by Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor
LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, and Penn State are all on byes this week after dominant victories this past Saturday. Clemson is fresh off of a 59-7 demolition of Boston College and face FCS opponent Wofford Saturday afternoon. While four of the top five teams are on a bye and Clemson has a 99.7%-win probability according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, this week features multiple marquee matchups with major College Football Playoff implications on the line as the final month of the college football regular season gets underway. While many fans and experts have their attention focused on the heavyweight SEC clash between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama next week in Tuscaloosa, four games this week should not be overlooked as they provide major tests for teams vying for a College Football Playoff bid. For Florida, Oregon, Georgia, Utah, and SMU, what they do this coming Saturday could eliminate any hopes they have of a playoff bid or draw them closer to their goal of a trip to the College Football Playoff semifinal.
WHO: No. 6 Florida vs. No. 8 Georgia
WHEN: Saturday, November 2 3:30 PM (ET)
WHERE: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, FL
PREVIEW: Jacksonville once again takes center stage for a historic SEC border matchup between the Gators and Bulldogs. Florida enters the matchup at 7-1, with their lone loss coming at the hands of No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge. Georgia is 6-1, suffering a shocking double overtime loss at home two games ago to South Carolina. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask has performed exceptionally well since taking over for starter Feleipe Franks, who suffered a season ending ankle injury back on September 14 against Kentucky. Trask brilliantly engineered a comeback victory against the Wildcats and has been an effective game manager for Dan Mullen despite not having started a game since his junior varsity high school days. Georgia QB Jake Fromm threw three costly interceptions during the Bulldogs 20-17 2OT loss to the Gamecocks. Until that game, the Georgia native had not thrown a pick all year. Running back D’Andre Swift has been running with aggression all season totaling 754 rushing yards with 7 touchdowns and an impressive 6.9 yards per carry. Both teams have elite defensive units, with Georgia entering this game at No. 13 and Florida at No. 20 in our Pass Efficiency Defense rankings found on PhilSteele.com under our “FBS Info” tab.
WHAT’S AT STAKE/CFP IMPLICATIONS: Both teams are looking for a much-needed win that could give them a huge boost in confidence heading into the final four weeks of the season. More importantly, the winner sits in the driver seat atop the SEC East and potentially provides themselves a chance at redemption for their loss earlier in the season in the SEC Championship game. For Gator fans, a matchup in the SEC title game against the winner of the LSU/Alabama game would be huge, and something fans in “The Swamp” can only crave. Untimely turnovers inside the red zone ultimately doomed the Gators during their 42-28 loss to LSU. For Georgia fans, the sole focus is on a rematch in Atlanta for the third consecutive year against Nick Saban and Alabama. For this to come true, the Tide would have to take care of business against LSU on November 9 as well as in-state rival Auburn on November 30 in the Iron Bowl. The Bulldogs would also have to get past Auburn on November 16 in addition to Florida on Saturday, but oh how sweet a rematch against the Tide would be, considering they have outplayed Alabama in their previous two matchups before falling in overtime during the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship and in the final two minutes last year during the SEC Championship. A win provides Florida or Georgia an opportunity to continue to control their own destiny, while a loss all but eliminates each team from any hope at a playoff bid and a spot in the SEC Championship game.
