Saturday’s Essentials

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Here’s a look at what must be considered before wagering on Saturday's slate in select FBS vs. FBS matchups:

Early Starts

NC State at Wake Forest (-7.5/60.5), 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: After bouncing back from a tough 62-59 loss to Louisville by edging Florida State, the Demon Deacons hit November with national championship aspirations. No, seriously. They’ll just have to hold serve here and pull off road upsets of Clemson and Virginia before two more wins over Duke and Syracuse in order to reach the ACC title game ahead of the defending champion Tigers. Possible but not probable, the Deacs will have to avoid an upset here to get the ball rolling and must potentially overcome the absence of senior QB Jamie Newman, who is questionable with a shoulder injury. The very capable Sam Hartman would start if Newman can’t go.

The Wolfpack are looking to get back to .500 behind new starting QB Devin Leary, who did the bulk of the work before last week’s bye in a loss at Boston College. N.C. State had a pair of October bye weeks, one to start the month and one to end it, which gives them an opporutinity to legitimately surprise Wake Forest with things they haven’t seen on film. Leary, a redshirt freshman who was third on the depth chart most of the season, will need to put up points since Wake should put up points no matter who is under center since WRs Sage Surratt and Scotty Washington are likely to have their way with N.C. State’s undersized, inexperienced corners.

Nebraska (-4/58) at Purdue, 12 p.m. ET, FOX: These teams were expecting this opening game of November to be enormous in fueling their West Division title hopes. Instead, the ‘Huskers are just hoping to avoid slipping under .500 and the Boilers are looking to begin a run of four straight wins just to finish 6-6 and move their streak of bowl bids to three. Considering they’ve still got to win at Wisconsin, that’s unlikely. Jeff Brohm’s team has had terrible luck with injuries but has also underachieved. They beat Nebraska in Lincoln for the first time ever last year but have been without standout WR Rondale Moore and probably won’t have him back from a leg injury suffered in late September.

Nebraska will finally get QB Adrian Martinez back after a two-week absence. He looked like he was going to play in last week’s loss to Indiana but was ultimately held out due to a fear that he wouldn’t be able to protect himself due to a balky left knee. That fear no longer exists. Maurice Washington remains out, but Martinez’s return means Purdue’s defense will have to be locked in against the most capable offensive theam they’ve seen since opening October at Penn State. Boilers’ redshirt freshman QB Jack Plummer was benched during last week’s 24-6 turnover-prone loss at Illinois but will start again.

Houston at UCF (-21.5/72), 12 p.m ET, ESPN2: Houston QB D’Eriq King redshirting to return next season means this won’t be the formidable duel that was expected when the schedule was released. After nearly taking down SMU last week, the Cougs are nevertheless dangerous despite coming in with a losing record. RBs Kyle Porter and Patrick Carr have been cleared to play and WR Marquez Stevenson comes off a 10-catch, 211-yard effort against the Mustangs, so there is a lot of talent at the skill positions for Clayton Tune to continue working with. This will be Dana Holgorsen’s first look at UCF and Orlando’s “Bounce Hounce” since coming over from the Big 12. U of H has won the last two meetings between the schools, which includes a 59-10 road win in 2015.

The Knights come off a 63-21 win at Temple and will be favored in their final three regular-season games but won’t get back to a conference championship game unless Cincinnati is beaten twice. That’s unlikely. UCF has scored 104 points in its two games since suffering a 27-24 setback at the Bearcats to open October. RB Adrian Killins will be back from an arm injury, restoring the team’s quality depth at tailback despite the absence of Greg McRae (knee). Freshman QB Dillon Gabriel and backup Darriel Mack, Jr. lead an offense averaging 46.6 points per game. The Knights won’t play at home again until closing the regular season with their annual post-Thanksgiving clash with rival South Florida.

