Auburn edges Miss. State

Auburn stops No. 16 Mississippi State at the goal line to preserve wild 41-34 victory.

Traina Thoughts: The Details Of Tiger Woods' 2009 Thanksgiving Night Remain Surreal

1. Sunday marks the 8th anniversary of what to this day remains the craziest sports story of my lifetime -- Tiger Woods' Thanksgiving night in 2009. Twitter was around back then, but it was still in its infancy. If that story took place now, forget about it. Memes and GIFs for months.

The thing to keep in mind here is that the overall story of that evening alone is insane, but if you can remember the aura around Tiger pre-Thanksgiving 2009, he was basically thought of as a god by fans while sports media couldn't slobber over him enough. He had the PERFECT image at the time. But then it all came crashing down in truly spectacular fashion.

For those who don't remember, the alledged story goes something like this: Woods' then-wife, Elin Nordegren, suspected Tiger of cheating. So while he allegedly was knocked out on Ambien at about three in the morning, she went through his phone, found shady messages and decided to call one of the mistresses. After Elin's fears were confirmed, she allegedly chased Tiger out of the house with a golf club and scratched up his face. He got in his car, but she allegedly smashed out the back window (see the pictures here) and then he drove into a fire hydrant and then a tree. This real story ended up being quite different than the first-reported story, as you'll see above.

He hasn't won a Major since then and after that insane night tons of women came out of the woodwork to say they also had affairs with Woods. Tiger even pleaded with one of his women to take her name off her voicemail in preparation for Elin calling her.

To truly relive the events of that monumental night, the Taiwanese animation summary, created a week later, really covers it all in unbelievable fashion. Eight years later and it's still hard to believe the way it all went down.

2. Things got ugly for the Chargers on Thanksgiving when kicker Nick Novak got injured. The team had to turn to punter Drew Kaser to handle kicking duties and he ended up missing three extra points. He also completely missed the net while practicing his kicks on the sideline, which gave CBS analyst, Tony Romo, a good laugh.

3. If you're one of BizNasty's million followers on Twitter, you'll want to read this great feature from SI's Alex Prewitt on Paul Bissonnette's transition from fourth-liner/social media star to Phoenix Coyotes radio analyst.

4. J.J. Watt likes to smile.

5. Ole Miss defensive end Breeland Speaks had the chillest response to a fumble recovery in last night's win against Mississippi State.

6. Since The Rock doesn't have enough jobs, he's now executive producing a new podcast, What Really Happened. If you're a Michael Jordan fan, you'll be interested in Episode 4, which examines what happens when Jordan retired from the NBA for the first time.

7. Jerry Seinfeld and Jimmy Fallon had a stand-up battle with Jerry being Jerry and Jimmy being Jerry on The Tonight Show last night.

8. RANDOM WRESTLING VIDEO OF THE DAY: The end of Thanksgiving means the start of the Christmas season. What better way to get into the holiday spirit than by watching Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon host a Christmas edition of the old Prime Time Wrestling show.

Traina Thoughts is the best of the Internet, plus musings by SI.com writer, Jimmy Traina. Get the link to a new Traina's Thoughts each day by following on Twitter and liking on Facebook. Catch up on previous editions of Traina Thoughts right here. And check out Jimmy Traina's weekly podcast, "Off The Board."

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BONUS ITEM: When Alabama is only -4.5, as is the case Saturday when it visists Auburn, I'll gladly take the Crimson Tide.

College Football Week 13 Top Matchups: Odds for Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan

The Auburn Tigers, No. 6 in the CFP rankings, are 11-0 straight up and 6-3-2 against the spread in their last 11 games played at home. The Tigers will try to extend that winning streak to 12 games and punch their ticket to the SEC Championship Game with an upset win this Saturday over the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide.

Auburn is a 4.5-point home underdog at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Since losing on the road to the LSU Tigers back on Oct. 14, Auburn has rolled through its last four games with a 4-0 SU and 2-1-1 ATS record, outscoring its opponents 176 to 78 over that stretch. The Tigers' 40-17 win over Georgia as 2.5-point home underdogs coming on the same Saturday as Alabama's ugly 31-24 win over Mississippi State on the road added plenty of intrigue to this year's Iron Bowl.

Alabama was on legitimate upset alert for the first time in 2017 against the Bulldogs, trailing 24-17 in the fourth quarter on the road. But on top of being the best defensive team in the nation, the Crimson Tide also have one of the country's top offenses, and that offense put together two touchdown drives to escape unscathed.

The Crimson Tide are 8-2 ATS on the college football odds in their last 10 road games against teams with winning records.

Also this weekend, the Michigan Wolverines are hoping that this is the year that they can solve the No. 9 Ohio State Buckeyes. Michigan still leads the all-time series between these two programs 58-48-6 SU, but the Buckeyes have bridged the gap of late with a 12-1 SU record in their last 13 games against the Wolverines.

The Wolverines are going off as a 12-point underdog at home and are 1-5 ATS in their last six games at the Big House.

Ohio State enters this year's game against Michigan with a 9-2 SU and 5-6 ATS record, and they will represent the Big Ten East in the Big Ten Championship Game facing the Wisconsin Badgers. The Buckeyes are 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games against Michigan and won their last road game in Michigan 42-13.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Week 13 Picks: Auburn–Alabama, Ohio State–Michigan and the Rest of Rivalry Week

Each step towards the revelation of the final College Football Playoff rankings is more difficult than the last, but there’s a special challenge to rivalry week, when national title contenders cross paths with teams who spend all year preparing to beat them. Will Michigan muster up enough offense to scare Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Can Auburn vault Alabama as the SEC’s playoff favorite with an upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium? Will Washington State crack Washington’s defense to set up a Pac-12 title game trip with plenty on the line?

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 13’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 111–37 (75%)
Molly Geary: 108–40 (73.0%)
Andy Staples: 102–46 (68.9%)
Bruce Feldman: 94–44 (68.1%)?
Scooby Axson: 90–44 (67.1%)
Eric Single: 98–50 (66.2%)?
Joan Niesen: 94–54 (63.5%)

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Mississippi State: This could be one of Dan Mullen’s last games in charge of the Bulldogs, and the Rebels are undergoing their own search for a new head coach, but the enmity between these two programs should override the coaching-carousel speculation. Nick Fitzgerald will feast on Ole Miss’s leaky defense.

Miami at Pittsburgh (Friday, Noon ET, ABC)

Scooby Axson picks Miami: This is a classic trap game for the Hurricanes, and they will need all of their turnover chain magic to remain undefeated before next week’s ACC title game. Miami knows that too much is at stake not to once again find a way to win.

South Florida at UCF (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bruce Feldman picks UCF: McKenzie Milton has been fantastic in Scott Frost’s offense, but this very fast, physical USF squad will be the toughest test he’s faced. Expect this one to be tight going into the fourth quarter, but I don’t see anyone in the AAC derailing the Knights this year.

Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa: Sure, Iowa is 1–3 on the road this season and has lost two straight, but I still think the (at times inconsistent) Hawkeyes can get the win on the road against a hapless Nebraska team that Mike Riley somehow still coaches. This one could be high-scoring, but I think Iowa can outgain and outscore the Huskers.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Virginia: This has arguably been the ACC’s most one-sided rivalry of the millennium, but in recent years Virginia has had a couple of golden opportunities to break a losing streak that now sits at 13 straight losses. Cavaliers senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can find enough big plays to outduel Virginia Tech’s hit-and-miss offense and make his Scott Stadium farewell a memorable one.

Ohio State at Michigan (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

It’s unclear whether Great Ohio State or Mediocre Ohio State will show up from week to week, but given the special emphasis Urban Meyer puts on rivalry games, it seems like a safe bet the Great Buckeyes will take the field in Ann Arbor.

Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)

Eric Single picks Florida State: Seminoles fans have soured on James Blackman for not being the hyper-talented quarterback that he replaced (Deondre Francois), but his competitiveness has been on display in some close losses against top-tier opponents. With Florida State fighting for bowl eligibility, he’ll make enough plays to mercifully end Florida’s season.

Louisville at Kentucky (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Scooby Axson picks Louisville: If Louisville actually played some defense (the Cardinals have allowed an average of 43 points in their four losses), Lamar Jackson might be headed toward a second Heisman. But expect Jackson to slice through a vulnerable Kentucky defense with relative ease to avenge last season’s loss.

Alabama at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Bruce Feldman picks Alabama: As well as the Tigers have been playing of late, especially running back Kerryon Johnson, my hunch here is that Alabama is about to play its best game of the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has played in a lot of big games in two seasons in college, and I think he’ll be able to take advantage of some things in how the Tigers like to defend. The Tide also has healed up some on defense, and I think they’ll be locked in for the road trip with so many folks aboard the Auburn bandwagon.

Boise State at Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)

Eric Single picks Boise State: Weall left the Broncos for dead after they lost twice in September, and once everyone had looked the other way they took out their frustration on the rest of the Mountain West, beating everyone except Colorado State by double digits. In a game where neither team wants to show much—they play again next weekend for the conference title—Boise State will out-talent its hosts.

Arizona at Arizona State (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12)

Molly Geary picks Arizona: Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is coming off his worst start of the season, especially on the ground, but Oregon’s run defense is a lot stronger than the Sun Devils’. Look for Tate to rebound and lead Arizona to a road Territorial Cup win.

Clemson at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Molly Geary picks Clemson: The Tigers must avoid looking ahead to the ACC title game, but the threat of what’s on the line regarding their playoff hopes should keep Kelly Bryant & Co. focused enough to handle an eight-win South Carolina squad.

Texas A&M at LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Joan Niesen picks LSU: This LSU team is almost unrecognizable from the one that lost two games in September. Texas A&M has won two straight, but it doesn’t have the defense to stop Derrius Guice, D.J. Chark and the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame at Stanford (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Chris Johnson picks Stanford: Neither of these teams are in the conversation for playoff berths anymore, but this matchup will feature an intriguing matchup between two of the nation's best running backs: Notre Dame’s Josh Adams and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Advantage Love.

Washington State at Washington (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Washington: This feels like a much better matchup for the Cougars than the past two years (when they’ve lost by an average of 31.5 points), but Washington’s defensive personnel (good corners and a big, quick line) is built to slow offenses like Washington State’s.

Where Will the Power 5's Fired Coaches End Up Next Season?

As we prepare to eat our turkey, cornbread dressing and mashed potatoes (more on that later), the most pressing issues in college football involve the coaching carousel and the College Football Playoff. You had some great questions about both…

From Jon: Will Butch Jones, Kevin Sumlin and Jim McElwain all be head coaches of Power 5 teams next year?

I think Sumlin will, but I’m not so sure about the others. Sumlin and Texas A&M will almost certainly part ways after the LSU game, but not because Sumlin failed as the Aggies’ coach. Texas A&M administrators and fans want something they’ve never really had, and it’s unclear if there is a coach out there who can give them what they want—especially with Nick Saban’s Alabama dominating the SEC West. Texas A&M will take a big swing or two—think Jimbo Fisher—but it’s tough to predict whether the Aggies will connect. Sumlin, meanwhile, seems like a fit at a lot of places. If Chip Kelly doesn’t take UCLA, Sumlin—who considered the Bruins before taking the Texas A&M job—might fit there. He could win at Nebraska, too. Don’t be shocked if Sumlin gets another job very quickly.

Jones and McElwain could need more time, or they may never be head coaches at the Power 5 level again. The story of Jones calling a Tennessee recruit and telling him to find another school will raise huge red flags with any athletic director considering hiring him. McElwain, meanwhile, probably needs a year off to process exactly what the hell happened at Florida. He still could be a quality head coach at a Power 5 school, but he needs to be at a place where the recruiting isn’t quite as cutthroat as it is in the SEC.

From @lurking98012648: Of the fired/dead-man-walking coaches (Butch, McElwain, Bielema, Mora, Sumlin, Riley), who will be a head coach again first? Who will have to wait the longest? [Answer linked here, and in the video atop this post.]

From @skygtr350: How is a three-loss Mississippi State team ranked higher than an unbeaten UCF?

Because the teams’ profiles are very close using advanced stats, and that’s bad for UCF. The committee cares most about who a team has beaten, so let’s look at Mississippi State and UCF’s wins using Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings.

Mississippi State FBS wins

LSU 21
Texas A&M 61
UMass 81
Kentucky 88
Louisiana Tech 89
Arkansas 95
BYU 106

Median S&P+ rank: 88

UCF FBS wins

Memphis 22
SMU 58
Navy 70
FIU 93
Temple 94
Maryland 109
Cincinnati 110
UConn 119
East Carolina 121

Median S&P+ rank: 94

The committee doesn’t use S&P+, but it does consider similar advanced stats. Neither win profile is great, but Mississippi State’s slightly edges UCF. (In other words, Mississippi State probably would also be undefeated had it played UCF’s schedule to this point.) Throw in a loss on the final drive against Alabama (S&P+ rank: 2) and the committee gives Mississippi State a one-spot advantage.

What’s interesting is that S&P+ loves UCF. The Knights are ranked No. 3, just behind Alabama and Ohio State and just ahead of Wisconsin and Georgia. Personally, I think UCF would beat Mississippi State if the teams played. But I think it would be very close. So UCF and Mississippi State being one spot apart doesn’t feel that egregious even if the UCF folks believe their team belongs in the top four. As always, the moral of the story for Group of Five teams is this: If you’d like to compete for the national title, then create the toughest out-of-conference schedule you can. Otherwise you stand no chance.

From Mark: Please explain: How is Ohio State even mentioned for the playoff? They've gotten throat-punched twice, once at home, then to Iowa by 30, who then lost two in row. Joke. [Answer linked here, and in the video below.]

?

From Rob: What was the over/under on how many times you said “junk” the last two days on @ESPNUonSiriusXM?

It’s at least 347 times between two radio shows in which the newsiest topic was Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield grabbing his junk on national television. It was stupid. He shouldn’t have done it. It won’t keep him from winning the Heisman Trophy.

Kids, take it from Uncle Andy. Don’t grab your junk on national television.

From Brandon: Bama beats Auburn but then loses a close game to Georgia for the SEC title. Who gets in? [Answer linked here, and in the video below.]

From David: This is more of a statement. Mashed potatoes (while very good) are NOT a side for #Thanksgiving. #CornbreadDressing

David, why do you hate America? In a feast celebrating the abundance available to us, why would you discriminate against any dish? Cornbread dressing and mashed potatoes are both excellent, and there is room for both on my table and in my stomach.

Coaching Carousel 2017: 40 Names to Watch and Where They Might Fit

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes. Grumors. Heavyweight programs from Florida to Tennessee to Texas A&M to Arkansas to Nebraska to UCLA all either are already looking for new coaches or could be soon, and it’s likely more dominoes will fall elsewhere as coaches start making moves. As the coaching carousel heats up heading into Thanksgiving weekend, we’ve put together a shopping catalog of 40 coaches to keep an eye on as schools scramble to fill vacancies.

1. Chip Kelly, former Oregon head coach: The 53-year-old from New Hampshire is the biggest get of the year in college coaching. Kelly isn’t just one of the most innovative minds in offensive football—he also deserves that title on the sports performance front as well. Dozens of college programs have altered their weekly practice schedules in the past few years because of measures he took to get his players primed for game day. Florida officials visited him in his home state last Sunday to make their big pitch, and then some 36 hours later he was meeting with UCLA about possibly resuming his coaching career in the familiar confines of the Pac-12. As we reported on Monday, Kelly, who went 46–7 in his four seasons as a head coach at Oregon, is going to be deliberate in his process. The Gators are hoping for a green light sooner than later.

2. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach: He followed a legend (Bobby Bowden) and has done exceptionally well. Prior to this season, he had seven consecutive Top 25 finishes with four in the Top 10, including the 2013 national title. This fall has been a disaster: The Seminoles are 4–6 and just 3–5 in ACC play. The fan base is frustrated; some say Fisher has been too loyal to his staff and won’t make changes. He has also bristled about the program’s facilities shortcomings. Fisher has had plenty of opportunities to bolt Tallahassee—would he do it now? We’ll see. There have been plenty of rumblings that Texas A&M is prepared to throw a lot of money at him. Would Tennessee or Auburn do the same?

3. Scott Frost, UCF head coach: The former Nebraska quarterback, a Chip Kelly protégé, has led a resurgence at UCF, where the Knights are 10–0 and No. 15 in the playoff rankings. Frost’s team leads the nation in points per game at 48.2. In 2015, the year before he arrived in Orlando, the Knights averaged under 14 points per game (126th in the country) and went 0–12. Frost is likely in play at his alma mater, along with Florida, Tennessee and potentially at Florida State.

4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach: The Bulldogs are hot, sitting at No. 14 in the playoff rankings, higher than any other three-loss team. The Urban Meyer protégé knows the SEC well and has proven to be an excellent developer of quarterbacks. He has interviewed for several other bigger jobs over the years, but has been unable to land them. This winter is probably his best opportunity. Tennessee, Florida, A&M, Nebraska and Auburn all could be interested in him. He knows he has a good situation. He’s also getting paid well at $4.5 million. Those other programs likely could pay him considerably more, but the pressure would increase significantly, too. He has averaged eight wins a season over the past five years and is beloved in Starkville for that. At one of those other programs, he’d be run out of town for that level of peformance.

5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach: It’s crazy that just a few weeks ago Malzahn was on the hot seat; now he’s two wins away from having the Tigers in the playoff. That’s so Auburn. Malzahn is 44–20 and took the team to the BCS national title game in his first season. In the three years between then and now, the Tigers were two games under .500 in SEC play. The feeling here is he’s always just a two-game losing skid away from being back on the hot seat. He’s from Arkansas and used to be a Razorbacks assistant. Sources have told SI that there’s a lot of support from big money boosters there to bring him back as head coach since Bret Bielema has struggled to build momentum in Fayetteville. If Malzahn wins the SEC this year, it’s hard to imagine Auburn not signing him to a big fat extension, but who knows? We’re talking about him potentially being in the middle of two programs, both of which are in the market for new ADs.

6. Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: He’d be higher on this list if his buyout wasn’t so big at over $9 million. Then again, if Tennessee boosters were thinking of breaking the bank for Jon Gruden, why not do it for a younger coach who pulled off two wins over top-five opponents this season while coaching at Iowa State? The Cyclones are 7–4 and spent time in the top 15, remarkable for Campbell’s second year. The 37-year-old Mount Union product is a rising star in the business and is worth chasing for some of these bigger programs.

7. Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator: Venables has made it known he’s not just going to take any head coaching job. The 46-year-old former Kansas State linebacker is very happy with how his life is now as the DC at Clemson, where he’s proven he’s one of the best assistants in the country. He’s also been known as an outstanding recruiter for years. But would he be tempted if Tennessee or Arkansas came calling? Or his alma mater? Another one to keep an eye on is Texas Tech, where Kliff Kingsbury is in some jeopardy. Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt is one of Venables’s best friends.

8. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M head coach: Sumlin is 51–25 in six seasons at A&M. In 2012, his debut season, he led the Aggies to their first top-five finish in over half a century. Only Alabama, LSU and Georgia have won more games in that stretch in the SEC. The previous six seasons before he took over, Texas A&M was 42–34. However after three consecutive 8–5 seasons, A&M brass and new athletic director Scott Woodward want him out. Sumlin’s a dynamic recruiter who would be a fit in any region. He could be in play at UCLA if Kelly doesn’t end up there—the Bruins once were very interested in him. The former Purdue linebacker also could end up back in the Big Ten at Nebraska.

9. Bret Bielema, Arkansas head coach: Like Sumlin, Bielema came to the SEC with impressive credentials. He won shares of three Big Ten titles. He’s a big charismatic presence. He took over a mess, but has struggled to deliver a breakthrough season with the Razorbacks. His teams are 29–33, and this year has been a dud with the Hogs at 4–7 and just 1–6 in SEC play. The school just canned the guy who hired him, Jeff Long, and it’s very likely Bielema could be next to go with the fat cats wanting Malzahn’s return. Bielema is too good of a coach not to land back in a Power 5 job. There’s been some rumbling that he could return to Kansas State (where he was co-defensive coordinator in 2002–03), possibly as Bill Snyder’s successor. He also might get in the mix for Nebraska.

10. Willie Taggart, Oregon head coach: He recruits very well and develops tough teams, as evidenced by his impressive work at both Western Kentucky and USF. He landed the Oregon job and has things on the right track with a shot at a seven-win season despite missing standout young QB Justin Herbert for half the season. Taggart has a good situation in Eugene, but if either Florida or Florida State came calling it might be pretty hard for the Sunshine State native to say no.

11. Mike Leach, Washington State head coach: The Cougars have a shot at the Pac-12 title this season—amazing when you consider that he took over a program that had won just nine games in the previous four seasons combined. Leach also is the best coach in Texas Tech history. He has a brilliant offensive mind, but calling him a loose cannon would be kind of an understatement. He likes it in Pullman, and his team next year might be even better. But might he be lured away? His old AD Bill Moos now is calling the shots at Nebraska. Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss all might give him some consideration.

12. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach: He had a lackluster season as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator once. So what? He’s won everywhere he’s been a head coach. His Wake team has a chance at winning eight games this season. No small feat. He deserves a look from UCLA or Arkansas or Nebraska.

13. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado head coach: His career 40–58 record is underwhelming, but he did massive overhauls first at San Jose State and then in Boulder, where he led the Buffs to the Pac-12 South title last season. Colorado is hoping to get bowl eligible this week. Word is the former Ole Miss assistant is high on the Rebels’ radar as they look to do their own big rebuild in the wake of NCAA sanctions.

14. David Cutcliffe, Duke head coach: At 63, the Vols’ former offensive coordinator has a revered place in Tennessee history. He has also done a terrific job at Duke. Would his old boss Phil Fulmer, now in an advisory role in Knoxville, have enough sway to get Cutcliffe back? His age doesn’t help his cause, nor does the Blue Devils’ 3–12 mark in the ACC the past two years. Perhaps if he could bring his protégé-turned-USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin back with him, it might be more plausible.

15. Jeff Brohm, Purdue head coach: He’s one more win away from getting the Boilermakers into a bowl game. Not bad for a debut season. Brohm is one of the most creative offensive minds in football. He’s made Purdue football fun again. That’s no small feat. The feeling here is that he could be a good fit for Tennessee or Arkansas, but will those schools think he’s done enough to warrant the job?

16. Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach: One of the 15 best coaches in football. His teams are always physical. The Utes won 28 games the previous three seasons but lost a ton of talent to the NFL and are struggling to get bowl eligible. Both UCLA and Tennessee could do a lot worse, and have done a lot worse in their previous coaching searches. Would he leave Salt Lake City? It’s at least worth asking.

17. Greg Schiano, Ohio State defensive coordinator: He did an amazing job turning a dismal Rutgers program into a respectable one before he left to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Schiano returned to the college game last year and has become Urban Meyer’s right-hand man. He also had an exemplary academic track record with his program at Rutgers—at one point the Scarlet Knights ranked behind only Northwestern in APR among FBS schools and had the best mark of any state university in the nation four years in a row. Years ago Schiano turned down the Michigan job. He interviewed for the USC head coach vacancy a few years ago. I’m told there is a real possibility he could get the Tennessee job. Arkansas and UCLA are two other places where he could be in consideration.

18. Gary Kubiak, former NFL head coach: His résumé is actually pretty similar to Jon Gruden’s, minus the big TV gig and flashy persona. The 56-year-old has led a team to a Super Bowl and has a winning record after a decade of coaching in the NFL. He also has a bit of college coaching experience from about 25 years ago. The Houston native who works in the Broncos’ front office was a record-setting QB at Texas A&M and would have some support from the Aggie family if they can’t get Jimbo Fisher.

19. Manny Diaz, Miami defensive coordinator: The brains behind the famed Turnover Chain and Hurricanes’ aggressive defense, Diaz has a good shot to win the Broyles Award, honoring the nation’s top assistant. The Miami native would seem like a no-brainer for Mississippi State if Dan Mullen does leave for another job. Diaz twice worked in Starkville and did impressive work there.

20. Jedd Fisch, UCLA offensive coordinator: He has worked under Pete Carroll, Mike Shanahan, Steve Spurrier and Jim Harbaugh and has done a really good job pumping life back into the UCLA offense this season despite being the Bruins’ third OC in three years. The Bruins have jumped 70 spots from last year to No. 21 in total offense despite losing two of their best receivers. Fisch is very well-regarded inside of UCLA. USC has gone the promoting-the-interim route across town with considerable success. Fisch has less of a window to prove himself as a head coach than Clay Helton did, but he could impress more folks there with this opportunity.

21. Alex Grinch, Washington State defensive coordinator: This is by far the best defense Mike Leach has had in almost two decades as a head coach. Luring Grinch off the Missouri staff might be the shrewdest move Leach has ever made. Washington State ranks No. 11 in the nation in total defense—that’s about 100 spots higher than where they resided before Grinch came to Pullman. He’s very respected as a playcaller around the Pac-12. He’s another guy with Mount Union roots and is a very hot commodity now. Bigger Power 5 programs will try and hire him as their defensive coordinator, but Oregon State might look to him for their head coach job, and the Cougars could too if Leach were to leave.

22. Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator: Being a coordinator under Nick Saban often leads to an SEC head coaching job, and the 43-year-old Pruitt is the next in line. In 2013, he helped Florida State win a national title. He returned to the Tide and again has Bama’s defense ranked No. 1 in the country. Would Tennessee or Arkansas or Auburn give him the keys as a first-time head coach? The example of Kirby Smart at Georgia is playing well right now for Pruitt.

23. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy head coach: Few coaches are respected more by their peers than the guy who has spent a decade piling up wins at Navy. Niumatalolo is 52 and was in the mix for the Cal job last year. His option scheme isn’t for everyone, but it might play well at Nebraska or Oregon State, where his recruiting ties could be a big asset getting things going in Corvallis.

24. Frank Wilson, UTSA head coach: The charismatic New Orleans native, who was a top recruiter at LSU for Les Miles, led the Roadrunners to their first bowl in his debut season. One SEC administrator pointed out to me before this season that the fact that he’s proven he can recruit well in the SEC separates him from a lot of the other names people are putting on lists. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State could be options for him too. Maybe Arkansas as well.

25. Craig Bohl, Wyoming head coach: His age might scare a lot of ADs. He’s 59 but he has done a fantastic job at Wyoming after leading North Dakota State to three national titles. If Bill Snyder decides to step down, Bohl could be in play at Kansas State—his old AD is now in Manhattan. He also has strong Nebraska ties, and he thrived off the old Husker model at both of his last two coaching stops.

26. Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach: He’s done a nice job building off what Justin Fuente got going with the Tigers. Norvell is a rising star, and he’s only 36. The odds are in his favor in that there are so many vacancies. He may get a look from Tennessee, Arkansas or UCLA.

27. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach: A Chris Petersen protégé and a former assistant at Texas under Mack Brown, Harsin is 40–11 in four seasons at Boise State. He coached at Arkansas State for one season. Would Arkansas want him? He might also get a look from UCLA if Kelly doesn’t take the Bruins vacancy.

28. Charlie Strong, USF head coach: Another former Urban Meyer assistant, Strong fizzled at Texas after three tumultuous seasons, but he has had a good first year at USF. He knows the SEC very well and has a great reputation with his players. Ole Miss has some interest. He’s also an Arkansas native, but we’re not sure if the Hogs would go after him after his tenure at Texas.

29. Neal Brown, Troy head coach: His stock rocketed up after the Trojans knocked off LSU in Baton Rouge this year. In truth, the 37-year-old former Kentucky offensive coordinator already was on Ole Miss’s radar. His teams are 18–5 the past two seasons. We could see him at either of the Mississippi schools next year.

30. Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator: The 39-year-old former NFL QB who led Tennessee to a national title two decades ago has played a key role in the Trojans’ return to the top 10. Martin has long been regarded as one of the better recruiters in college football and has developed a bunch of playmakers both in his time at Kentucky and USC. His affable personality plays well everywhere. He’s also a Broyles Award semifinalist, which doesn’t hurt his stock. Would his alma mater think he’s ready for the big job in Knoxville?

31. Troy Calhoun, Air Force head coach: He won 28 games at the academy the previous three seasons. This year, the Falcons have struggled, but the 51-year-old former NFL OC, an Oregon native, might be a good option for Oregon State or at an Ole Miss program looking for someone to pull them out of a nasty scandal.

32. Beau Baldwin, Cal offensive coordinator: His 95–35 record as an FCS head coach is impressive, as is his work this season helping Justin Wilcox get Cal rolling. Oregon State has some interest. Would UCLA give him a look as well?

33. Jeff Monken, Army head coach: Earlier this season he got a new five-year deal. He deserves it. He’s been superb leading Army to 16 wins the past two seasons. They’d won just eight games in the three years before he’d arrived. He has Midwest roots—would Nebraska think he’s right right guy?

34. Jason Candle, Toledo head coach: Another Mount Union guy, Candle is impressive in-person. He’s piling up wins in the MAC with a shot at 10–2 after winning nine in his first season. If it were the Big Ten having the run of numerous coaching vacancies this year instead of the SEC, I think he’d get scooped up, but maybe not this time, although he’s a name to remember as other dominoes start to fall.

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35. Seth Littrell, North Texas head coach: A Mike Leach disciple, the former Oklahoma fullback has made good strides in his first two seasons as a head man, going from five wins to eight with a shot at the C-USA title. He has Texas Tech ties and could be in consideration if the Red Raiders move on from Kliff Kingsbury.

36. Mike Bobo, Colorado State head coach: The former Georgia QB and offensive coordinator has won 21 games in three seasons with the Rams. He has strong SEC roots and would probably jump at the chance to come back. He’s another one who is likely to get some interest from Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

37. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State head coach: The 48-year-old Larry Fedora disciple is 30–18 in four seasons at Arkansas State, which has a Top 20 offense this season. He is well-regarded around the state and should get some consideration at Arkansas if the Hogs are in the market.

38. Chad Morris, SMU head coach: The former Texas high school coach did a great job helping Dabo Swinney get Clemson rolling, then took over an SMU program that had fallen apart and went from two wins to five wins to a shot at seven wins this year. Has he shown enough to have a realistic shot to get hired at his alma mater Texas A&M as the head guy? It’s a stretch to think the Aggies would—given he’s 7–16 in the AAC—but he could be in consideration at the Mississippi schools and perhaps Texas Tech, where he came in second to Kingsbury the last time it was open.

39. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State head coach: Satterfield’s teams are 19–3 in the Sun Belt the last three seasons, and he’s considered one of the top Group of Five coaches in the country. The 44-year-old North Carolina native may be in consideration for a few of these potential SEC vacancies—perhaps Ole Miss or Mississippi State (if Mullen leaves) would be good fits.

40. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic head coach: He has done better in Year One than just about anyone could’ve expected—Lord knows he’s made FAU nationally relevant. But the question remains from a year ago: Would any Power 5 AD and president trust him to be the face of their program? The feeling here is not at this point.

Coaching Carousel 2017: 40 Names to Watch and Where They Might Fit

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes. Grumors. Heavyweight programs from Florida to Tennessee to Texas A&M to Arkansas to Nebraska to UCLA all either are already looking for new coaches or could be soon, and it’s likely more dominoes will fall elsewhere as coaches start making moves. As the coaching carousel heats up heading into Thanksgiving weekend, we’ve put together a shopping catalog of 40 coaches to keep an eye on as schools scramble to fill vacancies.

1. Chip Kelly, former Oregon head coach: The 53-year-old from New Hampshire is the biggest get of the year in college coaching. Kelly isn’t just one of the most innovative minds in offensive football—he also deserves that title on the sports performance front as well. Dozens of college programs have altered their weekly practice schedules in the past few years because of measures he took to get his players primed for game day. Florida officials visited him in his home state last Sunday to make their big pitch, and then some 36 hours later he was meeting with UCLA about possibly resuming his coaching career in the familiar confines of the Pac-12. As we reported on Monday, Kelly, who went 46–7 in his four seasons as a head coach at Oregon, is going to be deliberate in his process. The Gators are hoping for a green light sooner than later.

2. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach: He followed a legend (Bobby Bowden) and has done exceptionally well. Prior to this season, he had seven consecutive Top 25 finishes with four in the Top 10, including the 2013 national title. This fall has been a disaster: The Seminoles are 4–6 and just 3–5 in ACC play. The fan base is frustrated; some say Fisher has been too loyal to his staff and won’t make changes. He has also bristled about the program’s facilities shortcomings. Fisher has had plenty of opportunities to bolt Tallahassee—would he do it now? We’ll see. There have been plenty of rumblings that Texas A&M is prepared to throw a lot of money at him. Would Tennessee or Auburn do the same?

3. Scott Frost, UCF head coach: The former Nebraska quarterback, a Chip Kelly protégé, has led a resurgence at UCF, where the Knights are 10–0 and No. 15 in the playoff rankings. Frost’s team leads the nation in points per game at 48.2. In 2015, the year before he arrived in Orlando, the Knights averaged under 14 points per game (126th in the country) and went 0–12. Frost is likely in play at his alma mater, along with Florida, Tennessee and potentially at Florida State.

4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach: The Bulldogs are hot, sitting at No. 14 in the playoff rankings, higher than any other three-loss team. The Urban Meyer protégé knows the SEC well and has proven to be an excellent developer of quarterbacks. He has interviewed for several other bigger jobs over the years, but has been unable to land them. This winter is probably his best opportunity. Tennessee, Florida, A&M, Nebraska and Auburn all could be interested in him. He knows he has a good situation. He’s also getting paid well at $4.5 million. Those other programs likely could pay him considerably more, but the pressure would increase significantly, too. He has averaged eight wins a season over the past five years and is beloved in Starkville for that. At one of those other programs, he’d be run out of town for that level of peformance.

5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach: It’s crazy that just a few weeks ago Malzahn was on the hot seat; now he’s two wins away from having the Tigers in the playoff. That’s so Auburn. Malzahn is 44–20 and took the team to the BCS national title game in his first season. In the three years between then and now, the Tigers were two games under .500 in SEC play. The feeling here is he’s always just a two-game losing skid away from being back on the hot seat. He’s from Arkansas and used to be a Razorbacks assistant. Sources have told SI that there’s a lot of support from big money boosters there to bring him back as head coach since Bret Bielema has struggled to build momentum in Fayetteville. If Malzahn wins the SEC this year, it’s hard to imagine Auburn not signing him to a big fat extension, but who knows? We’re talking about him potentially being in the middle of two programs, both of which are in the market for new ADs.

6. Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: He’d be higher on this list if his buyout wasn’t so big at over $9 million. Then again, if Tennessee boosters were thinking of breaking the bank for Jon Gruden, why not do it for a younger coach who pulled off two wins over top-five opponents this season while coaching at Iowa State? The Cyclones are 7–4 and spent time in the top 15, remarkable for Campbell’s second year. The 37-year-old Mount Union product is a rising star in the business and is worth chasing for some of these bigger programs.

7. Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator: Venables has made it known he’s not just going to take any head coaching job. The 46-year-old former Kansas State linebacker is very happy with how his life is now as the DC at Clemson, where he’s proven he’s one of the best assistants in the country. He’s also been known as an outstanding recruiter for years. But would he be tempted if Tennessee or Arkansas came calling? Or his alma mater? Another one to keep an eye on is Texas Tech, where Kliff Kingsbury is in some jeopardy. Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt is one of Venables’s best friends.

8. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M head coach: Sumlin is 51–25 in six seasons at A&M. In 2012, his debut season, he led the Aggies to their first top-five finish in over half a century. Only Alabama, LSU and Georgia have won more games in that stretch in the SEC. The previous six seasons before he took over, Texas A&M was 42–34. However after three consecutive 8–5 seasons, A&M brass and new athletic director Scott Woodward want him out. Sumlin’s a dynamic recruiter who would be a fit in any region. He could be in play at UCLA if Kelly doesn’t end up there—the Bruins once were very interested in him. The former Purdue linebacker also could end up back in the Big Ten at Nebraska.

9. Bret Bielema, Arkansas head coach: Like Sumlin, Bielema came to the SEC with impressive credentials. He won shares of three Big Ten titles. He’s a big charismatic presence. He took over a mess, but has struggled to deliver a breakthrough season with the Razorbacks. His teams are 29–33, and this year has been a dud with the Hogs at 4–7 and just 1–6 in SEC play. The school just canned the guy who hired him, Jeff Long, and it’s very likely Bielema could be next to go with the fat cats wanting Malzahn’s return. Bielema is too good of a coach not to land back in a Power 5 job. There’s been some rumbling that he could return to Kansas State (where he was co-defensive coordinator in 2002–03), possibly as Bill Snyder’s successor. He also might get in the mix for Nebraska.

10. Willie Taggart, Oregon head coach: He recruits very well and develops tough teams, as evidenced by his impressive work at both Western Kentucky and USF. He landed the Oregon job and has things on the right track with a shot at a seven-win season despite missing standout young QB Justin Herbert for half the season. Taggart has a good situation in Eugene, but if either Florida or Florida State came calling it might be pretty hard for the Sunshine State native to say no.

11. Mike Leach, Washington State head coach: The Cougars have a shot at the Pac-12 title this season—amazing when you consider that he took over a program that had won just nine games in the previous four seasons combined. Leach also is the best coach in Texas Tech history. He has a brilliant offensive mind, but calling him a loose cannon would be kind of an understatement. He likes it in Pullman, and his team next year might be even better. But might he be lured away? His old AD Bill Moos now is calling the shots at Nebraska. Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss all might give him some consideration.

12. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach: He had a lackluster season as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator once. So what? He’s won everywhere he’s been a head coach. His Wake team has a chance at winning eight games this season. No small feat. He deserves a look from UCLA or Arkansas or Nebraska.

13. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado head coach: His career 40–58 record is underwhelming, but he did massive overhauls first at San Jose State and then in Boulder, where he led the Buffs to the Pac-12 South title last season. Colorado is hoping to get bowl eligible this week. Word is the former Ole Miss assistant is high on the Rebels’ radar as they look to do their own big rebuild in the wake of NCAA sanctions.

14. David Cutcliffe, Duke head coach: At 63, the Vols’ former offensive coordinator has a revered place in Tennessee history. He has also done a terrific job at Duke. Would his old boss Phil Fulmer, now in an advisory role in Knoxville, have enough sway to get Cutcliffe back? His age doesn’t help his cause, nor does the Blue Devils’ 3–12 mark in the ACC the past two years. Perhaps if he could bring his protégé-turned-USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin back with him, it might be more plausible.

15. Jeff Brohm, Purdue head coach: He’s one more win away from getting the Boilermakers into a bowl game. Not bad for a debut season. Brohm is one of the most creative offensive minds in football. He’s made Purdue football fun again. That’s no small feat. The feeling here is that he could be a good fit for Tennessee or Arkansas, but will those schools think he’s done enough to warrant the job?

16. Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach: One of the 15 best coaches in football. His teams are always physical. The Utes won 28 games the previous three seasons but lost a ton of talent to the NFL and are struggling to get bowl eligible. Both UCLA and Tennessee could do a lot worse, and have done a lot worse in their previous coaching searches. Would he leave Salt Lake City? It’s at least worth asking.

17. Greg Schiano, Ohio State defensive coordinator: He did an amazing job turning a dismal Rutgers program into a respectable one before he left to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Schiano returned to the college game last year and has become Urban Meyer’s right-hand man. He also had an exemplary academic track record with his program at Rutgers—at one point the Scarlet Knights ranked behind only Northwestern in APR among FBS schools and had the best mark of any state university in the nation four years in a row. Years ago Schiano turned down the Michigan job. He interviewed for the USC head coach vacancy a few years ago. I’m told there is a real possibility he could get the Tennessee job. Arkansas and UCLA are two other places where he could be in consideration.

18. Gary Kubiak, former NFL head coach: His résumé is actually pretty similar to Jon Gruden’s, minus the big TV gig and flashy persona. The 56-year-old has led a team to a Super Bowl and has a winning record after a decade of coaching in the NFL. He also has a bit of college coaching experience from about 25 years ago. The Houston native who works in the Broncos’ front office was a record-setting QB at Texas A&M and would have some support from the Aggie family if they can’t get Jimbo Fisher.

19. Manny Diaz, Miami defensive coordinator: The brains behind the famed Turnover Chain and Hurricanes’ aggressive defense, Diaz has a good shot to win the Broyles Award, honoring the nation’s top assistant. The Miami native would seem like a no-brainer for Mississippi State if Dan Mullen does leave for another job. Diaz twice worked in Starkville and did impressive work there.

20. Jedd Fisch, UCLA offensive coordinator: He has worked under Pete Carroll, Mike Shanahan, Steve Spurrier and Jim Harbaugh and has done a really good job pumping life back into the UCLA offense this season despite being the Bruins’ third OC in three years. The Bruins have jumped 70 spots from last year to No. 21 in total offense despite losing two of their best receivers. Fisch is very well-regarded inside of UCLA. USC has gone the promoting-the-interim route across town with considerable success. Fisch has less of a window to prove himself as a head coach than Clay Helton did, but he could impress more folks there with this opportunity.

21. Alex Grinch, Washington State defensive coordinator: This is by far the best defense Mike Leach has had in almost two decades as a head coach. Luring Grinch off the Missouri staff might be the shrewdest move Leach has ever made. Washington State ranks No. 11 in the nation in total defense—that’s about 100 spots higher than where they resided before Grinch came to Pullman. He’s very respected as a playcaller around the Pac-12. He’s another guy with Mount Union roots and is a very hot commodity now. Bigger Power 5 programs will try and hire him as their defensive coordinator, but Oregon State might look to him for their head coach job, and the Cougars could too if Leach were to leave.

22. Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator: Being a coordinator under Nick Saban often leads to an SEC head coaching job, and the 43-year-old Pruitt is the next in line. In 2013, he helped Florida State win a national title. He returned to the Tide and again has Bama’s defense ranked No. 1 in the country. Would Tennessee or Arkansas or Auburn give him the keys as a first-time head coach? The example of Kirby Smart at Georgia is playing well right now for Pruitt.

23. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy head coach: Few coaches are respected more by their peers than the guy who has spent a decade piling up wins at Navy. Niumatalolo is 52 and was in the mix for the Cal job last year. His option scheme isn’t for everyone, but it might play well at Nebraska or Oregon State, where his recruiting ties could be a big asset getting things going in Corvallis.

24. Frank Wilson, UTSA head coach: The charismatic New Orleans native, who was a top recruiter at LSU for Les Miles, led the Roadrunners to their first bowl in his debut season. One SEC administrator pointed out to me before this season that the fact that he’s proven he can recruit well in the SEC separates him from a lot of the other names people are putting on lists. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State could be options for him too. Maybe Arkansas as well.

25. Craig Bohl, Wyoming head coach: His age might scare a lot of ADs. He’s 59 but he has done a fantastic job at Wyoming after leading North Dakota State to three national titles. If Bill Snyder decides to step down, Bohl could be in play at Kansas State—his old AD is now in Manhattan. He also has strong Nebraska ties, and he thrived off the old Husker model at both of his last two coaching stops.

26. Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach: He’s done a nice job building off what Justin Fuente got going with the Tigers. Norvell is a rising star, and he’s only 36. The odds are in his favor in that there are so many vacancies. He may get a look from Tennessee, Arkansas or UCLA.

27. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach: A Chris Petersen protégé and a former assistant at Texas under Mack Brown, Harsin is 40–11 in four seasons at Boise State. He coached at Arkansas State for one season. Would Arkansas want him? He might also get a look from UCLA if Kelly doesn’t take the Bruins vacancy.

28. Charlie Strong, USF head coach: Another former Urban Meyer assistant, Strong fizzled at Texas after three tumultuous seasons, but he has had a good first year at USF. He knows the SEC very well and has a great reputation with his players. Ole Miss has some interest. He’s also an Arkansas native, but we’re not sure if the Hogs would go after him after his tenure at Texas.

29. Neal Brown, Troy head coach: His stock rocketed up after the Trojans knocked off LSU in Baton Rouge this year. In truth, the 37-year-old former Kentucky offensive coordinator already was on Ole Miss’s radar. His teams are 18–5 the past two seasons. We could see him at either of the Mississippi schools next year.

30. Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator: The 39-year-old former NFL QB who led Tennessee to a national title two decades ago has played a key role in the Trojans’ return to the top 10. Martin has long been regarded as one of the better recruiters in college football and has developed a bunch of playmakers both in his time at Kentucky and USC. His affable personality plays well everywhere. He’s also a Broyles Award semifinalist, which doesn’t hurt his stock. Would his alma mater think he’s ready for the big job in Knoxville?

31. Troy Calhoun, Air Force head coach: He won 28 games at the academy the previous three seasons. This year, the Falcons have struggled, but the 51-year-old former NFL OC, an Oregon native, might be a good option for Oregon State or at an Ole Miss program looking for someone to pull them out of a nasty scandal.

32. Beau Baldwin, Cal offensive coordinator: His 95–35 record as an FCS head coach is impressive, as is his work this season helping Justin Wilcox get Cal rolling. Oregon State has some interest. Would UCLA give him a look as well?

33. Jeff Monken, Army head coach: Earlier this season he got a new five-year deal. He deserves it. He’s been superb leading Army to 16 wins the past two seasons. They’d won just eight games in the three years before he’d arrived. He has Midwest roots—would Nebraska think he’s right right guy?

34. Jason Candle, Toledo head coach: Another Mount Union guy, Candle is impressive in-person. He’s piling up wins in the MAC with a shot at 10–2 after winning nine in his first season. If it were the Big Ten having the run of numerous coaching vacancies this year instead of the SEC, I think he’d get scooped up, but maybe not this time, although he’s a name to remember as other dominoes start to fall.

