This week: at No. 12 Ohio State, Saturday
What's at stake: Besides driving a stake through whatever credibility the Big Ten has left this season, a win would prove to California it is finally capable of defeating a quality opponent on the road. The Golden Bears are 2-11 away from Berkeley against teams that finished with winning records since 2008, allowing an average of 33.7 points per game. Victory at the Horseshoe would provide a much-needed boost headed into their conference opener next week at No. 2 USC.
What's going on: The decision to make junior wide receiver Keenan Allen the Bears' primary punt returner has already paid huge dividends, as the All-America candidate scored a 69-yard touchdown last week against Southern Utah and is averaging 22.17 yards per return. Allen already has more return yardage in two games (133) than Cal had all last season (116). Right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin will miss his second consecutive game with a left knee injury, so redshirt junior Bill Tyndall will be tasked with protecting quarterback Zach Maynard's blindside. Despite well-documented struggles in a 2008 loss at Maryland, Cal is actually 5-1 under head coach Jeff Tedford in games that start at 9 a.m. Pacific.
What it'll take to win: Maynard will have to deliver the best performance of his college career. Cal has enough weapons in Allen, freshmen receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, and running backs Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson to challenge Ohio State, but they are only effective if Maynard plays within himself. That means avoiding turnovers, converting third downs, and not missing throws when the offense creates big-play opportunities.
-- Dan Greenspan, CalSportsDigest.com
No. 18 Florida
This week: at No. 23 Tennessee, Saturday
What's at stake: The challenge for Florida will be refocusing after an emotional win at Texas A&M. This two-game road stretch was the reason the Florida coaches spent the offseason preaching the "start fast" mantra to the team. The Gators have won seven straight games against the Volunteers, but Tennessee's offense is different than it has been during any game in that span.
What's going on: The Florida offense was much better in Week 2 as the Gators opened it up and allowed sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel to throw more. The offense is still built around ball control and winning the time of possession battle. The Gators could have a tougher time stopping the run without starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who fractured his thumb at Texas A&M.
What it'll take to win: The Gators have to stop the run against Tennessee and make the Volunteers' offense one-dimensional. The Tennessee passing game features two elite receivers that the Florida secondary will have to try to contain. The Florida offense will try to dominate time of possession to keep the ball away from the explosive Tennessee offense.
-- Cody Jones, FightinGators.com
No. 15 Kansas State
This week: vs. North Texas, Saturday
What's at stake: It should be a gimme win for Kansas State as it wraps up its non-conference schedule. It's the sandwich game as it comes after the 52-13 blistering of Miami last week, and just before the Big 12 opener against No. 5 Oklahoma next week. It's another game where in the words of KSU coach Bill Snyder, "We just want to get better." As boring as that might sound, it's Bill Snyder being Bill Snyder, and that's what's made Kansas State, Kansas State. Veteran watchers of K-State football are calling last week's win over the Hurricanes a best-ever game played in the month of September.
What's going on: K-State's offensive line has been the surprise unit of the team. Questionable entering the season, the line lost Boston Stiverson to a broken foot prior to the season, and starter Nick Puetz in the first half of the opener against Missouri State. The five-man unit currently includes freshman Cody Whitehair (LG), Cornelius Lucas (LT), B.J. Finney ( C ), Keenan Taylor (RG) and Tavon Rooks (RT). That's three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. Also iffy entering the season was the defensive line, but against Miami last week K-State's up-front guys scored five QB sacks and as a unit had 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
What it'll take to win: Likely just showing up should be enough as Snyder-coached teams are 53-5 in games played in the month of September since 1992. The Wildcats would have to beat themselves with turnovers and penalties, and to date they have a plus-4.0 in turnover margin, and have been flagged just four times for 27 yards in the first two games.
-- Mark Janssen, KStateFans.com
No. 10 Michigan State
This week: vs. No. 20 Notre Dame, Saturday
What's at stake: A win over Notre Dame moves Michigan State one step closer to being a possible national contender and helps the Big Ten Conference from receiving another black-eye after last weekend's disasters. The Spartans have won 10 of the last 15 meetings in the series, including two straight in Spartan Stadium and could use this game to help springboard them into conference play two weeks later when they'll face off against Ohio State. A loss will not stop the Spartans from reaching their conference goals and the possibility of them reaching the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl.
What's going on: The Spartans look to enter this game at full strength with the return of offensive linemen Skyler Burkland and Blake Treadwell. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell is coming off a strong performance against Central Michigan and seems to be on the same page as his young receivers after a slow start in Week 1. Look for a few new wrinkles out of the Spartans offense and an even more aggressive defense early in the game.
What it'll take to win: There are no secrets when it comes to a Mark Dantonio team as defense is front and center. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has one of the nation's best in stopping the run and using the blitz in passing downs to force teams into making mistakes. Offensively the Spartans will look to junior tailback Le'Veon Bell to carry the load and control time of possession. Maxwell must limit the number of mistakes made and get tight end Dion Sims in the game plan. Special teams have been the deciding factor in the past two games as the Spartans won on a fake field goal in overtime in 2010, while the Irish got a key kickoff return for a touchdown a season ago on their way to a victory.