Michigan (-21.5/58) at Maryland, 12 p.m. ET, ABC: The Wolverines were able to flex some muscle in rainy conditions last Saturday night, running up the score in a 45-14 win against overwhelmed Notre Dame. Jim Harbaugh’s team will have a bye on deck before tackling their final stretch of games against rival Michigan State, upstart Indiana and mighty Ohio State, so we’ll see how they approach this road game considering their 2-8 ATS over their last 10 trips outside Ann Arbor. Michigan is relatively healthy outside of top receiver Ronnie Bell, who tweaked a knee and left the field against the Irish.

Maryland got some bodies back for Minnesota last week but were never given a chance to knock off any of the rust in getting overwhelmed 52-10. The Terps have dropped five of six and have given up over 46 points per game in their last four losses. They’re unlikely to gain bowl eligibility in Mike Locksley’s first season since this one will be followed by a visit to Columbus next week, but getting QB Josh Jackson back where he needs to be to lead the program will be a priority. Tyrrell Pigrome should also get snaps after getting his knee back up to speed after leaving the field in Minneapolis. Maryland has a number of injury-related issues up front that won’t help its cause.

Afternoon Delights

Virginia Tech at Notre Dame (-17.5/58.5), 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Brian Kelly had an awful birthday in Ann Arbor after suffering a blowout loss that ended all hopes of another championship chase but needs to pick up the pieces and has a manageable slate that should allow them to win 10 games for a third straight season. The Irish haven’t lost in South Bend since falling to Georgia to open 2017, a span of 15 games. They’re heavily favored against the Hokies. They nearly had their streak of home wins end against USC in a 30-27 win on Oct. 12 but are 3-1 ATS at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame has won seven consecutive games following Michigan week.

Justin Fuente went 3-0 in October to help take some of the heat off, notching upsets over Miami and North Carolina and finding himself a QB in sophomore Hendon Hooker, who has thrown seven TD passes and ran for another score. RB DeShawn McClease has gained 253 yards during their winning streak to key a balanced rushing attack that has helped defenses from coming after Hooker. The Hokies are 11-6 on the road under Fuente and are embarking on the final month of legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s career. DT DaShawn Crawford is expected back from a high-ankle sprain.

Georgia (-6.5/45.5) vs. Florida, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS: Saturday’s top matchup is an elimination game as far as the national title race is concerned since the loser here will absorb a second loss and watch the other just about reserve a spot in the SEC Championship. The teams are meeting as Top-10 dwellers for the second straight season and have signed on to keep their series in Jacksonville. The Dawgs have had the tougher schedule thus far and still have to deal with Auburn and Texas A&M but come in relatively healthy. WR Lawrence Cager and corner Tyson Campbell have been cleared to play after injuries, while Florida is also good to go here with DL Jabari Zuniga and LB Jonathan Greenard both set to play after sitting due to ankle injuries.

Since Jake Fromm struggled so much in the loss to South Carolina, he’s under the most pressure to perform at TIAA Bank Field, especially with the Gators back at full strength defensively. He’s 30-6 in Athens and has led the offense to 36 points per game this season but will need to make plays downfield since Georgia’s defense will have to deal with WR Kadarius Toney, who returns to bolster an attack that Kyle Trask has had success sparking over the past few weeks. The Gators have outscored opponents 147-55 in the second half of games. Georgia has scored only one first-quarter touchdown over its last four games and isn’t likely to catch Florida by surprise early, so backing a first-quarter or even a first-half under may be worth a play. Georgia won three straight from ’11-’13, lost three in a row from ’14-’16 and are again looking for a three-game win streak after taking the last two meetings by a combined margin of 88-24.

Miami (FL) at Florida State (-3/49), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC: This used to be the game of the year in college football in the 1990s and has had a few important chapters written over the past decade-plus, but it has stopped being must-watch over the past few years with both programs sliding. Manny Diaz has coached in a few of these but this will be his first one in the head seat, while FSU’s Willie Taggart lost his first one of these 28-27 as the ‘Noles blew a 20-point lead as a 14-point underdog in South Florida.

