Here's The Deal: At the end of the day, the Arkansas gag against Louisiana-Monroe didn't really matter.
The Hogs' stunning 34-31 overtime loss to the Warhawks put a damper on what was supposed to be one of the biggest games of the season, and while it certainly brought down the excitement, everything will turn back around if Arkansas can beat the No. 1 Tide for the first time since 2006.
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No, this didn't look like a national title caliber team in any way last week, but if the Hogs can get by Alabama, beat LSU to close things out, and win road games over Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State on the way to the SEC title, then Sept. 8 never existed. Of course, that's getting about 683 miles ahead of the task at hand. Just showing up and not getting obliterated by 'Bama is going to be hard enough.
Alabama is in a strange place, both good and bad. The team appeared to be completely and totally locked in over the first two games, dominating Michigan to start things out and then playing a full sixty minutes in a 35-0 win over Western Kentucky. The intensity is at a national title level, but is the team strung too tight? Head coach Nick Saban blasted the media for daring to think his team is good, and it's absolutely impossible for any team to stay at a high level of focus over the course of a long season.
With Arkansas losing last week could the Tide let down just a little bit? Will the team be able to handle any adversity considering all the pressure that's on in a win-in-dominant-fashion-or-bust campaign? When 41-14 against Michigan isn't good enough for the coaching staff, it's hard to ever define success.
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Why Alabama Might Win: Can the Arkansas defensive line hold up? It's the big issue for every team trying to deal with the NFL offensive line the Tide have put together, and while the Hogs haven't been tested so far against the run, the pass rush needs to keep up the pressure while also hoping the secondary plays far, far better. Despite coming up with six sacks in the first two games, the Arkansas defensive back seven has been picked apart with ULM's Kolton Browning bombing away at will in the comeback. The Hogs won't get nearly enough pressure on Alabama's A.J. McCarron, and the secondary that lost corner Tevin Mitchel last week to a frightening neck injury is going to struggle.
The bigger issue could be mistakes. The Hogs couldn't stop fumbling in the opener against Jacksonville State, putting four on the ground and losing three, and they gave away two picks against ULM. Meanwhile, the defense hasn't been able to come up with nearly enough big plays with just two takeaways. Throw in the 15 penalties, and the Razorbacks haven't been sharp. To beat Alabama -- which is second in the nation in turnover margin -- they're going to have to be perfect.
Alabama has looked good so far, but now it's SEC season.
Why Arkansas Might Win: No one has tried punching the Tide in the mouth. How do you beat a bully? You bully the bully, and while Arkansas doesn't have an offensive line anywhere near as talented as Alabama's, it's not a weakness by any stretch and it has to try to penetrate the impenetrable by pounding and pounding some more. The fatal flaw for the Hogs last week was their stunning ignorance of the ground attack, running Knile Davis just 16 times and with a mere 26 carries as a team. Against 'Bama, if Arkansas can't create several third-and-shorts and can't give quarterback Brandon Allen -- if it's Allen under center -- some manageable situations, it's going to be ugly.
Alabama has a slew of weapons to fill in any gaps on offense, but losing second-leading rusher Jalston Fowler to a knee injury is a problem. He was a key part of the system as the main fullback. Could his loss affect the power running game? Arkansas has to hope so. The Hogs defensive tackles are strong enough to hold up, and if they can make the Tide offense work wide, the linebackers that had such a hard time last week should be more focused and far better.
What Will Happen: Arkansas will play far, far better than it did against ULM. It will connect on a few haymakers in the first half to throw a bit of a scare into the Tide, and then reality will set in. The Alabama defense will put the clamps down and won't allow a thing, stopping Davis and Dennis Johnson cold and making the Hogs try to win with their passing game. They won't be able to do it.
CFN Prediction: Alabama 38, Arkansas 13
No. 23 Tennessee
Here's The Deal: Florida vs. Tennessee matters again.
No, it's not back to the days of Manning vs. Wuerffel, and there's a chance that the winner might still be third in the East pecking order behind Georgia and South Carolina, but it's an important showdown in what was one of the biggest rivalries in college football just more than decade ago. This year, it's football time for Tennessee again with, arguably, the biggest and most important game since losing the 2007 SEC championship to LSU.
