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College Football Picks 2021: Week Twelve

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

Current Picks Record: 66-33

Upset: 6-5

Superdogs: 7-4

(#7) Michigan State Spartans @ (#4) Ohio State Buckeyes

Michigan State has been one of the best stories in college football this season, making the jump to 9-1 on the season and in serious CFB Playoff contention. Now comes their toughest test of the entire fall, as they travel to Columbus to square off against the fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes have been unstoppable since an early-season loss to Oregon and are fresh off a four-touchdown domination of 19th-ranked Purdue.

Few offenses in college football can match Ohio State's talent and their balance makes them especially tough to contain. Quarterback C.J. Stroud leads one of the nation's best aerial attacks and is helped out by a host of characters on the perimeter, chief among them Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Stroud has proven himself to be more than just a capable QB or game manager; his play over the last two months has pushed him to the forefront of the Heisman conversation. On the ground, freshman TreVeyon Henderson has exceeded the lofty expectations placed on him preseason, as he has already eclipsed 1,000 yards and is looking for more. He's joined by big-play threat Miyan Williams in the backfield, who averages 7.5 yards per carry. The vast amount of playmakers Ohio State can throw at you is overwhelming, and made even more dangerous by having one of the nation's best offensive minds, Ryan Day, calling plays. Michigan State's defense has been decent this season, but they're one of the worst in the country in pass defense. They're not necessarily a very aggressive defense, but they still get pressure on the opposing quarterback and play downhill. Do they have the defensive backfield they need to slow down this receiver group? Oregon managed to do just enough to survive, but no team has done it since. With the way the Buckeyes are rolling, I'm not sure the MSU defense will be able to slow it down for an entire four quarters.

Considering what Ohio State can do offensively, the Spartans are going to have to counter. They have the pieces to put up points, as this big-play offense has shown considerable growth from Year One to Year Two under Mel Tucker. The star of the offense is undoubtedly Kenneth Walker III, who is hopeful that a huge day against the Buckeyes will be just what he needs to take home the Heisman. He's been dominant just about every game this season, crossing the 100-yard threshold seven times and hitting 200 nearly three times. The Buckeyes do have a strong defensive line, but the linebacker corps is fairly susceptible, which could give Walker the opportunity he needs to make a huge impact. The passing game is inconsistent but effective, as Payton Thorne has been a major improvement at the quarterback position. On the outside, the trio of Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor, and Tre Mosley will test the Buckeye secondary, as will matchup nightmare Connor Heyward underneath. This is an aerial attack that absolutely relies on the big play, as both Reed and Nailor average nearly 19 yards per catch. However, Ohio State has done a good job stopping the home run balls this season, a notable improvement over the 2020 edition. 

Ohio State and Michigan State enter the weekend both 9-1, but those records don't tell the whole story. MSU has been a tremendous story, but their ability to win tight games and rely so heavily on huge plays doesn't seem sustainable. On the other hand, OSU is decimating their competition right now and looks like the best National Title bet not named Georgia. The Spartans still have the weapons to keep things interesting, but you'd be a fool to bet against OSU in Columbus right now.

The Pick: Ohio State, 38 Michigan State, 24

(#3) Oregon Ducks @ (#23) Utah Utes

Ranked third nationally and with an impressive victory over Ohio State still to their credit, Oregon has a legitimate shot at their second CFB Playoff appearance in program history. However, they get one of their toughest matchups of the entire season as they travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah. The Utes started off the year 1-2 but have now won six of their last seven and present a stiff challenge to the Ducks.

You can never be quite sure what offense you're getting from Oregon week-in, week-out. Quarterback Anthony Brown has been a source of great frustration amongst Oregon fans; he has had some moments this season but overall, the aerial attack has been lacking. Brown did have a strong finish to October, but has struggled in the month of November, which have accelerated questions about whether he really is the best signal-caller to lead the program. At the very least, Oregon needs him not to turn the ball over against a hungry Utah defense and add playmaking with his legs. Obviously, the offense would flow quite a bit better if they could get some big plays through the air, but that just doesn't seem like much of an option given the limitations of the current scheme. Instead, the Ducks will lean heavily on the ground game, where Travis Dye has stepped up in a huge way since the injury to C.J. Verdell. He ran for over 200 yards against Washington several weeks ago and remains their best source of offense. More and more, the Ducks have also featured freshman Byron Cardwell in the offense, their best source of big plays on the season. He's averaging nearly eight yards per rush, which they're hopeful can give them some electricity they need to move the ball against the Utes. Utah is a notoriously well-coached defense that fills gaps extremely well and tackles in space. It's going to be a real tough time for Oregon if they can't find some fresh sources of offense in this one.

Since the slow start to the season, Utah's offense has been among the most efficient in the Pac-12. They've been particularly strong as of late, hitting 38 or more in three straight weeks. Quarterback Cam Rising is not the most accurate QB the Utes have had, but he's effective. He can fit throws into tight windows, doesn't turn the ball over often, and can make things happen with his legs when needed. It's an interesting cast of characters surrounding Rising in this offense. The backfield has three players that can lead the way, but Tavion Thomas has emerged as the team's top weapon. He's not only averaging over six yards per carry but also has 14 touchdowns on the season and is a beast when he gets near the goal line. Unfortunately, he's been beat up over the last several weeks, which may mean more of former Oklahoma transfer T.J. Pledger and veteran Micah Bernard. Thomas is officially listed as doubtful and did not play last weekend in the win over Arizona. The group of pass-catchers doesn't have a signature star but several guys who can make things happen, including tight end Brant Kuithe and ultra-veteran Britain Covey. It will be interesting to see how the Ute offense matches up against the Ducks. Oregon has had a rash of injuries in the back-seven, but they still have one of the premier defenders in college football in Kayvon Thibodeaux. It's an incredibly talented defense that does a lot of creative things, which should be a good test for Rising and the Utes.

I've gone back-and-forth on my pick for this game. Salt Lake City is one of the toughest venues to play anywhere in the West and the Utes are no joke. With that being said, Oregon has proven they can win ugly games and talent-wise, they have a clear advantage. I lean Utah here in the upset (they technically are favored), but the Ducks are good enough to come out on top as well.

The Pick: Utah, 31 Oregon, 28

(#21) Arkansas Razorbacks @ (#2) Alabama Crimson Tide

Even though a three-game losing streak in early October cast a shadow over the season, Arkansas has still been an awesome story in 2021. They've already tied for their most wins in a season since 2016 but are looking to add even more to the resume. They won't get a better shot at doing so than taking down the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide, who are hoping to fight their way to an SEC Championship Game meeting with Georgia equipped with just one loss.

It's all about the run game for the Arkansas offense, as they are Top 10 nationally in rushing yards per game. What's fascinating about their ground attack is that they really don't have a feature guy; while Trelon Smith leads the Razorbacks in yardage, there are as many as three to four other tailbacks who can handle the load. This keeps the Arkansas offense fresh deep into games, which is a massive advantage in the physical SEC West. It also gives them a nice mix of speed and power on the ground, and it helps that QB K.J. Jefferson has proven he can break games open with his legs when needed. Jefferson leaves a lot to be desired as a passer, but he doesn't turn the ball over and has proven to be a to pain to bring down when running. If there is one particular player Alabama has to be concerned about, it's wide out Treylon Burks, who has had a marvelous 2021 campaign. Although he's been held in check the last few weeks, Burks is the type of playmaker that can change the game every time he touches the ball. I'm sure Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Pete Golding will have a game-plan specifically to focus on Burks, while being creative with how they choose to deal with Jefferson. The thing is, this Tide defense has been a major disappointment this year. Sure, there have been injuries, but beyond superstar Will Anderson, Alabama has not produced defensively the way we expected heading into the year. They do match up very well against this Arkansas offense, but the defense has to get rolling if this team wants to repeat as National Champions.

Alabama's offense this season is certainly quite a bit different than the veteran-laden unit that dominated college football in 2020. Obviously, there's no shortage of talent, but this offense is much more methodical and controlled in what they do than last season's group, which decimated anything that stood in their way. Quarterback Bryce Young continues to have a marvelous season in his first full season as starter and remains in the Heisman conversation. He has several trusty playmakers around him, mainly wide outs Jameson Williams and John Metchie, as well as workhorse back Brian Robinson Jr. That trio has led the Tide offense all season and remains a real problem for opposing defenses. With that being said, there are two notable differences between this Alabama offense and past editions; for one, the depth just isn't there. The receiver corps is talented but lacks much proven commodities beyond Williams, Metchie, and the ultra-versatile Slade Bolden. The running back situation is even worse; beyond Robinson, there's the oft-injured Trey Sanders and then two emergency backs, converted linebacker Demouy Kennedy and converted wide out Christian Leary. Usually a position of strength for the Tide is the thinnest it has ever been in the Saban era. Then there's the offensive line woes; this unit is full of future NFL blockers, including potential Top 10 selection Evan Neal, but it just hasn't performed. You get the feeling that Doug Marrone, who was hired as their OL coach after coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars, will probably only spend one season in Tuscaloosa. The lack of depth and the inconsistency on the O-Line is actually worrying, not just long-term but in this matchup. Arkansas has the type of physical defense that wears you down over the course of four quarters and Alabama doesn't have the usual four and five-star phenoms coming off the bench they typically have.

Alabama is still a good bet to finish the regular season with one loss and give Georgia a game in the SEC Championship Game, but this team is clearly beatable. Arkansas matches up nicely against them, and Sam Pittman will have the boys fired up. In a road or neutral setting, I would be very intrigued by the upset potential, but in Tuscaloosa it's a different story. I see 'Bama adding to their win streak against Arkansas, which will extend to 14 after this one.

The Pick: Alabama, 30 Arkansas, 20

Other Picks

(#13) Oklahoma, 34 Iowa State, 27 -- I like Oklahoma's chances to rebound in Norman if they can get their run game figured out. Iowa State's offense just hasn't been good enough and doesn't have the explosiveness needed to sink the Sooners.

Clemson, 35 (#10) Wake Forest, 34 -- This is an absolute coin flip for me. Wake Forest continues to chug along, but Clemson is the far and away more talented team. I think the Clemson defense finds a way to slow down Wake just enough to secure the home win.

(#5) Cincinnati, 31 SMU, 24 -- For much of the season, SMU has looked like the greatest threat to Cincinnati in the American Athletic. However, they've slowed down considerably as of late and the Bearcats get them at home.

(#6) Michigan, 27 Maryland, 17 -- Underrated upset potential here as Michigan travels to College Park, but the Terrapins have no answer for the physical Michigan ground attack.

Upset: Texas Tech, 27 (#9) Oklahoma State, 24 -- Don't be surprised if Oklahoma State is already looking ahead to their huge "Bedlam" tilt with Oklahoma and this is not a bad Texas Tech team. They pull off the stunner in Lubbock.

Superdog (covers > 21 spread): South Alabama +28 @ Tennessee -- South Alabama was my superdog pick last week and came up just short against Appalachian State. I like their chances in Knoxville, but they need to find a way to slow down Hendon Hooker.

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