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  • As the 2018 college football season reaches its midpoint, the outcomes of these games will dictate the shape of the national title race. Plus, the year's first head coach firing, an injury scare at Alabama, thoughts on the current playoff picture and more in this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
By Andy Staples
October 15, 2018

We’ve passed the midway point of the season, and it’s time to look ahead to the home stretch. Each summer, we examine the Pivot Point games for the teams we think will contend for the College Football Playoff. These aren’t always rivalry games or the toughest game on the schedule; they are the games that can turn a season.

Now, with half a season worth of data in the bank, it’s time to examine the Pivot Point games for all the teams remaining in the playoff hunt. Some of these teams have only a remote chance, but it’s still a chance.

We won’t have to wait long to watch these games, either. There are three huge ones on Saturday...

Oct. 20

NC State at Clemson
Pivot Point for: Both

This feels like the de facto ACC title game, but the problem is we really don’t know how good NC State is. Hurricane Florence caused the cancellation of West Virginia’s visit to Raleigh, so the best opponent we’ve seen the Wolfpack play is an AJ Dillon–less Boston College.

But we do know NC State quarterback Ryan Finley can sling it. Finley is completing 69.5% of his passes and averaging 8.7 yards an attempt. We also know the only way anyone has moved the ball on Clemson has been through the air, and the quarterback who can stay upright against Clemson’s pass rush can hit some long throws. Clemson has figured out in its past few games that it can take pressure off freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence by letting tailback Travis Etienne carry a lot of the load. Lawrence hasn’t been asked to win a game for the Tigers yet, but he may be on Saturday.

Oregon at Washington State
Pivot Point for: Both

As quickly as Oregon got into the playoff race, it could be out. Pullman will be rocking after its first visit from ESPN’s College GameDay, and Wazzu quarterback Gardner Minshew will be launching passes. (Minshew leads the nation in passes attempted with 313 despite playing one fewer game than the players in slots two through five.) Minshew is averaging 1.2 interceptions for every 100 attempts, and Oregon will need to push that number up to keep this from becoming a shootout.

The Ducks are ahead of schedule, and one issue with being ahead of schedule is that sometimes teams haven’t learned to deal with success. Oregon players need to get over the swell of emotion that came with the overtime win against Washington and remember that now that the win is in the books, it isn’t any more special than the win that’s available this week.

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Michigan at Michigan State
Pivot Point for: Michigan

Before Saturday, I would have skipped over this game and headed straight to the Ohio State game for Michigan’s Pivot Point. We left Michigan State for dead after the Spartans lost at home to Northwestern, but after watching them stymie Penn State’s offense, this game seems a lot more intriguing.

The Wolverines certainly weren’t going to overlook Michigan State. After losing two of their last three to the Spartans, they’ll treat this one with extreme caution. Because of its loss to Notre Dame, Michigan has no margin for error. The Wolverines seem to be clicking offensively, but they’re about to face a defense that will dare Shea Patterson to beat it through the air.

Oct. 27

Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.
Pivot Point for: Both

Before the past two weeks, it felt as if Florida would have no chance to hang with the Bulldogs. But now this game looks plenty intriguing. Both teams have an open date before this game, so now would be the time to make any big changes.

After getting blown out at LSU, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said that while it was unfair to pin the blame for the loss on starting quarterback Jake Fromm, the Bulldogs would examine the position and decide whether Fromm or true freshman Justin Fields is the best player to lead the offense going forward. No matter what Georgia does, Florida probably will have to spend the next two weeks preparing for both quarterbacks. (Which will create a time crunch at practice because Fields is a much better runner than Fromm.)

The Gators don’t have any big changes to make. They just need to keep improving as they have since their Week 2 loss to Kentucky. Florida’s win against LSU suggests the Gators can move the ball against the Bulldogs’ defense. Meanwhile, a pass rush led by Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga looks like the strength of the team. The biggest question is which quarterback they’ll chase and whether this game or Kentucky-Georgia will decide the SEC East.

