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Rivalry Week did not disappoint and now we're on to Championship Saturday! And Championship Friday night, technically, since the Pac-12 gets everything started with their title game at 8:00 Eastern on Friday. Stanford and USC will play a rematch for the Pac-12 championship, and it's actually one of seven title game rematches taking place. That includes the SEC, where Auburn and Georgia will meet up in Atlanta for a rematch to decide the conference championship. As of Tuesday night, the College Football Playoff (CFP) Rankings have rewarded Auburn for their Iron Bowl win. The Tigers are now ranked #2, and the Georgia Bulldogs are #5. So that's essentially a play-in game, as is the ACC Championship. The rest of the Power 5 games aren't so simple. There are ten teams that still have a shot at making the CFP, and nine of them play in these conference title games. Only Alabama stays home this weekend, but depending on how things play out, the Crimson Tide could end up back in the Playoff as well. But we'll get into it all. From the Group of 5 to the Power 5... All the commentary, previews, and picks that you need are right here!
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Pac-12 Championship: Stanford (+4) vs USC, from Santa Clara, California:
As KAM pointed out on the podcast this week, this game is Friday night but the late kick is no big deal. Even I can stay up till midnight for some Friday night #Pac12AfterDark since it's not a school night. It's a rematch from their early September meeting when USC won rather easily and racked up over 600 yards of total offense. Now the Trojans will need to win again to keep their very slim CFP hopes alive. Let's start by debunking the notion that USC has NO hope to get into the Playoff. Are they currently on the outside, looking in? Of course, but that's not to say they have no shot...
Suppose USC wins convincingly on Friday night. That gets the Trojans to 11-2, champions of the Pac-12. Then they relax and watch football all day Saturday. Here's what they need to happen:
- Clemson wins the ACC. Then Clemson is in but two-loss Miami is definitely out.
- Georgia wins the SEC. Then Georgia is in but three-loss Auburn is definitely out.
- Ohio State wins the Big Ten. Wisconsin is only a one-loss runner-up but they have no chance due to lack of schedule strength. Ohio State is in play.
- TCU upsets Oklahoma in the Big 12. Now it gets interesting. Is TCU definitely in, even though they started the weekend one spot behind USC in the CFP Rankings?
Under this scenario we would have two spots filled (Clemson and Georgia). But then we'd have five teams competing for the final two spots: 11-2 conference champs Ohio State, 11-2 conference champs USC, 11-2 conference champs TCU, 11-1 Alabama, and 11-2 Oklahoma. Even though Oklahoma would have lost their title game, they'd have the same record as Ohio State and they beat the Buckeyes in Columbus. So I think they'd still be in play here. But I think you can make a case for any of these teams. It's a nightmare scenario for the Committee but I think it gives realistic hope to both USC and TCU.
But before USC can be too concerned with sneaking into the CFP, they have to beat a tough Stanford team. The Cardinal were up and down the first couple months of the season but they've now won three games in a row, including a big win over Notre Dame last week. Freshman quarterback KJ Costello had an excellent game for Stanford, throwing four touchdowns and zero interceptions in the win over Notre Dame. Costello also started for the Cardinal in their big win over Washington a few weeks ago. Stanford has a better offense when Costello is playing, but he wasn't when the teams first met in September. This time USC will have to be prepared to defend Costello, along with Heisman candidate Bryce Love. While Love has been very good every time he suits up, he hasn't been exactly the same since ankle injuries have slowed him down over the last month. Love could have used the week off that USC just got. The Trojans played Rivalry Week a week early when they beat UCLA two weeks ago then got to rest last weekend. Stanford won big over Notre Dame, but it was still a physical game that took a toll. Stanford had a similar game with Washington too. The Cardinal has finished strongly to get here, but their defense is still suspect and it's been a tiring last few weeks. I think this is a close game, but I like the Trojans to get a couple stops in the fourth quarter to win this game and cover the spread:
MAC Championship: Akron (+21.5) vs Toledo, from Detroit, Michigan:
It was a competitive year in the MAC: Four teams finished with conference records of 6-2 or better. Toledo had the best season. The Rockets finished 7-1 in conference and 10-2 overall. They're rightfully a heavy favorite in Detroit over the Akron Zips. That's understandable since these teams already met in the regular season, a 48-21 win for the Rockets. Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside has had an excellent season and that day was no different. Woodside threw three first quarter touchdowns to get the Rockets off to a 21-0 start. Woodside threw five total touchdowns in that win, one of several brilliant performances from the senior quarterback this year. Woodside has thrown 24 touchdowns this year, compared to only three interceptions. He's the catalyst for a Rockets offense that has put up over 500 yards per game (YPG) and nearly 40 points per game (PPG). Those are gaudy macro numbers but the Rockets have been effective on a more micro level. Toldeo averages 7 yards per play (YPP) this year as well. That's sixth best in the country. To say that the Zips will have their hands full is an understatement. Akron doesn't move the ball nearly as well; the Zips only average 4.7 YPP, and they rank near the bottom of all Division 1-A teams when it comes to most meaningful offensive stats. Defensively, they've done just enough to win seven games and get this far. But they have performed well in the red zone this year. The Zips have the 13th best red zone defense in the country. That means the Zips need to do a couple things well on Saturday: First, keep the Toledo receivers in front of them and contain the big plays. Second, when Toledo is in the red zone, play as well as they've played all year and limit the Rockets to field goals rather than touchdowns. If they can do that then they can stick around and compete in this game. But that's a lot easier said than done. Not counting their September loss to Miami (a team that's playing Saturday night to get into the CFP), the Rockets have had one bad game all year, a 38-10 loss on the road to Ohio. That night the Rockets got run all over by the Bobcats and never got in sync on offense. But Akron isn't a great running team, averaging only 3 YPP on the ground. Add it all up, and way too many things have to go right here for Akron. Toledo is explosive and has several match-up advantages here, as we saw the first time they played. It's a huge number but I'll take the Rockets to cover in the Motor City:
Conference USA Championship: North Texas (+11) @ Florida Atlantic:
Lane Kiffin has been great on several levels this year. Great for twitter, great for the college football rumor mill, and especially great at what he's actually paid to do: Coach Florida Atlantic. The Owls were bad in recent years. Really bad. They went 3-9 their last three seasons, and they hadn't played in a postseason bowl since 2008. This was a tough turnaround job and Kiffin has done it in year one. The Owls are 9-3 and most importantly, undefeated in Conference USA play at 8-0. That includes a win over North Texas and that's why FAU will host the game. FAU didnt just beat North Texas, they beat them down. The Owls scored on their first 11 drives that day! The final score was 69-31 and the game wasn't nearly that close. But for the Mean Green, that was their only loss in conference play. North Texas went 7-1 in conference and 9-3 overall. So while FAU has garnered all of the headlines in Conference USA, North Texas has completed a nice rebuild as well. The Mean Green won a single game two years ago and now they're champs of the West division in Conference USA. They'd love to avenge the embarrassing loss in Boca earlier this year and win the conference. To do that, they'll have to slow down FAU's tremendous rushing attack. The Owls are the 8th best rushing offense in the country, at over 269 YPG. But more importantly, the Owls are the 9th best in the country at rushing YPP, at 5.9. This tells us the Owls are running the ball a lot, and they're running well on a consistent basis. Their opponents know it's coming and can't stop it anyway. This is bad news for North Texas. On average, the Mean Green have seen their opponents run the ball 43 times per game against them this year. This is because they really struggle to stop the run, allowing over 200 YPG and 4.9 YPP on the ground. These match-up numbers strongly favor FAU. Consider that the game's at home in Boca for FAU and this is an easy choice. Owls to cover, and continue being interesting in Conference USA:
|KAM's Play:||Mean Green|
AAC Championship: Memphis (+7.5) @ Central Florida:
If you like offense, this AAC rematch is your game. Memphis and UCF are putting Big 12 teams to shame this season. UCF is number one in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 48.3 PPG. Memphis is second, at 47 PPG. Predictably, neither team struggles to move the ball; both squads gain well over 7 YPP. Both do it with balance. They each throw for over 300 YPG and run for just about 200. So can either defense step up and win this game? It's not likely as both teams give up over 400 YPG. Because both teams will struggle to stop the other's balanced offense, a game like this may come down to who wins the turnover battle. If the yards and points stats didn't sound remarkably similar, both teams are also top six in the country at turnover differential. UCF is number one in the country at +1.5, and Memphis is right there at +1.1, sixth best in the country. So both have been extremely good in this area. But back in late September when these teams met, UCF had a big edge here. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson had a rare off day and committed four turnovers. It was a close game in the second quarter, but those turnovers helped to facilitate 34 straight UCF points. But that was the last time the Tigers lost. Memphis has since won seven in a row and scored 53 PPG over that span. Ferguson will be better this time around in what should be a competitive and fun game to watch. It's hard to say whether or not the Scott Frost-to-Nebraska rumors will impact his team's preparation and focus here. UCF just won a thrilling, but also emotionally draining, rivalry game last week. That doesn't mean they won't win on Saturday but more than a touchdown is too much. Tigers to cover:
Big 12 Championship: TCU (+7.5) vs Oklahoma, from Arlington, Texas:
For the first time since 2010, it's the return of the Big 12 Championship Game! Between 1996 and 2010 the Big 12 sent its division champions (North and South) to play this game. But now because the conference only has ten teams, they play a round robin regular season and then send the two teams with the best conference records. This means the game will always be a rematch (provided the conference does not expand). This year is a rematch between Oklahoma and TCU. The Sooners won the regular season meeting just a few weeks ago, 38-20, in Norman. If you watched the game you know it didn't even seem that close. Oklahoma got its typically excellent offensive effort that day, but its defense stood out. The unit's really struggled for most of the season but played its best game that day. It's unlikely that the Sooners get that kind of defensive effort again, but it may not matter if the offense continues to keep the pace they've set this year. Not only do the Sooners average over 45 PPG, fourth best in the country, but they get an astounding 8.4 YPP. This is tops in the nation by a full yard. This stat more than any other illustrates Oklahoma's offensive prowess. It starts and ends with quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield is well on his way to winning the Heisman, but he needs to have a good game on Saturday to ensure a bigger prize and advance to the CFP. TCU's defense is good, but not good enough to contain Mayfield. And even if the Horned Frogs do the unthinkable and shut him down, the Sooners have been running the ball well all year too. They even ran for over 200 yards on TCU a few weeks ago. That balance makes it nearly impossible to totally shut down the Sooners. That means TCU would have to keep pace on offense and they're just not built for that. I think this may be the easiest pick on Saturday. Sooners to cover:
|KAM's Play:||Horned Frogs|
|Matt's Play:||Horned Frogs|
SEC Championship: Georgia (+2.5) vs Auburn from Atlanta, Georgia:
Regarding the CFP this is one of the simpler scenarios this weekend. The winner is in and the loser goes home. (Not home really, but settles for a New Year's Six Bowl.) On the podcast we discussed just how impressive Auburn was in the Iron Bowl. Auburn not only outgained Alabama on the day, but the Tigers converted half of their third downs, and controlled the clock by a 36-24 margin. That's a huge number and illustrative of how Auburn really dominated that game. Yes, it was at home for Auburn, but it doesn't really diminish how great they were on Saturday. Auburn is now 5-0 in their last five games and that includes a 4-1 record ATS. It also includes a dominant win over Georgia just three weeks ago. In that game Auburn held Georgia to a mere 46 yards rushing. The Tigers defensive front was clearly at an advantage over the Bulldogs offensive line. After stifling Georgia's normally excellent running backs, Auburn got after freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm was sacked four times and struggled to connect with his receivers completing less than 50% of his passes on the day. Auburn's Jarrett Stidham was clearly the better quarterback that day. Just like he was in the Iron Bowl. In a game that may need quarterbacks to make plays late, Auburn has a big advantage here. And the Tigers may need it if Kerryon Johnson can't play due to injury. Georgia will keep it close for most of the afternoon on Saturday. The Bulldogs had everything go wrong in their game at Auburn and that won't happen again. Plus, they get a slight home field advantage playing in Atlanta. I say slight because Auburn fans will pack that dome with just as many seats as they can get their hands on. I don't think they'll be disappointed. Tigers to cover in Atlanta:
Sun Belt Conference: Troy (+1) @ Arkansas State:
Starting in 2018, the Sun Belt will play a new conference championship game, but for now this is the closest they come. It may not be an official conference title game, but the winner will at least share the conference championship. And the winner may be the Sun Belt's outright champion if Appalachian State loses on Saturday. The Appalachian State game should be over by the time these two kick off. So if App State gets upset, then these two will be playing for an outright title. So both teams are approaching this game with everything on the line, and it should be a good game. It's been picked up by ESPN2 and airs Saturday night at 7:30 Eastern. So if you need something to watch before the Big 10 and ACC games kick off, now you've got it.
