Every week, I’ll throw a spotlight on the six most interesting games of the weekend to tell you why these are the games you should try to catch, who’s going to win (and why), and what ramifications they could have on the rest of the college football landscape.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 11
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Georgia @ South Carolina (12pm EST, ESPN)
Both teams pasted non-BCS competition in Week One (South Carolina brained Southern Miss 41-13, while Georgia smoked UL-Lafayette 55-7) and their reward is... a date with each other, in a game that will put one team behind the eightball in the SEC East at the same time that most teams are still trying to sort out their depth charts. Ah, SEC scheduling... you are a fickle mistress. Of the two, South Carolina likely played the tougher opposition; Southern Miss was expected to be decent in C-USA this year, while UL-Lafayette was expected to be one of the dregs of the Sun Belt yet again. So that's probably a point in the Cocks' favor, as is the fact that the game's in Columbia. On the other hand, the Dawgs do get burgeoning star RB Washaun Ealey back from a one-game suspension and displayed the stiffer defense in week one: they held ULL to just 128 yards... and the Ragin' Cajuns lone score accounted for almost half of those yards (60). They're also expected to get all-everything WR AJ Green back. South Carolina conceded 404 yards to the Golden Eagles (although just 13 points), so they may be a bit more porous. There's also the matter of the Cocks' shuffling two quarterbacks, the inexperienced-but-talented Connor Shaw and hte mercurial-but-talented Stephen Garcia. No result in this game would really surprise me too much, but a long history of being burned by South Carolina gives the slightest of edges to Georgia.
THE PICK: GEORGIA 31, SOUTH CAROLINA 28
Michigan @ Notre Dame (330pm EST, NBC)
Ah yes, the now almost-annual "WE'RE BACK~!" Bowl between two fallen powers of the upper midwest. A year ago, Michigan used their thrilling come-from-behind win over the Domers to springboard to a 4-0 start, a national ranking, and a flurry of hosanas from sportswriters. Then the bottom fell out and they staggered to a 5-7 finish that left Rich Rodriguez planted firmly on the hot seat. They're back again this year, fresh off a triumphant 30-10 win over a seemingly-good Connecticut team that couldn't find an answer to Michigan's speed (particularly at the QB position, where Denard Robinson appears to have firmly supplanted last year's signal-caller, Tate Forcier) on defense and was happy to make plenty of errors on offense. The end result was a 30-10 win that left us oohing and aahing over Robinson's fleet feet (and better-than-expected arm), but obscured the fact that Robinson may not have much help on offense (the two running backs put up middling numbers) and the defense (particularly the terrifyingly inexperienced secondary) wasn't tested too much by UConn. Enter: Notre Dame and Brian Kelly, who knows a thing or three about high-powered offenses. The Irish rattled off a solid, but unspectacular 23-12 win over Purdue in week one, with the most notable aspect of their game being an improved running game. QB Dane Crist is still a work-in-progress, but WR Michael Floyd should give the Michigan defensive backs nightmares during film prep this week. Robinson will be a handful for the Notre Dame defense, but the Irish's balanced offense and more stable defense should give them the advantage in this one. Of course, whoever wins will be the subject of considerable fawning for the next several weeks.
THE PICK: NOTRE DAME 34, MICHIGAN 24
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Florida State @ Oklahoma (330pm EST, ABC)
The first of three national championship game rematches on tap for Saturday is the least-heralded of the three, but may provide the most fireworks, given the potent offenses on display and the question marks that litter both defenses (especially in the secondary). Florida State rolled up on Samford in week one (59-6), but c'mon -- it's SAMFORD. It's only even a little notable because they failed to do that against similar teams in the dying days of the Bowden Era. The Seminoles racked up almost 500 yards (481) of offense and 59 points in the game and did so with remarkably balanced playcalling: 26 running plays and 27 pass plays. Meanwhile, Oklahoma found themselves in a dogfight with Utah State and needed a late interception to clinch a 31-24 win. Utah State's a more respectable foe than Samford, but still. The Sooner pass defense was gouged for 341 yards and a pair of touchdowns by Utah State; now they have to deal with a potential Heisman candidate in Florida State's Christian Ponder (who had an efficient, but ho hum game: 12/14, 167 yards, 4 TD/1 INT). On offense, the Sooners rode the legs of DeMarco Murray as much as humanly possible: 35 carries for 218 yards and a pair of scores. Of course, they needed to do that because Landry Jones struggled, going just 17/36 for 217 yards, two scores, and two interceptions. It's unclear if he has any decent receiving options beyond Ryan Broyles (9-142-2), which may mean that all Florida State has to do is double Broyles and Jones will crumble. The Sooners have been nigh-unbeatable at home under Bob Stoops, but that mark is going to be put to a stiff test by the Seminoles unless Oklahoma can improve dramatically over the course of this week. In a shootout, give me the better quarterback -- and that's clearly Ponder.