This is how the Volunteers' passing game is supposed to work. Quarterback Tyler Bray is healthy again and has been brilliant, while the loss of star receiver Da'Rick Rogers after violating team rules hasn't mattered a lick so far. Beating NC State and Georgia State isn't exactly cause to start saving up for a trip to Miami in January, but for a former superpower program that's been down for the last few years, now there's reason for excitement. With a brutal stretch coming up after a layup against Akron -- at Georgia, at Mississippi State, Alabama, at South Carolina -- this game could be a must-win. The Vols have lost seven straight in the series, dropping the last five by double digits.
The problem with the 2012 Florida team is that it's a 180-degree turn from what's usually associated with Florida football. The Steve Spurrier Fun ‘n' Gun is now three coaches ago, and the days of Tim Tebow running the power spread under Urban Meyer are long gone. There's nothing pretty about the Will Muschamp Gators, relying at the moment on a power running game, a bruising offensive line and a nasty defense that last week rudely welcomed Texas A&M to the SEC with a terrific second half in the 20-17 win.
Why Florida Might Win: Tennessee, welcome to the Ground ‘n' Pound. Last year, the Volunteers run defense was mediocre, and it should be better throughout this season with a terrific group of veteran linebackers working behind a big, solid line, but NC State and Georgia State didn't exactly go for much of a push with their respective ground games.
The Florida coaches hinted that they could use their offensive line to be more physical last week against the Texas A&M defensive front, and they were right. The 142 yards might not seem impressive, but Mike Gillislee averaged 5.9 yards per carry with two scores and the offense was able to hang on to the ball for more than 35 minutes despite struggling on third downs.
The Gators defensive front has to be able to get to Tyler Bray on a consistent basis. The Tennessee offensive line has gotten the job done so far allowing just one sack in the first two games, but this isn't an elite front and it should be susceptible to speed rushers.
Tyler Bray is helping make football fun again at Tennessee.
Why Tennessee Might Win: Bray isn't Johnny Manziel. The new Texas A&M starter completed 23-of-30 passes, but he didn't find anything down the field in the second half and couldn't get the offense moving. The bigger problem was the lack of big plays from Ryan Swope and the Aggies receivers, and the Vols are going to be a much tougher test with Cordarrelle Patterson playing as well as any receiver in the conference. If this gets into any sort of an offensive show, Tennessee has the ability to keep up the pace and put yards and points on the board in a hurry; Florida doesn't have the passing attack to do that.
The biggest overall issue for the Gators is in pass protection. Technically, the line has allowed nine sacks in two games, but that's partly due to the running of the quarterbacks and partly due to dealing with Texas A&M and one of the nation's top pass rushes last week. Tennessee might not have a top-shelf pass rush, but if it can generate some pressure from the start, Florida's 110th-ranked passing game could be shut down cold.
What Will Happen: Power will beat the flash. Bray will have a few big moments, but the consistency of the Florida running game and the mixing up of the running options will be enough to control the clock and keep the Vols passing game off the field.
CFN Prediction: Florida 24, Tennessee 20
No. 21 Stanford
Here's The Deal: Matt Barkley passed on the NFL for many reasons -- enhance his USC legacy, build more memories with his teammates and achieve some firsts ... like finally beating Stanford.
While USC has owned Stanford over the course of a series that began in 1905, the Cardinal has risen up lately by taking three straight games and four of the last five. USC -- and its quarterback -- will head to The Farm seeking revenge and further validation for its No. 2 ranking in the latest AP poll. This is the first big test of 2012 for the Trojans, who opened with a rout of Hawaii followed by last week's lackluster win over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium.
Stanford heard it all during the offseason. This team won't be the same without Andrew Luck lining up behind center. Gone are the days when the Cardinal competed for league crowns and spots in a BCS bowl game. The players and the staff are aware of the downgraded forecasts. And they're eager to prove the masses wrong. A trip north from USC and its Heisman-contending quarterback affords Stanford a much-needed opportunity to make a profound statement that the rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Why USC Might Win: At the most important position on the field, USC has arguably college football's best quarterback, while Stanford is using first-year starter Josh Nunes. Barkley has already thrown 10 touchdown passes, eight to the elite receiving tandem of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Lee and Woods are future first-round NFL Draft picks, who'll be running patterns against an already dicey Cardinal secondary that's replacing three starters from 2011. There's just no easy way to slow down a Trojans offense that can also dish out some balance with the running of Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.