As for this game, Arkansas State has generally been the better offense this year. The Red Wolves score 39.9 PPG, tenth best in the entire country. But Troy has generally been the better defense. The country saw first-hand how good the Trojans can be when they went into Death Valley and beat LSU on a Saturday night in late September. For the season, Troy gives up less than 17 PPG; that's top ten in the country. Also, the Trojans only give up 4.7 YPP; that's 14th best in the country. These are impressive defensive stats. I normally side with the defense in an "Offense versus Defense" match-up. But there's one key defensive stat where Arkansas State is actually better. When it comes to opponents third down conversion percentage, Arkansas State has actually done a much better job than Troy this year. The Red Wolves have allowed opponents to convert less than 32% of the time on third down. The Trojans have allowed opponents to convert almost 41% of the time. In what should be a close game between the two best teams in the Sun Belt, getting off the field on third down and getting your offense back to work will be a big deal. Arkansas State has been better in this area. Plus they're at home for a rare nationally televised game. I like the Red Wolves to cover:
|Sam's Play:||Red Wolves|
|Kevin's Play:||Red Wolves|
Mountain West Championship: Fresno State (+8.5) @ Boise State:
If you think we just previewed this game last week, you're right. Boise went to Fresno for the Mountain West regular season finale on Rivalry Weekend and it just so happened that both teams had already clinched their respective divisions. So going into the game last week, we knew it was essentially dress rehearsal for the conference title game. We need to rant about a couple things here before previewing and picking:
- This game should without a doubt be played in Fresno and NOT Boise! The two teams finished with identical 7-1 conference records and Fresno beat Boise head-to-head. It doesn't get any simpler than this. Fresno owns the oldest tiebreaker in the history of sports. The Bulldogs should be at home. But the Mountain West has a ridiculous and convoluted home site determination policy that you can read here. If you want to skip it, all you need to know is that it incorporates composite computer rankings before using head-to-head. I actually like that they play the game at one of the member school's home stadiums. I think it's difficult for Group of Five conferences to get enough fans to travel to a neutral site. So I'm fine with them staying on campus. But ditch this asinine tiebreaker. If a head-to-head tiebreaker can be used, that should always be the first option.
- If you read our site you know that we love #MountainWestAfterMidnight. This conference generally has a couple games kicking off somewhere between 9:00 and 10:45 Eastern, sometimes midnight when the game's in Hawaii. I have no idea how they come up with their kickoff times, and how their TV deals on the cable sports channels like CBS Sports Network, impact those time slots. But they're great. We generally have 2-3 prime time games that are into the second half when these games start. So you're switching back and forth between those, but as they end you have more games that have already started up. Between #Pac12AfterDark and #MountainWestAfterMidnight, you've got options. It's perfect if you want to stay up a little later and watch more football. But now the Mountain West starts at 7:45 on Championship Saturday? Right as the Big Ten and ACC are about to kick off? It makes no sense, especially if you want people to actually watch your game. Kick off at 9:30 instead, and let us enjoy the second half of the last title game of the weekend after the Big Ten and ACC finish up. I don't think this is asking too much.
Now let's talk about this game. Fresno has the best scoring defense in the conference. We saw it on display last week when the Bulldogs only gave up 17 points to the Broncos. Fresno has only given up 17.3 PPG all year. So limiting the Broncos to that number last week tells us that they're not just good against weaker teams, but they perform consistently against their better opponents too. Now the best defense in the conference is getting 8.5 points? I'll take it. Bulldogs to cover in a game that should be played in Fresno:
ACC Championship: Miami (+10) vs Clemson, from Charlotte, North Carolina:
Like the SEC, the ACC title game is nothing short of a play-in for the CFP. Prior to Miami's bad loss in Pittsburgh the Friday after Thanksgiving, there was plenty of "two teams from the ACC" talk. If Clemson had beaten Miami in a close game, could the ACC have gotten two 12-1 teams into the CFP? It's hard to say now, and it was obviously dependent on what happened elsewhere. But it's not happening now. Miami can't have the bad Pitt loss AND be a two-loss non-champion and get in. Same with Clemson: The Tigers can't have the bad loss at Syracuse (Kelly Bryant or not) AND be a two-loss non-champ, and still earn a Final Four spot. So now the ACC Championship functions as a national quarterfinal which is perfect.
