Here we are, folks. In less than a week, three area teams will play for a state championship. Back in Lincoln, no less. This whole season has shown us one thing, and it’s that you never know what to expect, which I think will remain true in these games. As always, take it all in.
There’s another team that plays in Memorial Stadium and returns to action this week. With Scott Frost locked in for 2022 and no bowl game to play for, I can’t help but feel like there’ll be a “nothing to lose” mentality in the Nebraska locker room. Now whether that translates to an upset over Wisconsin and/or Iowa? We shall see.
I’d like to extend my congratulations to Wayne State, whose 7-4 finish to the season is not only its best in 10 years, but also the first time the Wildcats have finished with a winning record since 2012. There might be a sense that they could’ve done more, but I think coach John McMenamin has a great thing going there regardless. Great job, boys.
Ah. Wasn’t that a refreshing win for the Chiefs on Sunday? I feel as though it was part of a weekend where we saw some of the long-standing powers retake control of the AFC like they have for the past couple of years. Unfortunately for me as a Jets fan, this also means seeing the Patriots learn how to play football again and Gang Green going back to living in their proverbial shadow.
Record last week: 5-5, 74-38 (.660) this season.
Highlight: Battle Creek at Pierce
The defense that was once a liability for the Bluejays now looks like a strength. Terrific performance by them and a great season by the Braves. (21-16 predicted, 21-0 final)
Lowlight: Burwell at Howells-Dodge
Wow. What a show by Mike Speirs’ Jags. This Longhorns team hasn’t been beaten like that in a long time. (26-24 Burwell win predicted, 56-18 Howells-Dodge final)
Other results (predictions in parentheses): Norfolk Catholic 35, Wilber-Clatonia 12 (27-14 predicted); Sandhills/Thedford 52, Elgin Public/Pope John 8 (54-14 predicted); Wayne State 24, MSU Moorhead 21 (29-24 predicted); Iowa 27, Minnesota 22 (20-17 final); Wake Forest 45, North Carolina State 42 (25-17 N.C. State win predicted); Ohio State 59, Purdue 31 (41-31 predicted); Chiefs 41, Raiders 14 (34-28 Raiders win predicted); Patriots 45, Browns 7 (27-24 Browns win predicted.)
Howells-Dodge (12-0) vs. Stromsburg Cross County (11-1): This will be both programs’ first trip to Memorial Stadium, with each seeking its first title. The two teams played back in September in Howells, with the Jaguars holding off a late comeback by the Cougars to win 40-38.
These teams average just four passes a game, and with running backs as talented as Carter Seim and Levi Belina, why wouldn’t you want to run it as much as possible? Seim was out in their last game with an injury, so having him back in the fold will definitely mix things up. In a lot of instances, his presence alone might be enough to tip the scales in Cross County’s favor. Not here. This is a Howells-Dodge defense that, over the past two weeks, has faced a Dundy County-Stratton team with Quade Myers and a Burwell team with Caleb Busch. Both are all-state caliber athletes. The Jags allowed each team to score just 18 points. You know that old saying about defense and championships. Howells-Dodge 48, Cross County 22
Pierce (10-2) vs. Columbus Lakeview (10-2): When these teams faced off in week 2, there was a feeling among many that these teams would meet again down the road, possibly in Memorial Stadium. Lo and behold, after turbulence early on, the Bluejays and Vikings are back to it again with the state title on the line.
Lakeview has the kind of athletes on offense who can really keep your hands full. They have five players with at least 500 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, including 1,000-yard rusher Adam Van Cleave, whom you do not want to get to the outside. Boone Central had a similar offense and Pierce struggled with that, but this team has improved a lot since then. It’s more physical and experienced up front. The Bluejays have looked great in the trenches over the past month, and I think they’ll be able to get enough going there on Tuesday. Even if this turns into a shootout — which is entirely possible — they’re pretty well equipped for that. They win a classic. Pierce 35, Columbus Lakeview 31.
Norfolk Catholic (11-1) vs. Fremont Bergan (12-0): It seems like just yesterday people were wondering what the red and white were really made of after that 39-17 loss to Boone Central to start the year. Since then, they’ve beaten quality opponents week after week and are back to the state finals for the 17th time in their history looking for title No. 11.
