The Big 12 promised a balanced and competitive year in the conference’s broad middle class, meaning there would be an exciting race for a possible at-large bid to the BCS and at the very least to get the conference’s spot in the Cotton Bowl. With Kansas State’s win over front-runner Oklahoma, we can add the race for the league championship itself into that mix, and every game among contenders in this league is a big deal. That’s why Texas-Oklahoma State is likely to be the most consequential game of Saturday and where TheSportsNotebook, after looking at the undercard games yesterday, will begin the Friday previews of the three marquee games of college football Week 5…
Texas-Oklahoma State: The Longhorns came into the season looking like they would play good defense, and the ultimate fate of the team being settled by quarterback play. So far, so good. David Ash has won the job over Case McCoy and while the schedule hasn’t been tough—Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss—Ash is completing 76% of his passes, getting decent yardage from them and has yet to throw an interception. A two-pronged backfield of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron is providing the ground support. There can be some mild concerns over the defense, giving the 31 points surrendered to Ole Miss and the 17 to what’s proven to be a lousy Wyoming team. However, closer examination shows that in both games, the majority of points came after the issue was well decided in the second half.
I’m giving the Texas D the benefit of the doubt early, but there’s no question Mike Gundy’s offense for Okie State is going to challenge them in a way they haven’t seen yet. The keys to the attack have been given to freshman quarterback J.W. Walsh, who played an efficient game against UL-Lafayette last week. Walsh has tremendous skill position talent around him. Joseph Randle is one of the Big 12’s best backs, and the receiving combo of Blake Jackson and Josh Stewart have taken up where departed first-round NFL draft pick Justin Blackmon left off. But the Cowboys have serious defensive problems, as shown when Arizona hung 59 points on the board in the second game of the season. Texas won’t put up those kinds of numbers, but you have to be concerned about Oklahoma State’s ability to get off the field and to force mistakes from a quarterback in Ash who’s yet to make any.
Even though the game is in Stillwater, Texas is installed as a 2.5 point favorite, with the Over/Under posted at 65, indicating the oddsmakers see a fast-break game played. I believe Oklahoma State can win at fast break football because of the skill talent, but if the Longhorn defense just plays disciplined, makes it tackles and doesn’t allow huge runs after the catch, it will allow them to control the tempo of the game. After this game, Texas enters a crucial home sequence against West Virginia and Oklahoma, and I’ll take them to set the tone with a close road win on Saturday night.
Tennessee-Georgia: It’s put up or shut up time for Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. He’s in his third year and has already missed an opportunity to win a big SEC East game when his team lost at home to Florida. So the Vols have a must-win for their divisional hopes, while undefeated Georgia can still think bigger thoughts. Tennessee’s defense was pushed around by Florida, and that has to leave Georgia’s talented freshman running back Todd Gurley positively salivating. The Dawgs also have a quality change-of-pace back in Keith Marshall, and at the helm of the offense is Aaron Murray, who’s completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in two SEC games, along with a 5-1 TD/INT ratio. Put simply, there is nothing we’ve seen thus far that suggests Tennessee can contain this offense.
The Vols have the ability to make big plays, with Tyler Bray behind center and receiver Justin Hunter perhaps the most productive in the conference. But Florida was able to render Bray inefficient, as he completed just 22/44 passes and the Bulldogs’ defensive speed will enable them to bring blitz packages and rattle the Tennessee signal-caller. I don’t believe Tennessee’s running game is good enough to take the pressure off, nor do I even think they’ll get much of a chance to use it, given the likelihood that Georgia will score fairly easily. Short of a self-induced Bulldog implosion, I don’t see how they lose this game at home. If Bray and Hunter get hooked up, the game could be competitive and come in under the 14-point line the Dawgs are favored by, but at day’s end, Georgia will still be unbeaten and Dooley will still be on the hot seat.
Wisconsin-Nebraska: This is a hyped game, but I think we should tone down the hype for two key reasons. The first is that the teams are in opposite divisions of the Big Ten, so both will control their destiny in more consequential games ahead regardless. The other reason is that as a Wisconsin fan, I’m engaging in the political spinmeister’s tactic of lowering expectations when I sense the hammer about to fall.
While no team in the Big Ten has really looked good, Nebraska has never had a moment that made you wonder what the hell was going on. Their close loss at UCLA is respectable, and the Huskers hammered three softer opponents. They’ve got Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead both set to produce in the running game and being able to move on the ground in the conventional way takes some pressure off dual threat quarterback Taylor Martinez. The problems they had at UCLA were defensive, not offensive, and while the Wisconsin defense is not the biggest problem the Badgers have, they’ve also shown vulnerability to offenses who pick up the pace and Martinez is capable of doing just that.
The Wisconsin offense remains a huge question mark, which we should note is an upgrade from earlier in September where there were no questions at all—the offense was just flat-out bad. But a quarterback change was made to freshman Joel Stave, who showed some life in a win over UTEP last week, aided considerably by the return of top receiver Jared Abberderis. But the offensive line is still not getting a consistent push and if this team needs to score 31 points or so to win, I don’t see how it happens without some major breaks. I’m headed to a party here in Wisconsin for the game, but let’s just say I don’t have any anticipation of driving home on a winner’s high.