by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
This weekend marks the first full slate of Big 12 conference games, meaning every major conference is now off and rolling to decide who gets the BCS automatic bids. Nebraska-Missouri could go a long way in deciding the Big 12 North. Same with Alabama-Ole Miss in the SEC West. Meanwhile, Wisconsin-Ohio State and Iowa-Michigan will serve as miniature elimination games in the Big Ten race, and the Pitt-Connecticut winner will be well-positioned to make a run at current Big East favorite Cincinnati. Considering we are just dipping our toes into October, a lot is at stake this weekend.
This Week's Games
No. 21 Nebraska at No. 24 Missouri (Thursday, 9:00 p.m., ESPN)
Through the first month of the season, a clear divide has formed between the top half of the Big 12 North (Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska) and the bottom half (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State). In the first of the three-game round robin between the top teams, Nebraska visits Missouri for a typhoon of both intensity and ... rain. With a potentially major rainstorm looming, this game is an interesting matchup of strengths and weaknesses. Nebraska is vulnerable to big passing plays, and Missouri has completed more long passes than anybody in the country. Meanwhile, Mizzou has been shaky in the trenches, where Nebraska is stout. The Huskers have been outscored by a combined 123-54 in their last three trips to Columbia, and they will need to ride Roy Helu, Jr. (assuming he doesn't have the flu) as far as he will take them if they want to win this time around.
The Picks -- Rob: Mizzou | FEI: Nebraska | S&P+: Mizzou
Georgia at Tennessee (Saturday, 12:21 p.m., ESPN 360)
Last week's loss to LSU dropped Georgia from the AP Top 25. It marks the first time that neither Georgia nor Tennessee has been ranked since Dec. 6, 1994. A combined 5-5, the loser of this game in Knoxville will face an uphill battle toward one of the SEC's better bowl bids. This game pits one of the game's best receivers, Georgia's A.J. Green, versus one of the game's best defensive backs, Tennessee safety Eric Berry. They are each the best player on almost any field they grace, and while they might face each other much, everyone -- especially NFL scouts -- is hoping to see at least a couple of one-on-one battles through the game's 60 minutes.
The Picks -- Rob: Georgia | FEI: Georgia | S&P+: Tennessee
No. 3 Alabama at No. 20 Mississippi (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS)
Before the season, most prognosticators circled this game as the SEC West decider. FEI and S+P disagreed, saying Ole Miss was overvalued, and the numbers look prescient. The Rebels have some good players but greatly miss graduated NFL talent on the offensive and defensive lines. Hyped quarterback Jevan Snead has been erratic, throwing for three three touchdowns and as many picks last week against Vandy. He faces a giant leap up in class against Alabama. Florida remains the consensus No. 1, but a strong case could be made that Alabama has been the nation’s most impressive squad. The season-ending injury to linebacker Dont’a Hightower hurts, but the Tide’s defense still swarms. Quarterback Greg McElroy has quickly made Rammer Hammer Nation forget J.P. Wilson, and a win in the Grove would make for his first quality win on the road.
The Picks -- Rob: Alabama | FEI: Alabama | S&P+: Alabama
Connecticut at Pittsburgh (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
With Cincinnati and West Virginia leading the way in the conference race, this game likely will determine secondary Big East bowl bids. The Huskies and Panthers were each bitten by double-digit comeback victories in non-conference play by ACC teams from North Carolina. Connecticut's win at Baylor is the most notable notch in either team's belt. Both teams love to run: Connecticut's Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon have each topped 100 yards in multiple games this year, and Pittsburgh has found a youthful spark from Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. The Huskies have the edge defensively, but special teams play will be truly critical. Each has enjoyed a healthy field position advantage this year, and a long field may mean a long day for the loser.
The Picks -- Rob: Pitt | FEI: Pitt | S&P+: UConn (LOCK)
No. 13 Oregon at UCLA (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
Did Chip Kelly just throw LeGarrette Blount's name out there just to distract everybody from how good Oregon has looked the last few weeks? Kelly's hint that Blount could find his way back to the team in another month or so after having been suspended for the season actually does not reek of desperation by any means because ... well, the Ducks might not even need him. Their offensive output has improved from 31 points, to 42, to 52, during the last three weeks. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is absolutely on fire (35-for-43 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions the last two weeks), and Oregon travels to the City of Angels with a defense that only gave up a combined 22 points to Boise State and California. If they can go 3-1 over the next month (road trips to UCLA, Washington, and Stanford, with a home game against USC sandwiched in between), they could be the Rose Bowl favorites heading into November. Of course, a loss to a salty 3-1 UCLA team could kick-start a pretty big tumble as well.
The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Oregon | S&P+: UCLA
Wisconsin at No. 9 Ohio State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
Contender or pretender? Undefeated Wisconsin is on the clock. The 5-0 Badgers haven't done enough yet to impress the pollsters (at least those in the AP poll) or Vegas (a three-score spread). This week's trip to the Horseshoe will be followed by a clash with Iowa back in Madison, so we'll all know where the Badgers stand soon enough. The Buckeyes appear to be following their usual script: dominate the Big Ten quietly and effectively en route to another BCS bid. Ohio State's defense has stepped into its starring role, holding USC, Toledo, Illinois, and Indiana to 25 total non-garbage points after giving up 27 points to Navy in the opener. No one has shut down the Wisconsin rushing attack yet, but Ohio State presents their most physical challenge to date.
The Picks -- Rob: Wisconsin (LOCK) | FEI: Wisconsin | S&P+: Wisconsin
No. 10 TCU at Air Force (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.)