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35. Seth Littrell, North Texas head coach: A Mike Leach disciple, the former Oklahoma fullback has made good strides in his first two seasons as a head man, going from five wins to eight with a shot at the C-USA title. He has Texas Tech ties and could be in consideration if the Red Raiders move on from Kliff Kingsbury.

36. Mike Bobo, Colorado State head coach: The former Georgia QB and offensive coordinator has won 21 games in three seasons with the Rams. He has strong SEC roots and would probably jump at the chance to come back. He’s another one who is likely to get some interest from Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

37. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State head coach: The 48-year-old Larry Fedora disciple is 30–18 in four seasons at Arkansas State, which has a Top 20 offense this season. He is well-regarded around the state and should get some consideration at Arkansas if the Hogs are in the market.

38. Chad Morris, SMU head coach: The former Texas high school coach did a great job helping Dabo Swinney get Clemson rolling, then took over an SMU program that had fallen apart and went from two wins to five wins to a shot at seven wins this year. Has he shown enough to have a realistic shot to get hired at his alma mater Texas A&M as the head guy? It’s a stretch to think the Aggies would—given he’s 7–16 in the AAC—but he could be in consideration at the Mississippi schools and perhaps Texas Tech, where he came in second to Kingsbury the last time it was open.

39. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State head coach: Satterfield’s teams are 19–3 in the Sun Belt the last three seasons, and he’s considered one of the top Group of Five coaches in the country. The 44-year-old North Carolina native may be in consideration for a few of these potential SEC vacancies—perhaps Ole Miss or Mississippi State (if Mullen leaves) would be good fits.

40. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic head coach: He has done better in Year One than just about anyone could’ve expected—Lord knows he’s made FAU nationally relevant. But the question remains from a year ago: Would any Power 5 AD and president trust him to be the face of their program? The feeling here is not at this point.

Coaching Carousel 2017: 40 Names to Watch and Where They Might Fit

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes. Grumors. Heavyweight programs from Florida to Tennessee to Texas A&M to Arkansas to Nebraska to UCLA all either are already looking for new coaches or could be soon, and it’s likely more dominoes will fall elsewhere as coaches start making moves. As the coaching carousel heats up heading into Thanksgiving weekend, we’ve put together a shopping catalog of 40 coaches to keep an eye on as schools scramble to fill vacancies.

1. Chip Kelly, former Oregon head coach: The 53-year-old from New Hampshire is the biggest get of the year in college coaching. Kelly isn’t just one of the most innovative minds in offensive football—he also deserves that title on the sports performance front as well. Dozens of college programs have altered their weekly practice schedules in the past few years because of measures he took to get his players primed for game day. Florida officials visited him in his home state last Sunday to make their big pitch, and then some 36 hours later he was meeting with UCLA about possibly resuming his coaching career in the familiar confines of the Pac-12. As we reported on Monday, Kelly, who went 46–7 in his four seasons as a head coach at Oregon, is going to be deliberate in his process. The Gators are hoping for a green light sooner than later.

2. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach: He followed a legend (Bobby Bowden) and has done exceptionally well. Prior to this season, he had seven consecutive Top 25 finishes with four in the Top 10, including the 2013 national title. This fall has been a disaster: The Seminoles are 4–6 and just 3–5 in ACC play. The fan base is frustrated; some say Fisher has been too loyal to his staff and won’t make changes. He has also bristled about the program’s facilities shortcomings. Fisher has had plenty of opportunities to bolt Tallahassee—would he do it now? We’ll see. There have been plenty of rumblings that Texas A&M is prepared to throw a lot of money at him. Would Tennessee or Auburn do the same?

3. Scott Frost, UCF head coach: The former Nebraska quarterback, a Chip Kelly protégé, has led a resurgence at UCF, where the Knights are 10–0 and No. 15 in the playoff rankings. Frost’s team leads the nation in points per game at 48.2. In 2015, the year before he arrived in Orlando, the Knights averaged under 14 points per game (126th in the country) and went 0–12. Frost is likely in play at his alma mater, along with Florida, Tennessee and potentially at Florida State.

4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach: The Bulldogs are hot, sitting at No. 14 in the playoff rankings, higher than any other three-loss team. The Urban Meyer protégé knows the SEC well and has proven to be an excellent developer of quarterbacks. He has interviewed for several other bigger jobs over the years, but has been unable to land them. This winter is probably his best opportunity. Tennessee, Florida, A&M, Nebraska and Auburn all could be interested in him. He knows he has a good situation. He’s also getting paid well at $4.5 million. Those other programs likely could pay him considerably more, but the pressure would increase significantly, too. He has averaged eight wins a season over the past five years and is beloved in Starkville for that. At one of those other programs, he’d be run out of town for that level of peformance.

5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach: It’s crazy that just a few weeks ago Malzahn was on the hot seat; now he’s two wins away from having the Tigers in the playoff. That’s so Auburn. Malzahn is 44–20 and took the team to the BCS national title game in his first season. In the three years between then and now, the Tigers were two games under .500 in SEC play. The feeling here is he’s always just a two-game losing skid away from being back on the hot seat. He’s from Arkansas and used to be a Razorbacks assistant. Sources have told SI that there’s a lot of support from big money boosters there to bring him back as head coach since Bret Bielema has struggled to build momentum in Fayetteville. If Malzahn wins the SEC this year, it’s hard to imagine Auburn not signing him to a big fat extension, but who knows? We’re talking about him potentially being in the middle of two programs, both of which are in the market for new ADs.

6. Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: He’d be higher on this list if his buyout wasn’t so big at over $9 million. Then again, if Tennessee boosters were thinking of breaking the bank for Jon Gruden, why not do it for a younger coach who pulled off two wins over top-five opponents this season while coaching at Iowa State? The Cyclones are 7–4 and spent time in the top 15, remarkable for Campbell’s second year. The 37-year-old Mount Union product is a rising star in the business and is worth chasing for some of these bigger programs.

7. Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator: Venables has made it known he’s not just going to take any head coaching job. The 46-year-old former Kansas State linebacker is very happy with how his life is now as the DC at Clemson, where he’s proven he’s one of the best assistants in the country. He’s also been known as an outstanding recruiter for years. But would he be tempted if Tennessee or Arkansas came calling? Or his alma mater? Another one to keep an eye on is Texas Tech, where Kliff Kingsbury is in some jeopardy. Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt is one of Venables’s best friends.

8. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M head coach: Sumlin is 51–25 in six seasons at A&M. In 2012, his debut season, he led the Aggies to their first top-five finish in over half a century. Only Alabama, LSU and Georgia have won more games in that stretch in the SEC. The previous six seasons before he took over, Texas A&M was 42–34. However after three consecutive 8–5 seasons, A&M brass and new athletic director Scott Woodward want him out. Sumlin’s a dynamic recruiter who would be a fit in any region. He could be in play at UCLA if Kelly doesn’t end up there—the Bruins once were very interested in him. The former Purdue linebacker also could end up back in the Big Ten at Nebraska.

9. Bret Bielema, Arkansas head coach: Like Sumlin, Bielema came to the SEC with impressive credentials. He won shares of three Big Ten titles. He’s a big charismatic presence. He took over a mess, but has struggled to deliver a breakthrough season with the Razorbacks. His teams are 29–33, and this year has been a dud with the Hogs at 4–7 and just 1–6 in SEC play. The school just canned the guy who hired him, Jeff Long, and it’s very likely Bielema could be next to go with the fat cats wanting Malzahn’s return. Bielema is too good of a coach not to land back in a Power 5 job. There’s been some rumbling that he could return to Kansas State (where he was co-defensive coordinator in 2002–03), possibly as Bill Snyder’s successor. He also might get in the mix for Nebraska.

10. Willie Taggart, Oregon head coach: He recruits very well and develops tough teams, as evidenced by his impressive work at both Western Kentucky and USF. He landed the Oregon job and has things on the right track with a shot at a seven-win season despite missing standout young QB Justin Herbert for half the season. Taggart has a good situation in Eugene, but if either Florida or Florida State came calling it might be pretty hard for the Sunshine State native to say no.

11. Mike Leach, Washington State head coach: The Cougars have a shot at the Pac-12 title this season—amazing when you consider that he took over a program that had won just nine games in the previous four seasons combined. Leach also is the best coach in Texas Tech history. He has a brilliant offensive mind, but calling him a loose cannon would be kind of an understatement. He likes it in Pullman, and his team next year might be even better. But might he be lured away? His old AD Bill Moos now is calling the shots at Nebraska. Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss all might give him some consideration.

12. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach: He had a lackluster season as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator once. So what? He’s won everywhere he’s been a head coach. His Wake team has a chance at winning eight games this season. No small feat. He deserves a look from UCLA or Arkansas or Nebraska.

13. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado head coach: His career 40–58 record is underwhelming, but he did massive overhauls first at San Jose State and then in Boulder, where he led the Buffs to the Pac-12 South title last season. Colorado is hoping to get bowl eligible this week. Word is the former Ole Miss assistant is high on the Rebels’ radar as they look to do their own big rebuild in the wake of NCAA sanctions.

14. David Cutcliffe, Duke head coach: At 63, the Vols’ former offensive coordinator has a revered place in Tennessee history. He has also done a terrific job at Duke. Would his old boss Phil Fulmer, now in an advisory role in Knoxville, have enough sway to get Cutcliffe back? His age doesn’t help his cause, nor does the Blue Devils’ 3–12 mark in the ACC the past two years. Perhaps if he could bring his protégé-turned-USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin back with him, it might be more plausible.

15. Jeff Brohm, Purdue head coach: He’s one more win away from getting the Boilermakers into a bowl game. Not bad for a debut season. Brohm is one of the most creative offensive minds in football. He’s made Purdue football fun again. That’s no small feat. The feeling here is that he could be a good fit for Tennessee or Arkansas, but will those schools think he’s done enough to warrant the job?

16. Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach: One of the 15 best coaches in football. His teams are always physical. The Utes won 28 games the previous three seasons but lost a ton of talent to the NFL and are struggling to get bowl eligible. Both UCLA and Tennessee could do a lot worse, and have done a lot worse in their previous coaching searches. Would he leave Salt Lake City? It’s at least worth asking.

17. Greg Schiano, Ohio State defensive coordinator: He did an amazing job turning a dismal Rutgers program into a respectable one before he left to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Schiano returned to the college game last year and has become Urban Meyer’s right-hand man. He also had an exemplary academic track record with his program at Rutgers—at one point the Scarlet Knights ranked behind only Northwestern in APR among FBS schools and had the best mark of any state university in the nation four years in a row. Years ago Schiano turned down the Michigan job. He interviewed for the USC head coach vacancy a few years ago. I’m told there is a real possibility he could get the Tennessee job. Arkansas and UCLA are two other places where he could be in consideration.

18. Gary Kubiak, former NFL head coach: His résumé is actually pretty similar to Jon Gruden’s, minus the big TV gig and flashy persona. The 56-year-old has led a team to a Super Bowl and has a winning record after a decade of coaching in the NFL. He also has a bit of college coaching experience from about 25 years ago. The Houston native who works in the Broncos’ front office was a record-setting QB at Texas A&M and would have some support from the Aggie family if they can’t get Jimbo Fisher.

19. Manny Diaz, Miami defensive coordinator: The brains behind the famed Turnover Chain and Hurricanes’ aggressive defense, Diaz has a good shot to win the Broyles Award, honoring the nation’s top assistant. The Miami native would seem like a no-brainer for Mississippi State if Dan Mullen does leave for another job. Diaz twice worked in Starkville and did impressive work there.

20. Jedd Fisch, UCLA offensive coordinator: He has worked under Pete Carroll, Mike Shanahan, Steve Spurrier and Jim Harbaugh and has done a really good job pumping life back into the UCLA offense this season despite being the Bruins’ third OC in three years. The Bruins have jumped 70 spots from last year to No. 21 in total offense despite losing two of their best receivers. Fisch is very well-regarded inside of UCLA. USC has gone the promoting-the-interim route across town with considerable success. Fisch has less of a window to prove himself as a head coach than Clay Helton did, but he could impress more folks there with this opportunity.

21. Alex Grinch, Washington State defensive coordinator: This is by far the best defense Mike Leach has had in almost two decades as a head coach. Luring Grinch off the Missouri staff might be the shrewdest move Leach has ever made. Washington State ranks No. 11 in the nation in total defense—that’s about 100 spots higher than where they resided before Grinch came to Pullman. He’s very respected as a playcaller around the Pac-12. He’s another guy with Mount Union roots and is a very hot commodity now. Bigger Power 5 programs will try and hire him as their defensive coordinator, but Oregon State might look to him for their head coach job, and the Cougars could too if Leach were to leave.

22. Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator: Being a coordinator under Nick Saban often leads to an SEC head coaching job, and the 43-year-old Pruitt is the next in line. In 2013, he helped Florida State win a national title. He returned to the Tide and again has Bama’s defense ranked No. 1 in the country. Would Tennessee or Arkansas or Auburn give him the keys as a first-time head coach? The example of Kirby Smart at Georgia is playing well right now for Pruitt.

23. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy head coach: Few coaches are respected more by their peers than the guy who has spent a decade piling up wins at Navy. Niumatalolo is 52 and was in the mix for the Cal job last year. His option scheme isn’t for everyone, but it might play well at Nebraska or Oregon State, where his recruiting ties could be a big asset getting things going in Corvallis.

24. Frank Wilson, UTSA head coach: The charismatic New Orleans native, who was a top recruiter at LSU for Les Miles, led the Roadrunners to their first bowl in his debut season. One SEC administrator pointed out to me before this season that the fact that he’s proven he can recruit well in the SEC separates him from a lot of the other names people are putting on lists. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State could be options for him too. Maybe Arkansas as well.

25. Craig Bohl, Wyoming head coach: His age might scare a lot of ADs. He’s 59 but he has done a fantastic job at Wyoming after leading North Dakota State to three national titles. If Bill Snyder decides to step down, Bohl could be in play at Kansas State—his old AD is now in Manhattan. He also has strong Nebraska ties, and he thrived off the old Husker model at both of his last two coaching stops.

26. Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach: He’s done a nice job building off what Justin Fuente got going with the Tigers. Norvell is a rising star, and he’s only 36. The odds are in his favor in that there are so many vacancies. He may get a look from Tennessee, Arkansas or UCLA.

27. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach: A Chris Petersen protégé and a former assistant at Texas under Mack Brown, Harsin is 40–11 in four seasons at Boise State. He coached at Arkansas State for one season. Would Arkansas want him? He might also get a look from UCLA if Kelly doesn’t take the Bruins vacancy.

28. Charlie Strong, USF head coach: Another former Urban Meyer assistant, Strong fizzled at Texas after three tumultuous seasons, but he has had a good first year at USF. He knows the SEC very well and has a great reputation with his players. Ole Miss has some interest. He’s also an Arkansas native, but we’re not sure if the Hogs would go after him after his tenure at Texas.

29. Neal Brown, Troy head coach: His stock rocketed up after the Trojans knocked off LSU in Baton Rouge this year. In truth, the 37-year-old former Kentucky offensive coordinator already was on Ole Miss’s radar. His teams are 18–5 the past two seasons. We could see him at either of the Mississippi schools next year.

30. Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator: The 39-year-old former NFL QB who led Tennessee to a national title two decades ago has played a key role in the Trojans’ return to the top 10. Martin has long been regarded as one of the better recruiters in college football and has developed a bunch of playmakers both in his time at Kentucky and USC. His affable personality plays well everywhere. He’s also a Broyles Award semifinalist, which doesn’t hurt his stock. Would his alma mater think he’s ready for the big job in Knoxville?

