by Ian Boyd
Ohio State was the big winner of Week 5, covering a substantial spread by pounding Nebraska on the road 48-7. There’s more to say about the Buckeyes, who host Michigan State this week, but their rushing attack this season with transfer quarterback Justin Fields and returning running back J.K. Dobbins has been nearly as potent as their passing attack last season with Dwayne Haskins throwing to Parris Campbell. Nebraska was overwhelmed, their case as a contender in the Big 12 left in tatters.
Another highlight of the week was Auburn blistering Mississippi State 55-16. The Bulldogs haven’t looked as good as our projections expected, knocked down a peg by injuries at quarterback and their struggle to replace the defensive linemen that departed for the NFL from the 2018 team. Auburn looks terrific and has growth potential owing to the steady improvements of freshman quarterback Bo Nix and the expanding offensive package that head coach Gus Malzahn has mixed in.
Week 6 will make Auburn and Ohio State prove they can maintain their championship-caliber efforts against tough opponents and alternating matchups as they play Florida and Michigan State, respectively. Michigan has a big chance to show something before their season evaporates as they host the Iowa Hawkeyes, and we get some Big 12 and Pac-12 action that could have a similar effect on the league title hopes of teams like Iowa State and Cal.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Central Florida (-4) at Cincinnati — Friday, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Central Florida (4-1)||Cincinnati (3-1)|
|When Central Florida has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Cincinnati has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Central Florida’s hopes for another “National Championship” went up in smoke when Pitt edged them out 35-34 behind nearly 200 rushing yards and a pair of picks against Knights quarterback Dillon Gabriel. Pitt’s defense found advantages typical to facing a true freshman quarterback. Gabriel got knocked around a bit by their pressures and struggled to beat man coverage outside, but Central Florida’s spread offense still managed to get the ball to speed in space and put up some points. The other problem they had was their own defense getting taken apart by the Pitt attack.
Cincinnati should be able to replicate some of what Pitt did well against the Knights, particularly playing at home. The Bearcats have had a solid season running the football against everyone on their schedule that doesn’t wear Ohio State jerseys. The Cincinnati passing game hasn’t been quite that effective, and the SP+ numbers look worse when you consider that opponents tend to play to stop the run and dare the Bearcats to beat them throwing the ball.
These two teams squared off in a high-profile game a year ago in which the Knights beat the Bearcats 38-13. Cincinnati’s defense was able to cause problems here and there for Central Florida by applying a normal strategy for beating this “veer and shoot” style of spread offense. They played man coverage outside on the receivers in order to free up the linebackers to stay in the box and to keep an overhang on either perimeter to prevent the Knights from running the ball into open alleys. The “veer and shoot” offense typically uses extra wide receiver splits and RPOs to help widen the alleys for the run game.
This approach struggled when Milton McKenzie, who was later injured, managed to land a few big shots in the passing game. The Knights struggled to consistently beat the aggressive coverage by the Bearcats, with McKenzie completing only 13 of 25 attempts, but those 13 completions went for 268 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions.
Cincinnati’s success in dethroning the two-time AAC East division champs this year will hinge on getting better returns from the two main prongs of the strategy. First, their man coverage and pressure strategy needs to get more stops and/or turnovers going up against a less experienced quarterback than Milton in Gabriel. Secondly, their run game needs to find more production going up against a smaller defensive line than the Knights have had in previous seasons.
- The progress of Central Florida freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel going up against one of the AAC’s best defenses.
- Can Cincinnati get their plodding offense going at home in a big prime-time game?
- Central Florida’s ability to make big plays count when they do find space against Cincinnati’s pressuring defense.
FEI Outright Pick: Central Florida by 6.1
Iowa at Michigan (-3.5) — Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Iowa (4-0)||Michigan (3-1)|
|When Iowa has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Michigan has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Michigan was able to rebound from the shellacking they took on the road against Wisconsin in Week 3 by playing moribund Rutgers, who then fired coach Chris Ash. Nothing will rebuild the confidence of Michigan fans until the Wolverines have a strong showing against a team that isn’t on the verge of firing their coach. Iowa fits the bill, and they come to Ann Arbor, which gives Michigan a chance to buckle down and try to play winning football in a friendlier environment, assuming their own fans don’t get impatient and rain down boos as they did when the Wolverines struggled with Army.