-- Dave Berk, SpartanDigest.com
This week: vs. No. 14 Texas, Saturday
What's at stake: Ole Miss has built some momentum with two opening wins, but they step up in "class" with Texas. Are the Rebels ready for this type of challenge? Conventional wisdom says this may be too much to ask of a building program, but the game is in Oxford, the Rebels have gained some confidence and the atmosphere will be electric. During the summer, the Vegas line was 33 points in favor of the Longhorns. Now, it's dropped to 11. Does Vegas know something? A win against a ranked team could propel Ole Miss to heights not imagined in the preseason.
What's going on: The Rebels have been rocked a little and distracted a lot by the one-game suspension by the Southeastern Conference of Rover Trae Elston for what has been deemed an illegal hit on a UTEP wideout last Saturday. Elston, a true freshman, has played substantial snaps in the first two games and will be missed in an already-thin secondary. Ole Miss officials protested the conference's decision, but to no avail.
What it'll take to win: To win, Ole Miss will have to find a way to move the ball against a stubborn Texas defense because the concern is not being able to contain Texas' speedy offense that appears to be fairly balanced. So far, the Ole Miss offense has averaged over 500 yards a game of total offense and that pace will have to continue for the Rebs to have a chance.
-- Chuck Rounsaville, OMSpirit.com
No. 20 Notre Dame
This week: at No. 10 Michigan State, Saturday
What's at stake: Notre Dame's trip to East Lansing marks the first of six games vs. current top 25 foes, and the first of six games in seven matchups vs. team's that won 10 or more games last season. A win Saturday night would be the first road victory over a top 10 program since Week Two of 2005 and likely one that would vault the Irish firmly into the nation's top 15 with a prime-time matchup against Denard Robinson and Michigan on tap next week prior to the season's only bye. If Notre Dame wins Saturday, they should be a considered a legitimate threat to win 9 to 10 games this fall, threatening a BCS berth entering the finale against USC in Los Angeles.
What's going on: Senior running back and 2011 1,000-yard rusher Cierre Wood returns from his two-game suspension for violating team rules. He'll back up classmate and best friend Theo Riddick to give the Irish backfield a versatile 1-2 punch. Wood's presence is timely as All-America tight end Tyler Eifert is coming off a concussion that knocked him out of last week's win over Purdue while starting wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is questionable with an ankle sprain. Also among the walking wounded are Notre Dame's starting left defensive end, starting safety, kicker, and Butkus candidate and team leader Manti Te'o, who bruised his sternum last week.
What it'll take to win: Over the last five quarters vs. the Spartans, a span that includes a 31-13 win last year, Notre Dame's defense has yielded just 23 total rushing yards, an absurd number vs. an offense that prides itself on power football. The Irish will need more of the same Saturday as Brian Kelly's offense could be overmatched up front vs. a stout Michigan State front seven, and redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson will be challenged by his first true road start, this in hostile environs. The first team to 20 might be the only one that gets there in this likely low-scoring slug fest.
-- Tim O'Malley, IrishEyes.com
This week: vs. Navy, Saturday
What's at stake: The Nittany Lions are still fighting for their first win under Bill O'Brien. Come to think of it, Penn State hasn't officially captured a game since 1997, as all victories since then have been vacated by NCAA sanctions. Following an 0-2 start, a loss to heavy underdog Navy would surely sink PSU's entire season.
What's going on: In a 17-16 loss at Virginia, Penn State saw starting kicker Sam Ficken miss four of five field goal attempts (and an extra point) and the offense score exactly three points off four gained turnovers in enemy territory. O'Brien said the kicker has to make some minor mechanical adjustments and called social media tirades against Ficken "ridiculous." The coach used the same adjective when describing the team's red-zone showing vs. Virginia and said the blame there falls on himself and his staff.
What it'll take to win: The PSU defense must play smart, disciplined football against Navy's triple option offense. If the Lions do that, the Midshipmen don't have the sort of quarterback who can test an inexperienced secondary that struggled in losses to Ohio and UVA.
-- Mark Brennan, FightOnState.com
No. 14 Texas
This week: at Ole Miss, Saturday
What's going on: Texas coach Mack Brown has said he thinks the Longhorns (2-0) have the potential to be a top-five team again, for the first time since 2009. In the two full seasons since, Texas has gone 13-12. If the Longhorns want to get back, they need to win a tough game on the road against a revitalized Ole Miss (2-0) program under Hugh Freeze. With a Big 12 conference slate that features six teams that won 10-or-more games a year ago, the Longhorns can't afford to drop one in non-conference play if they want to get to a top-five ranking.
What's going on: Texas is trying to find the handle on how to get all its offensive weapons touches. Texas is more explosive than a year ago, thanks to an improved D.J. Monroe and a big-play freshman class that includes running back Johnathan Gray and speedster Daje Johnson. Can offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin find a way to optimize those weapons while continuing to take advantage of a ground-and-pound running attack featuring Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron behind a rough-and-tumble offensive line? Stay tuned. Defensively, the Longhorns are hoping to build off last week's shutout performance where Texas held New Mexico without a single trip to the red zone. That blanking came a week after the Lobos scored 66 points against Southern.
What it'll take to win: The Texas defense will be put on the spot against a balanced Ole Miss attack that averages 38.5 points per game, with a run-pass threat at quarterback in Bo Wallace. On the flip side, will Texas quarterback David Ash have to steer the ship this week? He's excelled as a game manager thus far this season, but could see more adversity this week. Texas also needs to eliminate its slow starts. That could not only hurt this week, but could come back to bite the Longhorns in the point-a-minute Big 12.
-- Kevin Flaherty, LonghornDigest.com