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ZeLO previews conference championship weekend

I would write a traditional intro, but I do not have the words! We have 10 conferences to cover and CFP scenarios to think about! Ready, set go!

PAC 12

To me, this feels like the most important conference championship game. By dominating their respective conferences and going undefeated, Michigan and Georgia feel like locks to make the CFP regardless of their conference championship status. USC does not have that same safety net.

From a narrative perspective, this is the perfect game for the Trojans. USC needed to be perfect in their last five games, and they have answered the bell with signature wins against UCLA and Notre Dame. With a trip to the CFP on the line, their last challenge is against the only team to beat them this season.

ZeLO is going to give the edge to Utah, however ZeLO has USC’s defense ranked 88th, which limits the Trojans to a 13th net ranking. Though Utah may have a worse offense, their defense (25th) is the difference maker.

Utah 53.4%, USC 46.6%

Big 12

Like the Trojans, TCU needs this conference championship to secure a berth. According to 538, a loss would drop the Horned Frogs from a 71% chance of making the CFP to 32%, with Kansas State jumping to 46%.

I am skeptical that Kansas State would make the CFP as a three-loss conference champion. If LSU cannot make it with that resume, why would the Wildcats?

If TCU losses, the much more likely outcome (according to ZeLO) is Ohio State sneaking into the fourth seed. A very likely outcome, as this matchup is, at best, a coin flip.

TCU 54.1%, KSU 45.9%

B10

After spending all season anticipating Ohio State would win the division, it feels odd to have Michigan sitting here. That is not a slight against the Wolverines. Michigan banished all doubt that they are one of the best teams in the nation last weekend.

Emerging from the royal rumble in the west are the Purdue Boilermakers. Purdue is a solid team, but whatever team emerged from the East would automatically be a massive underdog.

ZeLO has Michigan with a dominant performance as they complete their Big 10 title defense.

Michigan 74.9%, Purdue 25.1%

SEC

This matchup lost a lot of its luster last weekend. There was an outside chance that if LSU upset Georgia, the Tigers could make the CFP. They would be conference champions and have the single-best win in the country. Texas A&M dashed those hopes with a stunning rush-the-field upset.

While LSU is, without a doubt, a quality team (ranking 22nd in ZeLO’s Net Ranking), this is Georgia’s title to lose. LSU’s offense has had its ups and downs this season, and Georgia’s top-ranked defense will likely give it one more down.

Hats off to Brian Kelly, however. Being an SEC runner-up in your first year is no small thing.

Georgia 67.1%, LSU 32.9%

ACC

After South Carolina’s upset of Clemson and UNC’s two-game losing streak, this matchup has become rather uninteresting. Clemson had a slight chance of making the CFP before last weekend. Now they have none.

Meanwhile, UNC had an outside chance to make it to the CFP if they had won and claimed the ACC crown. Now, the ACC championship does little to bolster either team’s resume.

I would rather see FSU in this game. The Seminoles had a three-game losing streak where they narrowly lost to NC State, Wake Forest and Clemson. Since then, FSU has been incredibly dominant (and better than UNC).

Clemson should win this matchup and earn a spot in the Orange Bowl.

Clemson 58.4%, UNC 41.6%

AAC

There is a lot on the line in the AAC Championship. Quite honestly, it might be more meaningful than the ACC Championship. Not only will Tulane or UCF become the conference champion, but the winner will also be the highest-ranked G5 team.

That means that either Tulane or UCF will be heading to the Cotton Bowl, which, based on current CBS projections, Tulane will take on Penn State.

Tulane 52.7%, UCF 47.3%

MAC

In my preseason college football article, ZeLO pegged Toledo as one of ZeLO’s diamond-in-the-rough teams. ZeLO had Toledo as a team that could hang with the best of the G5 squad and a team that should win its conference.

Toledo has underperformed, but it did make it to the conference championship. ZeLO is still faithful to the Rockets, giving them a slim chance to beat the upstart Ohio Bobcats.

Ohio 48.4%, Toledo 51.6%

Mountain West

These were the two most likely teams to make the Mountain West Championship in the preseason (unless you are ZeLO and really like Air Force for some reason).

As things currently stand, Fresno has the best offense in the Mountain West (40th), which ranks 14 spots better than Boise. The difference maker, though? Boise States’ defense ranks 7th in ZeLO’s unadjusted rankings.