One of the country's final two BCS-buster hopes, TCU faces a tricky road trip to Colorado Springs to face your standard, run-of-the-mill Air Force team that is prolific on the ground (291.8 rushing yards per game) and only throws when it has to (10.4 passes per game). TCU has already tamed two trips east -- they whipped Virginia, 30-14, then upset Clemson, 14-10, two weeks later. They stand at 4-0, and, if they emerge from their next two road trips unscathed (they play BYU in Provo on October 24), then they should be 12-0 for bowl selection time. The secret to the Horned Frogs' success this year has been as much offense as defense. Their underrated offense is the most efficient in the country, which is a pretty deadly weapon combined with the team's typical stout run defense and pass rush.
The Picks -- Rob: Air Force | FEI: TCU | S&P+: TCU
No. 1 Florida at No. 4 LSU (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., CBS)
Even before The Headache Heard 'Round The World, this had all the makings of the SEC game of the year. The Gators remain a strong favorite, but Tim Tebow’s concussion and LSU’s stirring win in Athens Saturday has tightened the perception gap. It took Tigers running back Charles Scott until the dying seconds to break off a big-time run, and he’ll need to pound away successfully to give the home team its best chance. Tennessee showed that old-fashioned slobber-knocking could be successful against Florida. Out on the perimeter, LSU’s fine receivers, Brandon LaFell and Terrence Toliver, will be a great matchup against Florida’s top corners, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins. As for Tebow, few would dare bet against his efficiency, bruised brain or not. But one can’t help think that he will be tentative, especially against an LSU defense that is vulnerable to the big play but hits hard.
The Picks -- Rob: LSU | FEI: LSU | S&P+: Florida
No. 22 Georgia Tech at Florida State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., ESPN2)
The buzzards had been circling over Bobby Bowden and his program for some time. This week, the hyenas, jackals, and every other carrion-feeder on the savannah smelled blood. FSU is 25-24 since October 2005, a stretch of mediocrity that would have ended with most coaches getting canned. Bowden remains, but when the Board of Trustees starts calling for your job, it might not be the best time to order that new throw rug for the office. FSU has the athletes on defense to slow Tech’s triple option as Miami did, but whether it still has the desire is another question. The Institute seems like the third-best team in the ACC -- unfortunately, the other two, Miami and Virginia Tech, are also in the Coastal Division, meaning the Jackets' participation in the conference title game seems a long shot. Beating the Seminoles is a priority. Helping the cause is Tech’s one-man receiver corps, DeMaryius Thomas, who has made the offense a bit more multi-dimensional through sheer brilliance.
The Picks -- Rob: Ga. Tech | FEI: FSU | S&P+: FSU
Michigan at No. 12 Iowa (Saturday, 8:05 p.m., ABC)
The Hawkeyes geared up and fiercely struck down Penn State, Arizona and Iowa State this year, but hold-your-breath escapes from disaster against Northern Iowa and Arkansas State have to make you wonder about their focus for the long haul. Focus shouldn't be an issue this week, though, with the Wolverines coming to Iowa City. Michigan's quarterback Tate Forcier tasted defeat for the first time this season in a nail-biter against Michigan State last week, and owned it. You have to believe there's a Tebow-style post-game podium tantrum in that kid's future. For now, Michigan's rushing attack (12 touchdowns on the year) faces an Iowa defense that hasn't surrendered a rushing touchdown since last November, eight straight games and counting.
The Picks -- Rob: Michigan | FEI: Iowa (LOCK) | S&P+: Iowa
Storylines of the Week
Rob Weintraub: Not that long ago, the East was the Beast of the SEC. Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee were annual Goliaths, and Steve Spurrier was going to restore South Carolina! Well, the Gators are still greater, but the West is best. Nick Saban’s hire has been the tide (pun intended) that has lifted the division’s boats. Auburn is back in the game, thanks to Gus Malzahn’s offensive wizardry. LSU always has the talent, and this year, a decent quarterback in Jordan Jefferson. Ole Miss was the preseason sexy choice, and remains dangerous, if untested, so far. Ryan Mallett’s big arm makes Arkansas tough, and even Mississippi State, under Dan Mullen’s guidance, has shown snarl. If Florida falls at LSU, the seesaw might toss the East straight up in the air.
Brian Fremeau: Have you taken a gander at the ACC standings lately? There are three undefeated teams in conference play, and two of them -- Maryland and Virginia -- are, by many accounts, objectively bad teams. The Miami Hurricanes boast the best resume in the conference, if not the nation, but will need Virginia Tech to lose twice in league play in order to even get to the ACC title game as the Coastal Division representative. Florida State has the league's most impressive non-conference victory -- a drubbing of BYU in Provo -- but is languishing at the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings. Maybe by handing off the usual Thursday primetime slot to the Big 12, the ACC will enjoy a week of stability, and the dominant teams, whoever they are, will play like dominant teams. Either that, or we're in for another race to 5-3, four-way tiebreakers, and a renewed debate over the meaning of parity.
Bill Connelly: Tim Tebow at Florida. Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham, and now Ryan Broyles at Oklahoma. Ronald Johnson at USC. Dont'a Hightower at Alabama. Kendall Hunter and Zac Robinson at Oklahoma State. Is it just me, or have more preseason top teams been waylaid by injuries this year than at any other time in recent memory? Granted, some of these have been worse than others -- Tebow has yet to miss a game, Robinson was back (though rusty) for the start of the season, and Alabama's defense is deep enough to absorb the loss of Hightower. But overall, combined with the suspensions of LeGarrette Blount and Dez Bryant, this season has been deprived of some serious star power.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|TCU||-10||Air Force||Air Force||TCU||TCU|
|Georgia Tech||+2.5||Florida State||Ga. Tech||FSU||FSU|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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