Forde-Yard Dash: Predictions for college football's biggest week of the season

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Do Your Civic Duty, Man” T-shirts sold separately in Knoxville):

[More Dash: Undefeated teams | What happened to these guys? | Defense is in]

SECOND QUARTER

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BIG GAME WEEK IS HERE

Heavyweight matchups have been pretty sporadic thus far this season — one here, one there, rarely a day-long cluster of games that matter. That changes this week. The Dash rates (and predicts) the 10 most significant contests:

Oklahoma-Texas (11). Viewer appeal, on a scale of 1-5: 5. Traditional rivals that are still very relevant, with the winner taking a big step toward the Big 12 regular-season championship and enhancing its College Football Playoff résumé. Plus, both teams are led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks and are fun to watch. Contentiousness, on a scale of 1-5: 5. You may have heard how crazy this rivalry can get. Venue appeal, on a scale of 1-5: 5. The old Cotton Bowl is an anachronism that springs to life every October for this game. When you combine the State Fair, Big Tex, fried everything and 92,000 hard-partying Oklahoma and Texas fans, it’s an experience to behold.

Key matchup: In terms of efficiency, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts is the No. 1 passer in America. By the same metric, Texas has the worst pass defense in the Big 12. But the Longhorns also lead the Big 12 in interceptions with nine, and Hurts has thrown a pick in each of his last two games. Can the Texas secondary make enough plays to slow down the Sooners?

Dash pick: Oklahoma 44, Texas 41.

Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger (#11) fights his way into the end zone as Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Curtis Bolton (#18) tries to make the tackle during last season's Big 12 Championship game. (Getty)
Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger (#11) fights his way into the end zone as Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Curtis Bolton (#18) tries to make the tackle during last season's Big 12 Championship game. (Getty)

Florida-LSU (12). Viewer appeal: 5. Both undefeated, both ranked in the Top 10, both doing it very differently. The Gators are No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 nationally in scoring defense; the Tigers are No. 1 nationally in scoring offense. (LSU has had a lot of good teams in its history, but it has never finished the season leading the nation in scoring.) Contentiousness: 4. They both have bigger rivals, but this annual meeting has taken on added spice since the Hurricane Matthew-related scheduling brouhaha of 2016. Residual anger still available. Venue appeal: 5. Tiger Stadium for a big game? At night? There is nothing better in the sport, with or without T-Rex Guy.

Key matchup: Florida leads the nation in takeaways with 17, 12 of them interceptions. Can the Gators’ opportunistic secondary hang with LSU’s fantastic receivers? Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase have combined to make 53 catches for 998 yards and 13 touchdowns — but productive third amigo Terrace Marshall is out with a broken foot.

Dash pick: LSU 31, Florida 24.

Penn State-Iowa (13). Viewer appeal: 3.5. The No. 10 Nittany Lions are explosive, leading the Big Ten in plays of 50-plus yards (eight), but bear closer inspection after a relatively light schedule so far. Hopefully your eyes have healed after watching the No. 17 Hawkeyes score three points Saturday at Michigan. And hopefully this is not a repeat of the immortal 2004 meeting between the two. Score of that one: Iowa 6, Penn State 4. Contentiousness: 3. Not a lot of built-in hate, but some simmering resentment for bitter losses each inflicted upon the other. Nittany Lions fans still remember when their undefeated, third-ranked team was upset in Iowa City by a four-loss Iowa squad on a field goal with one second left. Hawkeyes fans can freshly feel the Trace McSorley touchdown pass on the final play two seasons ago as No. 4 Penn State pulled out a 21-19 victory. Venue appeal: 5. Kinnick Stadium rocks at night, especially when a big-time opponent comes to town, and the Iowa Wave is one of the best things in the sport.

Key matchup: How does Iowa’s offensive line hold up? The Hawkeyes had one rushing yard against Michigan, surrendering eight sacks and often looking bewildered by the Wolverines’ blitzes. Penn State, meanwhile, allows the fewest yards per carry in the Big Ten (1.46) and is second in the league in sacks with 25.

