A weekend in the world of college football can be expected to produce shocking disappointments and better-than-expected performances in conferences throughout the country.
The unpredictable results are especially dramatic late in the season as the College Football Playoff chase reaches its conclusion and the stakes are raised higher. However, guessing when and where they will happen is difficult even if everyone knows they are coming.
The USA TODAY Sports college football staff — Jace Evans, Paul Myerberg, Brent Schrotenboer, Erick Smith, Eddie Timanus and Dan Wolken — weigh in with its bold predictions for Week 16 of the college football season:
The winner of the Heisman Trophy will be (unofficially) decided in the SEC championship game as Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and the high-powered Alabama Crimson Tide blow the doors off the Florida Gators. Kyle Trask appeared to be the front-runner for the award just a week ago, but his two-interception performance, which included a pick-six, in a ghastly loss to LSU has knocked him out of the driver’s seat. In has stepped Jones and Smith. The Alabama duo has been nearly unstoppable this season and in Atlanta they will be matching up against a Florida team that is 78th in passing yards allowed per game. The biggest question really is, who will win the award? Nine of the past 10 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks and Jones is the man for the best team in the country and has been prolific, near the top of the list for every major QB stat. Personally, though, I would go with Smith. He enters the championship game first in receiving yards and second in touchdowns in the nation and has stepped up for Alabama in the absence of Jaylen Waddle with four games with at least 140 yards and two touchdowns since Waddle’s season-ending injury. Smith was rather quiet (for him) in the Crimson Tide’s win over Arkansas, but if he goes off with a dynamic performance against the No. 11 Gators he could leapfrog his teammate.
Notre Dame controls the line of scrimmage, bottles up Clemson’s running game and wins the rematch, this time to take the ACC, build a case for the top seed and knock the Tigers out of the playoff (probably). It’s not hard to make the case the Irish have improved since beating Clemson 47-40 in November, likely as a result of the confidence gained by upending one of college football’s historic powerhouses. Quarterback Ian Book’s play has reached the point where he can trade throws with a healthy Trevor Lawrence and put the Irish offense on equal footing with Clemson.
Last time they played Notre Dame Nov. 7, the visiting Clemson Tigers didn’t have quarterback Trevor Lawrence because of COVID-19. They lost in two overtimes, 47-40. This time, they’ve got him and are playing in friendlier territory at a neutral site in Charlotte. For those two reasons alone, the Tigers are at least two touchdowns better than the Fighting Irish.
The narrative of the Big Ten season has been focused on Ohio State. First, it was about there being enough games for the Buckeyes to match up with other College Football Playoff. Then, it focused on whether they would even play in the conference title game before the league amended its rules to help its top playoff candidate.
There’s been little talk about Northwestern as the Wildcats went 6-1 with lone blemish coming after a turnover-filled day at Michigan State. That’s probably fine with Pat Fitzgerald because most people are assuming Saturday’s game is a coronation for Ohio State. There’s little consideration for the possibility of Northwestern giving the Buckeyes a game. But it will.
Ohio State hasn’t been tested by a defense like the Wildcats. In its biggest game of the year, Justin Fields threw three interceptions against Indiana which doesn’t bode well against a Northwestern defense that thrives on forcing turnovers. This one stays close for four quarters and the pressure could get to the Buckeyes late and knock them out of the playoff.
Though it hasn’t always been spoken aloud, there has seemingly been an underlying assumption ever since Notre Dame’s double-overtime home win against Clemson that the Tigers would win the inevitable rematch in the ACC championship game.
There are reasons for this line of thinking, of course. This contest will be staged much closer to Clemson’s backyard, and yes, we know, Trevor Lawrence didn’t play in that game in South Bend. He and several other Tigers’ players are back, and Clemson was installed as a 10½-point favorite.
As a certain four-letter network personality might say, not so fast, my friends.
Clemson still has more talent than most teams in the country, but the level of dominance to which fans have become accustomed isn’t quite there. Obviously, some of that can be attributed to the unique circumstances of 2020, but not all of it. Lawrence doesn’t have nearly the depth at receiver he enjoyed last year, and the blocking in front of him hasn’t always been consistent. Travis Etienne is still an explosive runner when he gets into open space, but the ground game as a whole is averaging 4.37 yards per attempt, down a full two yards from last season. Clemson has also committed 12 turnovers, with two fumbles and an interception resulting directly in defensive touchdowns for their opponents.
None of this is to imply the Tigers have no shot. They very nearly won at Notre Dame the first time after all, but a split isn’t a given, either. I’ll take the Fighting Irish to complete the sweep and secure no worse than the No. 2 seed for the playoff. If it’s close again as it should be, the Tigers might still get the benefit of the doubt from the committee and be penciled in at No. 4.
The conventional wisdom on the Big 12 title game is that Oklahoma will win for all the obvious reasons. For one, it’s Oklahoma, which is 3-0 in the championship game since the league re-launched it. Second, it doesn’t seem logical that Iowa State would beat the Sooners twice in a season. But ask yourself one simple question. From the time they played back on Oct. 3, when Iowa State came from behind in the fourth quarter for a 37-30 win, which team has improved more? It’s clearly the Cyclones. Every week, Iowa State has looked stronger and more confident. And while Oklahoma’s defense is significantly better than it was early in the season, the Sooners have had some moments on offense where they look kind of pedestrian. Heck, in their last regular season game, Oklahoma was decidedly unimpressive in a 27-14 win over Baylor. So even though the Sooners are the favorites based on history and brand, Iowa State is the better team and will win its first Big 12 title.