Everything you need to know about college football's Rivalry Week

Bill ConnellyESPN Staff Writer12 Minute Read

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The month of November is college football's fireworks show, and Rivalry Week is its grand finale. The majority of FBS teams are playing against their most bitter rivals, with stakes ranging from national title implications (Ohio State-Michigan) to division title hopes (Virginia Tech-Virginia) to good, old-fashioned nail-biters (the Egg Bowl and countless others).

After Tuesday and Thursday appetizers, the Rivalry Week feast gets rolling early on Friday. Let's take a chronological walk through this year's most interesting games -- what you should be watching, when and why.

All times Eastern

Tuesday

Western Michigan at Northern Illinois (7 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN App)

Western Michigan and Central Michigan are tied atop the MAC West standings, and since WMU owns the tiebreaker advantage, the Broncos need only a win against the worst NIU team in decades (the Huskies' No. 116 ranking in SP+ is their worst since 1981). Beware, though: NIU has won four MAC titles this decade, and old champs have a way of finding pride in strange moments.

SP+ projection: WMU 35, NIU 28

Other games: Ohio at Akron


Thursday

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (7:30 p.m., ESPN, ESPN App)

Plenty of schools find themselves in need of a win to reach six wins and bowl eligibility -- Boston College (at Pitt), Colorado (at Utah), Kent State (at Eastern Michigan), Michigan State (vs. Maryland), Missouri (at Arkansas), Nebraska (vs. Iowa), North Carolina (at NC State), Ohio (at Akron), Oregon State (at Oregon), Troy (vs. Appalachian State), UL Monroe (at Louisiana), perhaps Army (at Hawai'i) -- and many are facing bitter rivals.

The Egg Bowl, though, might top the win-and-you're-bowling list. Mississippi State has lost its direction in two years under head coach Joe Moorhead, and the fan base is all sorts of impatient. While he's probably not going to get fired with a loss against Ole Miss and a 5-7 finish, I, uh, wouldn't recommend it. And while four one-score losses have rendered Ole Miss 4-7, the Rebels are easily dangerous enough to beat their rivals and cause boos to ring even louder than the cowbells at Davis Wade Stadium.

SP+ projection: MSU 31, Ole Miss 26


Early Friday

Virginia Tech at Virginia (Noon, ABC, ESPN App)

Virginia has been the most consistent team in the dreadful ACC Coastal and is one win from its first division title. However, that one win will have to come against a rival the Hoos haven't beaten since 2003, when members of the current roster were as young as 2 years old. Last year's gut-wrenching, come-from-ahead loss was maybe the most painful in the streak and reminded us just how much of a mental hurdle losing streaks can become. To make matters worse, Virginia Tech has caught fire, winning its past three ACC games by an average score of 36-6 and jumping from 64th to 42nd in SP+ in a short time.

SP+ projection: UVa 27, Tech 23

Other games: Bowling Green at Buffalo, Kent State at Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) at Ball State, Texas Tech at Texas, Toledo at Central Michigan

Friday afternoon

No. 19 Cincinnati at No. 18 Memphis (3:30 p.m., ABC, ESPN App)

Cincinnati has secured the AAC East title, and Memphis could do the same in the West with a win ... against Cincinnati, whom the Tigers would then face next week, as well. You could perhaps not blame the Bearcats for thinking about holding some tricks up their sleeve for next week, but they probably need a win to keep feeling good about their shots at the Group of 5's New Year's Six bowl bid.

SP+ projection: Memphis 35, Cincy 21

No. 17 Iowa at Nebraska (2:30 p.m., BTN)

Nebraska took out a month's worth of frustration on Maryland on Saturday, and the 54-7 win moved the Huskers to within a game of .500. To reach the postseason in this disappointing year, though, they'll have to beat an Iowa team that has defeated them four times in a row. Scott Frost is only 4-5 at home against Power 5 teams since taking over at his alma mater. This would be a great time for a real home-field advantage to materialize.

SP+ projection: Iowa 30, Nebraska 21

Washington State at Washington (4 p.m., Fox)

These teams were a combined 18-4 when they met in the 2017 and 2018 Apple Cups. This year, they're 12-10. Granted, they're a good 12-10 -- they're both in the SP+ top 30 and have dealt with a frustrating, and perhaps unsustainable, set of close losses (they have a combined 2-7 record in one-score finishes). But rivalry wins can change the tenor of a team's season. Is this the year Wazzu's Mike Leach finally gets one over on UW's Chris Petersen? Does Petersen salvage an unexpected transition year by moving to 6-0 against Wazzu?