WHO: No. 9 Utah vs. Washington
WHEN: Saturday, November 2 4:00 PM (ET)
WHERE: Husky Stadium, Seattle, WA
PREVIEW: These two teams met last December at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA for the PAC-12 Championship game. The game was a defensive grudge match all four quarters, with the Huskies prevailing with as PAC-12 champs with a 10-3 victory. Another close game is expected this Saturday, but the 7-1 Utes will have arguably two of their biggest offensive weapons available for this year’s matchup. Around this time last year, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham lost both starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and leading rusher Zack Moss to season ending injuries. Jason Shelley filled in under center while Armand Shyne took over as the lead ball carrier. Both performed well under the circumstances, but the Utes offense was stifled against Washington in the title game, producing only 188 total yards of offense in the loss. This season, both Huntley and Moss have returned from injury and been very effective for a Utah offense that has been hitting their stride over the past five games. The Utes defense has been on a dominant run these past three games allowing a total of 436 yards and ten points combined to PAC-12 foes Oregon State, Arizona State, and California. They enter the matchup ranked number four in our Pass Efficiency Defense rankings and are paced by leading tackler and linebacker Devin Lloyd while edge rusher Bradlee Anae has been a menace to opposing quarterbacks leading the team in sacks with seven. Washington QB Jacob Eason knows he has his work cut out for him as he faces arguably the hottest defense in the country. One thing that could play into 5-3 Washington’s favor however is that Eason is very smart with the football in his hands, only throwing three interceptions on the season so far. The Huskies are looking to respond in a big way after a stunning final quarter collapse two weeks ago at home against Oregon that saw the Ducks prevail with a 35-31 win. On the other side of the ball, the defense certainly knows they need to improve immediately after surrendering 1,276 yards and 85 points in their last three contests.
WHAT’S AT STAKE/CFP IMPLICATIONS: There is no question the Utes are out for revenge after last year’s loss in the PAC-12 title game. Utah enters this game very confident, especially on the defensive side of the given their impressive performances all year long and most notably in the last three games. Despite a loss earlier in the season to USC, the Utes are still very much a part of the playoff discussion as one of the top one loss teams in the country. A win would certainly put them on a path for another appearance in the PAC-12 Championship game as well keeping their playoff hopes alive. For Washington, their playoff and PAC-12 championship aspirations have all but been erased following their loss two weeks ago at the hands of Oregon. The Huskies are in an unfamiliar situation this time of the year as they are the underdogs at home. In order to pull off the upset, Chris Petersen’s squad needs to play a complete game on both sides of the ball and prevent Bradlee Anae and the relentless Utah pass rush from getting to Eason.
WHO: No. 7 Oregon vs. USC
WHEN: Saturday, November 2 7:00 PM (ET)
WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, CA
PREVIEW: Oregon fans have been on the edge of their seats the past two games, as the Ducks narrowly escaped Washington 35-31 and an always dangerous and unpredictable Mike Leach Washington State Cougars squad 37-35. The Ducks have been afforded some good luck since their stunning last second defeat to Auburn in Week 1. Since that loss, the Ducks have been on a roll, rattling off seven straight wins with their sights set on a conference championship and potential berth in the College Football Playoff. Quarterback Justin Herbert stunned the nation last year when he announced that he would not enter the NFL Draft and instead return to Eugene for his senior season with his goal ultimate goal being a national championship. The senior has performed exceptionally well all year, throwing for 2,104 yards to go along with a near perfect 21-1 TD-INT ratio. While Herbert lost leading pass catcher Jacob Breeland for the season due to a leg injury a few weeks back, running back CJ Verdell has been a great compliment to the senior QB, rushing for 753 yards and five scores including an incredible performance last week against Washington State where he tallied 257 yards on the ground to go along with 56 receiving yards. South of Eugene in Los Angeles however, a different narrative has been written with regards to the USC quarterbacks. In the opening game against Fresno State, sophomore starting QB JT Daniels was lost for the year when he suffered a torn ACL. PS #34 true freshman QB Kedon Slovis entered the game and was able to lead the Trojans to a 31-23 victory. Talk surrounding the season, Slovis, and head coach Clay Helton’s job security floated around the country after the opening game, but the true freshman quieted critics as he led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over a formidable Stanford Cardinal team where he completed 28 of 33 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Matt Fink has also seen time under center. Fink entered the game against Utah when Slovis was injured early in the first quarter, guiding the Trojans to a 30-23 upset of the Utes and earning a start against Washington in place of the injured true freshman. Slovis has a reliable trio of pass catchers in Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Oregon’s defense has been excellent this season, coming in at No. 6 in our Pass Efficiency Defense ratings, while USC enters 33 spots down at No. 39. Both teams feature solid defenses who have risen to the challenge in crucial moments times this year, but the explosive passing attacks that both the Ducks and Trojans display cannot be ignored, and points are expected.
