Like we’ve done in years past, every Friday throughout the season we’ll highlight the five best games of the coming weekend. This year, we’ll pick those games against the spread, plus some other matchups that caught our eye from a betting perspective.
This weekend presents the last opportunity for teams to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee before the first set of rankings is unveiled on Tuesday night. Well, maybe “impress” is the wrong way to characterize it. There are mostly chances to avoid disaster.
While there are three ranked vs. ranked games, 14 other ranked teams have unranked opponents on the schedule, with 12 of those games on the road (if you include No. 3 Notre Dame’s trip to San Diego to play Navy). That’s the usual recipe for upsets.
With wins, the playoff hopes of teams like No. 6 Texas (at Oklahoma State) and No. 12 Kentucky (at Missouri) live on for another week. A loss pretty much spells the end of their national title road.
(Games on Saturday unless otherwise noted, all times ET)
5. No. 21 South Florida at Houston
Time: 3:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN2 | Line: Houston -7
Through eight weeks, five undefeated teams remain. One is 7-0 South Florida, a team with an explosive offense (505 yards per game, 11th nationally) led by two transfers: QB Blake Barnett (Arizona State, Alabama) and RB Jordan Cronkrite (Florida). But there have been close calls against bad teams along the way. Charlie Strong’s Bulls trailed in the fourth quarter against Illinois and Tulsa and only beat East Carolina (20-13) and UConn (38-30) by a touchdown. Those four teams have a combined record of 7-21. The schedule increases in difficulty with Saturday’s trip to Houston, a game that impacts both AAC divisions and the Group of Five race.
In the AAC East, USF is one of three teams without a conference loss. In the West, Houston (6-1, 3-0) leads the way after dispatching Navy in Annapolis last week. The Cougars, winners of four straight, boast the AAC’s best offense, averaging 48.7 points and 555.3 yards per game. That offense is led by D’Eriq King, a junior who began his career as a wide receiver. Ever since Major Applewhite moved King into the starting QB role, the UH offense has thrived. This year, King has thrown for 1,984 yards and 23 touchdowns and added 281 yards and nine scores rushing. But King isn’t UH’s most well-known player. That honor goes to two-time All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who is listed as questionable after injuring his knee vs. Navy.
Picks: Sam: UH -7, Nick: UH-7
4. No. 6 Texas at Oklahoma State
Time: 8 p.m. | TV: ABC | Line: Texas -3.5
The bye week was well-timed for Texas (6-1, 4-0 Big 12) this season. Following its triumph over Oklahoma on Oct. 6, the Longhorns eked out a win over Baylor the following week, losing QB Sam Ehlinger to a shoulder injury in the process. Ehlinger was able to rest the shoulder during the bye and, by all accounts, should be ready to roll against Oklahoma State. The Longhorns will need Ehlinger, too. They can’t afford a letdown if they want to stay atop the Big 12 standings and remain in the College Football Playoff picture.
Inconsistent would be the best way to describe the first half of the season for Oklahoma State (4-3, 1-3 Big 12). After the Cowboys trounced Boise State in Week 3, we wondered if OSU could challenge for a Big 12 title. Instead, the Cowboys, losers in three of their last four games, have an opportunity to play the role of spoiler with first-place Texas visiting Stillwater on Saturday night. OSU put forth a terrible effort its last time out, losing 31-12 at Kansas State. Following a bye week, expect a much better effort from Mike Gundy’s group on a night where Barry Sanders’ Heisman Trophy season will be honored.
Picks: Sam Cooper: OSU +3.5, Nick Bromberg: UT -3.5
3. No. 18 Iowa at No. 17 Penn State
Time: 3:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN | Line: Penn State -6.5
As our Pat Forde detailed earlier this week, the Big Ten West is jumbled at the top with Northwestern (4-1), Wisconsin (3-1), Iowa (3-1), and Purdue (3-1) all having just one loss in league play. After Wisconsin and Northwestern meet Saturday in Evanston, Iowa has a chance for a big win in Happy Valley. This isn’t the plodding Iowa teams you’re used to watching, either. While the usually solid defense is there, the Hawkeyes are much more creative offensively, finding ways to get the ball to versatile tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
Penn State started 4-0 and was very much in the CFP picture, but dropped heartbreakers to Ohio State and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks. PSU rebounded last week at Indiana and has the chance to get some momentum going for the second half of the season. PSU is the clear third wheel in the East behind Ohio State and Michigan, but it still is very much in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl game. And so is Iowa. But PSU is the toughest game left on the Iowa schedule, so a CFP bid would be a tough sell even if the Hawkeyes run the table and win the Big Ten.
