CFB Game Predictions: Tennessee vs. Kentucky, Ohio State vs. Penn State — Upsets Possible? PLUS: Power Ratings and Betting Picks

I’m going to dig into the two biggest matchups of the weekend here and provide a final score prediction for each of them. We’ll start with Kentucky at Tennessee.

(19) Kentucky at (3) Tennessee (UT -11.5, o/u 61.0)

Reasons Kentucky could pull off the upset:

  • Tennessee plays at Georgia next week. Is it possible that the Vols will be caught looking ahead? It’s possible.
  • Kentucky has a legit quarterback in Will Levis, who could exploit that suspect Tennessee secondary–although obviously not to the extent that Bryce Young did.
  • Vegas has Tennessee as just an 11.5 point favorite. That may sound like a lot, but remember, teams get at least 3-4 points just for being at home. In my view, it’s more like 7 points, and even more in an environment like Neyland, at night. But even if we split the difference and say home field advantage is good for like 5 points, that still means Vegas only has Tennessee as slightly below a touchdown better than UK on a neutral field. And if the game was at UK, the Wildcats might even be favored ever so slightly.
  • So the final score projection here from Vegas is about a 36-25 Tennessee win. Basically Vegas thinks Kentucky will be able to score some points on Tennessee’s defense, but will not be able to contain the Tennessee offense enough to win.
  • However, in the event of a costly turnover by Tennessee (like the one they had at the end of the game against Bama, for example), Kentucky could very well win this game.
  • Bill Connelly of ESPN, the guy who produces the SP+ ratings, had an interesting insight about this game. He says that Kentucky is “perfectly built to give Tennessee absolute hell.”
  • So Kentucky is really good at containing QB runs. If they were able to bottle up Anthony Richardson, they should be able to hold up alright against Hooker.
  • Kentucky is also really good against the pass.
  • And, on top of all that, they have the slowest tempo in the country, meaning they are slow and methodical on offense. In theory they should be able to limit the number of possessions Tennessee gets in this game and keep Hendon Hooker on the sideline. That’s a big deal.
  • The most points Kentucky has allowed in a game this season has been 24, and it was to South Carolina two weeks ago in a game they lost 24-14. But Will Levis wasn’t even playing in that game.
  • Kentucky held Ole Miss to just 22 points and 390 total yards in Oxford three weeks ago. Ole Miss is a prolific offense. They average 38 points a game and 490 yards of offense. Kentucky held them to well below both numbers. So Kentucky has some experience against high-powered offenses, although Ole Miss isn’t quite on Tennessee’s level by any means.
  • Bottom line: if Kentucky is able to dictate the style and pace of the game, they could win it.
  • And there is precedent for a team keeping this Tennessee offense relatively bottled up this year. When Tennessee went up to Pitt in week 2, that game was tied at 27 at the end of regulation. UT won 34-27 in OT, but it was a close call.
  • Pitt held Tennessee’s rushing attack in check (91 yards on 35 carries) and held Hendon Hooker to 7.7 yards per pass attempt (he averaged 12.4 against Alabama). He still had 325 passing yards, but he had to work for it.
  • And Tennessee had 12 possessions in that game, too. Pitt was still able to hold them to just 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals in regulation. The Tennessee touchdown drives were as follows: 11 plays, 80 yards; 9 plays 71 yards, 3 plays, 66 yards. So only one of the three TD drives was one of those “lightning strike” drives.
  • Pitt was able to keep the game close even though they weren’t particularly great throwing the ball, too. Kedon Slovis got hurt in the game and Pitt had to turn to Nick Patti, but Slovis, when he was in the game, was 14/24 for 195 yards passing, or 8.1 yards per attempt. Patti was just 9/20 for 79 yards, so obviously there was a massive drop off in passing for Pitt when Slovis got hurt, and they may well have won that game had Slovis played the whole time.
  • Now, while I would say Kentucky is capable of doing what Pitt did to Tennessee, the difference is that Pitt has a really good running back in Israel Abanikanda, who went for 154 yards on 25 carries, or 6.2 YPC. He did have a 76 yard run in there which kind of skewed things, however.
  • But there is a blueprint for how to keep Tennessee within arms reach, and I think Kentucky is probably going to study the Pitt game tape to see if they can replicate that. Kentucky is a better team than Pitt, although Kentucky’s run game is much worse than Pitt’s.