THE PICK: FLORIDA STATE 38, OKLAHOMA 31
Miami @ Ohio State (340pm EST, ESPN)
Penn State-Alabama may get the primetime spotlight, but there are plenty of reasons to think that that game may not live up to the advance billing. On the other hand, Miami-Ohio State should be a true heavyweight showdown and one that confirms or denies a few widely-held beliefs about this season. What was one of the greatest games in the history of the sport almost eight years ago would have been a hideous mismatch as recently as 2-3 years ago, but with the stabilization of the Miami program, these two programs are much closer to even strength again. For Miami, a win here would be loudest signal yet that the 'Canes are back after their mid-aughts time in the wilderness; going into the Horseshoe and knocking off a national title contender like Ohio State would be an impressive feat. For Ohio State, a win here would solidify their credentials as a national title threat and prove that the Buckeyes can once again beat good teams loaded with elite athletes; that point was partially proven by their impressive win over Oregon, but from an athletic/talent standpoint, Miami bears a greater resemblance to the SEC and USC teams that have bedeviled Ohio State in recent years and a win over them would be long-awaited vindication.
The game also features two talented, but erratic, signal-callers in Terrelle Pryor and Jacory Harris, both of whom have alternated moments of brilliance with moments of head-scratching bewilderment all too often throughout their careers. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the Ohio State coaches are loosening the reins on Pryor and letting him throw the ball more, and while that's largely true, they've also only "set him free" against teams that had sub-par pass defenses (a category which also includes Oregon in last year's Rose Bowl). Against teams with stingier defenses (Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa), the Buckeye braintrust has kept Pryor under wraps to an extent and focused on controlling the game through the ground (where they can turn to talented backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine, as well as newcomer Jammal Berry); it will be very interesting to see what approach they take on Saturday against a solid Miami defense. There's no such doubt about Harris; Miami will win or lose based on his arm... they just hope he keeps the mistakes to a minimum and slices the Ohio State secondary apart. In many ways, Miami seems like a poor matchup for Ohio State, so it's tempting to pick them, but favoring Randy Shannon over Jim Tressel is a step too far at this point.
THE PICK: OHIO STATE 21, MIAMI 17
Penn State @ Alabama (7pm EST, ESPN)
The nominal main event of the day, based on its primetime placement and the deluge of stories we'll get all week reminiscing about past encounters being Paterno and the Bear, but it might be an upset if the game itself is actually very close. Penn State brings a true freshman quarterback (Robert Bolden), a rebuilding defense, and an offense that couldn't get an All-Big Ten running back like Evan Royster untracked against the likes of Youngstown State (40 yards on 11 carries) into a night game in Tuscaloosa against the defending national champions. Gulp. To be fair, Alabama isn't playing with a full deck, either -- reigning Heisman winner Mark Ingram is expected to sit out again and Bama's latest terrormonster on the defensive line, Marcel Dareus, is serving the second game of a two-week suspension. On the other hand, they do have a much more experienced passer in Greg McElroy and a running back in Trent Richardson that may be every bit as good as Ingram. And while the defense is without Dareus, they're not short of stars (like LB Dont'a Hightower) that could make Bolden's road debut disastrous. The Bama defense seems vulnerable through the secondary and Penn State has a quality group of receivers, but it may be for naught if the offensive line can't give Bolden any protection or open up any holes for Royster to ease the pressure on Bolden. It's hard to see much joy in Paternoville after this game.
THE PICK: ALABAMA 31, PENN STATE 13
Oregon @ Tennessee (7pm, ESPN2)
No week two opponents beat their week one opponents as senseless as these two teams; Oregon disembowled New Mexico to the tune of 72-0, while Tennessee mauled Tennessee-Martin 50-0. That 50-0 win got the Derek Dooley Era off to a better-than-expected start, but it's difficult to see it continuing this week. Oregon has had some pratfalls in early-season road games (Boise State in 2009, Oklahoma in 2004), as well as some near-pratfalls (Mississippi State in 2003, Houston in 2005, Fresno State in 2006, Purdue in 2008) and, to be sure, Pac-10 teams not named USC have a dismal record when traveling outside of their natural timezone for a road game. A highly-regarded Cal team waltzed into Tennessee in 2006 and left bloodied and battered, 35-18... and it wasn't even really that close. But Oregon's early season road slip-ups both happened to teams that wound up going undefeated and playing in BCS bowls; even the most hardened Vol supporter might not believe this year's team could do that. Dominating Tennessee-Martin is one thing; doing the same against an Oregon team loaded with speed and a talent is something else entirely. The Vols have a few things in their favor -- the Ducks will have a young quarterback making his first road start and the in-game atmosphere should be raucous (the time difference probably won't be quite as big a factor as it would have been if the game was being played around noon or even in the afternoon) -- but it still doesn't seem like enough to make a difference here.
THE PICK: OREGON 34, TENNESSEE 17