Every week, I’ll throw a spotlight on the six most interesting games of the weekend to tell you why these are the games you should try to catch, who’s going to win (and why), and what ramifications they could have on the rest of the college football landscape.
LAST WEEK: 5-1
#19 Miami (1-1) @ Pittsburgh (1-1) (7:30pm EST, ESPN)
Both teams have been off since 9/11/10, so they should be well-rested and well-prepared for this game, which pits two former Big East rivals against one another, both of whom could really use an impressive win to regain some of their season's lost momentum. Miami's had two weeks to stew over a loss to Ohio State in which any chance they might have had at springing the upset was killed by Jacory Harris' four interceptions, while Pittsburgh hasn’t played an opponent with a pulse since their opening night stumble at Utah. (They beat New Hampshire two weeks ago.) In a battle of two coaches who recruit well but frequently struggle on game day, I’d usually say go with the guy with the better talent on hand (which seems like Miami, by a hair). On the other hand, it’s not often wise to bet against the home underdog on Thursday night, so I’ll grudgingly side with the Wannstache in this one.
THE PICK: PITT 27, MIAMI 21
#1 Alabama (3-0) @ #10 Arkansas (3-0) (3:30pm EST, CBS)
The season’s second all-top ten clash (after the Boise State-Virginia Tech thriller in week one) was one of the more anticipated games of the SEC slate before the season began and even before Arkansas seemed likely to be ranked in the top ten, owing to Arkansas’ status as the sexy dark horse pick in the SEC. After nearly toppling Florida last year and having a solid season, Arkansas was expected to be a major threat this year with nearly all of their offensive firepower back, an improved defense, and, in this game a match-up advantage (Ryan Mallett and Arkansas’ high-powered passing offense versus Alabama’s inexperienced secondary), and homefield. On the other hand, Alabama has cruised through the opening three weeks with nary a speedbump, even without the services of two of their best players, RB Mark Ingram and DT/DT Marcell Dareus for the opening two games. They both returned last week and Alabama obliterated Duke, 62-13. They are scary good – again. Still, even the best teams are going to have tough games and this looks like one of Alabama’s toughest games of the year. It’s also the beginning of a brutal three-game stretch that sees road trips to Arkansas and South Carolina bookended around a home game against Florida. Then again, with Saban in charge, their eyes should be firmly on the obstacle in front of them, which is Arkansas and Mallett. And it’s tough to pick against the defending champs when they’re playing so lights-out. So as much as I want to go for the upset…
THE PICK: ALABAMA 31, ARKANSAS 28
#12 South Carolina (3-0) @ #17 Auburn (3-0) (7:45pm EST, ESPN)
There are few things stranger than watching architect of the Fun-n-Gun offense that revolutionized the passing game in the SEC become a disciple of the cro-mag football that’s long characterized the Big Ten, but then again running backs like Marcus Lattimore don’t come along every day, so even a passing guru like Steve Spurrier knows when to ride that horse as long as possible. Granted, it’s not like Spurrier’s been allergic to the running game in the past (even at Florida he churned out quality tailbacks like some guy by the name of Emmitt Smith) and if Stephen Garcia was your main option at quarterback, it’s easy to see why pounding away on the ground seems a little more palatable… but still: kinda weird. Meanwhile, Gene Chizik’s Auburn squad has its own freshman stud running back in Michael Dyer, although he’s only the third most prolific runner on this team, behind QB Cameron Newton and fellow RB Ontero McCalebb. Newton continues to be a work in progress in the passing game, but he’s a definite threat on the ground. With two powerful running games and two nasty, hard-hitting defenses (the Auburn-Clemson game a week ago seemed to feature a game-stopping injury every third play), this one should be the kind of game Bo and Woody would have enjoyed, even if it is dressed up in SEC colors. Auburn has the homefield edge, but they’ve looked like the shakier side so far and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could finally be the year that South Carolina breaks through.
THE PICK: SOUTH CAROLINA 17, AUBURN 13
#24 Oregon State (1-1) @ #3 Boise State (3-0) (8:00pm EST, ABC)
For the first time ever, College GameDay’s headed to Boise to party on the Smurf Turf as Boise State continues their inexorable march to, at the very least, a third BCS bowl appearance in the last five years – and perhaps even a BCS Championship Game appearance if a few things can break their way. Oregon State represents the last chance for one of the power conferences to derail the Broncos before they can crash the big boy party; all they have to do is accomplish the nigh-impossible: beat Boise on that aforementioned Smurf Turf. You could count the number of games Boise has lost on their home field in recent years on one hand, even if that one hand was a stump. They basically never, ever lose there. Oregon State gave TCU a run in the opener, but they struggled to put away a middling Louisville team traveling thousands of miles to Corvalis, OR last week; maybe they were just looking ahead to their big showdown with Boise, but it doesn’t breed much confidence. Meanwhile, Boise rebounded from seeing their national spotlight win over Virginia Tech lose almost all of its luster after the Hokies got knocked off by James Madison by turning around and curbstomping Wyoming last week. They seem pretty focused on doing what they need to do, which is just beating everyone in front of them. If this game was anywhere but Boise, I would give Oregon State a slight chance at the upset. But in Boise? Not happening.
THE PICK: BOISE STATE 37, OREGON STATE 24
#22 West Virginia (3-0) @ #15 LSU (3-0) (9:00pm EST, ESPN2)
Can ESPN just air three hours of these two fanbases tailgating and hanging out before the game? That’s almost guaranteed to be more interesting than whatever these two winning-but-flawed football teams do on the field, given how passionate (read: totally goddamn insane) their fans are. I would not want to be a cop in Baton Rouge on Saturday night. Anyway, the game. LSU enters the game as the sole team in the FBS who’s managed to record three wins over fellow BCS teams; sure those three teams were SEC bottomfeeders Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and a hugely depleted North Carolina team, but hey: wins over teams that aren’t just there to collect a fat paycheck are nothing to sniff about at this stage of the season. After inexplicably giving up a career day to North Carolina’s TJ Yates, the LSU defense has buckled down considerably, holding Vandy and MSU to a combined 10 points and roughly 400 yards of total offense. Which is good because the LSU offense has looked a mite sluggish; they needed big second halves to break open both games. West Virginia’s 3-0 mark contains two wins over FBS competition, but they haven’t looked hugely impressive in doing so; they needed a quasi-miraculous comeback to get by in-state rivals Marshall two weeks ago and they let Maryland hang around for a good chunk of the game a week ago. Geno Smith is emerging as a solid quarterback (71/101, 800 yards, 7/1 TD/INT), but he hasn’t faced a defense nearly as brutal as LSU’s, nor a cornerback as impenetrable as Patrick Peterson, and while Noel Devine is slippery, busting off runs against CUSA and ACC defenses is one thing; doing it against one of the SEC’s best is another. And picking against LSU in Death Valley at night? You must be crazy.
THE PICK: LSU 27, WEST VIRGINIA 14
Cal (2-1) @ #14 Arizona (3-0) (10:00pm EST, FSN)
Arizona is the team of the moment, and justifiably so after picking up one of the young season's signature wins in knocking off a top-ten team in Iowa. But the college football season is a marathon, not a sprint; it's one thing to get amped up for one big night game on national TV, against an opponent that your coach has history with and that you wanted to beat to avenge a loss from last fall -- it's another thing entirely to be able to maintain that level of focus and passion throughout eight, nine, or ten more games. Arizona was well-coached and well-prepared for their game with Iowa and executed their gameplan very well... but 18-22 year olds can't (and won't) execute at that level, week in and week out. So the trick becomes winning when you aren't at your best. And a week after such a big win, after spending all week reading stories about how great they are and how they've shed the "mediocre" or "underachiever" labels that have dogged them in the past, it would be an absolute stunner if there wasn't a little bit of a hangover there. On the flipside, Cal's coming off one of the most humiliating losses of Jeff Tedford's tenure, a game in which their defense got utterly destroyed by Nevada's Colin Kaepernick. But they're not as bad as they looked in that game and they have the talent to give Arizona some troubles if their heads aren't totally in the game. On the other hand, the home team has won five straight in this series...
THE PICK: ARIZONA 34, CAL 30