Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:01 AM

Essentials - Week 12

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Most of the SEC is snacking on cupcakes this weekend, but there are still a number of games crucial to college football's fortunes. Here are the highlights and what to watch:

Syracuse at Notre Dame (-10/65), 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC: The Irish must still visit USC next week, but this meeting against the upstart Orange in Yankee Stadium of all places is expected to carry enough juice to ensure that undefeated Notre Dame will remain among college football’s top-four regardless of what happens in December’s conference championship games. To secure a playoff spot, a Fighting Irish defense that has been tremendous all season must rise up against the top dual threat QB it has run up against, Syracuse junior Eric Dungey (14 TD passes, 12 TD runs). Notre Dame hasn’t given up more than 27 points in a single game this season, while the Orange have only scored fewer than 30 once. The anomaly occurred at Clemson in a game where it led into the fourth quarter despite leaving a lot of points on the board. Dino Babers’ team is legit. They’ve averaged over 46 points on this current four-game winning streak that included a 51-41 upset at N.C. State. Syracuse is 3-0 ATS in an underdog role, winning outright twice.

The Irish will be tasked with slowing down an offense that operates at a faster tempo than any other team they’ve seen besides Wake Forest, a game that finished 56-27 and remains Notre Dame’s highest-scoring. Six of the last seven games involving the Irish have cleared the posted total, while four of the last five Syracuse games have also gone ‘over.’ Ian Book will be returning for Notre Dame after sitting out last week’s win over Florida State due to a rib injury. Brandon Wimbush was shaky (3 TDs, 2 INTs) against the ‘Noles, so he wouldn’t inspire confidence if pressed into action. Syracuse will have RB Moe Neal available and rank fifth nationally with 32 rushing TDs, so the Irish can’t just key in on the pass against this ‘Cuse offense, which is fortunate to get mild conditions in the Bronx, where temperatures are expected to be in the mid-40s with light wind.

Iowa State at Texas (-3/48), 8 p.m. ET, Longhorn: Since Oklahoma and West Virginia play each other next weekend, the winner of this one will have a great chance to reach the Big 12 Championship game. The Cyclones are an underdog here but have been riding freshman QB Brock Purdy since October began and own five straight wins as they face their toughest test of the season. Purdy has accounted for 15 touchdowns while throwing just two picks despite being thrown into the fire with limited experience. At some point, will the ride feature a rocky start? Is it coming today? Purdy has hooked up with Hakeem Butler as a favorite target and ranks first in adjusted completion percentage on deep passes among Power Five QBs per Pro Football Focus. An offense that was expected to ride entirely on the legs of All-Big 12 standout David Montgomery now has balance that could trouble a Longhorns defense that has surrendered 34 or more points in four of the last five. Montgomery won't participate until the second half after being ejected for throwing a punch last week.

Texas had a QB controversy to start the season, but it can safely be said that he made the right choice in Sam Ehlinger, who has accounted for 26 touchdowns since his last interception. He’s helped keep the Longhorns alive in their last three games that have produced a 1-2 record despite the offense averaging 39 points. With Collin Johnson (knee) upgraded to probable, Ehlinger will have both top targets available alongside Lil’Jordan Humphrey. RB Keaontay Ingram is also a go after dealing with a hip issue. The Longhorns have won 13 of 15 games in this series and the last three have gone way ‘under’ since the Cyclones have scored a total of just 13 points over the last two meetings and Texas was blanked 24-0 in Ames in ’15.

Cincinnati at UCF (-7/61.5), 8 p.m. ET, ABC: The Longhorns went from leading the Big 12 with an unbeaten conference mark to tasting a loss in Stillwater that now complicates matters considering only one of their remaining four games can be chalked up as a win. The conference race is wide open, but the winner of this one will be in excellent shape. After allowing 260 first-quarter yards at Oklahoma State, Texas is placing a priority on getting off to a strong start as it looks to keep Mountaineers QB Will Grier from finding a rhythm.

The Knights offense is more than just McKenzie Milton, but it helps to have his quick decision making as the key catalyst in ensuring that an attack that operates as fast as UCF’s does remains on schedule. RBs Adrian Killins, Otis Anderson, Taj McGowan and Greg McCrae all get carries and bring different skill sets to the equation, so Cincinnati will earn its upset if its able to keep this ground attack from finding legs. Milton terrorized the Bearcats last season, accounting for five touchdowns in a game that ended up not being graded despite crusing past the posted total since thunderstorms ended the Knights’ dominant 51-23 win prematurely. Perfect weather in the low-to-mid 60s is expected for tonight’s clash.

