Top storylines for college football’s Rivalry Week

Nov 29, 2014; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban shakes hands with Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn (left) after defeating the Tigers 55-44 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

If Week 12 was the nadir of the 2017 college football season (it was), we’re in for a wild swing toward the apex during Rivalry Week.

The big games this weekend are huge and will have some significant bearing on how things shake out for both the playoff and New Year’s Six. Other rivalries might not be as big on a national level but will be highly anticipated at a more local level.

These are the top storylines heading into Rivalry Week, which for all intents and purposes signals the end of the regular season.

Can Rebels pull off Egg Bowl upset?

The Egg Bowl is the only game on the college football schedule Thursday night, so all eyes will be on Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Of course, thanks to Hugh Freeze’s indiscretions, the Rebels are ineligible to qualify for a bowl game, even if they do win their sixth game of the season.

The big story will be whether they can play spoiler to what’s been another very strong season for Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs. Mississippi State is on the verge of its third nine-win season in the past four years and figures to earn a nice bowl bid with that final regular season win.

The interesting battle here will be whether Nick Fitzgerald can outplay recently promoted Rebels quarterback Jordan Ta’amu. Both are extremely athletic and can make big plays on the ground and through the air. The Bulldogs feature a much stronger defense, but Fitzgerald has a penchant for turnovers. So things could get very interesting.

Pittsburgh looks to rain on ‘Canes’ parade

So far, nobody’s been able to knock Miami off this year, and the program is on a 15-game winning streak dating back to last year. That’s not easy to do.

The Hurricanes aren’t impervious to the occasional hiccup, however, and have had close shaves against the likes of Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina and even Virginia last week (until the end of the game).

With that in mind, we shouldn’t assume Pitt is going to be blown out at Heinz Field Friday when the ‘Canes come to town.

The Panthers have won just four games this year and are already out of bowl contention. However, they’ve been very competitive in all but one of their last seven games, three of which they won and three which they lost by a single score.

The Hurricanes are playing in their 10th consecutive week, as well, due to the scheduling challenges that arose from Hurricane Irma. So they will have to battle against fatigue as they fight to remain in playoff positioning.

War on I-4 : UCF looks to continue its run at perfection 

UCF running back Adrian Killins

No team has been as consistently dominating this year as UCF. The Knights have had just two games that could be considered close — one-touchdown wins over Navy and SMU. The rest of their opponents have been utterly humiliated in blowout fashion.

This Friday afternoon provides the best chance all year for the Knights to really be tested and perhaps overthrown. The USF Bulls have just one loss on their record this year — a four-point loss to Houston. In addition to relishing the chance to knock off their rival and wipe out any chance UCF has at the playoff, the Bulls can earn a berth into the AAC Championship Game with a win in this one.

If the Knights win this game and then win the title game, they deserve to contend for the national title, too. That’s likely not remotely possible, however, given the CFP committee’s refusal to treat them as equals to Wisconsin (despite the similar strength of schedule). With that in mind, we expect Scott Frost’s team to have a huge chip on its shoulder in this one at home, and for the Knights to win big in this pivotal battle.

Longhorns can deny Red Raiders’ entrance into bowl season

Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure at Texas Tech hasn’t been filled with victory parades. The program got off to a 3-1 start this year, however, and it looked like things might be looking up. But since then, the Red Raiders have lost five of their last six, their only win coming against hapless Baylor.

And if the Red Raiders lose on Friday night on the road against the Longhorns, it’ll mark the second year in a row that they failed to reach a bowl game.

Texas, on the other hand, can get to eight wins on the season with a victory over Texas Tech. That has to be considered quite an accomplishment after the way the season started and due to all the injuries that have befallen Tom Herman’s club in his first year at the helm.

The Longhorns have a much stronger defense and should have a big game to claim the Chancellor’s Spurs.

Josh Rosen’s final game at home?

There is a strong possibility that Friday night’s game at UCLA will be the final time Bruins fans will see star quarterback Josh Rosen in uniform, unless they travel to wherever the team plays its bowl game this year.

Rosen, a junior, is seen by many as a potential top pick in next April’s 2018 NFL Draft. He’s had a tumultuous career at UCLA, which has been marred by some injuries at times and highlighted by ridiculous comebacks.

We fully expect Rosen to take his talents to the NFL next year, especially after the school fired head coach Jim Mora. The two of them were close, and Rosen wasn’t happy about the move, which coincided with Mora’s birthday, no less.

Georgia with must-win game against rival Georgia Tech

This year’s iteration of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate has the added bonus of being a must-win affair for the Bulldogs. If they have any hope at all of working their way back into the playoff following the embarrassing loss to Auburn, they can’t lose another one.

Before it can get to either Auburn (again) or Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia must dispatch the always tough Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The same team that knocked off the Bulldogs by one point last year thanks to a four-touchdown effort by the team’s triple option attack.

