College football best bets: Clemson will be too much for Wake Forest

Clemson running back Will Shipley has been hard to stop this season. (Jacob Kupferman/AP)

This column finally broke out of its rut in Week 3 of the college football season, going 3-1 by correctly predicting an easy Mississippi win over circling-the-drain Georgia Tech and two unders in Texas A&M-Miami and Kansas State-Tulane. The only loss was Fresno State failing to keep up with USC after its quarterback suffered a high-ankle sprain in the third quarter (the Bulldogs still nearly outgained the Trojans in terms of yards per play, a sign that the USC defense is going to be a lingering issue moving forward).

These picks now are 7-5 on the season. Let’s keep it going.

This column will give out four picks per week: the game of the week, a favorite, an underdog and a wild card, which can be anything (another favorite or underdog in a game that might be flying under the radar, or a total, for instance). Hopefully we’ll all be rich by the time the clock hits zero in Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 9.

All spreads and totals were taken Wednesday from the consensus odds at unless noted. All times Eastern on Saturday unless noted.

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The game of the week

No. 5 Clemson (-7) at No. 21 Wake Forest, noon, ABC

What would this spread be if the Demon Deacons had lost to Liberty this past weekend instead of squeaking out a one-point win when the visiting Flames failed to convert a late two-point conversion attempt? The stats suggest Wake Forest may have gotten at least a little bit lucky to come out on top — they were outgained in yards per play (5.7 to 4.9) and had to rely upon four takeaways, two of which stopped Liberty drives in Demon Deacons territory. The Flames also missed two field goals.

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For all the talk about D.J. Uiagalelei’s struggles at quarterback for Clemson, all he needs to do is hand the ball off to running back Will Shipley, who is averaging 7.78 yards per carry and has rushed for six touchdowns this season. Shipley had 112 rushing yards and two scores against the Demon Deacons in last season’s 48-27 Clemson win, and Liberty rushed for 181 yards against Wake Forest on Saturday.

The Tigers’ defense is as stout as it usually is, particularly against the rush: Clemson’s defense ranks eighth nationally in rushing success rate and seventh in expected points added per rush. Throw in Wake Forest’s complete inability to get anything going on the ground this season — the Demon Deacons tallied only 21 rushing yards against Liberty and rank 128th in rushing success rate — and I think the Tigers do enough to cover this number.

The favorite

Minnesota (-3) at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Golden Gophers have won their first three games by a combined 149-17. Yes, they’ve played perhaps the easiest schedule taken on by a Power Five team, running up the score on New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado. No, that’s not any reason to fade Minnesota here.

The Spartans are still getting the afterglow from last season’s 11-2 team, and it’s masking a season that’s in serious jeopardy of going completely awry because of injuries. Wide receiver Jayden Reed (the 2021 team leader in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns), defensive tackle Jacob Slade (one of the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen) and safety Xavier Henderson (third-team all-Big Ten in 2021) missed Saturday’s loss at Washington, and starting linebacker Darius Snow suffered a season-ending injury earlier against Western Michigan.

The injuries have particularly hurt Michigan State’s pass defense, which ranks 89th nationally in success rate and 103rd in yards allowed per game (264.3). Minnesota is averaging 10.7 yards per pass attempt (ranking fifth in the nation) and also features running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who is second nationally at 154.67 rushing yards per game with a Football Bowl Subdivision-best seven rushing touchdowns. Yes, the loss of leading receiver Chris Autman-Bell to a season-ending knee injury will sting, but the Golden Gophers have plenty of other seasoned pass-catchers (wideout Michael Brown-Stephens and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford each are averaging nearly 16 yards per reception).

Defensively, Minnesota leads the nation in passing success rate and should be able to limit the Spartans even if Reed returns. I’ll take the road favorite.

Georgia can break your spirit. Just look at South Carolina’s empty stands.

The underdog

Central Michigan (+27.5) at No. 14 Penn State, noon, Big Ten Network

This is an obvious letdown spot for the Nittany Lions after this past weekend’s rousing win at Auburn, but there are a few other reasons I like the big MAC dog here. The Chippewas have shown an ability to break out big plays, ranking 27th nationally in explosive play rate and gaining at least 10 yards on 58 scrimmage plays so far this season (ranking 12th in the country). Penn State, meanwhile, has allowed 48 scrimmage plays of at least 10 yards, which ranks 104th, and Pro Football Focus puts its defense as the No. 125 unit in the country in terms of tackling. Auburn only managed to score 12 points on the Nittany Lions, but that total was a bit deceiving: The Tigers drove fairly deep into Penn State territory on their first three drives but ended up with just two field goals and an interception, and their fourth drive ended at the 50 after a fumble.

Defensively, Central Michigan ranks 27th nationally in rushing success rate, and opposing teams are averaging only 2.85 yards per rush attempt. Penn State running back Nicholas Singleton is averaging a gaudy 15.6 yards per rush over his past two games, but he only got 10 carries in each. One has to wonder whether Coach James Franklin will hold him and the other Nittany Lions starters back should this get out of hand, particularly with Michigan and Ohio State looming over Penn State’s next four games.

In the Nittany Lions’ only other game as a large favorite this season, they covered while giving 27.5 points to Ohio on Sept. 10. Now the point spread is essentially the same for this one against Central Michigan, which rates out to be a much better team than the Bobcats in terms of the SP+ efficiency metric. Take the dog here.

The wild card

Boise State at Texas El Paso under 45.5 points, 9 p.m. Friday, CBS Sports Network

Here we have two sluggish offenses: The Broncos are averaging 4.76 yards per play (107th nationally) and the Miners 4.67 (108th). UTEP also has failed to exceed 13 points in three of its four games this season, and in the one exception it put up only 20 against a New Mexico State team that gave up 38 to Minnesota and 66 to Wisconsin.

That alone makes the under an intriguing play, and Boise State’s defense only adds to that. Check out this graphic showing offensive and defensive explosive play rate among Group of Five teams:

Look at Boise State’s logo all by itself in the upper left quadrant of this graphic. That means the Broncos have been excellent at limiting explosive plays on defense (here defined as runs of at least 10 yards or passes of at least 15 yards) while also pretty dismal at creating them on offense. Boise State has allowed only 19 scrimmage plays of at least 10 yards, tied for fifth nationally, and 14 of them came in its season-opening loss to Oregon State. The Broncos’ offense, meanwhile, has had only 25 scrimmage plays gain at least 10 yards, better than only three teams nationally. And it’s not like Boise State has played any world-beating defenses, with games against New Mexico and Tennessee-Martin after the Oregon State loss.

Out of UTEP’s 47 drives that have taken place with significant time on the clock (i.e., drives not begun at the very end of a half or game), 34 have ended without points (72.3 percent), and the Miners have scored only five offensive touchdowns despite having played in four games (one more than most FBS teams). I don’t see any of that improving here against a stout Boise State defense, so give me the under.