Classic letdown spot awaits No. 4 Buckeyes

When studying preseason magazines in June, I look for scheduling situations that are attractive. The one that stood out most this season was Ohio State’s game at Northwestern.

Everything sets up perfectly today for the 16th-ranked Wildcats, who have had two weeks to prepare for the No. 4 Buckeyes. Before the open date, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team faced two cupcake foes in Western Michigan and Maine. In other words, Northwestern has been eyeing this date for a month.

Ohio State was gunning for last week’s home game against Wisconsin for a month, if not the entire offseason. That’s because the Badgers are the Buckeyes’ only competition in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

The Buckeyes captured a 31-24 victory in a 60-minute slugfest, and now they fall into a classic letdown spot in their sixth game in six weeks.

Ohio State owns a 17-0 straight-up record under coach Urban Meyer, but only four of those wins came against ranked teams, none ranked higher than No. 20.

Northwestern standout running back and special teams dynamo Venric Mark has not played since spraining his ankle in a 44-30 season-opening win at California. Thanks to the open date and the soft September schedule, Fitzgerald hasn’t needed Mark to rush back.

Mark has practiced all week and will return to the lineup. He rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012.

The Wildcats have won each of their four games this season by 14 points or more. Dating to last season, they have won 14 of their past 17 games. In all three defeats, they allowed fourth-quarter leads to get away.

With quarterback Kain Colter making plays with his arm and legs, Northwestern has an outstanding chance to pull the upset, so take the 7-point home underdog.

Four more plays for today (home team in CAPS):

■ Georgia (-10½) over TENNESSEE — The Volunteers have compiled an atrocious 1-9 spread record in 10 games as home underdogs since 2008. This can be viewed as a letdown situation for Georgia after its thrilling 44-41 victory over Louisiana State, but the oddsmakers have overcompensated for that factor. Even if running back Todd Gurley (sprained ankle) can’t go, there’s minimal drop-off with Keith Marshall. In fact, Marshall had a better yards-per-carry average (6.5) than Gurley (6.3) when both were freshmen last season. Even if the Bulldogs come out flat, they still should cover.

■ FLORIDA (-12) over Arkansas — Since quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a season-ending injury, Florida’s offense has operated more efficiently with Tyler Murphy under center. In two games, Murphy has completed 23 of 32 passes for 290 yards and also has produced 120 yards rushing and two touchdowns while averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

Gators running back Matt Jones missed all of August with a viral infection and wasn’t 100 percent healthy until last week when he exploded for a career-high 176 yards rushing. Florida ranks No. 1 in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 53.5 yards per game. With defense and a strong running attack, the Gators will win by 17 to 21 points.

■ Louisiana State (-9½) over MISSISSIPPI STATE — By my numbers, LSU should be a 14-point favorite. Again, the oddsmakers are taking the potential letdown scenario too far. This is more of a desperation game than a flat spot for the Tigers, who have no more room for error in the Southeastern Conference.

LSU owns an 18-11-1 spread record as a road favorite since 2003. Behind the play of Zach Mettenberger, who has 13 touchdown passes and one interception, and running back Jeremy Hill, the Tigers will create separation in the second half.

■ STANFORD (-7½) over Washington — I got on this early in the week at 6½. If you can’t buy the half-point to 7, then I suggest playing the Cardinal for less than my other plays. I made Stanford a 10-point favorite. Nothing about this pick is anti-Washington. There is a lot to like about the Huskies with two stars in quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey. But Stanford has been as impressive as any team in the country the past two weeks in blowouts of Arizona State and Washington State.

Last week: 2-2-2 against the spread

Season: 12-12-2

Brian Edwards of Sportsmemo.com and BrianEdwardsSports.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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