Boise State 58.9%, Fresno State 41.1

CUSA

That UTSA is not ranked heading into their game against North Texas on Saturday was one of the more disappointing outcomes from the CFP Rankings. The Committee loves North Carolina State; what can I say?

The Roadrunners have certainly earned the right to be ranked. They boasted a 10-2 record and ranked 22nd in ESPN’s Strength of Resume. Hopefully, a conference championship will sneak them into the CFP’s top 25.  

UTSA 61.1%, North Texas 38.9%

Sun Belt

Coastal Carolina had a legitimate shot at catching up to Tulane and UCF last weekend until they got blown out by the JMU Dukes. That loss bumped them from both the AP Poll and the Coaches poll. Having 44 points scored on you unanswered will do that to you.

ZeLO had seen the Chanticleers as the most likely team to win the Sun Belt Championship, but the loss was so bad that the Troy Trojans are now favored (albeit narrowly).

Coastal Carolina 45.7%, Troy 54.3%

CFP Previews

If ZeLO’s predictions hold true, the CFP should look like this:

No. 1 Georgia vs No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan vs No. 3 TCU

Equally likely is TCU losing but USC winning

No. 1 Georgia vs No. 4 Ohio St and No. 2 Michigan vs No. 3 USC

But the fun chaos scenario is where both USC and TCU lose:

No. 1 Georgia vs No. 4 Kansas St and No. 2 Michigan vs No. 3 Ohio St

This scenario feels incredibly unlikely to me (it is 538’s simulation). 538 tends to weigh conference championships incredibly heavily, hence KSU becoming one of the likely CFP Contenders.

I think more likely is TCU making it in, if only because they split with KSU and went 12-0 in the regular season. I genuinely doubt a 9-3 team could make it into the playoffs.

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@hcc-nd.edu

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Zwiller: ZeLO’s CFP predictions, Week 9 picks

Two weeks ago, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Penn State and UCLA were all undefeated. Tennessee fans had not yet torn down the literal uprights and taken them outside the stadium. And Notre Dame had not yet lost to Stanford (sorry). 

Something that has not changed is ZeLO’s continued first-year success. In Week 7, ZeLO went 37-16 compared to FPI’s 36-17 outing. FPI did strike back in Week 8, picking 36-17 again. ZeLO dropped a few close contests, like Pitt at Louisville and Ole Miss at LSU, and went 33-20. 

Though the loss was disappointing, ZeLO has been on a hot streak. From Week 4 to Week 7, ZeLO out picked FPI straight up and is tied from Week 4 to 8. Though FPI is 413-125 (76.8%) and ZeLO 396-144 (73.3%), I think the two models are closer than their records might suggest. 

As the season has progressed deeper into conference play, with fewer Group of 5 vs. Power 5 matchups, ZeLO has become much more competitive. Early in the season, I wrote that the Power 5 vs. Group 5 problem was one of ZeLOs biggest flaws, and as we have seen fewer of those matchups, ZeLO has been able to close the gap. 

However, that is a topic for next week. This week I want to debut a new feature I built into ZeLO and talk about the results I got back. 

One of the more silent problems ZeLO has had this season is how highly it touted some of the more substantial Group of 5 teams. This bled through in the model’s propensity to treat Power 5 teams and Group 5 teams as equals in game picks, but it also led to teams like JMU being highly ranked in ZeLOs Power Rankings. 

And even when JMU was 5-0, they were, at best, a new young Group of 5 team, certainly not someone who was a peer to teams with legitimate championship aspirations.

To fix this problem, I looked at teams’ strength of schedule (SOS) and current records to reward teams with demanding schedules. 

However, I also wanted the new metric to capture current projections to reward teams expected to do well in the future against a strict schedule. Think Georgia, who has one of the toughest remaining SOS but is still expected to win the SEC. Georgia had a low-quality early schedule, but their schedule is good overall, so they should be rewarded for that.

This system served to help lift Power 5 teams, and the initial rankings showed that. To further boost P5 teams, I decided to factor in winning conference divisions and championships, weighting the Power 5 Divisions and Titles as double that of the G5.

I also added a ranking component to help with ZeLO’s win-loss blindspot. The average voter will rank Tennessee higher than Alabama because of a head-to-head result, but ZeLO still has the Tide as the better team, statistically. So, it made sense to factor in outside evaluations of teams to help nudge ZeLO in the right direction. 

