As expected, the season has been pretty straightforward: Stadiums are empty. A non-stop parade of games have been canceled every week. The Top 25 is flooded with foreign visitors, such as Coastal Carolina, Liberty, Marshall, Tulsa and Louisiana-Lafayette. A Group of Five playoff berth doesn’t feel impossible.
Naturally, the chaos has crept into the Big Ten. Penn State (0-4) is the only winless team in the conference. Michigan (1-3) is speeding toward its first losing season under Jim Harbaugh. Minnesota (1-3) already has more losses than it had last season. Rutgers won its first Big Ten game in three seasons. Maryland has one of the most intriguing quarterbacks (Taulia Tagovailoa) in the country. And both Big Ten divisions hold surprises at the top.
Northwestern is the only 4-0 team in the West. Indiana is the only 4-0 team in the East. This week, each is tasked with truly shaking up the league.
Like its opponent this week, No. 10 Wisconsin, 19th-ranked Northwestern has been dominant defensively — holding opponents to 14 points per game, with each one producing a season-low offensive output. The Badgers will do the same in their first true test of the season, with the Wildcats (+7.5) giving freshman Graham Mertz his first trouble in his first game against a defense allowing fewer than 34 points per game.
No. 9 Indiana’s hurdle is far higher. Justin Fields and No. 3 Ohio State may be unstoppable. But the Hoosiers’ highest-ranked team since 1967 isn’t the result of some of the league’s mainstays slipping. Indiana is part of the cause, with Tom Allen building momentum and confidence off the program’s best season in 26 years. Though an outright upset still seems implausible, the Hoosiers (+20.5) are now strong enough to hang around with the Big Ten’s best.
Clemson (-35) over FLORIDA STATE
On paper, a ton shouldn’t change just because Trevor Lawrence is back. His replacement (D.J. Uiagalelei) threw for 781 yards, completed 67.8 percent of his passes and produced six total touchdowns with no interceptions in two games. But the return of the country’s best player, following last week’s double-overtime loss at Notre Dame, will give the fourth-ranked Tigers their greatest focus this season.
VANDERBILT (+31.5) over Florida
Kyle Trask may throw eight touchdowns. Florida could crack 70 points. But the Gators’ defense, which will eventually prevent them from reaching the playoff, remains a liability in such lopsided matchups. Last week, the Commodores put up 35 points against Kentucky’s 28th-ranked defense. Florida will make it even easier for Vanderbilt to pad its stats in a meaningless second half.
Appalachian State (+5.5) over COASTAL CAROLINA
The Chanticleers have been one of the best stories this season, but a team that went 5-7 last season isn’t ready to run the table. The Mountaineers (6-1), who are the two-time defending Sun Belt champions, will benefit from their big game experience, as well as a defense that hasn’t given up more than 21 points all season.
UCF (+5.5) over Cincinnati
Despite overwhelming evidence that the Bearcats, who have slowed some of the nation’s best offenses, are legitimate playoff contenders, I refuse to jump onto their betting bandwagon until the masses depart. After several weeks on the wrong end of Bearcats blowouts, I’m not missing out when Cincy inevitably goes down.
Ucla (+13) over OREGON
Chip Kelly will never recreate what he built at Oregon — the Bruins just reached .500 for the first time in his three seasons — but UCLA’s 38-points per game offense looks sharp enough to produce some Autzen Stadium flashbacks.
Kansas State (+11) over IOWA STATE
Though the roster has been reduced by COVID-19, the Wildcats remain well-rounded and rarely suffer self-inflicted wounds. Expect another close contest from Kansas State, which has had 12 of its past 15 games decided by 10 points or fewer.
ALABAMA (-30.5) over Kentucky
Mac Jones was a Kentucky commit. Now, he’s a Heisman Trophy candidate throwing for 366 yards per game for Alabama. All is well for the Wildcats, though. Quarterback Terry Wilson is due to top 110 passing yards for the first time in seven weeks.
RUTGERS (+10) over Michigan
Last year, the Wolverines beat Rutgers, 52-0. The previous season, Michigan won, 42-7. A 21-point win preceded that. An historic 78-0 massacre came in 2016, which followed a 49-16 Michigan win. But this season resembles life just before Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor, when Rutgers picked up a 26-24 win in Piscataway in 2014. Only one of these coaches has his players feeling better than when the season started.
GEORGIA (-24.5) over Mississippi State
The quarterback doesn’t matter. Kirby Smart could put his kicker under center and Georgia would batter the lesser Bulldogs. Opponents ranked outside the top six offenses in the nation have averaged just 10 points per game against Georgia. Mike Leach’s 118th-ranked attack will have trouble just getting across midfield.
OKLAHOMA (-7) over Oklahoma State
The Sooners’ five-game Bedlam winning streak — and five-year Big 12 title reign — isn’t stopping this season. Lincoln Riley’s offense has put up an average of 48 points per game in his three Bedlam affairs, and will have no trouble again torturing Mike Gundy’s overrated defense. The Cowboys’ only loss this season came against the only top-40 offense they faced.
Usc (-3) over UTAH
Again, the Trojans have failed to live up to their standard preseason hype, but a pair of comeback wins should have knocked out some early season kinks. Utah — which has had back-to-back season-openers canceled — doesn’t have the same luxury, or much of the firepower from last year’s 11-win team, which lost nine defensive starters, quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss.
Best bets: Georgia, Oklahoma, USC
This season (best bets): 75-70-1 (13-16-1)
2014-19 record: 772-756-13
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