Black Friday College Football: Big Mid-Major Games Await

The Black Friday college football slate is marked with rivalry games from power conferences, and they’re all interesting enough. But the real juice on Friday’s schedule comes from the midmajors, where division titles are on the line and major bowl bids might be at stake. The three games of the most consequence are as follows…

Fresno State-San Jose State (3:30 PM ET, CBS Sports Network): Two great quarterbacks battle, with Derek Carr from Fresno going against David Fales from San Jose, and the points should fly freely in this game from northern California.

Fresno continues to be in a battle with Northern Illinois to not simply win and stay undefeated, but to get some style points in the process. Fresno slipped behind NIU in the BCS rankings this week and has ground to make up.

On that note, my apologies to regular readers–in this Monday’s BCS bowl projections I still had Fresno getting in ahead of Northern Illinois. I’m frankly shocked that what had been a huge lead for the Bulldogs on points was completely reversed based on NIU beating Toledo last week. I’m so shocked I didn’t even bother to check, believing that Fresno had to lose in order to fall behind the Huskies. Apparently not, and now, after a less-than-impressive Northern Illinois win on Tuesday, Fresno has an opportunity to reclaim the lead.

Throughout most of the season I expected that San Jose would win this game. But November has seen the Spartans fall on hard times. An overtime loss to San Diego State wasn’t terrible, but it set the tone. Then San Jose lost badly to Nevada. Last week’s overtime loss to Navy was another loss that was respectable, but the Middies did hang 58 points.

None of this suggests the San Jose defense can slow down Carr and his premier receiver, Davante Adams. Fresno is a seven-point favorite and I’m no longer ready to call an upset, or even a spread cover.

East Carolina-Marshall (Noon ET, CBS Sports Network): This game sets the table for the Fresno battle, and it’s winner-take-all for the Conference USA Eastern Division title. There’s going to be some great offensive talent on display, and I actually think the Over/Under of 64.5 looks low.

Marshall’s Rakeem Cato is one of the most dynamic all-around quarterbacks you’ve never heard of, and East Carolina counterpart Shane Carden is solid dropback passer with a lot of physical toughness himself. Cato and Carden have each thrown 32 touchdown passes this season.

While both have good supporting casts, Carden’s is a little bit better, with Vintavious Cooper in the backfield and Justin Hardy at wideout. Furthermore, ECU has shown the ability to play well defensively this season. Both teams lost close ones to Virginia Tech, but the Pirates were stronger on the defensive side. East Carolina also dismantled N.C. State last week. The Wolfpack might not be lousy this season, but any time a C-USA team can step up in class and dominate someone it makes a statement.

The statement to me is this–Marshall is a nice C-USA team that can score a lot of points and run up and down the field. East Carolina is more complete football team. The oddsmakers see these teams as even, and have made Marshall a (-3) favorite based on homefield. I disagree and am going with the Pirates.

Bowling Green-Buffalo (1:30 PM ET, ESPNU): The winner claims the MAC East title and a chance to play Northern Illinois next week in Detroit for the conference championship. Both teams are 6-1 in the league and 8-3 overall, but I think that obscures how superior Bowling Green really is.

The Falcons only give up 14 ppg, sixth in the country overall and shockingly good in the high-scoring MAC. The run the ball well with Travis Greene, and also an odd schedule fluke meant that they had to play Terry Bowden’s Akron team while Buffalo did not. It might be not be a huge difference, but Akron was consistently competitive. Bowling Green also nearly upended Mississippi State in non-conference play.

Buffalo hosts the game and it will be at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Bills play their home games, so the atmosphere should be a good one. But Bowling Green is only a (-1.5) favorite, and I think that gives the Bison way too much credit. Football fans should be hungry for a Bowling Green-Northern Illinois battle next week for a championship and the Falcons uphold their end of the bargain.

The rest of the Black Friday college football TV schedule breaks down as follows…

Iowa-Nebraska (Noon ET, ABC)
SMU-Houston (Noon, ESPN2)

Comment: SMU still needs one more win to get bowl-eligible, but the American Athletic Conference has two weeks to go since they don’t have a championship game. Houston might need the win to nail down the fourth spot on the league’s bowl ladder, which would be a ticket to the Pinstripe Bowl and a possible date with Notre Dame.

Iowa and Nebraska have only their rivalry at stake–but this game has implications in the Northern Illinois-Fresno State debate. Iowa is the biggest scalp NIU has claimed, and Hawkeye wins help the Huskies in the computer rankings. In fact, I wonder if Iowa’s win over Michigan last Saturday provides some of the explanation for Northern Illinois’ big jump in the rankings.

Arkansas-LSU (2:30 PM ET, CBS)
Miami-Pitt (3:30 PM ET, ABC)
Washington State-Washington (3:30 PM ET, Fox)

Comment: Miami’s got the most at stake. The Hurricanes need to win and then hope both Duke and Virginia Tech lose on Saturday, a circumstance that gives Miami the ACC Coastal Division title and a rematch with Florida State next week. LSU is playing to perhaps nail down a Cotton Bowl bid and a matchup with either Texas or Oklahoma.

Oregon State-Oregon (7 PM ET, FoxSports 1)
South Florida-Central Florida (8 PM ET, ESPN)

Comment: Central Florida needs to keep winning to stay on track for the American Athletic title and an automatic place in the BCS.