The Undefeated

The top three are likely unsurprising to any college football fan: Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson. All three are undefeated and projected to finish undefeated by ZeLO. As a result, all three should make their conference championship games; and win it. Hard to argue with that. 

The Defeated Champs

Fourth is the surprise team of the year, TCU … a surprise to everyone except ZeLO. TCU was one of the teams that ZeLO loved that I could not understand. It worked out pretty well for ZeLO. So why is TCU not in the category above with the powerhouses? Well, ZeLO has them losing at least one game down the stretch. That hurts their case to make the CFP, so they take a bit of a bump.

Also in this category is Oregon, though the Ducks were shellacked at the start of the season when they lost to Georgia, so their margin for error is zero. ZeLO has them running the table, with their main roadblock being Utah. Assuming Georgia wins out, the atrocious loss should at least be excusable. 

Outside Looking In

Leading the category are Tennessee and Michigan, who are both projected to lose to their eventual conference champion. The two teams are spared losing in their conference championship and end the season with excellent what-if potential as a one-loss squad. 

Next is Alabama, who is hurt by the fact that while they would make their conference championship game, the trip should be a loss, making Alabama a two-loss team. The Tide are still a strong squad, so they are 8th, needing either an upset of Georgia or the CFP Committee to break its tradition of only letting in 1-loss teams. 

Following Bama are Oklahoma State and Penn State, two teams who will finish with losses (three for the Cowboys and two for the Nittany Lions) but with solid showings overall. PSU will finish with a loss to Michigan and Oklahoma State. will finish as conference runners-up.

Finally, USC. The Trojans are a good team that should miss their conference championship, taking a loss at some point to either UCLA or Notre Dame. They will be a solid two-loss team without the credit of being Alabama. I completely buy that the Trojans are better than where ZeLO is projecting them, and they could run the table and compete for a conference title. In that case, they would be the underdog in that matchup, making them a two-loss team, so either way, a solid two-loss team.

Week 9 Picks

Notre Dame @ Syracuse

Notre Dame (who ranks 57th in ZeLO’s CFP Projections) is both a Vegas underdog and a ZeLO underdog. Syracuse is a good team, even if they lost to Clemson, and they have home field. ZeLO has Syracuse as one of the top-15 defensive teams in the country, something Notre Dame’s offense-ranked 71st will struggle with. On the flip side, Notre Dame’s defense should be able to limit Syracuse’s offense. I think this one will be a low scoring affair that ND can win, but ZeLO gives them just a 31% chance to do so. 

No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 13 Penn State

This game might not seem worth paying attention to (see the -15.5 Ohio State spread). When Michigan beat Penn State 41-17, that felt like the end of the season for the Nittany Lions. But the Lions are hosting this time, and home field advantage makes this one interesting. ZeLO has the Buckeyes with a 73.6% chance of winning, so a far cry from a close match. But one worth watching nonetheless.

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@hcc-nd.edu.

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One game away: remembering the College Football Playoff’s near misses

Tennessee and TCU, both unranked entering the college football season, continued their surprising starts by improving to 7-0 on Saturday. Tennessee did not let up following their thrilling win over Alabama, scoring 52 first-half points and coasting to a 65-24 victory against UT Martin. TCU had a more difficult test in the form of No. 17 Kansas State. After falling behind 28-10 in the first half, the Horned Frogs rattled off four consecutive touchdowns behind another big performance from quarterback Max Duggan to emerge with a 38-28 win.

Both teams remain among the six undefeated FBS teams still standing. But while the other four that are unbeaten — Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson and Michigan — are among college football’s premier programs of the past decade, the excellent seasons from Tennessee and TCU have seemingly come out of nowhere. Tennessee closed last season with 7-6 record but has posted the best offense in the country this season behind quarterback Hendon Hooker, a current Heisman favorite, and Jalin Hyatt, who leads the nation with 12 receiving touchdowns. Last year, TCU fired longtime head coach Gary Patterson midway through a 5-7 season. After poaching new coach Sonny Dykes from in-state rival SMU, the Frogs have already defeated four ranked teams.

