No. 9 West Virginia
Here's The Deal: It's the first meeting between the two schools and the official kickoff to life in the Big 12 for West Virginia. Is the team ready?
The Mountaineers haven't had any problems so far in three home layups, and the passing game has been stellar, but Marshall, James Madison and Maryland aren't anything more than tune-ups for the big stage. Can Geno Smith and the air show be enough to get through a slew of shootouts? Will the defensive pressure continue? Expected to be deep in the hunt for the Big 12 title, West Virginia has the talent, the speed and the tools to put together a special season. But Baylor has a far better, far more talented offense than anything the Mountaineers have faced.
The Bears haven't skipped a beat after losing RG3, rolling up 104 points in three games, but the defense hasn't exactly taken a major step forward, having problems keeping Louisiana-Monroe in place and struggling mightily from stopping anyone who can throw the ball. West Virginia can throw the ball, and Baylor is fifth in the nation in passing, bombing away for 362 yards per game.
Get your popcorn ready. Defense is going to be optional with the two teams possibly combining for over 1,000 yards of total offense. This might not end up making a big difference in the Big 12 title chase, but it's going to be one of the most fun games of the year.
Why Baylor Might Win: The Bears can hang yard-for-yard with the high-powered Mountaineers. No, Baylor doesn't have a prayer of keeping the West Virginia offense down, but it can bomb away with anyone and it has the talent and potential to keep up the pace without a problem. Granted, everyone has been throwing on the Mountaineers in an effort to rally back, but they really are having issues with a pass defense that gets plenty of help from the defensive front. Marshall bombed away for 413 yards and two scores, and Maryland threw for 305 yards and three scores.
Will the Baylor defense be able to slow down Geno Smith?
Baylor isn't making a slew of big mistakes. There haven't been any lost fumbles and the passing game has given up just four interceptions in 117 attempts. Meanwhile, the defense has been great at making up for its problems with takeaways, coming up with 10 in just three games with at least three in each one. However ...
Why West Virginia Might Win: West Virginia isn't screwing up, either. The offense has yet to lose a fumble and hasn't even put it on the ground in either of the last two games, and for all the bombs and all the high-powered passing, Geno Smith has been picked off just once. The defense hasn't come up with a slew of takeaways, but the six aren't that bad. The pass rush has been stellar with nine sacks in the last two games, and the mental mistakes have been kept to a minimum.
To have any hope of slowing down Smith, the Bears have to come up with steady pressure –- that's not what they're built to do. The defensive front got into the backfield against Sam Houston State, but that's Sam Houston State. Unlike West Virginia, Baylor doesn't have a sure-thing pass rusher, and also unlike WVU, there have been way too many penalties -- the Bears committed 21 in the first two games before slowing things down with six against ULM.
What Will Happen: Get ready for lots and lots and lots of offense. West Virginia's pass rush will make a little more of a difference, but it's going to be a rocky ride. The Bears are going to make this a fight.
CFN Prediction: West Virginia 52, Baylor 40
No. 20 Michigan State
Here's The Deal: Let's get past all the rhetoric and all the upcoming games -- this is the Big Ten championship game.
Purdue might turn out to be great, and Wisconsin could still flip the switch at some point, but Ohio State is the best team in the Leaders division. The running game is rolling behind star quarterback Braxton Miller, and the defense, outside of an issue with Clemson, has been solid, especially against the run. But now the Buckeyes have to step out of their comfort zone and go on the road for the first time all season long, and now they have to show they can be a bit more explosive and a bit more balanced offensively against one of the Big Ten's best defenses.
With the final three road games against Indiana, Penn State, and a weakened Wisconsin, this is it. Including Michigan and Purdue, there isn't another game left in which Ohio State will likely be the underdog, at least not a big one. If it's good enough to win this game, it's good enough to come up with a special year. Of course, there's no carrot at the end of the stick, as the Buckeyes are ineligible for the Big Ten title game and a bowl game. But in this stepping-stone campaign to 2013, being the best team in the Leaders, and the acknowledged Big Ten champion if the Spartans go on to Pasadena, would be enough.
Michigan State needs to get its groove back. After looking so great defensively against Boise State, and after throttling a Central Michigan team that whacked Iowa, the offense didn't show up against Notre Dame and didn't wake up for a half against Eastern Michigan. Le'Veon Bell has been special, but the rest of the attack has been punchless, leaving the defense to carry the way. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in just about every major defensive category, but now they have to prove that they're ready to become the league's best team with more than just a solid brick wall of a front seven. The offense is 1-for-4 this year in terms of coming up with good games, and now is the time to break out.
