By Mitch Light(@AthlonMitch)
Here are previews and predictions for the 10 best college football games this weekend.
LSU (+5) at Alabama
It’s the most anticipated regular-season game of the BCS era. It’s LSU and Alabama — the top two teams in every poll — in prime time on Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Both teams are 8–0 overall and 5–0 in the SEC, and both teams are dominant on defense and highly efficient on offense. So who wins? Well, it likely will come down to which team makes fewer mistakes. Neither offense figures to have much success driving the length of the field, so the team that can force a turnover and create a short field will put itself in great position. LSU has been better than Alabama at both forcing turnovers (18 to 14) and not turning it over (3 to 8). The Crimson Tide, however, have been better, at least statistically, on both offense and defense. I’ll go with the home team and the (slightly) better defense.
Alabama 24, LSU 17
Missouri (+2.5) at Baylor
Missouri broke through with its first big win of the season, rallying from 11 points down in the second half to beat Texas A&M, 38–31, in overtime at Kyle Field. The Tigers feature two of the more unheralded skill position players in the nation — dual-threat quarterback James Franklin and tailback Henry Josey. This dynamic duo should put up big numbers against a Baylor defense that has given up a total of 114 points and 1,281 yards the past two weeks in losses at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. Baylor, too, can move the football, but yards haven’t been translating into big numbers on the scoreboard in recent weeks. Baylor averaged only 26 points against A&M and O-State despite rolling up 1,102 total yards. This one will be highly entertaining.
Missouri 41, Baylor 38
Kansas State (+20) at Oklahoma State
Kansas State’s dream season hit its first speed bump — and it was quite large. The Wildcats, who were 7–0 and had climbed to No. 10 in the AP poll, dropped a 58–17 decision at home to Oklahoma. K-State’s usually stout defense gave up 690 yards to Oklahoma, dropping from 29th in the nation to 60th in just one week. The Cats are in for another huge challenge this week. Oklahoma State ranks second in the nation in scoring offense (49.8 ppg) and fourth in total offense (553.1 ypg). The Pokes give up plenty of yards — over 450 per game — but they are only allowing 26.2 points in Big 12 action. It’s tough to see K-State doing enough on offense to keep this close.
Oklahoma State 41, Kansas State 21
South Carolina (+5) at Arkansas
South Carolina controls its own destiny in the SEC East, but the Gamecocks still have several hurdles to climb before they can plan a return visit to the Georgia Dome. This trip to Arkansas figures to be a significant challenge. The Hogs have struggled in recent weeks, beating Ole Miss and Vanderbilt by a combined eight points, but this is still a very talented team that boasts one of the nation’s top passing offenses. On paper, however, this looks to be a decent matchup for South Carolina. The Gamecocks, even without Marcus Lattimore, are leaning heavily on their running attack, and Arkansas has trouble stopping the run. The Hogs gave up 222 yards on the ground last week to Vanderbilt and allowed 381 to Texas A&M and 291 to Auburn. Getting off to a quick start will once again be a focus for Arkansas; the Hogs trailed Vanderbilt 21–14 at the half last week and trailed Ole Miss 17–7 at the break the week before.
Arkansas 27, South Carolina 17
Oregon (+16.5) at Washington
The Ducks are 5–0 in league play but are about to face their three most difficult Pac-12 opponents — Washington, Stanford and USC. The burning question in Eugene is who will be taking the snaps this week for Oregon — Darron Thomas or Bryan Bennett? Chip Kelly benched Thomas in the Ducks’ win over Washington State last week and isn’t revealing the starter for the trip to Seattle. There are no such issues at quarterback for Washington, though Keith Price wasn’t at his best last week vs. Arizona. The sophomore threw only five interceptions in his first seven games but was picked off three times by the Wildcats. Still, he is clearly the man in charge of the UW attack that has scored 30 points or more in all but one game this season.
