The endless parade of non-conference games that have marked college football’s first month comes to a merciful end this Saturday, and college football Week 5 is marked with good league slates throughout the country. It starts tonight with Stanford-Washington, as the Cardinal look to show their steady running game led by Stephan Taylor can produce a road win against a modestly competitive Huskie team. TheSportsNotebook runs down what’s ahead on a conference-by-conference basis…
SEC: The big game is the battle in the East where Tennessee goes to Georgia, and we’ll look at that game more in depth tomorrow as part of our preview of Saturday’s three biggest games. An interesting matchup in the West is Arkansas-Texas A&M. The Aggies haven’t looked ready for the SEC in early games and with the Razorbacks being a complete disaster, A&M needs to take care of this one at home.
South Carolina pays a visit to Kentucky, normally a game you might put on upset alert, but the Wildcats just haven’t shown their ready to take advantage of the Gamecocks, even if they are sluggish after the win over Missouri. And with the way South Carolina plays defense, runs the ball with Marcus Lattimore and runs a high-efficiency passing game with Connor Shaw, they have a formula that should churn out wins even when they aren’t at their best. Alabama’s under no threat of losing its #1 ranking when they host Ole Miss.
Big 12: Another conference where we preview the biggest game (Texas-Oklahoma State) tomorrow, but Baylor-West Virginia will provide entertainment for the offense-minded. West Virginia can score against anyone with Geno Smith at quarterback and Tavon Austin having a big year at wideout. Baylor can’t stop anybody, and their own quarterback, Nick Florence, has been prolific in his early games as the replacement for Robert Griffin III. The Over/Under on this game has been posted at 81.5, so the points should be flying.
Pac-12: Stanford needs to take care of their business tonight, and as long as quarterback Josh Nunes doesn’t make mistakes in a prime-time road environment, the Cardinal’s defense and running game should carry them. They need to keep pace with Oregon, who has what should be an easy trip to Washington State, where the rebuilding under Mike Leach is off to a slow start after losing to Colorado.
The Buffaloes try and prove their surprising conference win was no fluke when they host UCLA, who suffered a disappointing loss to Oregon State. The Bruins are much too physical for the Buffs with Jonathan Franklin running the ball and the guess here is that normalcy is restored in both programs.
Oregon State pays a visit to Arizona in what should be a great test for both teams. The Wildcats are playing at home and are better suited to play the fast-break style both programs prefer. But Oregon State has shown a capacity to run the ball, play defense and they can still open it up with Sean Mannion and a three-receiver set. Having said all that…I think homefield and a little Oregon State letdown is enough to swing this Arizona’s way.
Arizona State is another team playing well early and their matchup with Cal will likely have long-term consequences when this league starts positioning its teams for bowl games and might be a big deal when it comes to bowl eligibility itself. The Sun Devils are getting good quarterback play from Taylor Kelly, while Cal has had its share of disappointment early on. But the Golden Bears are also more balanced offensively, playing at home and I think they right the ship in this one.
Big Ten: Tomorrow’s preview will include Wisconsin-Nebraska, and the second-biggest game on the slate is Ohio State-Michigan State. Normally Buckeyes-Spartans might have been the best on the Big Ten board, but the OSU probation takes a little bit out of it. Still, Ohio State will play not only Michigan State, but the Spartans’ Legends Division competition in Nebraska and Michigan. The teams that can figure out how to beat the Buckeyes have a leg up on everyone else. I believe the Michigan State defense can keep Braxton Miller from going crazy in this game, and as long as the Spartans can stick to their running game with Le’Veon Bell, they should be able to win a close home game. But if Miller creates defensive breakdowns, and forces Michigan State’s woeful passing game to come from behind, the home team has problems.
Penn State also begins what it hopes will be a season of playing spoiler. They go to Illinois, a team fresh off getting thumped by Louisiana Tech, while the Lions are playing their usual good defense and getting efficient quarterback play from Matt McGloin. ESPN will be carrying this game, and it was pointed out to me by a season-ticket holding Penn State friend, that for all the self-righteous chest-beating that ESPN has done over the Penn State program, they seem to have no problem televising most every game the Lions play. Yet another reason why some of us who aren’t Lion fans believe it was wrong to indict an entire program and community for the horrific crimes of a single individual.
ACC: The league’s two leaders, Florida State and Virginia Tech, have non-conference games this week, although neither one is playing a patsy. FSU goes to South Florida, in what would normally be a prime upset spot. I say “normally”, because after South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels appeared to have turned a corner in an earlier win at Nevada, he’s since regressed to inconsistency, and unless FSU has just partied all week long after beating Clemson, they should be able to win. Virginia Tech needs to keep winning if they want any shot of a BCS at-large bid in the event they don’t win the ACC, and a trip to Cincinnati won’t be an easy one. The Hokies need to contain Bearcat quarterback Munchie Legeaux in the pocket and they can’t fall behind as happened at Pitt a couple weeks ago.
N.C State-Miami promises one of the more interesting conference tilts anywhere on this week’s undercard. The Hurricanes are off to a nice 2-0 start in league play, while no one knows what to think of the Wolfpack. They lost their opener at Tennessee, and with the Vols being up and down, we don’t have a handle on how good or bad that loss was. Otherwise N.C. State has played patsies. They are the more consistent team in this matchup, but Miami has the higher upside if Stephen Morris and Philip Dorsett continue to hook up in the passing game like they did last week. But given the history of Morris’ inconsistency and the fact he played well last week, I’ll pick a letdown here and a Wolfpack win.
Big East: A very quiet week here. Beyond the non-conference games with South Florida and Cincinnati discussed above, the only noteworthy game is another non-league date with Louisville visiting Southern Miss. Last year this might have been interesting, when the Golden Eagles had a veteran program and a good coach in Larry Fedora. Now, with Fedora in North Carolina, they are rebuilding at every level. What I do want to see is Louisville look really impressive—their wins over North Carolina and Florida International were tougher than expected and as good as Cardinals’ quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is, I want to see them play a complete game and really manhandle someone, thus showing they can compete with Rutgers for the Big East title.
The Best Of The Rest: Notre Dame’s off this week and BYU plays a non-descript Friday night game against Hawaii. Boise State has what should be a cakewalk against Bob Davie’s team in New Mexico to open Mountain West play. Ohio, the MAC frontrunner who’s getting a little undercurrent of affection as a BCS-buster pays a visit to UMass, who is in their first year at the FBS level and so far looked the part.
In mid-major conference play, the best games are Ball State-Kent State in the MAC. I like the Golden Flashes’ defense over the long haul in this league, while Ball State has beaten Indiana and South Florida. Over in Conference USA, UTEP takes on East Carolina. The Miners gave stiff challenges to Oklahoma and Wisconsin and now need to show they can win on the road against the disappointing Pirates in a league where the unpredictable always seems to happen. And in the Sun Belt, Western Kentucky visits Arkansas State. The hosts won the conference last year, and while they are probably no better than fourth or fifth this time around, I’m interested to see how much Red Wolves’ pride there is as they play the Hilltoppers. Did I really just utter the words “Red Wolves Pride”? Maybe on that note it’s time to sign off.