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Forde-Yard Dash: All Eyes On the Big Ten East

Championship aspirations are at stake as four of college football's most dominant teams prepare to meet in the upcoming weeks.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where coaches keep getting whacked and it’s not even November:

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THIRD QUARTER: BIG TEN EASTAPALOOZA IS HERE

The most interesting division in the sport kicks into high gear this weekend and will continue to be a national focal point until late November. The Big Ten East Division (21) round robin has arrived: four teams, six games, four different Saturdays. There are championship aspirations in the division, conference and College Football Playoff levels at stake. May the best team win. The lineup is as follows:

Saturday: Michigan (7–0) at Michigan State (7–0) Saturday at noon ET, Wolverines favored by 4 1/2; Penn State (5–2) at Ohio State (6–1) at 7:30 p.m. ET, Buckeyes favored by 18 1/2.

Nov. 13: Michigan at Penn State, time TBD.

Nov. 20: Michigan State at Ohio State, time TBD.

Nov. 27: Ohio State at Michigan at noon; Penn State at Michigan State, time TBD.

The Nittany Lions certainly did their part to undercut the drama by losing at home to Illinois Saturday in one of the more absurd games of the season. But they still have a chance to at least play spoiler, and perhaps still win the division if they win out and get some help. So let’s not yet throw them out of the picture.

But for now, the spotlight shifts to the other three teams. A quick breakdown of each:

Ohio State (22) is the hottest team in the country, routing the bottom three members of the division (Rutgers, Indiana and Maryland) by an average margin of 44 points. The Buckeyes have reeled off seven straight games averaging at least seven yards per play, and six straight games rolling up more than 500 yards. If you want to know how impressive that is, consider: neither of the last two national champions and their juggernaut offenses—Alabama 2020 and LSU 2019—put together streaks that long in either category. (Oklahoma 2018 had 10 straight games averaging seven-plus yards per play and nine straight with 500-plus yards. The Sooners also played in the Big 12 when the league was anti-defense.) They also have clicked off 230 consecutive plays without a turnover, dating back to the third quarter against Akron on Sept. 25.

Weakness: The defense has been susceptible through the air, ranking in the middle of the Big Ten pack in pass efficiency defense. Prior to facing quarterback-depleted Indiana in a bad-weather game Saturday, the Buckeyes were giving up 256 passing yards per game. They’ve been particularly susceptible backed up into the Red Zone, with opponents racking up a 220.3 pass efficiency rating in that area of the field.

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Michigan is averaging its most points (37.7) and allowing its fewest (14.3) since the J.T. Barrett One Inch Season of 2016. A defense led by senior end Aidan Hutchinson (23) leads the conference in fewest points allowed. An offense led by running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins leads the conference in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Having played with a lead most of the season, the Wolverines have been able to play to their strength and pound away on the ground in the second half, running the ball 23.7 times per game in the third and fourth quarters.

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Weakness: The Wolverines have thrown it much more often in October—up to 33.7 attempts per game, more than double the 16.3 in September—but not with great success. Efficiency rating has dropped from 168.2 to 124 month over month; if Michigan has to throw to win big games, will it be able to?

Michigan State has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, scoring 16.3 points per game more than last year and allowing 16.4 fewer. At 6.95 yards per play, the Spartans are eighth nationally. They’re also the only team in the Power 5 with four road wins, and they have just two road games remaining. Kenneth Walker III (24) continues to lead the nation in rushing (142 yards per game) and has the highest per-carry average of anyone with 150 or more attempts (6.56).

Weakness: Michigan State is last in the Big Ten in penalties and penalty yardage, the kind of thing that can scuttle an upset bid in a tight game. The Spartans’ offense was largely shut down in its two closest games of the season, against Nebraska and Indiana, but still found ways to win. (Special teams against the Cornhuskers, defense against the Hoosiers.) Can they rediscover their big-play capability Saturday and in the weeks to come?

Dash prediction for how Big Ten Eastapalooza plays out: Ohio State 3–0, Michigan 2–1, Michigan State 1–2, Penn State 0–3. If the Buckeyes take the division, do the Wolverines still have a shot at the playoffs?

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OTHER IMPORTANT GAMES THIS WEEK:

The Cocktail Party (25). Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville is the Red River Shootout of the Southeast, with commensurate fan debauchery and emotion. This version comes with divergent storylines—the Gators trying to salvage a 4–3 season, the Bulldogs trying to extend their run toward an SEC East title and playoff bid. The line: Georgia by 14. (That line, if it holds, would be the largest in the series since 2009, when the Gators were favored by 14 1/2.) Can Dan Mullen rally a team that seemed to be fraying at the edges after a home loss to LSU? And even if he can, does Florida actually have a shot at winning? Dash pick: Georgia 27, Florida 14.

SMU-Houston (26). The competition to be Cincinnati’s prime pest in the American Athletic Conference will be largely decided here. The line: Houston by one. The Mustangs are undefeated but have played the 128th most difficult schedule out of 130, in terms of opponent winning percentage. The one-loss Cougars aren’t much better at No. 118. This is a classic strength vs. strength matchup, with SMU owning the AAC’s top offense and Houston owning the top defense. (Dana Holgorsen, defensive mastermind; who knew?) Dash pick: SMU 38, Houston 35.

Iowa-Wisconsin (27). This will go a long way toward deciding how the Big Ten West will be won, and by whom. (Minnesota is also in the mix, and perhaps Purdue if things get weird.) The line: Wisconsin by 3 1/2. If you’re looking for quarterback artistry, do not let your TV remote find this game. The Badgers are so limited throwing the ball that this was their passing line in beating Purdue Saturday: 5 of 8 for 52 yards. They have become a service academy. The Hawkeyes lost their last game in no small part by throwing four interceptions. No idea how either team is going to score. Dash pick: Iowa 14, Wisconsin 13.

Mississippi-Auburn (28). Winner of this game will remain tied in the loss column with Alabama in the SEC West, and if that winner is the Tigers then they will still control their own destiny. The line: Auburn by 2 1/2. Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin may have some vaccination drama to deal with, but this is not yet a Nick Rolovich situation and may never become one. (It is indeed rare when Lane Kiffin comes into a game as the less controversial head coach, but here we are.) For all the fanfare about the Ole Miss passing game, the Rebels have run for more yards than they’ve gained through the air in five of their seven games, including the last three. Whichever team runs more successfully will win this one. Dash pick: Mississippi 35, Auburn 31.

Fresno State-San Diego State (29). Aztecs are trying to maintain their perfect record with the Mountain West’s best defense against the Mountain West’s best offense. The line: San Diego State by one. San Diego State likes a methodical and physical running game; Fresno State prefers more tempo and more passing. Dash pick: San Diego State 28, Fresno State 24.

Texas Tech-Oklahoma (30). Is this actually an important game? Only from this standpoint: at 5–3, the Red Raiders have the best record of any FBS opponent Oklahoma has played so far. Combined record of the previous opponents: 20–29, worst of any Power 5 team. The line: Oklahoma by 20. Texas Tech just had its coach Matt Wells fired on Monday. Three Power 5 teams have had their coach fired this season and two of them covered the spread in the next game (USC and Washington State) while one did not (LSU). Oklahoma hasn’t been great against the spread this season. Dash pick: Oklahoma 51, Texas Tech 35.

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