College Football Coverage: Week 5’s Four Biggest Games

Alabama and Ohio State play key divisional games on Saturday night, and the BCS picture promises to get further sorted out with the big games involving LSU, Georgia, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. From Tuscaloosa to Columbus to Athens to South Bend, Week 5 offers a good package of games and TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage hones in on the four biggest…

LSU-Georgia (3:30 PM ET, CBS): Both teams have their eyes on the SEC title and the accompanying place in the BCS National Championship Game that would almost surely follow, but it’s even more likely that this game will play a key role in sorting out who the league’s second team in the major bowls will be.

Georgia’s offense is extremely well-balanced, with Aaron Murray airing it out and Todd Gurley running as well as anyone in the country. The Bulldog offense has scored 76 points in two games against Clemson and South Carolina. But the LSU offense has been surprisingly good itself. Zach Mettenberg will never be confused with Murray, but he’s turned into an effective passer and has big-play threats on the outside in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The ultimate result in this game will be determined by whether LSU can control the tempo of the game on the ground, with Jeremy Hill and Terrance Magee, and whether they can rattle Murray into some mistakes. The Bulldog quarterback avoided the big errors in his team’s win over South Carolina, and he has to do the same here.

Maybe the key number is 61.5—that’s the Over/Under on total points posted for this game. If it goes Over, call it for Georgia, and go with LSU on the Under. If the Bulldogs win this game, I’ll become a believer, but I’m not there yet. LSU is a 2 ½ point underdog, but given that they are on the road, it’s a sign that the betting markets also consider the Tigers a bit better on a neutral site. I’ll take the better team and just hope Les Miles doesn’t do anything nutty to mess it up.

Oklahoma-Notre Dame (3:30 PM ET, NBC):  This game is Notre Dame’s last chance to show that they can be a BCS bowl team. I suppose, given the Irish have only lost one game, that you could argue they’re still in the national title hunt and strictly speaking you would be right. But the reality is that this Notre Dame team has done nothing to suggest they can be any more than a decent 8-4 team—which is not bad, but not what the fan base was hoping.

Oklahoma is similarly challenged in the early going. The defense played well in a shutout of a good Sun Belt offense in UL-Monroe, but the offense was woeful in escaping West Virginia 16-7. While quarterback Blake Bell played better against Tulsa, this year’s Tulsa team isn’t very good.

What it boils down to is that this game could get rather ugly, at least if you don’t like a defensive game.  The Over/Under is 49, a fairly low number is this era of high-powered offense. If all goes according to form that’s going to make running the ball and avoiding mistakes essential to winning this game. OU is getting Damien Williams back from suspension in the backfield, and ND quarterback Tommy Rees can be forced into some errors.

That points to a Sooner victory, but they are a (-4) favorite. That’s a lot of points to give up in a road game against a well-coached team that plays good defense. I’d probably lean Oklahoma for the win, but if I were in Vegas, I’d grab the Irish and the points.

Ole Miss-Alabama (6:30 PM ET, ESPN): The media attention focused on Alabama’s visit to Texas A&M two weeks ago. Most fans would least acknowledge the importance of the Tide’s home game later this year with LSU. But few people, at least at the start of the year, would have circled this one as a key SEC West battle for ‘Bama. But Ole Miss, after bringing in the nation’s best recruiting haul last February, is looking ready to make a splash.

The Rebels have quality wins over Vanderbilt and Texas, both on the road. They run the ball very well, with Bo Wallace being a dual-threat quarterback and Jeff Scott giving them some power in the conventional rushing attack. This team completely outhit Texas in the trenches in a game the Longhorns had to have. Make no mistake, Ole Miss is for real.

But “for real” and winning at Alabama are two very different things. The Tide has shown its share of problems—poor offensive showings against Virginia Tech and Colorado State, and a terrible defensive effort against Johnny Manziel and A&M. But ‘Bama has also kept winning, and while I respect the Ole Miss offense, Wallace is not Manziel. I would expect the Crimson Tide defense to play a good game .

Whether Alabama can cover a (-15) point spread is going to depend on whether the running game can be consistent, and whether A.J. McCarron can get hooked up with Amari Cooper on a few big plays. I’m not ready to lay those kinds of points with the Tide, and I’m not ready to pick the Rebels to pull a big upset at this stage of their development. I see Alabama winning another game that leaves us wondering just how good they really area, and how good Ole Miss might be as they continue to mature.

Wisconsin-Ohio State (8 PM ET, ABC): Ohio State needs to go undefeated if it wants to play for a national title, and the winner of this game will have a big leg up in what looks like a pure two-team race for the Big Ten Leaders Division title and a place in the conference championship game on December 7.

Injuries to skill position players are a prominent theme in this game. Braxton Miller is expected to play behind center for Ohio State. Wisconsin’s tight end Jacob Pedersen is listed as doubtful. While the former is clearly the more important of the two, don’t underestimate how much Pedersen matters to the Badger offense. He’s a valuable pass-catcher and Wisconsin needs to move the chains and keep the explosive Buckeye offense off the field.

Ohio State is  a (-7) favorite, which seems about right, and the total on the game is 54.5. It’s this number that might be on the low side. The Buckeyes have not looked like a national championship contender when it comes to playing defense. They were lit up by Cal, and if Wisconsin can get some run-pass balance, this game could become a track meet.

The ultimate key is whether Badger quarterback Joel Stave can complete some downfield throws. He’s got a good arm and has shown  potential on the deep ball, but his accuracy over the last couple weeks has been very poor. Without Pedersen to throw to, Stave needs to hit some deep strikes and right now you just can’t bet on him with confidence. As a Wisconsin fan, I think they’re going to play well and move the ball, but winning on the road with an erratic sophomore quarterback against an Urban Meyer team that churns out points is too much to ask.

SEC: Good Games Beyond The Glitter
Pac-12: An Interesting Saturday Night Trifecta
Big 12: Looking To Build A Resume
ACC: Coastal Division Showdown
Big Ten: Angling For Bowl Position
MidmajorsFriday Night Out West; Saturday In The MAC