WHAT’S AT STAKE/CFP IMPLICATIONS: Despite heartbreak and disappointment that came after the loss to Auburn, the Ducks have put their nose to the grindstone and taken care of business to keep themselves relevant in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. A win at the Coliseum would not only put the Ducks in the driver’s seat for a trip to Santa Clara to compete for a PAC-12 title but would only build a more convincing reason as to why the Ducks deserve a shot in the playoff. USC’s hopes of a playoff berth and spot in the PAC-12 title game are gone, but the Trojans still have lots to play for. An upset victory Saturday night against the Ducks would be huge for coach Clay Helton’s squad. A win would provide a young Trojans team a load of confidence and some swagger down the stretch as they face Arizona State, California, and cross-town rival UCLA to close the year. If Slovis can take care of the ball and complete critical passes like he consistently did against Stanford and Notre Dame, the Trojans have a chance to earn the upset. However, the Ducks have been playing consistent and turnover-free football all season. Look for QB Justin Herbert to have another big game and lead the Ducks offense like he has all season.
WHO: No. 15 SMU vs. No. 24 Memphis
WHEN: Saturday, November 2 7:30 PM (ET)
WHERE: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, TN
PREVIEW: After an 8-0 start, Mustang fans are exclaiming that the “Pony Express” is officially back. However, Memphis fans would like a say in that claim. The Tigers get their chance Saturday night at home, and the setting couldn’t be bigger with ESPN’s College Gameday on hand. Memphis enters the contest at 7-1, with their lone loss coming against an always tough Temple team in Philadelphia. SMU is led by Texas graduate transfer quarterback Shane Buechele who has amassed an impressive 2,325 passing yards so far on the year to go along with a 20-7 TD-INT ratio. Buechele has two highly talented targets in Reggie Roberson and James Proche, who combined have totaled 104 receptions for 1,495 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. Memphis equally boasts an impressive quarterback in senior signal caller Brady White, who has thrown for 2,161 yards with a 20-4 ratio. To compliment White is running back Kenneth Gainwell, who enters the game seventh in the nation in rushing with 979 yards and 11 touchdowns. Gainwell is a dangerous threat in the passing game as well, hauling in 34 receptions for 440 yards and three more scores. Both teams have shown flashes of big plays on defense and rank respectably in our Pass Efficiency Defense ratings, with SMU at No. 44 and Memphis not far behind at No. 46. However, with both teams featuring high powered offenses with experienced QB’s and reliable playmakers, points are expected to be exchanged early and often in this contest.
WHAT’S AT STAKE/CFP IMPLICATIONS: It has been 32 years since SMU was handed the “death penalty” by the NCAA before the 1987 season. It has been a long wait, but the Mustangs have risen from the shadows and become one of the greatest stories this season. Although the playoff committee has not been kind to Group of 5 teams in the past, with fellow AAC member UCF as a prime example the past two seasons, hope has not faded for SMU. The Mustangs secured a notable 41-38 victory on the road against in-state foe and Big 12 member TCU, and they could secure another big victory Saturday night in Memphis on primetime television. With their loss to Temple, Memphis’ hopes of a miraculous College Football Playoff berth have long vanished. However, the Tigers still have a lot play for. Memphis is looking to spoil SMU’s shot at a perfect season, and path to the AAC Championship game. A win could place the Tigers atop the AAC West, tied with Navy for the division lead. Should the Tigers defeat SMU and ultimately win the AAC title, they could earn the coveted Group of 5 bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, which we predicted in our magazine. This game is certain to be a thriller, highlighted by two high scoring offenses and a chance for both teams to shine under the bright lights with the entire nation watching.