Presto’s Picks: ‘Closing Month’ sets up possibilities, roadblocks for U.Md., Virginia Tech, U.Va.

College football’s “closing month” kicks off this week with eight teams in the FBS still unbeaten (mad props to James Madison), a handful of schools in the mix for potential playoff spots (apologies for the exclusionary nature of the four-team field), plus more than a few conference races that merit attention (my eyes light up at the five-way tie for first in the Big 12).

The local schools enter the final four weeks of the season with different levels of expectations, as well as vastly different paths to meet them. After three straight losses, Maryland can still match, and even surpass, last year’s eight wins. But the Terps are facing four opponents with a combined 26-6 record (15-5 in the Big Ten) — including a pair of top 10 teams. Buckle up.

Virginia Tech has already surpassed last year’s win total and deals with a quartet that’s a combined 9-8 in the ACC (19-13 overall), meaning bowl eligibility in year two of Coach Brent Pry’s tenure is well within reach.

How about the University of Virginia? Not so much, as the Cavaliers need to run the table against a group that includes No. 13 Louisville and the surging Hokies (UVA has just one victory against Virginia Tech since the Hokies became ACC members), although three of their November games are at home.

Navy has a more realistic shot at playing during the holidays as the Midshipmen’s final four AAC foes are a combined 11-21, including the bottom three teams in the conference (Army looms in December).

Unbeaten James Madison not only faces 1-7 UConn, the Dukes’ final three Sun Belt opponents are a combined 8-6 in the league and an underwhelming 15-9 overall. Sadly, JMU also faces the one foe it can’t beat to reach the postseason: the NCAA rule book (transition rules keep the Dukes ineligible again in 2023).

West is Worst Update:

Nebraska’s win over Purdue means that while the Big Ten West can still finish with a seven-way tie at 4-5, the teams can’t all post 3-3 division records … instead sending the Cornhuskers to the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time since Leaders and Legends were the division names. Unintentional comedy needs to be appreciated, friends.

Saturday’s Games:

Virginia (2-6, 1-3 ACC) vs Georgia Tech (4-4, 3-2), 2 p.m., CW

The Yellowjackets are the “even-steven” from Seinfeld, scoring and allowing 254 points over eight games while posting a 156-155 scoring differential in conference games. Their defense could be termed a sieve, ranking last in the ACC in rushing and total yards plus points allowed, while they’re also the worst team at stopping foes on third down.

The challenge for UVA on defense is to figure out which Haynes has the ball: quarterback Haynes King has completed 62% of his passes for 2,122 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 462 yards and running back Jamal Haynes has rushed for 545 yards on 5.6 per carry. Perhaps the “you’ve got Haynes” call at the line of scrimmage won’t work here.

Kippy and Buffy know you must make the right tailgate call in November as the pregame air develops a little more of a chill, and this week they’re calling on a winner — literally. The Delfosse Vineyards 2021 Screaming Hawk Meritage was voted the 2023 Virginia Governor’s Cup Case and Cup Winner.

A mix of 50% Petit Verdot, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 10% Malbec, “the nose shows dark chocolate and blackberry fruit before layers of dark fruit and earthiness add complexity to the palate with a persistent finish,” according to the winery website. No subtlety, no hints. This bottle brings it.

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers use a persistent finish to prevail in a 36-31 offensive extravaganza.

Navy (3-4, 2-2 AAC) at Temple (2-6, 0-4), 2 p.m., ESPN+

Since meeting for the 2016 AAC Championship Game in Annapolis (won by the Owls 34-10), these programs have hit on hard times: the Owls have posted just a pair of winning league records since and are 3-24 in the conference since 2019 (when they went to the Military Bowl in Annapolis) while the Midshipmen have recorded just one winning league season and haven’t bowled since 2019.

Coming off their bye week, the rested Mids look to put their AAC-best ground attack (205.1 yards per game) against a Temple D that can’t stop the run or get off the field on third down (second worst in both categories in the AAC).

The return of Owls quarterback E.J. Warner from a concussion should spark an offense that was limited to 14 points in two games during his absence. He’ll face a pass rush, led by Will Harbour and Colin Ramos, that’s averaging just under three sacks per game (third best in the conference).

Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen make it happen, 28-17.

Maryland (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) vs No. 9 Penn State (7-1, 4-1), 3:30 p.m., FOX

Both teams lost on the road at Ohio State in October, but while the Nittany Lions fought off their post-Buckeye hangover by rallying past Indiana, the Terps dropped one-possession games to Illinois and Northwestern. This is also a series that has not been kind to the Terrapins in the short or long-term: they’re 3-42-1 against PSU all-time while they’ve been outscored by an average score of 35-10 over the last five years.

The Nittany Lions bring the conference’s best pass rush (32 sacks) to SECU Stadium. Adisa Isaac, with his 5.5 sacks on the season, will be the player to watch for an offensive line that allowed six sacks at Northwestern. The Terps have also been killed by turnovers the last three games, from a pick-six at Ohio State to fumbles leading to game-tying scores by Illinois and Northwestern.

Defensively, it’s one thing to allow 37 points at Ohio State, but Illinois and Northwestern enjoyed banner days against Maryland after entering the games averaging 13 and 16 points in Big Ten play, respectively. The Terps will have their hands full with a running game that features the one-two punch of Kaytron Allen (482 yards on 4.6 per carry) and Nicholas Singleton (460 yards and seven touchdowns), as well as a passing game led by Drew Allar (just one interception thrown in 254 attempts) and KeAndre Lambert-Smith (43 catches for 550 yards, including receptions of 35, 57 and 72 yards).

Presto’s Pick: Terrapins tumble 34-17.

Virginia Tech (4-4, 3-1 ACC) at No. 18 Louisville (7-1, 4-1), 3:30 p.m., ACCN

If you had “Hokies-Cardinals for second place in the conference” in your crystal ball this summer, congratulate yourself. The winner controls its path to the ACC Championship Game (we eschew the “controls its own destiny” cliché because destiny by definition is out of one’s control).

Both teams are thinking “what if?” as the Cardinals sandwiched wins over top-20 Notre Dame and Duke around a 17-point loss to previously winless-in-the-ACC Pitt. The Hokies, meanwhile, have a pair of seven-point losses to Purdue and Marshall.

Can V-Tech’s defense derail Cardinals running back Jawhar Jordan (824 yards on 7.5 per carry)? And how will the offense, which ranks last in the ACC at moving the chains on third down, fare against the league’s top third-down defense?

Presto’s Pick: Hokies come up short 35-20.

No. 23 James Madison (8-0, 5-0 Sun Belt) at Georgia State (6-2, 3-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN2

JMU justifies its promotion to one of the main cable channels as they’re a programmer’s delight: equal parts excellence (one of eight remaining unbeaten teams) and entertainment (six of their eight wins have been one-possession affairs).

The Dukes beat the Panthers 42-40 in Harrisonburg last year, rallying from a 20-point halftime deficit. The big test Saturday is how JMU’s conference-leading pass rush (39 sacks with Jalen Green’s 15.5 leading the country) will fare against an offensive line that’s allowed a conference-low nine sacks in eight games. That success on the O-line is one of the reasons why Georgia State converts a league-high 50.4% of third downs.

Presto’s Pick: Dukes deliver another nail-biting finish with a 31-27 victory.

Howard handles South Carolina State, Morgan State defeats Delaware State, Towson tops North Carolina A&T, William & Mary falls to Albany.

Last Week: 7-3.

Season: 55-19.

Presented by FanDuel Sportsbook.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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