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College Football Picks 2021: Week Nine

Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State

Current Picks Record: 49-23

Upset: 5-3

Superdogs: 6-2

(#6) Michigan Wolverines @ (#8) Michigan State Spartans

Two of the nation's biggest surprises of the 2021 season collide this Saturday, with rivals Michigan and Michigan State meeting up in East Lansing. It could very well be the biggest rivalry game between the two in recent memory and may finally help deliver some clarity to a loaded Big Ten East.

Even though Jim Harbaugh hired OC Josh Gattis prior to 2019, a decision that was supposed to open up the Wolverine offense like never before, this team still plays a similar brand of football to the ones Harbaugh has trotted out for years. They have a conservative passing attack, a powerful ground game, and physical offensive line. QB Cade McNamara has been serviceable on the year, completing 63% of his passes and only throwing one interception. However, the real strength of this offense is undoubtedly the two-headed monster in the backfield in Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. They really are the perfect 1-2 punch; Haskins is the power one who dominates in short yardage situations, while Corum is the big-play threat, who is averaging 6.3 yards per carry. It will be interesting to see how the Michigan State defense plays these two; sure, they'll stack the box, but so have many teams on the 2021 season and Corum has still found a way to get loose. Part of that has to do with a Wolverine offensive line that has had a resurgent season after a down 2020. Going up against Jacub Panasiuk and a stout Spartan front, I'm curious to see if they'll keep that going. Also, keep an eye on the role of J.J. McCarthy in this one; the true freshman has rotated in this season, but could this be the game where he's featured even more heavily? He gives Michigan a true wild card offensively.

Michigan State's offense offers significantly more balance, and both can go for huge plays at any moment. Kenneth Walker III has been the biggest surprise of the 2021 season, as the former Wake Forest transfer has come out of seemingly nowhere to put together a Heisman campaign. He's joined by a rock-solid, steady hand at QB in Payton Thorne and an underrated receiver corps that includes Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor. That pairing is really going to test this Wolverine secondary, as they're both averaging over 19 yards per reception and can hit a home run each time they step on the field. The question I have about MSU's offense is different than Michigan's. I think the Spartans offer more balance and playmakers than the Wolverines, but can they win the war in the trenches? Michigan has one of the best pass rushes in the nation, headlined by future All-American Aidan Hutchinson. Can the Spartan offensive line get enough push to survive four quarters? Walker is an awfully shifty tailback, but even he can't create magic when Michigan is living in their backfield.

Even though the game is in East Lansing, Michigan enters as the higher-rated team and the slight favorite. In some ways, it's understandable; the Wolverines have built a slightly better resume and are generally considered the premier program in the state. With that being said, I think the Spartans are actually the smarter bet. They have more ways they can hurt you offensively than the Wolverines, and while the defense isn't great, it's still awfully athletic. Getting them at home only makes this selection easier, in my mind.

The Pick: Michigan State, 27 Michigan, 24

(#20) Penn State Nittany Lions @ (#5) Ohio State Buckeyes

Penn State's nine overtime loss to Illinois last weekend spoiled what could have been the game of the week, but this matchup still has plenty of intrigue. For one, Ohio State is playing well and desperate to prove they're still the team to beat in the league. Just as important is the fact that these two programs have played some of the best games in the Big Ten over the last half-decade and I'd be shocked if this wasn't an exciting one.

Ohio State's offense took some time to really get rolling, but they've been on fire over the last month. TreVeyon Henderson has been of the best running backs anywhere in the nation as a true freshman, C.J. Stroud has taken command of the quarterback position, and the Buckeyes have always had the dangerous receiver combination of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. To be fair, the Buckeyes haven't exactly been playing dominant defenses during this recent run. They've played a five-game stretch of Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland, and Indiana over the last month-plus. Penn State's defensive group is quite a bit different; they have the athletes to compete with the Buckeyes for an entire four quarters. The linebacker corps is quick and athletic and the secondary has one of the sport's most under-appreciated stars in do-it-all Jaquan Brisker. I think the Nittany Lions have a chance to contain the running game, even with the way Henderson has been playing as of late, but the passing game will be a difficulty. It's not just Olave and Wilson, but the fact Ohio State can throw so many different receivers at you and break open a monster play. I'm not sure there's a secondary that can contain this group, unless they're able to force turnovers like Oregon and contain Stroud. 

I actually like the Penn State defense and their chances to slow down the Buckeyes. The much larger questions are all on offense. Sean Clifford has having a resurgent 2021 before getting injured in the Iowa game and proceeding to look dreadful against Illinois. The coaching staff says he's back to 100 percent, but he looked like a complete shell of himself against the Illini. It's pretty obvious the Nittany Lions are so down on the rest of the quarterbacks on this roster that they're sticking with a beat-up Clifford, as he's still their best chance to win. It would help if the running game was able to be any help. The rush offense has had flashes where it looks like it's going to step up, but it hasn't been able to put it altogether. Former Baylor transfer John Lovett has seen a real increase in carries over the last several weeks, but it's still unclear who the feature guy is there. Perhaps this could be the week to figure it out, as this is the weakest OSU linebacker group I can remember. The good news for PSU is that Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington give them a chance no matter what. They'll have to do even more this weekend with the Clifford health question, but Dotson is known as a wide out whose always able to step up in the limelight.

