Rivalry Week is here!
And while most of what makes this week great is the history, passion and petty in-fighting built over the past century, this year’s games also have plenty at stake on the field, too.
Whether it’s fighting for a New Year’s Six bowl, a spot in a conference championship game or a march toward the College Football Playoff (or derailing your rival’s dreams of those things), here are the biggest games of the weekend and what to expect in them.
No. 9 Ole Miss at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 pm. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)
We’re probably not getting a player pretending to be a dog urinating in the end zone following a touchdown in the Egg Bowl this year like we did in 2019, but you should still watch the game on Thanksgiving (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
Ole Miss and Mississippi State come into this one as ranked opponents, which could make for one of the more exciting games between these two teams in recent memory.
The Rebels are coming off of a 31-17 win against Vanderbilt that probably left Ole Miss fans wanting more going into a rivalry game and concerned about giving up 454 total yards to an offense that averages 312.
On Monday, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin was complimentary of Mississippi State coach Mike Leach’s offense that could challenge his defense (100th in FBS in yards per game) in a big way.
“I think there was a thought out there amongst a lot of people, including coaches, that the SEC had kind of figured it out last year and they had slowed them down there throughout parts of the year,” Kiffin said. “And then obviously that wasn’t the case, and now they’re right back to where they started a season ago like that LSU game and leading the country in passing offense. It really is amazing because you would not think you’d be able to be so simple in what you do and [have] it continue to work.”
The Mississippi State offense has worked well. It helped spark a 25-point comeback against Auburn on Nov. 13 and had Tennessee State wishing for a running clock by halftime last week. Quarterback Will Rogers comes into the Egg Bowl having thrown for 4,113 yards, second most in FBS behind only Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe (4,640). Rogers also has 34 passing touchdowns, good for sixth in FBS.
But for as good as Rogers has been, there’s no doubt that Ole Miss QB Matt Corral has been one of the most exciting players in college football — it’s why he was a Heisman favorite for much of the season. So on Thanksgiving night, be sure to enjoy second, third and fourth plates by watching these two go back and forth.
And if we’re lucky, we’ll get some solid postgame banter between Leach and Kiffin. — Harry Lyles Jr.
No. 2 Ohio State at No. 5 Michigan (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
As a San Francisco 49ers assistant in 2016, Ryan Day watched the Ohio State-Michigan game, which paired two top-three teams and went into overtime before the Buckeyes prevailed.
He didn’t know if The Spot was good or not, but he “instantly” knew he wanted to be a part of The Game.
“I understand what it means to so many people, and just tried to embrace it over the years,” Day said.
Day joined Ohio State’s staff in 2017 and now serves as Buckeyes head coach, where he aims to continue the dominance of Michigan. Since Day’s arrival, Ohio State has outscored Michigan 149-86 in three wins. Last year’s game wasn’t played because of COVID-19 issues within Michigan’s program, although some contend the 2-4 Wolverines wanted no part of the Buckeyes.
“It’s B.S. to be honest with you,” Michigan linebacker Josh Ross said. “That’s the game we always have circled on our calendar, always want to play.”
Michigan gets its chance to play for a Big Ten East Division title and a spot closer to its first CFP appearance. A one-loss Big Ten champion is virtually guaranteed for the top four.
To upset the Buckeyes, Michigan must maximize all the elements that have fueled its impressive turnaround this season. The Wolverines must control time of possession and pace with their run game, fueled by Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, who hopes to return from an ankle injury.
Michigan ranks 12th nationally in average time of possession (32:41), employing a run-heavy attack that boasts good balance in production — 218.4 rush yards per game, 229.5 pass yards per game — and rarely allows negative plays. The Wolverines lead the nation in fewest tackles for loss allowed (2.18 per game) and rank fifth in fewest sacks allowed (0.82 per game).
The goal against Ohio State is to keep the ball, stay on schedule, finish drives and limit the Buckeyes’ possessions.
“Great complementary football being played by our team this year,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Time of possession has been something we’ve been really good at, sustaining drives, picking up first downs offensively, not turning the ball over.”
Michigan’s biggest changes this season came on defense, where coordinator Mike Macdonald arrived along with two new position coaches (George Helow and Steve Clinkscale). The defense ranks in the top 10 nationally in points allowed, pass efficiency, third-down conversions and several other categories.
Although no defense has stopped Ohio State this season, Penn State and Nebraska provided some clues, especially when the Buckeyes reached the red zone. Day has seen Ohio State’s offense look much better the past two weeks in dominant wins over Purdue and Michigan State, limiting penalties and executing better in the red zone, scoring nine touchdowns on 12 chances.
“We’ve got to keep that up if we’re going to win this game,” Day said. “I feel like the run fits have been better. We’ve been doing a better job of staying on schedule in the run game and being more efficient.”
If Ohio State replicates its form of the past two weeks, a ninth straight victory over Michigan is practically guaranteed. To end the losing streak, Michigan must reinforce all the reasons why it has improved this fall.
Harbaugh on Monday was asked about his preseason proclamation to beat Ohio State “or die trying.”
“It comes all the way to life,” Harbaugh said. “It’s here. It’s happening.” — Adam Rittenberg
No. 1 Georgia at Georgia Tech (Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN App)
Rival Georgia Tech is the only thing standing in No. 1 Georgia’s way in finishing undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1982.
With the Bulldogs having won 16 of 19 games in the intrastate series, including the past three by a combined 100 points, the Yellow Jackets don’t figure to put up much of a fight in the 2021 edition of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. Georgia Tech is 3-8 and has dropped five games in a row, including a 55-0 loss at Notre Dame last week.
