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College football best bets: A Pac-12 shootout and a Big Ten rout

Utah and USC combined for a lot of points and not much defense in their regular season meeting. (Washington Post illustration; Rick Bowmer/AP)
7 min

It was another 2-2 week for this column, as I was good on Illinois and the Florida State team total but bad on the Michigan-Ohio State total and Notre Dame. I’m at 25-25-1 for the season, and the time for full-season profitability is running out. Let’s have a big championship weekend.

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.

The game of the week

Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas: No. 4 USC-No. 11 Utah over 67.5, 8 p.m. Friday, Fox

These two teams played Oct. 15, with the Utes winning a 43-42 barnburner. It was one of nine overs for the Trojans this season and I think it happens again, because neither team is all that strong defensively.

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As noted last week when picking against USC, the Trojans have been a defensive sieve, and that didn’t change in last week’s win over Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, who aren’t exactly fearsome offensively, averaged 7.85 yards per play, which was a season high and more than two yards better than their season average. Notre Dame punted only once — on its first possession — and had one drive end at the USC 27 (turnover on downs) and another end at the USC 26 (fumble).

USC’s defense ranks 124th nationally in success rate, which is astoundingly bad for a team that’s on the cusp of a College Football Playoff berth. But the Trojans have forced 26 turnovers and their offense averages 3.24 points per drive (eighth nationally) behind quarterback Caleb Williams, who seems to have secured the Heisman Trophy thanks to 34 touchdown passes and 10 more on the ground (six in the past three games).

Ohio State needs a loss from TCU or USC to make the Playoff

Utah has struggled to stop the run, ranking 86th nationally in success rate, and USC running back Austin Jones has topped 100 yards in two games as the replacement for injured standout Travis Dye. And while the Utes are better against the pass, Williams averaged 9.1 yards per attempt and threw five touchdown passes in the first meeting. Utah quarterback Cameron Rising added 415 passing yards and five combined touchdowns (two passing, three rushing) in that first matchup with USC, which has been an over machine. That continues Friday.

The favorite

Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis: No. 2 Michigan (-16.5) vs. Purdue, 8 p.m. Saturday, Fox

The Boilermakers have eight wins this season, but it’s hard to find one that truly stands out. Among their victories:

  • They beat Florida Atlantic, a team that ended up firing its coach, by just two at home.
  • They beat Minnesota, without its injured standout running back, by 10.
  • They beat Maryland by two after surviving a failed last-second two-point conversion attempt.
  • They beat Illinois by seven after the Illini committed 12 penalties for 121 yards.
  • They beat Northwestern, one of the worst Power Five teams in the nation, by just eight.
  • And they beat Indiana by 14 after trailing at halftime and getting their score inflated by a late pick-six.

Now Purdue gets Michigan, fresh off its clobbering of Ohio State, and the only thing that should stop the Wolverines is a letdown after the rivalry game. But with the chance to cap its first unbeaten regular season in 25 years and secure a playoff berth, that doesn’t seem likely.

College Football Playoff rankings: USC up to No. 4, Ohio State is fifth

College football statistical analyst Parker Fleming has developed a measure of productive drives that he calls Eckel. Fleming defines a productive drive as one that features a first and 10 inside an opponent’s 40-yard line, or a drive that ends on a big-play touchdown. On both sides of the ball, Purdue is substandard in finishing such drives: Its offense averages 3.50 points per Eckel drive (No. 103 nationally) while its defense allows 4.37 points per Eckel drive (97th). Michigan’s defense ranks fourth in points allowed per Eckel drive (2.56) and its offense ranks 32nd (4.42).

Purdue’s strength is its rushing defense, and Michigan runs the ball a ton (only three Power Five teams average more carries per game). But against Ohio State, the Wolverines scored on touchdown passes of 69, 75 and 45 yards while also averaging 7.2 yards per carry against a defense that’s better than Purdue’s (the Boilermakers’ defense ranks 122nd in passing explosiveness allowed). This is a recipe for a rout.

The underdog

Mountain West championship game: Fresno State (+3.5) at Boise State, 4 p.m. Saturday, Fox

These two teams met on Oct. 8, with Boise State scoring a 40-20 home victory. But Fresno State didn’t have quarterback Jake Haener, who missed a good chunk of the season with a high-ankle sprain suffered against USC on Sept. 17. Haener returned Oct. 29 against San Diego State, and he’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions as the Bulldogs won their final five games, three of them by at least 27 points.

Boise State also has turned things around after replacing its quarterback and offensive coordinator and won 7 of 8 to finish the season, but its recent play is concerning.

Boise State’s 42-23 win over Utah State last weekend last weekend was perhaps the most untruthful final score of the season. Utah State was down 28-23 and at the Broncos’ 14-yard line with 1 minute 33 seconds left when Cooper Legas threw an interception. Two Boise State plays later, Taylen Green rushed for a 91-yard touchdown. Legas then threw another interception on Utah State’s next drive, with this one returned for a touchdown. It was a horrific bad beat for the Aggies, who were 16.5-point underdogs, and a fraudulently large win for the Broncos.

The week before, Boise State needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to beat Wyoming, which nearly outgained the Broncos in yards per play despite having one of the worst offenses in the country. The Cowboys also had the ball deep in Boise State territory on their final drive before throwing an interception.

The Broncos’ luck runs out Friday night.

The wild card

SEC championship game in Atlanta: Georgia-LSU under 50½, 4 p.m. Saturday, CBS

The secret to beating a team with Jayden Daniels as its quarterback is pretty simple: Do what you can to limit his scrambling and make him pass the ball. Over his career at Arizona State and LSU, Daniels’s teams have gone 2-6 when he has at least 34 passing attempts, and the Tigers are 1-3 in those games this season. Daniels is averaging only 7.1 yards per attempt, which is 10th in the SEC and tied for 61st nationally, and if his first option isn’t there, he usually starts running (Daniels leads LSU with 824 rushing yards this season).

Here’s the thing: Daniels injured his foot or ankle late in last weekend’s loss at Texas A&M — he threw the ball 35 times and averaged only 5.4 yards per attempt — and was in a walking boot earlier this week. If he’s at all hobbled and is forced to pass, it’s tough seeing how LSU is going to move the ball.

The Bulldogs are preparing as if Daniels is going to play, and this week Georgia defensive lineman Zion Logue said the plan was to “get a cage around him and not let him run.” The Bulldogs have not allowed more than 52 yards rushing to a quarterback this season.

Georgia runs one of the more leisurely paced offenses in the country, averaging 28.1 seconds per play (114th in the country). With a playoff berth all but sewn up and playing against a quarterback with a possibly bum wheel, the Bulldogs have no need to start hurrying up and seem pointed to an easy win by a score that stays under the total.