Dash pick: Iowa 20, Penn State 16.

USC-Notre Dame (14). Viewer appeal: 4. This isn’t John McKay vs. Ara Parseghian, but it’s still a glamorous traditional matchup with plenty of current-day stakes. Clay Helton is fighting to keep his job; the Fighting Irish are fighting to stay in the playoff chase. And the uniform combination of Notre Dame home blues with USC road whites is perfect. Contentiousness: 3.5. The two programs have dealt each other some huge blows over the decades: Anthony Davis trampling the Irish in 1972 and ’74; Dan Devine’s green jersey trick in ’77. But they don’t come across as hateful toward each other. Perhaps because there is too much mutual self-congratulation over the prestige of their respective universities. Walk around either campus on game day and the atmosphere is surprisingly cordial toward the visitors. Venue appeal: 4. Notre Dame Stadium is one of the cathedrals of the sport, but deduct one point for this game being played at night. It doesn’t feel right from a tradition standpoint.

Key matchup: If the Trojans don’t hang onto the football, they could be blown out. USC is 121st nationally in giveaways with 14. Notre Dame is third nationally in takeaways with 14. Presuming freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis returns from a concussion that kept him out of most of the last two games, the Irish defense will be hellbent on forcing him into mistakes.

Dash pick: Notre Dame 31, USC 17.

Florida State-Clemson (15). Viewer appeal: 3. Like USC-Notre Dame, this is not a classic installment of the ACC’s marquee rivalry. That’s on the Seminoles, who haven’t beaten the Tigers since Jameis Winston left school and were blown away 59-10 last year in Tallahassee. But any chance to beat Clemson is worth the effort, and the Seminoles showed some signs of creeping progress in late September. Contentiousness: 4. The winner of this game has won the ACC for the last eight years, a pretty remarkable run of dominance that has infused some heat into this series. But as intense as the atmosphere can be in Death Valley of the Upstate, Clemson fans tend to not bring the hate quite like they do at FSU. Venue appeal: 5. Great place to see a game, although a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff might dial the noise down a few decibels from what it’s like for a big game at night.

Key matchup: FSU offensive coordinator Kendal Briles against Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, a showdown of capable and creative minds. The Seminoles have not run the ball very well (3.37 yards per carry, last in the ACC), but have gotten excellent play from Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook the last two games at quarterback (73 percent accuracy, 571 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions). Still, if there is not early down running success, Venables will be happy to heat up Hornibrook while relying on the ACC’s best pass defense.

Dash pick: Clemson 47, Florida State 21.

Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) warms up before a game against the Charlotte 49ers at Clemson Memorial Stadium. (USA Today)
Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) warms up before a game against the Charlotte 49ers at Clemson Memorial Stadium. (USA Today)

Michigan State-Wisconsin (16). Viewer appeal: 2.5. The teams are pretty good — well, Wisconsin is — but consider: Last week in the Big Ten, Iowa-Michigan combined for 13 points and Northwestern-Nebraska combined for 23. Those games both might outscore this one. Contentiousness: 2. Both programs direct their venom elsewhere, and they don’t play very often anymore. The two teams have only played once in the last seven years, and that was a Badgers rout. They did stage a couple classics in 2011, with Wisconsin losing the regular-season meeting 37-31 on a Hail Mary but then winning the Big Ten championship game 42-39. Venue appeal: 5. They have been known to jump around a bit at Camp Randall. And to drink.

Key matchup: Jonathan Taylor vs. a Michigan State run defense that needs to regroup. Taylor is the best back in America, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and scoring 16 touchdowns in five games. When he goes, so does the Wisconsin offense. The Spartans just gave up 323 rushing yards to Ohio State, an uncharacteristic gouging. Can they slow down Taylor and force Badgers quarterback Jack Coan to make some plays?

Dash pick: Wisconsin 9, Michigan State 6.

