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College Football Picks 2021: Week Six

Sean Clifford, Penn State

Current Picks Record: 29-16

Upset: 3-2

Superdogs: 4-1

(#4) Penn State Nittany Lions @ (#3) Iowa Hawkeyes

With Ohio State's loss to Oregon earlier in the year, Iowa and Penn State have taken up the mantle as the co-Big Ten favorites through the first five weeks of 2021. Now, they square off in one of the biggest games of the early season, with the Nittany Lions traveling to Iowa City.

The story for Iowa all season has been an elite defense that absolutely feasts on turnovers, in turn giving their offense great field possession. So far, the Hawkeye defense has recorded 16 takeaways in just five games, and are currently on pace for the highest turnover forced amount since 2014. They continued the feast last Friday, when they picked off Taulia Tagovailoa five times, after he entered the game without a single INT to his name. Clearly put, Penn State is going to have to find a way to keep the ball away from an elite secondary, which includes proven veterans Riley Moss, Matt Hankins, Dane Belton, and Jack Koerner. With that being said, there is some pressure on the Iowa offense to prove they can carry the load on their side of the ball. None of their offensive numbers aren't particularly encouraging and QB Spencer Petras simply hasn't taken the strides some had hoped he would. Tailback Ty Goodson is a superstar, probably the best Hawkeye back since Shonn Greene, but he can't do it all on his own. Other pieces are going to have to step up on the perimeter beyond tight end Sam LaPorta, while Petras has to prove he can make some tough throws. It's a tough Penn State defense that's particularly strong in the back seven, which makes you wonder just how successful the Hawkeyes will end up being. Even if their defense puts them in great field position, they simply have to be better offensively.

Penn State's offense is one not without question, either. Quarterback Sean Clifford has had a surprisingly strong season after hearing all off-season about his job security, but Clifford has been known for the occasional turnover problem. He seems to be playing more confident this fall, but you wonder if he'll feel like he has to take some chances, especially if this one stays close deep into the second half. It helps Clifford that this Nittany Lion receiver corps is dangerous, as Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington are probably the second best 1-2 punch in the Big Ten beyond Ohio State. I do wonder how those two match up against the Hawkeye secondary; Iowa plays a bunch of man-to-man, but they haven't had to face a receiver group like this so far in 2021. It could mean an interesting chess match between DC Phil Parker and Penn State play-caller Mike Yurcich. Yurcich needs to figure out a way to get the Lion running game going. This backfield is deep and talented, but simply have not gotten the type of production they need if PSU is going to truly be a Playoff contender. Noah Cain has had moments, but has lacked consistency, while Keyvone Lee appears to be rising up the depth chart. Of course, the battle in the trenches is another reason to tune in, considering it is a Big Ten battle. PSU's had strong production from the line so far this fall, but Iowa is a defense that will come at you for the entire sixty.

These two teams have a really fascinating recent history against each other. While Penn State owns the series and has had more success as of late, Iowa won last year, and famously killed PSU's 2008 National Title hopes in Kinnick. I wouldn't be surprised if this game gets pretty wacky as a result. I don't think either is a clear Top 4 team just yet, but the opportunity for a Playoff run is there for both. At the end of the day, I think the Hawkeyes are a smarter bet, considering how tough Kinnick is for opposing Top 5 teams. I don't think this turnover success is going to continue, but the Hawkeyes can still win if they continue to stop PSU's rush offense and make just enough plays on the other end. It probably won't be pretty, but Iowa doesn't need it to be to win.

The Pick: Iowa, 20 Penn State, 17

(#6) Oklahoma Sooners vs. (#21) Texas Longhorns 

It's been a few years since the "Red River Showdown" had this much on the line in early October. Oklahoma enters the game undefeated and with National Title hopes still alive, but they've been underwhelming all year and appear to have notable flaws. Texas was smashed by Arkansas in the non-conference, but has looked convincing otherwise as they start 4-1. It feels like it could be another classic in one of the sport's best rivalries.

Oklahoma's defense has made the strides people were hoping they would, but it's been the OU offense that has held them back so far this year. A group that is usually in the Top 10 across the board in offensive categories is not in any of the big ones, from points per game (39th) to passing offense (30th). Simply put, quarterback Spencer Rattler has been a major disappointment up to this point. He entered the season as the Heisman favorite, but has been so unimpressive that Sooner fans have begun calling for his backup, freshman Caleb Williams. To be fair to Rattler, Oklahoma's O-Line and receiver corps also hasn't been up to their usual standards, either. The offensive line in particular has to come out and prove themselves; O-Line coach Bill Bedenbaugh regularly puts out units in contention for the Joe Moore Award, and this group is very experienced. The Longhorns are definitely gettable on the ground, but Sooner blockers have to open up more opportunities for Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray. At receiver, Marvin Mims is the biggest name, but it's the supporting pieces that Texas has to be worried about. Freshman Mario Williams is one of the most explosive players in the country, while Arkansas transfer Mike Woods II is a load to handle. With these types of weapons, it's shocking that the Sooners aren't getting more production. Perhaps the Longhorns are the type of team to snap them out of their slumber, but UT has improved defensively. It feels like Lincoln Riley and the rest of this Sooner staff are going to have to shake things up to get the production they need for a win.

It's hard to get a read on Texas this early on in the season. They are 4-1 with the lone loss coming on the road to a Top 20 Arkansas team, but they didn't look particularly promising last weekend against TCU. The switch to Casey Thompson at quarterback has opened up the offense, but the bigger story has been just how dominant Bijan Robinson has been in 2021. He has over 800 yards of total offense through five games, is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, with nine touchdowns to his credit. All week, Alex Grinch and Oklahoma have been devising a gameplan to slow down the talented sophomore, but it's still likely his performance will have a major impact on who comes out on top. Still, the Longhorns will need the passing game to also show up and test a Sooner secondary that has struggled at times in this rivalry. Jordan Whittington and freshman Xavier Worthy have emerged as their two most consistent targets, but I'm curious if veteran Joshua Moore can finally get things going. He's had just 10 catches on the year, including just three over the first two weeks. 

Rivalry games like this are always essentially a coin flip to me, particularly with how confusing these two are. Texas has looked like a Big 12 Title contender so far, but you never know if this program is going to show up in big games. Oklahoma was my preseason National Title pick, but they shouldn't be 5-0 right now. I trust the Sooner defense more than the Longhorn defense, and I still think the offense is going to get it figured out at some point. I'll roll with the Sooners, but I'm not supremely confident in this selection.

The Pick: Oklahoma, 35 Texas, 30

(#2) Georgia Bulldogs @ (#18) Auburn Tigers

Aside from a poor offensive showing in the season-opening win over Clemson, the Georgia Bulldogs have looked unstoppable over the season's first five weeks. They've beat their last two opponents in a combined score of 99-0 and enter this Auburn game as the nation's No. 2 team. On the flip side, the Tigers have been a pleasant surprise under first-year head coach Bryan Harsin and are hoping to spring a home upset.

Georgia's offense has been healthier over the last several weeks, but the status of QB J.T. Daniels is still up in the air. Daniels has been dealing with back problems for most of the season and didn't play at all last week against Arkansas. If he's not good to go, you would assume that the Bulldogs once again turn to steady vet Stetson Bennett. Bennett is certainly not the game-changer that Daniels is, but has proven he's capable of running the show, even against a good defense like the one Auburn boasts. It also helps that the UGA ground attack has been potent all season, with Zamir White, James Cook, and Kendall Milton all leading the way. The fact that the backfield is so deep allows the Bulldogs to rotate regularly and stay fresh, which is a massive advantage late in games. Simply put, Auburn doesn't have that type of depth in their front seven to keep up, which puts them in a tough spot. Whoever is the starting QB will still need to make plays against a solid Tiger secondary, but you feel fairly confident they can do so with the way the Bulldog receiver group has been playing.

Auburn's offense has been streaky all season long, and now get their greatest test of the fall with Georgia. They started off by dropping 60 in their first two games against terrible opponents, but haven't been able to replicate that once the schedule has gotten tougher. Quarterback Bo Nix has made some improvements, even when he's been benched in favor of T.J. Finley, but he's never been a good road QB. He'll once again lean on an Auburn ground game that is Top 15 nationally, led by the combo of Jarquez Hunter and Tank Bigsby. Hunter has been a revelation as a true freshman, while Bigsby has been effective when healthy, but isn't currently 100 percent. Of course, expecting the Tigers to have any success on the ground relies on them getting adequate push in the trenches, which I'm not sure will be the case. The Bulldogs have the best defensive front in college football, with physical, high motor D-Linemen and quick, twitchy linebackers. They're deep and experienced, and this defensive staff unleashes them at any opportunity. I simply see no way in which Nix will be able to settle into a rhythm in this game. Harsin is an old-school football coach, but Auburn is going to need to do something creative or new to move the ball. They aren't going to be able to line up normally and punish UGA on the ground, no matter how talented Hunter and Bigsby are. 

Going to The Plains and coming out with wins is never an easy task, especially in a rivalry game. This Auburn team has also been tougher than past Tiger teams, just in the way they play and the physicality they work with. But, the Bulldogs come into this game absolutely rolling and are the better football team on both sides of the ball. Even if Daniels isn't good to go, I don't think Auburn has the offensive firepower to move the ball at all. Sure, they might not get shutout like Arkansas, but I don't think this one will be particularly close either.

The Pick: Georgia, 31 Auburn, 14

Other Picks

(#13) Arkansas, 29 (#17) Ole Miss, 27 -- Rebels are beat up after the Alabama loss, losing their top wide out and top running back. They also don't match up very well against Barry Odom and the Razorbacks, who picked off Matt Corral six times in 2020.

(#16) Kentucky, 31 LSU, 21 -- Kentucky is far from a perfect undefeated, but Christopher Rodriguez should run all over a weak LSU rush defense. The Tigers are also susceptible through the air without Derek Stingley Jr., giving Will Levis an opportunity for a breakout game.

(#1) Alabama, 41 Texas A&M, 20 -- A fully healthy Texas A&M team might be able to push this Alabama squad, but not with Zach Calzada running the show. The Aggies simply don't have the offensive pieces to keep up.

(#7) Ohio State, 35 Maryland, 28 -- This has a chance to be a lot closer than some may think if Taulia Tagovailoa can get back on track, but the Terrapins losing Dontay Demus Jr. last Friday kills their hopes of an upset.

Upset: Navy, 27 (#24) SMU, 24 -- This is not a great Navy team, off to a 1-3 start, but the offense seemed to figure some things out in their upset of UCF last Saturday. They have an opportunity to pull off an upset against an SMU defense not very well suited to contain the triple-option.

Superdog (covers > 21 spread) Old Dominion (+21) @ Marshall -- Marshall's one of the better teams in C-USA and are always tough at home, but this Old Dominion team could be sneaky. UCF transfer Darriel Mack Jr. is an explosive piece at QB and former Penn State tight end Zack Kuntz is among the most underrated in the nation.

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