When facing the USC offense, opposing defenses are forced to pick their poison. They're either going to get hurt by Barkley and his high-flying receivers or by Redd and McNeal. The Trojans defense won't have that problem. It can stack the box to slow down the north-south running of Stepfan Taylor without becoming unnerved by the right arm of Nunes. The junior is starting only his third game, and his first against a prominent opponent. He's certainly not Luck, and his receivers aren't even in the same discussion as USC's.
Why Stanford Might Win: The Cardinal secondary may be a concern, but the front seven will have its back.
Matt Barkley will do his best Andrew Luck impression on Saturday.
Now that LB Shayne Skov has returned from suspension, Stanford boasts a front that can control most offensive lines. Skov, DE Ben Gardner, NG Terrence Stephens and fellow linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy form a veteran unit that'll impact both the run and pass defense. They're all tough, physical and fundamentally sound. They also might be facing a Trojans O-line without its best player, C Khaled Holmes, who has a bum ankle. If Holmes is a scratch, USC could go with redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, who has a bright future, but a very limited past.
Nunes isn't Barkley. But that doesn't mean he won't have success against a Trojans D that still must prove it can bring the heat against quality O-lines, and was just beaten for 322 passing yards by Syracuse's Ryan Nassib. Nunes will look to exploit short and intermediate routes by using Taylor and a pair of terrific tight ends, Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo.
What Will Happen: With a Luck-like performance, Barkley will lead USC to a pivotal road win, but it will not be easy.
Stanford may not be the same football team, but it remains tough and physical. The Cardinal will be strong at the point of attack on both sides of the ball, slowing down the game with the running of Taylor, and really testing that shuffled Trojans O-line. However, monumental games often hinge on the play of the quarterbacks, and that's where the home team will labor to keep pace. While Nunes' inexperience can be masked in plenty of games, it'll get exposed on Saturday. Barkley is a borderline pro, with the seasoning and poise to handle any stage or environment. He'll keep the Stanford pass defense on its heels all night, getting the ball in the hands of his primary playmakers over the top. USC will build an early lead, which Nunes & Co. will be unable to erase in the second half.
CFN Prediction: USC 38, Stanford 24
No. 10 Michigan State
Here's The Deal: Notre Dame's rivalry with Michigan might have more hype, and the yearly USC showdown might have more history and tradition, but the Michigan State battles have been as good as any in college football lately. Nine of the last 12 games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including thrilling finishes, a post-game heart attack scare from Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, and plenty of early season intrigue. This year's game should be among the most intriguing of the recent lot, and the most important.
All Michigan State has to do is save the reputation of the Big Ten. After a rocky first two weeks, the conference has taken it on the chin from the national media with Wisconsin underperforming, Michigan underwhelming, and Nebraska, Illinois and Penn State all suffering embarrassing losses. The Spartans are the last reasonable hope to keep Big Ten hopes alive for the BCS championship, and this week it's time to show that they're more than just the potential class of the conference.
The Irish are in a night-and-day different situation than last year, when they lost the first two games before coming up with the desperately needed victory. This year, the turnovers have slowed down, the offense is working, and the pass rush has been terrific. More important, Notre Dame is 2-0 coming off a thrilling win over Purdue. The schedule doesn't get any easier with Michigan up next, but this is the last true road game –- the date with Miami on Oct. 6 is in Chicago -– before a late October trip to Oklahoma. With USC, BYU and Stanford still to deal with along with the Sooners and Wolverines, it's all about surviving and moving on. However, beating Michigan State this year would show that the Irish are ready to be major players on a national scale.
Why Notre Dame Might Win: The pass rush has been fantastic. With seven sacks in the first two games, including two in each game from rising sophomore Stephon Tuitt, the Irish have been terrific at getting to the quarterback. Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell was solid in last week's win over Central Michigan, but he was shaky in the win over Boise State and is still just two games into his career. The Broncos didn't register any sacks, but they were able to generate just enough pressure to force three picks and keep the game close. With six takeaways so far including three interceptions, the Notre Dame defense has been great at forcing mistakes.
While the Irish pass rush has been stellar, the Michigan State defensive front hasn't done much of anything so far with just one sack and a mere seven tackles for loss. Everything else has been working for the defense, but against the Irish, the more quarterback Everett Golson is pressured, the better. He's a baller who makes things happen, but the Spartans would much rather have him taking off to run into the great linebacking corps than sitting back and bombing away.
Le'Veon Bell and Michigan State are the Big Ten's last hope for title dreams.
Why Michigan State Might Win: The Notre Dame offensive line hasn't been able to keep Golson from getting popped. The Irish have allowed seven sacks so far and didn't have too many answers for Purdue's defensive front -- especially tackle Kawann Short, who came up with two sacks in the interior. MSU hasn't been able to dial up the pressure so far into the backfield, but the potential is there with an elite group of pass rushing prospects led by William Gholston. If the Irish line is as leaky as it was last week, the already banged-up Golson will be in for a long day.
The front five could have a bigger issue trying to get the running game going. Purdue bottled things up, allowing just 52 yards. Purdue's run defense is good; Michigan State's is phenomenal. The Spartans only allowed Boise State to come up with 37 yards on 24 carries while giving up just one decent run against Central Michigan. Notre Dame is going to have to be ready for a slugfest, but there's a chance the ground game can make a dent thanks to the return of running back Cierre Wood.
What Will Happen: This is when Michigan State starts to get the national respect it should've received after the Boise State game. Notre Dame won't be awful, but the offense won't go anywhere consistently with Golson struggling to find room to make anything happen. The Spartans won't explode, but they'll be steady and balanced on the way to a bruising 3-0 start.
CFN Prediction: Michigan State 27, Notre Dame 17
Here's The Deal: Under new head coach Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has already matched its win total from last year by beating Central Arkansas and UTEP with no problems. Now it's time to see just how far the rebuilding project is coming along.
The Rebels aren't expected to make much noise in the SEC West, being predicted by most to finish dead last in the division, but now is the chance to make national noise and jump into the spotlight. The offense has moved the ball with balance and efficiency, while the defense hasn't had any problems and has been a terror in the backfield.
LonghornDigest's Kevin Flaherty dives deep into the world of stats to shed some light on the weekend in college football.
The Longhorns haven't quite looked completely and totally back to national title form, but they might not be that far off. Outside of a few missed tackles against Wyoming, the defense has been phenomenal in easy wins over the Cowboys and New Mexico, and while the offense hasn't exactly exploded, it has been more than fine against the lightweights. Ole Miss is a step up in class before the most important stretch of the season with Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma in three make-or-break games that could decide the Big 12 season by mid-October.
Why Texas Might Win: Does Ole Miss have the offensive line to do much of anything against the Texas defensive front? It's an old line, but only two starters are back from last season and the pass protection so far has been spotty. The running of Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace has hurt the stats a bit with the line allowing four sacks in two games, and now Texas should be able to kickstart the ends into the backfield on a regular basis. The defense hasn't exactly turned it loose yet, but it was able to keep Wyoming's Brett Smith from doing much out of the pocket and it should be able to contain Wallace.
The biggest issue for Ole Miss has been hanging on to the ball, as the Rebels put it on the ground six times in the first two weeks and losing three fumbles against UTEP. Texas has been nearly flawless with just one lost fumble, while the defense has taken the ball away four times. Ole Miss can't win this if it's not at least plus-2 in the turnover margin.
Ole Miss will need to harass David Ash to have a shot at the upset.
Why Ole Miss Might Win: Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. Texas quarterback David Ash hasn't been touched much so far, allowing the running game to do most of the heavy lifting, but he's about to be under pressure from all sides from an Ole Miss defensive front that's sending everyone and Colonel Reb into the backfield. With nine sacks and a whopping 20 tackles for loss in the first two games, the Rebels defense has controlled both games and made up for the occasional mistakes and miscues from the offense. Against Texas, Ole Miss has to stay aggressive and force Ash to come up with the key plays.
Ash has been efficient and effective this season, but he hasn't been under any pressure to do anything in key situations. The running game has been solid and the passing has been good, but a top-shelf team should've been able to come up with more than the 867 yards cranked out against two mediocre defenses at home. The Rebels secondary will give up the deep ball, but the Ole Miss defense would much rather have Ash throwing than have to deal with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron running.
What Will Happen: Ole Miss isn't there quite yet. The defense will be just aggressive enough and just bothersome enough to keep the game from getting out of hand, but the Texas defense will keep Wallace in check. The Longhorns will win, but they won't make the big splash needed to move up the rankings.
CFN Prediction: Texas 31, Ole Miss 16