Reasons Tennessee will avoid the upset:

  • Night game, at Neyland, and they’re wearing their black uniforms:
  • This could be completely untrue and I haven’t verified it at all, but I believe no team has ever lost when they’re playing a home night game and wearing alternate black unis. It’s impossible.
  • In all seriousness, a big thing Tennessee has going for them is that they’re really good against the run. They’re 6th in the country in rush yards per carry allowed at 2.9–they’re tied with both Michigan and Ohio State there. Kentucky is already 121st in the country in average yards per carry on offense at just 3.1. So in all likelihood, Kentucky won’t be able to run the ball at all in this game. Which could throw a monkey wrench into their plan to keep Tennessee’s offense off the field.
  • Now, it’s a big deal that Kentucky will get running back Chris Rodriguez back. He’s a difference maker. Kentucky absolutely needs him to go off. But Tennessee should be capable of at least slowing him down.
  • Will Levis might be able to take advantage of Tennessee’s secondary, and maybe that will help open up the run, but I’m not sure it’ll be enough.
  • Tennessee just has such an incredible ability to score the ball quickly. You can hold them to just 8 possessions, that’s fine, but they can still score 35 points on you. And that’s why I am skeptical of an upset happening here. Connelly talked about how Kentucky held Mississippi State to just 8 possessions and wound up winning 27-17. Even if Kentucky is able to do that to Tennessee, Tennessee can still score points.
  • If Tennessee scores over 30 points, they win the game.
  • I know Kentucky has Levis and Rodriguez, but I think they just don’t have enough offensive explosiveness to keep up with even a slowed down version of Tennessee. And the fact that Tennessee is so solid against the run really is hard to ignore here.

So that’s my case for each team.

I think Tennessee will win the game ultimately, even though I really want to pick Kentucky to pull the upset. I think it’s absolutely possible for Kentucky to win this game, but Will Levis is going to have the game of his life.

It’s weird, because I kind of have a gut feeling that Kentucky is going to do it, but my logical brain tells me no way.

The fact that the game is in Knoxville sways me. I think the game is close for a while but then Tennessee pulls away late.

I’m taking Tennessee to win 37-23.

It could be closer. In fact I think it probably will be closer. I would probably bet Kentucky to cover if I lived in a state that allowed sports betting. But I’m not going to. I’m fading myself.

Update: Damnit. Tennessee gets no love from the College Gameday crew. I want to pick Kentucky so badly.

(2) Ohio State at (13) Penn State (OSU -15.0, o/u 61.0)

I’m not going to lie, I am not super confident in Ohio State. While they have looked great this season against far inferior competition, they have yet to be really tested against a worthy opponent.

The two teams on their schedule that could’ve challenged them somewhat, Iowa and Notre Dame, had a surprising amount of success against Ohio State’s supposedly unstoppable offense. I don’t, however, think Penn State’s defense is on the same level as Iowa’s. People need to give the Iowa defense more respect. Forget about how bad the offense is; don’t throw the baby out with the bath water here. In fact, actually give Iowa’s defense even more credit because of how much more difficult life is for them due to their impotent offense.

So while the Ohio State offense may have had a bit of tough sledding against Iowa, that was a great defense. ESPN S&P+ has them as the best in the nation. Football Outsiders’ F+ Ratings has then #2 in the nation behind only Georgia. It’s entirely possible that Iowa’s defense is the best defense Ohio State will face all year, even if they make it to the playoff and get to the national championship game. Put that in your pipe and smoke it: Iowa may literally be the best defense in the country, and no team remaining on Ohio State’s schedule will give them as much of a test as Iowa did. It is entirely possible this is the case.

And so from this perspective, Penn State’s defense isn’t going to throw anything at Ohio State that they haven’t seen before. Penn State may be the best overall team the Buckeyes have played so far, but they are definitely not the best defense. Ohio State has already gone up against a stronger defense than what Penn State has to offer.

On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense, which is much improved this year, still has not been really tested all that much and is probably still highly suspect at cornerback. Penn State has some talented receivers in Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley, and Ohio State hasn’t faced anyone on their level. I think there’s a chance the Ohio State secondary–which was probably even worse than the run defense was last year but got no attention because of how bad the run defense was in the big nationally televised games–really has a tough day with the Penn State receivers.

