday would mean the USC Trojans would earn that crown after beating the Buffaloes earlier this year and closing out conference play with two losses.
There is a lot on the line for this fledgling program, and they’re excited for the opportunity to take the next step.
“We are very happy to be in the position that we are in,” said Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau, via Stats LLC. “We’re very happy to be able to go out there and grind one out and get a good win.”
Utah is used to playing tough games and won’t back down from a fight. The Utes nearly took down Washington in Salt Lake City earlier this season and has been engaged in seven games that have been decided by a touchdown or less.
They’re coming off a disappointing performance in a losing cause to Oregon last weekend, however, and need to play much better this week to have a chance of upsetting the Buffaloes. We expect the home team to prevail and wrap up the conference championship bid.
8. USC looking for eighth straight win against Notre Dame
The Trojans bouncing back from their 1-3 start to go 8-3 is nothing short of remarkable. The offense has thrived under freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, and the defense has become quite formidable on the other side.
Now they get a chance to close out the season against one of their most greatest rivals, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
This should be a lopsided game, based on the trajectories of the two programs.
Whereas USC is on a rocket ship up the rankings, Brian Kelly’s Irish are at a low point, limping into the game with a 4-7 record and having no chance of earning bowl eligibility.
On top of that, the program just got smacked across the face with a ruling that it must vacate wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons for academic violations.
Morale has been low on Notre Dame’s sideline since Week 1 when the Irish lost to Texas in double-overtime. The entire season has been like Murphy’s Law, and Kelly’s “motivational tactics” have spiraled out of control.
On paper, there is no way the Trojans should lose at home to this opponent. But the rivalry runs deep, going all the way back to 1926. USC crushed Notre Dame, 49-14, back in 2014 to claim the Jewelled Shillegah for the 36th time. Overall, the Irish have an edge with a career record of 46-36-5.
The Trojans have a ton of motivation to play their best. A win against Notre Dame, combined with a loss by Colorado, would lead to the Pac 12 South title.
9. Any chance at all Clemson drops another against South Carolina?
It’s easy to say no here. No way should South Carolina be a threat to Clemson at Death Valley in the final game before the ACC Championship Game.
But the Tigers have played down to the competition a few times this year. They barely beat Troy in Week 2. They should have lost to NC State and eked out a win in overtime. Then there were beat by Pittsburgh in a game that shouldn’t have been close — on paper.
The Gamecocks won’t be pushovers, regardless of which Clemson team shows up Saturday. They took down Tennessee earlier this year and hung tough with Texas A&M and Florida.
We’ve seen Deshaun Watson make ridiculous mistakes all year long. He stares his receivers down and tends to throw into tight spots far too often. There will be an opening for South Carolina to potentially grind out a win if Clemson isn’t on its A-game.
The best way to avoid all that is to let Wayne Gallman do the heavy lifting on offense to get the offense in tempo. If Watson ends up throwing the ball 70 times like he did against Pitt, then it could get ugly.
10. Is Alabama ripe for an upset?
There aren’t many schools that have beaten Alabama since Nick Saban took over, but Auburn happens to be one of them. The Tigers have won three times since 2007 and twice since 2010. In fact, based on the pattern of one win, two losses, one win, two losses, etc. since 2007, Auburn is due for its fourth victory over the Crimson Tide.
And maybe. Just maybe, the Tide is vulnerable. After all, they weren’t exactly on top of their game last weekend during the first half at home against Chattanooga. Nick Saban was less than pleased — embarrassed was the word he used — and didn’t hesitate to express his displeasure (watch here).
Auburn comes into the Iron Bowl having won seven of its last eight. The one loss came in a rivalry game against Georgia, which played extraordinarily well two weekends ago. Barring that outlier, the Tigers have been red hot, scoring 41 points per game while defeating the likes of LSU, Mississippi State and Arkansas.
The key to victory for Auburn will be whether it can impose its will up front offensively against ‘Bama’s ridiculously good defensive front seven. The Tigers must be able to run the ball effectively or Sean White will get swallowed whole by Jonathan Allen and Co. They rank fifth in the nation averaging nearly 300 yards per game on the ground. Conversely, Alabama sports the nation’s top-ranked run defense — by far — which allows just 69 yards per game.
Of course, finding a way to put points on the board isn’t the only huge challenge facing Gus Malzahn’s program in this one. The Auburn defense will be hard pressed to do something no defense has been able to do thus far in 2016 — stop Jalen Hurts from making big plays. The freshman phenom has been brilliant and continues to get better as the season moves to the finish line.
With all that in mind, it’s hard to pick Auburn to pull off the upset. Can the Tigers make a game of it? Certainly. But will they win? No. No they will not.