Picks: Sam: Iowa +6.5, Nick: Iowa +6.5
2. No. 14 Washington State at No. 24 Stanford
Time: 7 p.m. | TV: Pac-12 | Line: Stanford -3
On the heels of last week’s visit from College GameDay and win over Oregon, can Washington State (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) bring the same level of intensity on the road at Stanford? As important as the win over the Ducks was, the matchup with the Cardinal is even bigger. Washington State, led by grad transfer QB Gardner Minshew, would be in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North with a win. Oh, and the Cougars — the Pac-12’s only one-loss team — are the conference’s only hope to make the College Football Playoff. But in the end, the potential of Wazzu’s season — in the conference and nationally — will come down to the season finale vs. No. 15 Washington. This year, the Apple Cup is in Pullman.
It’s been an up-and-down year for Stanford, but this is a big opportunity. Ever since its huge comeback overtime win over Oregon, things have gone downhill. The Cardinal dropped back-to-back games to Notre Dame and Utah, and neither game was all that close. After a bye, Stanford got back in the win column last Thursday at Arizona State, but it wasn’t a particularly impressive performance. Still, it put the Cardinal back in the Top 25 and in the thick of things in the North. A win over Washington State would set up another pivotal divisional battle against Washington in Seattle next weekend.
Picks: Sam: WSU +3, Nick: WSU +3
1. No. 9 Florida vs. No. 7 Georgia (Jacksonville)
Time: 3:30 p.m. | TV: CBS | Line: Georgia -7
It’s been a while since the stakes were this high in the Cocktail Party. Not only is this game huge for the SEC East, but the rivalry also has College Football Playoff implications. Coming off last year’s national runner-up finish, Georgia was far and away the favorite in the East. But it has serious competition with Florida and No. 12 Kentucky nipping at its heels (all three teams are 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC). The last time we watched UGA, it got blown out 36-16 by LSU. LSU was, by far, the toughest opponent for UGA to that point in the season and it showed. Can the Bulldogs put up more of a fight on Saturday in Jacksonville?
While the expectations were sky-high in Athens, nobody had Florida in the CFP picture in its first year under Dan Mullen. Now, at the minimum, Mullen has the Gators in position to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. But the Gators’ sights are higher entering Saturday. A win over the Bulldogs — depending on what Kentucky does vs. Missouri — could vault the Gators to the top of the division standings and just outside the top four in the first College Football Playoff rankings. If UF beats UGA and UK beats Mizzou, Kentucky, because it beat Florida in September, would be in first place.
Picks: Sam: UGA -7, Nick: UF +7
Record ATS to date: Sam: 20-20, Nick: 13-27
Week 9’s best bets
Nick Bromberg (Last week: 2-1, Overall: 14-10)
Louisiana Tech at Florida Atlantic (-3.5) [FRIDAY]: It’s been a brutal year for Florida Atlantic. The Owls are 3-4 after bursting onto the scene in Lane Kiffin’s first year. Turnovers were a big problem a week ago in FAU’s 31-7 loss to Marshall. This is a bounceback week for FAU. Pick: FAU -3.5
Army at Eastern Michigan (Pick): Eastern Michigan plays close games. Last week’s 22-point win over Ball State was EMU’s first game that wasn’t within a possession since Week 1. Army performs really well as an underdog, though if this game was on a neutral field Army would probably be favored. Both teams are 5-2 against the spread this year. When in doubt, go Army. Pick: Army
Duke at Pitt (+3): Duke has shown flashes this year. So has Pitt. But the Panthers’ lows have been longer and worse than Duke’s. In a game like this, it’s necessary to go with the best quarterback on the field. That’s Duke’s Daniel Jones. He’s got a pretty good supporting cast and coach as well. Pick: Duke -3
Sam Cooper (Last week: 1-2, Overall: 11-13)
Purdue at Michigan State (-2): There’s always the chance for a letdown after last week’s Ohio State win, but Purdue has a legitimate chance to win the Big Ten West. Jeff Brohm is too good of a coach to allow his team to take the foot off the gas. And the fact that Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke is nursing a shoulder injury makes me think the Spartans won’t have much of a chance to keep up. Pick: Purdue +2
Texas Tech at Iowa State (-3.5): Iowa State’s offense has been tremendous since freshman Brock Purdy was put in the starting lineup. On top of Purdy’s emergence, stud RB David Montgomery is finally healthy. Sure, Texas Tech’s defense is improved, but I like ISU to win fairly comfortably at home, especially coming off a bye. Pick: Iowa State -3.5
No. 16 Texas A&M at Mississippi State (-2.5): With Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback, Mississippi State has been completely one-dimensional on offense and Texas A&M has the fourth-best rush defense in the country. Unless Joe Moorhead pulls Fitzgerald, that doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. I’ll take the Aggies here, especially coming off a bye week. Pick: Texas A&M +2.5
For Pat Forde and Pete Thamel’s Week 9 picks, check out Race for the Case: