SEC: Florida v Alabama
Florida has a good shot of winning the SEC East because both Georgia and South Carolina really haven't played a complete football game. Gamecocks quarterback Stephen Garcia has an on-off switch that seems to flicker at various times in a game and Georgia, despite a wealth of talent, still looks like a team in rebuilding mode on both sides of the ball. The SEC East is really up for grabs but Florida's schedule may do them in—the Gators drew Alabama and back-to-back road trips at LSU and Auburn from the West.
Alabama has been battle-tested at this point in the season—the Crimson Tide beat Penn State on the road and Arkansas at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Florida Gators really haven't been tested—they beat an improved Tennessee team at the Swamp and Kentucky on the road. The experience edge goes to Alabama but… after watching LSU beat WVU in Morgantown on Saturday, the Tide doesn't look quite as scary as the Tigers. That being said, Alabama has the coaching edge over Florida although I fully expect Charlie Weis to throw some new wrinkles in the Gators' offensive game plan. If the Gators can run the ball—and good luck with that against the No. 3 nationally ranked rush defense in the country—they've got a good chance of winning the game. If Alabama shuts down the run, I don't think Florida can win on John Brantley's arm.
Two other games of note: Auburn at South Carolina and Ole Miss at Fresno State.
This game in Columbia could be a lot closer than people think unless Auburn's run defense plays like it did against Utah State—the Aggies compiled 227 yards on the ground. If Auburn's defensive front seven doesn't practice strong gap discipline, Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore will have a huge day.
These are tough times for Ole Miss fans and it could get a lot tougher—Fresno State gets up for big non-conference games. If the Bulldogs come out with a win, count on Oxford, Mississippi to start a new coaching search. Yep, it's that bad right now.
Big Ten: Wisconsin v Nebraska
Whether you like Midwest football or not, this game should be a classic battle—a true football fan's delight. Two heavyweights going toe-to-toe in the trenches with two quarterbacks who are game-changers equal an instant classic being born.
Nebraska's first ever Big Ten conference game will be at Camp Randall Stadium and the place will be jumping. Will Nebraska's defense keep the fans out of the game? So far, the Blackshirts haven't held up their end of the bargain—Nebraska is ranked No. 56 in rushing defense and No. 63 in passing defense. The Cornhuskers are going to have to step it up against the 10-point favorite Badgers—quarterback Russell Wilson is averaging over 284 yards per game and is completing over 75 percent of his passes. Yes, Wisconsin hasn't had a challenge yet this season (which explains those inflated numbers ), but when you're supposed to dominate inferior opponents and do just that, there can be no discussion as to whether or not the Badgers are for real. They are.
The Badgers have registered 10 sacks this year but their defense had better not force quarterback Taylor Martinez out of the pocket—he's averaging over 105 rushing yards per game and has seven rushing touchdowns. Martinez is also the Cornhuskers' leading rusher with 421 yards while running back Rex Burkhead is right behind him with 420 yards. Nebraska has been more battle-tested than Wisconsin after playing Washington, the school that beat them last year in the Holiday Bowl, and Fresno State. The only BCS team Wisconsin has faced so far is Oregon State, a team that lost to an FCS school and UCLA.
One thing to watch out for: the Cornhuskers have come out of the gate slow in their last three games. They led Wyoming 14-7 at the half before finally putting the Cowboys away 38-14. The Cornhuskers led Washington 20-17 at the half (final score was 51-38) and were actually behind 17-14 to Fresno State at the half.
Other notable game: Michigan State at Ohio State
The Spartans have the No. 1 total defense in the country. Their defense is giving up less than 200 yards per game on average. Really? Yes. Really.
Pac-12: Washington v Utah
The Utes seem to have adapted to playing with the big boys. They played very well against USC— although it resulted in a loss—and beat the stuffing out of BYU the following week, 54-10. They host Washington in what should be an entertaining affair. The Huskies need a win to challenge both undefeated (in conference play) Stanford and Oregon in the North. But the South is a bit more wide open for Utah since USC can win the division but can't play for the conference crown.
With everyone playing conference games this week—except Cal and Oregon who are on byes—the standings will start to separate the pretenders from the contenders. Utah and Washington both need to post their first conference win but Utah has a much easier path to the Pac-12 championship. Besides Washington, the Utes drew Oregon State, Washington State and Cal from the North, avoiding Stanford and Oregon. The Huskies drew Utah, Colorado, Arizona and USC from the South.
Washington's front seven is going to have to figure out a way to keep the Utes in front of them—Jordan Wynn is a very underrated quarterback. Conversely, Utah's will be tested by running back Chris Polk who averages over a hundred yards a game. Wide receiver Jermaine Kearse hasn't really seen a lot of action this year which is surprising because he's one of the best receivers in the country—I expect to see his production rev up this Saturday.
Other notable game: UCLA v Stanford. Both teams are tied for first in their respective divisions. Could the unthinkable happen at the Rose Bowl? Probably not, but Stanford has upset a few teams in the past few years so maybe it's UCLA's turn?
ACC: Virginia Tech v Clemson
Both teams are in separate divisions but there's probably a good chance we'll see these two teams in the ACC Championship game. Nevertheless, this is a good preview to what lies ahead. Clemson has had a much more difficult schedule than Virginia Tech so for all intents and purposes, they'll probably be much more up to the task than the Hokies, who have loaded up on cupcakes for the last four weeks. Home field advantage goes to the Hokies, but I have to think Clemson has more confidence going into the game than Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech has a stingy defense but it's hard to really gauge how good the defense is because their stats are against some lower tiered teams. Still, we know Beamerball is always a tangible that factors in to most contests. Clemson, on the other hand, is allowing an average 25 points a game. Wofford scored 27 points on Clemson but it should be pointed out that the Terriers ran a triple-option attack which is difficult to defend, especially against the Southern conference co-champion.
The key for Virginia Tech is pressuring quarterback Tajh Boyd—he made a huge mistake trying to get rid of the ball under pressure from Florida State but in the end, it didn't affect the final outcome of the game. The Tigers have allowed their quarterback to be sacked nine times in four games and face a team that has sacked the opposing team's quarterback 14 times in four games. Clemson has a veteran offensive line which will be facing a Hokies defensive line that doesn't have a lot of returning starting experience. Obviously, the running game should be key for both teams as Clemson also has a defensive line that features some new faces.
One final stat to think about: Virginia Tech has won the last five contests against Clemson.
Big 12: Iowa State v Texas
This game has a lot of intrigue simply because Iowa State loves to upset high-profile teams and Iowa State did just that last year, at Austin, Texas—the Cyclones almost beat Nebraska as well, losing 31-30 in overtime. Iowa State is the thorn in every Big 12's rose bouquet—who can forget their 9-7 upset of Nebraska in 2009?
The Cyclones are currently 3-0 and get the Longhorns at Ames, Iowa. Quarterback Steele Jantz isn't a major threat—he's ranked at No. 51 in passing yardage— but Texas has no quarterback ranked in the top 100 passers due to some changes at the starting position. Iowa State averages over 235 passing yards per game while the Longhorns appear to be stingy in their pass defense averaging 154 yards per game, but those defensive stats were against Rice, BYU and UCLA while Iowa State has played Northern Iowa, Iowa and UConn. The Cyclones running game is decent (over 154 yards per game) and once again, the Longhorns' rush defense also appears solid averaging over 104 yards per game. But if you throw all that aside, the bottom line is that Iowa State's numbers are against more impressive opponents than Texas' defensive numbers.
This game should be compelling because Texas would like to avenge a loss that started a losing streak in the last half of their 2010 season—Texas posted a 4-2 record after beating Nebraska but went 1-5 afterwards, starting with their loss to Iowa State.
Big East: Pitt v South Florida
I love Thursday night games but usually they don't have some big teams playing against each other—this Thursday is an exception. South Florida is 4-0 and travels to Pittsburgh at a venue that has not been kind to them as a Big East team—the Panthers have a 4-2 edge. This is the earliest time of year these two teams have played at Pittsburgh in the last five years which should help the warm weather-based Bulls. Second-year coach Skip Holtz has a very potent offense—the Bulls are averaging over 45 points a game although their 70-17 spanking of Florida A&M certainly puffed up that statistical category. Still, their offense is prolific and their defense seems fairly solid—they did hold Notre Dame to 20 points. But hold on…the Irish absolutely dominated the Bulls in total yardage and, unfortunately, in total turnovers—Notre Dame turned it over five times while the Bulls didn't commit any turnovers.
Opportunistic? Maybe. But good teams find a way to win. While South Florida has coasted to a 4-0 record, Pitt has had a reversal of fortunes. The Panthers beat Buffalo, hung on to beat Maine, lost a heartbreaker to Iowa and lost to Notre Dame. Which team is going to take the lead in the Big East conference standings? Right now, all eight teams have a 0-0 record due to all non-conference play so the winner of this game, technically, will stand alone until Saturday. Bring it.
Keep your eye on South Florida defensive end Claude Davis. He's not a starter but he goes into beast mode every time he comes into the game. Be scared. Very scared.