College Football Must-Watch Games: Week 9

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.

OVERALL: 27-15

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 28 #16 Florida State (6-1, 4-0) @ NC State (5-2, 2-1) (7:30pm EST, ESPN)After the 47-17 beatdown that FSU took at the hands of Oklahoma back in early September, the Seminoles quietly rebounded to rattle off five straight wins and take control of the ACC's Atlantic division, opening up a multi-game lead on NC State and Maryland. Of course, much of that winning streak came on the back of some wins over unimpressive competition; Miami was not only the lone ranked team FSU dispatched in that run, they were the only team with a winning record that FSU beat. The schedule stiffens from here on out, though; every team left on FSU's schedule is (at present) at least a game over .500 and the second through fourth-place teams in the Atlantic (NC State, Maryland, Clemson) comprise three of their next four opponents. After a promising 4-0 start, NC State stumbled by losing two of their next three games (including an upset loss to East Carolina); if they want to have realistic shot at catching FSU in the division, they need to win this game. They key to this game is what FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops has whipped up to slow down NC State QB Russell Wilson; if Stoops is successful, this could be a cakewalk for the 'Noles. If not, this one could be a real shootout. I'm leaning towards the former.

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 30 Louisville (4-3, 1-1) @ Pittsburgh (4-3, 2-0) (12pm EST, ESPN3.com)Big East football? Yep, Big East football. Hey, someone has to win this league and get the automatic berth to a BCS bowl. Through two weeks, Pitt is the only Big East team undefeated in conference play -- but they have three non-conference losses, including a blowout at the hands of Miami and close road losses to Utah and Notre Dame. They may very well be the class of the Big East this year -- although that isn't necessarily saying a whole lot. Louisville's already equaled their win total from a year ago and all three of their losses have been close games against decent-ish foes (Kentucky, Oregon State, Cincinnati). Sandwiched around that most reecnt loss (Cincy) are two blowout wins (over dismal Memphis and rapidly-disintegrating UConn). Charlie Strong is getting things turned around there and a fair bit faster than many expected. That said, they probably aren't quite ready to win a game like this and genuinely contend for the Big East title just yet.

#6 Missouri (7-0, 3-0) @ #14 Nebraska (6-1, 2-1) (3:30pm EST, ABC)For three straight weeks a top-ranked team has gone down (Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma). The results after that game for the upset-pullers has been mixed; South Carolina went on the road and dropped a weird game to Kentucky, while Wisconsin went on the road to Iowa and narrowly came out with a win. Fresh off their big home win over Oklahoma, now Missouri has to go on the road to face a tough road game against a good Nebraska team. Nebraska had a wild bounce-back game against Oklahoma State a week ago, winning a 51-41 shootout (apparently the vaunted Blackshirt defense was on vacation). Now Nebraska has a chance to wrest control of the Big 12 North from Missouri, to avenge a 52-17 drubbing they suffered the last time Mizzou came to Lincoln... and to give Missouri one final eff you on their way out the door to the Big Ten. Missouri's surprising success this season has come on the back of their defense, which is quite a change from a few years ago, when they just relied on their high-powered offense to put up a ton of points on teams. Still, it's hard to avoid a letdown after such a momentous win and going on the road to play Nebraska and Lincoln is not exactly an ideal follow-up venue.

#5 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0) @ #18 Iowa (5-2, 2-1) (3:30pm EST, ABC/ESPN)Every year there's a team that comes out of nowhere, rides some surprisingly strong play and good fortune to a gaudy record and national recognition. And more often than not, that team stubs their toe at some point. It's really, really hard to go undefeated in modern college football -- especially in one of the big six conferences. The weekly grind is intense, the pressure gets worse by the week, and all of your opponents start getting a little more amped to be the first squad to add a number to the loss column in your record. Teams that manage to navigate an entire season undefeated usually do so on the basis of having at least one truly elite unit (either offense or defense). The much-derided 2002 Ohio State team may have had only a patchwork offense, but they had a hellacious defense. The 2005 USC squad had a so-so defense, but one of the best offenses of the decade. And so on. After eight weeks you are what you are, and what Michigan State is is a good team -- perhaps even a very good team -- but not an elite one. Their defense is good, but not lockdown great. Their offense is good, but occasionally inconsistent. They've gotten exceptional special teams play and that can carry you a long way, but it's also not always a reliable means of scoring points. At least, this is what I tell myself as Sparty gets ready to play an Iowa team working with a make-shift LB corps and prone to some of the ugliest special teams breakdowns I've seen in the last decade of Iowa football. Iowa's back is against the wall -- a loss here and their high hopes for this season are officially toast -- and in spite of their now-obvious flaws, they do still have a very good defensive line (and the Spartan offensive line isn't the elite wall that the Wisco line was a week ago) and a surprisingly potent offense. They have the tools to win this game. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

Florida (4-3, 2-3) @ Georgia (4-4, 3-3) (3:30pm EST, CBS) Prior to last week's much needed bye week, Florida was mired in by far the worst three-game skid of Urban Meyer's Florida tenure; they'd lost three in a row (including a home to loss to, of all teams, Mississippi State) and been held under ten points in two of those losses. The Florida offense has been a FEMA-worthy disaster area all season, but it reached new lows in the embarrassing 7-point effort against Mississippi State. So has a week off been enough to work out the kinks and get them back to a level of, if not good quality, then perhaps just passable quality? To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Tim Tebow isn't walking through that door. Neither is Percy Harvin. The Florida offense remains an oddball collection of players who are very inconsistent (most of the receivers and running backs), just not that good (Emmanuel Moody), or a bad fit for the offense trying to be run (John Brantley). Oh, and they're still coached by Steve Adazzio, who looks increasingly overmatched in his OC position. On the other hand, Georgia has rebounded from their disastrous 1-4 start to rattle off three straight wins and improbably give them a shot at winning the SEC East. They've scored 40+ in all three games; clearly getting AJ Green back from his suspension and the continued development of Washaun Early and Aaron Murray has done wonders for them. That said, the Florida defense has been pretty good this year -- outside two 30+ point efforts conceded to Alabama and LSU, they've held every other foe to 17 points or less. And there is the little matter of Florida absolutely, positively owning Georgia -- they're 17-3 in the last twenty meetings. And they've had a bye week to sort things out and prepare for Georgia. But still... it's hard to completely overlook a half-season's worth of futility. If Georgia can't beat this Florida team, when will they ever beat Florida?

#2 Oregon (7-0, 4-0) @ USC (5-2, 2-2) (3:30pm EST, ABC) A year ago, Oregon's 47-20 destruction of USC served as a clear statement that the era of USC dominance in the Pac-10 was over. A year later, Oregon's now the team with the target on its back and the team with conference and national title ambitions. With two conference losses already (and the sanctions that prevent them from going to a bowl anyway), USC's been reduced to the unfamiliar role of spoiler -- but it's also a role they seem to have embraced (at least against a foe like Oregon). Oregon's coming off yet another lopsided destruction, a 60-13 evisceration of UCLA. USC's coming off a bye and a 48-14 dismantling of Cal that was undoubtedly their best win of the season. Will two weeks of prep time enable USC to engineer a defensive gameplan that allows them to stop Oregon's ridiculously powerful offense? Doubtful. USC's best bet is to take advantage of their own potent offense (Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Ronald Johnson, and Allen Bradford are all on a roll right now) and hope to get enough turnovers or stops to win a shootout. Winning a shootout against Oregon is easier said than done, though.

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