With just a couple regular season games left on the schedule for most college football teams, pressure to win is compounded on a weekly basis.
This weekend’s slate of games features some key contests that will have a major impact on the landscape of the College Football Playoff.
These upcoming battles will continue to bring the playoff picture into focus and should also provide some grand entertainment for everyone watching.
Note: We’re using AP rankings for this piece, as the new playoff rankings have yet to be released.
North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech
We’ll start with a game that indirectly impacts the playoff picture, at least for now.
North Carolina (No. 12) has a chance to throw a rather bulky monkey wrench into the final rankings by winning out. This, of course, would include winning the ACC Championship Game against Clemson, which has a hold on the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
Led by quarterback Marquise Williams, who has exploded with nine total touchdowns the past two weeks, North Carolina set a school record by scoring 125 points in its last two games. The Tar Heels have won nine straight games — many in blowout fashion — and shouldn’t be dismissed as a potential spoiler to Clemson’s national title bid.
But first North Carolina must focus on Virginia Tech in Week 12, and the Hokies are going to be riding an emotional wave that could carry them to an upset over their ACC rival. They’ll be wearing all-black uniforms as a tribute to head coach Frank Beamer, who will be coaching his final home game at the school before retiring at season’s end.
Virginia Tech has won two games in a row and gave Duke a real run for its money three games back. Needless to say, Williams and the Tar Heels are going to need to stay sharp against the Hokies Saturday afternoon at Lane Stadium.
Prediction: Tar Heels win big, 49-24.
Purdue vs. Iowa
Iowa (No. 6) should get into the playoff with a perfect record. While it’s true the Hawkeyes haven’t faced any of the nation’s true giants, they certainly will in the Big Ten Championship Game. Unlike Ohio State, which is No. 1 on the East side, Big Ten West leader Iowa isn’t going to face any stiff challenges until that final contest of division winners.
On paper, the road to the championship game should be paved with marble for the Hawkeyes, who host Purdue on Saturday and then hit the road to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
While the Cornhuskers have pulled off a huge upset this year, taking down Michigan State, Iowa’s next opponent comes into the game as a 21-point underdog, having won just twice all season. The Boilermakers aren’t impressing anyone this year and have scored just 14 points in each of the past two games. Meanwhile, Iowa has been steamrolling teams with its potent rushing attack, scoring at least 31 points in each of the past four games.
This final home game of the season for the Hawkeyes should be one-sided, but upsets happen on a weekly basis in college football. Kirk Ferentz must make sure his team comes into the contest with razor-sharp focus to avoid suffering such a fate.
Wake Forest vs. Clemson
Wake shouldn’t be too difficult for No. 1 Clemson to overcome in Week 12, but then again nobody expected the Demon Deacons to give Notre Dame trouble last Saturday. Just as surprising was Syracuse’s upset bid against the Tigers, who finally woke up enough in the second half to escape with a 37-27 win.
Hopefully Clemson learned its lesson.
The Demon Deacons held Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer to just 111 yards passing last weekend, and the Irish didn’t score once through the air. And, if not for some red-zone troubles by Wake Forest and a record-breaking run by Notre Dame freshman running back Josh Adams, the final score would have been much closer than 28-7.
If Clemson comes out flat again — not likely, we know — then this game could get very interesting in the second half, especially if Deshaun Watson isn’t sharp through the air.
Prediction: Clemson makes a statement, winning by a score of 45-13.
Michigan State vs. Ohio State
We’ve wondered all year long if this 2015 Ohio State team is for real, and now finally we will get a chance to see the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes face the kind of team that will pose a real test and answer that question.
Michigan State (No. 9) could very well be undefeated coming into this contest, but after the way the Spartans won over Michigan (that muffed punt and resulting touchdown was ridiculous) it was fitting they lost in a similarly crazy fashion to Nebraska two games later. Regardless of the one loss, this is a dangerous opponent for the Buckeyes.
