Even though it might not feel like it, it’s Rivalry Week in college football. Let’s dive into some of the biggest storylines:
Iron Bowl intrigue (No. 22 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS)
Alabama has looked like the team to beat this season, but they’ll have to get past rival Auburn on Saturday without coach Nick Saban, who tested positive for COVID-19. Given how well the Crimson Tide offense is playing, having outscored their past four opponents by an average of 48-11, it shouldn’t be much of a problem … right?
Even if it winds up becoming a track meet like it did last season, it’s advantage Alabama. The Auburn offense has been inconsistent under sophomore quarterback Bo Nix, who has already thrown as many interceptions in seven games this season (five) as he did all last season (six). The Tigers rank 38th in offensive efficiency and 40th in success rate, in large part because of the struggles of the passing game. Seth Williams remains one of the nation’s best receivers, but if Nix can’t deliver him the ball in big spots, it won’t matter much.
When Nix helped lead Auburn to a 48-45 win over Alabama last season, he was effective as both a passer and a runner. The Tigers need him to be that dual-threat again, but more efficient on his drop-backs. He completed just 15 of 30 attempts for 173 yards in last season’s meeting, and were it not for two pick-sixes thrown by Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and a couple of stalled drives in the red zone by the Tide, Auburn probably loses.
Don’t expect Jones to make those kinds of mistakes again. He has transformed into a Heisman Trophy candidate as the leader of the nation’s best offense, throwing 18 touchdown passes to just three interceptions while leading the country in passer rating and Total QBR.
If Auburn has any hope of pulling the upset, it needs an opportunistic defense and a more efficient offense. That might be asking too much from Nix and a defense that hasn’t been living up to its usual standard.
History in the SEC (Vanderbilt at Missouri, Saturday, noon, SEC Network)
Root for all the field-goal attempts and extra-point tries a game can muster Saturday.
After joining the Vanderbilt football team this week, soccer goalkeeper Sarah Fuller is poised to become the first woman to play in a Power-5 football game.
Fuller, who helped lead Vanderbilt to its first SEC women’s soccer title since 1994, would be just the third woman to play football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, joining Katie Hnida of New Mexico and April Goss of Kent State.
With the Commodores having several special teams players go into quarantine because of COVID-19 testing, the opportunity arose for Fuller, who tried out for the spot and was added to the team. She’ll be in uniform for the game.
“I think it’s amazing and incredible. But I’m also trying to separate that because I know this is a job I need to do and I want to help the team out and I want to do the best that I can,” Fuller told Vanderbilt’s team website. “Placing that historical aspect aside just helps me focus in on what I need to do. I don’t want to let them down in anyway.
“It’s an honor they called on me to be able to do this and help them out.”
Said coach Derek Mason: “She’s got a strong leg. We’ll see what that yields.”
Should Clemson be on upset alert? (Pittsburgh at No. 3 Clemson, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
There hasn’t been much to be excited about on offense for Pittsburgh, but the defense is full of playmakers who can wreck a game. That’s a scary thought for Clemson, which can’t afford another loss if it hopes to get back to the College Football Playoff.
Since suffering a four-game losing streak, the Panthers have won two straight over Florida State and Virginia Tech by a combined score of 88-31. Quarterback Kenny Pickett has picked up his game, throwing for 404 yards and two touchdowns in a rout of the Hokies. He’ll face a much stiffer test against the Tigers secondary, which boasts some of the best cornerbacks in the country in Derion Kendrick and Andrew Booth Jr., but has been prone to giving up the occasional big play.
The biggest question is how star quarterback Trevor Lawrence responds to his first game action since testing positive for COVID-19 nearly a month ago. Clemson hasn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 7 after its game against Florida State was postponed last week. There might be some serious rust to shake early, and that could provide an opening for Pitt to take an early lead and put the Tigers on their heels.
Other things to watch
How will Ohio State respond? (No. 4 Ohio State at Illinois, Saturday, noon, FS1) The Buckeyes learned Friday that coach Ryan Day tested positive for COVID-19 and will not travel with the team to Illinois. Ohio State should be able to take care of business, but a shaky performance from the defense and quarterback Justin Fields last weekend in a 42-35 win over Indiana raises some red flags. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini are coming off a beatdown of Nebraska and showing signs of life under coach Lovie Smith.
Maryland mystery (Maryland at No. 12 Indiana, Saturday, noon, ESPN2): What will the Terps look like after missing two games because of a coronavirus outbreak? Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa had the offense humming in wins over Minnesota and Penn State before the team had to pause activities, and it’s unknown which players will be sidelined Saturday as they sit out the requisite 21 days since testing positive under the Big Ten’s protocols. If the Terps are close to full strength, Indiana will have its hands full.
Somebody has to win (Penn State at Michigan, Saturday, noon, ABC): It’s hard to say who needs a win more. The Nittany Lions are still looking for their first after becoming the first preseason top-10 team to start the season 0-5, while Michigan barely escaped in triple overtime against Rutgers last week to avoid a 1-4 start. The questions surrounding coach Jim Harbaugh will only grow louder if the Wolverines can’t beat a reeling Penn State team.
New-look Egg Bowl (Mississippi State at Ole Miss, Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC Network): New coaches Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin will meet for the first time in a series that has often determined so much of the narrative around the leaders of these programs. The fallout from last season’s dog-peeing celebration fiasco was vast, having altered much of the coaching landscape nationwide. Nobody is getting fired here anytime soon, but Leach has already put himself in plenty of hot water with his controversial comments and 2-5 record. For Kiffin, a win is a chance to build momentum in what has been a fairly satisfying debut.
Showtime for Spartans (San Jose State at Boise State, Saturday, 4 p.m., Fox): San Jose State has been to a bowl game just twice since 2010 and finished 1-11 as recently as 2018. Coach Brent Brennan has the Spartans at 4-0 heading into a game against the Mountain West Conference powerhouse Broncos, who have not been their usual dominant selves but still represent a crucial measuring stick for Brennan’s program.
Pac-12 check-in (Utah at Washington, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC): Other than Oregon, Washington has perhaps the best chance of making some noise on a national level this season in the conference, having started 2-0 with wins over Oregon State and Arizona. It could really get fun if the Huskies decide to play undefeated BYU, but until that happens, a game against a solid if unspectacular Utah team is an intriguing test.