The Big 12 Conference felt dissed, dismissed and more than a tad overlooked last December when the College Football Playoff committee jumped Ohio State over fellow one-loss teams TCU and Baylor in the final rankings, locking the league out of the final four.
That’s ancient history now. The Big 12 will enjoy maximum exposure for as long as it has an unbeaten contender in the playoff hunt. No. 12 Oklahoma at No. 6 Baylor (7 p.m., Ch. 7) offers the best look yet at the 8-0 Bears, who’ll be a great bet to get into the playoff if they can knock off the 8-1 Sooners followed by unbeaten Oklahoma State, one-loss TCU and Texas.
The Sooners — who still control their own destiny in the Big 12 race — close with TCU and “Bedlam” rival Oklahoma State. A prime-time game at McLane Stadium is by far the stiffest test they’ve faced this season.
“The way we’ve been playing, you have to feel confident,” said OU coach Bob Stoops. “We’ve been executing, really, in all parts of the game. As much as anything, we’re playing together as a team.”
Oklahoma has scored at least 50 points in four consecutive victories over Big 12 lightweights and middleweights. Baylor represents a giant step up in class, especially in light of the Bears’ 41-12 and 48-14 blowouts of OU the last two years.
Baylor’s offense is the best in the nation. Oklahoma’s defense is the best in the Big 12. Can the Sooners rattle Bears true freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who’s making his second start since stepping in for injured Seth Russell? All Stidham did in his debut at Kansas State was throw for 419 yards and three touchdowns.
“We’re going to keep firing on all cylinders,” Stidham promised.
This one has game-of-the-year potential, with the Bears favored by less than a field goal. OU walks out of Waco with a huge, high-scoring “W.”
No. 2 Alabama at No. 17 Mississippi State (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) looks like it could be the most difficult game left on the schedule for the 8-1 Crimson Tide, and that’s including a potential SEC title game matchup with Florida.
The Bulldogs are a rather quiet 7-2, but they’re greatest strength — the passing game — should match up pretty well against the Tide’s biggest “weakness,” defending the pass. Of course, most coaches around the country would give anything to have Alabama’s weaknesses.
“They don’t give me a vite,” said MSU coach Dan Mullen, “but they are the best team in America.”
We’ll see what quarterback Dak Prescott can do about that. The senior has thrown for 998 yards and 10 touchdowns, and added four scores on the ground, over his last three outings. Five touchdown passes have gone to 6-5 De’Runnya Wilson, who is joined by 6-2 Fred Ross in a receiver tandem with dangerous size.
A year ago, the Bulldogs were No. 1 in the country and Prescott was the leading Heisman Trophy candidate when they paid Alabama a visit. Three interceptions later, the Tide had a hard-won 25-20 victory. Bama wins again but fails to cover the eight points.
Oregon at No. 7 Stanford (6:30 p.m., Fox-32) ain’t what it used to be, as the three-loss Ducks are uncharacteristic duds this season. But the winner of the last five meetings between the programs has gone on to win the Pac-12 crown, and that could happen again — the 8-1 Cardinal are unbeaten in league play and favored in this contest by a whopping 10 points. Kind of crazy to see an Oregon team on the business end of that point spread, but I get it.
Something to keep in mind, though: The Ducks are coming off a school-record 777-yard performance in a victory over California. Maybe Mark Helfrich’s team is getting read to peak late. Oregon loses 38-35, but regains some respect in the process.
Imagine how much cooler No. 21 Memphis at No. 24 Houston (6 p.m., ESPN2) would’ve been had Memphis not been upset by Navy last season. As it is, the 8-1 Tigers and the 9-0 Cougars should put on a heck of a show in an all-important divisional game in the American Athletic Conference.
It’s a stellar quarterback matchup, with Memphis’ Paxton Lynch a tremendous passer and Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. a top dual threat. Remember this: The Cougars — favored by a touchdown — lead the country with 25 total takeaways. They’ll need one of those late to hold off Lynch and his boys. Houston by a field goal.
My favorite favorite: No. 8 Oklahoma State (-14) at Iowa State (2:30 p.m., ESPN). Mike Gundy’s team has the pedal to the medal. That’s not about to change.
My favorite underdog: Minnesota (+12) at No. 5 Iowa (7 p.m., BTN). The Gophers aren’t beating anybody, but they’re hanging around with the best teams in the Big Ten. They’ll probably lose another close one.
Last week: 3-5 straight-up, 4-4 vs. the spread.
Season: 46-20-1 straight-up, 33-31-3 vs. the spread.
NO. 3 OHIO STATE AT ILLINOIS
The facts: 11 a.m., Ch. 7; 670-AM.
The records: Ohio State 9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; Illinois 5-4, 2-3 Big Ten.
The line: Buckeyes by 16.
The story line: The champs have been underwhelming all season, looking like a distracted version of the team that stormed to the 2015 national title. Any chance they’ll keep hitting the snooze bar for a few quarters in Champaign? Sure, there’s a chance. But the Illini probably couldn’t beat OSU at its sleepiest. It’s difficult to envision Illinois’ offensive line holding off the Joey Bosa-led pass rush. It’s even harder to envision Illinois having success running the ball. That’ll put a ton of pressure on the Illini defense, which eventually will run out of gas. Once the Buckeyes get rolling, forget about it.
Greenberg’s pick: Ohio State, 45-14.
PURDUE AT NO. 18 NORTHWESTERN
The facts: 11 a.m., BTN; 720-AM.
The records: Purdue 2-7, 1-4 Big Ten; Northwestern 7-2, 3-2 Big Ten.
The line: Wildcats by 15½.
The story line: There are plenty of folks out there who look at Northwestern’s playoff ranking and shake their heads. Are the Wildcats really the 18th best team in America? It seems like a bit of a stretch. Fortunately, Purdue’s defense is soft up front, and that means Justin Jackson should have a fine day running the football. Still, there’ve been some close calls for the Wildcats in addition to two blowout losses; you just never know what you’re going to get with this team. The Boilermakers’ best is good enough to keep them relatively close.
Greenberg’s pick: Northwestern, 24-16.
WAKE FOREST AT NO. 4 NOTRE DAME
The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 5; 890-AM.
The records: Wake Forest 3-6, 1-5 ACC; Notre Dame 8-1.
The line: Irish by 27½.
The story line: The Demon Deacons are pretty strong defensively in the red zone, where they don’t bend much. That could be a somewhat interesting game-inside-the-game as the Irish attempt to play to their potential in what should be a lopsided affair. It’s important that Brian Kelly has his team ready to impress from the opening whistle. There’s serious potential for the Irish to be left out of the playoff even if they win the rest of their regular-season games. How about a nice shutout? That would be pretty compelling.
Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 38-7.
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