Why Ohio State Might Win: The Michigan State passing game isn't working. Andrew Maxwell is getting time to work, and he threw for decent yards in the first two games, but he was shut down cold by Notre Dame, throwing for just 187 yards on 45 attempts, and he was surprisingly awful against Eastern Michigan, completing 16-of-29 passes for 159 yards and a score. Ohio State's pass defense has been a disaster at times, and it gives up a ton of yards, but it makes up for it with big plays, picking off seven passes and allowing just four scoring throws.
RB Le'Veon Bell has been the offensive highlight for Michigan State.
Ohio State is going to load up everyone and Brutus to stop Bell and the Spartan ground game, and in the face of a strong pass rush, Maxwell will have to force a few plays. The opportunities will be there to come up with a few game-changing picks.
As good as the Michigan State defense has been, it's not getting into the backfield nearly enough. The defense has come up with a mere three sacks -- with one in each of the last three games -- and while there have been more plays in the backfield over the last two weeks, there won't likely be enough to totally shut down Braxton Miller. If he gets time to work, he's deadly.
Why Michigan State Might Win: So the Spartan defense has to shut down one guy? OK.
It's a new year and a more mature Miller, but last year he was held in relative check by the Spartans, finishing with minus-27 yards on nine carries and throwing for 87 yards and a score in relief of Joe Bauserman. The Buckeyes are trying to get more out of the supporting cast with Jordan Hall running for 87 yards against Cal and ripping off 105 yards against UAB, but Michigan State is phenomenal against the run and should be able to contain the ground game to make Miller a passer. He has been efficient and effective so far, but that's because defenses are selling out once the Ohio State running game starts to work. The Spartans won't have to do anything out of the ordinary up front, and the secondary should be able to handle itself against the mediocre Buckeye receiving corps.
Ohio State might not be bad when it comes to turnovers with just four so far, but it's committing way too many penalties. The seven last week against UAB weren't bad, but the combined 21 sins against UCF and Cal were a problem. Michigan State was flagged 10 times in the opener, but has been nailed just 14 times since.
What Will Happen: Miller will be bottled up and the Ohio State offense won't go anywhere, but Michigan State won't get much out of its attack, either. The defenses will own the offenses, and the Michigan State defense will be a wee bit better. Maxwell won't be great, but he'll be effective enough in a few key drives to get Michigan State the key win.
CFN Prediction: Michigan State 17, Ohio State 13
No. 5 Georgia
Here's The Deal: Now it's time to see just how real Georgia is. Florida already showed what it could do against Tennessee, and now it's the Dawgs' turn. On the flip side, if the Vols want to get into the SEC title chase, now is the time to step up and step in.
Georgia has won three of the last four in the series against a down UT program, but with a high-powered passing game, a decent ground attack, and just enough talent to be able to hang around with the SEC big boys, the Volunteers are back to being relevant again. However, they failed their first big conference test two weeks ago, getting overpowered by Florida, and with trips to Mississippi State and South Carolina in the next few weeks wrapped around the date with Alabama, all the promise and all the hope for a big turnaround year could quickly go bye-bye without a couple of big victories. Taking down a very, very good Georgia team would be the biggest win yet for Derek Dooley, and while no one thinks the Vols are going to win the SEC East, this is the time to show that everything is on the right track.
For all the latest previews, recaps, commentary and more from the world of college football, check out College Football News.
Georgia might just be scratching the surface. Able to get through the first part of the schedule, now the team gets the suspended stars back in the secondary just as the offense is starting to hit its stride. Everything is coming together at the right time, and while there are flaws -- the offensive line might be merely average and the punting game stinks –- it's time to start thinking that this could be the year the program finally gets back over the hump.
The Dawgs steamrolled past Vanderbilt and used a great fourth quarter to blow off Missouri, but now the real work begins. This is one of two home games between now and the middle of November, and while going to Kentucky and facing Ole Miss shouldn't be a problem, this week is a must-win with road games at South Carolina and Auburn and the rivalry date with Florida all looming.
Why Tennessee Might Win: There's a chance the Vols can take what Missouri started and make it better. Tigers quarterback James Franklin didn't do much of anything in the fourth quarter, but early on he was able to bomb away a bit, finishing with 269 yards and two touchdowns. Missouri's receivers are good and Franklin is great, but Tyler Bray and the Vol receivers are better.
The other big difference is that Tennessee is better in pass protection than Missouri, and Bray gets the ball out of his hands faster. The Vols offensive line has improved by leaps and bounds from last year, allowing just two sacks so far and giving the offense time to operate. There's a real, live running game to count on, and Bray has been terrific so far, coming off a 401-yard, four-score effort against Akron and with 310 yards or more in three of his first four games. He threw for 251 against Georgia last year before getting hurt.
Georgia LB Jarvis Jones has been making life miserable for opposing QBs.
Why Georgia Might Win: The secondary is back together. It might take a little while to shake the rust off, and it's not like the pass defense has been a disaster so far, but the return of safety Bacarri Rambo from his four-game suspension for a positive substance test instantly upgrades the talent level. With all the other suspended defensive backs in the fold now, and with the expected return of linebacker Alec Ogletree from his suspension, all of a sudden the defense that has been fine so far appears to be ready to take things to a whole other level.
On the other side of the ball, yes, Tennessee has the marquee talent and the flashy passing game, but Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense have been even better with a league-leading 530 yards and 47.5 points per game. This is a machine with the running of Todd Gurley a key spark and with Murray playing lights-out so far with 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
What Will Happen: This is where Georgia starts to flex a little bit of muscle. Bray will be hot early, but the Dawgs will pull away in the second half with excellent offensive balance and stellar play from Murray, who'll outplay his counterpart.
CFN Prediction: Georgia 38, Tennessee 17
Here's The Deal: Is Texas ready to bust out of the shadows and into the national title debate? Oklahoma is looking mediocre, West Virginia hasn't played anyone, and Kansas State is good, but one dimensional. This is the Longhorns' Big 12 title for the taking, but first they have to get back the momentum in a series it owned for a long, long time, winning 12 straight –- with several in heart-crushing fashion –- before losing two in a row. But things are different this time around.
The quarterback play that's been such a problem since Colt McCoy got knocked out of the 2009 BCS championship has quickly and dramatically turned into a positive. David Ash has been terrific, the ground game has been devastating, and the defense has been fine when needed. There hasn't been a real test yet with Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss all lightweights, but the Longhorns appear to be rested and ready to tackle the big three-game run that could make or break their national title dreams. West Virginia is up next before dealing with Oklahoma, and if Texas is good enough to win the next three games, it's good enough to blow past everyone else on the schedule until the regular season finale against Kansas State. However, Oklahoma State is going to give the Texas defense a major push.
The Cowboys got their doors blown off by Arizona in a 59-38 loss that didn't get much national play because it happened so late in the day, and while bouncing back with a 65-24 win over Louisiana-Lafayette was nice, it came at a cost losing starting quarterback Wes Lunt to a knee injury. He's 50/50 to play this week after getting two weeks to prepare, but it's going to take more than decent quarterback play to get by the Longhorns. The defense has to be far, far better than it was against Arizona's passing game, and the big mistakes have to stop on both sides of the ball. This is a rebuilding team, but it's a good one. With Kansas up next followed up by home games against Iowa State and TCU, a win over Texas could springboard a 4-0 Big 12 start before going to Kansas State.
Why Texas Might Win: Mistakes. One of the biggest keys to the 2011 Oklahoma State season was turnover margin, with the defense making up for its problems with lots and lots of takeaways. The Cowboys led the nation in turnover margin last season, but this year the big plays aren't coming from the defense to make up for the issues on offense, with seven turnovers in three games and just two picks -- both against Savannah State -- and one fumble recovery. Texas has been fantastic at holding on to the ball with just one lone lost fumble, no picks, and seven takeaways.
What was the big problem against Arizona? Four turnovers were part of it, 15 penalties had a lot to do with the blowout, and a total inability to come up with a big stop at a key time was a particular problem. The Oklahoma State offense was great, rolling up 636 yards, but the defense couldn't get off the field. Texas has been phenomenal on third downs so far, ranking third in the nation at a 60.5 percent clip. The Longhorns have balance and the ability to hit Oklahoma State from several sides to control the clock and the game, but ...
QB David Ash has been terrific so far for Texas.
Why Oklahoma State Might Win: The Cowboys are No. 1 in college football in third-down conversion percentage, keeping things moving 62.8 percent of the time. Of course, Savannah State helped the stats, but the offense really is moving without a problem. The offensive line has yet to allow a sack and the production is balanced. The Texas defense is terrific and full of talent, but it wasn't a rock for a full 60 minutes against Ole Miss and gave up a few too many big plays in the win over Wyoming. The Longhorns will give up yards and will give up big pass plays if the quarterbacks have time. The passing game will have time.