However, the saving grace here for Ohio State, possibly, is that Sean Clifford, while a competent quarterback, is not some prolific passer who has the ability to light you up with his arm. He’s not out there throwing laser beams all over the field.

Plus, the Penn State offensive line is not that good. I have it ranked 60th in the country, whereas the Ohio State defensive line is ranked second overall. That’s a significant mismatch. I think the Ohio State front seven will be able to get consistent pressure on Sean Clifford and make his life miserable for much of that game.

The reason I think Ohio State should win the game, though, is because Penn State just isn’t elite at anything, really.

Of the main statistical categories I track, there isn’t really an area where Penn State is top-tier other than net red zone touchdown percentage, which is a big deal, don’t get me wrong, especially against Ohio State, but it’s not enough.

Take a look at where Penn State ranks nationally in all these categories:

  • Net points per game: 22nd
  • Net pass yards per attempt: 31st
  • Net pass yards: 67th
  • Net completion percentage: 14th
  • Net rush yards: 46th
  • Net yards per carry: 42nd
  • Net total yards: 48th
  • Net yards per play: 26th
  • Net first downs: 65th
  • Special teams: 16th
  • Offensive line: 60th
  • Defensive line: 54th
  • Net tackles for loss: 25th
  • Net big plays: 55th
  • Net 3rd down percentage: 74th
  • Net red zone TD%: 2nd

Not really all that impressive, is it?

They’re not terrible in any category, but they’re unspectacular all around.

I still have them rated 13th in the nation overall, which is exactly where they are in the AP poll, but there’s really nothing that they do on an elite level.

Again, it’s possible that Ohio State is just a VASTLY, VASTLY, RIDICULOUSLY overrated team because of their weak schedule and they are completely and totally exposed by Penn State. There’s a chance that’s the case, I guess. (That’s what all the Michigan fans on social media seem to believe is the case, even though their team has played a significantly weaker schedule).

But if it’s not, and Ohio State is for real, then Penn State has no chance to win this game.

Yes, they have a great cornerback in Joey Porter Jr. But Ohio State has so many pass-catchers. Let’s just assume Joey Porter Jr. locks down Marvin Harrison Jr. completely. Like just eliminates him from the game.

Ohio State still has Emeka Egbuka, who is almost just as elite as Harrison. They also have Julian Fleming, who would be the best receiver on like 125+ teams in the country.

And while JSN is not 100% and might not even play, if he’s out there even as a decoy, Penn State has to account for him.

Plus Ohio State has a legit tight end in Cade Stover.

Penn State has a good secondary in terms of talent.

But Penn State also ranks 79th in the country in passing yards per game allowed, and the thing is, they have not played any good passing teams outside of Purdue in the first game of the season.

Yes, they’ve played Michigan, but Michigan basically ran the ball all game. JJ McCarthy was 17/24 for 145 yards in that game. Michigan didn’t care about passing at all.

Penn State is 79th in passing yards after playing Minnesota’s backup quarterback, Michigan, Central Michigan, Auburn, Northwestern, Ohio and then Purdue. All those teams other than Purdue are not great at throwing the ball.

Penn State let up 365 yards passing to Aidan O’Connell, albeit on 59 attempts (6.2 YPA).

The numbers just aren’t adding up here for Penn State, in my opinion.

They rank 46th in rush yards per game and 26th in yards per carry on offense. So in the event that Ohio State’s run defense is ripe to get exposed, they’re not the team to do it.

And historically, Penn State is never able to run on Ohio State.

  1. Last year, against that horrible Ohio State run defense, Penn State only managed 33 yards on 29 carries. (Clifford shredded them for 361 passing yards, though.)
  2. In 2020, Penn State had 44 rushing yards on 27 carries.
  3. In 2019, 36 carries for 99 yards.
  4. In 2018, they had 44 carries for 208 yards, however, that was when they had Trace McSorley, who was a really good running QB that gave Ohio State trouble all the time. He had 25 carries for 175 yards. Otherwise, Miles Sanders was held to 43 yards on 16 carries.
  5. In 2017, when Penn State had Saquon Barkley, they finished with 35 carries for 91 yards. 49 were McSorley, and Barkley had 44 yards on 21 carries.
  6. In 2016, the game Penn State won, they were actually pretty good running the ball for a change. 33 carries, 165 yards. And Barkley had 99 yards on just 12 carries. McSorley had 19 carries for 63 yards.

