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Here are Stewart Mandel's College Football Playoff teams
1:01 | College Football
Here are Stewart Mandel's College Football Playoff teams
Wednesday November 23rd, 2016

It’s rivalry week. That means a lot of games to watch. Let’s not waste any more time.

For fiends

LSU at Texas A&M (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): Ed Orgeron will roam the LSU sidelines for one final regular season game and Leonard Fournette now has two games remaining in his college career. The quarterback play in this game is going to be bad, but the athletes (Fournette, Christian Kirk, Myles Garrett) sure are good.

NC State at North Carolina (Friday, Noon ET, ESPN): This one could move the coaching carousel. A bad loss for NC State might cost Dave Doeren his job (very unlikely, but possible), and a blowout win may put Larry Fedora squarely in contention for the opening at LSU. The Wolfpack were a chip-shot field goal away from beating Clemson, and Doeren’s squad then careened into the abyss after missing out on a 5–1 start. It now sits at 5–6 with three rough losses (getting routed by Louisville, falling to Boston College and a dreary performance against Miami) and needs a win over the Tar Heels to secure bowl eligibility.

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North Carolina, conversely, has compiled another strong campaign under Fedora, who is rightfully getting looks from blue bloods. The upset loss at Duke on Nov. 10 ended their chances at a second straight 10-win season, but the Heels have ridden an exciting year from quarterback Mitch Trubisky to grab impressive wins against Pitt and Florida State. Fedora won’t be the top choice for a team like LSU or (potentially) Oregon, but he’s proven he can field great teams at a school that prioritizes basketball above all. That’s no small accomplishment.

TCU at Texas (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1; watch live on FOX Sports Go): Expect emotions. Texas is in a rut and all signs point to the administration firing Charlie Strong after the game, but if the Longhorns win to secure bowl eligibility, then Strong will probably get carried off the field by his players. It’s going to put a ton of pressure on the Texas administration if this happens, a lot like when the LSU administration faced pressure after it bungled its faux-firing of Les Miles.

• STAPLES: The end comes for Charlie Strong: What the Texas coach did wrong

Rutgers at Maryland (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN News): Just kidding. Please don’t watch this game while Ohio State is playing Michigan.

Kentucky at No. 11 Louisville (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN): It’s Lamar Jackson’s last chance to clinch or lose the Heisman Trophy, and it’s Kentucky’s best chance to win this game since 2010. After a rocky start to the season, Mark Stoops has led a fairly remarkable turnaround that will see his seniors go to their first bowl game. A win over the hated Cardinals to hoist the Governor’s Cup would be a fitting end to a good season in Lexington.

But who better to spoil people’s fun than Bobby Petrino?

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Virginia at Virginia Tech (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN2): Virginia Tech needs to win this game to win the ACC Atlantic. Virginia is now coached by Bronco Mendenhall, a polished but subtly maniacal man who prizes extraordinary physicality. Mendenhall’s best work will probably show in two to three years, but this is a game that screams “the steps we need to take to become a great football team.” There will be heavy hitting and, when Tech has the ball, an offense operating at warp speed.

Duke at Miami (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): That game doesn’t sound interesting, you say. Oh really?

Minnesota at No. 6 Wisconsin (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network): Hot Take Alert: Paul Bunyan’s Axe is the best trophy of any rivalry game. Watch the end just to see one team hoist it. The Gophers have not won this game since 2003, and it’s unlikely that changes Saturday.

Pretty good

No. 19 Boise State at Air Force (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network): Heck, I need an upset alert somewhere. Air Force came back late to log a thrilling win over San Jose State last week and is on a four-game winning streak. Troy Calhoun’s triple option attack is known to vex even some of the finest coaches, and Boise is now on the back end of a difficult schedule. It’s unlikely, but the Falcons’ multi-pronged attack is at its best in years, and they also have a safety fittingly named WESTON STEELHAMMER.

No. 16 Nebraska at Iowa (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): If you’re a Midwestern football fiend who thinks snow and frozen tundra means better players and an increased chance at beating teams from warm-weather climates, this game is for you! The over/under for this game should be set at about 18, and there will be ample TRENCH WARFARE. Let’s hope the forecast is wrong and it’s not an unseasonably warm 56 degrees in Iowa City. We can all agree that this game would be better in gusting wind and sideways snow. Let us have our Edward Hopper ice sculpture on the day after Thanksgiving.

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Mississippi State at Ole Miss (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network): This year’s Egg Bowl is boring and a steep decline from the game two years ago (which featured Dak Prescott, Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell), but this is one of the great rivalries where the hate for the opposition is stronger than the love for your own team. It’s fantastic.

Notre Dame at No. 12 USC (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): It’s hard to imagine a game in recent Notre Dame history that fans are dreading more (non-2007 division). USC looks like one of the best teams in the nation right now, and the Irish managed to blow another double-digit lead in their loss to Virginia Tech last week. If you were asked in the preseason which team would be the router and which would be the routed on Saturday, you’d be lying if you answered USC. College football can be mysterious.

No. 17 Tennessee at Vanderbilt (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network): If Tennessee wins, it can find relief in an otherwise disappointing season. If Vanderbilt wins, then Tennessee may need to relinquish the “Champions of Life” title that head coach Butch Jones bequeathed on his team this week. Vanderbilt would also secure bowl eligibility, even though the nice folks at the NCAA would likely select them at 5–7 anyway because of its sterling APR scores. But who wants to get into a bowl on a technicality? That’s not how you get into Vanderbilt.

