After a descent into the improbable last week in this space, we’re back to a saner look at this week’s games with upset potential. Ahead of a weekend of rivalry matchups with trips to conference championship games on the line, we’ll begin in Florida, where the football food chain has been turned upside-down. For the first time ever, UCF and USF are both ranked and Florida and Florida State (which tangle Saturday in Gainesville) are not. From there it’s off to Mississippi, where there’s not much at stake but pride, and Fresno, the site of an advance scouting chess match ahead of next week’s Mountain West championship.
Ole Miss at Mississippi State: Ole Miss has performed far better than anticipated in the wake of Hugh Freeze’s firing and months of looming NCAA sanctions. The Rebels are 5–6 going into their season finale after pushing Texas A&M to the limit in last week’s loss, and they beat a pretty good Kentucky team earlier this month. The school’s self-imposed postseason ban takes the six-win milestone off the table, but the Egg Bowl needs no further incentive than beating the hated rival to the south, especially when that rival’s players told the NCAA they received improper benefits on recruiting trips to Ole Miss.
Mississippi State is coming off a win over Arkansas—and before that it nearly pulled off the upset of Alabama—but it has been inconsistent at times this year, letting the Razorbacks nearly pull off a win and allowing UMass to come entirely too close to an upset earlier this month. Sure, the Bulldogs’ three losses are to the SEC’s best teams—Georgia, Alabama and Auburn—but in an emotional renewal of a storied rivalry, Ole Miss has the potential to rise to their level, especially since backup quarterback Jordan Ta’amu’s play since Shea Patterson went down with a season-ending injury has been a revelation.
USF at UCF: Thus continues my bid to upend an undefeated team every week. The War on I-4 pits the preseason darling in the American Athletic Conference (USF) against the current darling (UCF)—and both teams are very good. Scott Frost’s Knights have won every game but one by double digits, but this is going to be their toughest test of the year, with the winner claiming the AAC East and heading to the conference title game next week to take on Memphis with the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid hanging in the balance. USF played on Thursday last week, giving it two extra days of rest. Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers is arguably the best quarterback the Knights will face all year; if he can add to his streak of 10 straight 100-yard rushing performances, the UCF defense will have its hands full.
Fresno State vs. Boise State: Fresno State has been one of the best stories in the Mountain West this year, going from 1–11 in 2016 to 8–3 this season under first-year coach Jeff Tedford; Boise State sits at 9–2. Both teams have already clinched berths in next Saturday’s conference championship game, meaning this weekend’s matchup will be the first in a rare back-to-back series. The playing field is relatively even here; each have lost to both of their Power 5 opponents this year and beat San Diego State, accounting for the Aztecs’ only two losses. With the stakes this low and the game in Fresno, I have to go with the Bulldogs, who are still riding high after such a massive turnaround and would be thrilled to get to 10 wins with even a split of their two postseason games.