Tennessee and TCU may yet falter down the stretch, but it would send major shockwaves through college football if either team were to break into the playoff, given that the elusive four spots have been so consistently hoarded by a select handful of dominant programs. That being said, it has not been uncommon to see less heralded programs on the doorstep of the playoff. These teams have largely been lost to history due to the belief in hindsight that teams like Alabama and Clemson were always destined to reach the final four. In reality, had a few results been different, a host of other programs could have found themselves in the playoff. As Tennessee and TCU continue their attempt to overthrow college football’s hierarchy, here is a look at some of the teams that have never reached the playoff but have come within a single game of doing so.

Honorable Mention: Missouri – 2007 and 2013

While these seasons both occurred slightly before the playoff’s introduction, Missouri holds the ignominious distinction of having been one win away from the reaching the national championship game not once, but twice in the last fifteen seasons alone. Missouri, now a middling program that has posted a 41-43 record since 2015, exemplifies how quickly fortunes can change in college football.

The 2007 season was the most chaotic in recent memory. The early No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams lost in the same week three different times. This opened the door for two-loss LSU to claim the national title, the first champion with multiple defeats since Minnesota in 1960.

Missouri began the season unranked but jumped out to a 5-0 start before suffering their first defeat against Oklahoma. Led by star quarterback Chase Daniel, who finished fourth in Heisman voting, the Tigers rolled to five more wins, setting up a critical regular season finale against No. 2 Kansas, with the winner advancing to the Big 12 Championship. Missouri won 36-28 and was ranked No. 1 heading into conference championship week, needing a win to reach to the national title game. It was not to be, however, as they were bested by Oklahoma for the second time, leaving them to settle for a Cotton Bowl victory.

Fast forward to 2013, expectations were low for Missouri after they posted a losing record the previous season, their first in the SEC. Just as they had six years earlier, the Tigers came out of nowhere, starting the season unranked but finishing 11-1 on the back of an electric offense. No. 5 Missouri faced No. 3 Auburn in the SEC Championship, with No. 4 Alabama idle after ceding their division to Auburn. When No. 2 Ohio State lost in the Big Ten Championship, the door was open for the winner of Auburn and Missouri to sneak into the national title game. Auburn earned the victory, pulling away in the fourth quarter to win 59-42 while compiling an absurd 545 rushing yards. Missouri again won the Cotton Bowl but came up painfully short of their ultimate goal.

TCU and Baylor – 2014

In an alternate universe, TCU could have been national champions in the very first year of the playoff. Entering the final week of the season, the Horned Frogs and Big 12 foe Baylor each held 10-1 records and were ranked No. 3 and No. 6, respectively, despite the Bears having beaten TCU in a 61-58 shootout earlier in the season. TCU closed their slate with a dominant 55-3 win over Iowa State, which seemingly cemented their place in the top four. Baylor matched them by defeating No. 9 Kansas State. When the selections were revealed, though, TCU shockingly dropped to No. 6, one spot behind Baylor, while Ohio State vaulted into the fourth playoff spot. The committee looked good after the Buckeyes rolled to the national championship, but both schools justifiably felt wronged at having not been given a chance at the title.

Iowa – 2015

In recent years, Iowa’s calling card has been their dismal offense. But in 2015, the Hawkeyes were mere seconds away from a playoff berth. Unranked entering the season, Iowa worked their way to a 12-0 record. They were ranked No. 4 entering the Big Ten Championship, a de facto playoff quarterfinal matchup with No. 5 Michigan State. As expected, the game was a defensive slugfest. Iowa’s C.J. Beathard connected with Tevaun Smith for an 85-yard touchdown that gave the Hawkeyes a 13-9 advantage in the fourth quarter. Needing an answer, Michigan State embarked on a 22-play drive lasting over nine minutes and culminating with an L.J. Scott touchdown run that sent the Spartans to the semifinals. Michigan State would go on to lose 38-0 to eventual national champion Alabama, and Iowa’s loss likely spared them from a similar fate.

Wisconsin and Auburn – 2017

Entering conference championship week in 2017, the top of the national rankings looked highly unusual. Auburn held a 10-2 record but were propelled to No. 2 behind with two victories over the top-ranked teams in the country. Wisconsin was the nation’s only undefeated team but was dragged down to No. 4 due to a weak strength of schedule. Both teams would be guaranteed a playoff berth with a win, but neither were able to take advantage. In a rematch of their regular season matchup, Georgia dominated Auburn to win the SEC Championship, while a late interception proved costly in Wisconsin’s 27-21 loss at the hands of Ohio State. Despite losing, Wisconsin was still widely expected to sneak into the playoff, but Alabama received the nod despite not qualifying for the SEC Championship. The Tide went on to win the national championship, while Wisconsin claimed the Orange Bowl crown.

