College football best bets: Kentucky can keep pace with Mississippi

Kentucky and quarterback Will Levis are a good pick as an underdog against Mississippi on Saturday.
Kentucky and quarterback Will Levis are a good pick as an underdog against Mississippi on Saturday. (Michael Clubb/AP)

Clemson’s failure to cover as a seven-point favorite against Wake Forest — the Tigers won by six in double overtime — was my only loss in Week 4 of the college football season, giving this column two straight 3-1 weeks and a 10-6 record on the year. This good run ideally will continue in Week 5.

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 VegasInsider.com unless noted. All times Eastern on Saturday unless noted.

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The game of the week

No. 7 Kentucky (+7) at No. 14 Mississippi, noon, ESPN

No. 10 North Carolina State at No. 5 Clemson is probably the best game on Saturday’s schedule, but I’m not touching it because the remnants of Hurricane Ian could introduce a whole lot of weather uncertainty. Instead, let’s take a look at this battle of unbeaten SEC foes.

The Wildcats’ rushing attack has been more or less nonexistent without Chris Rodriguez, who has averaged 6.7 yards per carry and rushed for 26 touchdowns over the past three seasons but was suspended for the first four games this year after a DUI arrest in May. Rodriguez, the SEC’s leading rusher last year, will be back against the Rebels, significantly boosting a Kentucky rushing attack that ranks 121st in success rate and has averaged only 2.41 yards per carry (125th nationally).

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Last weekend, Tulsa averaged 6.1 yards per rush against Mississippi, which allowed the Golden Hurricane to hang around after the Rebels jumped to a 35-14 lead in the second quarter. The Rebels still won, 35-27, but it wasn’t the sort of momentum-building performance needed entering SEC play, and Kentucky could finally find some running room.

Flipping sides, Mississippi rushed for 308 yards against Tulsa, but the Wildcats rank 18th nationally in rushing defense success rate. They also have allowed only two passing touchdowns (and one of them was on a trick play by Northern Illinois last weekend).

Neither of these teams have been super impressive against pedestrian opposition. I’ll go with the underdog Wildcats, who also have the better quarterback (NFL prospect Will Levis).

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The favorite

Western Kentucky (-5.5) vs. Troy, 7 p.m., ESPN Plus

How much is this spread being influenced by the fact that the Trojans last week scored a 16-7 win over Marshall, which earlier this season upset Notre Dame? It was a fairly smothering performance on defense — Troy held the Thundering Herd to just 2.5 yards per play — but the Trojans’ offense failed to reach the end zone even though it had eight drives enter Marshall territory. (It kicked three field goals, and its only touchdown came on a return of a Marshall fumble.)

Troy averages just 2.24 yards per carry (128th of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams) and runs the ball on only 43.4 percent of its scrimmage plays, which ranks 109th. This could play into Western Kentucky’s defensive strengths, because it ranks 16th in expected points added per pass, 25th in defensive passing success rate, 22nd in opponent yards per attempt and 20th in opponent passer rating.

Hilltoppers quarterback Austin Reed has thrown 14 touchdown passes against only three interceptions and will be the best quarterback Troy has seen this season, with a 175.9 rating. Coming off a 73-0 demolition of Florida International, Western Kentucky should be able to keep it going against the Trojans.

The underdog

Illinois (+7) at Wisconsin, noon, Big Ten Network

The total for this one is pretty low at 43, and in a game in which scoring is expected to be at a premium, that’s a lot of points for an offensively challenged team such as the Badgers to be laying against an Illini team whose defense has been extremely stingy, allowing nine points combined in its three wins and only 23 in its one loss to Indiana, a three-point defeat in which Illinois fumbled four times and lost three of them.

Yes, the Illini’s three wins came against two bad FBS teams (Wyoming and Virginia) and a Football Championship Subdivision team (Chattanooga), but in that latter game — a 31-0 win — Illinois forced the Mocs into seven three-and-outs and held them to 142 yards overall and 2.7 per play. In its other three games, all victories, Chattanooga averaged 435.7 yards and 7.1 yards per play. FBS teams are supposed to handle FCS teams easily, but Illinois’ defense — which ranks second nationally in success rate and fifth in yards per play allowed (3.8) — went well beyond that, erasing any hope that the Mocs could keep pace.

Wisconsin has more offensive firepower than an FCS team, obviously, but in its two games against respectable competition, the Badgers managed only 14 points against Washington State and only seven in the competitive portion of Saturday’s 52-21 loss to Ohio State. (Fourteen of Wisconsin’s points came with less than 10 minutes remaining, when the game was well out of hand.) Take away Braelon Allen’s 75-yard touchdown run in garbage time against the Buckeyes’ backups, and the Badgers averaged only 3.4 yards per rush. Quarterback Graham Mertz averaged a sad 4.7 yards per pass attempt, which is exactly the same number Illinois is allowing this season. (Only Iowa and Michigan are better in that department.)

I’m expecting one of those Big Ten rock fights that always seem to pop up in the noon window, and the underdog is the play.

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The wild card

Stanford at No. 13 Oregon over 63½ points, 11 p.m., Fox Sports 1

These are two bad defenses, ranking 119th (Oregon) and 124th (Stanford) in success rate and 119th (Oregon) and 120th (Stanford) in points allowed per drive.

In three games against FBS opposition, the Ducks have allowed their opponents to breach their 40-yard line on 20 drives, and 14 of them ended in a touchdown. True, BYU only managed to put up 20 points against Oregon on Sept. 17, but of the seven Cougars drives that advanced past the Ducks’ 40, four ended in zero points (three turnovers on downs and a missed field goal). The rest of the time, opponents have been reaching the end zone freely.

Stanford has topped 28 points in only one of its three games — in its season opener against FCS Colgate — but that’s more a byproduct of a defense that can’t get the opponent off the field (we’ll get back to that in a second) and some bad turnover luck. Against USC on Sept. 10, the Cardinal had two drives end at the Trojans’ 2, one because of an interception and another because of a fumble. (Stanford scored touchdowns on its four other trips inside USC territory.) Three more drives ended because of turnovers in Saturday’s loss to Washington, two of them lost fumbles and another an interception thrown from the Huskies’ 17. In all, Stanford has fumbled eight times and failed to recover seven of them, a rate that ranks 112th in the country and is pretty unlucky: Of the 16 teams that have at least eight fumbles, only one other squad (Northwestern) has failed to recover the ball at such a low rate. (Auburn, for instance, has fumbled eight times and recovered six of them.) At some point, the bounces will start going Stanford’s way.

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinal is allowing 4.6 yards per carry (106th nationally), and its opponents are averaging 32:01 in time of possession (103rd). Oregon’s offense ranks third in rushing success rate. Both teams should be able to move the ball, and this Pac-12 After Dark matchup should go over the total.

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