Both teams have had incredibly disappointing seasons but can improve to 5-4 with a win, while the loser will slip under .500. The road team is 9-4 in the last 13 meetings but there’s only been one upset over the last eight contests. Fifteen of the last 17 games have been decided by seven points or fewer. Miami will have RB DeeJay Dallas and linebacker Michael Pinckney back after they missed the win over Pitt last week and have Tate Martell available to backup starter Jarren Williams, who fueled last week’s comeback victory with a great final drive. He’ll have WR Jeff Thomas available too. QB N’Kosi Perry is questionable. FSU will have top RB Cam Akers and tackle Dontae Lucas available. If this game comes down to a field goal, the ‘Noles will have senior Ricky Aguayo available after he missed last week’s win due to an illness.

Utah (-3/47.5) at Washington, 4 p.m. ET, FOX: The Huskies are stuck in a spoiler role after suffering losses to Cal, Stanford and most recently, Oregon, which narrowly escaped Husky Stadium two weeks ago. Chris Petersen had gone 20-1 in his last 21 home games entering the season but has already dropped a pair of tight games and still has to deal with Washington State just after Thanksgiving to end the regular season. The Utes come into town intent on revenge after falling in last year’s Pac-12 title game 10-3 to drop a third straight heartbreaker in this series. Despite all the success Kyle Whittingham has had in Salt Lake City, Utah has lost 12 of 13 against U-Dub, winning 34-23 in Seattle in ’15. They lost 33-30 as a 17-point underdog the last time they came through town, so it’s clear the gap has shrunk considering they’re in a road favorite role here.

The Utes will have Tyler Huntley at the controls after he sat with a leg injury, allowing sophomore Jason Shelley a little shine to show that the future at the position is bright. RB Zack Moss was terrific in a demolition of Cal and also looks healthy. Washington is concerned with the availability of WRs Will Fuller, Puka Naca and Chico McClatcher, so Jacob Eason could be down a number of quality targets as he looks to solve another stingy defense after an excellent performance against the Ducks.

Primetime Matchups

SMU at Memphis (-6/72), 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC: The West Division of the American could be decided today. Although a trip to Navy looms in two weeks, the Mustangs have an easier road than Memphis and have an opportunity to reach a New Year’s Day bowl since UCF appears unlikely to reach the AAC title game and an unbeaten season will certainly be within reach. SMU was able to survive Houston two Thursdays ago despite giving up over 500 yards and will have to deal with an explosive Tigers’ offense that has topped 40 points five times.

Shane Buechele threw six touchdown passes against the Temple defense that helped hand Memphis its only loss but wasn’t great against the Cougars in his last start. The Texas transfer hopes to rebound but will have to do it without top WR Reggie Roberson, Jr., who didn’t travel to Memphis after suffering a foot injury against Houston. The Tigers hope to have RB Patrick Taylor back after being injured at the start of the season, so he could be the x-factor here. Memphis has won five straight this season by an average margin of 43-13.

Oregon (-4/62) at USC, 8 p.m. ET, FOX: A win at the Coliseum would send the Ducks into a bye week with their national title hopes intact despite that season-opening loss to Auburn. Although the Pac-12 is down, Oregon has a chance to enhance its national profile with a strong finish by holding serve here, sweeping the Arizona schools and then claiming the Civil War prior to a conference title win against either the Utes or these Trojans. Despite all their attrition, USC’s recruiting success has allowed it to survive a myriad of injuries that would have decimated most other programs. There’s buzz that Urban Meyer will eventually be the school’s next coach, but there’s still plenty that can be accomplished this season as the team has picked itself up after suffering road losses to BYU, Washington and Notre Dame.

Kedon Slovis threw for over 400 yards against Colorado and has been excellent, especially since he’s a true freshman. Kurt Warner’s protégé has been particularly strong in the fourth quarter, racking up five touchdown throws and 449 yards on 35-for-45 passing. He’ll be running into the best defense he’s seen to date since facing Utah in a game in which he left with a concussion in addition to the 30-23 win currently making the difference in the South Division. The Ducks will have RB Travis Dye in the fold and have found ways to win tight games that eluded them in Mario Cristobal’s first season. They’ve won two of the last three in L.A. and have picked up victories in four of six.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA