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
#21 Texas (3-1) vs. #8 Oklahoma (4-0) (@ Dallas, TX) (3:30pm EST, ABC/ESPN2)
For the second-straight year, one of these teams enters the game with a loss; a year ago it was an injury-ravaged Oklahoma team limping into Dallas with injuries to Jermaine Gresham, Sam Bradford (who returned for that game only to get reinjured), and a host of other players, as well as a pair of losses to BYU and Miami. This year, Texas can't point to any injuries as the source of their malaise, but after stumbling through less-than-impressive wins over the likes of Rice and Wyoming, the Longhorns finally spit the bit in a home meltdown to UCLA a week ago. Frailties both old (their disjointed offense and non-existent running game) and new (a surprisingly porous run defense) were exposed by the Bruins -- and the Sooners will no doubt have been taking notes. Then again, they haven't exactly been running a train on their opposition thus far, either, they're 4-0 but that's included some skin-of-their-teeth wins over Air Force, Cincinnati, and (somehow) Utah State... as well as an incongruous massacre of Florida State sandwiched in-between those games. This game figures to pit strength against strength (Oklahoma's oft-explosive offense against Texas' typically immovable defense) and weakness against weakness (Oklahoma's porous defense against Texas' terminally inconsistent offense). One of those battles will likely cancel out, so the team that can win the other battle (whichever it happens to be) should come out on top. Texas' problems thus far have seemed more troubling, so let's ride the Sooners here.
THE PICK: OKLAHOMA 27, TEXAS 20
#11 Wisconsin (4-0) at #24 Michigan State (4-0) (3:30pm EST, ABC/ESPN2)
Both teams are 4-0, but they haven't really been tested that much -- they beat up on some MAC/WAC/Sun Belt-level opposition (and beat the holy piss out of some I-AA squads last week) and scraped by their one "real" opponent by the skin of their teeth (Wisco needed a blocked XP to beat Arizona State, while Michigan State needed that awesome fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in OT). It's also unclear how good or bad their "real" opponents are -- Arizona State's only two losses are to two top 10-ish teams (Wisco and Oregon) and they could have won both if Steven Threet could have stopped being Steven Threet for a few plays, while Notre Dame's three losses are to teams that are a combined 12-0. Wisco got a lot more preseason love than Sparty, but they looked sluggish until they opened up a can of whup-ass on Austin Peay. Michigan State has developed a really balanced offense and has some very good defensive players (like LBs Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, to name a few guys)... although their secondary can be shredded (just ask Dayne Crist and the Domers). I think Sparty has a really good shot to pull off the upset here, as long as they're not looking ahead to next week's big showdown with Michigan.
THE PICK: MICHIGAN STATE 34, WISCONSIN 31
Virginia Tech (2-2) at #23 North Carolina State (4-0) (3:30pm EST, ABC)
Raise your hand if you had NC State pegged to be atop the ACC. Lower your hand if you're an alum or a relative of one of the players. If your hand is still raised, you're a goddamn liar. But it's the ACC so the only reasonable expectation is for the unexpected to reign. This is a league where Wake Forest was champion as recently as four years ago; there is no brand of madness too mad for them (except maybe Duke going undefeated and playing for the crystal football -- that's just stupid talk) In any event, now that Virginia Tech has escaped the cruel clutches of foes from the WAC and CAA, they're rounding into their usual form for ACC season: a punishing defense (they shut out Boston College 19-0 a week ago) married to a "just enough to get by" offense (again, just 19 points a week ago). NC State survived a road trip to UCF (28-21), then zipped by supposed tests against Cincinnati (30-19) and Georgia Tech (45-28). As always, a belief in ACChaos is our guiding light here; the question is which team is more chaos-friendly? VT is the traditional bet in the ACC, so let's throw our chips in against 'em. Just because. ACChaos means we'll likely be proven wrong (again).