Nov. 3

Alabama at LSU
Pivot Point for: Both

This one won’t get as hyped as the 2011 regular-season matchup between these two teams in Tuscaloosa, but it may be the most anticipated regular-season game this year because LSU feels like the only team on Alabama’s schedule that has a chance against the Crimson Tide. If this game were in Tuscaloosa, it might not feel that way. But on Saturday night in Baton Rouge? It might be epic.

West Virginia at Texas
Pivot Point for: Both

It may seem like West Virginia is already done because of how helpless the Mountaineers looked in their 30–14 loss at Iowa State. But it’s still only one game. If West Virginia can bounce back against Baylor on Oct. 25, the Mountaineers would roll into this one at 6–1.

The Longhorns gutted out a win against the Bears on Saturday behind backup quarterback Shane Buechele. They should have starter Sam Ehlinger back for this one (read on for more about Ehlinger), and this will be the start of a three-game stretch—West Virginia is followed by a trip to Texas Tech and a visit from Iowa State—that suddenly looks much more difficult than it did a few weeks ago.

Georgia at Kentucky
Pivot Point for: Definitely Kentucky, but maybe both

Admit it. You forgot the Wildcats have just as much of a chance of winning the SEC East as Florida or Georgia. Yes, Kentucky lost its last game (in overtime at Texas A&M). But the Wildcats have a win at Florida in hand and might enter this game 7–1. If the Bulldogs beat the Gators, the winner should take the East. If Florida beats Georgia, the Wildcats would have higher stakes than the Bulldogs.

This only feels like a longshot because it’s Kentucky. The truth is the Wildcats now have just as good of a chance to reach Atlanta as Florida and Georgia. And if the Wildcats can get to Atlanta with one loss, then they have a chance to make the playoff. (Well, as much of a chance as any team that probably would have to play Alabama.)

Nov. 17

Cincinnati at UCF
Pivot Point for: Both

Let’s be honest. The chances of a Group of Five team making the playoff are very slim, especially considering the relative weakness of the non-conference schedules of the remaining undefeated teams (Cincinnati, South Florida, UCF). These two teams are currently undefeated, but it would be surprising if both these teams were undefeated going into this game. Cincinnati has Navy and USF in the weeks before this matchup. Meanwhile, UCF has Navy the week before. If the Knights are still undefeated at this point, they could be susceptible to my friend Bruce Feldman’s Body Blow Theory.

Nov. 23

UCF at USF
Pivot Point for: USF, but maybe both

If UCF gets through that unscathed, the Knights will get six days to prepare for the rival that pushed them to their absolute limit last year. This could be a matchup of undefeated teams or, like last year, an undefeated team against a one-loss team.

Oklahoma at West Virginia
Pivot Point for: Definitely Oklahoma, but maybe both

We have no idea whether Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Mike Stoops after the Texas game will pay dividends in the form of a better defense, but we know the Sooners’ defense can’t get much worse. If Ruffin McNeill has improved the unit, the Sooners may be able to rip through the Mountaineers and secure a spot in the Big 12 title game. If the defense stays the same, this could be a shootout for the ages.

Nov. 24

Michigan at Ohio State
Pivot Point for: Definitely Ohio State, but maybe both

This might be the most important edition of this rivalry since 2006. Yes, both teams had a shot to make the playoff when they met in ’16, but Ohio State’s win wound up putting Penn State in the Big Ten title game. Assuming both teams get past Michigan State—which doesn’t feel like such a safe assumption today—and Michigan beats Penn State, this will be for the Big Ten East title. The winner still would need to win the Big Ten title game, but that winner would be heavily favored.

