The first Saturday in October brings fans of college football a glut of quality action. Key conference games could eliminate some teams (LSU and Iowa) from contention while serving as springboards (Wake Forest and Missouri) for others.
Last Week: 8-6
Arkansas at Auburn
Both these teams enter the game undefeated in the SEC. However, a quick glance at point differential will reveal the better team. In two conference games, Arkansas has outscored its opponents by 3 points. In three conference games, Auburn has outscored its opponents by 45 points. The Tigers also have a win over perhaps the conference's second best team (LSU) in their back pocket. A win here sets the Tigers up for a national title shot as they only have to leave the state of Alabama once more before a possible SEC Championship Game appearance. Both teams want to pound the ball with quality backs, but while Arkansas starts a true freshman, Mitch Mustain, at quarterback, Auburn counters with experience in Brandon Cox. For Arkansas to have a shot, they must win the turnover battle. However, the Hogs are last in the NCAA having forced only one turnover all season. Brandon Cox will avoid making mistakes and the Tigers will win rather easily.
Penn State at Minnesota
This game will go a long way towards determining how good these teams are. Neither team has a real impressive win (Kent State, Temple, Akron, Youngstown State, and Northwestern rresent the sum of their scalps), and each team has faltered against superior competition. Since throwing 3 touchdowns against Akron on Labor Day Weekend, Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli has managed just 1 touchdown pass on the year. That does include one game against Ohio State, but also contests against Notre Dame, Youngstown State, and Northwestern--teams with pourous at best defenses. Minnesota has been doing what they always do under Glenn Mason--run the football. They rank 15th nationally in rushing offense averaging over 200 yards per game. The Gophers will continue to do what they do under Mason--beating mediocre conference opponents at home. In Mason's tenure, the Gophers are 18-5 at home against conference opponents with 7 wins or less. Make it 19-5.
Clemson at Wake Forest
This is easily the biggest game for Wake Forest football during my fanhood. Wake is 5-0, but is without the quarterback and running back they began the season with. A relatively soft early schedule coupled with a defense that returned 10 starters has the Deacons at 5-0 for the first time since 1987. This weekend, they get possibly the ACC's top team in Groves Stadium, a place that has been a house of horrors for Clemson recently (lost last 2 there). Unfortunately, the Deacs are a bit out of their league in this game. Their only hope is to dramatically win the turnover battle (+3 or more) and take advantage of some likely Clemson special team's gaffes. In other words, the only way Wake wins if if Clemson pulls a George Strait and just gives it away.
Purdue at Iowa
Believe it or not, Purdue still has an outside shot at the Big 10 title. They avoid both the heavyweights, Michigan and Ohio State, this season. Already standing 1-0 in conference play, the only thing separating Purdue from a trip to Pasadena is an atrocious defense. But hey at least its consistent. The Boilers have allowed 35, 31, 28, 21, and 35 points in their five games this season. Expect at least 31 more in this game. Iowa has not been the top-10 caliber squad many expected this season, but they are good enough to take out Purdue at home.
Washington at Southern Cal
Things are looking up in Tyrone Willingham's sophomore campaign. The Huskies have already doubled last season's win total and exceeded the total for the past two seasons. Saturday though, they will find out just how far they have left to go. The Trojans got tested last week in Pullman, and will be playing just their second home game on Saturday. The offense is far from the uber-touchdown machine it was last year, but the defense has improved dramatically. Last year's dynamic offense masked most of the defenses struggles. Consider this: Last season, the Trojans held one team to 10 points or fewer (Cal). This year, they've already held two teams to 10 points or fewer. Make it 3.
Winner: Southern Cal
LSU at Florida
We'll learn a lot about the Tigers after this weekend. They have crushed all their opponents thus far save Auburn. Those four wins have come against Arizona (2-3), Louisiana-Lafayette (2-2), Tulane (1-3), and Mississippi State (1-4). In addition, all those wins have come at home. In their lone road trip, the Tigers stumbled in a defensive struggle at Auburn. Conversely, the Gators have done two things the Tigers have yet to do.
1) beat good teams--Tennessee and Bama, and heck even Kentucky and Southern Miss
2) win on the road--Tennessee
Still, I think Vegas has it right in making LSU the favorite. The Tigers have a stout fast defense that will shut down the Gators spread option attack.
