Last Week: 8-6
Although this weekend features only one game involving two ranked teams, that certainly does not mean there is a dearth of quality and important games. Several teams open conference play this season and will experience a drastic step-up in competition. As much fun as non-conference games are, this is when the season truly begins. Early struggles can be forgotten and early successes can be wiped away in just 3 hours time.
Wisconsin at Michigan
Wisconsin is the most under the radar 3-0 team in the nation. In their first season AA (After Alvarez) the Badgers have started out with wins over Bowling Green, Western Illinois, and San Diego State. The offense sputtered, especially against San Diego State, but the defense has played quite well so far. Now we find out how good Wisconsin is. The Badgers open up Big 10 play at a Wolverines team coming off its biggest win since beating Ohio State in 2003. Michigan has been able to stop the run (tops in terms of yards per game) and get to the quarterback (5th in sacks per game). That spells bad news for a Wisconsin team that relies on the run to set up the pass. P.J. Hill Jr. will struggle to find any running lanes and Michigan will avoid a let down by handling the Badgers at home.
Minnesota at Purdue
Coming to West Lafeyette on Saturday afternoon, a preemptive battle for the Sun Bowl. Let's face it, neither of these teams is going to be able to compete with the Big 10's Big three this season (Ohio State, Michigan, and Iowa). Still, this is a compelling game. Minnesota has dominated two lackluster foes (Kent State and Temple) by a combined score of 106-0. In between they got spanked by a pretty good Cal team on the road. Meanwhile, Purdue has struggled mightily on defense giving up an average of 31.3 points and 407 yards per game against less than stellar competition (Indiana State, Miami of Ohio, and Ball State). Of course, they've won all those games so their offense has played exceptionally well, but again the step-up in competition will tell us just how good they are. Last season these two teams played an overtime classic that the Gophers won. This season their are several big differences. For one, Laurence Maroney is now a New England Patriot. Secondly, this game is at Purdue. Since 2000, Minnesota is 7-17 in road conference games. In road conference games against teams with winning records over that span they are 2-13. That trend continues.
Louisville at Kansas State
This game has trap written all over it. Road team fresh off a big win. Check. Home team a solid major conference team. Check. Road team has a recent history of road struggles. Check. Road team has some key injuries. Check. Since barely squeaking by non-Division IA Illinois State, the Wildcats have beaten possibly the worst team in Division IA (Florida Atlantic) and an OK Marshall team. Louisville has throttled a better-than expected Kentucky squad, run wild over another terrible Division IA team (Temple), and blew the Hurricanes over cold water. Last season Louisville was flying higher than Lindberg after a 36 point beat down of Oregon State. Then they got steamrolled by South Florida. You can be sure in between contacts with his realtor that Bobby Petrino will remind the Cardinals of that road ambush. Louisville will struggle, but is too talented to lose to a mediocre Kansas State team.
Tulsa at Navy
The non-BCS game of the week. Navy (under the tutelage of the NCAA's best coach) will try to stay undefeated against a Tulsa team trying to find out how good it is. The Golden Hurricanes have rolled over two weak teams (Stephen F. Austin and North Texas) and laid an egg against the only decent team they've faced thus far (BYU). Navy wants to run the ball, and Tulsa's been about average in stopping the run (57th in rushing yards allowed). However, considering the level of competition, they probably are closer to the bottom. Navy will run the ball down their throats and come away from the game with a 4-0 record.
Alabama at Arkansas
After going 1-7 in close games the past 2 seasons, the Hogs finally caught a break when Vandy missed a late field goal. Standing 1-0 in conference play, the humbled Hogs head home to host the Crimson Tide. The Tide also survived a game Vandy team in their SEC opener. Bama's D is pretty good, but nowhere near the beast it was last season. Quarterback John Parker Wilson will be making his first collegiate road start in this game. Expect an Arkansas defense that has yet to force a turnover get at least two against the inexperienced quarterback. Arkansas' running game coupled with the continued progression of Mitch Mustain will have the Hogs at 2-0 in conference play come Saturday night.
Arizona State at Cal
One of only two matchups this week featuring ranked teams takes place out west. Both these schools fancied themselves legitimate contenders to Southern Cal at the beginning of the season. Now, 3 weeks in, its clear they are both a notch below the Trojans. Cal was humbled by the Volunteers in their first game and have subsequently taken their frustrations out on Minnesota and Portland State. Arizona State was tied with non-Division IA Northen Arizona heading into the fourth quarter of their opener. Subsequently thay too have roughed up some lesser teams on their schedule, handling Nevada and Colorado by a combined score of 73-24. Quarterbacks Rudy Carpenter and Nate Longshore are the media stories here, but the key to this game will be the Sun Devils rush defense. So far, they have limited their less than stellar competition to under 3 yards per carry. If they come anywhere close to that number against Marshawn Lynch and the Bears they will win the game going away. They won't.
Penn State at Ohio State
This game looked a lot better in the preseason. It's pretty clear to any unbiased football fan that Penn State is a midlevel Big 10 team and that Ohio State is a legitimate national title contender. Ohio State held the Texas Longhorns to 7 points in their own backyard. Penn State got drilled by 24 in its lone road contest. This one won't be close. Joe Pa won't be happy until he realizes he still can get to the hotel in time to watch Matlock.
