Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Big 12 Shootout in College Station Tops the List
By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Here are previews and predictions for the 10 best college football games this weekend.
Oklahoma State (+4) at Texas A&M
The winner of Saturday’s showdown between the Cowboys and Aggies will emerge as serious threat to challenge Oklahoma for supremacy in the Big 12. Oklahoma State, which edged A&M last season, 38–35, in Stillwater, has been nearly unstoppable on offense. The Pokes rank first in the nation in passing offense, second in total offense and third in scoring offense. Texas A&M’s numbers aren’t quite as gaudy through two games, but this team is also loaded on the offensive side of the ball, with a veteran quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and a deep set of skill position players. The key to game will be on defense: The team that comes up with a key stop in the fourth quarter will have a great chance to win. This could be one of the most entertaining games of the 2011 season.
Texas A&M 44, Oklahoma State 37
LSU (-5.5) at West Virginia
ESPN’s College GameDay will make its first-ever trip to West Virginia for what figures to be a wild night in Morgantown. Both teams are 3–0 and both are coming off impressive wins; WVU held on to beat Maryland, 37–31, on the road, while LSU was dominant on the defensive end in its 19–6 win over Mississippi State in Starkville. West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is putting up outstanding numbers operating Dana Holgorsen’s Texas Tech-inspired attack, but he will be facing by far his stiffest test. LSU boasts a ferocious defensive line and arguably the best set of cornerbacks in the nation in Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne. This won’t be easy, but LSU should prevail as long as it doesn’t turn the ball over too many times.
LSU 24, West Virginia 17
Arkansas (+11.5) at Alabama
We’ll find out if a great defense (Alabama) can stop a great offense (Arkansas) Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Last year, the Razorbacks threw for 357 yards vs. Bama in Fayetteville but lost the game, 24–20, due to two fourth quarter Ryan Mallet interceptions. Taking care of the ball will be of paramount importance for Bobby Petrino’s club. Alabama, as expected, is putting up great numbers on defense and has allowed only two touchdowns in three games. Offensively, Bama is leaning on its one-two punch at tailback of Trent Richardson (105.0 ypg) and Eddie Lacy (101.3 ypg). To beat Arkansas, however, the Tide will have to make some plays in the passing game. AJ McCarron was solid in his only true test this season, completing 19-of-31 for 163 yards without an interception at Penn State in Week 2. If he can duplicate that performance, Alabama should win the game.
Alabama 31, Arkansas 24
Florida State (+2) at Clemson
It’s always dangerous to jump on the Clemson bandwagon, but the Tigers looked very good against Auburn Saturday afternoon (though who hasn’t looked good against Auburn?). The offense is loaded with speed, and sophomore Tajh Boyd looks to be an ideal triggerman for Chad Morris’ attack. Florida State must regroup after the 23–13 loss to Oklahoma. The Seminoles still have a lot to play for — they remain the team to beat in the ACC — but their national title hopes took a huge hit. Quarterback EJ Manuel is questionable this weekend after being forced out of the OU game with a shoulder injury. If he is able to play, the Seminoles should get back on the winning track.
Florida State 28, Clemson 21
USC (+2.5) at Arizona State
USC, the only team in the nation with three wins vs. BCS conference opponents, hits the road for the first time this season in a game that figures to go a long way in determining the winner of the first-ever Pac-12 South Division title. USC’s probation will prevent it from playing in the league title game, but you know Lane Kiffin’s club would still love to claim a division crown. Arizona State let a great opportunity slip away Saturday night at Illinois, losing a tough 17–14 game to the Illini despite giving up only 240 yards of offense. The Sun Devils, who beat Missouri in overtime the previous week, must now turn their attention to league play; this date with USC begins a string of nine straight Pac-12 games. The key for ASU will be to slow down the Trojans’ outstanding pass-catch duo of Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, the nation’s leader with 11 receptions per game.
Arizona State 27, USC 24
North Carolina (+6) at Georgia Tech
It’s only been three games, but Georgia Tech has been one of the more impressive teams in the nation in 2011. The Yellow Jackets are 3–0 and are putting up insane numbers on offense. They lead the nation in rushing offense, total offense and scoring offense, thanks in large part to their 66-point, 768-yard effort against Kansas last weekend. Georgia Tech’s option attack worked to near perfection, producing 604 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 50 carries. North Carolina, too, is 3–0, with wins at home over James Madison, Rutgers and Virginia. Bryn Renner, the Tar Heels’ first-year starter at quarterback, is completing an amazing 81.4 percent of his passes, but his TD-to-INT ratio of 5-to-4 must improve. UNC’s rushing defense, as usual, is stout, but Tech’s option will be very tough to slow down.
Georgia Tech 31, North Carolina 24
Notre Dame (-6.5) at Pittsburgh
The Irish are 0–2 in games in which they have totaled over 500 yards of offense and 1–0 in games in which they have less than 300 yards. The key: Limiting turnovers. In the losses to South Florida and Michigan, the Irish had a combined 10 turnovers, several in the red zone and several at inopportune times. They still turned it over three times in the win against Michigan State, but two of three were around midfield and the third was in the fourth quarter when the game was out of hand. Pittsburgh is in a fragile state emotionally after collapsing last week at Iowa. The Panthers led 27–10 in the fourth quarter but Iowa scored three times in the final 10 minutes to claim a 31–27 win.
Notre Dame 31, Pittsburgh 20
Vanderbilt (+16) at South Carolina
Vanderbilt’s 3–0 start has been fueled by its defense. Neither UConn nor Ole Miss — Vanderbilt’s last two victims — are very skilled on offense, but the Dores were downright dominant in both games. Those two teams averaged only 213.5 yards of offense and combined to score one offensive touchdown against Vanderbilt. The Commodores lead the nation with 10 interceptions and have scored on a pick-six in each of their first three games. The key against South Carolina is trying to find a way to keep Marcus Lattimore in check. He has been a beast in 2011, with an average of 29 carries and 178 yards in the Gamecocks’ three wins. Vanderbilt’s run defense has been stout, but the Dores have yet to see a back like Lattimore.
South Carolina 28, Vanderbilt 13
California (+1.5) at Washington
The Golden Bears are quietly off to a nice start in 2011, with wins over Fresno State, Colorado (on the road) and Presbyterian. Cal is getting solid play from quarterback Zach Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo, and the Bears feature one of the best unknown big-play threats in the nation in sophomore receiver Keenan Allen. Jeff Tedford’s club will look to attack a Washington defense that has really struggled in ’11. The Huskies rank 108th in total defense and 107th in scoring defense after giving up 27 points to Eastern Washington, 32 to Hawaii and 51 to Nebraska. The UW pass defense has been especially bad, allowing well over 300 yards per game. Look for Maynard and Allen to shine.
California 31, Washington 27
NC State (+7.5) at Cincinnati (Thu)
These two teams are both 2–1, with three of the four victims coming from the FCS ranks and the fourth, Akron, among the worst teams in the FBS. Both teams failed their only test, with Cincinnati losing at Tennessee, 45–23, and NC State losing at Wake Forest, 34–27. There is still a lot of football to be played, but with NC State struggling and Russell Wilson thriving at Wisconsin, Tom O’Brien’s decision to let Wilson walk isn’t going to sit well with most of the Wolfpack faithful.
Cincinnati 30, NC State 20
Last week — 5–5 (5–5 vs. spread)
Season — 18–12 (14–15–1 vs. spread)