Texas versus Oklahoma at Dallas
Texas has destroyed every team it has played save for Ohio State. Their best scalp thus far has been Iowa State (3-2, but 3 wins by a combined 9 points over Toledo, UNLV, and Northern Iowa). Oklahoma on the other hand has occasionally looked less than impressive in winning (by 7 over a 2-3 UAB team) and lost a tough road contest that they may not have lost had rules been interpretted correctly. In their most recent scrimmage, the Sooners looked like the vintage 2000-2004 version in stomping Middle Tennessee State 59-0. This should be one of the more competitive Red River Shootouts in recent memory. I'll give the nod to the boys from Norman believing they have something to prove after the Oregon debacle.
South Carolina at Kentucky
If ever a game had trap written all over it, this is it. Fresh off a nationally televised near win over the #2 team in the country, the Gamecocks head to Lexington where Kentucky has yet to lose this season. In addition, the last 3 games between these teams in Lexington have all been close with South Carolina taking each one (20-17 in 2000, 16-12 in 2002, and 12-7 in 2004). Let's also not forget that those bookend Kentucky teams (2000 and 2004) were awful (both 2-9). The Cats have been able to put points on the board this season, especially at home where they have yet to score fewer than 30. Quarterback Andre Woodson has been particularly efficient this season completing better than 60% of his passes and tossing 14 touchdowns against 2 interceptions. I think the Cats eek out a win here. I'm not extremely confident in picking the winner, but I'm pretty confident the over is a pretty safe bet in this game.
Tennessee at Georgia
The last in a glut of key SEC games this weekend. Georgia has been this season's Alabama--scraping by in each game thanks to a great defense and equally inept offense. Pair DJ Shockley or David Green with this defense and the Dawgs would be national championship contenders. As it stands, most are just waiting for the inevitable--a game where Georgia's defensive prowess simply cannot overcome its poor offense. This is that game. After a one year hiatus, Tennessee is back.
Michigan State at Michigan
If this is truly the Michigan State team we all know and love, there are only two possible outcomes to this game.
1) Sparty comes out strong and hangs on to stun Michigan ending their national and possibly their Big 10 title hopes.
2) Sparty comes out strong and chokes away a chance for a marquee upset win.
Amazingly, I think Michigan wins this game rather handily. Losing at home to Illinois is simply inexcusable. The Wolverines will roll here.
Oregon at Cal
After everyone wrote them off following their disastrous opener in Knoxville, the Bears have won 4 straight and have scored at least 41 points in each game. After winning the controversial Oklahoma game, the Ducks went into the desert and dismantled the Arizona State Sun Devils. In this battle for the pac 10 silver medal, take the home team.
Missouri at Texas Tech
Are the Tigers for real? The next two weeks will let us know. They travel to Texas Tech this week and then to Texas A&M next week. A sweep and they are North Division favorites. A split, and they're in the conversation. A sweep, and well, Shreveport is nice this time of year. The key here will be how well Missouri performs on third down. They have been absolutely deadly so far this season converting over 52% of their 3rd downs (9th nationally). In their lone road trip, the Tigers were tested by a mediocre at best New Mexico team. I'm tempted to take the Red Raiders, but they just don't seem to be as strong as they were last season.
Nebraska at Iowa State
Maybe the Black Shirts aren't back just yet. Nebraska got shredded by Kansas in the second half and nearly blew a big lead...at home. Now they go on the road for only the second time all season. Iowa State has treated its home fans to 3 thrillers thus far. They beat Toledo by 2 in triple OT, UNLV by 6, and Northern Iowa by 1. Under Callahan, Nebraska is 3-7 on the road. Iowa State has won their last 2 home games against the Huskers. In a mild upset, they make it 3 in a row.
Winner: Iowa State
Washington State at Oregon State
This may be the most important game of the season for both these teams (excluding the Apple Cup and the Civil War). The winner is likely bowl bound, and the loser is likely home for the holidays. Washington State particularly needs this game, as another bowl-less season would make 3 in a row. They'll be one step closer to bowl eligibility after this weekend.
Winner: Washington State