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College Football Picks 2023: Week Nine

Bryson Barnes, Utah

Current Picks Record: 49-23

Upsets: 4-4

Superdogs: 5-3

Locks: 6-2

(#8) Oregon Ducks @ (#13) Utah Utes

Line: Oregon -6.5

O/U: 47.5

Oregon and Utah have been two of the most consistent programs in the Pac-12 over the last half-decade, and now they square off in their final conference meeting before moving on (assuming they don't collide again in the conference championship game). It's an interesting battle; Oregon has looked every bit like a Playoff contender and their lone loss is a quality one, a close defeat on the road to an undefeated Washington. Utah has not looked very impressive for much of the year, but the ever-steady Utes are still firmly in the Pac-12 Title mix at 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the league. 

The Washington loss likely knocked Bo Nix out of Heisman frontrunner status, but the veteran quarterback remains one of the country's best. He responded with a three-touchdown performance over Washington State and has looked in complete control of a Duck offense that has been explosive all year. It helps that the Ducks have found an effective supporting cast around him, with a two-headed monster at tailback in Bucky Irving and Jordan James, plus Troy Franklin and Tez Johnson out wide. But for me, the X-factor for this Utah matchup is up front. Dan Lanning has continued what Mario Cristobal started in loading up in the trenches and turning this into a program that closely resembles a typical Big Ten or SEC team, which has been crucial in maintaining Oregon's status on the national stage. But, will this offensive line will be up for the unique challenge Utah poses? The Utes don't always have star power up front, but there are few programs as consistently physical as this one - they are simply a pain to play each and every single Saturday. The good news for Oregon is that the Ute pass defense looks susceptible, and they will also be without their star linebacker, Lander Barton, who is officially done for the season. That should help Oregon establish a rhythm on the ground early and be able to take the top off this defense down the stretch. But again, that relies on the offensive line, which has been superb all season but will likely have to turn it up a notch in this one.

Considering the adversity Utah has faced offensively, it remains remarkable that this team enters this weekend 6-1. They have been without quarterback Cam Rising all season and after the USC win last weekend, Whittingham confirmed what has been become clear the deeper we get into 2023: Rising is not going to return this fall. That means it's officially Bryson Barnes' team, and the gritty signal-caller has shown he's up for it, fresh off a strong showing against the Trojans. Still, the offense is rather limited with Barnes under center; they aren't going to take many deep shots but instead play ball control and take their opportunities through the air as they come. Ja'Quinden Jackson and Jaylon Glover have given the Utes quality production on the ground all season, but it's the sudden emergence of do-it-all Sione Vaki that has been the real storyline for Utah. The converted safety is their most explosive weapon through the air and on the ground, giving this offense some potency that they've missed throughout most of the fall. He'll be the main priority for this Duck defense, but the Utes have been creative in how they get him the ball. If he can bust open a big play or two, this team has a shot to hang with Oregon, especially considering the Duck back-end has been underwhelming for most of the season. 

I find this to be an extremely difficult matchup to predict. Oregon looks like the better team on both sides of the ball, but there's just something about this Utah team. They're always going to play incredibly hard and they just find ways to win, even if the talent advantage isn't on their side. Plus, it's so tricky to go into Rice-Eccles Stadium and beat the Utes, the atmosphere alone is a touchdown advantage. I think Oregon finds a way to squeak it out with Nix and company, but this could essentially be a coin flip scenario.

The Pick: Oregon, 30 Utah, 24

(#1) Georgia Bulldogs @ Florida Gators

Line: Georgia -14.5

O/U: 49

The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party celebrates its 102nd meeting this Saturday, with the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs clashing with the 5-2 Florida Gators at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville. It's no surprise the Bulldogs are comfortable favorites, but Billy Napier's Gators have made major strides this year and should be up for a battle in this rivalry game.

