College Football Week 2: Key Big Ten Games On The Undercard

College football Week 2 gets started tonight, although the Thursday & Friday games of Pitt-Cincinnati and Utah-Utah State aren’t reason to get that excited. There are some good games on the Saturday undercard though, so let’s run through a list of games that might not fall in the category of games that make you clear three hours on the schedule to watch, but are certainly worthy of clearing 10-15 minutes to check in on the results of…

Vanderbilt played a good game in defeat last Thursday against South Carolina, while Northwestern beat what I believe is a pretty good Syracuse team on the road. The Commodores played a defensive battle, while the Wildcats won a shootout. Vandy-Northwestern meet in Evanston and it’s a good matchup of the pass defense of the Commodores against the pass offense of the Wildcats. And from the standpoint of conference strength, though it will never match Michigan-Alabama in terms of hype, it’s good barometer for how the leagues stack up in the middle.

Iowa did not play well in barely escaping a rebuilding Northern Illinois team in Week  1, while Iowa State got their season off to a strong start by running over Tulsa. The in-state rivals meet in Iowa City on Saturday and the Hawkeyes’ rush defense in general, and defensive line in particular, have to step it up against versatile Cyclone quarterback Steele Jantz. And other Big Ten team in desperate need of a bounceback effort would be Michigan—they host Air Force. If this were a typical Falcon team, an upset—or at least a close game—could be in the works. But Air Force has substantial rebuilding to do and this game comes down solely to Wolverine recovery abilities.

We’ll continue our Big Ten theme—it’s a big week for the conference after a disastrous Week 1 showing and a number of indicative games going on Saturday—with a trio of visits to the west. You have Illinois-Arizona State, Wisconsin-Oregon State and Nebraska-UCLA. The Cornhuskers looked the best of any Big Ten team in the opener and their run defense will be tested by the Bruins’ Jonathan Franklin. Wisconsin’s pass defense nearly collapsed in the second half against Northern Iowa, and now will be spread out and exposed by Oregon State’s three-receiver set and talented sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion. The possibility for the Beavers to move the ball through the air is real, but they have to avoid turnovers, sacks and most important their defense has to get off the field. And Illinois looked sharp in a win over Western Michigan and can make a nice statement by beating rebuilding Arizona State, playing its first real game of the Todd Graham Era (the Sun Devils warmed up with Northern Arizona last week).

Next up is three games where we can learn something about the ACC. N.C. State lost to Tennessee in its opener, but that’s no shame and the Wolfpack weren’t blown out. If they bounce back and beat a respectable UConn team, it says N.C. State is still on track to win at least eight games. Virginia wants to show it can make another run at the conference title, and Mike London’s team has to prove it can handle Penn State at home. We know about the Nittany Lion problems, on and off the field, but they still have talent and focus is probably going to be easier in getting away from the circus in Happy Valley. And Duke was a surprising easy winner over Florida International, while Stanford had to struggle past San Jose State. Now it’s the Dookies and Cardinal going head-to-head out west (is this the other half of an All-Academic tournament, along with Vandy-Northwestern?). I’m not saying Duke needs to win this game, but if they push Stanford hard it suggests David Cutliffe might have the Blue Devil program ready to compete for a bowl bid.

Perhaps no one’s Week 1 performance slid under the radar more than Nevada’s dismantling of Cal—it wasn’t a blowout, but the Pack pounded the Golden Bears at the line of scrimmage. Now they continue a good non-conference schedule by hosting South Florida, who’s got hopes for a bounceback year in the Big East and has a veteran defense. This game will also be under the radar, but if you love college football beyond the elite teams, it’s potentially as good as any game out there on Saturday. Another indicator game out west will be Arizona hosting Oklahoma State. Rich Rodriguez, with quarterback Mike Scott, have already shown they can pile up yardage. But is it enough to beat a Cowboy team that has still has good defensive talent on hand, even if their high-profile offensive playmakers from last year are all starting in the NFL on Sunday.

Conference games are, by definition, important at this time of year. Well, I guess I won’t sell the idea that Tulane-Tulsa (C-USA) or Florida Atlantic-Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt) are really crucial. But the Sun Belt does have a good one with UL-Lafayette going to Troy. Lafayette quarterback Blake Gautier is extremely versatile and led his team to a bowl win over San Diego State last year. Troy had been a top team in this conference, fell back last season, but then knocked off UAB last week and hopes to return to Sun Belt prominence in this game. And in the BCS conferences, Auburn-Mississippi State is one that will loom over the bowl positioning in the SEC West the rest of the year, while Wake Forest needs to look sharp against probation-saddled North Carolina. Demon Deacon quarterback Tanner Price did not play well in Week 1 and Wake needs him to get rolling.

And we’ll conclude with these games…

Alabama-Western Kentucky
Fresno State-Oregon
East Carolina-South Carolina
Michigan State-Central Michigan
Ball State-Clemson

I cite these not because I think an upset is imminent in any of them, but all have the possibility of being closer than the experts say. In particular, Nick Saban was right when he scolded the media about underrating Western Kentucky. It was coach-spin of course, but in this case the spin was accurate. Alabama will win, but if it stays competitive longer than you expect give credit to the Hilltoppers—the best team in the Sun Belt—rather than knocking the Tide.

More college football previews are ahead tomorrow, focusing on these six showcase games…

Miami-Kansas State
Purdue-Notre Dame
Florida-Texas A&M