Ohio State seems to be playing well at the right time and the fact they get PSU in "The Shoe" is huge. However, I don't think this one has the makings of a blowout. Penn State's going to give Ohio State a game, especially if Clifford can return to form. It will be tough to slow down this offense for an entire sixty minutes, but they'll keep it close to the very end. Unfortunately, I think the quartet of Stroud, Henderson, Olave, and Wilson is just too much.

The Pick: Ohio State, 31 Penn State, 24

(#1) Georgia Bulldogs vs. Florida Gators (Jacksonville)

One of the sport's greatest rivalries takes center stage in Jacksonville, with the latest edition of "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." Georgia has been dominant all season long, but could a rivalry game with the Gators be their kryptonite on this National Championship run?

The expectation is that Georgia will roll with a two quarterback system in this one, with both J.T. Daniels and Stetson Bennett playing. It's an interesting strategy, but one you have to believe Kirby Smart has reason for. Bennett has been a tremendous story, as the former walk-on continues to make the most of his moment on the big stage, but Daniels clearly has more natural arm talent. Either way, Georgia is going to run the ball first and foremost, thanks in large part to a loaded running back room. James Cook, Zamir White, Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton have put together a special 2021 season. Milton is out for this one and McIntosh is slightly banged up, but Cook and White are more than enough to take advantage of an average Gator rush defense. It does help that the Bulldogs are the healthiest they've been in a long time at pass-catcher. Arian Smith, Jermaine Burton, and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint are all expected to be 100 percent, giving whoever the QB is plenty of options. Beyond corner Kaiir Elam, I'm not supremely confident Florida has the pieces to stop this Georgia passing attack. It's not an air raid offense, but more of a methodical unit that takes its chances when they're presented to them. The fact that the offense has so many dangerous weapons healthy means that we could see plenty of those chances.

Florida has been a baffling team this fall. They went toe-to-toe with Alabama in "The Swamp" and looked like they could be a serious factor in the SEC East. Since then, they've lost to Kentucky and LSU, and are in danger of being .500 going into the month of November. The offense has shown flashes, but hasn't been able to put in anything consistent for most of the year. It doesn't help that the quarterback situation such a mystery, with Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson both expected to play. Jones is the veteran in the room, but the Gator offense much more dynamic when Richardson is on the field. I think this is the game that Dan Mullen finally unleashes Richardson as the full-time starter, but how successful will he be against the Bulldogs? UF desperately needs some new faces to emerge elsewhere, but there's not any obvious possibilities. Richardson and Jones are No. 1 and 2 in rushing yards and beyond Jacob Copeland, the receiver group doesn't give you much reason to fear. Additionally, can the offensive line hold up? They played great against Alabama, but have looked worse each week. Now, they face one of the best front sevens we've seen in years, led by Jordan Davis. Davis has been the most dominant interior defensive linemen since Ndamukong Suh, and gets an opportunity to cause chaos against a primary rival.

Neutral site rivalries always give reason to tune in, but I don't know who could pick against UGA. They've been unstoppable all season and that's been with a beat up offense. The healthiest they've been in awhile, I expect them to rip apart a flimsy Gator defense. It shouldn't matter whether it's Jones or Richardson running the show offensively; the 'Dawgs roll either way.

The Pick: Georgia, 35 Florida, 21

Other Picks

(#10) Ole Miss, 42 (#18) Auburn, 31 -- Auburn has been a feel good story under first-year head coach Bryan Harsin, but they simply don't have the offensive firepower to keep up with Matt Corral and the Rebels over four quarters.

(#9) Iowa, 17 Wisconsin, 13 -- An absolute coin flip in Madison. Neither offense is even close to decent, and these two defenses are some of the best anywhere in the nation. Iowa's slight, and I mean slight, edge at QB gives them the edge.

(#11) Notre Dame, 27 UNC, 21 -- North Carolina may be the most disappointing team in the country this year. Sam Howell has given it his best shot, but the rest of the offense is bad, and the defense may be worse. I don't think they go into South Bend and pull off an upset.

(#17) Pittsburgh, 37 Miami, 24 -- My upset pick of Miami over NC State hit last weekend, but I don't think that turns the Hurricanes season around. They don't have the defense to contain Kenny Pickett, who is quietly playing himself into serious Heisman consideration.

Upset: Fresno State, 34 San Diego State, 31 -- San Diego State is the lone undefeated left in the Mountain West and gets the Bulldogs at home, but this is a sneaky Fresno team. As long as Jake Haener takes care of the football, I like Fresno's chances.

Superdog (covers > 21 spread): Colorado (+24) @ Oregon -- Oregon may be 6-1, but this is not a team blowing the doors off opposing foes. The Buffaloes don't have the offense to pull off an upset, but they can keep it tight.

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