31. Troy Calhoun, Air Force head coach: He won 28 games at the academy the previous three seasons. This year, the Falcons have struggled, but the 51-year-old former NFL OC, an Oregon native, might be a good option for Oregon State or at an Ole Miss program looking for someone to pull them out of a nasty scandal.

32. Beau Baldwin, Cal offensive coordinator: His 95–35 record as an FCS head coach is impressive, as is his work this season helping Justin Wilcox get Cal rolling. Oregon State has some interest. Would UCLA give him a look as well?

33. Jeff Monken, Army head coach: Earlier this season he got a new five-year deal. He deserves it. He’s been superb leading Army to 16 wins the past two seasons. They’d won just eight games in the three years before he’d arrived. He has Midwest roots—would Nebraska think he’s right right guy?

34. Jason Candle, Toledo head coach: Another Mount Union guy, Candle is impressive in-person. He’s piling up wins in the MAC with a shot at 10–2 after winning nine in his first season. If it were the Big Ten having the run of numerous coaching vacancies this year instead of the SEC, I think he’d get scooped up, but maybe not this time, although he’s a name to remember as other dominoes start to fall.

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35. Seth Littrell, North Texas head coach: A Mike Leach disciple, the former Oklahoma fullback has made good strides in his first two seasons as a head man, going from five wins to eight with a shot at the C-USA title. He has Texas Tech ties and could be in consideration if the Red Raiders move on from Kliff Kingsbury.

36. Mike Bobo, Colorado State head coach: The former Georgia QB and offensive coordinator has won 21 games in three seasons with the Rams. He has strong SEC roots and would probably jump at the chance to come back. He’s another one who is likely to get some interest from Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

37. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State head coach: The 48-year-old Larry Fedora disciple is 30–18 in four seasons at Arkansas State, which has a Top 20 offense this season. He is well-regarded around the state and should get some consideration at Arkansas if the Hogs are in the market.

38. Chad Morris, SMU head coach: The former Texas high school coach did a great job helping Dabo Swinney get Clemson rolling, then took over an SMU program that had fallen apart and went from two wins to five wins to a shot at seven wins this year. Has he shown enough to have a realistic shot to get hired at his alma mater Texas A&M as the head guy? It’s a stretch to think the Aggies would—given he’s 7–16 in the AAC—but he could be in consideration at the Mississippi schools and perhaps Texas Tech, where he came in second to Kingsbury the last time it was open.

39. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State head coach: Satterfield’s teams are 19–3 in the Sun Belt the last three seasons, and he’s considered one of the top Group of Five coaches in the country. The 44-year-old North Carolina native may be in consideration for a few of these potential SEC vacancies—perhaps Ole Miss or Mississippi State (if Mullen leaves) would be good fits.

40. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic head coach: He has done better in Year One than just about anyone could’ve expected—Lord knows he’s made FAU nationally relevant. But the question remains from a year ago: Would any Power 5 AD and president trust him to be the face of their program? The feeling here is not at this point.

Coaching Carousel 2017: 40 Names to Watch and Where They Might Fit

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes. Grumors. Heavyweight programs from Florida to Tennessee to Texas A&M to Arkansas to Nebraska to UCLA all either are already looking for new coaches or could be soon, and it’s likely more dominoes will fall elsewhere as coaches start making moves. As the coaching carousel heats up heading into Thanksgiving weekend, we’ve put together a shopping catalog of 40 coaches to keep an eye on as schools scramble to fill vacancies.

1. Chip Kelly, former Oregon head coach: The 53-year-old from New Hampshire is the biggest get of the year in college coaching. Kelly isn’t just one of the most innovative minds in offensive football—he also deserves that title on the sports performance front as well. Dozens of college programs have altered their weekly practice schedules in the past few years because of measures he took to get his players primed for game day. Florida officials visited him in his home state last Sunday to make their big pitch, and then some 36 hours later he was meeting with UCLA about possibly resuming his coaching career in the familiar confines of the Pac-12. As we reported on Monday, Kelly, who went 46–7 in his four seasons as a head coach at Oregon, is going to be deliberate in his process. The Gators are hoping for a green light sooner than later.

2. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach: He followed a legend (Bobby Bowden) and has done exceptionally well. Prior to this season, he had seven consecutive Top 25 finishes with four in the Top 10, including the 2013 national title. This fall has been a disaster: The Seminoles are 4–6 and just 3–5 in ACC play. The fan base is frustrated; some say Fisher has been too loyal to his staff and won’t make changes. He has also bristled about the program’s facilities shortcomings. Fisher has had plenty of opportunities to bolt Tallahassee—would he do it now? We’ll see. There have been plenty of rumblings that Texas A&M is prepared to throw a lot of money at him. Would Tennessee or Auburn do the same?

3. Scott Frost, UCF head coach: The former Nebraska quarterback, a Chip Kelly protégé, has led a resurgence at UCF, where the Knights are 10–0 and No. 15 in the playoff rankings. Frost’s team leads the nation in points per game at 48.2. In 2015, the year before he arrived in Orlando, the Knights averaged under 14 points per game (126th in the country) and went 0–12. Frost is likely in play at his alma mater, along with Florida, Tennessee and potentially at Florida State.

4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach: The Bulldogs are hot, sitting at No. 14 in the playoff rankings, higher than any other three-loss team. The Urban Meyer protégé knows the SEC well and has proven to be an excellent developer of quarterbacks. He has interviewed for several other bigger jobs over the years, but has been unable to land them. This winter is probably his best opportunity. Tennessee, Florida, A&M, Nebraska and Auburn all could be interested in him. He knows he has a good situation. He’s also getting paid well at $4.5 million. Those other programs likely could pay him considerably more, but the pressure would increase significantly, too. He has averaged eight wins a season over the past five years and is beloved in Starkville for that. At one of those other programs, he’d be run out of town for that level of peformance.

5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach: It’s crazy that just a few weeks ago Malzahn was on the hot seat; now he’s two wins away from having the Tigers in the playoff. That’s so Auburn. Malzahn is 44–20 and took the team to the BCS national title game in his first season. In the three years between then and now, the Tigers were two games under .500 in SEC play. The feeling here is he’s always just a two-game losing skid away from being back on the hot seat. He’s from Arkansas and used to be a Razorbacks assistant. Sources have told SI that there’s a lot of support from big money boosters there to bring him back as head coach since Bret Bielema has struggled to build momentum in Fayetteville. If Malzahn wins the SEC this year, it’s hard to imagine Auburn not signing him to a big fat extension, but who knows? We’re talking about him potentially being in the middle of two programs, both of which are in the market for new ADs.

6. Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: He’d be higher on this list if his buyout wasn’t so big at over $9 million. Then again, if Tennessee boosters were thinking of breaking the bank for Jon Gruden, why not do it for a younger coach who pulled off two wins over top-five opponents this season while coaching at Iowa State? The Cyclones are 7–4 and spent time in the top 15, remarkable for Campbell’s second year. The 37-year-old Mount Union product is a rising star in the business and is worth chasing for some of these bigger programs.

7. Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator: Venables has made it known he’s not just going to take any head coaching job. The 46-year-old former Kansas State linebacker is very happy with how his life is now as the DC at Clemson, where he’s proven he’s one of the best assistants in the country. He’s also been known as an outstanding recruiter for years. But would he be tempted if Tennessee or Arkansas came calling? Or his alma mater? Another one to keep an eye on is Texas Tech, where Kliff Kingsbury is in some jeopardy. Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt is one of Venables’s best friends.

8. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M head coach: Sumlin is 51–25 in six seasons at A&M. In 2012, his debut season, he led the Aggies to their first top-five finish in over half a century. Only Alabama, LSU and Georgia have won more games in that stretch in the SEC. The previous six seasons before he took over, Texas A&M was 42–34. However after three consecutive 8–5 seasons, A&M brass and new athletic director Scott Woodward want him out. Sumlin’s a dynamic recruiter who would be a fit in any region. He could be in play at UCLA if Kelly doesn’t end up there—the Bruins once were very interested in him. The former Purdue linebacker also could end up back in the Big Ten at Nebraska.

9. Bret Bielema, Arkansas head coach: Like Sumlin, Bielema came to the SEC with impressive credentials. He won shares of three Big Ten titles. He’s a big charismatic presence. He took over a mess, but has struggled to deliver a breakthrough season with the Razorbacks. His teams are 29–33, and this year has been a dud with the Hogs at 4–7 and just 1–6 in SEC play. The school just canned the guy who hired him, Jeff Long, and it’s very likely Bielema could be next to go with the fat cats wanting Malzahn’s return. Bielema is too good of a coach not to land back in a Power 5 job. There’s been some rumbling that he could return to Kansas State (where he was co-defensive coordinator in 2002–03), possibly as Bill Snyder’s successor. He also might get in the mix for Nebraska.

10. Willie Taggart, Oregon head coach: He recruits very well and develops tough teams, as evidenced by his impressive work at both Western Kentucky and USF. He landed the Oregon job and has things on the right track with a shot at a seven-win season despite missing standout young QB Justin Herbert for half the season. Taggart has a good situation in Eugene, but if either Florida or Florida State came calling it might be pretty hard for the Sunshine State native to say no.

11. Mike Leach, Washington State head coach: The Cougars have a shot at the Pac-12 title this season—amazing when you consider that he took over a program that had won just nine games in the previous four seasons combined. Leach also is the best coach in Texas Tech history. He has a brilliant offensive mind, but calling him a loose cannon would be kind of an understatement. He likes it in Pullman, and his team next year might be even better. But might he be lured away? His old AD Bill Moos now is calling the shots at Nebraska. Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss all might give him some consideration.

12. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach: He had a lackluster season as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator once. So what? He’s won everywhere he’s been a head coach. His Wake team has a chance at winning eight games this season. No small feat. He deserves a look from UCLA or Arkansas or Nebraska.

13. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado head coach: His career 40–58 record is underwhelming, but he did massive overhauls first at San Jose State and then in Boulder, where he led the Buffs to the Pac-12 South title last season. Colorado is hoping to get bowl eligible this week. Word is the former Ole Miss assistant is high on the Rebels’ radar as they look to do their own big rebuild in the wake of NCAA sanctions.

14. David Cutcliffe, Duke head coach: At 63, the Vols’ former offensive coordinator has a revered place in Tennessee history. He has also done a terrific job at Duke. Would his old boss Phil Fulmer, now in an advisory role in Knoxville, have enough sway to get Cutcliffe back? His age doesn’t help his cause, nor does the Blue Devils’ 3–12 mark in the ACC the past two years. Perhaps if he could bring his protégé-turned-USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin back with him, it might be more plausible.

15. Jeff Brohm, Purdue head coach: He’s one more win away from getting the Boilermakers into a bowl game. Not bad for a debut season. Brohm is one of the most creative offensive minds in football. He’s made Purdue football fun again. That’s no small feat. The feeling here is that he could be a good fit for Tennessee or Arkansas, but will those schools think he’s done enough to warrant the job?

16. Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach: One of the 15 best coaches in football. His teams are always physical. The Utes won 28 games the previous three seasons but lost a ton of talent to the NFL and are struggling to get bowl eligible. Both UCLA and Tennessee could do a lot worse, and have done a lot worse in their previous coaching searches. Would he leave Salt Lake City? It’s at least worth asking.

17. Greg Schiano, Ohio State defensive coordinator: He did an amazing job turning a dismal Rutgers program into a respectable one before he left to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Schiano returned to the college game last year and has become Urban Meyer’s right-hand man. He also had an exemplary academic track record with his program at Rutgers—at one point the Scarlet Knights ranked behind only Northwestern in APR among FBS schools and had the best mark of any state university in the nation four years in a row. Years ago Schiano turned down the Michigan job. He interviewed for the USC head coach vacancy a few years ago. I’m told there is a real possibility he could get the Tennessee job. Arkansas and UCLA are two other places where he could be in consideration.

18. Gary Kubiak, former NFL head coach: His résumé is actually pretty similar to Jon Gruden’s, minus the big TV gig and flashy persona. The 56-year-old has led a team to a Super Bowl and has a winning record after a decade of coaching in the NFL. He also has a bit of college coaching experience from about 25 years ago. The Houston native who works in the Broncos’ front office was a record-setting QB at Texas A&M and would have some support from the Aggie family if they can’t get Jimbo Fisher.

19. Manny Diaz, Miami defensive coordinator: The brains behind the famed Turnover Chain and Hurricanes’ aggressive defense, Diaz has a good shot to win the Broyles Award, honoring the nation’s top assistant. The Miami native would seem like a no-brainer for Mississippi State if Dan Mullen does leave for another job. Diaz twice worked in Starkville and did impressive work there.

20. Jedd Fisch, UCLA offensive coordinator: He has worked under Pete Carroll, Mike Shanahan, Steve Spurrier and Jim Harbaugh and has done a really good job pumping life back into the UCLA offense this season despite being the Bruins’ third OC in three years. The Bruins have jumped 70 spots from last year to No. 21 in total offense despite losing two of their best receivers. Fisch is very well-regarded inside of UCLA. USC has gone the promoting-the-interim route across town with considerable success. Fisch has less of a window to prove himself as a head coach than Clay Helton did, but he could impress more folks there with this opportunity.

21. Alex Grinch, Washington State defensive coordinator: This is by far the best defense Mike Leach has had in almost two decades as a head coach. Luring Grinch off the Missouri staff might be the shrewdest move Leach has ever made. Washington State ranks No. 11 in the nation in total defense—that’s about 100 spots higher than where they resided before Grinch came to Pullman. He’s very respected as a playcaller around the Pac-12. He’s another guy with Mount Union roots and is a very hot commodity now. Bigger Power 5 programs will try and hire him as their defensive coordinator, but Oregon State might look to him for their head coach job, and the Cougars could too if Leach were to leave.

22. Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator: Being a coordinator under Nick Saban often leads to an SEC head coaching job, and the 43-year-old Pruitt is the next in line. In 2013, he helped Florida State win a national title. He returned to the Tide and again has Bama’s defense ranked No. 1 in the country. Would Tennessee or Arkansas or Auburn give him the keys as a first-time head coach? The example of Kirby Smart at Georgia is playing well right now for Pruitt.

23. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy head coach: Few coaches are respected more by their peers than the guy who has spent a decade piling up wins at Navy. Niumatalolo is 52 and was in the mix for the Cal job last year. His option scheme isn’t for everyone, but it might play well at Nebraska or Oregon State, where his recruiting ties could be a big asset getting things going in Corvallis.

24. Frank Wilson, UTSA head coach: The charismatic New Orleans native, who was a top recruiter at LSU for Les Miles, led the Roadrunners to their first bowl in his debut season. One SEC administrator pointed out to me before this season that the fact that he’s proven he can recruit well in the SEC separates him from a lot of the other names people are putting on lists. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State could be options for him too. Maybe Arkansas as well.

25. Craig Bohl, Wyoming head coach: His age might scare a lot of ADs. He’s 59 but he has done a fantastic job at Wyoming after leading North Dakota State to three national titles. If Bill Snyder decides to step down, Bohl could be in play at Kansas State—his old AD is now in Manhattan. He also has strong Nebraska ties, and he thrived off the old Husker model at both of his last two coaching stops.

26. Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach: He’s done a nice job building off what Justin Fuente got going with the Tigers. Norvell is a rising star, and he’s only 36. The odds are in his favor in that there are so many vacancies. He may get a look from Tennessee, Arkansas or UCLA.

27. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach: A Chris Petersen protégé and a former assistant at Texas under Mack Brown, Harsin is 40–11 in four seasons at Boise State. He coached at Arkansas State for one season. Would Arkansas want him? He might also get a look from UCLA if Kelly doesn’t take the Bruins vacancy.

28. Charlie Strong, USF head coach: Another former Urban Meyer assistant, Strong fizzled at Texas after three tumultuous seasons, but he has had a good first year at USF. He knows the SEC very well and has a great reputation with his players. Ole Miss has some interest. He’s also an Arkansas native, but we’re not sure if the Hogs would go after him after his tenure at Texas.

29. Neal Brown, Troy head coach: His stock rocketed up after the Trojans knocked off LSU in Baton Rouge this year. In truth, the 37-year-old former Kentucky offensive coordinator already was on Ole Miss’s radar. His teams are 18–5 the past two seasons. We could see him at either of the Mississippi schools next year.

30. Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator: The 39-year-old former NFL QB who led Tennessee to a national title two decades ago has played a key role in the Trojans’ return to the top 10. Martin has long been regarded as one of the better recruiters in college football and has developed a bunch of playmakers both in his time at Kentucky and USC. His affable personality plays well everywhere. He’s also a Broyles Award semifinalist, which doesn’t hurt his stock. Would his alma mater think he’s ready for the big job in Knoxville?

31. Troy Calhoun, Air Force head coach: He won 28 games at the academy the previous three seasons. This year, the Falcons have struggled, but the 51-year-old former NFL OC, an Oregon native, might be a good option for Oregon State or at an Ole Miss program looking for someone to pull them out of a nasty scandal.

32. Beau Baldwin, Cal offensive coordinator: His 95–35 record as an FCS head coach is impressive, as is his work this season helping Justin Wilcox get Cal rolling. Oregon State has some interest. Would UCLA give him a look as well?

33. Jeff Monken, Army head coach: Earlier this season he got a new five-year deal. He deserves it. He’s been superb leading Army to 16 wins the past two seasons. They’d won just eight games in the three years before he’d arrived. He has Midwest roots—would Nebraska think he’s right right guy?

34. Jason Candle, Toledo head coach: Another Mount Union guy, Candle is impressive in-person. He’s piling up wins in the MAC with a shot at 10–2 after winning nine in his first season. If it were the Big Ten having the run of numerous coaching vacancies this year instead of the SEC, I think he’d get scooped up, but maybe not this time, although he’s a name to remember as other dominoes start to fall.

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35. Seth Littrell, North Texas head coach: A Mike Leach disciple, the former Oklahoma fullback has made good strides in his first two seasons as a head man, going from five wins to eight with a shot at the C-USA title. He has Texas Tech ties and could be in consideration if the Red Raiders move on from Kliff Kingsbury.

36. Mike Bobo, Colorado State head coach: The former Georgia QB and offensive coordinator has won 21 games in three seasons with the Rams. He has strong SEC roots and would probably jump at the chance to come back. He’s another one who is likely to get some interest from Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

37. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State head coach: The 48-year-old Larry Fedora disciple is 30–18 in four seasons at Arkansas State, which has a Top 20 offense this season. He is well-regarded around the state and should get some consideration at Arkansas if the Hogs are in the market.

38. Chad Morris, SMU head coach: The former Texas high school coach did a great job helping Dabo Swinney get Clemson rolling, then took over an SMU program that had fallen apart and went from two wins to five wins to a shot at seven wins this year. Has he shown enough to have a realistic shot to get hired at his alma mater Texas A&M as the head guy? It’s a stretch to think the Aggies would—given he’s 7–16 in the AAC—but he could be in consideration at the Mississippi schools and perhaps Texas Tech, where he came in second to Kingsbury the last time it was open.

39. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State head coach: Satterfield’s teams are 19–3 in the Sun Belt the last three seasons, and he’s considered one of the top Group of Five coaches in the country. The 44-year-old North Carolina native may be in consideration for a few of these potential SEC vacancies—perhaps Ole Miss or Mississippi State (if Mullen leaves) would be good fits.

40. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic head coach: He has done better in Year One than just about anyone could’ve expected—Lord knows he’s made FAU nationally relevant. But the question remains from a year ago: Would any Power 5 AD and president trust him to be the face of their program? The feeling here is not at this point.

Upset Watch: Which Rivalries and Season Finales Will Go Sideways?

After a descent into the improbable last week in this space, we’re back to a saner look at this week’s games with upset potential. Ahead of a weekend of rivalry matchups with trips to conference championship games on the line, we’ll begin in Florida, where the football food chain has been turned upside-down. For the first time ever, UCF and USF are both ranked and Florida and Florida State (which tangle Saturday in Gainesville) are not. From there it’s off to Mississippi, where there’s not much at stake but pride, and Fresno, the site of an advance scouting chess match ahead of next week’s Mountain West championship.

Ole Miss at Mississippi State: Ole Miss has performed far better than anticipated in the wake of Hugh Freeze’s firing and months of looming NCAA sanctions. The Rebels are 5–6 going into their season finale after pushing Texas A&M to the limit in last week’s loss, and they beat a pretty good Kentucky team earlier this month. The school’s self-imposed postseason ban takes the six-win milestone off the table, but the Egg Bowl needs no further incentive than beating the hated rival to the south, especially when that rival’s players told the NCAA they received improper benefits on recruiting trips to Ole Miss.

Mississippi State is coming off a win over Arkansas—and before that it nearly pulled off the upset of Alabama—but it has been inconsistent at times this year, letting the Razorbacks nearly pull off a win and allowing UMass to come entirely too close to an upset earlier this month. Sure, the Bulldogs’ three losses are to the SEC’s best teams—Georgia, Alabama and Auburn—but in an emotional renewal of a storied rivalry, Ole Miss has the potential to rise to their level, especially since backup quarterback Jordan Ta’amu’s play since Shea Patterson went down with a season-ending injury has been a revelation.

USF at UCF: Thus continues my bid to upend an undefeated team every week. The War on I-4 pits the preseason darling in the American Athletic Conference (USF) against the current darling (UCF)—and both teams are very good. Scott Frost’s Knights have won every game but one by double digits, but this is going to be their toughest test of the year, with the winner claiming the AAC East and heading to the conference title game next week to take on Memphis with the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid hanging in the balance. USF played on Thursday last week, giving it two extra days of rest. Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers is arguably the best quarterback the Knights will face all year; if he can add to his streak of 10 straight 100-yard rushing performances, the UCF defense will have its hands full.

Fresno State vs. Boise State: Fresno State has been one of the best stories in the Mountain West this year, going from 1–11 in 2016 to 8–3 this season under first-year coach Jeff Tedford; Boise State sits at 9–2. Both teams have already clinched berths in next Saturday’s conference championship game, meaning this weekend’s matchup will be the first in a rare back-to-back series. The playing field is relatively even here; each have lost to both of their Power 5 opponents this year and beat San Diego State, accounting for the Aztecs’ only two losses. With the stakes this low and the game in Fresno, I have to go with the Bulldogs, who are still riding high after such a massive turnaround and would be thrilled to get to 10 wins with even a split of their two postseason games.

Alabama Stays Atop College Football Ranking Heading Into Rivalry Week

After a week in which a number of top teams played relatively easy opponents, Alabama remains atop the College Football Rankings after Week 12. The most notable change at the top was a flip-flop of ACC teams, as Miami leap-frogged Clemson to move into the No. 2 spot while Clemson. No. 4 Oklahoma is the final team currently in position to qualify four the four-team playoff.

The first two teams currently out are No. 5 Wisconsin, which bolstered its resume with a comfortable win over then-No. 25 Michigan, and No. 6 Auburn, which hosts No. 1 Alabama in an Iron Bowl matchup that will determine the SEC West winner on Saturday.

If Alabama beats Auburn, the Crimson Tide are virtually assured a playoff berth even if they lose to Georgia in the SEC title game. But if Auburn finds a way to pull off the upset this weekend, the committee will be forced to make a difficult decision on a one-loss Alabama team that did not win its conference.

Another SEC team lurks just outside the top four: No. 7 Georgia, which bounced back from a 40-17 defeat to Auburn with a 42-13 victory over Kentucky. Georgia has clinched the SEC West and likely still controls its own destiny. Should the Bulldogs take care of Georgia Tech this week then beat either Auburn or Alabama in the SEC title game, the Bulldogs will likely get a playoff spot.

Unbeaten Miami came back to beat Virginia 44–28 after trailing in the second half, while Clemson had no trouble with Citadel of the FBS. If Miami beats Pittsburgh this week and Clemson wins a tricky game at No. 24 South Carolina, the ACC's playoff picture will be relatively clear: the winner of the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 2, which will be between Miami and Clemson no matter what happens this weekend, will get a playoff spot.

No. 4 Oklahoma decidedly beat Kansas 41–3 last weekend, but it did not come without distraction: senior quarterback and Heisman front runner Baker Mayfield will not start his team's final regular season game against West Virginia after he grabbed his crotch, screaming profanities at the Jayhawks. If Oklahoma can get past West Virginia, all that will stand between the Sooners and a return to the Playoff is the Big 12 Championship game.

Wisconsin moved up after beating then-No. 24 Michigan. While it once appeared that Wisconsin might miss the playoff even if the Badgers went undefeated, the chaos at the top appears to have paved a path for the Badgers to reach the playoff should they win out. The Badgers will get the chance to post another much-needed impressive victory in the Big Ten championship game, which increasingly looks like it will come against No. 9 Ohio State. No. 10 Penn State's playoff hopes are virtually non-existent, as the Nittany Lions' loss to Ohio State gives the Buckeyes the edge in the Big Ten East.

The Pac-12 is the most likely Big Five conference to miss the playoff, as the conference's highest-ranked team is two-loss USC at No. 11. The Trojans have won four straight after they were embarrassed at Notre Dame, but they don't have many chances to score resume-boosting wins. Saturday's win over rival UCLA was USC's last game of the regular season, and the Trojans will play either No. 21 Stanford, No. 13 Washington State or No. 17 Washington in the Pac-12 title game. The Trojans aren't dead just yet, but Clay Helton's team needs more than a little help to sneak into the No. 4 spot.

The AAC championship game could well serve as a one-game playoff for the group-of-six conferences' guaranteed bid in a New Years Six bowl. No. 15 Central Florida is is leading the AAC East and is currently the highest ranked non-Power 5 team, while No. 20 Memphis is the second-highest ranked group-of-six team and leads the AAC West. Should those teams falter down the stretch, No. 25 Boise State of the Mountain West could claim the bid.

The full ranking is as follows:

1. Alabama (11-0, SEC)
2. Miami (10-0, ACC)
3. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (10-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (11-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (9-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (10-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (9-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (9-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (9-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (10-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (9-2, Big 12)
13. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)??
14. Mississippi State (8-3, SEC)
15. UCF (10-0, AAC)
16. Michigan State (8-3, Big Ten)
17. Washington (9-2, Pac 12)
18. LSU (8-3, SEC)
19. Oklahoma State (8-3, Big 12)
20. Memphis (9-1, AAC)
21. Stanford (8-3, Pac 12)
22. Northwestern (8-3, Big Ten)
23. Boise State (9-2, MWC)
24. South Carolina (8-3, SEC)
25. Virginia Tech (8-3, SEC)

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Week 13 Power Rankings: After a Quiet Week, the Iron Bowl Looms With Potential for Chaos

As the regular season winds down, we move from cupcake week to a feasting of good rivalry games that will not only settle conference and state bragging rights but also make the playoff picture a little clearer. This week we will focus on one game that could either create chaos or maintain the status quo in the SEC (until the next big game, which will happen the following week): the Iron Bowl.

The SEC West champion has won each of the last eight conference championships, and for Alabama and Auburn, this game could double as a playoff eliminator if the loser is forced to watch Championship Saturday from home and then falls on the wrong side of the committee’s cut line.

Many believe Alabama has just been going through the motions while beating lesser teams to a pulp. The two times they have been challenged in conference play, against Mississippi State and Texas A&M, they prevailed.

An Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl would thrust the Tigers into the thick of the playoff conversation, giving them two wins over No. 1 teams, something no other team in the hunt can even come close to touting when the playoff committee’s attention turns to strength of schedule.

Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (11–0, 7–0 SEC)

Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Mercer, 56–0
Next week: at Auburn

Not much needs to be said about the Mercer game, except that the Crimson Tide got plenty of rest for their starters in preparation for the Iron Bowl and Mercer got plenty of money for an expected and thorough beating.

2. Oklahoma (10–1, 7–1 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Kansas, 41–3
Next week: vs. West Virginia

In Oklahoma’s 16th straight road victory, Heisman frontrunner (and crotch-grabbing repeat apologist) Baker Mayfield threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns, making easy work of the Jayhawks, whose one win this season apparently compelled them not to shake hands with Mayfield before the game. The Sooners, whose 469 yards of offense against Kansas were a season low, clinched their spot in the Big 12 title game.

3. Clemson (10–1, 7–1 ACC)

Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat The Citadel, 61–3
Next week: at South Carolina

A glorified scrimmage took place in Clemson as the Tigers ripped apart a Citadel team that was clearly overmatched—in losing by 58 points, The Citadel pocketed a cool $300,000. The season finale against South Carolina looks like a tougher test than it did in the summer.

4. Wisconsin (11–0, 8–0 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 5
This week: Beat Michigan, 24–10
Next week: at Minnesota

Wisconsin continues to get it done, whether it looks impressive to skeptics or not. Jonathan Taylor had 132 yards and quarterback Alex Hornibrook was his usual steady self, throwing for 143 yards and one touchdown. The competitive portion of the game ended once Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters left with an injury, as backup John O'Korn was completely ineffective in breaking down the Badgers’ stout defense.

5. Miami, FL (10–0, 7–0 ACC)

Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Virginia, 44–28
Next week: at Pittsburgh

The turnover chain made three appearances in Miami’s victory, but the big one was Jaquan Johnson’s 30-yard interception return, part of a 30–0 Hurricanes run that erased a two-touchdown deficit. Malik Rosier tossed three touchdown passes and Travis Homer added 96 yards rushing for Miami, which ends the regular season on Friday against Pitt before the ACC title game on Dec. 2.

6. Auburn (9–2, 6­–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Louisiana-Monroe, 42–14
Next week: vs. Alabama

There is no need to hype how big next week’s game is against Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl. Auburn is two wins away from a conference title and a possible playoff berth. As far as this game, the Tigers overcame a slow start to dispatch the Warhawks. Kerryon Johnson ran for 137 yards and a touchdown, and Jarrett Stidham had 235 yards and two scores through the air.

7. Georgia (10–1, 7–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Kentucky, 42–13
Next week: at Georgia Tech

Georgia didn’t need much to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats have one of the nation’s worst pass defenses, but Georgia stuck to what it does best instead of getting freshman Jake Fromm comfortable in beating a team by throwing the ball. Georgia ran for 381 yards with five touchdowns, so as long as that formula works towards the goal of stacking victories, there will be no argument here.

8. Ohio State (9­–2, 7–1 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 9
This week: Beat Illinois, 52–14
Next week: at Michigan

The Buckeyes scored the first six times they had the football to clinch their spot in the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin. While the offense had its way with the Illini, the defense also did its part, limiting Illinois to five first downs and 105 yards of offense. A sixth straight win over Michigan would help keep those faint playoff hopes alive.

