The big four unbeaten teams—Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State & Notre Dame—will all be on national TV on Saturday. While ND’s home game against Pitt (3:30 PM ET, NBC) shouldn’t be much cause for concern, the other three all have tough challenges and all will be aired on prime-time. Set aside whether it’s at all fan-friendly to put all the best games on at the same time of the day, and instead let’s focus on the three biggest battles of college football Week 10—Alabama-LSU, Oregon-USC and Oklahoma State-Kansas State.
Alabama-LSU (8 PM ET, CBS): This game isn’t drawing the hype it did a year ago when it was genuinely the Game of the Year until LSU won on the road and the BCS decided it was really only the Scrimmage of the Year, thus setting up the Rematch of the Year. Alabama’s 1-1 split without ever playing a true road game was seen as better (?) and they got the national title. This time around, LSU has the homefield, but with a loss to Florida already on their resume, the Tigers won’t get the same type of second chance.
Alabama is also a much better team this year. We are taking a certain amount of that on faith—through no fault of their own, the Tide haven’t really been tested yet. Michigan proved, like everyone else in the Big Ten, to be incompetent outside their own league. An early season SEC game with Arkansas wasn’t the September test for ‘Bama we thought it might be. We don’t know what to make of Mississippi State, who ‘Bama beat last week.
What we do know is that, at the very least, the Tide is getting rid of all comers with ease. We know they are running the ball effectively with a two-man tandem of T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy. We know that sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron is maturing into a solid college passer, and could be more by the time his career is done. We know that the defense hasn’t given up more than 14 points all year.
Contrast to LSU—the Tigers have had narrow escapes against Texas A&M and South Carolina, though admittedly both teams are better than anyone on the Tide slate thus far. But LSU has also had to struggle to get past Auburn and Towson. Actually the way Auburn looks, maybe I should have italicized them for effect rather than Towson. Add this to the loss to Florida and you see a Tiger team that looks anything but national championship-caliber.
But LSU still plays defense. They can still run the ball, the key to their best win, the 23-21 triumph over a then-undefeated South Carolina team. While quarterback Zach Mettenberg is nowhere near McCarron this year, he’s had his moments.
Thus, the question is not whether Alabama is better than LSU. The answer is yes. The question is whether LSU is good enough to beat Alabama one time, on their homefield, in prime-time, with what should be a huge chip on their shoulder. I think the answer here is also yes. That’s why I believe the point spread of Alabama (-9) is way too high and why I am also picking LSU to pull an upset and take the driver’s seat in the SEC West.
Oregon-USC (7 PM ET, Fox): Oregon is a lot like Alabama—they haven’t beaten anyone to date, but we really can’t fault them for the fact the best North Division opponents—Oregon State & Stanford—are still ahead of them, nor can we fault the Ducks on their style points, as they’ve been convincingly blasting people across the Pacific Northwest.
USC hasn’t beaten anyone either, having lost their head-to-head battle with Stanford and this game begins a brutal stretch. After this game, matchups with Arizona State & UCLA will settle the Pac-12 South, then there’s Notre Dame and for now I think we still assume the Trojans will play in the conference championship game—likely a rematch of this one—on December 1.
The key to this game is going to be whether USC can run the ball with Silas Redd. The running back that transferred in from Penn State after the NCAA sanctions has been up and down all year, but his team absolutely needs him to be on. As good as the passing combination of Matt Barkley-to-Marquise Lee is, Oregon will win a game where the field opens up and the pace accelerates. USC has a better chance at winning a conventional battle and keeping quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Kejon Barner off the field.
With the Trojans playing at home and probably having a little chip of their own after losing to Arizona—a team Oregon beat 49-0—I’m looking for max effort from Lane Kiffin’s team. Just as is the case with the big SEC battle, I like an inferior home team to get an upset win. You can get 8.5 points at the betting window with USC and my guess is all those travelers from Los Angeles who hit Vegas on the weekend won’t hesitate to take it.
Oklahoma State-Kansas State (8 PM ET, ABC): Kansas State can’t possibly be playing any better, having hammered two consecutive credible opponents in West Virginia and Texas Tech, shutting down prolific quarterbacks, dropping 55 points on each team ,vaulting Collin Klein to the head of the Heisman race and themselves to the forefront of the national championship battle.
But nothing gold can stay, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote and Ponyboy Curtis reminded us in The Outsiders. Kansas State simply can’t play at max level every week, and Oklahoma State is quietly starting to play some good football. A team that lost badly to Arizona and also to Texas has won consecutive games over Kansas, Iowa State & TCU, each one progressively more impressive. They are running the ball with Joseph Randle and giving support to young quarterbacks J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt.
That’s why I expect Oklahoma State to play well and make the (-9) point spread at least a battle. Because they are on the road, the home crowd, combined with the inherent toughness in Klein and his team, K-State will survive. But this will be the game that sends a loud and clear message to the Wildcats that the November path—which includes road games at TCU, Baylor and a home date with Texas—is filled with the worst kind of danger—the kind which won’t get you much credit from the voters if you overcome it.
OTHER ACTION IN THE MAJOR CONFERENCES
SEC: Georgia took control of the SEC East last week with the upset of Florida, but don’t pencil the Dawgs in for the conference championship game just yet. They have to beat a respectable Ole Miss team (3:30 PM ET, CBS)that’s 5-3 and better than some of the teams Georgia has struggled with—namely Missouri and Kentucky.
