The Prime-Time Feast Of College Football Week 4

Saturday night is a time to have the remote control at the ready if you love college football. There are three monster games, all of which are likely to impact who we’ll be watching later this year in conference championship play on the first Saturday of December and/or BCS bowl action in January. Yesterday , TheSportsNotebook looked at the appetizer games highlighted by key SEC East action. Now let’s dig into the feast that is Saturday night and Michigan-Notre Dame, Kansas State-Oklahoma and Clemson-Florida State.

Michigan-Notre Dame:  Come January we could be looking at this as the game where the winner went to a major bowl and the loser went to a lesser game. I know it will make Big Ten critics want to throw up, but the league could still get two teams into the BCS, particularly if you have a prestigious brand-name team available. Michigan would qualify, but they, and the conference as a whole simply has to do something in non-conference play. TheSportsNotebook looked at Notre Dame’s major bowl chances earlier this week and concluded that while this game isn’t must-win per se, getting a victory puts the Irish in a very good position the rest of the way.

Now on to the matchup itself. Denard Robinson has positively destroyed Notre Dame during his career and this is the first offense that will really test a suspect Irish secondary. In the previous three games, Navy and Michigan State were run-oriented and Purdue didn’t have Michigan’s explosiveness. Last week in East Lansing, the Irish proved they can deliver a punch and control the trenches. This week, they have to show they can handle a more open attack. If Robinson can have his usual success in breaking down the defensive containment and downfield coverage, then Fitz Toussaint will have running lanes between the tackles and Notre Dame will have to win in a shootout, something they’ve failed to do the last two times out against the Wolverines.

Furthermore, while freshman quarterback Everett Golson has played well thus far, we really don’t know how he’d handle a fast-break type of game. If head coach Brian Kelly turns to Tommy Rees, last year’s starter who’s yet to get his job back after being suspended for the opener, then we know Rees can pile up yardage, but we don’t know if he’s solved the turnover problem that bedeviled this offense last year.

Thus far, that’s a bleak picture for the Irish, so we should also point out that this team is superior to Michigan in the trenches, they can run the ball with Theo Riddick and they’ll have a big homefield advantage with the prime-time crowd. For those reasons,  I lean Notre Dame to win, but the five-point spread they are favored by looks a little high, given the history of this series. And in that same light, the Over/Under line of 49 looks a little low. I don’t have a strong enough opinion to bet this game, but were at the Bellagio in Vegas this weekend and had to place a bet I’d take a dog cover and the Over.

Kansas State-Oklahoma: We don’t yet know if Oklahoma can live up to its reputation as a national championship contender, and we don’t know if anyone out of the league’s thriving middle class can step up and really challenge them in the Big 12 race. We’ll start finding out both things in Norman.

OU’s Landry Jones hasn’t looked particularly sharp—the numbers are there, but the opposition has been weak and observers I’ve been reading are concerned with his accuracy. Kansas State has to deal with a young offensive line, but the Wildcats are at least getting good work from running back John Hubert. The presence of a conventional running game takes a little bit of heat off the magnificent two-threat quarterback Collin Klein and means he doesn’t have to expose himself to as many hits by running the ball. But at the end of the day, this game is Jones’ to lose. He has the weapons, and the Oklahoma defense is good enough to at least hold Klein’s ‘Cats to 21-24 points. If Jones puts them in fast-break football, Kansas State cannot keep up. In spite of the Sooner quarterback’s slow start, I’m saying he gets it done. The oddsmakers are quite confident as well, with OU laying two touchdowns plus a half-point hook.

Clemson-Florida State: Speaking of the oddsmakers, I’m officially nervous about this game. Florida State is also a 14.5 point favorite, and this strikes me as utterly insane. I think Clemson is probably the better team, and was just weighing the impact of homefield advantage in Tallahassee. Before you think that means I’m rushing to jump all over Clemson and the points (and the Tigers are getting better than 4-1 odds to win straight up), I’m cognizant of the fact that when myself and the Vegas house have radically diverging views of a game…well, let’s just say they’re a lot richer than I am.

But here’s why I don’t get this line—Clemson has weapons galore on offense, with quarterback Tajh Boyd being an ACC Player Of The Year frontrunner and Heisman possibility, and he’s arguably not even the best skill player on this team. Andre Ellington does everything at running back and he had a big game against Auburn to start the year. Sammy Watkins is back from suspension at receiver and is perhaps the ACC’s best at his position, with one of the few rivals being DeAndre Hopkins on the other flank. Florida State’s defense has suffered personnel losses, from safety Greg Reid prior to the season to defensive end Brandon Jenkins after the first week. Every team loses players. Not every team loses two first-team All-Americans.

Furthermore, I am not at all sold on Seminole quarterback E.J. Manuel. He’s played well to date, but Wake Forest has been his toughest opponent and the Demon Deacons don’t look bowl-caliber this year. Manuel did not play well last year in a big home game against Oklahoma or two years ago in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech. While you can argue that Clemson’s defense is not as good as either of those opponents, you can also say that Manuel will have a lot more pressure to produce big point totals against the Tigers.

Those are the reasons why I would pick Clemson to win if this game was in Death Valley, or even a neutral site. But let’s go to the other side. Florida State still has excellent talent in its front seven, they still have lockdown corner Xavier Rhodes who can go man-on-man with one of the Clemson wideouts and Tallahassee is still as loud a stadium as there is on a Saturday night.

FSU-Clemson is likely the biggest game in the ACC this season. These are the best two teams in the conference and both are in the Atlantic Division, so the loser has the odds stacked against them in trying to reach the ACC Championship Game. I’m going to stick to my guns and lean Clemson to win outright.