Being in this game is nothing new for Clemson. The Tigers have won it the last two years to advance to the CFP, and ultimately won the national title last year. But for Miami this is new. It may seem unbelievable but the Hurricanes have never played in this game. Miami joined the ACC in 2004, so it took 14 seasons but the Hurricanes are finally playing for the ACC title. Because the two are in different ACC divisions, they don't play every year. They haven't played a regular season game since 2015 when Clemson won 58-0. Miami should be able to make it a lot closer this time, but can they win? Clemson is favored by ten, making Miami the biggest underdog in Power Five title games. For the Hurricanes to keep this close they'll have to do what they've done so well all year, and that's win the turnover battle. Miami's opportunistic defense has been so good at forcing turnovers that they have a plus-17 turnover differential for the season. That's the best in the country. They've gotten teams into obvious passing situations, pressured quarterbacks, gotten a lot of sacks, and frequently created these turnovers. They must do this Saturday night to have any chance here. Clemson is very good defensively as well, so Miami will struggle to score if they have to go 80 yards or more on a consistent basis. Clemson is top ten in the country at total defense, holding opponents well under 300 YPG. Because teams can't move the ball on Clemson, they predictably struggle to score. Clemson only surrenders 13.6 PPG and that's the third best scoring defense in the nation. The Hurricanes absolutely have their work cut out for them here. Clemson should win but the Tigers were heavy favorites the last two years here and it was a one-possession game both times. I expect the Hurricanes to keep it closer than double digits in what could be a low-scoring game:
Big Ten Championship: Ohio State (-7) vs Wisconsin, from Indianapolis, Indiana:
Playing for the Big Ten title is familiar territory for both Ohio State and Wisconsin. This is only the 7th conference title game in Big Ten history since the league didn't start playing this game until 2011. Ohio State is playing in its third title game, with a previous record of 1-1. This is Wisconsin's fifth appearance, with a previous record of 2-2. But those two wins came back in 2011 and 2012. Wisconsin hasn't been as good in this game since then, and the Badgers would like to erase the 2014 loss to Ohio State from their memory. But that's difficult this week as the rematch means "59-0" headlines are resurfacing. The only way Wisconsin can exorcise those demons is to win this game and make their first CFP appearance. It won't be easy, and critics are quick to point out that Wisconsin hasn't played a particularly challenging schedule this year. That's no fault of their own. They agreed to go play BYU in Provo - something most Power Five teams won't do - when the Cougars were having much better seasons. And it's not the Badgers fault that Iowa, Minnesota, and especially Nebraska all had sub-par seasons in the Big Ten West. They can only play (and beat) the opponents on their schedule. They've done that. But the critiques are fair. The Big Ten East is the much better division in that conference. If Wisconsin had to play Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State (like they did last year due to cross-over scheduling), going 12-0 would have been significantly more challenging. None of this means Wisconsin isn't a very good team. The debate and competing narratives over Wisconsin have gotten a little ridiculous. Yes, they're very good despite the weaker schedule. But no, they haven't proven that they can consistently beat the best teams in the country. But outside of Auburn, Clemson, and Oklahoma, who has? That puts Wisconsin right on the edge, ready to join that group and compete in the CFP. The good news for Wisconsin fans is that the Badgers get the chance to silence their critics Saturday night. As a seven point underdog, they'll have to be taken seriously if they can knock off the Buckeyes. And it's good news for the haters too... If Wisconsin has a repeat 2014 performance, then the Badgers go away and the CFP debate will be limited to the "real" elites of college football. I don't see the Badgers going down without a fight.