That Oklahoma State air attack is on an impressive run, throwing for more than 400 yards in each of the last two games. If the 399 yards in the Fiesta Bowl against Stanford are pushed into the category, the offense has cranked out 400 yards or more in six of the last eight games, with the two games under the mark coming in the blowout against Oklahoma (in which the ground game ripped up the Sooners) and against Savannah State (when the coaching staff stopped allowing the offense to throw). Texas did a terrific job against the Cowboys offense and passing game last year, and while this is a great defense, it's going to have to be ready for the storm.
What Will Happen: Oklahoma State is the real deal and will have a good season, but Texas is going to have a great year. There are still holes and there are still concerns, but this is a rising team that's going to get better and better by the week.
CFN Prediction: Texas 45, Oklahoma State 31
No. 22 Nebraska
Here's The Deal: Sorry, Big Ten fans, but this might be the preview of your 2012 conference championship.
Wisconsin has been awful, but with Ohio State and Penn State not eligible for the Big Ten title and Illinois and Indiana both mediocre, Purdue might be the lone obstacle to get over. While that might seem easy in theory, it's going to be a tough road for a Badger team that's lucky to be 3-1 instead of 1-3, holding on for dear life against Northern Iowa and lucking out in the final moments against Utah State. The passing game still hasn't shown up, the running game has sputtered, and there hasn't been anything on either side of the ball to suggest that the team has a realistic shot at repeating as Big Ten champion. But is this a case of a team that's still trying to find its groove, or is it really that bad? A lot more will be figured out after going to Nebraska for the first time since a 20-13 loss in 1973.
QB Taylor Martinez and Nebraska get a crack at a weakened Wisconsin team.
Wisconsin has been so mediocre that if Nebraska is the real deal, it should win this game in a walk. Everything is properly tuned-up on offense after a 73-7 scrimmage over Idaho State, and the defense couldn't be more aggressive and more effective at getting into the backfield. This isn't a killer Husker defense, and the jury is still out on whether or not the Taylor Martinez passing game is for real, but the team has been unstoppable at home and seems to be past the tough loss at UCLA. With three of the next four games on the road -- including showdowns at Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan State -- beating the defending Big Ten champs could be the easiest game until hosting Penn State in mid-November.
Why Wisconsin Might Win: So what is Wisconsin doing right? Like last year, this continues to be a lightly penalized team, committing just 17 in the first four games, and there haven't been a slew of big mistakes. However, the five turnovers have been magnified because the offense hasn't done much of anything to keep the chains moving. Nebraska has had fumbling issues over the last few games -- giving away seven in the last three outings -- while the defense has been just OK at taking the ball away. The Badgers have to win the turnover battle, or at least keep it even.
What has worked really, really well is the run defense. Lost in all the issues over the first four games is a defensive front that kept a high-octane Utah State ground game to just 127 yards, stuffed Oregon State for 78 yards, and has allowed just one rushing score all season. Nebraska might be able to throw the ball better, but it has been a big help that the ground attack has set up the run. If Wisconsin's front four can keep Rex Burkhead in check, and if linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland can hang back a bit, the Martinez passing show isn't going to work on a consistent basis.
Why Nebraska Might Win: Zero. That's how many rushing scores Nebraska has given up all season long. UCLA's Johnathan Franklin might have run wild, but he didn't get into the end zone. Wisconsin can't seem to keep the offense going because the offensive line isn't generating a push and it isn't blocking anyone on third downs. The Nebraska pass rush has been devastating so far with three sacks in each of the first three games before coming up with seven against Idaho State. Third downs are a huge issue for the Badgers, and they're about to be an even bigger deal in Lincoln.
Dead last in the Big Ten in passing offense, and dead last in scoring offense, the Badgers haven't been consistent through the air. They're playing it very safe and very cautious, and defenses are taking their chances on the deep ball to sell out to stop the run -- and it's working. Joel Stave and Danny O'Brien were each able to come up with one big play here and there, but all the deep balls were chances worth taking by the defenses. On a consistent basis, the Bucky quarterbacks haven't been able to make anyone pay, especially on third downs. Wisconsin is 109th in the nation in third-down conversion percentage.
What Will Happen: Wisconsin is miraculously 3-1, but it's about to be in for a very, very long day. The defense will keep the game interesting, and Martinez won't go off, but the Badger offense won't go anywhere with too much pressure in the backfield killing drive after drive.
CFN Prediction: Nebraska 26, Wisconsin 14