Are CFP contenders Clemson, Washington ready for huge road tests?

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Michigan’s best-in-the-land defense is crushing everybody. (AP/Tony Ding)

Heading into the season, there were a few matchups that showed up on everyone’s games-of-the-year list. Alabama vs. LSU in the SEC was one of them. Michigan vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten absolutely was another.

But then there was the presumed showcase game in the ACC, the only league that had two top-four teams in the AP’s preseason Top 25. Given where they started, No. 3 Clemson at No. 12 Florida State (7 p.m., Ch. 7) have, as a pair, lost a little luster. Not that the 7-0 Tigers can be faulted for that at all. The 5-2 Seminoles — who lost to Louisville by 43 in Week 3 — have been major disappointments.

Some trends to bear in mind: Clemson is only 1-11 in its last 12 visits to Tallahassee, but its quarterback, junior Deshaun Watson, is 25-2 as a starter. Watson should have Wayne Gallman back alongside him as the running back returns from a concussion. Both teams had byes last week.

“We’re healthy and rejuvenated and ready,” Watson said.

FSU, a four-point underdog, can knock the Tigers out of the top four of next week’s initial playoff rankings, but it really has no chance itself to win the ACC or compete for a national title. The Seminoles have been hanging in there, at least, since the debacle in Louisville. There’s still enough talent — quarterback Deondre Francois, running back Dalvin Cook, wideout Travis Rudolph, FBS sack leader DeMarcus Walker — but not enough mojo. Clemson by seven.

There are some great story lines involving No. 4 Washington at No. 17 Utah (2:30 p.m., FS1), not the least of which is the fact the Utes — at always-tough Rice-Eccles Stadium — represent the highest hurdle thus far for Chris Petersen’s hard-charging Huskies.

“This will be by far our biggest test,” Petersen said.

The Huskies (7-0) have the Pac-12’s best defense, the top turnover margin (plus-2.0) in college football, the nation’s No. 2-rated passer in Jake Browning and the league’s leading rusher in Myles Gaskin. Other than that, they really stink.

Utes quarterback Troy Williams transferred from Washington after Petersen’s first season at the school. Senior running back Joe Williams came out of a five-week “retirement” due to injuries and carried the Utes (7-1) the last two games with 511 rushing yards against Oregon State and UCLA. This is too dangerous a team to be catching 10 points on its home field. Huskies by a field goal.

No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin (6 p.m., ESPN) matches the two best teams in the Big Ten West … we think. The Huskers (7-0) might look quite a bit different after back-to-back games in Madison against the Badgers (5-2) and at Ohio State. Wisconsin, meanwhile, continues to suffer at the center of its defense, where inside linebacker and leading tackler Jack Cichy has been ruled out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

What was a position of great strength for the team now is shakier than ever; Cichy is its second starting linebacker to be lost for the season, and two others have missed multiple games due to injuries. Still — somehow — the Badgers have allowed an FBS-low eight touchdowns and only nine plays of 20-plus yards. Bucky wins but fails to cover the 9½.

On paper, No. 2 Michigan at Michigan State (11 a.m., ESPN) is a huge mismatch. The Wolverines (7-0) — 24½-point favorites — have the top-rated defense in the country, allowing only 10 points and 207 yards per game. Opponents are converting 13 percent of their third-down attempts against Jim Harbaugh’s team, truly an amazing stat. Sparty is on a hard-to-figure five-game losing streak, yet Mark Dantonio’s program is on a 7-1 tear against its biggest rival. That’s a huge spread. Michigan, 27-20.

Big 12 check-in: No. 10 West Virginia at Oklahoma State (11 a.m., Fox-32) and No. 8 Baylor at Texas (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7) are kind of similar, aren’t they? The Mountaineers (6-0) or the Bears (6-0) — or both — could lose, and each team is favored by just about a field goal. I like WVU, which is getting better every week, to come through against the Cowboys (5-2) and eventually win its first league title. And Baylor? Call me nuts to bet on Charlie Strong and Texas (3-4), but that’s what’s happening.

Lastly, No. 14 Florida vs. Georgia (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) in Jacksonville — the annual neutral-site rivalry game known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party — is a big game no matter the records. The Gators (5-1) have the inside track in the SEC East. The Bulldogs (4-3) still are searching for an identity under first-year coach Kirby Smart. The stands will be split in half between red-clad and blue-clad fans, which can be a breathtaking sight.

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” said UF coach Jim McElwain, who served with Smart on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.

SEC title game-bound Gators cover the 7½.

My favorite favorite: No. 15 Auburn -3½ at Ole Miss (6:15 p.m., SECN). Tigers are playing their best football of the season. Rebels are falling apart. Easy call.

My favorite underdog: Texas Tech +10 at TCU (2:30 p.m., ESPN2). Aren’t they basically, like, the same team? Shootout.

Last week: 5-2 straight-up, 3-4 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 43-20 straight-up; 33-28-2 vs. the spread.


Minnesota at Illinois

The facts: 11 a.m., BTN; 670-AM.

The records: Minnesota 5-2, 2-2 Big Ten; Illinois 2-5, 1-3 Big Ten.

The line: Gophers by 9.

The story line: Better running game probably will take this game. The Gophers have been highly productive with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. The Illini have a game-breaker in Kendrick Foster and other options. This is winnable for Lovie Smith’s team — which could use a shot in the arm — but the defense has to quicken its pulse. Quarterback play remains a huge question mark for the Illini.

Greenberg’s pick: Minnesota, 30-23.

Miami at Notre Dame

The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 5; 890-AM.

The records: Miami 4-3, 1-3 ACC; Notre Dame 2-5.

The line: Hurricanes by 2½.

The story line: Four key members of the defense — end Chad Thomas, safety Rayshawn Jenkins, cornerback Sheldrick Redwine and defensive tackle Gerald Willlis — are back for Miami, which really fell off the cliff after a 4-0 start. First-year Hurricanes coach Mark Richt will get a pass for whatever goes wrong. No such luck for Notre Dane’s Brian Kelly. How many quarterbacks will play for the Irish? Will Kelly’s team do wild and wacky things like block and tackle?

Greenberg’s pick: Miami, 34-28.

Northwestern at No. 6 Ohio State

The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPN; 720-AM.

The records: Northwestern 4-3, 3-1 Big Ten; Ohio State 6-1, 3-1 Big Ten.

The line: Buckeyes by 26.

The story line: Yikes — of all the times to get stuck with Ohio State on the schedule, immediately following a Buckeyes defeat seems like the very worst. Yet the Wildcats are absolutely rolling, winners of three straight and coming off a rare good-on-both-sides-of-the-ball performance against Indiana. Pat Fitzgerald’s team needs to get off to a false start. Otherwise, things will go downhill in a hurry.

Greenberg’s pick: Ohio State, 38-17.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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