One needn’t strain the brain much to imagine a world in which The Game — Michigan vs. Ohio State — is merely the third-most-important Big Ten game on the final Saturday of November.
We find ourselves in that very circumstance this week.
And how about the Iron Bowl? Sorry, Big Ten lovers, but Alabama-Auburn is the premier rivalry game in all of college football. Only this time, it likewise has come without premier pomp and circumstance.
Oh, those games mentioned above matter. They matter a ton. But they sure don’t stand out, not amid the mess of must-wins and can’t-loses that pepper the landscape in Week 13. Have we mentioned Notre Dame-Stanford? No, but we will.
Big Game Hunting’s head is spinning at all that’s on the line in the 48 hours after Turkey Day. If you don’t mind, let’s just go through this chronologically (games are on Saturday unless otherwise noted).
No. 15 Navy (-3) at Houston (Friday, 11 a.m., Ch. 7): For a while, the American Athletic Conference seemed all about Houston, Memphis and Temple. But it’s just like the Midshipmen (9-1) to sneak up on everybody. Touchdown-machine quarterback Keenan Reynolds is a special player, and the Cougars (10-1) will have their hands full just making sense of what Navy’s triple-option brings to the table. Middies get it done by a touchdown, leaving Houston coach Tom Herman to figure out where he’s headed next.
No. 4 Iowa (-1½) at Nebraska (Friday, 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): First, let’s agree that the Huskers are the best 5-6 team in America. Which is great and all. But the Hawkeyes didn’t get to 11-0 by mistake. Quarterback C.J. Beathard will continue to be rock-solid, and the rest should flow naturally for an Iowa team that continues — despite its lofty playoff ranking — to be underappreciated. All Iowa here.
No. 7 Baylor (-1½) at No. 19 TCU (Friday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN): What a shame that we didn’t get to see either of these teams play at full strength this season; the Bears (9-1) and Horned Frogs (9-2) are on the outside of the playoff race, looking in. What we have, instead, is Bears third-string quarterback Chris Johnson — a big-time talent — likely opposing TCU’s Trevone Boykin in a comeback game from a bad ankle sprain. BU loses its playoff shot as Boykin goes off in a 45-35 victory.
No. 8 Ohio State (-1) at No. 10 Michigan (11 a.m., Ch. 7): There was no time prior to last Saturday when we would’ve picked the Wolverines (9-2) to beat the Buckeyes (10-1), but forget that junk now. OSU’s offensive mess was on hideous display in the loss to Michigan State, and we’re not buying Urban Meyer as an instant miracle worker here. The Angry Harbaughs get it done, making this rivalry great again.
No. 2 Alabama (-14) at Auburn (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): You can forget about the “Kick Six” drama that ended these teams’ game the in 2013 — home-field magic won’t mean much of anything for the Tigers this time around. Roll Tide in an utter mismatch, 41-24.
Penn State (+11) at No. 5 Michigan State (2:30 p.m., ESPN): Even if NFL-bound quarterback Connor Cook can’t play because of his injured throwing shoulder, the Spartans should be OK. Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg will have to dial up the game of his career to win this one. Sparty by a touchdown.
No. 22 UCLA (+3) at USC (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): These teams hoped to be meeting for a shot at the playoff — not even close, as it turns out, but the Pac-12 South title is on the line. And that’s a big deal, potentially, because each of these teams is good enough to give Stanford hell in the conference’s championship game. USC has too much for Bruins freshman quarterback Josh Rosen here. Trojans by 10.
No. 6 Notre Dame (+4) at No. 9 Stanford (6:30 p.m., Fox-32): It’s beyond big for the Irish, who have to be offended by the playoff committee’s most recent assessment of them. Can they win up front against the Cardinal? Yes — on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame makes its playoff statement. The chips will fall where they may.
No. 3 Oklahoma (-7) at No. 11 Oklahoma State (7 p.m., Ch. 7): Will Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield be back on the field? If so, this should be Oklahoma’s Big 12 title to win. But the “Bedlam” game tends to be crazy not only by name. The Cowboys are good enough to win here — and ice the Big 12 out of the playoff in the process. Watch it happen. Cowboys 44, Sooners 41.
My favorite favorite: West Virginia (-14) vs. Iowa State (11 a.m., FS1). The Mountaineers have won three straight after an impossible stretch of the season. Against a terrible team, this is like stealing.
My favorite underdog: Mississippi State (+1) vs. Ole Miss (6:15 p.m., ESPN2). The Egg Bowl meant more last year, but this time it should be all about Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and a fired-up team whose strong play has been overlooked in the SEC.
Last week: 3-4 straight-up, 3-4 vs. the spread.
Season: 55-25-1 straight-up, 41-36-3 vs. the spread.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg
ILLINOIS VS. NO. 16 NORTHWESTERN
The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPNU; 670-AM, 720-AM.
The records: Illinois 5-6, 2-5 Big Ten; Northwestern 9-2, 5-2 Big Ten.
The line: Wildcats by 3½.
The story line: Northwestern is trying to win 10 games, which would match its most in single-season history. Illinois merely is trying to make itself bowl-worthy. In the meantime, Illini interim coach Bill Cubit doesn’t know if this will be his final outing — win or lose — or if the school will dump him. So there’s plenty of drama as the backdrop, but really this comes down to the lines of scrimmage: Can Illinois rough-and-tough with NU? Actually, yes. But one team here has been far better than the other at closing games, and you know which one it is.
Greenberg’s pick: Northwestern, 24-20.
NO. 6 NOTRE DAME AT NO. 9 STANFORD
The facts: 6:30 p.m., Fox-32; 890-AM.
The records: Notre Dame 10-1; Stanford 9-2, 8-1 Pac-12.
The line: Cardinal by 4.
The story line: Stanford has a solid quarterback in Kevin Hogan and and all-purpose-yards guy, Christian McCaffrey, who is getting a ton of Heisman Trophy consideration. But the Irish have strength on both sides of the line of scrimmage — enough that it can turn the tables in this matchup toward the visitors. What they have to do now is play as though their very playoff lives hang in the balance, which of course is precisely the case. Line play will be everything in this game, and Notre Dame has the fight to win it.
Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 30-24.