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: 3-3
SATURDAY, SEPT. 18
#12 Arkansas @ Georgia (12pm EST, ESPN)
Arkansas was the trendy pick in the SEC this year, following in the proud footsteps of 2009 Ole Miss and 2008 Georgia, although by now the pollsters have learned their lesson well enough not to place Arkansas immediately in the top ten. They certainly didn't look like a top ten team in struggling with UL-Monroe for three quarters last week. Like that '09 Ole Miss squad, they feature a much-hyped veteran signal-caller (Ryan Mallett for Arkansas, Jevan Snead for Ole Miss) and a good amount of other returning starters and were competitive against other top SEC teams the year prior.
Unlike that '09 Ole Miss squad, they don't have Houston Nutt, a serial underachiever when expectations are high. This road trip to Georgia is their first real test of the season and the first game in a fairly brutal four-game stretch that will either reveal them as real contenders for an SEC (and possibly even national) title or expose them as fraudulent pretenders; after the road game against Georgia, Arkansas entertains Alabama at home, faces Texas A&M in Dallas, and heads back on the road to play Auburn. That's some tough sledding. A week ago, Georgia failed their first big test of the season, getting manhandled by South Carolina, 17-6. The Ol' Ball Coach rarely had South Carolina test Georgia's pass defense in that game -- why bother when Marcus Lattimore could grind those undersized Georgia defenders into dust -- but Petrino and Mallett figure to do just that on Saturday. If the Georgia pass defense can keep Mallett in check, they have a shot in this one. Here's guessing they struggle to do that.
THE PICK: ARKANSAS 31, GEORGIA 24
Georgia Tech @ North Carolina (12pm EST, ESPN3.com)
Oh, ACC. It wasn't really just two weeks ago that you had five teams ranked in the top 20 and various pundits (including this one) suggesting that the ACC Coastal could be the toughest division in college football, was it? Yeah, about that... NOT SO MUCH. It may still be tough for one team to emerge from that division, but only because all the teams in it are varying degrees of mediocre. Georgia Tech dispatched South Carolina State easily in week one (41-10), but provided one of the more surprising upsets of the season in traveling to Lawrence and losing to the same Kansas team that a week earlier had failed to score a touchdown against a I-AA North Dakota State team. That's... not good. But when your quarterback goes 5/15, good things generally aren't right around the corner, even if you are an option team. On the other side, North Carolina has had two weeks to think about their near-miss against LSU and prepare for Georgia Tech's always-tricky offense.
The bad news is that they still have no idea which players that were suspended for that LSU tilt may be available for this game; the wheels of NCAA justice move very slowly indeed. Giving a team an extra week to prepare for the Tech offense is usually a good way to neutralize (at least in part) its effectiveness, but that may not be of much aid to a Tar Heel team dealing with so much chaos.
THE PICK: GEORGIA TECH 34, NORTH CAROLINA 21
#8 Nebraska @ Washington (330pm EST, ABC/ESPN2)
Nebraska pulled off a sloppy 38-17 win over Idaho last week, turning the ball over four times and committing ten penalties (for 123 yards); they'll need to be sharper than that to get to to 3-0 this week. The Washington hype bus got a flat tire in week one as they came undone on a road trip to BYU, but they bounced back nicely to take care of business against Syracuse last week. Nebraska obviously represents a massive leap in quality from either of those teams, but Washington has been a scrappy team against ranked opponents under Sarkisian. They went 2-3 a year ago, blasting a 19th ranked Cal team to the end the season and pulling off a memorable September upset over then-#3 USC. (In their three losses, they lost a spirited 31-23 game to LSU, but got smashed by both Oregon schools.) Granted, those teams may have been overrated at the time of those games (USC certainly was, judging by the rest of their season), but still: Sark has done an excellent job of getting his team ready to play against top teams when they come to Seattle. Nebraska, meanwhile, has found a bit of offense to go with their very solid defense, led by freshman quarterback Taylor "T-Magic" Martinez, who's been a capable passer (21/32, 242 yards, 0/1 TD/INT) and a dynamic runner (21 carries, 384 yards, 1 TD). Washington keeps it close by forcing Martinez into some costly errors, but Nebraska's defense ultimately makes enough stops to secure victory.
THE PICK: NEBRASKA 27, WASHINGTON 24
Clemson @ #16 Auburn (7pm EST, ESPN)
Somewhat inexplicably, ESPN's College Gameday has chosen to head to this game this week. Maybe they got some good buy one/get one free deals when they were in Alabama for the Penn State-Alabama game last week. In any event, it is an intriguing match-up between one of the few ACC teams that hasn't fallen on their faces yet and an SEC West team that continues to generate buzz as an SEC title contender. Mind you, Clemson's largely managed to avoid the embarrassing fates that have befallen fellow ACC teams by playing no one with a pulse (North Texas and Presbyterian so far) and Auburn looked decidedly not-ready-for-primetime in eking out a win over a Mississippi State team that could barely complete a pass.
Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper have done an adequate job of replacing CJ Spiller so far (27 carries, 243 yards, 4 TD) and QB Kyle Parker has been efficient (15/26, 283 yards, 4/1 TD/INT), but Auburn's defense is a gigantic leap in quality from the likes of the Mean Green and the Blue Hose. Auburn's been led by JUCO transfer QB Cam Newton, still best known for stealing a laptop at Florida a few years ago. Newton's leading the team in both passing (20/33, 322 yards, 5/1 TD/INT) and running (33 carries, 241 yards, 2 TD) and Clemson hasn't had to deal with anything like him yet. Throw in the fact that Auburn has utterly owned this series (14 wins in a row dating back to 1952, including 9 in a row in Auburn) and the pick to win is pretty easy. And, hell, Clemson's from the ACC -- are you really gonna pick them to do something good?
THE PICK: AUBURN 34, CLEMSON 24
#6 Texas @ Texas Tech (8pm EST, ABC/ESPN2)
The last time Texas went to Lubbock these two teams played one of the best games of the last few years and Michael Crabtree made one of the most memorable catches of the decade in Tech's sensational upset of Texas that ended Texas' conference (and national) title ambitions. Sadly, most of the key personnel from that game -- Colt McCoy, Quan Cosby, Jordan Shipley, Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree, Mike Leach -- are no longer around for this installment, so it may be hard to get a rematch that lives up to that tremendous standard. That said, if Texas Tech continues to build upon the promise shown in their first two games and the Texas offense continues to look lethargic, an upset isn't out of the question.
The atmosphere in Lubbock should be frenzied and Tuberville's Auburn teams frequently played their best ball in the biggest games (from 2004-2008, Tuberville's Auburn teams went 9-6 against top ten-ranked foes). On the other hand, for all its sluggishness, the Texas offense hasn't turned the ball over thus far and has scored 30+ points in both games and the defense has been absolute nails most of the time. Thus far, Tuberville's stayed remarkably faithful to the Air Raid offense that Mike Leach installed at Texas Tech: they threw 53 times against SMU and 41 times against New Mexico. Of course, they also ran the ball 36 times against New Mexico and two backs had ten carries, so Tuberville clearly hasn't forgotten about establishing the run. Against a stout Texas defense that may be easier said than done, so look for Taylor Potts to chuck the ball early and often. On the other side of the ball, the Texas Tech defense hasn't been particularly fearsome yet: they conceded 433 yards of offense to New Mexico and two second-quarter touchdowns when the game was still in doubt to a degree. Against SMU they gave up 327 yards and 27 points, so this is clearly a work in progress; in any event, there should be some holes for the Texas offense to exploit. Unless Texas has some really costly turnovers, they should win this one; they have a defense capable of stopping Tech a few times, while Tech doesn't seem to have a defense capable of stopping Texas very often.
THE PICK: TEXAS 35, TEXAS TECH 24
#9 Iowa @ #24 Arizona (1030pm EST, ESPN)
And now we come to the only game of the day to feature two ranked opponents. Iowa beat Arizona 27-17 a year ago in Iowa City in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated (Arizona's two touchdowns came off a pick-six and late touchdown drive against reserve defenders after Iowa had already built a 27-10 lead). So what's changed in a year, aside from the locale? Not much for Iowa, aside from a rebuilt offensive line that's performed well against admittedly below-average competition (this week will be the first true test) and a linebacking corps that's two-thirds new. Arizona, on the other hand, has a lot of new faces in the front seven on defense, but returns a lot on offense. But the most significant change is at quarterback; Matt Scott was the Wildcats' QB in the early going last year, but he was so disastrous against Iowa (4/14, 50 yds, 0/1 TD/INT) that he gave way to Nick Foles... and never got the job back. Foles led the Arizona offense on their only scoring drive against Iowa a year ago and went to garner all-conference honors in the Pac-10; the Arizona offense really exploded when he took over and bears little resemblance to the outfit that sputtered and died against Iowa a year ago -- so that will be a significant new challenge.
One thing that should give Iowa confidence? That offense curled up into a ball and whimpered when faced with a fast, hard-hitting, aggressive defense in Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl last year. Iowa doesn't have an NdamukongSuh to lead that attack, but they do have Adrian Clayborn and the rest of a very aggressive and disruptive defensive line, linebackers that have been coming into their own, and a mostly veteran secondary.
On offense, Iowa's approach won't be much of a mystery: they're going to pound away with their physical offensive line and the one-two punch of Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton at running back and then use play-action to go over the top to Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. A week ago, they demoralized Iowa State with an unstoppable, punishing ground game and followed it up by finishing them off with some deep bombs in the passing game. If the offensive line can open holes for the running game and give Stanzi time to survey the field, the Iowa offense should do very well; on the other hand, the Arizona defense has far more speed and physical talent than either the Iowa State or the Eastern Illinois defenses, so the going won't be easy. Iowa has a dreadful record in games played out west, but that was then and this is now: they have a well-prepared, mentally tough team that should be able to punish Arizona physically.
THE PICK: IOWA 27, ARIZONA 20