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.
LAST WEEK: 4-2
#24 KANSAS STATE (6-3, 3-3) @ #17 MISSOURI (7-2, 3-2) (FSN, 12:30pm EST)
In all likelihood, this is the battle to determine the runner-up to Nebraska this year, since the Cornhuskers already have wins over both the Wildcats and the Tigers; Nebraska would need to lose two of their final three remaining games. Two of their final three games are home dates with Kansas and Colorado; a loss in one of those games doesn't seem hugely probable at all. Thus, welcome to the Big 12 North runner-up derby. K-State is coming off a total beatdown of Texas and while Texas may be a huge disappointment and underachiever this year, there's still something to be said for so thoroughly dismantling them. On the flip side, Missouri is coming off a come-from-ahead loss to Texas Tech in which they leapt out to a 17-0 lead and then apparently went home, letting Texas Tech score the next 24 points and win the game. Mizzou has lost two in a row (they lost to Nebraska the week before last) and could use a win here to at least keep alive the hope of a 10-win season and a decent bowl trip. K-State has been brutally one-dimensional on offense (run run run), but it's hard to see that being enough against a surprisingly good Mizzou defense.
THE PICK: MISSOURI 24, KANSAS STATE 14
#20 VIRGINIA TECH (7-2, 5-0) @ NORTH CAROLINA (6-3, 3-2) (ABC/ESPN, 3:30pm EST)
For all intents and purposes, Virginia Tech has all but locked up their umpteenth Coastal division title since the league split into divisions in 2005 (OK, technically their fourth division title in the last six years). They would need to lose two of their final three games to not claim the Coastal crown yet again; anything's possible in the topsy-turvy world of the ACC, but that seems like a tall order, given how well VT is generally playing now. North Carolina scored a big (and surprising) road win over Florida State when FSU once again fell victim to "Wide Right," but it may be asking a lot for their battered and beleagured team to come up with a similar effort against a rested VT team. Here's guessing they keep it close for a while, but VT is able to pull away in the second half.
THE PICK: VIRGINIA TECH 27, NORTH CAROLINA 17
PENN STATE (6-3, 3-2) @ #9 OHIO STATE (8-1, 4-1) (ABC/ESPN, 3:30pm EST)
A month ago, this game looked like a total laugher for OSU, another speedbump on their way to the (potential) conference-deciding showdown with Iowa on 11/20. Then Penn State's freshman QB Robert Bolden got hurt and PSU turned to little-used walk-on QB Matt McGloin. Improbably, McGloin sparked the offense and has led them to three straight wins and rejuvenated hope of a decent season in Happy Valley. Mind you, those wins do come with some caveats -- they came against Minnesota, Michigan, and Northwestern, three of the worst pass defenses in the league (and, in the case of Michigan and Minnesota, defenses that frankly aren't good at much of anything). Ohio State represents a quantum leap in quality from what Penn State has been playing the past few weeks, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Two of those three wins also came in the friendly confines of Happy Valley, while the lone road win was in Minneapolis -- not exactly hostile territory these days. Columbus, OH, on the other hand, will be very hostile territory. OSU has occasionally looked a bit shaky on the road, but they've been positively murderous at home and they're going to be too much for an inexperienced PSU team. McGloin may be able to keep it close for a bit, but that's about it.
THE PICK: OHIO STATE 31, PENN STATE 13
GEORIGA (5-5, 3-4) @ #1 AUBURN (10-0, 6-0) (CBS, 3:30pm EST)
Ah, the first of our SEC triple-header to close out this week. This game looked intriguing a few weeks ago, but primarily as a potential trap game for Auburn. There were reasons to like Georgia anyway -- an offense that's become increasingly dynamic over the course of the season, an extra week to prepare, the hoary old "anything can happen in a rivalry game" chestnut, the possibility of Auburn looking ahead to Alabama -- but then Newtongate happened and things got even crazier. At this point, it's almost hard to remember that Auburn ACTUALLY HAS TO PLAY A GAME ON SATURDAY. With probably the biggest news story of the year swirling around them and a potential national title shot still on the line, the Auburn players have to go out and perform against a Georgia team with nothing to lose. Can you say "pressure"? If he even plays, will the controversy surrounding Newton derail his (and Auburn's) incredible season? It's impossible to say. Literally, any result in this game seems plausible; Auburn could come out flat and distracted and get smoked by a Georgia team better than its 5-5 record. Conversely, they could come out pissed off and motivated and destroy Georgia. Or it could be a nail-biter won by either team -- or anything in-between. For now, I'm assuming that Newtown plays and that he comes out using the controversy as motivational fodder. But that could certainly be dead wrong.
THE PICK: AUBURN 38, GEORGIA 34
#23 SOUTH CAROLINA (6-3, 4-3) @ #22 FLORIDA (6-3, 4-3) (ESPN, 7:15pm EST)
Two teams going in opposite directions. After an ugly 3-game losing streak, Florida's rebounded to win two in a row and in the 55-14 rout of Vanderbilt last week, the offense actually looked (gasp) good. Meanwhile, South Carolina got blasted on its own field by Arkansas and lost for the second time in four games, with the two losses sandwiching unimpressive wins over Vanderbilt and Tennessee. On the other hand, the counter-argument is that South Carolina sandbagged the Arkansas game because they knew it had no bearing on their main goal, an SEC East title. The division title comes down to this game, with the winner getting the honor (?) of meeting Auburn (or possibly LSU) in the SEC Championship Game. The key question for South Carolina is whether or not they can turn the clock back a month and play like they did when they stomped a mudhole all over Alabama and established themselves as the dominant team in the East. They've dozed through their four games since then (going 2-2, as noted) and haven't looked remotely as dominant. Florida remains a flawed team -- let me know when the offense looks menacing against something other than the pussycat Vanderbilt defense -- and for once, South Carolina may actually have the more talented team, at least in terms of starters. But it's hard to bet against Urban Meyer in big games and easy to bet against perpetual choke artists like South Carolina -- especially when their own performances over the past month have been so listless.
THE PICK: FLORIDA 28, SOUTH CAROLINA 24
#19 MISSISSIPPI STATE (7-2, 3-2) @ #12 ALABAMA (7-2, 4-2) (ESPN2, 7:15pm EST)
Mississippi State has somewhat amazingly -- and quietly -- remained in the polls for a full month now. Mississippi State! If you had told me before the season that at this point in the season Mississippi State and Alabama would have the same record I... would not have believed you. That said, same record = teams of equal quality. Mississippi State's best win was over a reeling Florida team; since then they also have a pair of narrow wins over UAB and Kentucky and an offense that can only do one thing well: run the ball. Their defense is stout, but against a pissed-off Alabama offense that may not matter. Bama at home, at night, off a loss... hard to see this one going well for Mississippi State, no matter how surprising they've been this season.
THE PICK: ALABAMA 31, MISSISSIPPI STATE 13