SP+ projection: UW 37, Wazzu 29

Other games: Appalachian State at Troy, Arkansas State at South Alabama, Boise State at Colorado State, Missouri at Arkansas, West Virginia at TCU

Friday evening

USF at UCF (8 p.m., ESPN, ESPN App)

This rivalry hasn't produced many close games of late -- four of the past five meetings have been decided by at least 16 points -- but the last time USF headed to Orlando, the Bulls nearly pulled off an upset in one of the best games of the season. So maybe there's a little hope here, even late in a hopeless USF campaign?

SP+ projection: UCF 40, USF 12


Early Saturday

No. 2 Ohio State at No. 13 Michigan (Noon, Fox)

Saturday's early slate is maybe the most loaded of the year, especially when you factor in the start of the FCS playoffs. (Give ESPN+ a whirl this weekend and watch some of the FCS action -- especially Furman-Austin Peay and Kennesaw State-Wofford.)

That said, the floor belongs to The Game. Michigan could complete a stirring second-half turnaround by pulling off its first win over the Buckeyes in eight years -- not to mention Jim Harbaugh's first since he was the Wolverines' QB in 1986 -- and putting a dent into their rivals' national title stock. More likely, Ohio State could send the school up north back into the existential crisis from which it has recently begun to emerge. Either way, it's going to be a hell of a show.

SP+ projection: Ohio St. 30, Michigan 19

Other games: Charlotte at Old Dominion, Clemson at South Carolina, Florida International at Marshall, Georgia at Georgia Tech, Indiana at Purdue, Louisville at Kentucky, Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky, New Mexico State at Liberty, Northwestern at Illinois, Texas State at Coastal Carolina, Tulsa at East Carolina, Wake Forest at Syracuse, Wyoming at Air Force.

Saturday afternoon

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, left, will try to hand Nick Saban and Alabama a loss in the Iron Bowl on Saturday.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No. 5 Alabama at No. 15 Auburn (3:30 p.m., CBS)

Mac Jones has put up Tua-like numbers in his two starts this year (28-for-34, 510 yards, six TDs, no picks), though it's fair to say, since those starts were against Arkansas and Western Carolina, the bar was pretty dang low. (Like, so low it was just lying on the floor.) Still, if he looks the part at Jordan-Hare Stadium and Bama takes care of Auburn -- a team LSU and Georgia beat by only a combined 10 points -- the Tide's CFP case gets very strong, very quickly.

Auburn's not going to be willingly pushed over, though. The Tigers held LSU and Georgia to season lows in yards per play and gave up 13 fewer points to LSU than anyone else has. They are fourth in defensive SP+, and while their offense looks as if it is led by a true freshman QB (because it is), they could pretty swiftly end Bama's backdoor title hopes.

SP+ projection: Alabama 30, Auburn 22

No. 12 Wisconsin at No. 10 Minnesota (3:30 p.m., ABC)

Wisconsin's back-to-back losses against Illinois and Ohio State briefly knocked the Badgers out of Big Ten contention, but Minnesota left the door open with its loss against Iowa. The Gophers could still make a CFP case, though, with a decisive win here and an upset of Ohio State.

You like big, burly manball? There's plenty of burliness to go around in this one, though the most intriguing matchup will take form when Minnesota decides to pass. The Gophers are dynamite through the air, but Wisconsin has one of the best pass defenses in FBS.

SP+ projection: Minnesota 29, Wisconsin 28

No. 14 Baylor at Kansas (3:30 p.m., ESPN, ESPN App)

It's unlikely, but there's still a path for Baylor to make its own CFP case: the Bears win out; Auburn beats Bama; Oregon or Colorado beats Utah; Minnesota loses again; etc. But before Baylor can advance down that path, it has to avoid losing focus against a Kansas team that has had some feisty moments.

Aside from a midseason bump the Jayhawks received from an offensive coordinator change, they have been about what they were projected to be -- they were 108th in SP+ in the preseason and are 101st now. But KU beat Boston College and Texas Tech and threw a scare into Iowa State and Texas. Les Miles has proved he still has some underdog fire to him.

SP+ projection: Baylor 41, Kansas 17

Southern Miss at Florida Atlantic (3:30 p.m., NFL Network)

Conference USA was destined to have the messiest title race in FBS, and it has come to pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information's FPI ratings, each of the five teams remaining in the hunt has at least an 18% chance of reaching the title game. And two of them are playing each other here. Lane Kiffin's fightin' FAU Owls have won eight of nine overall and have risen from 83rd to 53rd in SP+ in only six weeks.

