| November 09, 2019 07:00 AM
To be honest, last week was a little slow in terms of major matchups. But this week is chock-full of major games. Be on the lookout for these games with major conference and College Football Playoff implications.
Record after week 10: Straight up – (24-6), against the spread – (20-9, with 1 push)
No. 2 LSU (8-0) at No. 3 Alabama (8-0) (3:30 p.m. EST on CBS)
The health of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is front and center for this matchup between two of the nation’s best teams. To this point, Tagovailoa has thrown for nearly 2,200 yards with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions while completing 74.7% of his passes. A great performance and a win from Tagovailoa would vault him back into the Heisman race. A loss probably eliminates him from the race and puts the Crimson Tide on the edge of missing the College Football Playoff.
He is a game time decision, but I do expect Tagovailoa to play. Could Alabama win this game with Mac Jones as the starting quarterback? Yes. Am I confident that Alabama could or would actually pull that off? No way.
Alabama has the nation’s fifth-ranked passing attack and second-ranked scoring offense. Meanwhile, LSU has the nation’s second-ranked passing offense and fourth-ranked scoring offense. Alabama has a top 10 scoring defense, but LSU is still very respectable, allowing just 20 points per game.
Red zone offense is a key stat that I’ll be tracking in this game. Alabama has scored on 84.2% of its trips to the red zone, converting 32 out of 38 trips. That puts the Crimson Tide in a tie for 64th nationally. No team in the nation scores on more of its trips to the red zone than LSU. The Tigers have scored on 43 of their 44 trips inside the 20-yard line for a mind-numbing conversion of 97.7%.
Joe Burrow has blossomed under LSU’s new spread offense. He is in the middle of the Heisman race after posting some incredible numbers. He has thrown for just over 2,800 yards and 30 touchdowns with just four picks. He has also been even more accurate than Tagovailoa, completing 78.8% of his passes. Tua is ranked second nationally in passing efficiency with Burrow just behind him in third.
This has the potential to be the game of the year. The quarterbacks and offenses are great, the programs are great, the level of pro talent is off the charts, and the stakes are very high. From a talent and production prospective, Alabama’s wide receiver corps is one of the greatest that the game has ever seen. Will the Crimson Tide’s receivers dominate, or will LSU’s secondary and defensive backs manage to frustrate and neutralize them?
In addition to Tagovailoa’s health, controlling the line of scrimmage and winning the turnover battle will be crucial. Alabama leads the nation with its average turnover margin at 1.63 per game. The Crimson Tide have forced 18 turnovers through eight games while only turning it over five times themselves. Scoring touchdowns instead of field goals is always key, and converting or getting off the field on third down will be a big difference-maker.
I’m interested to see the role that the running games play in this match up. Both Alabama and LSU are ranked outside the top 60 nationally in rushing offense. I can’t recall the last time that happened for both of these teams coming into this game. That’s not to say that either of these teams can’t or won’t run the ball. LSU’s top two running backs are averaging over 5 yards per carry and have combined for 11 rushing touchdowns. Alabama’s top two backs have also combined to average over 5 yards per carry and have tallied nine rushing touchdowns.
In a matchup of highflying passing offenses, will it be the run game that makes the difference, ultimately allowing one team to control the tempo and the clock?
The spread: Alabama (-6)
My pick: The Crimson Tide are at home and have had the bye week to get rested and ready. I like coach Nick Saban’s track record when he has extra time to prepare, but Tagovailoa’s health will ultimately be the key. I think Alabama ekes out a win over the Tigers to give itself the inside track to the SEC West title. I’m picking Alabama to win but take the points in what should be a closely contested game.
No. 4 Penn State (8-0) vs. No. 17 Minnesota (8-0) (Noon EST on ABC)
Before Alabama-LSU takes over the college football world, we have another matchup of undefeated teams.
Minnesota, which is 8-0 for the first time since 1941 and 5-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1961, just extended head coach P.J. Fleck for a couple of reasons. One, they haven’t been this good in a long time, and two, his name was being thrown around for the now-open Florida State job. That led to a hefty payday and job security coming into this game.