9. Notre Dame (9–2)

Previous ranking: 8
This week: Beat Navy, 24–17
Next game: at Stanford

Commend Notre Dame for doing what it could in the mere 17 minutes it had the ball against Navy. Brandon Wimbush threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns and Josh Adams added 106 yards on the ground as the Fighting Irish bounced back from their brutal performance against Miami to stay in the hunt for a possible New Year’s Six bowl.

10. Central Florida (10–0, 7–0 AAC)

Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat Temple, 45–19
Next week: vs. South Florida

It doesn’t seem like UCF is distracted by all of the talk surrounding its head coach Scott Frost possibly being a candidate for several job openings around the nation. Quarterback McKenzie Milton had five total touchdowns with 208 passing yards, and the Knights’ defense forced five turnovers, quickly turning an early 10–7 deficit around by turning those miscues into 24 points.

11. USC (10–2, 8–1 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat UCLA, 28–23
Next week: Off; next game, Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 1.

UCLA’s Josh Rosen prevailed in the battle of the potential first-round NFL draft pick quarterbacks, throwing for 421 yards and three touchdowns, but Sam Darnold and the Trojans beat the Bruins for the third straight year. Darnold threw for 263 yards and also ran for a score. USC now enjoys its long-awaited bye week to rest up for either Washington State or Stanford in the conference championship game in two weeks.

12. Penn State (9–2, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking:12
Last week: Beat Nebraska, 56–44
Next week: at Maryland

Saquon Barkley broke out of a prolonged rushing slump with 158 yards rushing and three touchdowns and Trace McSorley threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns for the Nittany Lions, who were outscored 34–14 by Nebraska in the second half. In the process, Barkley broke the school’s career touchdown record with his 39th score.

13. TCU (9–2, 6-2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Texas Tech, 27–3
Next game: vs. Baylor

All TCU needs to do next week is beat lowly Baylor to earn a rematch with Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, after cruising in Lubbock without starting quarterback Kenny Hill, who sat out with an injury. The usually potent Texas Tech offense did nothing all day and the Horned Frogs played it safe with true freshman quarterback Shawn Robinson, who threw it 17 times for only 85 yards but did have a touchdown throw.

14. Washington (9–2, 6–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 14
This week: Beat Utah, 33–30
Next week: vs. Washington State

Anyone that stayed up late to watch this one got a treat. Myles Gaskin had 52 yards and two touchdowns, the final one with 58 seconds remaining to tie the score, setting up Tristan Vizcaino’s game-winning 38-yard field goal at the buzzer. The Huskies now can only play Pac-12 spoiler for their in-state rival next week in the Apple Cup.

15. Memphis (9–1, 6–1 AAC)

Previous ranking:16
This week: Beat SMU, 66–45
Next week: vs. East Carolina

In a game that looked a lot like the defense-optional games native to the Big 12, the Tigers rolled up 664 yards of offense (331 passing, 333 rushing) to clinch the AAC West and now await the winner of Friday’s UCF-USF battle in the conference title game in two weeks. Riley Ferguson threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns for Memphis, which scored at least 10 points in every quarter.

16. Washington State (9–2, 6–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 18
Last week: Off
Next week: vs. Washington

Washington State had the week off to prepare for the Apple Cup, which will give the Cougars a chance to exact revenge on their in-state rivals, wrap up the Pac-12 North and perhaps sneak into a New Year’s Six bowl.

17. Stanford (8–3, 7–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 20
This week: Beat California, 17–14
Next week: vs. Notre Dame

Bryce Love ran for 101 yards on a bum ankle and Stanford kept its conference title hopes alive by beating Cal for the eighth straight time to set a record for consecutive wins in the series. Quarterback K.J. Costello went 17 for 26 for 185 yards and one touchdown in the victory, which made David Shaw the winningest coach in program history. The Cardinal will be watching the Apple Cup wearing purple and gold next week: A Washington victory sends them to the Pac-12 title game.

18. Virginia Tech (8–3, 4–3 ACC)

Previous ranking: 17
This week: Beat Pittsburgh, 20–14
Next week: at Virginia

Pittsburgh had four opportunities to score from the one-yard line with less than a minute to go and failed, handing Virginia Tech another close win. Josh Jackson had 218 yards passing and two total touchdowns as the Hokies were again inconsistent on offense, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Jackson threw 20 incomplete passes and an interception but added 32 yards rushing to help Tech break a two-game losing streak.

19. Mississippi State (8–3, 4–3 SEC)

Previous ranking: 24
This week: Beat Arkansas, 28–21
Next week: vs. Ole Miss

Nick Fitzgerald’s six-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds left lifted Mississippi State past struggling Arkansas. Fitzgerald had 153 yards and ran 22 times for 101 yards, his sixth game with 100-plus yards both passing and rushing. The Bulldogs were sloppy with the ball, fumbling four times and losing two. State bragging rights are on the line next week against Ole Miss, which has split the last four meetings with State.

20. LSU (8-3, 5–2 SEC)

Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Tennessee, 30–10
Next week: vs. Texas A&M

The weather in Knoxville was ugly—as was the special teams play—but it was LSU’s running game that made the difference. The Tigers ran for 200 yards on the backs of Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams and shut down Tennessee’s offense for their fifth win in six games. LSU has beaten Texas A&M six straight times heading into Saturday’s home finale.

21. Oklahoma State (8–3, 5–3 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 15
Last week: Lost to Kansas State, 45–40
Next week: vs. Kansas

Oklahoma State decided that Saturday was the day not to show up until it was down by 25 points in the third quarter. Its defense let Kansas State wide receiver Byron Pringle run free through the secondary, and Pringle responded with three touchdown catches and kick return TD. The Cowboys squandered their opportunity as a potential playoff team this season by losing three games at home.

22. Michigan State (8–3, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 23
Last week: Beat Maryland, 17–7
Next week: at Rutgers

Michigan State completed two passes all game against Maryland, but no one will blame the Spartans for not trying to force the ball downfield in rain and a snowstorm. The Spartans did run for 271 yards—the first time in four games that the Spartans ran for more than 100 yards as a team—led by L.J. Scott, who rumbled for 147 on 29 carries. The finish the regular season at Rutgers, then can hope for an invite to one of the Big Ten’s more prominent bowls.

23. South Florida (9–1, 6–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 22
Last week: Beat Tulsa, 27–20
Next week: at Central Florida

The Bulls’ tune-up contest before their game of the year against UCF was not an exercise in fundamentally sound football. USF turned the ball over twice, wasn’t very efficient passing and needed a last-minute stop in the fourth quarter to beat a two-win Tulsa squad. Quinton Flowers had 261 total yards in his final home game and was helped out by a defense that had 13 tackles for loss.

24. Boise State (9–2, 7–0 MWC)

Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Air Force, 44–19
Next week: at Fresno State

Brett Rypien had 300 yards and three passing touchdowns to lead Boise State to its seventh straight win. The Broncos, who held Air Force’s triple option attack to 181 yards and forced three fumbles, will now play Fresno State two weeks in a row—first in their regular season finale and then the very next week in the Mountain West championship.

25. Northwestern (8–3, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Minnesota, 39–0
Next week: at Illinois

Northwestern’s longest winning streak in more than 20 years continues, thanks to a dominant effort by the defense. The Wildcats forced five turnovers, quarterback Clayton Thorson had three touchdown passes and Justin Jackson added 166 yards rushing. With a victory next week against Illinois, they can stake a claim that they deserve to be in a top-tier bowl.

Out: West Virginia, Michigan. Maybe next week: Florida Atlantic.

Week 12's Top 10: Elite Teams Flex Their Muscle on a Surprise-Free Saturday

A horrible slate of games in Week 12 provided little separation, as many of the top teams had no trouble with inferior competition. The week’s biggest winner was Wisconsin, which defeated Michigan to stay unbeaten. Things will get a whole lot more interesting next week, when all the big rivalry games go down. As for now, here’s an updated look at the nation’s 10 best teams:

1. Alabama: Mercer, as expected, was no match for the Crimson Tide, which got tuned up for the Iron Bowl at Auburn with a 56–0 romp. Alabama has now defeated 73 consecutive unranked teams under Saban, an FBS record. Two more wins and the Tide goes into the playoff as the No. 1 seed, but one stumble might—might—mean they get left out, since they only have two quality wins: at Mississippi State and at home against LSU.

2. Miami: The Hurricanes had to rally to beat a decent Virginia team, notching three more turnovers. Next up is Pitt. Miami is unbeaten with two good wins at home, having blown out Notre Dame and handled Virginia Tech. It’s a stretch to think they could lose to Clemson in the ACC title game and still make the final four without some help.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners held Kansas to 69 total yards in the first half and cruised to a 41–3 win. The Sooners have the best trio of wins of anyone in the country (Ohio State in Columbus, Oklahoma State in Stillwater and TCU in Norman), and there’s little shame in losing to 7–4 Iowa State.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers’ schedule stiffened, and they responded, holding off Michigan during a 24–10 win and limiting the Wolverines to 58 rushing yards—their Wolverines lowest output this season. Meanwhile Northwestern, the Big Ten West’s second-best team, has improved to 8–3.

5. Clemson: Saturday’s 61–3 win over FCS Citadel won’t turn heads, but the Tigers’ early-season performances against Auburn and Virginia Tech still stand on their own. Beat 8–3 South Carolina and then Miami in the ACC title game, and they’re all set. Stumble, and it’s doubtful they get a chance to defend their national title.

6. Georgia: After last weekend’s dismal performance at Auburn, the Bulldogs rebounded by drilling Kentucky, 42–13. Their win over Notre Dame carried them to the No. 1 ranking, but don’t overlook how they dispatched two eight-win teams in a 14-point win over South Carolina and a 31–3 thrashing of Mississippi State.

7. Auburn: That stunning loss at LSU has faded into the background with the roll Auburn is on right now, highlighted by last week’s domination of Georgia. If the Tigers beat Alabama this week and Georgia (again) the next, they’re in.

8. Notre Dame: Brian Kelly’s team bounced back from getting blasted at Miami by holding off a solid Navy team. Closing out the season by beating Stanford on the road would give the Irish an impressive 10–2 campaign to hold up, but an 11–2 Ohio State team that beat Michigan and then Wisconsin would leapfrog the Irish in the playoff pecking order.

9. Ohio State: As expected, the Buckeyes hammered Illinois. If they win out, especially if they do so in convincing fashion, I like their chances to make the playoff, although it would help to have Oklahoma stumble in the Big 12 title game.

10. UCF: The Knights keep blowing teams out and putting up points, beating Temple on the road 45–19. Their best win is over 9–1 Memphis, and that one wasn’t even close at 40–13. They’ll have a chance to impress more folks this Friday against a good USF team, but it’s still hard to envision them crashing the playoff.

Bowl Projections: Who Lands Where As the Postseason Picture Begins to Fall Into Place?

The effects of conference title games and marquee rivalry renewals around the country in the coming weeks will trickle down through the entire bowl calendar. Week 12’s action did not alter the playoff picture or the larger FBS landscape, but it did provide some critical victories for teams still working their way toward bowl eligibility. Below, the latest look at the projected (but far from official—only Army has locked in its postseason plans) matchups for all 39 bowl games leading up to the College Football Playoff national championship in Atlanta on Jan. 8. Because they take into account predicted results for the final weeks of the regular season, these projections won’t change when the new playoff rankings come out on Tuesday.

Saturday, Dec. 16

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, New Orleans (1 p.m., ESPN)
Sun Belt vs. C-USA
Troy vs. Southern Mississippi

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (2:30 p.m., CBSSN)
AAC vs. Sun Belt
Tulane vs. Arkansas State

Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas (3:30 p.m., ABC)
?MWC vs. Pac-12
Boise State vs. Oregon

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MWC
UTSA vs. Fresno State

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Montgomery, Ala. (8 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Akron vs. Georgia State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton, Fla. (7 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA
Temple vs. Florida International

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, Frisco, Texas (8 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA/MAC/MWC/BYU
Utah State vs. Middle Tennessee

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, St. Petersburg, Fla. (8 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. AAC
Marshall vs. South Florida

Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, Nassau, Bahamas (12:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MAC
Florida Atlantic vs. Northern Illinois

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Boise (4 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. MWC
Western Michigan vs. Colorado State

Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Birmingham, Ala. (12 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. SEC
Memphis vs. UAB

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Army vs. C-USA
Army vs. Western Kentucky

Dollar General Bowl, Mobile, Ala. (7 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Toledo vs. Appalachian State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Honolulu, (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. MWC
Houston vs. San Diego State

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Big Ten
Cal vs. Ohio

Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Utah vs. Central Michigan

Cactus Bowl, Phoenix (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Kansas State vs. Arizona State

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Walk-On's Independence Bowl, Shreveport, La. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Boston College vs. North Texas

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, New York (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Virginia Tech vs. Indiana

Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara, Calif. (8 p.m., FOX)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Iowa vs. Washington

Texas Bowl, Houston (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. SEC
Texas vs. Texas A&M

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Annapolis, Md. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. AAC
Virginia vs. Navy

Camping World Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big 12
NC State vs. West Virginia

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Pac-12 vs. Big 12
USC vs. Oklahoma State

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, San Diego (9 p.m., FS1)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Michigan vs. Stanford

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Charlotte, N.C. (1 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Wake Forest vs. Missouri

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas (2 p.m., CBS)
ACC vs. Pac-12
Louisville vs. Arizona

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn. (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
Kentucky vs. Northwestern

Arizona Bowl, Tucson, Ariz. (5:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Sun Belt vs. MWC
Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Wyoming

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
LSU vs. Florida State

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn. (12:30 p.m., ABC)
Big 12 vs. SEC
Iowa State vs. SMU

Monday, Jan. 1, 2018

Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN2)
Big Ten vs. SEC
Michigan State vs. South Carolina

Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (1 p.m., ABC)
SEC vs. ACC/Big Ten
Mississippi State vs. Penn State

New Year's Six Bowls

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Arlington, Texas (Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
Auburn vs. Notre Dame

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz. (Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
Washington State vs. TCU

Capital One Orange Bowl, Miami Gardens, Fla. (Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame
Clemson vs. Georgia

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Atlanta (Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-Large
UCF vs. Ohio State

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Pasadena, Calif. (Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Oklahoma vs. Miami

Allstate Sugar Bowl, New Orleans (Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Alabama vs. Wisconsin

College Football Playoff National Championship, Atlanta (Jan. 8, 8 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinal winner vs. CFP semifinal winner

Pressure Gauge: Georgia Must Rebound to Keep Playoff Hopes Alive

Going into Saturday’s game against unranked Kentucky, No. 7 Georgia has already clinched the SEC East and a berth to face Auburn or Alabama in the conference’s title game. But after losing to Auburn last week in grand fashion—the Tigers won 40-17—the Bulldogs’ playoff aspirations are on the ropes. Lose this week against Kentucky, and Kirby Smart’s team can count itself out. But win out—including in the SEC title game against a team that’s almost certain to be ranked in the top four at the time—and Georgia has as good a case as any team at being included among the ranks of the four playoff teams.

So why this week, you ask, is the pressure highest on Georgia? It’s won seven straight against Kentucky and is 56-12-2 against the Wildcats over time. But Mark Stoops’s team is 7-3 and poised to finish with its best record in a decade. Should it win out, including a bowl game, it’d reach a win total it hasn’t seen since 1977. The Wildcats are no automatic win for Georgia—plus, the Bulldogs haven’t had more on the line this season than they do this week. Sure, a sloppy loss to an inferior team might have shaken up their playoff bid earlier in the year, but that didn’t happen, and we’ve now reached the point where a two-loss Georgia team is almost certainly out of the hunt.