Utah – 2019

The Pac-12 has been often ridiculed for failing to produce elite teams. The conference has not had a playoff representative since 2016, and their best opportunity came from Utah in 2019. The Utes ranked No. 5 entering the Pac-12 Championship after a strong 11-1 regular season. After No. 4 Georgia was demolished in the SEC Championship by the Joe Burrow-led LSU freight train, a Utah victory against Oregon would have sent them to the playoff for the first time. With the stakes at their highest, Utah fell 37-15 to the Ducks and the Pac-12 still awaits another playoff participant.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Crow: Three takeaways from Week 4 in College Football

The Big 12 is officially up for grabs

Through four weeks of the college football season, we are at the stage where conference hierarchies typically begin to emerge and pecking orders come into focus. At the very least, it should now be clear which teams are legitimate conference championship contenders and which are not. Even that cannot be said for this year’s Big 12, which feels more wide open than ever after Saturday’s results.

The presumptive favorite in the conference had previously been No. 6 Oklahoma, winners of six of the last seven Big 12 championships. That presumption came crashing down on Saturday, as the Sooners were upset by Kansas State in Norman, Oklahoma behind a dominant five-touchdown performance from Wildcats quarterback Taylor Martinez, a Nebraska transfer. Likewise, No. 22 Texas had a strong start to the season with a near-victory against Alabama, but it was ultimately defeated in overtime by rival Texas Tech. Suddenly, Kansas State and Texas Tech are both 1-0 in Big 12 play with head-to-head advantages over Oklahoma and Texas, respectively, leaving the Sooners and Longhorns with a significant amount of ground to make up.

No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 16 Baylor are likely the current Big 12 favorites, but they face off next Saturday, and a Baylor loss would saddle them with an 0-2 conference record while teams like Kansas (who can usually be penciled in for last place prior to the start of the season) and TCU remain undefeated. The conference’s “worst” teams may be Iowa State and West Virginia, yet it would be no great shock to see either string together a few wins and find themselves in the hunt for a Big 12 title. Iowa State’s resume includes a win over a solid Iowa team, and the Cyclones’ only loss was by one-possession against Baylor. West Virginia started 0-2 with close losses against a ranked Pitt team and a should-be-ranked Kansas team. The Mountaineers have since turned their season around with a pair of victories that includes Thursday’s 33-10 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

All of this is to say that it is anyone’s guess who will win the Big 12. Maybe December’s championship game will pit Oklahoma against Oklahoma State, or Baylor against Kansas State, or Kansas against TCU. There is certainly an element of excitement that comes from conferences having one or two clear favorites. The season-long buildup to a single game that could alter the entire playoff race, like Alabama-Georgia or Ohio State-Michigan, creates a special sense of heightened drama unique to a sport in which the regular season carries so much weight. If chaos is what you seek, though, look no further than the Big 12, which is sure to deliver it in abundance throughout the rest of the season.

Mixed bag for ‘basketball schools

One of the off-season’s strangest stories was the feud between two Kentucky head coaches, men’s basketball’s John Calipari and football’s Mark Stoops, that arose after Calipari referred to Kentucky as a “basketball school.” While the comment was not without validity, given the school’s illustrious history on the hardwood and comparatively dismal track record on the gridiron, taking a jab at another program within the Kentucky athletics umbrella felt unnecessary and in poor taste. Stoops quickly came to his team’s defense, noting that the football program is on the rise while its basketball counterpart has struggled as of late. Notably, Kentucky football has won ten games twice in four seasons after last doing so in 1977, while the two most recent men’s basketball seasons ended with a missed NCAA Tournament and a first-round tournament loss to Saint Peter’s.

Kentucky has taken care of business through the early stages of the football season, currently sitting at 4-0 and ranked No. 7 as Stoops has made good on his word. Ironically, given the unusually high amount of discourse about what qualifies as a basketball school, the six schools widely considered to be college basketball’s “blue bloods” all entered week four with a 3-0 record. While some, like Kentucky, stayed hot, others saw their perfect start to the season come crashing down.

