Three Bowl Eligibility Elimination Games That Ratchet Up the Stakes on Rivalry Week

They aren't the highest-profile rivalry games of Thanksgiving weekend, but these three season finales between 5–6 teams add the prize of bowl eligibility to already testy matchups.
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Rivalry week is upon us. There are few better things in life than grabbing some leftover Thanksgiving food, settling down on the couch and watching high-stakes college football. The Week 13 slate has games all day Friday and all day Saturday. The nation will be primarily fixated on the huge games in the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten, but there are countless rivalries that should make for entertaining contests even if one or both teams are having down years.

There can still be plenty on the line in games where neither team is alive in the playoff race. Heading into this weekend, 23 teams have five wins, with one last shot to reach the all-important six-win mark and the bowl eligibility that comes with it—a not insignificant accomplishment, given the extra practice time and national television exposure that it brings. Six of the 23 five-win teams play their season finales against another member of that group. If you’re looking for sneaky entertaining games on Saturday, these bowl play-in games are a good place to start. Here are three in-state rivalry matchups between desperate 5–6 teams and why they’re worth watching.

Purdue at Indiana (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

How Purdue got to 5–6: Purdue had more energy around its football program this offseason than any in recent memory after the Boilermakers went 7–6 in Jeff Brohm’s first year, winning more Big Ten games (four) than in Darrell Hazell’s four seasons combined (three) and claiming their first bowl victory since 2011. With most of the offense returning, expectations were high for 2018. However, Purdue has been plagued by inconsistency and an underwhelming defense. The Boilermakers started the year with three straight losses by a combined eight points, including a one-point defeat to Eastern Michigan. Then they rattled off four straight wins, highlighted of course by the 49–20 bludgeoning of then No. 2 Ohio State. Since then, they’ve lost three of four. It’s hard to know which Purdue team will show up in a given week.

How Indiana got to 5–6: Indiana coach Tom Allen has a tougher annual task than Brohm simply by virtue of being in the Big Ten’s East division. For the second straight year, the Hoosiers went 3–0 in non-conference play (with the best win coming against Virginia). For the second straight year, they’re 2–6 in conference play heading into the Purdue game. As always, Indiana has had a few games against East powers in which it has inspired hope of an upset before falling short at the end. The Hoosiers are led by a 1,000-yard rusher in freshman Stevie Scott and dual-threat quarterback Peyton Ramsey.

Two reasons to watch:

1) Rondale Moore. The Purdue freshman sensation is one of the most fun players in the country. He has 21 more catches than any other player in the Big Ten and is just 13 yards behind Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson for the conference lead in receiving yards. He is a threat as a runner and in the return game. He has a play of at least 40 yards in eight of 11 games. He does stuff like this:

2) Indiana revenge. These two rivals were in the exact same spot last year. Both teams were 5–6 when Purdue held off an Indiana comeback attempt for a 31–24 win in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers went on to win a bowl game, while Indiana’s streaks of back-to-back bowl appearances and four straight wins over Purdue ended. This year, the hosting Hoosiers want revenge. A win for Indiana would return the Old Oaken Bucket to Bloomington and give the program another chance to get its first bowl win since 1991.

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Baylor vs. Texas Tech at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, 12 p.m ET on FS1

How Baylor got to 5–6: Baylor is in year three of the post-Art Briles era: Interim coach Jim Grobe won seven games in 2016, and after long-term choice Matt Rhule had a brutal first year—Baylor went 1–11 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2009—things have trended upward this fall. The Bears won four of their first six games. None of the wins were impressive, but they were still wins. They’ve lost four of five since, although a narrow road loss to Texas and an upset of Oklahoma State showed that Baylor is capable of playing at a high level. Sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer has a lot of potential.

How Texas Tech got to 5-6: For all of the publicity he’s gotten as an offensive mastermind, Kliff Kingsbury—wrapping up his sixth season as the Red Raiders’ coach—has been unable to get Texas Tech back to the level of national prominence and regular bowl appearances it enjoyed under Mike Leach. Kingsbury is in danger of missing a bowl for the third time in six years and finishing with a fourth losing record. Texas Tech started out 5–2 with good wins over Houston and Oklahoma State plus a near-upset of West Virginia. It has lost four straight, including heartbreakers at home against Oklahoma and Texas. A fifth straight loss coming at the hands of an inferior Baylor team would make Kingsbury’s seat nice and hot.

Two reasons to watch:

1) Baylor can tie the all-time series. This is one of the most even rivalry games there is, with Texas Tech holding a 38-37-1 advantage. Baylor dominated in the early years, but the Red Raiders won 15 straight from 1996 to 2010 to catch up. Then Baylor won five straight at the end of Briles’s tenure. Texas Tech can make it three in a row on Saturday.

2) Stud wide receivers. Texas Tech’s Antoine Wesley is the second-leading receiver in the nation (first among Power 5 players), with 1,375 yards and nine touchdowns. Baylor has Jalen Hurd, who you may remember as a star running back for Tennessee in 2014 and ’15. He transferred to Baylor and converted to wide receiver with the logic that he could have a longer NFL career at wideout. He leads the Bears with 900 receiving yards this season.

Tennessee at Vanderbilt (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

How Tennessee got to 5–6: Jeremy Pruitt’s first year has had more downs than ups, as expected. If you exclude games against UTEP, Charlotte and FCS foe East Tennessee State, the Vols are 2–6, with five of the six losses by 26 or more points (to be fair, three of those losses were to Alabama, Georgia and West Virginia). The two big moments were a road win over Auburn and a convincing beatdown of Kentucky—behind four sacks from junior Darrell Taylor—at Neyland Stadium. A win over Vanderbilt, and the accompanying bowl berth, would represent major success for Pruitt in year one.

How Vanderbilt got to 5–6: Vanderbilt’s fifth season under Derek Mason has gone much like the previous four. The Commodores won zero, two, three and one SEC games in those seasons and currently sit on two conference wins heading into this game. But if a couple games had gone differently, the narrative around this 2018 team could be completely different. In a 22–17 road loss to Notre Dame, Vandy had a late-game drive stall at the Irish 31 yard-line. Two fumbles and a missed field goal doomed the Commodores in a 14–7 loss to Kentucky. And Vandy blew a second-half lead in a very winnable 33–28 loss to Missouri. Beating Tennessee at home would send Vandy to its second bowl under Mason, where a win would mean the coach’s first winning season with the program. It would also be the fifth win in Vandy’s last seven games against Tennessee, which would continue a shocking turnaround after Tenessee went 43-3-1 in the series from 1965 to 2011.

Two reasons to watch:

1) Tennessee might have a QB it can build around. Sophomore Jarrett Guarantano has been a bright spot of the 2018 season for the Vols. He’s fifth in the SEC in passer rating, having tossed 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Guarantano was incredible in the win over Auburn, throwing for 328 yards and two scores. He’s dealing with a head injury he suffered in a blowout loss to Missouri but should be ready to go for Saturday’s game.

2) Vandy has underrated juniors at the three skill positions. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn is third in the SEC with 976 rushing yards and tied for fourth with 12 total touchdowns. Wideout Kalija Lipscomb (800 yards, nine TDs) is one of the best receivers in the conference. Tight end Jared Pinkney (660 yards, six TDs) is also an elite player at his position. Senior QB Kyle Shurmur will turn to that trio often as the Commodores look to keep their season alive at home.