Oregon 34, Washington 31
Texas A&M (+13.5) at Oklahoma
Texas A&M has been arguably the biggest disappointment in the nation this season. The Aggies are 5–3 overall and held a double-digit lead in the second half of each loss. Scoring points hasn’t been the problem — A&M ranks 12th in the nation in scoring. Getting stops in key moments is what has plagued this team. That, obviously, will have to change if the Aggies have any hope of winning in Norman. Oklahoma laid an egg two weeks ago at home to Texas Tech but bounced back in fine fashion, drilling previously undefeated Kansas State, 58–17, in Manhattan. Sooner quarterback Landry Jones has been on a tear and figures to put up big numbers on the A&M defense.
Oklahoma 38, Texas A&M 24
Arizona State (-9) at UCLA
UCLA is 4–4 overall and has lost its last three games by an average of 30.3 points. The Bruins gave up 254 yard rushing to a team (Arizona) that was averaging 71.8 yards on the ground. They don’t have a win vs. a team with a winning record. Yet, UCLA finds itself still very much alive in the Pac-12 South Division. The Bruins, at 3–2 in the league, are tied with USC, which is ineligible for the title, and one game behind an Arizona State team that visits the Rose Bowl this weekend. How convenient: Win and the Bruins will be tied for the South lead and own the all-important tie-breaker with the Sun Devils. That, however, will be very tough to do. Arizona State is 6–2 overall, highlighted by wins over USC and Missouri. The Sun Devils are known for their defense, but the offense, at least statistically, has been better in 2011. Led by quarterback Brock Osweiler, ASU is averaging 35.9 points and 438.8 yards per game.
Arizona State 27, UCLA 20
Michigan (-4) at Iowa
We all know the transitive property doesn’t work too well in sports, but let’s take a look at how both of these teams fared against Minnesota. Michigan beat the Gophers 58–0. Iowa lost to the Gophers 22–21. So, do we think the Wolverines are going to win by 59 points? Not likely, but Michigan should win the game — even on the road. The Wolverines are 7–1 overall, with the lone loss coming at Michigan State. The schedule hasn’t been overly taxing — Nebraska and Ohio State still loom — but Michigan is improved on the defense end, ranking 35th in the nation in total defense (340.6 ypg) and seventh in scoring defense (15.3 ppg). Iowa must regroup after the stunning loss at Minnesota. The Hawkeyes got a huge game from Marcus Coker (252 yards on 32 carries), but they managed only 21 points against a Minnesota team that gave up an average of 48 points in its first three Big Ten games.
Michigan 27, Iowa 21
Cincinnati (-2.5) at Pittsburgh
Things are going much better in Year 2 for Butch Jones at Cincinnati. After winning back-to-back Big East titles under Brian Kelly, the Bearcats slumped 2–5 in the league and 4–8 overall in ’10, Jones’ first season as the head coach. Turnovers were the main issue; UC ranked 119th in the nation in turnover margin one season after ranking 13th. Well, the Bearcats are winning the turnover battle this season, currently ranking third nationally with plus-1.86 per game. Pittsburgh is 4–4 overall but just 2–4 vs. team from BCS conferences. The Panthers were dealt a big blow last week when Ray Graham, who was 10th in the nation in rushing, was lost for the season with an injury. Former Wisconsin Badger Zach Brown will step in as the starting tailback for Pittsburgh, but the offense will not be the same without Graham.
Cincinnati 28, Pittsburgh 17
Note Dame (-14) at Wake Forest
Notre Dame bounced back from a difficult loss to USC with a very impressive win (56–14) over a Navy team that had defeated the Irish in its last two trips to South Bend. Now, ND heads to Winston-Salem for the first-ever meeting between these two schools. Wake has struggled in recent weeks. After jumping out to a 4–1 record, the Deacons have lost two of three, with the only win coming by one point at Duke. Quarterback Tanner Price had his worst game of the season in last week’s 49–24 loss to North Carolina, throwing for a season-low 146 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions. With starting tailback Josh Harris expected to be out again (hamstring), the Deacs will need Price to be at his best.
Notre Dame 35, Wake Forest 22
Last week — 7-3 (3-6-1 vs. spread)
Season — 61-29 (46-42-2 vs. spread)