Florida plays for what it hopes is a second chance at the SEC East and what, at minimum would likely be a Sugar Bowl bid if they win out and has a home date with Mizzou (Noon, ESPN2). At the same time, Texas A&M-Mississippi State kick off over on ESPN, with the winner being alive for the Cotton Bowl pending what happens in their division’s big game. And the early TV slot run continues on ESPNU with Vanderbilt and Kentucky, as the Commodores are 4-4 and gunning for a second straight bowl game.
Pac-12: If you stay up late on Saturday night—like 10:30 PM ET, ESPN2 has a good one with Arizona State-Oregon State. The Beavers are playing to stay alive in their division race, trying to stay within a game of Oregon and set up a season-ending battle for the North. The Sun Devils are tied for first with UCLA & USC in the South. There’s also a Friday night special of Washington-Cal (9 PM ET, ESPN2), with the 4-4 Huskies trying to get to a bowl.
Big 12: ABC’s got a good early game with Oklahoma-Iowa State at noon ET. The Sooners still have a good shot at an at-large bid to the BCS if they finish 10-2, and that same record could angle them to the conference title if they get some breaks along the way from K-State’s opponents. But that necessitates putting last week’s disaster against Notre Dame behind them, and it also necessitates being able to win a game against a team that will try to grind it in the trenches. ND & Kansas State showed the formula for beating OU. The Cyclones don’t have that kind of talent, but they do play that style, they’ll be at home and the Sooners will likely be a little bummed emotionally.
Fox will carry two games to a national audience at 3 PM ET from this conference, either TCU-West Virginia or Texas-Texas Tech. None of the four have a realistic shot at an at-large BCS slot, but the Cotton Bowl is available, should both Kansas State and Oklahoma make the BCS. The winners of these two games would be alive for that chance.
Big East: Louisville puts its perfect record on the line against Temple in a game ABC will show to local parts of the country at noon ET in lieu of Oklahoma-Iowa State. The ‘Ville is at home and with Teddy Bridgewater running the offense, can put the Owls in a scoring race they can’t win. Cincinnati and Syracuse each have one conference loss and play a de facto elimination game in Cincy.
ACC: This article is being written on Thursday afternoon, prior to the big Miami-Virginia Tech game on Thursday night (a slew of Friday commitments have me bogged down most of the day). But earlier this week, TheSportsNotebook broke down the various scenarios for the five contenders in this league to win the league championship. The biggest game on Saturday is Clemson-Duke (7 PM ET, ESPN2). The Dookies are a nice story and a contender in the weak Coastal, but Clemson is much better, still has a shot at the Atlantic title and needs to win out to make a BCS game.
Big Ten: Nebraska got control of the Legends Division with last Saturday’s win over Michigan, but the Cornhuskers are still in a tie for first and could give it right back in a tough road trip to Michigan State (3:30 PM ET, ABC/ESPN2). Sparty hasn’t had a great year, at 5-4, but they’ve played great defense. Taylor Martinez needs to take care of the football and Nebraska can’t let Michigan State hang around the way Wisconsin did last week.
IN THE MID-MAJORS
Mountain West: San Diego State is quietly sneaking up in the Mountain West and now they make a visit to the blue turf to face Boise State on Saturday night (10:30 PM ET, CBS Sports Network). The Broncos are playing efficiently, winning games and very much alive for an Orange Bowl bid if they win out, but they haven’t been doing it with the dominance of years past. I wouldn’t pick against them at home, but the Aztecs could at least make this one interesting.
WAC: As we said last week—this league is about Utah State-Louisiana Tech in November, with only San Jose State’s game with La Tech possibly able to derail that. No such matchup occurs this week.
Conference USA: Two good cross-divisional games go down. Houston-East Carolina and SMU-Central Florida are both potential previews of the conference championship game. The Cougars are starting to click behind quarterback David Piland, and while ECU isn’t doing anything outside the league (witness last week’s thrashing by Navy), they are playing well against their own.
The Pirates are chasing Central Florida, undefeated in the league and leading the East. SMU joins Houston is being just one game back of Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane is undefeated in league play, and steps outside the boundaries to get a crack at reeling Arkansas.
MAC: Ohio will have played on Thursday night against lowly Eastern Michigan by the time you read this and the Bobcats’ loss last week now means they have no margin for error for keeping pace with Kent in the Eastern Division. The Golden Flashes will play a bad Akron team at home. On the West side, Northern Illinois and the incomparable Jordan Lynch at quarterback, play winless UMass. NIU is tied with Toledo at 5-0 in the league, with the Rockets being off.
Sun Belt: The best game will be Thursday night when Middle Tennessee visits Western Kentucky. Whomever won that game will be in position to secure a bowl bid. Western Kentucky is definitely one of the league’s best, but last year second place wasn’t good enough to get them one of the three Sun Belt bowl slots (though more could be had this year with the Big Ten unlikely to fill its quota because of probations). The Hilltoppers can’t take anything for granted.
Front-running UL-Monroe has a competitive home game against UL-Lafayette, with its good quarterback in Terrance Broadway. If Lafayette were at home, I might go with an upset special. But Kolton Browning won’t lose on his home field.