This game could definitely be a slog for the Michigan offense, which has been the focus of most of the ire from dissatisfied Wolverine fans. Jim Harbaugh’s apparent reaction to the 62-39 drubbing against Ohio State in 2018 which ended Michigan’s “revenge tour” with a thud was to overhaul his offense. They hired Josh Gattis from Alabama to install an RPO spread system to make better use of Shea Patterson and create more ways for Michigan to punish opponents in space for how they tried to stop the Wolverines rushing attack. Instead, Michigan’s run game has regressed despite the return of four starters on the offensive line, and Patterson hasn’t dealt particularly grievous damage in the passing game either.
Iowa’s defense will focus on playing sound, conservative coverages and fronts that make Michigan earn their way down the field. Middle linebacker Kristian Welch is the star of the show. Like previous Iowa middle linebackers, his specialty is out-executing opponents at the point of attack via recognition and the Hawkeyes’ famous strength and conditioning. Many defenses see their weakside linebacker lead the team in tackles coming free behind a plugging middle linebacker, but Welch often gets the job done before his partner arrives. This is all trouble for Michigan, whose approach is intended to force opponents to beat them with honest defensive fronts. Well, Iowa was counting on stopping the run that way regardless.
On the other side of the ball, Iowa has played good situational football this season, but they are as decidedly non-explosive as they’ve ever been, and Michigan is a tough nut to crack on defense. The strongest factor for the Hawkeyes this season has been senior quarterback Nate Stanley. Their run game is better, back to their normal standard for better or worse, but Stanley’s comfort with a broad array of dropback passing concepts gives them an extra gear in working their way down the field.
This game figures to hit the under and be a lower-scoring battle that hinges on field position, turnovers, and quarterback play on third-and-long. Patterson is a little more explosive than Stanley both as a passer and as a runner, but Stanley has been the more consistent player and hasn’t had issues with turnovers. Another edge that could be relevant there is the matchup between Iowa’s defensive ends and Michigan’s offensive tackles, who have been spotty at times. The Hawkeyes ends haven’t been particularly productive in the pass-rush this season, and Iowa will need a big game from them to maximize their ability to stop up Michigan’s offense.
- Which quarterback does a better job of protecting the ball and moving the chains on passing downs?
- Can Michigan’s run game get going against a sturdy Iowa defensive front?
- Will Michigan be able to get their explosive receiver corps going or will their offense look harried and uncertain again?
FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 1.7
TCU at Iowa State (-3.5) — 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
|Overall||TCU (2-2)||Iowa State (3-1)|
|When TCU has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Iowa State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
The Cyclones have their backs up against the wall after dropping their opening Big 12 contest on the road against the Baylor Bears. It was an absurdly hot day on the field in Waco and the Cyclones were unable to match pace with a Baylor team that had lifted their own 3-3-5/inverted Tampa-2 defense and used it against them while fielding better receivers.
Iowa State has missed their star skill players from 2018, running back David Montgomery and wide receiver Hakeem Butler. Butler, in particular added a major explosiveness to the offense with his 4.4 40 speed presenting a big (6-foot-6) target down the field for quarterback Brock Purdy. The Cyclones have been fairly efficient in ball control with a cast of tight ends and smaller receivers such as Tarique Milton and Deshaunte Jones, but they’ve lacked knockout power in the red zone. Most of their players are quick and skilled but simply not overpowering, including Purdy himself. He’s a fantastic scrambler and playmaker, but only about 200 pounds and lacking breakaway speed.
Iowa State’s struggles to put big points on the board will likely continue going up against TCU, which is fielding what might be the fastest defense in the country. The Horned Frogs converted some young safeties on their roster to play middle linebacker next to Garrett Wallow, who’s already one of the quicker players at that position in the league. It’s hard to find a lot of space against the Frogs, at least space that stays open, and this has all the makings of another defensive struggle like Iowa vs. Michigan.
TCU’s own offense has explosive potential, but they’ve struggled to put it together. Star running back Darius Anderson has had 59 carries for 483 yards at 8.2 yards per carry, but they’ve been rotating between senior quarterback Alex Delton (a transfer from Kansas State) and true freshman Max Duggan. The Frogs like Duggan long-term, but he’s averaging only 5.9 yards per attempt and is still working out the reads in the offense. Delton was frankly pretty terrible at Kansas State and has not been much better at TCU save for a few vertical throws. The main concern is that Jalen Reagor, one of the most explosive players in the country, only has 11 catches thus far on the year because of the limitations at quarterback.
Iowa State needs a win badly to keep themselves in the running for the Big 12 title game with Oklahoma and Texas still looming on the schedule, while TCU is still trying to feel out their best lineups and develop their quarterbacks. It’s a close match, but Iowa State may bring a tougher game plan and more intensity into this contest.
