Forde-Yard Dash: Separating the Contenders From the Pretenders With Conference Championships Looming

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where North Carolina is 2-0 when allowing 45 or more points and 4-2 when allowing fewer than 45:

MORE DASH: COVID Mulligans | Playoff Picture | Updated Coach of the Year Race

FOURTH QUARTER: SEPARATION SATURDAY LOOMS

The Dash breaks down five games that will go a long way toward deciding who advances to play for conference championships:

Indiana at Ohio State (31)

Stakes: Winner assumes command of the Big Ten East Division.

Last time either won the Big Ten: For Ohio State, last year. For Indiana, 1967.

Series record: Ohio State leads 76-12-5. Buckeyes won last year 51-10.

Line: Ohio State by 20.5

Indiana Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) throws a pass during the second quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium.

Entertainment value: High. Two Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks in Justin Fields and Michael Penix Jr. The two best receiving corps in the Big Ten, and among the very best in the nation. And a natural top dog vs. underdog storyline.

Key matchup: Fields against the Hoosier secondary. Fields hasn’t thrown an interception this season. Indiana leads the nation in interceptions per game at 2.5, picking off one out of every 13 opponent passes. The Hoosiers figure to need some turnovers to have a shot in this game; will Fields give them any?

Dash pick: Ohio State 42, Indiana 28

Wisconsin at Northwestern (32)

Stakes: Winner assumes command of the Big Ten West Division.

Last time either won the Big Ten: For Wisconsin, 2012. Northwestern won a share in 2000.

Series record: Wisconsin leads, 60-36-5. Badgers won last year 24-15.

Line: Wisconsin by 7 1/2

Entertainment value: This game should be comfort food for the defensive-minded soul. The two teams are 1-2 in the Big Ten in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and third-down defense. First one to 20 wins?

Key matchup: Wisconsin’s Red Zone offense against Northwestern’s Red Zone defense. The Badgers have scored 11 touchdowns on 12 trips to Red Zone this season—highest percentage in the Big Ten. But the Wildcats have only allowed opponents to score on 28.6 percent of their Red Zone possessions. Who wins when the field gets small?

Dash pick: Northwestern 20, Wisconsin 19

Cincinnati at UCF (33)

Stakes: If the Bearcats win, they add ammo to their playoff argument and come closer to locking down the AAC regular-season title. If the Knights win, it’s a big step toward salvaging a season that wobbled off course with consecutive October losses by a total of nine points.

Last time either won the AAC: Cincinnati won a share in 2014. UCF won it in 2018.

Series record: UCF leads 3-2. Bearcats won last year 27-24.

Line: Cincinnati by 5 1/2 (This one has been moving up.)

Entertainment value: These are the top two scoring teams in the conference, though they go about it differently. UCF leads the nation in passing offense, at 397 yards per game; Cincinnati leads the nation in yards per rush for teams that have played more than twice, at 6.46.

Key matchup: UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel against a defense that harassed him into his worst college game last year. As a precocious freshman starter, he threw three interceptions (one a pick six) and had a fumble against the Bearcats in 2019. Gabriel comes into this year’s matchup on a roll over UCF’s last four games: 405 passing yards per game, 14 touchdowns, no interceptions. And he’s on a streak of 188 consecutive passes without an interception. But he’s facing the best secondary in the conference, and a defense that has intercepted 12 passes this year.

Dash pick: Cincinnati 38, UCF 28

Appalachian State at Coastal Carolina (34)

Stakes: Winner takes sole possession of first in the Sun Belt East and will be the heavy favorite to win the division. And Coastal’s dream undefeated season and national ranking is on the line as well.

Last time either won the Sun Belt: App State won last year. Coastal has never won it.

Series record: App State leads 6-0. The Mountaineers won last year 56-37.

Line: Coastal Carolina by six

Entertainment value: This is the Sun Belt Establishment power, led by the senior quarterback (Zac Thomas) who has thrown nearly 800 collegiate passes, against the flashy upstart led by the hot freshman QB (Grayson McCall) who leads the league in efficiency. Is it a changing of the guard?