Arizona at Washington State (-10.5/61.5), 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: It’s going to be nice in Pullman too, freezing temperatures aside. Wind won’t be a factor amid the 28-degree weather that the Cougars and Wildcats will have to endure. From the standpoint of being more acclimated to the cold, Washington State should benefit from getting out there under the lights in one of Saturday’s late games. A defense that has dominated in wins over Oregon, Cal and Colorado over the past month will do their best to keep Khalil Tate from warming up. Tate dominated last year’s 58-37 win in Tucson as he and RB J.J Taylor combined to run for nearly 300 yards. He’s turned the corner over the past few weeks after getting his ankle healthy and showing a stronger grasp of the Kevin Sumlin/Noel Mazzone offense he was tasked with learning upon their arrival. The Wildcats have won consecutive games by topping the 40-point mark at home against Oregon and Colorado, so we’ll see if their game translates to the road, where they’ve won only once in four tries.

The Cougs beat Arizona 69-7 in 2016 and are hoping for a similarly large cosmetic win considering they’re stuck on the outside looking in due to the lack of strength in the Pac-12 this season. Although an Apple Cup win next Friday over Washington would provide a boost, Washington State will have to hope multiple teams in front of them lose in order to be considered for the CFP semis. QB Gardner Minshew has a much better shot at being invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy and ceremony as he looks to continue a brilliant season by punishing an Arizona defense that has been brutalized for over 600 yards of total offense in each of the last two meetings and typically don’t fare well against the Air Raid. Minshew leads the country with 20 red zone TDs and will have most everyone at Martin Stadium sporting fake mustaches in his honor, so don’t expect him to be slowed down.

Duke at Clemson (-28.5/58.5), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Duke QB Daniel Jones is experienced and isn’t easily rattled, so there’s that. David Cutcliffe’s prized protégé is healthy enough to play and coming off consecutive wins over Miami and North Carolina after missing time following shoulder surgery. Last week’s win over UNC saw him run for 186 yards as he set a school record for total offense with 547 yards in 42-35 shootout victory in Durham. The Tigers rank second in the nation in total defense (253.6) and have completely shut down the run, surrendering 82.3 yards per game, the third-fewest in the nation. Clemson’s front four is headed to the NFL and contributed to knocking out BC’s Anthony Brown to make last week’s game much easier, so Jones will have to be smart about taking hits in order to see the fourth quarter here to give his team a chance to even cover, much less compete for an upset. Defensively, Duke is hoping standout LB Joe Giles-Harris can return to lend a hand but a knee injury may keep him sidelined. The Blue Devils have already lost top corner Mark Gilbert, safety Dylan Singleton and standout DT Edgar Cerenord.

West Virginia (-6.5/71) at Oklahoma State, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC: The Cowboys have cleared star RB Justice Hill to play despite injured ribs, so that should clear up how interested Mike Gundy’s team is in bouncing back from another Bedlam disappointment in last week’s shootout loss to the Sooners. Oklahoma State needs an upset in today’s home finale or a win next Saturday at TCU just to get bowl eligible. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers have continued bouncing back from a tough loss at Iowa State a month ago and will look to enter next week’s crucial home game against Oklahoma with momentum by taking care of business as a road favorite for the fourth time in five tries. QB Will Grier is in the Heisman mix and has thrown nine touchdowns and just one interception on this run of victories over Baylor, Texas and TCU. Dana Holgorsen has lost his last three meetings against OK State, winning in Stillwater last in 2014. The Mountaineers surrendered 50 points in Morgantown last season, so they’ll be looking to rebound by stifling Taylor Cornelius, who has had his ups and downs replacing Mason Rudolph but tasted victory in his most recent home date, quieting critics in an upset of Texas.

Others to watch: Northwestern at Minnesota, Boston College at Florida State, Indiana at Michigan, Miami at Virginia Tech, Wisconsin at Purdue, Utah at Colorado, Pittsburgh at Wake Forest, Ohio State at Maryland, USC at UCLA, South Florida at Temple, Middle Tennessee at Kentucky, Michigan State at Nebraska, Missouri at Tennessee, Pittsburgh at Wake Forest, Arkansas at Mississippi State, Texas Tech at Kansas State, N.C. State at Louisville, UAB at Texas A&M, Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, TCU at Baylor, Kansas at Oklahoma

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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