Georgia Tech has fallen on hard times of late, losing three of its last four games and four of its last six. But it has given the likes of Miami and Virginia Tech plenty to handle during the same stretch as well.

At the least, we know the Yellow Jackets and their fans will be up for this game. It’s always a treat to knock off one’s rival, and they can qualify for a bowl berth with a win, too.

Will Brandon Peters be available to Michigan for The Game?

Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters

Ohio State still has a shot at potentially worming its way into the playoff by winning out. The two bad losses are working against the Buckeyes, to be sure. But there are enough variables still at play that, by winning out, they could be seen by the committee as the best team to claim the No. 4 seed when it’s all said and done.

After all, aside from their two losses, Ohio State has been blowing teams out all year long.

Saturday’s rivalry game against Michigan at The Big House could be another blowout, too, if the Wolverines are forced to trot out John O’Korn to pilot the offense against Ohio State’s speedy defense. Freshman quarterback Brandon Peters was placed in the concussion protocol after taking a huge hit last weekend against Wisconsin that required an ambulance trip to the hospital.

If O’Korn has to play, then Michigan won’t have a shot unless J.T. Barrett has another awful game like the one he had against Iowa. If Peters plays, then perhaps the Wolverines can make The Game interesting.

Seminoles in do-or-die mode against Florida for bowl berth

Florida State has made it into a bowl game for 35 straight seasons. But one more loss would eliminate the Seminoles.

It’s been this way since the Seminoles dropped to 3-6 against Clemson. And this team has been in desperation mode since falling to 1-3 against Miami back in the first week of October.

Those who appreciate good offense should probably find another game to watch. Because Florida and Florida State feature two of the worst, least efficient offenses in the entire nation. It’s going to be an ugly game, and it could be filled with mistakes by both teams.

The Iron Bowl, for all the marbles in the SEC West

Does Alabama have enough firepower to consistently apply pressure to Auburn’s formidable defense? Will the injuries to the team’s defensive front make it impossible for the Crimson Tide to keep the Tigers from running rampant? Can Jalen Hurts continue showing Russell Wilson-type tendencies late in games?

Based on recency bias, we’re angling toward Auburn coming out ahead in the first two of those questions. Hurts, on the other hand, has only gotten better in his second year under center for the Tide.

We absolutely cannot discount the X-factor that is Nick Saban. He’s the master at having his team prepared for any and all trials. And thankfully his defense will have star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick back in the lineup for this game.

The Iron Bowl winner this year will be ushered into the SEC Championship Game. And if Auburn wins it and goes on to beat Georgia in the title game, the Tigers have to be strongly considered for a playoff spot.

Can P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers wrest Paul Bunyan’s Axe from Wisconsin?

Wisconsin is the least impressive “top” team in the nation. The Badgers weren’t all that impressive last weekend against Michigan and only definitively pulled ahead after Brandon Peters was forced out due to injury.

That the Badgers can run the ball and play defense with the best of them is undeniably true. But top teams cannot be one-dimensional on offense, and that most definitely describes this team’s offense.

But we digress slightly. This weekend, the Badgers are hitting the road to play against Minnesota in the annual battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It’s not likely to be much of a contest, given the shutout we saw last weekend from Northwestern over this same team. But rivalry games are tricky and oftentimes produce unexpected results.

For the sake of better teams having a shot to get into the playoff, we’re hoping for unexpected results.

Another chance for Saquon Barkley to romp

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley against Iowa in college football Week 4

It’s been a season of disappointment for those who wanted to see Saquon Barkley fully unleashed as the featured weapon of Penn State’s offense. He’s been tremendous, to be sure, and has literally done it all for the Nittany Lions. But he’s not been allowed to be the workhorse most weeks, much to the detriment of the team’s playoff hopes.

Last weekend, however, was fun. Barkley went for over 200 total yards before halftime and finished with 224 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska.

That’s the type of production fans should expect — nay, should demand — this Saturday as the Nittany Lions take on the Maryland Terrapins. Maryland’s defense has already allowed over 2,000 yards, and has allowed 23 rushing touchdowns this year.

Barkley should have a field day in this game, which will likely be his final regular season game as a collegiate athlete.

Rare double-header in CFB gets going as Bulldogs host Broncos

Fresno State and Boise State have already both clinched their spots in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game. Yet before they can get to the title game, they must first battle one another during the final regular-season game of the season.

It’s the rarely seen college football double-header, so to speak. And given the fact that both teams could lose this game and still win the championship, one wonders how much either team will be willing to show the other firsthand this Saturday.

“We’re playing Fresno State this week. We’re not even worried about next week. … We’re going in with that mentality,” Boise State offensive coordinator Zak Hill said, per Dave Southorn of the Idaho Statesman. “It’s not like we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to handle two weeks. We’re just going to handle one week.”

