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College football storylines, Week 15: In a year of lost rivalry games, at least we have Army-Navy

We’ve reached Week 15 of the college football season, and while some of our most cherished traditions have been lost, there’s still much to look forward to. Here’s what to watch this weekend:

An annual tradition to cherish (Navy at Army, Saturday, 3 p.m., CBS)

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The 2020 season is as much about the games that were lost as it is about the ones we actually got to see.

Thanks to the pandemic, there won’t be annual rivalry games such as “The Game” (Ohio State vs. Michigan), the Palmetto Bowl (Clemson vs. South Carolina), the Apple Cup (Washington vs. Washington State), “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” (Georgia vs. Georgia Tech) or even the Battle for the Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana vs. Purdue), just to name a few.

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That’s why Saturday’s Army-Navy game is such a welcome sight, even if circumstances are much different.

It will be played at West Point for the first time since World War II and it won’t have its usual weekend all to its own, but it’s still going to have all the pageantry we’ve become accustomed to and the traditional late-afternoon slot on broadcast television. In 2020, that has to count for something.

As any fan of college football knows, it won’t matter how good these teams are when they meet. Both programs prepare all season to beat its archrival, and in Navy’s case this year, a victory over Army would turn a disappointing 3-6 season into an unquestioned success.

For the Black Knights, this could be their third win in the past four meetings after enduring a 14-game losing streak, the longest in the history of the 116-game series. Following a 5-8 season in 2019, Jeff Monken’s team has rebounded to go 7-2, albeit against weak competition. Still, Army has a deep crop of ball-carriers and a defense that ranks 44th in the country in efficiency. The Black Knights are seven-point favorites for a reason.

Navy hasn’t done much well all season, with quarterback remaining a question mark week after week and a defense that has struggled to hold opponents under 30 points (though it has shown improvement recently). In ESPN’s SP+ rankings, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted efficiency metric, the Midshipmen are 99th or worse on offense, defense and special teams and 110th overall in the 127-member Football Bowl Subdivision.

But stranger things have happened, especially in this game. That’s why we tune in every year.

Something to prove in the ACC (No. 17 North Carolina at No. 10 Miami, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)

There aren’t any conference championship implications here, with Clemson and Notre Dame having already secured a rematch in the ACC title game next week. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to play for.

Both programs have enjoyed resurgent seasons, with North Carolina (7-3) climbing to as high as No. 5 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll and Miami (8-1) hovering around the top 10 all season.

The play of the quarterbacks is a big reason why. UNC’s Sam Howell ranks fifth in Pro Football Focus grading this season — one spot above likely No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence of Clemson — while Miami’s D’Eriq King is 11th. The Tar Heels are 12th in offensive efficiency and the Hurricanes are 24th, with both ranking among the top 15 teams overall in SP+.

Given both programs’ recent history, that level of play shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Former Texas coach Mack Brown has proven to be a stabilizing force for North Carolina, which has gone 14-9 since he took over after finishing a combined 5-18 in the final two seasons under Larry Fedora. Even more promising has been Brown’s recruiting, as UNC’s incoming class ranks 13th nationally for the second year in a row. It never rose above 20 under Fedora.

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Manny Diaz has been equally successful for Miami, delivering a bowl game appearance in his first season in 2019 and leading the Canes to an 8-1 season this year that could end with a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game — a place they’ve been just once since 2005. Miami’s 2021 recruiting class ranks 12th nationally after finishing 16th in 2020.

These teams have their eyes on dethroning Clemson in the ACC, and while it won’t happen this season, they’re clearly improving. We’ll see Saturday who’s a step ahead.

Is Clay Helton going to stick around? (No. 15 USC at UCLA, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC)

Entering the season, it appeared all but certain that USC coach Clay Helton was going to be fired after two straight disappointing years. It was just a matter of when.

Now that the Trojans are 4-0, Helton might be staying in Southern California a lot longer. So much for those Urban Meyer rumors.