The Wildcats played host to Northern Illinois on Saturday and used 17 consecutive second-half points to break open a game that was tied at halftime. Kentucky star quarterback Will Levis threw four touchdown passes in a 31-23 win that did not earn any style points but kept the Wildcats in lockstep with a red-hot Tennessee team in the battle to be Georgia’s biggest SEC East challenger.

Further west, a pair of 2022 Final Four participants squared off as Kansas hosted Duke in front of a sold-out crowd in Lawrence. The Jayhawks continued their surprising resurgence in a 35-27 victory as quarterback Jalon Daniels continued to build his Heisman case, compiling over 400 yards and five touchdowns. Even further west, UCLA remained perfect with a dominant 45-17 win on the road against Colorado. The Bruins have benefited from a forgiving non-conference schedule and will have their first true test when they host No. 15 Washington in a critical Pac-12 battle next Friday.

Indiana and North Carolina joined Duke in suffering their first losses of the season, both of which could be primarily attributed to defensive struggles. Indiana surrendered 38 first-half points on the way to a 45-24 loss on the road against Cincinnati. The Tar Heels hosted Notre Dame in Chapel Hill and allowed a previously struggling Irish offense to gain 576 yards as they coasted to a 45-32 win. As the season kicks into high gear, the next few weeks will reveal if the rise of the blue bloods in football is just a flash in the pan, or if this really is, to the dismay of Coach Calipari, the year of the football school.

Top teams show signs of vulnerability

A common critique of college football is that it lacks parity, that the same handful of teams compete for the national championship every year. This notion mostly holds true, and this season, teams like Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State already appear to be closing in on playoff lock status. Beyond that trio, however, the next tier of contenders has provided more questions than answers, and several top-ten teams were put to the test in week four.

No. 4 Michigan began its season with three consecutive blowout wins, though the legitimacy of their dominance was questioned due to an extremely weak nonconference slate. There now appears to be some truth to those concerns after the Wolverines were played tight by Maryland in a 34-27 win in their conference opener. Similarly, No. 5 Clemson faced its toughest opponent to date in No. 21 Wake Forest and required two overtimes to escape Winston-Salem with a 51-45 win. Clemson’s first few games established its offense as a relative weakness, but it was the defense that struggled against Wake, as Deacon quarterback Sam Hartman torched the Tigers to the tune of 337 yards and six touchdowns. Clemson showed encouraging signs of offensive improvement but will need to sort its defensive issues out in a hurry as they prepare to face No. 10 NC State this week.

Elsewhere, No. 7 USC featured one of the nation’s best offenses during the season’s first three weeks but struggled to move the ball against a subpar defense as they clawed out a 17-14 win over Oregon State. Kentucky also picked up their fourth win, using a second-half surge to beat Northern Illinois, but Oklahoma, and No. 10 Arkansas, were not as lucky. The Sooners fell at the hands of Kansas State while a potential game-winning Razorback field goal that bounced off the top of the goalpost before falling short proved costly in a 23-21 loss to No. 23 Texas A&M. It is difficult to say that college football is moving toward greater parity when another Georgia-Alabama championship matchup looms; but this season promises a great deal of shakeups near the top as the race for the elusive fourth playoff spot continues.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this sports authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.

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Tunney: Five College Football games to watch in Week 5

Even though the Irish have a bye this week, there is still a ton of entertaining college football to watch. Conference play is beginning to heat up, so there are a lot of matchups that could play huge roles in determining the rest of the college football season. In my opinion, it’s the best top five any weekend has had all year. With that being said, let’s get into the games. 

5. No. 4 Michigan @ Iowa, Noon, FOX, (Michigan -10.5)

Michigan is 4-0 and a Big Ten and College Football playoff contender. They are extremely deep at receiver and running back, with multiple key playmakers. Running back Donovan Edwards did not play against Maryland last week, but thankfully the other star in the Wolverine’s backfield, Blake Corum, picked up the slack with 243 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. After playing three of the worst teams in Division 1 to open the year, Michigan is coming off of a 34-27 win over Maryland that offered areas to improve upon.

Michigan fans will be looking for an improved pass rush and more accurate throws from quarterback J.J. McCarthy. However, offense may be tough to come by against the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes have the best scoring defense in the country, but if they want to compete with the likes of Michigan they will need more from their offense. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has been derided by Hawkeye fans as he passed for just 524 yards and one touchdown over four games. Iowa has the benefit of home-field advantage and Michigan hasn’t won at Iowa since 2005. Can the Wolverines exorcise their past demons? Do the Hawkeyes have another upset in them?