South Carolina at No. 4 Clemson (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): Will Muschamp declared that Thanksgiving is a meal, not a day, and is requiring his players to practice on Thursday morning. I do hope the kitchen staff has prepared a metric ton of food to satisfy the likely irritable and starving offensive and defensive lines once practice ends. The Gamecocks have a promising young quarterback in Jake Bentley, but the offensive line will likely be overwhelmed by Clemson’s mammoth and athletic defensive line.

 

Much better

No. 5 Washington at No. 23 Washington State (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX): This game garnered significant momentum last season after Washington State entered it having won six of its last seven (the only loss came to eventual Rose Bowl champion Stanford). Then Washington, behind a freshman quarterback and running back, obliterated the Cougars 45–10.

Watch Washington-Washington State live on FOX Sports Go

Now, the game returns to the Palouse with even more hype than it had last November. Washington’s loss to USC damaged its playoff dreams and ended Jake Browning’s Heisman campaign, but the Huskies remain the class of the Pac-12 North and one of the nation’s top teams. Washington State boasts a much-improved defense, so as long as it’s not ailing from a hard-fought 38–24 loss at Colorado last week, this game should entertain. The Cougars’ biggest problem might be solving the Huskies’ defense. Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is a master of limiting spread and air raid offenses, and he has potential first-round picks in defensive backs Sidney Jones and Budda Baker to help his cause.

Toledo at No. 21 Western Michigan (Friday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2): If Western Michigan wins to secure an undefeated regular season, then it should lock up the Group of Five berth into a New Year’s Six game. Fortunately for the viewer, the MAC saved its best conference game for last. Toledo head coach Jason Candle already has nine wins in his first season at the helm, and he could be the next MAC head man to garner coaching buzz if he beats the vaunted Broncos to get his 10th. The Rockets’ passing offense ranks seventh in the nation, and they’ve scored at least 26 points in every game this year. With a surefire first-round pick in Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis on the other side, this has the makings of peak MACtion.

• ​THAMEL: P.J. Fleck has transformed Western Michigan, but will he stay?

No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, ABC): Hyperbole and superlatives are lame, but this (really) is the biggest regular season game of the past decade. There is no shortage of entertaining storylines. Urban Meyer likely stripped all the Ms from his locker room and most of the OSU campus after the Buckeyes beat Michigan State, Jim Harbaugh is probably staging a live animal sacrifice or related ritual to assure his team arrives possessed and ready to spread the blood of the innocent. I’m thinking in extremes because Harbaugh doesn’t have his starting quarterback (Wilton Speight is likely out with a broken collarbone) and Ohio State has struggled with formidable defensive lines this year (Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana).

Just enjoy this one, honestly. Especially after last season’s 42–13 demolition in Ann Arbor (the game where Ezekiel Elliott showed that he’d destroy front sevens in the NFL as well as he did in college), this one has the makings of a classic. This game gets the big TV—assign the rest of the noon games to a laptop or other mobile device.

• ​ROSENBERG: From the hatred of The Game comes a deep friendship

Michigan State at No. 7 Penn State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN):

Rare do both Michigan and Ohio State support the same cause, but they’ll be rooting for the Spartans to pull the upset on Saturday to knock Penn State out of the Big Ten race. This isn’t a game that bodes very well for the Nittany Lions either. Like Clemson last year (though nowhere near as talented), Penn State is suffering from constant underestimation by pundits and opponents. It felt like Ohio State was coasting during the teams’ game in State College, but Penn State returned a blocked field goal for a TD and sacked J.T. Barrett about 20 times on the final two possessions. The Nittany Lions’ defensive line is its strong suit, but quarterback Trace McSorley will need to complete some long early throws to keep Michigan State from keying on star running back Saquon Barkley. It’s an intriguing one, especially after the Spartans’ near-miss against Ohio State.

Let’s hope Mark Dantonio is prepared. It sure sounds like he’s been studying.

No. 13 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): This one is an annual must-see, but the key will be if a hobbled Kamryn Pettway can effectively run against Alabama’s legion of football robots. Leonard Fournette wasn’t able to solve the Tide’s frightening defensive interior, so it’s hard to fathom that Pettway will. That said, Auburn’s offensive line has been strong in the second half of the season, and Pettway is the kind of bruising back that might give the Tide trouble. I said might give them trouble.

• NIESEN: 10 early-season predictions that we all got totally wrong

No. 22 Utah at No. 9 Colorado (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX; watch live on FOX Sports Go): It’s a forced rivalry that came from the Pac-10’s expansion into the Pac-12, but this game has a ton of Pac-12 title implications. Colorado secures the Pac-12 South with a win, USC gets it if Colorado loses. Angry teams with little to play for are dangerous teams, and Utah is probably steaming after Oregon ended the Utes’ conference title hopes last weekend. Not bad fodder for a (new) rivalry game, right?

No. 15 Florida at No. 14 Florida State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): The Florida defense may still be having nightmares after Dalvin Cook gashed it for 183 rushing yards and two touchdowns last year. Cook is coming off of a splendid 225-yard, four-touchdown performance against Syracuse last week, while the Gators are likely vibing after their goal-line stand to beat LSU last week. Only pride is on the line in this one (Florida clinched the SEC East and Florida State can’t win the ACC Coastal), but head coach Jim McElwain probably wants to flash his pearly whites in the postgame again after bringing the Florida Cup back to Gainesville for the first time since 2012.

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