Winner: Ohio State
Colorado at Georgia
Another game that looked a lot better in the preseason. Dan Hawkins was supposed to breathe some life into a Colorado program hard hit by scandal and medicore play. While its foolish to judge a coach on his first season, much less the first quarter of his first season, the results so far have been uninspiring. In terms of points per game, Colorado ranks ahead of only 5 Division IA teams (Louisiana-Lafeyette, Florida Atlantic, Duke, Utah State, and Temple). Not the kind of statistical company you want to keep. Georgia on the other hand has been lights out on defense. They've pitched two consecutive shutouts and are currently allowing a scant 4 points per game. It's weakness versus strenght in Athens.
Washington State at Stanford
Washington State, one of the unluckiest teams last season (1-5 in close games), finally caught a break in a narrow victory over Baylor. Now they open up Pac 10 play against a team that is reeling. The Cardinal are 0-3 and Walt Harris has got to be concerned. Since coming over from Pittsburgh, Harris has coached the Cardinal to a 5-9 record. They are just 1-6 at home, with one of the losses coming to UC Davis. The jury is still out on the Cougars as they have hung with Auburn for a half, waxed Idaho, and escaped against Baylor. Their future will still be cloudy after they sneak by Stanford on Saturday.
Winner: Washington State
South Florida at Kansas
Any reader of this blog who knows me personally should not be surprised that I spent last Friday night watching the Kansas/Toledo game. Number 1 because I love football, and number 2 because well, I'm a huge tool. Laying previous indiscretions aside, I am certainly glad to not be a staunch Jayhawk football supporter. Despite outgaining the Rockets by over 150 yards and holding their passing game to less than a 33% completion rate, the Jayhawks still lost thanks to a semi Hail Mary (perhaps an Our Father) and 5 turnovers. One of those turnovers was a fumble on Kansas' first OT play...after holding Toledo to no points. Another was botched fade pattern in the second OT that was nearly returned for a score (possibly the worst fade ever thrown). This loss dropped Kansas to 2-1 and severely damaged their bowl aspirations. South Florida comes into this game with a 3-0 record, but could easily be 1-2 after surviving Florida International 21-20 and then dropping Central Florida 24-17. Since bulling their way onto the national scene with a beatdown of Louisville, South Florida has gone 6-5 with its most marquee win being over either Rutgers or Central Florida. Kansas will do enough to hold off the Golden Bulls at home.
Wake Forest at Ole Miss
My Deacs are 3-0 for the first time since 1987. Their wins are over Syracuse (1-2), Duke (0-3), and Connecticut (1-1). Too bad we're not in the Big East or we'd be 2-0 in conference play. Of course, we needed a blocked 28 yard field goal to beat Duke and an 86 yard interception return by a defensive end to beat Connecticut. Suffice it to say on the field, we've been a little lucky. Of course, in regards to injuries, we've had some bad luck. Our starting quarterback was lost for the season in the first game. Our starting running back is now out for the year after tearing his ACL. And finally, out starting offensive tackle is out 2-6 weeks. Still, I'm cautiously optimistic. Our defense has been very good so far this year holding opponents to only 12 points per game and under 3 yards per rush. Once conference play starts, I don't expect our defense to consistently hold teams under 15 points per game, but I'll enjoy it while it lasts. Our opponent Ole Miss, is reeling after two straight road defeats at Missouri and Kentucky. The Missouri loss is understandable as they appear to be very good, but losing by 17 to Kentucky has to give every Rebel fan cause for concern. The final margin is misleading considering Ole Miss turned the ball over 5 times. That probably won't happen this week. Still our defense will keep us in the game and we'll pull out a close road win.
Winner: Wake Forest
Iowa State at Texas
Poor Iowa State. In a year in which they finally have the talent to win the Big 12 North, they have the misfortune of drawing road games against Texas and Oklahoma from the South Division. They do get the North's big boys, Nebraska and Missouri, at home. Texas has stomped two lower-level teams, and been handled by the one great team they played. Iowa State is far from a great team so the Longhorns shold take care of business this weekend.
UCLA at Washington
Early last season, UCLA burst onto the scene with a program rejuvenating win over Oklahoma. Now Washington has a chance for a program rejuvenating win against UCLA. In Willingham's second year, his Huskies have already matched last season's win total. A win here would match their number of victories over the last 2 seasons. UCLA is looking to build on their fluky 10 win season from a year ago. Ben Olson has played very well in his first two starts for the Bruins, but now he gets his first road test at Seattle. The Bruins won every close game they played last season (4-0). This is a new year and the Bruins luck will run out. The Huskies win a close one.
Notre Dame at Michigan State
Something happened on the way to Notre Dame's national title and Charlie Weiss' canonization. Michigan. Now the perennial thorn in the Irish's side is up next. Sparty wants to repeat history and change it at the same time. They would love another victory over a highly-regarded Irish team, but they don't want the victory over Notre Dame to be the only highlight of a losing season. After last year's flag planting, Notre Dame will be fired up to put the Spartans in their place. They'll have to wait until next year.
Winner: Michigan State