Sure, USC was fortunate to escape its first two games against Arizona State and Arizona with wins by a combined five points, but since then, the Trojans have looked dominant.

In last week’s 38-13 win over Washington State — played on a Sunday, no less — quarterback Kedon Slovis threw five touchdown passes in the first half, including four in the first quarter to Amon-Ra St. Brown. The star receiver tied the FBS record for touchdowns scored in any quarter and joined Duke’s Corey Thomas in 1997 as the only players in FBS history with four touchdown catches in a quarter.

USC is sure to meet a tougher challenge against the Bruins (3-2), who have won two straight and have lost two games (against Colorado and Oregon) by a combined nine points. After going 7-11 in conference play in his first two seasons, coach Chip Kelly has a chance to end 2020 with a winning record against the Pac-12. For a program that has been mostly irrelevant since 2015, that’s an encouraging sign of progress.

Other things to watch

SEC surprise (No. 9 Georgia at No. 25 Missouri, Saturday, noon, SECN): The Tigers (5-3) surprisingly jumped into the College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings this week, a nice reward for the work new coach Eli Drinkwitz has done this season. Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs (6-2) have failed to live up to national title aspirations, but the emergence of JT Daniels at quarterback at least has the future looking bright in Athens.

Big Ten upset? (Illinois at No. 14 Northwestern, Saturday, noon, ESPN): The Wildcats (5-1) have already secured the West division title and a spot in the Big Ten championship game, so this could be a look-ahead trap game. The Fighting Illini (2-4) have been feisty of late, beating Rutgers and Nebraska and nearly knocking off Iowa last week. It might be ugly, but coach Lovie Smith’s bunch could pull the upset.

Charging Buffaloes (Utah at Colorado, Saturday, noon, Fox): Who saw first-year coach Karl Dorrell’s Buffaloes becoming a Top 25 team this season? It remains unclear how the Pac-12 will crown a champion this season, but Colorado has put itself in the mix with a surprising 4-0 start. Utah (1-2), meanwhile, has struggled to find its footing after a conference title game appearance last season.

Terps trending up? (Rutgers at Maryland, Saturday, noon, BTN): The Terps (2-2) have a chance to finish with a winning conference record. Sure, three cancellations — including games against Ohio State and Michigan — have plenty to do with it, but coach Mike Locksley’s young squad has shown signs of growth, led by the emergence of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and star freshman receiver Rakim Jarrett. If Maryland can prove it’s farther along in its rebuild than Rutgers’ (2-5), that’s meaningful.

Something to build on (Michigan State at Penn State, Saturday, noon, ABC): Don’t look now, but the Nittany Lions team that started 0-5 — the first-ever preseason top-10 team to do so — has won two straight and has a chance to end the season at .500, assuming there will be a cross-division game next week and a bowl game appearance after that. Michigan State (2-4) is a 15-point underdog, but it’s proven it can spring a big upset this season. Just ask Michigan and Northwestern.

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It could get ugly (LSU at No. 6 Florida, Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN): It’s been a season to forget for the Tigers and one to remember for the Gators. There’s a slim chance of an upset here, especially given the level of effort LSU has shown in recent weeks. A disappointing season for the Tigers — who will forfeit a bowl game appearance this season as part of self-imposed sanctions stemming from the NCAA’s investigation into improper booster payments to its players — could get even uglier if the high-powered Florida offense doesn’t take its foot off the gas pedal.

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Bounceback needed (San Diego State at No. 18 BYU, Saturday, 10 p.m., ESPN2): The Cougars’ slim playoff hopes evaporated inches from the goal line in Conway, South Carolina, last weekend in a loss to Coastal Carolina, a game of the year candidate. How will they respond to that crushing defeat? BYU (9-1) can still keep its hopes alive for a New Year’s Six bowl bid if it can make quick work of the Aztecs (4-3).

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