Notre Dame at USC
Pivot Point for: Notre Dame

The Trojans took a big step Saturday with a win against Colorado, and there is a chance USC will already have booked a spot in the Pac-12 title game when this game takes place. The Trojans are the best team left on Notre Dame’s schedule, and it’s quite possible they’ll be the only ones standing between the Fighting Irish and a playoff berth. Notre Dame’s struggles with Pittsburgh on Saturday suggest someone else may push the Irish down the stretch, but this looks like the most losable game—even though Notre Dame might still go into it favored by a touchdown or more.

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A Random Ranking

They played Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight”—a song about an, um, episode of Dixieland Delight in a truck on a road in East Tennessee—at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for the first time since 2014. Why did they stop? Because fans kept adding F-bombs to the lyrics. But after an instructional video designed to sanitize the lyrical additions, the song went off without a hitch during the fourth quarter of the Missouri game. In honor of that, here are my top 10 Alabama songs.

1. “Feels So Right”
2. “Mountain Music”
3. “Love In The First Degree”
4. “Dixieland Delight”
5. “Christmas In Dixie”
6. “Song Of The South”
7. “If You’re Gonna Play In Texas”
8. “The Closer You Get”
9. “Born Country”
10. “Old Flame”

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama (7–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Missouri, 39–10
Next game: Saturday at Tennessee

When quarterback Tua Tagovailoa went out with a knee injury Saturday, Alabama suddenly didn’t seem invincible anymore. That also may have had something to do with injuries to receivers DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs at about the same time. (Ruggs would return to the game.) But here’s the problem for everyone else. The Crimson Tide still looked like a team that could win the SEC and potentially the national title with Jalen Hurts at quarterback. (Considering Hurts led Alabama to the national title game twice as the starter, that’s not exactly far-fetched.) Nick Saban said Tagovailoa could have returned to the game if necessary, but the situation bears watching going forward.

2. Notre Dame (7–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Pittsburgh, 19–14
Next game: Oct. 27 vs Navy in San Diego

I made a pledge Saturday night not to nitpick Notre Dame or Ohio State’s wins this weekend. Sometimes, it’s enough to survive. A few more games like Pitt–Notre Dame, and it might shake our confidence in the Fighting Irish’s ability to finish this season unscathed. But perhaps after a week off—which happens to coincide with Notre Dame’s fall break following midterms—the Irish will return refreshed and resume dominating opponents.

3. Ohio State (7–0)
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat Minnesota, 30–14
Next game: Saturday at Purdue

The Golden Gophers hung with Ohio State for three quarters, but the positive the Buckeyes should take away is that Dwayne Haskins kept the offense afloat even when the offensive line didn’t have its best day. Ohio State needs to grind out one more win on the road before it gets a week off. For a defense that has seemed susceptible to big plays, Purdue is a dangerous opponent. Forget style points this week. Just win.

4. Clemson (6–0)
Last week: Unranked
Last game: Beat Wake Forest, 63–3
Next game: Saturday vs. NC State

I have Clemson ranked at No. 5—one spot behind LSU—in the Top 10 we published early Sunday morning. But since LSU plays Alabama on Nov. 3, the only way the Tigers from Baton Rouge make the playoff is by beating the Crimson Tide. And if that happens, then Alabama probably would be out. That situation opens a slot for the Tigers from upstate South Carolina. The question is whether Clemson will be here next week. NC State is probably the best team left on Clemson’s schedule, and the winner of this game should win the ACC.

Big Ugly Of The Week

This week’s winner is Oregon guard Jacob Capra, who got tossed into a tough situation against one of the nation’s best defensive lines and came through on the biggest play of the game. Capra, a 305-pound redshirt sophomore from Auburn, Calif., replaced Alabama grad transfer Dallas Warmack at right guard when an injury sidelined Warmack in the second quarter of the Ducks’ 30–27 overtime win against Washington.