After managing just 11 points in the season-opening loss to Utah, it appeared as though the Gator offense was going to be in for a long season. Instead, there's been real growth on this side of the ball, with Florida dropping 38 and 41 points over the last two weeks. Those two games may have been against two of the worst defenses in the SEC, but there's no denying the Gators are starting to find their groove, and QB Graham Mertz has been rock-solid running the show. He's helped by two tremendous tailbacks in Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson, while wide out Ricky Pearsall should be a Biletnikoff Award candidate, with 619 yards over the first seven games. Things get taken up a notch against the always stingy Georgia defense, but the Bulldogs aren't quite as dominant on this side of the ball as they have been in the past. There's still loads of future NFL talent and real star-power, but there isn't that alpha up front we've become accustomed too. Instead, it's been the secondary leading the way, namely veteran Tykee Smith and rising sophomore Malaki Starks. That means Florida could still find ways to move the ball on the ground, although Mertz still remains a deciding factor. Nobody is expecting the former Wisconsin transfer to sit back and sling it up for 300-plus yards against UGA, but he's going to have to force the Bulldogs to respect the passing game and stay honest. If he can do that and not turn the ball over, the Gators could still find a way to succeed through their ground-and-pound style.

Georgia's offense has also been a pleasant surprise in many ways, but particularly when you consider the injury troubles they've faced throughout the year. Key contributors at just about every group have gone through injury pains, but most notably the star of the show, tight end Brock Bowers. Bowers has been ruled out for the rest of the regular season, forcing the Bulldogs to find new ways to move the ball. Quarterback Carson Beck has been tremendous in his first season as starter and even without his favorite target, should be set for another impressive performance this weekend. In fact, Georgia currently boasts the nation's No. 5 passing offense, a far cry from the usual ground-oriented scheme we've become accustomed to under Kirby Smart. Part of that can be attributed to the injuries the Bulldogs have suffered in the backfield, but Beck's steady presence makes this an effective and entertaining offense. The Bulldogs are getting healthier in the backfield with Kendall Milton working his way back to full strength, so they'll look to have more balance against a Gator defense that's inconsistent. Florida has had strong weeks, sure, but you can never quite be sure what product you're going to get on the field every Saturday. It feels like they dominate their inferior competition but don't play up to the top teams on their schedule, which could be bad news for a matchup like this.

I give Florida plenty of credit - after the bad loss to Utah to open up the year, this had the looks of a team that was going to be in for a rough season but now they have a chance to move into the driver's seat with an upset. That's easier said than done, but you never know in this types of neutral site rivalry games. I still think Georgia is certainly the safer bet and will be my pick, but this one could be a lot more interesting than the line indicates.

The Pick: Georgia, 34 Florida, 24

(#3) Ohio State Buckeyes @ Wisconsin Badgers

Line: Ohio State -14.5

O/U: 46.5

Fresh off a major win over Penn State, Ohio State looks to be on a collision course with Michigan for a Big Ten Title. But first, they have to avoid a potential trap game before that, which includes a road trip to Madison to face off with Wisconsin. The Badgers are also coming off a big win, albeit in comeback fashion against a much lesser opponent, and will be eager for their first win over Ohio State since 2010..

As I mentioned in my writeup of Ohio State-Penn State last week, this is a much different Buckeye team than we've become accustomed to under Ryan Day. The offense has been good, but far from great, and simply doesn't have the same rhythm or big-play ability that we've seen in the past. There are several reasons for that - for one, Brian Hartline is still getting acclimated to his new role as offensive coordinator. Just as important, first-year starter Kyle McCord is still getting adjusted himself and developing chemistry with his receiver corps. But perhaps most important, the Buckeyes have been hit hard by the injury bug all season, most notably at the skill positions. Emeka Egbuka, TreVeyon Henderson, and Miyan Williams have all missed time, which has forced McCord to do more and Marvin Harrison Jr. to essentially become superhuman to move the football. It looks like that trio should all be back for this matchup, and Ohio State has to hope it can finally spring a run game that has been nonexistent at times this fall. Williams and Henderson are a very effective 1-2 punch while healthy and if they are able to take some pressure off McCord, things should run smoother here. If all else fails, Harrison Jr. is easily the best player on the field and should have a chance to overwhelm this Badger secondary, plus tight end Cade Stover provides a nice element over the middle of the field. 

