College football’s best head-to-head matchups for Week 11 include an epic battle at the line of scrimmage in the Pac-12 game of the year so far.
There are games, and then there are games-within-the-games, those needle-moving head-to-head clashes that put a thumb on the scale for the more dominant side.
Who’ll be the big winners and who’ll be dragging their feet back to the drawing board at the close of Week 11? Plenty hinges on which side prevails in these crucial unit and player battles.
10. Minnesota RB Rodney Smith vs. Nebraska MLB Josh Banderas
So, you ready to become a bona fide contender to win the Big Ten West for the first time ever, Gophers? You’ll have to keep running downhill with Smith, Shannon Brooks and physical QB Mitch Leidner. Smith has been a revelation since arriving in Minneapolis as a lightly-recruited Georgian, rushing for at least 100 yards in the last four games. The Huskers have been roughed up on the ground by Wisconsin and Ohio State the past two weeks, and Banderas, the team’s leading tackler, will need to be even present as the anchor of the run defense.
9. Penn State DE Garrett Sickels vs. Indiana OT Coy Cronk
The Hoosiers really like what they’ve seen so far from Cronk, a true freshman that the team believes will develop into a pass pro anchor from the left side. This Saturday, though, he’s going to endure a four-quarter challenge from Sickels, who’s been one of the defensive catalysts of the Lions’ unexpected ascent into the top 10. He operates with a non-stop motor, delivering his national coming-out party in the Oct. 22 upset of Ohio State with nine tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and 2.5 sacks in just two quarters of work.
8. Oklahoma RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon vs. NT Ira Lewis and the Baylor Front Seven
Perine is practicing again after missing the last three games with a leg injury. Mixon is emerging from Bob Stoops’ doghouse for losing it on a parking attendant. Heck, third-stringer Dimitri Flowers rushed for 115 yards last week against Iowa State. It could be a very long and demoralizing afternoon for Lewis and the Bear linemen and linebackers this Saturday in Norman. Phil Bennett’s D will be trying to rebound from last week’s debacle in Waco, in which Baylor was gashed for 431 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
7. South Carolina QB Jake Bentley vs. Florida CBs Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson
Bentley embodies all that excites Gamecock fans about the future. The true freshman from Opelika, Ala. is now 3-0 as a starter, throwing two touchdown passes and no picks in each of the three wins. Bentley has been unusually poised for such a young player, with the improvisational skills to make something out of nothing when a play breaks down. But now he gets a crash course in tight windows and pocket pressure. Tabor and Wilson form arguably the nation’s top corner tandem, the stars of a unit that’s No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency defense.
6. Arkansas QB Austin Allen vs. LSU CBs Tre’Davious White and Kevin Toliver II
The Hogs want to build. The Tigers are determined to bounce back. The outcome will likely hinge on how well Allen performs against one of college football’s most talented defensive backfields. He did a decent job of managing last week’s win over Florida, home to another airtight secondary, completing 15-of-26 for 243 yards, one touchdown and one pick. But accuracy has been an issue in the last four games, and uncontested passing lanes will be uncommon this week against White, Toliver and safeties Jamal Adams and John Battle.
5. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald vs. Alabama WLB Reuben Foster
Fitzgerald isn’t Dak Prescott, but there are unmistakable similarities between predecessor and successor. Fitzgerald is a 6-5, 223-pound sophomore upon which the future is being built in Starkville. And despite his size, he has impressive build-up speed, which he used to bury Texas A&M for 182 yards and two scores on the ground in last week’s stunning upset. Now the Bulldogs will unleash their new face of the program on Foster and the elite Tide defense, which just blanked LSU and is far and away the nation’s stingiest run defense at 66 yards per game and 2.1 yards per carry.
4. OT Connor Williams and the Texas O-Line vs. DE Noble Nwachukwu and the West Virginia D-Line
Longhorn RB D’Onta Foreman has erupted on to the national scene with 591 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in just the last two weeks. But behind every Foreman burst through the front wall was a relatively young, Williams-led line that has been exceptional this fall. In Nwachukwu and the Mountaineer D-line, Texas now goes head to head with a group that’s struggled to effectively get off the snap and penetrate this fall. West Virginia has tallied just 35 stops for minus yards, ranking 124th nationally, meaning Foreman will have already built a head of steam before absorbing initial contact.
3. DT Ryan Glasgow and the Michigan D-Line vs. OG Sean Welsh and the Iowa O-Line
For obvious reasons, Jabrill Peppers and Jim Harbaugh generate the preponderance of headlines out of Ann Arbor. But the bedrock of No. 3 Michigan’s perfect start has been an immovable front led by the likes of Glasgow, Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary. The Wolverines have been rocks at the point of attack, leading the country in total and scoring D. And if the Hawkeyes have any hope of shocking the world, Welsh and his linemates must somehow win the line of scrimmage so that backs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels can keep QB C.J. Beathard out of third-and-long quagmires.
2. Auburn RBs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson vs. Georgia LBs Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick
Pettway is a question mark for Saturday. Johnson will play, but with an ankle that’s less than 100%. But even if Gus Malzahn is forced to dig deeper into his depth chart in Athens, the Tigers will continue to try and run the ball with assertiveness to remain in the SEC West hunt. Looking to provide resistance will be a Bulldog defense giving up just 3.4 yards per carry. Kirby Smart’s first Georgia D has been solid all year against the run, thanks to the athleticism of Smith and Patrick at the second level and the continued emergence of lineman Trenton Thompson on the interior.
1. DE Vita Vea and the Washington D-Line vs. OT Zach Banner and the USC O-Line
Trojan WR JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Husky CB Sidney Jones will be riveting, too, especially in the eyes of NFL scouts. But this week’s Pac-12 showdown in Seattle will be won—or lost—at the line of scrimmage. Vea is one of the catalysts of an aggressive front seven that can fluster USC QB Sam Darnold. However, Trojan assistant Neil Callaway is doing a bang-up job with a blocking group that lost starting C Toa Lobendahn in Week 2. Troy leads the league in fewest sacks allowed, while paving the way for Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis, who’s expected back from a high-ankle sprain.