Before Capra could make one of the game’s best blocks, he made a mistake that may have helped Oregon win. He was flagged for holding on a third-and-one play in overtime. Ducks tailback C.J. Verdell gained no yards on the play. Had Washington declined the penalty, the Ducks would have faced the choice of a field goal—a gimme for neither team Saturday—or going for it on fourth-and-one and losing if they got stoned again. Instead, Washington accepted the penalty, forcing third-and-11 from the 26-yard line. Quarterback Justin Herbert hit Dillon Mitchell for a 17-yard gain. Two plays later, Capra erased a linebacker, paving the way for Verdell’s six-yard game-winner.

Three And Out

1. Congratulations to UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who won his first college football game since Jan. 3, 2013 when his Bruins beat Cal 37–7 on Saturday. Of course, Kelly wasn’t coaching college football for most of that time. But it had been pretty rough for the past month-and-a-half as UCLA endured an 0–5 start. You know it’s your day when one defender scores two touchdowns.

2. Texas backup quarterback—and former starter—Shane Buechele helped the Longhorns to a 23–17 win against Baylor on Saturday after replacing starter Sam Ehlinger in the first quarter. Ehlinger left with a shoulder injury, and it was unclear how serious that injury was. According to Anwar Richardson of Orangebloods.com, the Longhorns should have Ehlinger back when they return to action Oct. 27 at Oklahoma State.

Ehlinger was very happy about something on Sunday, which probably isn’t a coincidence.

3. The first head coach firing of the 2018 season came Sunday when Bowling Green parted ways with Mike Jinks. Jinks, a former Texas high school coach who had worked at Texas Tech before he was hired at Bowling Green prior to the 2016 season, went 7–24. The Falcons, who lost 42–35 to Western Michigan on Saturday to fall to 1–6 on the season, have named Carl Pelini the interim coach. Yes, the same Carl Pelini who left Florida Atlantic under very messy circumstances in 2015.

What’s Eating Andy?

Had I known this would happen, I never would have picked Georgia to beat LSU. Once this took place, the Tigers were a mortal lock to win.

What’s Andy Eating?

If the good people of Eugene, Ore., need a place to celebrate the local university’s biggest football win in a few years, they’re in luck. Hopefully, they’re hungry. Falling Sky Brewing has three places in town—a brewpub, a pizzeria and a deli. You’re headed to the deli, and you’re going to get stuffed.

The folks at Falling Sky understand that the best way to sell beer is to sell food that makes diners want to drink more beer. The deli menu screams for hop-and-barley accompaniment, but even the stone cold sober will be happy.

Andy Staples

Start with the spicy chicken drumsticks, which get roasted and then coated in a chili glaze. With all due respect to the folks from western New York who changed the way we think of the smallest parts of a chicken, the leg is a far superior snacking piece than the wing. The leg offers large, easy-to-reach bites of meat. It’s a bigger and more satisfying version of the drumette, and it doesn’t require nearly as much effort as the flat.

While munching on drumsticks, sip on a Smoked Eternal Boy Wee Heavy. This is a 10% alcohol-by-volume Scotch ale with peat-smoked malt added to the recipe. The smoky flavor adds some complexity to a fairly sweet beer. Instead of feeling like you’re drinking dessert, you’ll feel as if you’re drinking barbecue.

Andy Staples

You’re at a deli, so you need to order a deli sandwich. Get the beef belly pastrami, which uses a more heavily marbled portion of the cow to create a velvety finished product that feels about 50% richer than the average pastrami. The menu calls this the dream sandwich of Dr. Atkins. The good doc wouldn’t appreciate the marble rye, but he’d probably love that pastrami.

Andy Staples

Or, if you’d rather order something less traditional, get the Ultimate Deli Burger. To create the patty, Falling Sky’s cooks mix regular ground beef with ground brined and spiced beef that—if it were smoked—would be pastrami. The result is a burger that marries beautifully with mustard, Swiss cheese, bacon and pickles. It also makes you want another Smoked Eternal Boy. Or maybe an Ol’ Juicy Tree Winter Ale or a Ready To Mingle Belgian Single.

And that’s pretty much the point.

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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Double Bogey (+2)