Wisconsin will come out with their typically conservative game plan. It's hard to fault them for that since their defense is good enough to keep them in any game. The Badgers surrender a mere 12 PPG, the number one scoring defense in the country. Maybe more impressive is that they only allow 237 total YPG. That includes limiting opponents to 80.5 YPG on the ground. By rank, Wisconsin leads the country in scoring defense, total defense, and rushing defense. Again, critics will focus on the Wisconsin schedule, but reasonable fans will agree that these are stifling numbers to maintain for an entire 12 game season. Stopping the run is key to any defense. It's really the most elementary goal for any defense. If you can't stop the run, you can't force the opposing offense into passing situations and that means the offense is basically eliminating risk. There's no chance to sack their quarterback for big yardage losses. No chance to force them into throwing deep and pick off errant passes. No chance for tipped passes at the line of scrimmage that lead to interceptions. And most importantly, your defense can't get off the field and help your offense with field position if they can't stop the run. So that's your Football 101 for the day. In this Big Ten title game, we'll see Wisconsin's top ranked run defense against Ohio State's rushing offense, which is best in the conference. That's right, it's actually Ohio State, at 250.3 YPG, that leads the Big Ten in rushing. The Badgers trail the Buckeyes by a mere 7 YPG on the ground, but it's worth noting that Ohio State has been slightly better this year. We expect it from Wisconsin, but Ohio State is running the ball behind a superb offensive line of their own. So both teams will look to dominate the line of scrimmage and establish the run early. The defensive front seven that plays better, then, may be the difference in this game.
Ohio State has the better defensive line, but Wisconsin has the better linebackers. Both secondaries are talented, and generally speaking, play very disciplined football. (I know Ohio State got torched by the passing game in Iowa City. But if Clemson and Miami are allowed one bad loss this year, I'll give Ohio State some flexibility too...) If either team can find success running the ball early, that will give them an advantage in play-action. Ohio State quarterback JT Barrett left the Buckeyes win over Michigan with a strange sideline injury last week, but Barrett is expected to play on Saturday night. Barrett gave the Wisconsin defense fits last year in an overtime win in Madison. When the Badgers stopped the run and got the Buckeyes into third-and-long situations, Barrett was able to avoid sacks and make throws downfield to convert. If and when this happens again, Wisconsin must do a better job containing Barrett and making tackles for loss. It's a very similar defensive game plan for Ohio State. The Buckeyes will sell out to stop the Badgers run game and they'll be happy to get Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook into passing situations. Hornibrook has had good moments in recent weeks, but has still thrown way too many interceptions this year. Like the Michigan game a couple weeks ago, Ohio State may have some success bottling up Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor early. Against the Wolverines, Hornibrook was good when Wisconsin needed him most. By connecting on several key second half throws to keep drives alive, that finally opened up the run game and Taylor got going. If Hornibrook can connect with the receivers earlier on Saturday night, that will do wonders for the run game. Hornibrook doesn't have Barrett's ability to scramble, improvise, and run for first downs when necessary. So he must have his best game as a passer. The Wisconsin receivers are young but they've shown the ability to get open and make plays in the last month. Ohio State will get big plays at some point in this game. We'll find out if the Wisconsin offense can answer.
Don't overlook the fact that the Wisconsin program was in a totally different spot in 2014. Gary Anderson (yes, that Gary Anderson) had done a good, but not great, job in his two years in Madison. But behind the scenes Anderson was struggling with the athletic department and plotting his exit from the program. Paul Chryst has done a better job than Anderson, regardless, and I expect him to have Wisconsin ready to play this game. They have every opportunity to make this a season to remember. Badgers to cover, win outright, and advance to the CFP:
Good luck with your picks and enjoy Championship Week! It's the last weekend of college football games until we get to the Bowls. Thank God it's championship football season!
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|Sam often picks with his heart rather than his head. Or he tries too hard to hedge the other way. Don't be afraid to fade his picks; it won't hurt his feelings.|
|The voice of thefootballpod.com, KAM's so good that she's been known to pick both NFL and college games. She'll share her picks as long as you don't trash talk her Packers.|
|Need power picks and the power sweep, both? Then look no further than Kevin's picks. This Western Pennsylvania football product knows the game as well as anyone.|
|Historically the best player in the Tipperary Hill Premier League, Matt's also excellent when it comes to picking college games. Just don't bother him when Iowa's playing!|