Welcome to the Week 13 edition of the Three by Three — Rivalry Week! Allow me to be your college football sherpa, guiding you through the intrigue of the sport each week. I will try to avoid just covering the big obvious stuff, but sometimes Michigan and Ohio State IS the most interesting thing, you know?
Each week I will highlight three interesting storylines each from the Missouri contest, in the SEC, and around the nation. Let’s get to it.
Missouri at Arkansas — 3 PM Friday on CBS
1. Missouri’s Linebackers
At the time of this writing, Ty’Ron Hopper’s injury status is undecided, although my uneducated and unconnected guess would be he does not play. Last week’s linebacker play was rough, and Florida’s offense really got cooking in the second half when they adjusted their game plan to attack Chuck Hicks and Tristan Newson. Simply put, those two will have to stand up better on Friday, although a better defensive line performance will help them. Arkansas’s running offense is poor this year, despite previously being the bread and butter of the Sam Pittman era. The Hogs will be down to the third and fourth string tailbacks, veteran AJ Green and freshman Isaiah Augustave. KJ Jefferson is still a talented ballcarrier and a menace to tackle, even if he is having a down year. Hicks and Newson can not afford to let him take over the game on the ground the way Max Brown did last week.
2. Missouri’s Mismatches
Missouri has two major mismatches in this contest. Blake Baker’s defense is top-35 in creating havoc; Arkansas’s offense ranks 97th in the country in havoc prevention. A dicey Razorbacks offensive line has been a major reason they have given up so many negative plays, and KJ Jefferson has taken 41 sacks on the season (twice as many as Brady Cook). Missouri can overcome the thin linebacking corps if the players around them are consistently putting Arkansas in negative down-and-distance situations, or taking the ball away.
Secondly, Arkansas’s defense is one of the worst in the country at defending explosive pass plays – ranking 127th in that metric. Remember the Memphis and Vanderbilt games, when it felt like Kirby Moore could dial up a wide-open receiver on any play he wanted to? A repeat of those games will take a lot of stress out of the season finale, and I would love to see a big stat line for Luther Burden going into awards season.
3. Fast Start
This is an interesting spot for Arkansas. Sam Pittman got the vote of confidence for next season, but he also has been candid about wanting to upgrade his roster in the portal. Will Arkansas players be dedicated to rallying to finish out this season strong? Or will they just want to have a clean day, make some business decisions, and get into portal season? On the other hand, will they want to send out a program legend in KJ Jefferson with a rivalry upset? If Mizzou comes out hot and takes away their spirit, it could look like the former. Let the game stay close for a little bit, commit a few turnovers or allow a big Jefferson run, and suddenly the home faithful will catch fire and the task will get a lot taller. Start hot and take care of business, Mizzou.
Around the SEC
- Ole Miss at Mississippi State — 6:30 PM Thursday on ESPN
I’m hoping things can get weird in Starkville to give us some Turkey Day fireworks. Mississippi State has been fairly miserable down the stretch, losing their last three SEC games by a combined 101-26. Interim head coach Greg Knox is at the helm for a Bulldogs team that needs a win to clinch a bowl berth, but will be significant underdogs in their quest to do so. Can they spring a wild upset – or at least put themselves into position to do so – to make Thursday’s only college game compelling?
2. Clemson at South Carolina — 6:30 PM Saturday on SEC Network
I know this is a masthead and readership that appreciates the cold hard math of sports, and I personally enjoy a good analytic deep dive or two. This should be a Clemson blowout by any accounting, either by the numbers or the scouting (huge mismatch for Clemson on both lines.) But man, how about those vibes? South Carolina is suddenly on the verge of a bowl game, and you know Williams-Brice Stadium will be unglued Saturday night rooting for their team to repeat last year’s upset. It does not make any sense on paper – it never does with Shane Beamer – but are you really telling me you can’t see a world where the Gamecocks are celebrating another defeat of their archivals?
3. Alabama at Auburn — 2:30 PM Saturday on CBS
This is why you hired him, Auburn. This is why you put up with the other stuff that comes with hiring Hugh Freeze, like the weird social media behavior, constantly living in fear of a scandal dropping, and getting blown out by New Mexico State. Because this man beat Nick Saban twice a decade ago. You are hoping he has more supply of whatever magic he had up his sleeve those two fateful Saturdays. It seems unlikely that Freeze’s roster, still under construction and rather unimpressive on offense, will be able to hang with a Tide team that is fully rolling after a shaky September. But this is why Auburn hired him, and I will watch a few possessions of this game to see if Freeze can at least make this contest compelling instead of an Alabama runaway.
Around the Nation
- Ohio State at Michigan — 11 AM Saturday on FOX
I’m not sure I have ever had as much anticipation for a regular season College Football game that did not involve Mizzou as I have for this one. The storylines are amazing and layers continue to pile up.
On the Ohio State side, you have two years of revenge ready to dish out — how can the same team that goes toe-to-toe with Georgia get wiped off the field in their biggest rivalry? The toughness narrative, Ryan Day’s coaching arc, the rebuilt defense: all of it points to needing this win more than air.
For Michigan, the chaos surrounding first Harbaugh’s burger scandal and now the sign-stealing affair give this season a surreal tint, like a bizarre sports movie script. The Wolverines have dominated Ohio State in the trench and appear poised to do so a third time, but what will it all mean if they wash out in January again?
Both teams have crafted an “us against the world” mindset that will carry them into this game. One x-factor is junior Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson; the former blue chipper is finally healthy for this game and is playing the best ball of his life. That could not come at a better time for the Buckeyes, as this promises to be an indelible moment in college football’s second-best rivalry.
2. Oregon State at Oregon — 7:30 PM Friday on FOX; Washington State at Washington — 3 PM Saturday on FOX
You do not need to be told to watch these. The Apple Cup and the Civil War should both be excellent as Washington and Oregon are on a rematch collision course. But the underdogs are feisty here, even with both on the road, because they are the two programs left holding the smoldering ashes of the Pac-12 as the rest of the conference flees to greener pastures. This year is the last time these historic rivalries will be played as conference games; throw in the quarterback talent, stylistic mismatches, the playoff stakes, and heavy doses of feelings-ball, and you have a great recipe for memorable football.
3. Georgia Southern at Appalachian State — 2:30 PM Saturday on ESPNU
You might have missed this last season, but Deeper Than Hate delivered one of the best games of the entire season of 2022. With both teams in a “win or go home” bowl situation, this historic rivalry ignited into a 51-48 double-overtime thriller. Expect more of the same here, as both teams sling it around and neither will display much interest in getting a defensive stop. Appalachian State can win the Sun Belt East with a win and a loss by Coastal Carolina, and Georgia Southern needs to stop their three-game losing skid heading into bowl season. This one will be fast and pointsy in front of a raucous Boone crowd, and is definitely worth your time.