It’s going to be very interesting to see how things unfold this weekend. Despite what they say publicly, both coaching staffs should be holding plenty back from a scheme standpoint so that they can have some fresh ammunition to use for the title game.

Emotional final home game for Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma

Baker Mayfield

In his final game playing at home for the Sooners, senior quarterback Baker Mayfield won’t walk onto the field as a captain. He also won’t start, but the former is much more significant than the latter. He’s still going to play, and we bet he’ll be extremely emotional given the circumstances, quite aside from being punished.

Many thought Mayfield would enter last year’s NFL draft. However, he opted to return to school and has had an amazing senior season. In addition to his personal on-field exploits that will surely lead to a Heisman Trophy win, his Sooners are in great shape to make the playoff in January.

Saturday’s big game against West Virginia lost a bit of its luster due to the simple fact that the Mountaineers won’t be nearly as dangerous without starting quarterback Will Grier. He was injured last week and needed surgery to repair a gruesome broken finger.

Still, we expect plenty of fireworks in this game as Mayfield closes out his career with the Sooners.

Matt Campbell’s Cyclones look to reverse recent trend against Kansas State

The Cyclones have had a successful season already relative to expectations. When the season began, it’s safe to say there really weren’t any expectations at all for this team. Yet Matt Campbell squeezed every bit of talent out of his roster and has managed to win seven games this year.

The Wildcats have beaten the Cyclones eight years running, so it’s safe to say reversing that trend would make Iowa State’s eighth win all the sweeter.

Kansas State has home turf in this game and just knocked off Oklahoma State last weekend. So any thought that this game could be a one-sided win for Iowa State should be kicked to the curb. We fully expect this game to come down to the wire.

Gamecocks look to spoil Clemson’s national championship dream

Will Muschamp has done a fantastic job to get the Gamecocks to eight wins this year. But nothing he’s done so far can properly prepare his team for the challenge it’s about to face.

That said, he feels confident about his team’s depth and especially appreciates how hard the players compete every week.

“This football team competes. … I think that the one thing that I’ve been most consistent with this football team is the effort and competitive edge,” he said, per SEC Country.

The Tigers feature one of the most devastating defenses in the land and have lost just once this year. Kelly Bryant has been tremendous on offense, and Clemson can run the ball consistently.

The Tigers already locked into the ACC Championship Game against Miami, but a loss to South Carolina would probably be the end of any hope to repeat as national champs.

With that in mind, we don’t expect to see an upset when the Gamecocks host the Tigers Saturday night.

End of the road for Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M?

The Texas A&M Aggies just haven’t taken the right steps since Kevin Sumlin took Mike Sherman’s place at College Station in 2012. He went 20-6 in his first two seasons, winning bowl games both years. Then he went 8-5 and won a bowl game in 2014, and it’s all been downhill ever since.

In total, Sumlin has posted a record of 51-25 and a 3-2 record in bowl games as head coach at Texas A&M. Sumlin was also put on the hot seat by his own AD before the season, so it wouldn’t shock anyone if the university let him go.

If the Aggies don’t finish strong against LSU Saturday, it’s likely an inevitable decision. They haven’t one single big win on record this year, though we do have to give them credit for making Alabama work for it midway through the season.

LSU has been playing strong on both sides of the ball this year and is fighting for a potential entry into a New Year’s Six bowl, so we expect the Tigers to win at home Saturday night.

Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry is always fun

Stanford running back Bryce Love in college football Week 5 against Arizona State

Despite three losses overall, Stanford can still win the Pac-12 North if Washington State loses to Washington. Notre Dame is fighting to get to double-digit wins and could certainly land a New Year’s Six berth with that 10th win.

Additionally, casual fans tuning in will be privileged to watching two of the best running backs in the nation. Bryce Love should earn an invitation to New York for his fantastic, record-breaking season, and Josh Adams was once in the running for the Heisman as well.

Though, perhaps the more entertaining battle when it’s all said and done will be the one between quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and K.J. Costello.

Cougs can clinch Pac-12 North with Apple Cup win over Huskies

The Huskies have already been eliminated from the Pac-12 Championship Game, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still wreak some havoc in the conference. Either Washington State will win the Pac-12 North, or neither team will.

Despite a couple of uncharacteristic performances by Washington’s defense, which has given up 30 points in consecutive weekends to Utah and Stanford, the Huskies are still one of the dynamos on the defensive side of the ball nationally.

It’s going to take nothing but Luke Falk’s best game to propel the Cougars over the top in this game. And as an added bonus for Washington State, with a win Saturday night the Cougars would win 10 games for the first time since 2010, well before the time of Falk or head coach Mike Leach.