THE PICK: NC STATE 27, VIRGINIA TECH 20
#22 Penn State (3-1) at #17 Iowa (3-1) (8:05pm EST, ESPN)
I'm not going to lie and pretend I'm not a bit biased about this one... but it has been a really good game more often than not. Going back to 2000, the game's only been decided by more than a touchdown three times (2003, 2007, and last year, although that was a closer game than the 21-10 score indicated) and four games have been decided in the final minutes or OT. Sometimes it's an ugly, defensive slog (2004 and the infamous 6-4 game or last year's rain-soaked showdown), but they're usually exciting, intense games. It's turning into a pretty healthy rivalry and I'm a little sad that the Big Ten's new divisional format will probably lead to the game being played less often than it is now. As far as this game, it's the reversed situation from the last few years, when Penn State went into the game as the favorite with big dreams; Iowa's favored in this one. Most of the match-ups favor them (especially their defensive line versus PSU's offensive line), but that doesn't always mean a lot in this series. I understand if most people aren't watching this one -- it is on the same time as Florida-Bama and Oregon-Stanford after all -- but it should be worth flipping to during commercial breaks or at timeouts. Penn State has some solid players on both sides of the ball, but for the most part they're in rebuilding mode this season, while this is a season Iowa has been building to for a few years. Barring another special teams meltdown, Iowa should win this one.
THE PICK: IOWA 27, PENN STATE 13
#9 Stanford (4-0) at #4 Oregon (4-0) (8:00pm EST, ABC/ESPN2)
What do we expect out of this one? Points, points, and, oh yeah, more points. A year ago, Stanford won this game 51-42 and there isn't a whole lot of reason to expect differently from this game: Oregon's offense and its ridiculous almost point-a-minute scoring rate barely seems to have skipped a beat without Jeremiah Masoli at the helm and Stanford's offense has been bulldozing opponents even without the Albino Rhino (Toby Gerhart) keying the attack. NFL #1 draft pick-to-be Andrew Luck is leading the way for a balanced offense and the overlooked defense is looking pretty solid, too: they shut out the UCLA team that went into Austin and picked up 34 points and a win last week and they made mincemeat out of Notre Dame, too.
This game is also intriguing for the contrast in styles; Stanford just wants to line up and smash you in the mouth over and over again, while Oregon wants to use speed and misdirection to slice you to ribbons. Neither team has faced an offense as potent as the one they'll be facing on Saturday night. It's tough to distinguish between these two evenly-matched teams, but Stanford seems to have done better against slightly stronger competition (that UCLA win gets better and better) and Oregon did have trouble stopping what was suppsoed to be a mediocre Arizona State offense a week ago (at least until Steven Threet gifted them with turnover after turnover to end promising drives). The atmosphere in Autzen will be insane, but for now give us the team that likes to punch and get punched.
THE PICK: STANFORD 38, OREGON 34
#7 Florida (4-0) at #1 Alabama (4-0) (8:00pm EST, CBS)
One of these teams has (mostly) looked like a juggernaut, rolling through overmatched opponents and pummeling sad sack opponents. The other... has not. Alabama cruised through their early games, then faced their stiffest test yet in a road game at Arkansas, where they fell behind 17-7 at halftime and 20-7 late in the third quarter, before their brutally tough running game and an opportunistic defense (aided and abetted by Ryan Mallett's awful implosion) took over in the fourth quarter. On one hand, their failings in that game could be construed as a sign of weakness; on the other, their ability to battle back is impressive... and they aren't going to face many quarterbacks or passing offenses good enough to exploit the weaknesses in their secondary. The question this week is: can Florida do it? Their moribund offense woke up last week behind the Tebow-esque rhinoceros runs of Trey Burton, but doing that against Kentucky is one thing; doing that against Alabama's defense is another matter entirely.
Additionally, there's been a lot of hype for this game as the third part of the epic Bama-Florida trilogy that began with the last two SEC Championship Games, which seems a bit unfair. There was a great deal of similarity between the Florida and Alabama squads that tangled in those title games, but this year's been a ton of turnover on both sides for this game, with Alabama losing basically their entire starting defense and Florida losing huge swaths of players on both sides of the ball (including some guy named Tim). What happened in those two SEC title games probably isn't going to mean a whole lot for this particular game. As for this game... I don't really believe the Florida offense has truly turned a corner just because they lit up Kentucky and while the Florida defense will make some big plays and keep the game close for a while, I don't think they can withstand the punishment for an entire game.
THE PICK: ALABAMA 24, FLORIDA 14