Featuring an offense that can win either through the air or on the ground, the Spartans average a respectable 33 points per game. Quarterback Connor Cook is expected to play after suffering a shoulder injury last weekend, and he’s been tremendous this year leading the charge.
This means J.T. Barrett, and even more importantly running back Ezekiel Elliott, must show up with big games for the Buckeyes to keep up on the scoreboard. Ohio State’s offense has been funky this year going back and forth between quarterbacks Barrett and Cardale Jones and scored just 28 points in both the last two games against Minnesota and Illinois.
There is no doubt Michigan State has the firepower on both sides of the ball to crush Ohio State’s playoff dreams this weekend. It’s going to take a consistent offensive effort by the Buckeyes to ensure this doesn’t happen, and we haven’t seen them play well for 60 minutes very often this year.
Prediction: Michigan State upsets Ohio State in Columbus, 31-27.
Boston College vs. Notre Dame
Fenway Park will be rocking Saturday evening when Boston College and Notre Dame (No. 5) compete in this Shamrock Series special.
Facing Wake Forest in Week 11, the Irish appeared a bit complacent and came out awfully flat. The lackluster effort could negatively impact their standing in the playoff ranking, and another similar performance Saturday against the Eagles would surely be detrimental towards that end.
The Eagles should be nothing more than a tasty treat for Notre Dame before making its way to Stanford in Week 13. Boston College has lost six games in a row, averaging less than eight points per game in those losses. Needless to say, in order to impress the playoff committee, the Fighting Irish must not only win, but they must win big.
This means Kizer and the Irish passing attack needs to step it up a few levels after totaling just 111 yards through the air last weekend. That might be easier said than done, though, against Boston College’s outstanding pass defense, which has allowed just six passing touchdowns all year long.
Prediction: Notre Dame wins s by a score of 28-14.
Baylor vs. Oklahoma State
One week after being served a healthy portion of humble pie at the hands of Oklahoma, the Baylor Bears (No. 10) have a chance to play spoiler to No. 4-ranked Oklahoma State’s playoff hopes. The Cowboys are the only remaining undefeated team in the Big 12 and would almost certainly get into the playoff with an undefeated finish, which would include wins over Baylor and then Oklahoma at the end of the regular season.
Oklahoma State escaped becoming a victim of an epic upset by scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter against Iowa State last weekend to win by just four points, 35-31. The Cyclones controlled the clock with a brutish running game and kept the Cowboys from going bonkers on the ground.
It’ll be a breath of fresh air facing Baylor’s less-than-stellar run defense this weekend, and fans should expect a high-scoring affair between these two Big 12 rivals.
Look for Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer to dial up plenty of pressure against Baylor’s freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who was roughed up in Week 11 and turned the ball over twice through the air. If Stidham can stay cool under pressure, though, then he’ll have opportunities to connect with big-play receiver Corey Coleman to make Spencer’s defense pay.
Prediction: Oklahoma State survives a scare, winning 52-49 over Baylor.
TCU vs. Oklahoma
Some have suggested the No. 7-ranked Sooners are suddenly playoff favorites after taking down Baylor last weekend. But the embattled TCU Horned Frogs could shut that talk up for good with a win on the road against their Big 12 rival.
It won’t be easy for TCU (No. 11) to pull off the upset, though, if quarterback Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson are unable to play due to injuries.
When asked about their status for the upcoming game, head coach Gary Patterson called them both “questionable” to play. Without their two top offensive playmakers, the Horned Frogs likely don’t have a chance to keep pace with the high-powered offense of Oklahoma, which powered through Baylor last weekend.
Oklahoma has but one blemish on its record this year, but it’s a rather nasty eyesore. The loss to Texas at a time when the Longhorns were in a free fall could weigh heavy on the minds of those in the playoff committee. This means the Sooners need to continue dominating their Big 12 opponents the rest of the way — starting with TCU this weekend — to put that ugly loss to bed for good.
Prediction: Oklahoma wins big at home, 45-31.