- Can Iowa State’s ball-control offense maintain drives against a speedy TCU defense?
- Who plays quarterback for TCU and can they find Jalen Reagor against Iowa State’s drop-eight defensive coverages?
- Will the Cyclones make any big changes or bring extra intensity with their preseason hopes of Big 12 contention on the line after an 0-1 start to conference play?
FEI Outright Pick: TCU by 2.7
Auburn (-3) at Florida — 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Auburn (5-0)||Florida (5-0)|
|When Auburn has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense|
This is the biggest game of the week. Neither Auburn nor Florida are frontrunners in their respective divisions, but either may become so with time if they can win this game. Both teams are undefeated despite having to pick their way through some tricky situations at quarterback. For Auburn, their challenge has been integrating true freshman Bo Nix, who has been pretty gutsy in a few big games already and adds the ability to run some option to help free up running backs such as Jatarvious Whitlow.
The Tigers’ offensive line is considerably improved from 2018, and between that and the solid play of Nix, they’ve been able to find and involve more weapons from their skill player ranks. Young receiver Seth Williams has 289 receiving yards and four touchdowns, and with Whitlow established between the tackles (463 yards at 5.0 yards per carry) they’ve been able to involve some of their speedier receivers on sweeps to the perimeter. Everything is coming together for the Tigers on offense, and the defense has been playing to its normal standard.
Florida took a big hit a few weeks ago when they lost starting quarterback Feleipe Franks for the year and had to replace him with redshirt junior Kyle Trask. This kid has a pretty fascinating story dating back to high school, where he was a backup behind current Houston Cougars quarterback D’Eriq King. This is the first time Trask has been the starting quarterback for his football team in the last six years. He stayed at Manvel High School (Houston, Texas) despite King getting the starting nod and is now at the helm of an undefeated SEC East contender. He was picked off twice in a win over Tennessee but also completed 20-of-28 passes for 293 yards and a pair of touchdowns and then went 18-of-20 for 188 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions against Towson.
Trask doesn’t offer the same value in the run game as Franks or Florida’s other backup, Emory Jones, but he can pull it down from time to time and is a big kid at 6-foot-5 and around 240 pounds and can hit RPOs on running plays. It’s possible that he’ll ultimately offer a big upside for the Gators because of his accuracy in the passing game paired with the Florida receivers, who are the strength of the offense. Auburn will be able to test him in ways that Tennessee and Towson could not, so whatever the ceiling for the Kyle Trask Gators might be, we’ll have a better sense of it after this game.
The Florida defense is bringing back Jabari Zuniga, a great pass-rushing defensive end who can give them even better depth on the edge, where they’ve already been good. Middle linebacker David Reese was lost for the season recently, so there’s also an important test here in whether the Gators can hold up in the A/B gaps with a still untested interior at defensive tackle and middle linebacker, where Florida now has two first-time starters in place of Reese and 2018 star Vosean Joseph.
- Can Florida hold up in the middle of the field against Auburn’s power-spread run game and Jatarvious Whitlow?
- How does Florida quarterback Kyle Trask hold up against Auburn’s top-ranked defense?
- Can the improving Florida offensive line protect Trask and open holes for the run game against Auburn’s star-studded defensive line?
- How will Bo Nix navigate the speed in the Florida secondary when taking shots down the field?
FEI Outright Pick: Auburn +6.5
Michigan State at Ohio State (-20) — 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Michigan State (4-1)||Ohio State (5-0)|
|When Michigan State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
The last time that Ohio State was favored this heavily against Michigan State was in 2017, and it seemed ambitious to expect the Buckeyes to blow out the Spartans to that degree. The Buckeyes ended up winning 48-3 when the Spartans defensive line was uncharacteristically overpowered by the Ohio State offensive line. This game should be a good matchup in that area of the field, where Ohio State is once again utilizing spread-option concepts with a new dual-threat quarterback (Justin Fields), but this time they’ll face a tougher defensive front.
The Spartans have a very big and experienced defensive front starting with tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk, backed by multi-year starting linebacker Joe Bachie. Generating creases inside with inside zone could be tough, and the Spartans still play their Sam linebacker and boundary safety aggressively against the run to limit the damage even if runners clear the first wave. They held Arizona State star running back Eno Benjamin to 38 rushing yards earlier this season and yielded 31 points a week ago against Indiana due mainly to breakdowns in pass defense.
This game will be a great test of what Justin Fields can do for Ohio State if and when they can’t find consistent, drive-building gains running the football. They can probably expect to get some one-on-one matchups for their receivers, but they shouldn’t find anything too easy on the ground.
The Spartans are approaching their classic formula on offense of matching a steady, pounding, and inefficient rushing attack with an effective passing-downs offense that allows the quarterback to keep drives alive throwing from pro spread sets. For whatever reason, head coach Mark Dantonio has never embraced the option to go all in on a pro-spread approach, still insisting on trying to run a power run game on first and second down.
This year the Spartans passing attack has been better with quarterback Brian Lewerke currently at 1,325 passing yards (7.6 yards per attempt) with 10 touchdowns and one interception. Their passing-downs efficiency isn’t at Connor Cook levels yet like when they went to the playoffs in 2014, but they are improved. Ohio State’s defense hasn’t really shown much weakness yet this season. Star defensive end Chase Young has been an absolute menace with eight sacks and counting. The Buckeyes have been playing effective Cover-3 match coverage with an athletic linebacker corps and secondary, which has traded off and picked up receivers well and forced quarterbacks to hold the ball against their pass rush. So even if the Spartans match their old proficiency in spread passing sets, this may not be the team against which you can count on executing multiple third-and-mediums.
Overall Ohio State looks like they’re too much for most of the Big 10 this season, but Michigan State has a knack for turning big games into ugly, defensive struggles.
- Can Ohio State run the ball between the tackles against this big, veteran Spartans defense?
- How will Justin Fields fare if he’s asked to win this game throwing the ball to the perimeter and downfield against tight man coverage?
- Can Michigan State set up quarterback Brian Lewerke to make winning plays or will he have to execute on third down against tight coverage with Chase Young breathing down his neck?
FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 23
Cal at Oregon (-18) — 8 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Cal (4-1)||Oregon (3-1)|
|When Cal has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Oregon has the ball||Defense||Offense|
This spread is largely a consequence of Cal losing starting quarterback Chase Garbers last week against Arizona State. That led to a Sun Devils victory when backup Devon Modster could only complete five of 14 attempts for 23 yards and an interception. Garbers is out for the foreseeable future and Modster will have to man the offense going up against a surging Oregon defense.
The Ducks hired Andy Avalos from Boise State to install his multiple 3-4 design, and Oregon has played fantastic defense this season under his watch. Last week they held Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello to 4.0 yards per attempt while main Stanford running back Cameron Scarlett took 19 carries for 97 yards. The Cal offense is basically running back Chris Brown and then whatever the quarterback can manage against defenses that are overloading the run game with option keepers or play-action passing. Modster is an athletic runner, but the Ducks will doubtlessly key on the run game and force him to relieve pressure with passing to the perimeter or down the field, which will be tough for the UCLA transfer.
Cal’s hopes in this game rest on their own defense, which has taken a step back from a year ago but is still playing good football. The Bears have continued to excel at taking away passing lanes with deeper drops without getting gashed in the run game and Oregon is a good mark for that strategy. The Ducks have really struggled to pound the ball on the ground like head coach Mario Cristobal likes and have been all about quarterback Justin Herbert. The Ducks passer has thrown for 1,127 yards at 8.7 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns to zero interceptions. He had a solid day against Cal in 2018, but Oregon ran the ball effectively that day, so the dynamics of this game might be different.
Cal will attempt to deny Herbert any windows to force the ball downfield and hoping Oregon cannot pull away from them simply by keeping the ball on the ground. If they can execute that strategy and get a few turnovers, then their own offense might have a chance to put together some points here or there in order to eke out a close win such as their 20-19 victory over Washington.
- Can Cal quarterback Devon Modster make enough plays to keep Cal moving on offense?
- How will NFL prospect Justin Herbert handle a good Cal defense that’s aiming to make him hand off to win?
- Can Oregon’s offensive line finally assert their will in the run game?
FEI Outright Pick: Oregon by 15.4
FEI PICKS: WEEK 6
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|Central Florida||4||at Cincinnati||Central Florida||Central Florida||Central Florida|
|at Iowa State||3.5||TCU||TCU||TCU||Iowa State|
|at Ohio State||20||Michigan State||Ohio State||Ohio State||Ohio State|
FEI’s Picks against the spread last week: 3-3
FEI’s Picks against the spread on the year: 18-10
Ian’s Picks against the spread in last week: 2-4
Ian’s Picks against the spread on the year: 12-16