SP+ projection: FAU 32, USM 23

Other games: BC at Pitt, Maryland at Michigan State, Miami at Duke, Notre Dame at Stanford, Oregon State at Oregon, Rice at UTEP, Rutgers at Penn State, Tulane at SMU, UConn at Temple, UAB at North Texas, UNLV at Nevada, Utah State at New Mexico, UTSA at Louisiana Tech, Vanderbilt at Tennessee

Saturday evening

Texas A&M at No. 1 LSU (7 p.m., ESPN, ESPN App)

In August, I named Texas A&M's Kellen Mond the most important player in college football for the 2019 season, I said he and LSU's Joe Burrow (No. 2 on my list) had a "potential game-changing leap in them and a shot at lots of contenders." Granted, it would have been stupendous had I flipped the order there, but Mond and A&M have one more shot at an upset after having already played four of SP+'s top 11 teams. (They're 0-4 against the top teams, with two one-score losses, and 7-0 against everyone else.)

SP+ projection: LSU 37, A&M 23

Colorado at No. 7 Utah (7:30 p.m., ABC, ESPN App)

Right now, it appears that, if Georgia loses to LSU in the SEC title game, and Minnesota doesn't go 2-0 against Wisconsin and Ohio State, the two most likely candidates for the No. 4 spot in the CFP rankings are Alabama and its 2009 Sugar Bowl conqueror, Utah. (Oklahoma and Baylor are still options, obviously, but the CFP committee hasn't been particularly impressed so far.) Since Utah plays on Saturday evening, we'll know how Bama fared in the Iron Bowl, and we'll have a decent idea of what Utah might need to do to keep pace.

This is a great opportunity for Utah to send a message to the CFP committee and a national TV audience -- the Utes have been damn near merciless since their September loss to USC, beating their past seven opponents, all conference foes, by an average score of 38-9. They were the best team in the Pac-12 even before Oregon's loss to Arizona State last week. Colorado is coming off its best performance since September, but the Buffs will have to play even better to have a chance.

SP+ projection: Utah 44, Colorado 15

No. 9 Oklahoma at No. 21 Oklahoma State (8 p.m., Fox)

Downside: Oklahoma State lost starting quarterback Spencer Sanders to a season-ending thumb injury last week, and while the Cowboys won at West Virginia without him, the passing game, now without Sanders and star wideout Tylan Wallace, was based almost solely around quick, short throws -- new starter Dru Brown averaged just 8.9 yards per completion.

Upside: The last time OSU beat OU (in 2014), it was with a backup QB of sorts -- true freshman Mason Rudolph was playing in only his second collegiate game, and the Pokes won in Norman anyway. That they didn't beat OU again once Rudolph actually had his sea legs is proof that rivalry games don't have to make sense. OU is wobbly after three consecutive narrow wins; can the Pokes pull off what Iowa State, Baylor and TCU couldn't?

SP+ projection: OU 40, OSU 27

UL Monroe at Louisiana (7:30 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN App)

Billy Napier's Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns are, well, ragin' at the moment. Projected 97th in SP+, they head into this rivalry battle at 9-2 and a staggering 29th. You should watch some of this game just to get a glimpse of what has become one of the Group of 5's best teams. You should also watch because this rivalry tends to produce close games. Five of the past six meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, and ULM, one win from bowl eligibility, has a dangerous enough offense to perhaps throw a scare into the Cajuns with just a couple of breaks.

SP+ projection: UL 46, ULM 21

Other games: Florida State at Florida, Georgia State at Georgia Southern, Iowa State at Kansas State, Navy at Houston, North Carolina at NC State

Late Saturday

Army at Hawai'i (11:59 p.m., CBSSN)

Try to hold back the tears when you realize this is our last super-late-night Hawai'i home game of the year. That alone is reason to watch, but this matchup also packs some wonderful stylistic contrast. Hawai'i throws the ball 43 times per game, and Army runs it 58 times per game. The Black Knights prevailed over the Warriors in West Point last year, grinding the game down to single-digit possessions each and surviving 28-21 with a late red zone stand. But they've lost their close-game mojo this year and stand at just 5-6; Hawai'i, meanwhile, has won four of five and just clinched a spot in the MWC title game. Who will control the tempo this time?

SP+ projection: Army 32, Hawai'i 31

Other games: Arizona at Arizona State, BYU at San Diego State, Cal at UCLA, Fresno State at San Jose State


By Saturday night, we'll know all of the conference title game matchups and almost all of the bowl-eligible teams. The potential exceptions: Missouri, which inexplicably still hasn't heard back from the NCAA on its bowl-ban appeal (an act of downright cruel indecision/noncommunication from a governing board that's pretty good at being indecisive), and Army, which might still have work to do against Navy in mid-December.

We're close to knowing most of the answers to the questions we spent the eight-month offseason asking. But first, one giant whirlwind of anxious fans and smack talk.

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