Predictions 101 — Week 4

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If we were Lane Kiffin, we’d blame the players, injuries or even the media. But alas we aren’t the faultless USC head coach, and we’ll accept responsibility for last week’s 2-5 record (both straight up and vs. “the number”).

Speaking of Kiffin, we had a bead on his Trojans faltering at Stanford, but ultimately didn’t have enough guts to call for the full-scale upset. There’s no glory in predicting that the Trojans won’t cover. That’s a weekly certainty. But when we only land a pair, we cherish it.

Last week’s official upset call (Virginia over Georgia Tech) spectacularly went up in flames. The home office in Burbank, which currently handles the value-laden longshots, promises to do better this time around. With the extra assistance, those should most always get you across the line in good shape.

It’s a good slate of “ranked vs. ranked” this week, hopefully we can rise to the occasion.

TOP 5 GAMES OF THE WEEK (Thursday, Sept. 20, thru Saturday, Sept. 22)

1) No. 10 Clemson at No. 4 Florida State
Sat., Sept. 22 — 8 p.m. ET, ABC

The Seminole defense is allowing a single point per game. When an elite program opens against Murray State and Savannah State that sort of stonewalling is not a shock. But, last week’s 52-0 rout of Wake Forest, a team that had taken four of the last six meetings, was a bit of a surprise and signals that Florida State is definitely for real.

With upset alerts and full-blown stunners littering the college football landscape each week, there’s something to be said for a team that goes about its undefeated business to the tune of 176-3.

This defensive display isn’t anything entirely new. The Seminoles now have held 11 consecutive opponents to 19 points or less.

Perhaps it’s both good and bad news for the Tigers that FSU’s under-20 streak began after back-to-back 35-30 losses on the road at Clemson and Wake Forest last year.

The biggest threat to the Seminole end zone is Tiger wideout Sammy Watkins, who warmed up in a 41-7 victory over Furman after serving a two-game suspension. Last season, Watkins caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns versus Florida State.

Fourth and fifth on Jimbo Fisher’s list of worries — Tajh Boyd and Andre Ellington are second and third — are pass protection and short-yardage rushing efficiency. Both stem from uncertainties along an offensive line that allowed the Demon Deacons to sack quarterback E.J. Manuel three times.

Coach Corso will be right to back his alma mater by putting on a headdress out in the parking lot, but it’ll be “closer than the experts think.”

Opening point spread: Florida State by 13

The pick: Florida State 26-24

2) No. 18 Michigan at No. 11 Notre Dame
Sat., Sept. 22 — 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC

This prediction comes courtesy of Shane Hedani from the P101 satellite office in Maunawili, Hawai’i.

For the Fighting Irish to do something that hasn’t happened since 2008 — beat the Wolverines — they must do what seems nearly impossible to them, bottle up Denard Robinson.

Off to its best start in a decade, Notre Dame is thinking BCS, even though it hasn’t lit up the scoreboard. What has been impressive is a defense led by linebacker Manti Te’o, who had 12 tackles in last week’s 20-3 signature win at Michigan State while grieving the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend.

In this game, the Irish defense, which is allowing only 10 points a game, would like to avoid last season’s fourth-quarter meltdown that saw Michigan score 28 points and cash in the game winner with just two seconds left.

Against Alabama in the opener, we saw what a disciplined talented defense can do to the Wolverine offense. Now, Notre Dame is not Alabama, but the Irish aren’t slouches either, ranking 18th in total defense, 8th in scoring, 11th in turnover margin and 10th in sacks.

The Irish are capable of forcing Robinson to throw it. We know Notre Dame losing safety Jamoris Slaughter to a season-ending Achilles injury hampers an already inexperienced backfield, but Te’o and the rest of the front seven can get Michigan into third-and-long situations, create takeaways and keep Robinson’s shoelaces in the pocket.

Making the Wolverines try to win through the air will land another huge W for the Irish.

Opening point spread: Notre Dame by 3 1/2

The pick: Notre Dame 31-16

3) No. 22 Arizona at No. 3 Oregon
Sat., Sept. 22 — 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Ducks and Cats combined for 87 points in last year’s matchup, a 56-31 Oregon victory in Tucson. This season, with Rich Rodriguez now in the saddle at Arizona, both teams are averaging roughly 600 yards in total offense. With all of that being the case, the only upset here is that the over/under opened at merely 75 points in this high-powered heavyweight battle of read-option offenses.

Both attacks are triggered by new starters. Duck redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota is completing 75.5 percent of his passes, which is just a shade better than his senior counterpart Matt Scott, who is connecting at a 71.5 percent clip. The fight for efficiency supremacy should be entertaining.

We won’t put a whole lot of weight on Arizona’s 56-0 whipping of South Carolina State last week, but you have to hand it to the Wildcats for not thinking that they deserved the weekend off after their impressive 59-38 victory over Oklahoma State. The UofA spread worked its way to 43 first downs.

Oregon also had its way with an overmatched opponent last week, but the Ducks’ 12 penalties and three turnovers in a routine 63-14 victory over Tennessee Tech showed a lack of focus.

Last year, in their first conference game on the road, the Wildcats went to Los Angeles and pushed USC to brink before falling, 48-41. They’ve got it in them to bear down once again and they’re new & improved. But Chip Kelly has taken Rodriguez’ offense to such an incredible place that it’s hard to imagine him slipping up at Autzen Stadium … or anywhere.

Opening point spread: Oregon by 26 1/2

The pick: Oregon 52-35

4) No. 15 Kansas State at No. 6 Oklahoma
Sat., Sept. 22 — 7:50 p.m. ET, FOX

The chasm between these two teams was massive last year. On their way to a 58-17 victory, the visiting Sooners rolled up 690 yards of total offense, including 520 through the air. Although the Wildcats did hold a lead in the second quarter, they weren’t really heard from offensively, totaling just 240 yards.

This has been somewhat of a habit for Oklahoma, which has taken the last five in the series and eight of the last nine.

In his previous two games versus the Wildcats, Sooner quarterback Landry Jones passed for 799 yards and nine touchdowns, without being sacked a single time. Kansas State appears to be gearing up to change that, having registered eight sacks in their last two games, led by defensive end Adam Davis.

Conversely, the Sooner defensive line will focus on stopping a KSU rushing attack that is averaging 252 yards per game. When Oklahoma cuts off running back John Hubert and quarterback Collin Klein on the ground, and forces Klein to the air, it’ll be another long day for the Wildcats.

Opening point spread: Oklahoma by 17

The pick: Oklahoma 41-21

5) No. 2 LSU at Auburn
Sat., Sept. 22 — 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

If we were ever going to have a SEC-less week here at P101 this would have been it. But this matchup featuring recent BCS champs snuck in just under the wire.

There’s not much to report though. Auburn finally putting up a tally in the win column with last week’s overtime decision over Louisiana-Monroe didn’t do anything but further confirm the fact that these two Tigers are headed in opposite directions.

LSU is working on a 16-game regular-season winning streak, while Auburn is hoping to avoid its first 1-3 start since 1998.

A few more starters would have to join injured running back Alfred Blue on the sidelines before we’d even begin considering Auburn’s ability to break its five-game losing streak versus ranked opposition, which includes last year’s 45-10 faceplant in Death Valley.

Opening point spread: LSU by 18 1/2

The pick: LSU 37-14

UPSET SPECIAL OF THE WEEK

Fresno State at Tulsa
Sat., Sept. 22 — 8 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network

This prediction comes courtesy of Marc Doche (@MDoche) from the P101 satellite office in Burbank, Calif.

Pat Hill is gone, but his schedule loaded with trips to top notch programs remains. This Tulsa squad, however, isn’t as good as in years past and is surely several steps down from what the Bulldogs faced at Oregon in a 42-25 defeat two weeks ago.

After easy wins over Tulane and Nicholls State, the Golden Hurricane’s three-game homestand is capped by this tough test against a squad that was on pace to hit the century mark against hapless Colorado last week before the dogs were called off.

Powered by potent rushing attacks, both squads are hovering around 44 points per game, while allowing the opposition to score about half that.

Tulsa has spread the wealth with a different tailback eclipsing the century mark in each for its three games.

Fresno State, on the other hand, has relied heavily on its newly crowned all-time leading rusher, Robbie Rouse, who has also rushed for 115 yards or more in each game this season.

Both defenses have been making plays as well. Tulsa leads the nation with 10.7 tackles for loss per game and is second in sacks at 5.7. Meanwhile, Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas returned two of his three interceptions against Colorado for scores.

The Bulldog defensive unit that gave Oregon fits two weeks ago (11 tackles for loss and three takeaways) will be the difference going against Golden Hurricane quarterback Cody Green, who tossed a pair of interceptions in the 38-23 loss at Iowa State in the opener.

Opening point spread: Tulsa by 6 1/2

The pick: Fresno State 34-27

RIVALRY GAME OF THE WEEK

New Mexico at New Mexico State
Sat., Sept. 22 — 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3

Hey, this might not be the Iron Bowl, but you gotta give props to an in-state rivalry that predates its statehood by 18 years.

Unsurprisingly, the Aggies are considerable favorites in this 103rd renewal of the Rio Grande Rivalry, which dates all the way back to 1894. The Lobos have won only a single game in each of their previous three seasons.

On the bright side for New Mexico, it’s in position for improvement after thrashing visiting Southern University, 66-21, in the opener.

But the schedule tightened up quite a bit after Bob Davie’s debut as the Lobos got laid out on the road by Texas (45-0) and Texas Tech (49-14). This will be New Mexico’s third consecutive game away from Albuquerque. If we weren’t talking about a short-haul rivalry game that would be cause for extreme concern.

New Mexico State has followed a similar pattern this season, opening with an easy win over Sacramento State, before dropping a pair on the road at Ohio and UTEP.

Davie is putting his stamp on the Lobos, who are averaging 212 rushing yards per game. That’s rather healthy, considering the competition they’ve faced. It’s also more than double what the Aggies have been able to muster on the ground (95 yards per game).

It’ll be close, but the Lobos’ drive home along I-25 will be an unpleasant one as the Aggies notch their fourth consecutive victory in the series.

Opening point spread: New Mexico State by 8 1/2

The pick: New Mexico State 26-23

Reports: USF quarterback Blake Barnett to undergo season-ending surgery on ankle

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The Blake Barnett era at USF appears to be over.

According to a report from Bulls247 and others, the senior quarterback’s career will likely end at the school after he undergoes surgery on his ankle that will knock him out the rest of the 2019 season.

The signal-caller was originally injured in a loss to SMU last month and hasn’t played since with what was described as a high ankle sprain. He was the team’s starter both last season and at the beginning of this one but was eventually replaced by redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud after several tough performances.

While there’s still an outside shot that Barnett could receive a sixth season from the NCAA thanks to a medical redshirt in 2019, the chances of that happening are always anyone’s guess. He did play in just four games this season but already used his redshirt when transferring the first time from Alabama to Arizona State. He made his way to Tampa prior to the 2018 campaign and led the team to a 7-0 start before the wheels came off for Charlie Strong’s team.

A former five-star recruit who once started for the Crimson Tide over current Heisman favorite Jalen Hurts, Barnett has had a meandering career to be sure but has shown flashes at times with the Bulls. He threw for 3,139 yards across two seasons at USF, completing just under 60% of his passes while tossing 16 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.

Losing Barnett is a big blow to the team’s depth at the position the rest of the season as McCloud has seen limited playing time so far and backup Kirk Rygol is a walk-on. USF takes on Navy this Saturday in Annapolis in a critical game if the team wants to make a bowl game in 2019.

Oregon State moves forward with $175 million Reser Stadium renovation

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While you wouldn’t know it from some of their records on the gridiron, the Pac-12 has been on a football building spree. Just in the past few years, USC, Arizona State and Cal among others have finished off stadium renovations while Arizona and Utah are about to commence some of their own.

It appears you can add another Pac-12 program considering some upgrades too as The Oregonian reports that Oregon State has sent out a request for proposal on a renovation to the west side of Reser Stadium. 

The project, which is set to start after the 2021 season concludes, is expected to cost nearly $175 million and comes on the heels of two renovations to the east side and north end in the past 15 years. The hope is that most of the construction will be finished off prior to fall camp in 2023, though the expectation is that some “non-football areas” will take until the end of the year to complete. 

Capacity at Reser, currently 43,154 overall, is expected to dip as a result of the project, which will include the usual bells and whistles of more suites, a new press box and additional general usage spaces. A new visitors locker room and video board are also expected to be a part of the project, which the school hopes will allow for year-round usage instead of just six Saturdays in the fall. 

Though the Beavers record hasn’t been anything to write home about the past few seasons, Reser has typically been a tough place to play for Pac-12 opponents and one of the more unique places in college football given the setting. The west side is badly in need of an upgrade (originally built in 1953) though so hopefully the program balances the need to create a fun atmosphere with the more pressing issue of having a modern facility. Judging by the pricetag, they certainly are not skimping out on much.

Boise State AD taking very un-UCF-like approach to College Football Playoff

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The team that was the original BCS-buster actually appears very realistic about the chances of cracking the top four and making the College Football Playoff should they go undefeated.

In a sharp contrast to the stance taken by fellow Group of Five program UCF, Boise State athletic director Curt Apsey seems quite content to just make a New Year’s Six bowl in lieu of a semifinal game given the way the current system has been setup for teams such as his own.

“We don’t really focus that much on that sort of pie in the sky, be a part of the College Football Playoff and all that kind of thing,” Apsey told ESPN. “Because we know what we have to do in order to just be considered for that.

“If you have a 12-0 Boise State and, say, you have a 10-2 Alabama. … We beat everyone in our conference and we beat Marshall and we beat Portland State. I’ll be honest with you, I kinda get [selecting Alabama]. I really do.”

The Broncos are currently the highest ranked Group of Five team in the polls and are favored in all of their remaining games this season, starting with a trip to BYU on Saturday. Should they wind up running the table, their most likely destination is the Cotton Bowl. That seems fine by those on the blue turf, which is far from the kind of response that the Black Knights had when they went undefeated in the regular season the past two years and all but demanded a spot in the final four.

Interestingly, Apsey’s stance isn’t quite shared with his head coach — who has a talking point much closer to the one coming out of Orlando the past few years.

“I’ll continue to say that you’re an undefeated team, you deserve an opportunity to continue your season and play for a national championship,” Bryan Harsin said. “If you’re undefeated, you should have an opportunity to play for a national championship. Period. And regardless of perception, don’t care about that.”

Until the College Football Playoff eventually is expanded, it seems like a long shot for any Group of Five team to crack the top four in the final Selection Committee standings. Boise State brass isn’t throwing a huge fit over that fact, which is a welcome change for the team most likely to earn an exclusive ticket to join the New Year’s Six in 2019.

NCAA says targeting penalties down 32 percent in 2019 compared to last season

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Years of emphasizing a different way to tackle in order to avoid targeting penalties might finally be paying off on the field.

According to the NCAA, targeting penalties are down sharply in the first half of the 2019 FBS regular season — dropping some 32% compared to the same time period in 2018. A total of 132 targeting penalties were flagged through the first seven weeks this year, with 83 upheld after video review compared to 171 total and a whopping 122 enforced last season.

“The main reason is that coaches and players have responded,” national coordinator of football officials Rogers Redding told the Associated Press. “We anecdotally see player behavior changing, although we can’t prove it. This is difficult to quantify, but it comes from several (officials) coordinators and me, based on years of experience with this rule.”

The NCAA passed several rules changes prior to the 2019 campaign related to the targeting penalties, including requiring that any targeting foul which cannot be confirmed by video review to be overturned. While Redding noted that there would have been some calls last season that would have been overturned given those changes, there still would have been sharp drop off year-over-year even when factoring in such targeting calls being waved off. Players will continue to be ejected from the game and miss the next half of football if targeting is upheld but a new change also makes such calls even costlier for repeat offenders, as three targeting penalties in one season will force a player to miss their next full game.

Ever since it was introduced, the targeting penalty has been among the most controversial aspects of the game for players, coaches and fans. It appears the message is finally getting through for some however as everybody has gotten used to the changes in recent years.