What awaits is an Archbishop Bergan team that’s looked like one of the best in the state regardless of class. Quarterback and future Wyoming Cowboy Koa McIntyre has more than 3,000 total yards and 46 touchdowns to lead an offense that scores 45.5 points per game. Meanwhile, the defense, led by linebacker Jarrett Boggs, allows just over 10 points and 136 total yards per game. I think Norfolk Catholic could have an advantage on the offensive and defensive lines, but if the Knights let anyone get behind them, it will spell trouble. Offensively, they’ve had some trouble avoiding turnovers and their margin for error will be extremely thin here. The red and white have battled hard to get here, but I’m not sure they have the experience or speed to keep up with the green and gold. Fremont Bergan 28, Norfolk Catholic 14.
Nebraska (3-7) at No. 15 Wisconsin (7-3): These Badgers are a lot like the high school teams we see in Nebraska. They love to run the ball a lot and will usually only pass by using the run to open it up. However, they did just lose their leading carrier, Chez Mellusi, for the year with an injury, so it’ll be harder to get it going. This Wisconsin defense is a tough nut to crack, but they like any other, can struggle with speed and playmakers on the perimeter. If the Huskers can get that going and take advantage of a one-dimensional offense, they’ll have a real shot. Still, this is another one of those games where my mind’s telling me this isn’t the day. It worked for the Michigan State game. Let’s see if it works here. Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 18.
No. 7 Michigan State (9-1) at No. 4 Ohio State (9-1): Normally as a Michigan fan, I dream of a scenario where both teams can lose. Pettiness aside, this is without a doubt the game to watch this week so let’s dive in. One might be inclined to think that, with the best running back in the country in Kenneth Walker, Michigan State has the chance to make this one of the most competitive games the Buckeyes have had all year. Thing is, there’s only so much he can do when, for every seven the Spartans score, Ohio State can score 21. It’s bad enough for the green and white that the scarlet and gray have the best group of wide receivers in the country. Mix that in with the fact that Michigan State’s biggest weakness is defending the pass and you have an ugly day ahead. The Empire of Columbus takes another victim. Ohio State 49, Michigan State 24.
No. 3 Oregon (9-1) at No. 23 Utah (7-3): A potential Pac-12 Championship preview awaits in Salt Lake City. The Ducks have had their best season since 2014 thanks in large part to one big thing: Playmakers. Offensively, quarterback Anthony Brown already has more than 2,000 yards through the air and is one of many in the backfield who can hurt a defense on the ground. Defensively the Ducks are led by the one-man wrecking machine and potential first-overall-pick that is Kayvon Thibodeaux. They face a Utes team whose offense is arguably the best in the conference and will be hosting this contest in a hostile environment. I see a shootout going down, but one that the Ducks won’t be overwhelmed by. Oregon 38, Utah 34.
No. 10 Wake Forest (9-1) at Clemson (7-3): The Demon Deacons are one win away from being the first team not named Florida State or Clemson to represent the ACC’s Atlantic division in the conference title game since 2008. So I suppose it's fitting that they have to take down one of those teams to do it. I can see Clemson pulling this win off, but only if this defense has its best game all year. If it can’t be close to that, I don’t think the Tigers can keep up with the Demon Deacons. The margin of error is incredibly thin, and I don’t see them holding it. Wake Forest 31, Clemson 24.
SMU (8-2) at No. 5 Cincinnati (10-0): The Bearcats’ quest for an undefeated season now goes through The Ghost of the Pony Express. A win would ensure that the black and red will play for the American Athletic Conference championship in 2½ weeks. The Mustangs’ offense is a dangerous one, but it hasn’t seen the likes of this secondary, which includes a potential first-round pick in Amon “Sauce” Gardner (fantastic nickname by the way). This’ll have lots of scoring, but nothing the Bearcats can’t handle. Cincinnati 38, SMU 31
Cowboys (7-2) at Chiefs (6-4): Bet the over in this one. These teams have lots of playmakers on offense and a couple of people who can make a stop or two on defense. A key factor for me in this one will be consistency. Which team can not only score, but do so efficiently and without turning the ball over? To me, that team is the Cowboys. Zeke Elliott may not be what he was, but he can still get chunk yards and keep his offense on the field. Also, I wonder how Patrick Mahomes will handle a defense with the fourth most takeaways in the NFL. Cowboys 36, Chiefs 24
Steelers (5-3-1) at Chargers (5-4): Things are getting turbulent in Pittsburgh. Big Ben will likely need another game off as he deals with COVID, and now T.J. Watt is battling a sore hip and knee. Meanwhile, the Chargers, though talented, are in danger of falling behind in the increasingly competitive AFC West. Banged up as they are, the Steelers could take control of this one if they’re able to get the run game going with Najee Harris as the Chargers allow the most rushing yards per game in the league. However, I think the Chargers have a bit too much firepower for the Steelers to keep up with. Brandon Staley’s squad gets a big one. Chargers 30, Steelers 17