For all the talk of Wisconsin's offensive overhaul this offseason, this is your prototypical Badger offensive scheme. They are going to play their usual ground-and-pound style, control the ball, and hope that strong defense and special teams is enough to come out on top. That strategy has been taken up a notch since the injury to starting QB Tanner Mordecai, which has forced former Mississippi State transfer Braedyn Locke into a starting role. Nobody expects Locke to do too much in this offense; he's going to feed Braelon Allen out of the backfield, make smart throws underneath, and potentially take a deep shot or two. It's a gameplan that isn't always pretty but has remained overall effective, thanks in large part to Allen being one of the nation's premier tailbacks. But to pull an upset, there has to be some balance here, or else the Buckeyes are going to load up the box with a bunch of NFL talent. I do think Locke has real arm talent, but is there a receiver that can make things happen? Will Pauling has been a revelation and Chimere Dike has been in the program for awhile, but they face a real test against one of the best Ohio State secondaries we've seen in some time. Bryson Green is another guy that I've long been high on and he certainly could help open things up, but the consistency has never been there. This is just a very tough matchup for the Badgers based on the way they play, and that's particularly true against this Ohio State team. This is a physical Ohio State defense that plays with real edge, a testament to the work Ryan Day and staff have done in response to how their last two seasons have ended.

This has the makings of the perfect upset opportunity, with Ohio State going on the road against a stingy Badger team one week removed from an emotional victory. But, I'm just not sure this year's Wisconsin team is the one to end the losing streak against OSU. It would take magic from Locke, making just his third start, plus a heroic defensive showing. They may be able to keep things tight, but the difference in talent on the depth chart will show through eventually.

The Pick: Ohio State, 35 Wisconsin, 20

Other Picks

(#20) Duke Blue Devils @ (#18) Louisville Cardinals -- Duke is the toughest team to pick in college football right now. They've looked legit when Riley Leonard has played, but the star quarterback remains banged up and his status is uncertain for this one. Playing at home, Louisville is the safer pick over the mystery of the Blue Devils.

The Pick: Louisville, 28 Duke, 24

(#21) Tennessee Volunteers @ Kentucky Wildcats -- For as frustrating as the second half of the Alabama loss was for Tennessee, it may provide extra motivation as they travel to Lexington. Kentucky has looked completely outclassed against every ranked team they've played this year, so this is a comfortable Vols pick for me.

The Pick: Tennessee, 31 Kentucky, 17

(#6) Oklahoma Sooners @ Kansas Jayhawks -- There's real upset opportunity for a good Kansas team playing in Lawrence, but with Jason Bean once again being forced to fill in at QB for the injured Jalon Daniels, I'm sticking with OU.

The Pick: Oklahoma, 40 Kansas, 28

Upset: (#11) Oregon State Beavers @ Arizona Wildcats -- This one is giving major "Pac-12 After Dark" energy. Oregon State has been great all year, but Arizona has been a completely different team under QB Noah Fifita, and they get the Beavers in Tucson.

The Pick: Arizona, 38 Oregon State, 35

Superdog (covers > 21 point spread): Vanderbilt Commodores (+24.5) @ Ole Miss Rebels -- Ole Miss may be 6-1, but they've won close game after close game. This is not the 13th best team in the nation and while Vanderbilt may not beat them, they should cover.

The Pick: Ole Miss, 30 Vanderbilt, 10

Lock of the Week: North Carolina Tar Heels (-11) @ Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets -- Last week's stinker at the hands of Virginia might have been just what UNC needs for the second half of the season. Georgia Tech is a mystery each and every week which makes me nervous, but a focused UNC team should have no issues with them.

The Pick: North Carolina, 41 Georgia Tech, 24

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