Alabama-Texas A&M (17). Viewer appeal: 3. Watching the Tua Show is always fun, and this figures to be the best defense he’s faced thus far, or will face before November. The Aggies are the only SEC team not to lose to ’Bama by 24 or more points at least once in the last four years. Contentiousness: 3. All SEC fans hate Alabama, and Crimson Tide fans return a little of that hate toward the Aggies because of the Johnny Manziel-led shocking in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012. (When the losses are rare, they tend to linger.) Venue appeal: 5. Kyle Field is a unique spectacle, from Midnight Yell Practice to the corps of cadets showing out on game day. There is a lot of towel waving and girlfriend kissing and linked-arm swaying going on here.

Key matchup: Texas A&M has one of the better pass defenses in the SEC in terms of efficiency. Alabama has the best pass offense in the SEC in terms of efficiency. The Aggies have allowed just 10 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season, while ’Bama has produced an SEC-high 34 such plays. Can Mike Elko’s defense keep the Tide’s big-play receivers from getting loose?

Dash pick: Alabama 31, Texas A&M 10.

Washington-Arizona (18). Viewer appeal: 2.5. Come for the under-the-radar storyline on the potential reclamation of Kevin Sumlin’s career at Arizona. After a rough first season in Tucson, his current team is one yard short of undefeated, after Khalil Tate was stopped that close to the goal line on the final play way back on Aug. 24 against Hawaii. Tate himself is worth watching — he’s the second quarterback in FBS history to have a 300-yard rushing game and a 400-yard passing game. (Both were against Colorado, with the running explosion in 2017 and the passing explosion Saturday). Contentiousness: 1. There is a lot of heat in the desert, but not a lot of heat in this matchup. Venue appeal: 1. Arizona Stadium is just another stadium.

Key matchup: Who wins on third down, the Arizona offense or the Washington defense? The Wildcats are converting a crisp 53 percent of their third downs into first downs, and the Huskies were hurt in their loss to Stanford on Saturday by not being able to get off the field against the Cardinal’s backup quarterbacks. Tate could be a problem.

Dash pick: Washington 30, Arizona 26. This will not help the Wildcats’ dream of their first-ever Pac-12 title.

Hawaii-Boise State (19). Viewer appeal: 3.5. The Broncos might be the best Group of Five team in the country, or at least the one with the best chance of an undefeated season. But the 4-1 Rainbow Warriors are coming off one of their best mainland performances ever (a 54-3 thrashing of Nevada), have a dynamic quarterback in Cole McDonald and have had an extra week to prepare. Could be good stuff. Contentiousness: 2. It’s pretty much one-sided — everyone in the league dislikes Boise because they’re tired of losing to Boise. Hawaii is no different, having last beaten the Broncos in 2007 and been blown out six meetings in a row. Venue appeal: 4. You must respect the blue turf.

Key matchup: Boise probably would love to run the ball 50 times in this game; will Hawaii prevent it? The Warriors are allowing a fat 5.3 yards per carry this season.

Dash pick: Boise State 34, Hawaii 27.

Appalachian State-Louisiana (20), Wednesday. Viewer appeal: 3.5. Ah, yes, the weeknight #FunBelt action returns this week, and it’s the Game of the Year in the conference. The Mountaineers are undefeated, including a win over North Carolina. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 4-1, with the lone loss by 10 to Mississippi State. It’s a Wednesday night; what else do you want to do? Contentiousness: 3. That’s a complete guess, actually, but presumably there is some Ragin’ Cajun animosity here due to an 0-6 record against App, and having played the last three meetings on the road in Boone, North Carolina. This is App State’s first visit to Lafayette since 2016. Venue appeal: 2. When you get to play in the same stadium where Hugh Freeze once watched a game in a dental chair, it’s special.

Key matchup: These are the top two scoring teams in the Sun Belt, by a pretty wide margin. Which defense can generate a few stops? App State leads the league in third-down conversions, while Louisiana is tops in the conference in preventing third-down conversions.

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