College football picks, schedule: Predictions against the spread, odds for top 25 games today in Week 6Last week, college football’s microscope focused mostly on two huge SEC games (Ole Miss at Alabama, Arkansas at Georgia) and Cincinnati’s trip to South Bend. This week we turn our gaze primarily to Big Ten country for the biggest Penn State-Iowa game ever — and the conference’s first top-five vs. top-five game not featuring Ohio State or Michigan since 1962.
That’s not all Week 6 of the 2021 college football season has to offer, of course. By the time the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes kick off in Iowa City, Oklahoma-Texas will have answered a lot of questions in Dallas. Plus, Alabama heads to College Station, Georgia faces its oldest rival, Michigan faces a particularly tricky test in Lincoln, and Wake Forest and others attempt to keep “unbeaten upstart” labels pinned to their uniforms. Plus, if smaller schools are your thing — and they should be — the FCS slate is loaded. Let’s preview Week 6! All times listed below are Eastern. Sean Clifford’s rise and Iowa’s vintageNo. 4 Penn State at No. 3 Iowa (4 p.m., Fox) About 10 months ago in State College, Penn State’s trajectory changed, even if we didn’t know it at the time. James Franklin’s Nittany Lions were 0-4 and dealing with an existential crisis; quarterback Will Levis started for a struggling Sean Clifford and led an early touchdown drive against a rugged Iowa defense, but the wheels quickly came off. While Levis finished 13-for-16 passing, he also lost two fumbles and failed twice on fourth-and-short. Clifford subbed in late in the third quarter with Penn State down 31-7. He threw for touchdowns on each of his first two passes, but two interceptions — including Iowa’s specialty, a pick-six — made it a 41-21 final. Penn State hasn’t lost since. Neither has Iowa. (For that matter, neither has Levis, who transferred to Kentucky and has led the Wildcats to a 5-0 start.) Following that loss to Iowa, Clifford found his footing in defense-driven wins over Michigan and Rutgers, then went 33-of-49 for 517 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Michigan State and Illinois. Then Franklin made an even more important decision than Clifford vs. Levis: He sacked first-year offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca despite the late-season improvement and hired former Oklahoma State and Texas offensive coordinator (and Ohio State passing game coordinator) Mike Yurcich. What’s real and what’s fake in the Red River Rivalry?No. 6 Oklahoma at No. 21 Texas (noon, ABC) We rarely get enough time to separate trends from small-sample oddities in a 12-game college football season. A two- to three-game sample is rarely treated as a trend in any other sport, but we almost have no choice here. I mention that because of this: This weekend on ESPN networks Games also available on ESPN App.All times Eastern. Friday7 p.m.Temple at No. Cincinnati, ESPN10:30 p.m.Stanford at No. 22 Arizona St., ESPN SaturdayNoonNo. 6 Oklahoma at No. 21 Texas, ABCNo. 13 Arkansas at No. 17 Ole Miss, ESPNVanderbilt at No. 20 Florida, SECNSouth Carolina at Tennessee, ESPN23 p.m.Virginia at Louisville, ACCN3:30 p.m.Boise St. at No. 10 BYU, ABCNo. 19 Wake Forest at Syracuse, ESPN2Florida St. at N. Carolina, ESPNBall State at W. Michigan, ESPNU4 p.m.North Texas at Missouri, SECN7 p.m.TCU at Texas Tech, ESPNBuffalo at Kent State, ESPNU7:30 p.m.No. 9 Michigan at Maryland, ABCNo. 14 Notre Dame at Virginia Tech, ACCNLSU at No. 16 Kentucky, SECN9 p.m.Memphis at Tulsa, ESPN210:30 p.m.UCLA at Arizona, ESPN • Texas’ offense in the first two games of 2021, with Hudson Card as starting quarterback: 346 yards per game, 5.2 yards per play, 29.5 points per game • Texas’ offense in the last three games with Casey Thompson taking over: 558 yards per game, 7.9 yards per play, 53.3 points per game Even if you acknowledge the difference in levels of competition — Card had to take on Arkansas, while the three defenses Thompson has faced average a No. 77 defensive SP+ ranking — that’s a dramatic improvement. Texas’ fortunes have shifted significantly since changing QBs after the discouraging loss to Arkansas. ESPN’s FPI gives the Longhorns a 32% chance of winning the Big 12 and an 11% chance of making the College Football