4. No. 2 Alabama @ No. 20 Arkansas, 3:30 p.m., CBS, (Alabama -16.5)

After being taken to the brink against Texas in the second week of the season, Alabama has reasserted itself in blowout wins over UL Monroe and Vanderbilt. However, questions still remain about how the Tide will look against another quality opponent. Quarterback Bryce Young looked on point versus Vanderbilt with 385 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs transitioned into a receiving role last week, ceding running back duties to Jase McClellan. Both McClellan and Gibbs ended up scoring a touchdown, so the versatility of these players will provide another headache to the Arkansas defense. Arkansas is coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M last week, where a fumble and a missed field goal doomed them. They are also feeling the loss of all SEC safety Jalen Catalon being out for the season. However, Arkansas still has a lot of offensive talent that should make Nick Saban sweat, and they have the benefit of the game being played on their turf. 

3. No. 7 Kentucky @ No. 14 Ole Miss, Noon, ESPN (Ole Miss -6.5)

Kentucky is 4-0 and seventh in the country, their highest ranking since 1977. Quarterback Will Levis and head coach Mark Stoops have helped turn what has always been considered a “basketball school” into a dark horse SEC contender. Levis has passed for nearly 1200 yards and 10 touchdowns through just four games, showing that he could reach historic marks for a program that is usually an SEC bottom-dweller.

Kentucky welcomes the return of running back Chris Rodriguez, as they hope that he will spark a running game that has been struggling. They head down to Oxford, Miss for the first time since 2001. After airing it out with quarterback Matt Corral last season, the Rebels seem content to have a more balanced attack this season. Quarterback Jaxson Dart has managed games well, but hasn’t been a transcendent piece. Ole Miss will look to control the line of scrimmage against Kentucky, aiming to dominate a porous Wildcat o-line (allowing four sacks a game). Both teams have struggled with consistency, with Ole Miss sleepwalking to a win over Tulsa last week while Kentucky faced early struggles with Northern Illinois. Both teams need this win badly to prove that they are a legit SEC contender. 

2. No. 9 Oklahoma State @ No. 16 Baylor, 3:30 p.m., FOX, (Baylor -2.5)

A rematch of last year’s Big 12 Championship game could end up being one of the biggest regular-season games in the following season. Baylor has been great ever since the start of last season, getting back on track after a double-overtime loss to BYU with a tough win on the road against Iowa State. The Bears may possess the best rushing defense in college football, allowing a paltry 79.5 yards per contest. Quarterback Blake Shapen had a much better day than he did against BYU, committing no turnovers in a game that probably served as a confidence builder. Dominating the line of scrimmage without committing turnovers usually results in success, so it’s no surprise that this Baylor team is a tough-out.

Oklahoma State, on the other hand, has looked like an offensive juggernaut through three games. In their first three games, quarterback Spencer Sanders has thrown for over 300 yards per game and 10 touchdowns, compared to just one pick. Head coach Mike Gundy seems to have another team that will contend for the Big 12 crown. Last year, the game went down to the final play with Oklahoma State coming up a yard short. Could we see a similar legendary finish on Saturday?

1. No. 10 NC State @ No. 5 Clemson, 7:30 PM, ABC, (Clemson -6.5)

The only matchup between two top-10 schools is a clash between two ACC heavyweights. Clemson hung on in a double-overtime shootout over ranked Wake Forest last weekend that saw an amazing performance from quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. Uiagalelei and the Clemson offense were able to keep pace and outlast Sam Hartman and the Demon Deacons, with the former throwing for 375 yards and five touchdowns. Seeing the offense produce like that is a welcome sign for Clemson fans, but the defense has to lock it back down against another quality opponent in NC State. Hyped as a dark horse ACC contender to start the season, the Wolfpack have largely looked up to the task. After going on the road to Eastern Carolina and escaping with a one-point win, NC State won their next three games rather comfortably, including a 27-14 win over Texas Tech. Clemson will undoubtedly serve as NC State’s biggest test. College Gameday is on-site for the game, which may serve as an omen for a Clemson victory: the Tigers are 6-1 when hosting the show. Can NC State show they’re a legitimate contender? Can Clemson continue its journey back to the College Football Playoff?