My picks seem to be picking up steam after a second straight 3-1 week, putting me at 14-10 for the season. Let’s try to keep that going.
This column will give out four picks per week: the game of the week, a favorite, an underdog and a wild card, which can be anything (another favorite or underdog in a game that might be flying under the radar or a total, for instance). Hopefully we’ll all be in good shape by the time the clock hits zero at the national championship game in Houston on Jan. 8.
All spreads were taken Wednesday from DraftKings Sportsbook. All times Eastern.
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The game of the week
No. 7 Penn State at No. 3 Ohio State
The pick: under 46.5
I’m not expecting a whole lot of points from the weekend’s top game.
Penn State’s defense is just plain nasty, in all the best ways. Whether you’re measuring opponents’ passer rating or using ESPN’s QBR metric, the Nittany Lions lead the nation. They’re No. 1 in yards allowed per pass attempt (4.6), opponents’ completion percentage (49.1 percent) and passing success rate allowed. They’re No. 2 in sacks with 27, two behind leader Texas A&M (and Penn State has played one fewer game than the Aggies). Opposing running backs are averaging 2.4 yards per carry, which ranks third.
That last stat could be important because Ohio State’s running back is a MASH unit. TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, Nos. 1 and 2 on the depth chart entering the season, missed last Saturday’s game against Purdue, and Chip Trayanum left with an injury. For the season, Ohio State’s ground game ranks 100th in success rate, and it’s hard to see it getting going against a Penn State defense that has completely shut down opposing rushing attacks.
On the other side of the coin, Penn State has asked little of sophomore quarterback Drew Allar, who has thrown just eight passes of more than 20 yards downfield and missed on five of his past six such deep shots. It’s unlikely that having him throw more long balls will start to work against Ohio State, which has allowed just 36 pass plays of 10 or more yards (tied for fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision). The Buckeyes’ defense also has been stingy against the run, ranking 13th in rushing success rate allowed.
Penn State games have gone over the total four of six times, but its FBS opponents average a No. 58 ranking in terms of defensive SP+, which measures efficiency. Ohio State ranks fourth, and five of its six games have stayed under the total. I think that trend continues.
Virginia at No. 10 North Carolina
6:30 p.m., CW Network
The pick: North Carolina -23
Virginia has stumbled to a 1-5 start, with its lone win against William & Mary of the Football Championship Subdivision, even though it hasn’t exactly played a murderer’s row of offenses. The Cavaliers have faced just one team that ranks in the top 40 in terms of SP+ offense — Tennessee, which is No. 18 — and they gave up 49 points in that game. North Carolina ranks sixth in SP+ offense, and Virginia’s hopes of dragging its opponent into yet another rock fight seem dim.
While everyone is talking about Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye (a future first-round NFL draft pick who has thrown 12 touchdown passes this season) and the eligibility travails of wide receiver Tez Walker (who is averaging 14.6 yards per reception with three touchdowns in two games), North Carolina’s running game often goes unnoticed, even though the Tar Heels run the ball more than they pass and often do it quite well: UNC ranks a respectable 27th nationally in EPA per rushing play. Sophomore Omarion Hampton is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and is coming off a 197-yard performance against Miami, which entered with one of the top run-stop units in the ACC, if not the country.
The Cavaliers’ defense ranks 113th in EPA per rushing play and 118th in rushing-defense success rate.
Virginia’s running backs are averaging just 2.7 yards per carry, the worst number of any Power Five team and 128th in the nation, so it probably won’t be able to attack North Carolina’s somewhat forgiving rushing defense. I’m thinking it could be a long day for the Cavaliers.
No. 17 Tennessee at No. 11 Alabama
3:30 p.m., CBS
The pick: Tennessee +9
Big plays — Alabama’s overreliance on them and Tennessee’s ability to stop them — will be the deciding factor.
Nearly 24 percent of Alabama’s scrimmage plays in last weekend’s three-point win over Arkansas gained at least 10 yards, which on the surface would seem to be a good thing. The problem is, when those big plays don’t pan out, the Crimson Tide often finds itself behind the sticks. Of Alabama’s 15 plays of 10 or more yards against the Razorbacks, 12 came on first or second down, and when the Tide was faced with third down, it often was left with an uncomfortable distance to overcome: 8.9 yards on average, and it converted just 6 of 14 attempts. Alabama punted seven times, one off its season high set in a similarly underwhelming win over South Florida on Sept. 16. For the season, the Tide ranks 79th nationally in offensive success rate, defined as the percentage of plays that gain 50 percent of the required yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down. If those big plays aren’t hitting, Alabama’s offense bogs down.
Tennessee’s defense has been great at limiting big plays; it has allowed its opponents to gain at least 10 yards just 64 times (tied for seventh nationally) and has allowed a gain of at least 20 yards just 18 times (tied for 12th). The Vols’ defense ranks 19th in success rate allowed and has 24 sacks (tied for fifth). Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe has been sacked at least four times in five consecutive games, tying the longest streak for an FBS quarterback in the past 20 seasons.
Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright is averaging 7.14 yards per carry — 26 of his 80 carries have gained at least 10 yards — and could find success against an Alabama rushing defense that ranks 107th in rushing explosiveness allowed. Add it all up, and the Vols can keep this one close.
The wild card
No. 22 Air Force at Navy
The pick: under 36.5
There are three givens in life: death, taxes and service-academy football games going under the total. Since 2005, games between Navy and Air Force, Navy and Army, and Air Force and Army are 43-10-1 to the under, even with the oddsmakers shading things in that direction in recent years. Last year’s Army-Navy game did go over, snapping a 10-game under streak in service-academy games, but it needed 17 points scored in two overtimes to get there.
I like the under trend to get back on track. It’s not hard to see why: These teams rank first and second nationally in rushing attempts per game, so the clock just moves and moves. As an added bonus, Navy has sometimes struggled to move the ball on the ground, even against inferior rushing defenses. In last week’s 14-0 win at Charlotte — which has a bottom-third rushing defense in the country — the Midshipmen managed just 4.3 yards per carry, their second-worst mark of the season after the opener against Notre Dame. Navy received its second-worst Pro Football Focus rushing grade of the year and its worst run-blocking grade.
The Midshipmen’s rushing defense, on the other hand, has been pretty good, ranking 25th in expected points allowed per running play and giving up just 3.1 yards per carry to the 49ers.
Air Force’s defense is weakest against the pass, but Navy’s No. 131-ranked passing offense (in terms of success rate) doesn’t scare anyone, even if the Midshipmen are throwing the ball a little more under first-year offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut. (Navy is averaging 13.5 pass attempts; in the eight seasons leading up to this one, it averaged 9.7.)
Don’t overthink this. Take the under and watch these teams try to option each other into submission.