For Georgia, the emphasis this week will be on staying healthy and continuing to evolve on offense. The Bulldogs have been good enough to win 11 straight games, but questions remain about whether they’re explosive enough to take down defending national champion Alabama in the Dec. 4 SEC championship game and potentially Ohio State in the College Football Playoff.
“I just want to see improvement,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said this week. “When you start extending the plays, good things can happen and bad things can happen, so you’ve got to be wise about the way you go about it. You got to practice it that way. We got to have 11 guys on the same page. … Continue being explosive and being dangerous; we want to be on the attack.”
Georgia ranks No. 2 in the SEC in scoring with 40.3 points per game, thanks in part to its opportunistic defense and special teams, but it’s just ninth in passing (238.9 yards) and seventh in total offense (440.6 yards).
“I’ve really been proud of what those guys have done in terms of the injuries we’ve had,” Smart said. “We just had a countless number of guys in and out, in and out, and revolving to our receivers. You know, tight ends are the most consistent position but even Darnell [Washington] was a lot faster before the injury. He had to really work himself back into shape. So overall, I’m pleased with those guys. We’ve been explosive, we’ve avoided some third downs because of our efficiency and our explosiveness. I think that’s a big part of it.” — Mark Schlabach
No. 3 Alabama at Auburn (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Just because Auburn quarterback Bo Nix is out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury doesn’t mean he can’t stir the pot before the Iron Bowl.
During his weekly appearance on “The Next Round” podcast on Monday, Nix said he watched Alabama beat Arkansas over the weekend. And what he saw, whether it was a questionable touchdown catch by Alabama receiver Jameson Williams or a questionable spot short of the end zone on a catch by Arkansas receiver Warren Thompson, raised questions in his mind about the officiating.
That is, he said, “Unless you’re an Alabama fan.”
Nix went on to say that he sees it all the time and it’s not going to change, “No matter what happens.”
He was later asked what he meant and doubled down on the idea that SEC officials favor Alabama.
“Legitimately, I think you can watch the game and anybody unbiased will think that something is different,” Nix said. “It is what it is. It’s kind of how it’s always been.”
Nix went on to say that Alabama has good players and “you can’t take that away from them.” But by that point, the damage was done.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young was asked to respond but didn’t take the bait.
“That’s an external factor,” he said. “That’s something as a team we don’t look at, we don’t control.”
Whether Nix shares his thoughts on the officiating again after the game Saturday, one thing is certain: Auburn needs better play at quarterback to have any chance of pulling off the upset.
Making his first start at Auburn, TJ Finley led an ineffective offense during a 21-17 loss at South Carolina. The former LSU transfer completed 17 of 32 passes for 188 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said he thought Finley was “solid.”
“There were some things that we got to correct, we need to correct as we prepare going into this next game and another start and opportunity for him, we need to do a better job of,” he said. “And so like any other player, you look at the good and you look at some of the mistakes; you correct them.”
Remember, Alabama is familiar with Finley dating back to his time at LSU. Edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. said he’s big and strong and capable of making plays. Keeping him contained in the pocket will be important.
“We know we’ve got to stay in our rush lanes because he’s a mobile guy and he can extend plays and keep his eyes downfield while he’s rushing,” safety Jordan Battle said. “We’re really going to have to lock on our man.”
No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 7 Oklahoma State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App)
This is one of the biggest Bedlam games in years — just the third time in the AP poll era (beginning in 1936) that both teams are ranked in the top 10. But it’s also huge because nobody knows how many of these games we’ll get in the future with Oklahoma departing for the SEC.
This could very well be the last one in Stillwater if the Sooners’ timetable speeds up from their current stated start date of July 1, 2025.
“I don’t know, but just from hearing what [reporters] hear, I would say it probably is the last one,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said this week.
There’s also the matter of the two teams’ playoff hopes. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, the Cowboys have a 37% chance of getting in if they win this game, while Oklahoma would be at 26%.
Both coaches have said they’re playing this game as a one-off, regardless of the Big 12 title game scenarios. If Oklahoma State wins, it would play Baylor on Dec. 4 in Arlington, Texas. If the Sooners win, we’d enter a double Bedlam situation: a rematch in just a week.
“The goal right now is not, ‘Let’s just make it to the championship game,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said this week. “I don’t think I’ve said that one time this week, or heard one player say that. Let’s just go win the football game Saturday night.”
Gundy is taking the same approach.
“The decision that we made is just to completely consider the championship game irrelevant and a bonus,” he said. “We’re playing this game like it wasn’t even there, like years ago when we didn’t have a championship game.”
Oklahoma has won six straight in the rivalry and is 17-1 all time in ranked meetings between the two schools, the best record any team has against another in ranked meetings in history. Gundy said for that reason, he sees no reason not to just play freely against the Sooners.
“Our approach to every game has probably been more wide open against them than it would it be against a normal opponent during my time here as a head coach,” Gundy said. “Like the year Sam Bradford was here and they were scoring all those points, we went empty pretty much the whole game [in 2008, when Oklahoma won 61-41]. We never went empty.”
Oklahoma State’s defense could be the difference. This season, Oklahoma has twice scored the fewest points in a game since Riley arrived in 2015, while the Cowboys just handed Texas Tech its first shutout since 1997 and have allowed 23 points over their last four games, the third-fewest over a four-game stretch in Big 12 history. It’s not the ideal matchup for this year’s Sooners.
“Obviously we’ve been really good on defense, and I would have confidence that our guys will come up with a good plan and play hard,” Gundy said. “I don’t know that motivation from a coaching standpoint is going to be an issue Saturday night.” — Dave Wilson
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