The game against Kentucky will pit the No. 10 rushing attack in the country—Georgia’s top two backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, have combined for 19 touchdowns on 1,625 yards this season—against the No. 19 rushing defense. Kentucky has allowed opponents just 121.9 yards of rushing per game this year; meanwhile Georgia is averaging 256. Something will have to give, and it’ll likely be Kentucky. Of the Wildcats’ opponents thus far in 2017, Mississippi State and Missouri are the only two with top-40 rushing offenses, and they rushed for 282 and 213 yards, respectively against Kentucky. The Bulldogs won handily and the Tigers lost by a touchdown.

If Chubb and Michel can play like they have all season, Georgia should be golden. Kentucky’s pass defense has been downright abysmal all season, allowing opponents an average of more than 280 yards per game, meaning that QB Jake Fromm (who’s been more than just a game manager even as a true freshman backup forced into a starting role) might be able to let loose on the Wildcats as well. The Georgia defense has been inconsistent at times this season, shutting out Tennesee and holding Mississippi State to three points while also allowing Missouri 28 points and Auburn 40, but Kentucky’s offense hasn’t been prodigious, and as long as the Bulldogs don’t put up another defensive performance like last week’s, they should be just fine.

Still, it’s impossible to predict how a team coming off its first loss and facing the most pressure it’s faced all year will perform. Playing at home will help—the Auburn loss came on the road—as will the clarity of the stakes. Lose, and this is a good season. Win, and Georgia has a chance for something great. It gets Georgia Tech next week in the teams’ annual rivalry game, which won’t be a cakewalk but seems manageable at the end of an inconsistent season for the Yellowjackets. And from there, it’ll either get an Alabama team that’ll almost certainly be ranked No. 1 or Auburn and a chance at redemption. Winning either of those matchups would almost certainly elevate Georgia back into the top four and guarantee the Bulldogs’ best season since it won the Sugar Bowl in 2002.

Manny Diaz's Resurrection of Miami's Defense Isn't All About the Turnover Chain

Like all good coaches, Manny Diaz knew the power of a history lesson. Diaz arrived at Miami in 2016 as the defensive coordinator on Mark Richt’s new staff after a solid season in the rough-and-tumble SEC at Mississippi State, but this was a unique job for him. Diaz grew up in South Florida as a huge Hurricanes fan. He spent many Saturdays of his youth in a raucous Orange Bowl, especially in the ’80s, when Miami was the dominant program in college football. Diaz was in the stands when the Canes took down No. 1 Oklahoma. He was there for the famed “third-and-43” game in 1989, when the Canes crushed No. 1 Notre Dame, 27–10.

Diaz’s primary point of emphasis with his new charges was getting them to “play like Hurricanes.”

“What that means," Diaz says, "is playing fast, being very physical, playing violent on the field, because that really was the identity of that program back in the day, and that’s really what you saw whenever they played [and dominated] in matchups vs. physical, power-running teams like Notre Dame."

Miami looked eerily similar to the teams of three decades ago in last weekend’s 41–8 mauling of No. 3 Notre Dame. The Irish came in riding one of the nation’s top ground attacks, averaging over seven yards per carry; Miami held them to just three yards per carry and forced four turnovers, becoming the first FBS team to notch at least four takeaways in four straight games against FBS opponents in at least 13 years—a feat that’s even more impressive when you consider Miami only starts one senior on defense, has 10 freshmen and sophomores on its defensive two-deep and is playing with just 73 scholarship players.

Diaz says that aggressive, suffocating defense is practically in the DNA of South Florida football, tying into the way the game is taught right down to the earliest levels of the area's storied Optimist Football programs. “Even when you watch the little league football down here, it’s coached tough,” Diaz says. “It’s hard to score points. UM should be an extension of that.”

Of course, talking about playing great, physical football is one thing. Making it happen is another. After all, Miami’s defense ranked 86th in yards per play allowed, the year before Mark Richt and Diaz showed up. [The Canes rank 12th in that category this year and were ninth last season.]

Building a team defined by its toughness was non-negotiable for the new Miami staff, Diaz says. And he demanded they become a better tackling team. As a big proponent of the rugby tackling system Pete Carroll employs with the Seahawks, Diaz knew it’s all about leverage and trusting your teammates.

To help put some teeth back in the Canes’ defense, Diaz created new ways to measure their performance. Players were awarded “a bite” for any sign of physical domination, such as making the opponent go backwards against his will—these players could get their names called out and receive a helmet sticker. On the flip side, they would get “a poodle” if they ran away from contact or were doing something that was not “setting the standard.” The punishment for that was having to push a 45-pound plate across the field.

The most well-known incentive that Diaz has brought to Miami is its now-famous turnover chain, the 5 1/2–pound Cuban link of 10-karat gold that has become a college football phenomenon. “We didn’t know how it was gonna work,” he says. Turns out, it’s been like a turnover magnet.

Turnovers themselves are hard to forecast. Last year Boise State ranked No. 126 in turnovers gained; this year the Broncos are up almost 100 spots to No. 29. And every team has turnover stations and ball-security drills at practice. Diaz says he believes that turnovers happen if you stop the run and force the other team to have to throw the ball. Interceptions and strip sacks come into play when an offense feels like it must takes some chances. He also suspects the turnover chain may have some pyschological impact on both teams, especially after Miami gets its first takeaway. “It sort of puts blood in the water, and maybe it’s planting a seed in the other team’s minds,” he says, pointing out that both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame are excellent ball-security teams, with each suffering nearly half of its season-long turnover total against the Hurricanes.

Credit Richt, a former Miami backup QB, for bringing back the connections to the Canes’ glory days. That bond has no doubt also helpe spark the resurgence. Many of the program’s old stars have come back for summer recruiting camps and are enjoying seeing Miami back in the national spotlight.

“Dan Morgan texted me [right after the Notre Dame game], and that made my day,” says sophomore linebacker Mike Pinckney. “He texted me and said, ‘I love the way you guys are playing as a defense,’ and that kind of brought a tear to my heart. That’s someone I always looked up to when I was younger. That just made my day. D.J. Williams, [Jon] Beason, [Jon] Vilma, they text us all and as a younger guy that makes us feel special.”

It also makes some older guys on the Canes staff feel pretty special, too.

Other Notes

• Coming off a dominant showing in knocking off No. 1 Georgia, folks are raving about Auburn’s defense (rightly so) and star running back Kerryon Johnson has shot into the Heisman race (rightly so), but the Tigers have also gotten a jolt from one of the better under-the-radar stories in college football this season. Center Casey Dunn was named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against the mighty UGA defense. Dunn graded out 91 percent for the game and had a season-high six blocks that led to first downs or touchdowns for Auburn. In addition, he helped pave the way for the Tigers to roll up 488 total yards, including 237 rushing yards—the most for any team against Georgia in two years.

Not bad who a guy who began his college career as an FCS walk-on player.

Dunn, a grad transfer, is listed at 6' 4" and 292 pounds—those inside the program say he’s probably more like 6' 2"—but his toughness is off the charts, he has good feet and he’s extremely smart. At Jacksonville State, he earned All-America honors, anchoring the unit that sparked the top offense in the Ohio Valley Conference and propelled the Gamecocks to the FCS title game in 2015.

How did a guy who clearly has SEC talent end up as an FCS walk-on? Dunn played at a very good program in Alabama, Hewitt-Trussville High, and had the grades. His high school coach Hal Riddle said Dunn went down with a knee injury midway through his junior season that required surgery.

“When all the college coaches are rolling through and coming by practice, he’s standing over there helping coach with a big old brace on his leg,” Riddle says. "He didn’t get clearance until August, so he couldn’t attend football camps that most kids would, so he was flying under the radar.”

Riddle had coached several other SEC linemen and says Dunn was as good as any of them, but he just got caught up by some bad timing and the numbers game. “So many coaches today will get into this ‘If you want us to be interested in you, you need to be at our camp.’ ” Riddle says. “But he wasn’t cleared for that and then all the big schools have this template that they’re looking for, where you need to be this tall and weigh this much and run this speed. Casey’s got all the intangibles. He’s an incredible young man. Just by his presence he makes your team better. So humble and thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the team. He’s the one who’s always lifting kids up.

“I never once heard him say [while getting passed over in the recruiting process] ‘I don’t know why?’ or act like poor, pitiful me. And then Casey enjoyed every minute he was up there at Jacksonville. I’m so happy for him to see how things have turned out.”

• Defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is quietly having another record-setting season. Last weekend he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. This year Jackson has thrown for 3,003 yards and rushed for 1,176. Yet he’s pretty far off the Heisman radar right now. Why? It’s a question I’ve gotten a few times this week.

For starters, Louisville has had a pretty underwhelming season, at 6–4 with two games to go. Any early momentum the Cardinals had was torpedoed by a blowout home loss to Clemson in Week 3, which was followed by three losses in October. Three of Louisville’s four losses have been by double-digits, and its lone win over an FBS team with a winning record just came last week against 6–4 Virginia. On top of that, Jackson wasn’t great in his two games against ranked opponents, rushing for 69 yards a game on just 3.8 yards per carry—about half of what he’s done in the other eight games. His QB rating in those two games is 30 points lower than it has been against non–Top 25 teams.

• Name of the Week: Bull Barge. The 5' 10", 225-pound South Alabama linebacker had a career-high 13 tackles against Arkansas State in a 24–19 win last Saturday. His full name is De’Themeyus Terrill Barge.

• Stat of the Week: Notre Dame has played two huge games in Miami in the past five years: one agianst Alabama for the national championship at the end of the 2012 season and the other last Saturday against Miami, a playoff elimination game of sorts. The Irish were outscored by a combined 55–0 in the first halves of those games. Mercy.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

The ACC Eyes Dream Scenario and Oklahoma Looking at Nightmare After Latest Playoff Rankings

After a weekend filled with losses for top-ranked teams, this week's College Football Playoff rankings have plenty of changes.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is seeing Clemson moving up from No. 4 to No. 2 and Miami sliding in at No. 3. Although, we probably shouldn't be all that surprised. The Tigers had been sitting at the four spot in each of the first two rankings before Tuesday and Miami's emphatic win over Notre Dame had us thinking the Canes would find themselves at two. Instead of falling for that recency bias, however, the selection committee valued Clemson's top-25 wins vs. Auburn and NC State over Miami's lone top-25 win vs. the Irish.

With that out of the way, let's figure out what these new rankings mean as we approach the final few weeks of the regular season.

HOW ABOUT MIAMI AND CLEMSON IN THE PLAYOFF?

Two weeks ago we were discussing Alabama and Georgia meeting in both the SEC title and national title games. We were also discussing how the other Power 5 conferences were going to complain about two SEC schools making the playoff. Whether it's Auburn continuing to tear everything apart, Georgia recovering in time to win the conference, or Alabama winning out, that's probably not going to happen.

Instead, the ACC could get two teams in the final four. Clemson and Miami will meet in the conference title game. Let's say 11-1 Clemson beats 12-0 Miami in a close, thrilling game giving both teams one loss on the season. If most of the favorites around the country win out and the ACC Championship Game ends like we've laid out above, the ACC will have a genuine case to make for taking up half the playoff spots.

OKLAHOMA AND THE BIG 12 MAY GET HOSED

Sitting at No. 4 is NEVER a good thing. It's why we were looking at Clemson and thinking it may tumble prior to the ACC title game. Now the Sooners, despite just joining the top four, could end up in such a scenario.

As you've just read, two ACC teams in the playoff isn't an outlandish idea. Assuming the SEC champ gets a third playoff spot—and it will—the final slot would be a fight between the Big 12 and Big Ten champions. If it comes down to this, Oklahoma must root for Ohio State to take down Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. OU already beat the Buckeyes in Columbus earlier this season. If the Badgers win out, there's simply no way the committee would leave out a 13-0 power conference champion.

The part of college football where you have to root for your opponents never gets old.

Here are the third full College Football Playoff rankings of the 2017 season:

1. Alabama (10-0, SEC)
2. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
3. Miami (9-0, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (9-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (9-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (8-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (9-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (8-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (8-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (8-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (9-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (8-2, Big 12)
13. Oklahoma State (8-2, Big 12)
14. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)
15. UCF (9-0, AAC)
16. Mississippi State (7-3, SEC)
17. Michigan State (7-3, Big Ten)
18. Washington (8-2, Pac 12)
19. NC State (7-3, ACC)
20. LSU (7-3, SEC)
21. Memphis (8-1, AAC)
22. Stanford (7-3, Pac 12)
23. Northwestern (7-3, Big Ten)
24. Michigan (8-2, Big Ten)
25. Boise State (8-2, MWC)

Alabama Tops This Week's College Football Playoff Ranking

After an eventful weekend that saw several top-ten teams lose, there's been a major shakeup at the top of the College Football Playoff rankings.

A familiar face tops this week's ranking, as the Alabama Crimson Tide claim the top spot with a 10-0 record. No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Miami, No. 4 Oklahoma join Alabama in position for the four-team playoff.

The first two teams out are No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Auburn.

Alabama came back from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to eek out a 31-24 road win at Mississippi State.? The Crimson Tide have been No. 1 in both the AP and USA TODAY Coaches' poll since the preseason, but the committee rewarded Georgia with the No. 1 spot for the first two weeks, as the Bulldogs had more impressive wins.

Last week's top-ranked team Georgia fell six spots to No. 7 after a 40-17 loss to Auburn. If Georgia wins out, the Bulldogs will likely play the winner of the Auburn-Alabama game in the SEC championship game, the winner of which will be in great position to earn a Playoff berth.

Miami moved up five spots after its impressive 41–8 win over Notre Dame in primetime. The turnover chain-wearing defense kept its magic going by forcing four turnovers, and Miami's game against No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 2 could go a long way in finalizing the playoff picture. Notre Dame, on the other hand, had its Playoff hopes crushed and tumbled to No.8.

In a matchup of last week's No. 5 and No. 6 teams, Baker Mayfield cemented his status as the Heisman front-runner by throwing for 333 yards and three touchdowns as Oklahoma beat TCU 38–20.

Wisconsin moved up after comfortably beating then-No. 20 Iowa. The win clinched the Big Ten West title for the Badgers, meaning they'll get the chance to post another much-needed impressive victory in the Big Ten championship game.

The Pac-12's Playoff hopes were all but ended with Washington's loss at Stanford on Friday night.

No. 15 Central Florida of the AAC is in pole position to earn the group-of-five conferences' bid in a New Years Six bowl.

The full ranking is as follows:

1. Alabama (10-0, SEC)
2. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
3. Miami (9-0, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (9-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (9-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (8-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (9-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (8-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (8-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (8-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (9-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (8-2, Big 12)
13. Oklahoma State (8-2, Big 12)
14. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)
15. UCF (9-0, AAC)
16. Mississippi State (7-3, SEC)
17. Michigan State (7-3, Big Ten)
18. Washington (8-2, Pac 12)
19. NC State (7-3, ACC)
20. LSU (7-3, SEC)
21. Memphis (8-1, AAC)
22. Stanford (7-3, Pac 12)
23. Northwestern (7-3, Big Ten)
24. Michigan (8-2, Big Ten)
25. Boise State (8-1,