Forde-Yard Dash: Welcome to Rivalry Week

With playoff and division stakes high, which Rivalry Week games matter the most this season?
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(Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Rubik’s cubes sold separately at Northwestern concession stands):

MORE DASH: Hater's Guide to CFP | Rivalry Week Part 2 | USC's Bungle

SECOND QUARTER

RIVALRY WEEK PREVIEW

It’s the best week of the year in the sport, with rivalry games dotting the landscape— and stakes for many of them quite high. It stands distinctly at odds with the warm-and-fuzzy aura of Thanksgiving, which is fine—by the time the meal is over Thursday, everyone will be ready to get on with hating thy rival. The Dash has a two-quarter compendium of all the rivalry info you need for the weekend.

SEVEN RIVALRY GAMES THAT MATTER MOST

These games will all impact either the College Football Playoff or divisional/conference championship races. Grading all of them on a 1-5 scale:

Ohio State-Michigan (11). Hate level: Five. Needs no explanation. Tradition: Five. Same. Present-day stakes: Five.

The Buckeyes are in the thick of the CFP race and very much enjoying their seven-year winning streak over Michigan. The Wolverines have turned their season around but desperately need to end their rival’s hegemony in the series. Jim Harbaugh, in case you haven’t heard, is oh-for-Ohio State in his tenure. Winning this game and simultaneously doing serious damage to the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes would one a huge double for Coach Khaki.

The line: Ohio State is favored by 8 1/2, by far its smallest line of the season.

Dash pick: Ohio State 28, Michigan 17. Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown has gotten more versatile with his coverages this season, which is a smart thing after being completely undressed by Ryan Day last year in this game. Shea Patterson is coming off perhaps his two best games as a college quarterback. But still: the Buckeyes are operating on a different level, and if they take care of the ball (unlike last week against Penn State) they should win handily.

Wisconsin-Minnesota (12). Hate level: Two. These are nice people. Tradition: Three. It does date back to 1890 and for many years played for the “Slab of Bacon” trophy, but there isn’t a lot of shared football excellence. Present-day stakes: Five.

Biggest Paul Bunyan Ax Game ever? Has to be. Both programs have had their big moments, but rarely at the same time. Now here we are with the Gophers 10-1 and the Badgers 9-2, meeting with the Big Ten West Division title on the line and Minnesota trying to stay in the College Football Playoff race. Not only that, but the all-time series is dead even at 60-60-8. Winner takes the lead.

The line: Wisconsin is favored by two.

Dash pick: Minnesota 21, Wisconsin 20. The Badgers' defense that was so good for the first half of the season has been springing some leaks lately: after giving up 4.8 points and 174 yards per game in the first six games, those numbers are 25.8 points and 382 yards over the last five. If the Gophers can protect Tanner Morgan and engage their outstanding wide receivers, they should be able to make enough big plays to become the third different West Division champion in the last three years, and fourth in the last five.

Alabama-Auburn (13). Hate level: Five. The only rivalry that can make Ohio State-Michigan look sane. Tradition: Five. It has mattered for generations. Stakes: Five.

The Iron Bowl is essentially a one-game season for the Crimson Tide, which must demonstrate its playoff worth with Mac Jones at quarterback. That requires, at minimum, winning the game. It might well require winning impressively. That won't be easy against a good team that has played the toughest schedule in the country and is led by a formidable defense. The second layer of intrigue is whether this is Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's last game on The Plains. Tigers fans wishing him away should remember one thing: he's beaten Nick Saban-led Alabama teams twice, which is more than any other active SEC coach.

The line: Alabama is favored by four.

Dash pick: Alabama 21, Auburn 16. Even with Tua Tagovailoa out, Bo Nix will still be the second-best quarterback on the field. Jones is capable, and Nix has struggled to make plays against quality defenses. ‘Bama will get by, spiking the anxiety of haters who don’t want to see the Tide back into the playoff once again.

Georgia-Georgia Tech (14). Hate level: Three. Not what it used to be, although the alumni crossfire in Atlanta remains fierce. Tradition: Three. Also not what it used to be. Stakes: Four.

The Bulldogs must win to remain in the playoff hunt, and the obstacle is a 3-8 rival that doesn’t appear to present a huge threat. Simply hold serve, don’t let anything crazy happen, survive and advance to the SEC championship game. But the Yellow Jackets did show a flicker of offensive life in their last game, posting season highs of 266 rushing yards and 395 total yards in a win over North Carolina State.

The line: Georgia is favored by 28.

Dash pick: Georgia 27, Georgia Tech 7. Kirby Smart’s conservative coaching should be a comfortable fit with this game. Style points are irrelevant here for Georgia. Next week is a one-game season against LSU. Win and the ‘Dawgs are in. Lose and they are out unless there are chain-reaction upsets elsewhere.

Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (15). Hate level: Three. Sooners fans are more fixated on Texas. Tradition: Two. This is a massively one-sided series, with the Cowboys never winning more than two in a row at any point. Stakes: Four.

Oklahoma has to win to stay in the playoff race, and an impressive win would be all the better. Sooners fans will certainly be scoreboard watching for results of the Iron Bowl and Colorado-Utah as well. The Cowboys are looking at a season-maker if they pull the upset and get to 9-3.

The line: Oklahoma by 12 1/2.

Dash pick: Oklahoma 38, Oklahoma State 28. This had upset potential until Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders had season-ending surgery on his thumb last week. Between that and the loss of star receiver Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State is down to one major offensive weapon in running back Chuba Hubbard. He’s a really good weapon, leading the nation in rushing, but that’s not enough to match points for 60 minutes with the Sooners.

Clemson-South Carolina (16). Hate level: Four. It has intensified on the garnet-and-black side as Clemson’s star has risen. Tradition: Three. This goes back to the 19th century, but it has rarely been a nationally relevant or compelling rivalry. Stakes: Four.

Clemson cannot afford a loss and should not have to worry about one here, unless the 4-7 Gamecocks somehow reconjure the voodoo from their stunning September upset of Georgia in Athens. The Tigers are repeating the season arc of a year ago, when they roared through the latter half of the season and into the playoff on a roll.

The line: Clemson by 25 1/2.

Dash pick: Clemson 48, South Carolina 21. This will mark the Tigers’ sixth straight win in the series, something that hasn’t been accomplished since Clemson won seven in a row from 1934-40. Dabo Swinney’s team has scored at least 45 points in six straight games, a first in school history, and the Gamecocks don’t have the defense to stop that streak.

Virginia Tech-Virginia (17). Hate level: Three The disparate academic missions of the two schools make for plenty of alum crossfire, but in the old days the Cavaliers’ primary rival was North Carolina. Tradition: Two. Not much synergy in terms of both teams riding high at the same time. And the recent history has been dreadfully one-sided. Stakes: Three.

This game comes with a major escalation in importance, with the winner taking the ACC Coastal and advancing to the league championship game. (And an opportunity to be beheaded by Clemson.) The past six years have seen six difference Coastal champions—everyone but Virginia. It should be the Cavaliers’ turn, but …

The line: Virginia Tech by 2 1/2.

Dash pick: Virginia Tech 21, Virginia 16. The Hokies were in bad shape early but have found their groove, winning three straight and six of the last seven. Retiring defensive coordinator Bud Foster has seen his unit post consecutive shutouts, and quarterback Hendon Hooker remains undefeated as a starter. Last year’s game was a stupefying heartbreaker for Virginia, allowing a game-tying drive in the final minute and losing in overtime. This year’s game probably won’t be that close.

TWO CONTRIVED RIVALRY GAMES THAT MATTER

Conference expansion brought them together on an annual basis earlier this decade. This season, there is a lot on the line for at least one team.

Texas A&M-LSU (18). At stake: LSU’s playoff pole position.

They had stretches of playing each other off and on, but it became a full-time gig in 2012 when the Aggies joined the Southeastern Conference. What followed were six fairly mundane LSU victories—until last year, when the two staged the Freak Show of the Year. Texas A&M won 74-72 in seven overtimes, a game that did a lot to force new overtime legislation. Not only that, but the game was rife with controversy—both in terms of officiating and confrontation. Jimbo Fisher’s nephew wound up in a beef with LSU assistant coaches, and Ed Orgeron wound up firing off angry missives to the SEC office. May this game be even half that entertaining.

The line: LSU by 17.

Dash pick: LSU 49, Texas A&M 35. No stopping the Joe Burrow Show here. But wait until the haters start chirping about the LSU defense after giving up plenty of points again.

Colorado-Utah (19). At stake: Utah’s Pac-12 South Division and playoff hopes, plus Colorado’s bowl hopes.

Someone decided to label this the “Rumble in the Rockies,” which is really a better term for the skiing rivalry than the football series. Actually, the two met almost annually on the gridiron from 1903-62 before going their separate ways. The Pac-12 brought them back together in 2011. The first six meetings were all decided by one score, but Utah has exerted its dominance the past two years. At 5-6, the Buffaloes need to pull the upset if they want to play one more game.

The line: Utah by 28 1/2.

Dash pick: Utah 28, Colorado 6. The Buffaloes have relocated their defense the last two games, beating Stanford and Washington in close, low-scoring tussles. But the Utes have their eyes on the prize and a nasty defense to get them there.  

MORE DASH: Hater's Guide to CFP | Rivalry Week Part 2 | USC's Bungle