Key matchup: App State’s offensive line against Coastal Carolina’s defensive front. The Mountaineers run the ball 66 percent of the time, trying to stay on schedule and convert manageable third downs. But they’re facing a good run defense, and Coastal would love to get App into passing downs to turn loose the best pass rush in the Sun Belt. Chanticleers defensive end Tarron Jackson has racked up six sacks, 9 1/2 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. He must be accounted for.

Dash pick: Coastal Carolina 27, App State 24

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (35)

Stakes: A Cowboys victory puts them in the driver’s seat to win the conference regular-season title, while simultaneously all but eliminating the Sooners. An Oklahoma win keeps it in the mix, but ultimately could help gift wrap the regular-season title for Iowa State.

Last time either won the Big 12: Cowboys won it in 2012. Sooners won it in 2019 … and 2018 … and 2017 … and 2016 … and 2015.

Series record: Oklahoma leads 89-18-7. Sooners won 34-16 last year.

Line: Oklahoma by seven

Entertainment value: Bedlam has been very bad for Mike Gundy. Coach Mullet is winless against Lincoln Riley, hasn’t beaten Oklahoma since 2014 and is 2-13 in his coaching career against Oklahoma State’s biggest rival. This would seem to be a season when he has a live chance at improving all those stats.

Key matchup: An Oklahoma State pass defense that leads the league in lowest completion percentage allowed (55 percent) and fewest yards per attempt (5.6) against an Oklahoma passing game that is the most accurate (69.7 percent) and explosive (9.8 yards per attempt) in the league. Spencer Rattler hasn’t quite been up to the level of his OU predecessors, but he will still be the best passer to face the Cowboys in 2020.

Dash pick: Oklahoma 34, Oklahoma State 30

STAT OF THE WEEK

Home field advantage means less this year than ever in college football. The Sagarin Ratings give home teams just a 1.73-point advantage this season—lowest in their existence. Some years it is more than four points per game; many it is over three; very rarely is it less than two. Despite that, two teams are still playing like home heroes and road zeros.

West Virginia (36) is 5-0 in Morgantown, 0-3 elsewhere. The Mountaineers are averaging more than twice as many points at home (36.4) as on the road (17.7); gaining about 100 yards more at home; and allowing more than 120 yards fewer at home. If the trends hold, visiting Oklahoma better watch out Nov. 28.

Memphis (37) is 4-0 in the Liberty Bowl, 0-2 elsewhere. The offensive stats for the Tigers are similarly drastic. Points at home: 40.5. Points on the road: 18.5. Yards gained at home: 557. Yards gained on the road: 411.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Jay Norvell (38), Nevada. His Wolf Pack is 4-0 for the first time since 2010—when Colin Kaepernick was tearing it up. Norvell let quarterback Carson Strong learn on the job last year as a freshman starter, and now he’s taken a leap forward, ranking second nationally in passing yards per game at 379.3. Norvell is on his way to a third straight winning season and could find himself in demand on the job market, depending on how busy it gets.

COACH(ES) WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Eight members of the Tennessee staff (39) who refused to take pay cuts when asked by the athletic department earlier this year. More than 170 members of the school’s athletic staff took pay cuts, including 155 at-will employees, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel. But eight members of Jeremy Pruitt’s coaching staff declined to do the same, despite a pandemic that was costing the department tens of millions in lost revenue.

The list of coaches, who are paid between $200,000 and $1.6 million: offensive coordinator Jim Chaney; defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley; offensive line coach Will Friend; quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke; inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer; outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton; tight ends coach Joe Osovet; strength and conditioning coach A.J. Artis. The Vols are 2-4, a crushing disappointment, and showing no signs of being well-coached by the above individuals who refused to share in the sacrifice to get through difficult times. That’s a sorry display of selfishness.

Pruitt did say this week that “the final story has not been written there yet,” adding that he was unaware his staff members declined the pay cuts and indicating that could change. Tightwad shaming may yield some results. But if any (or all) of these guys get fired after the season, don’t bother feeling too sorry for them.

POINT AFTER

The Dash kept it local all week and was delighted to see a seasonal favorite arrive in stores: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (40), the best beer in the brewery’s vast repertoire. Pick up some during the holiday period and thank The Dash later. (There is a road trip coming very soon, so the food and drink listings here will diversify. Stay tuned.)

MORE DASH: COVID Mulligans | Playoff Picture | Updated Coach of the Year Race