So it’s been pretty tough for Penn State to run the ball on Ohio State.

I think that continues this year. I think Ohio State will have a lot of success against the run, and it’s because their run defense is much improved this season.

But Ohio State’s pass defense should also be better this year as well, and that includes their pass rush, which is part of your passing defense in a major way. I don’t see Clifford throwing for 360 yards again.

It’s possible that Ohio State’s secondary is terrible once again, but it can’t be worse than last year.

I just don’t really see a way for Penn State to win this game other than forcing multiple turnovers and forcing Ohio State to kick field goals every single time they get in the red zone.

I don’t think Penn State is going to get flattened like they did against Michigan, or like Ohio State’s previous opponents, though. I feel like Penn State will find a way to somehow keep it close. I’m sure Ohio State will have issues in the red zone because those are a recurring theme for them under Ryan Day.

I am going to take Penn State to cover the 15 point spread, but Ohio State should be in control of the game throughout.

The only reason I’m taking Penn State to cover is just because of the recent history in this series. It’s always a close-ass game when Ohio State has to travel to Happy Valley. Even the 2014 Ohio State National Championship team got taken to double overtime by Penn State in that stadium.

Again, on paper, I really don’t see how Penn State keeps it within 15 points, but for whatever reason, they always seem to do so.

I’m taking Ohio State to win 34-20, with Penn State just barely covering the spread. They might even get a late garbage time touchdown to make it happen–maybe it’s like 34-13 Ohio State in the 4th quarter and then Penn State scores late.

What gives me some pause is that it seems like everyone is picking Penn State to cover the spread. I feel like every video or ESPN segment I’ve watched on this game, the analysts are picking Penn State and the points. 60% of the money right now is on Penn State to cover. That kind of surprises me because I figured everyone would be picking Ohio State to run a train on them. But apparently a lot of people watched that Ohio State vs. Iowa game, and a lot of people lost confidence in Ohio State’s offense, even though Iowa has a really tough defense.

I’m a little worried about picking Penn State to cover because it’s a crowded bet right now. I really want to fade the public and take Ohio State to cover, but damnit I agree with the public.


Now, I almost forgot to share my Week 8 power ratings.

Here’s what I’ve got, at least for the top 80:

Also, I wanted to share last week’s gambling picks. It was a good week:

5-2 in the high confidence picks, 3-0 in the medium confidence picks, and then 0-3 in the low confidence picks.

That’s why we separate them!

If you exclude the low confidence picks, which I am, it was 8-2 last week.

And again, I warn you beforehand whether or not I have high or low confidence in a pick, so that’s on you if you take one of the low confidence picks.

Overall on the season–well, technically I’ve only been doing gambling picks since week 6:

28-26-1 overall on the season.

However, if you took only the high confidence picks, you’d have gone 15-8, a 65% win rate.

Medium confidence picks have hit only about 52.6% of the time, while low confidence picks only hit 23% of the time.

So probably just don’t take the low confidence picks, yeah?

I include them just to show you what the recommendation would be in case you were curious. Basically I include them in the picks to show you why not to bet the game.

And now here are the picks for this week:

So there are a lot of high confidence picks. Basically my power ratings are advising you to take the ranked favorites, whether they’re on the road or not.

I would also advise that the Oklahoma State vs. Kansas State game is a STAY AWAY because of the uncertainty around the K State quarterback situation. Stuff like that screws with the lines.

The power ratings advise staying away from that 15 point line in the Ohio State vs. Penn State game. I have Penn State losing that game by about 14, which is too close for comfort compared to the line.

However, the power ratings do like Tennessee to cover quite easily against Kentucky.

And then finally we also see Michigan absolutely beating the brakes off of Michigan State on Saturday night. It’s possible that game is close, because Michigan State always seems to find a way to give Michigan a scare (or just beat them outright, which happens quite often). But my ratings say Michigan is a whopping 53 points better than Sparty on a neutral site, and of course that’s also assuming Michigan would run the score up.

The reason some of my point spreads are so big is because they don’t take that kind of thing into account. In other words, the power ratings believe Michigan could beat Sparty by 53 if they wanted.

But in reality, if Michigan is up like 30 or something in the 4th quarter, they will take their foot off the gas and it won’t be a 53 point win. But it could be if they never pull their starters.

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