This game features a pair of sophomore quarterbacks that are great at making good decisions with the football. Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan is seventh nationally in passing efficiency while Penn State’s Sean Clifford is 10th. Morgan has thrown for 1,761 yards with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 65.3% of his passes. Clifford has similar numbers. He has thrown for 1,931 yards with 20 touchdowns and three picks while completing 62% of his throws.
I think the battle at the line of scrimmage will be the X-factor in this game because Minnesota will have to run the ball well to have a good chance to win. Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim, and Shannon Brooks form a dangerous backfield trio, but will they be able to break through a Penn State run defense that is only allowing 68.4 rushing yards per game?
While both teams feature top-15 scoring offenses, Penn State’s defense is elite. The Nittany Lions have the nation’s second-best scoring defense and are allowing fewer than 10 points per game. While the Golden Gophers have had the bye week to get ready, they’ll find that this Penn State defense is a tough nut to crack.
The spread: Penn State (-6.5)
My pick: Minnesota hasn’t faced a defense like Penn State’s up to this point, while the Nittany Lions have battled and beaten ranked Iowa and Michigan. The Nittany Lions are a proven commodity, and I’m picking them to win and cover the spread on the road.
No. 18 Iowa (6-2) at No. 13 Wisconsin (6-2) (4 p.m. EST on Fox)
This is a must-win game for each team as they seek to overtake Minnesota in the Big Ten West.
After losing on a last-second field goal to Illinois and then having the crap kicked out of them in Columbus, the Badgers had a bye week to stew and get ready for this game. Meanwhile, Iowa, after dropping back-to-back close games against Michigan and Penn State, survived a challenge from Purdue and then blanked Northwestern.
Wisconsin’s run defense is ranked fifth nationally. Iowa’s is eighth.
Iowa’s scoring defense is ranked third nationally. Wisconsin’s is fourth.
The Badgers have the nation’s best running back in Jonathan Taylor and the country’s 26th-best rushing offense. They’re averaging over 215 yards per game on the ground. Taylor has run for over 1,000 yards on the season and is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. In addition to his 15 rushing touchdowns, he has another four receiving scores as well. Jack Coan, who has thrown for nearly 1,500 yards this year and is completing 74.5% of his passes, probably won’t be asked to throw deep too often, but he’ll need to keep Iowa honest so the Hawkeyes don’t just stack the box.
Mekhi Sargent has scored in each of Iowa’s past two games but hasn’t topped 70 yards rushing in a game since September. He was nonexistent against Michigan and Penn State. If Iowa wants to have a chance, he’ll need to make a difference. Iowa signal-caller Nate Stanley doesn’t have the luxury of handing the ball off to one of the greatest running backs that college football has ever seen. He has thrown for almost 2,000 yards while completing 60.7% of his passes. In order for Iowa to maximize its chances, he’ll probably need to top at least 250 yards passing. While Justin Fields and the Buckeyes demolished the Badgers, Fields was only 12 for 22 for 167 yards but did have a pair of touchdowns. I mention that to illustrate that it’s also tough to throw against this Wisconsin defense.
The Badgers also hold the edge in a pair of key statistics: third-down conversion percentage and third-down conversion defense. Wisconsin is converting on third downs at a 49.6% clip, a mark that puts the Badgers in the top 10 in the country. The Badgers actually lead the nation in third-down conversion defense, allowing opponents to move the chains on third down just 22.4% of the time.
The X-factor in this game is a simple one: Whichever team wins the battle at the line of scrimmage will have a tremendous advantage. Both teams are incredibly physical on both sides of the line. It’s going to be a tough fight in the trenches.
The spread: Wisconsin (-9)
The pick: I can definitely see Taylor getting somewhere around 30 carries today. Location is also key. If this game was in Iowa City, I would have said to take the points. But since this game is in Camp Randall, I’m taking the Badgers to win and cover.
Noah Niederhoffer (@NNiederhoffer) is a producer at SiriusXM and a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Originally from Atlanta, he now lives in Washington, D.C.