Playoff, up from 7% and 0.4%, respectively, after Week 2. But is this offensive shift real? Thompson indeed destroyed Rice and Texas Tech, but against TCU last weekend he completed just 12 of 22 passes for 142 yards, one touchdown and an interception thrown into triple coverage. He was bailed out by Bijan Robinson’s brilliance — 35 carries, 216 yards, two scores — and the Horns won, 32-27, but Thompson didn’t play much of a positive role. So is this a positive trend or the effects of a brief, two-game surge? Is Thompson’s production going to waft away going forward? We’ll likely find out Saturday as Thompson faces the best defense of his brief starting tenure. Or is it? After leaping to 15th in defensive SP+ last season, Oklahoma still ranks 29th, but against the three SP+ top-50 offenses they’ve faced, the Sooners have allowed 27 points per game, 400 yards per game and 5.8 yards per play — not horrible performances, but not exactly dominant. (Texas’ offense in SP+, by the way: 10th.) We’ve been focusing most of our OU conversation around quarterback Spencer Rattler’s perceived struggles, but if Oklahoma is to suffer a blemish in Big 12 play, the defense is as likely to be the culprit as the offense. Regardless, we get a bit of a fact-vs.-fiction battle when Texas has the ball in Dallas. Bo Nix’s inner Stephen GarciaNo. 2 Georgia at No. 18 Auburn (3:30 p.m., CBS) “Now we’re going to do the most human thing of all: attempt something futile with a ton of unearned confidence and fail spectacularly!” — Michael, “The Good Place,” Season 2 Cam Newton. Tim Tebow. Johnny Manziel. When Alabama was at its defensive peak under head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, the Crimson Tide suffered losses to a few brilliant quarterbacks helming unassailable offenses. But they also sometimes fell victim to a bold quarterback riding a hot hand and a wave of unearned confidence. South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia went 17-for-20 with three touchdowns in the Gamecocks’ 35-21 win over Bama in 2010. Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace was 18-of-31 for 251 and three scores in a 23-17 Rebels win in 2014. Chad Kelly went a combined 44-of-73 for 762 yards and six TDs in 2015 and ’16 as the Rebels upset the Tide again and nearly did so a third time. Penn State at Iowa for Big Ten control, the Red River Rivalry and more to watch in Week 62dESPN staff Why the Big Ten could crash the ‘inevitable’ SEC national title party4dMark Schlabach Even if Alabama and Georgia feels like the inevitable title game, how we get there will be fun and chaotic3dRyan McGeeThe full horizontal and vertical spacing of a Yurcich offense offers play-making opportunities to an exciting receiving corps featuring Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington, KeAndre Lambert-Smith and big-play tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson. Clifford is a seasoned three-year starter uncovering more upside, and now we get to find out exactly how much seasoning and how much upside we’re talking about. Almost no defense in college football tests your quarterback more than Phil Parker’s sneering Hawkeyes crew. Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. entered 2021 as a rousing comeback story, fighting his way back from a knee injury to lead a Hoosiers team with big hopes. He went 14-for-33 with three interceptions against Iowa — two returned for TDs by Riley Moss — in a 34-6 Hawkeyes win. Iowa State’s Brock Purdy came into the year with dark-horse Heisman and national title hopes. He went 24-for-43 with three picks against the Hawkeyes, and Iowa won 27-17 with almost no offense. Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa had a dynamite September, completing 76% of his passes at 335 yards per game. Against Iowa, he threw five picks. His backup threw a sixth. The Hawkeyes won, 51-14. As you would predict, Iowa leads the nation with 12 picks. This is a nasty and active secondary, and the Hawkeyes’ defensive surge has shown no signs of abating. After averaging a 26.6 ranking in defensive SP+ from 2014-18, Iowa jumped to sixth in 2019, then second in 2020. They’re currently fourth. The only thing that changes with Iowa are minor notes with each vintage. This 2021 vintage isn’t quite as dominant against the run but still gets good pressure on the quarterback without blitzing, and the six to seven guys dropping into zone coverage seem like 13. They’re all facing the ball, and they all react before the ball even leaves the QB’s hands. It’s a frightening test to face, but Clifford at least knows what he’s getting into. He wasn’t brilliant in PSU’s 17-12 win in Iowa City two years ago — 12-of-24 for 117 yards, one TD and three sacks — but he at least knows the environment. He’s also on his own run of excellence: He has completed 67% of his passes and has cut his interception and sack rates to career lows (though we’ll see if that remains the case after this weekend). More importantly as it pertains to Iowa, Clifford is faring as well as ever against zone defenses. He has completed 69% of his passes, averaged 8.7 yards per dropback and cut his sack rate from 8.7% in 2019 to 4.2% at the moment. Will those numbers hold after facing the ultimate zone defense? And what might Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras have to offer? Petras has not produced pretty numbers, but he’s been strong this year in the two things that Iowa asks its QBs to do: make one or two big passes each game, and avoid mistakes that screw up Iowa’s field-position dominance. He’s also coming off of his two best performances of the season, having gone a combined 36-of-53 for 483 yards, five TDs and one interception against Colorado State and Maryland. That’s more than just one or two big passes each game. Penn State’s defense has been nearly as dominant as Iowa’s to date — the Nittany Lions are up to fifth in defensive SP+ — and both teams’ run defenses have massive advantages over their opponents. It’s safe to assume, then, that the game is on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Who makes the most big plays? More importantly, who makes the fewest crippling mistakes? The answer will tell you whose team will still be in the top five on Sunday. Week 6 of the college football season provides yet another massive schedule featuring 19 ranked teams in action plus three significant games between top-25 opponents. Changing expectations and upsets have been the name of the game through the first five weeks of the 2021 season, and there’s every chance that will continue in Week 6 with teams like No. 7 Ohio State, No. 10 BYU, No. 9 Michigan and No. 14 Notre Dame, among others, in games against unranked yet talented competition. There are four standout games of the day, though, beginning with No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 21 Texas squaring off in the latest edition of the Red River Showdown. The Sooners have won three straight and five of the last six in the series, but the Longhorns believe they’ve found something with the one-two punch of Casey Thompson at quarterback and Bijan Robinson at running back. No. 2 Georgia’s seemingly impenetrable defense will face its toughest passing test of the season when it goes up against No. 18 Auburn and QB Bo Nix, while No. 3 Iowa hopes to see its defense continue its incredible turnover binge against a No. 4 Penn State team feeling itself thanks to QB Sean Clifford. In the night cap, No. 1 Alabama and Texas A&M go head-to-head with coach Nick Saban looking to improve to 25-0 against his former assistants as Jimbo Fisher continues to look for answers for an Aggies squad that has underwhelmed this season. While winning is all that matters for the standings, we care about whether these teams will cover their spreads. Be sure to stick with CBS Sports throughout the day for college football coverage from the opening kickoff on Saturday to the final whistle. Let’s take a look at our expert picks for the fifth full Saturday of the season. Noon | ABC, fuboTV (Try for free) — It’s hard to know which version of each team we’ll get in the Red River Showdown. Is Texas the team that dropped 70 points on Texas Tech or the one that struggled against a comparable TCU squad? Is Oklahoma playing its cards close to the vest, or is it systematically flawed on offense? My money is on Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley unleashing the running backs against his team’s first ranked opponent of the season and the defense taking advantage of a Texas offense that is still finding its footing. Prediction: Oklahoma