By Mitch Light(@AthlonMitch)
Here are previews and predictions for the 10 best college football games this weekend.
Nebraska (+3.5) at Michigan
These two storied programs, who shared the national championship in 1997, meet for only the sixth time overall and for the first time in the regular season since 1962. Both teams are 4–2 in the Big Ten and one full game behind Michigan State in the Legends Division. Nebraska, however, is in much better shape due to its head-to-head win over MSU. The Huskers are coming off an emotional win at Penn State, in the first post-Joe Paterno game at Beaver Stadium. Now, they must refocus for their trip to the Big House. Michigan hasn’t been quite as potent on offense this season, but the defense has improved drastically in the first year of the Brady Hoke era. In 2010, the Wolverines gave up 34 points or more in seven of eight Big Ten games; this year, they’ve allowed 28 or less in all six games to date.
Michigan 24, Nebraska 17
USC (+15.5) at Oregon
Oregon played its way back into the national title picture with an impressive 53–30 win at previously unbeaten Stanford. The Ducks didn’t pile up a ton of yards (387), but they made enough big plays on offense, and the defense forced five turnovers. Oregon can secure the Pac-12 North title (and a spot as the host in the championship game) with a win this week vs. USC or in two weeks vs. Oregon State. The Trojans will provide the far bigger test. Led by quarterback Matt Barkley, the USC offense has scored 40 points or more in four of its last six games. Last Saturday, the Trojans beat a quality Washington team with ease, 40¬–17. Barkley & Co. figure to score some points, but Oregon is playing too well on offense to slip up.
Oregon 41, USC 30
Oklahoma (+15.5) at Baylor
Oklahoma, at 8–1 overall, is still in the national title picture, but the Sooners’ one loss looks worse and worse each week. Texas Tech has lost its three games since that shocking win in Norman by a combined score of 159–33. Oklahoma has won its two games since that loss in convincing fashion, 58–17 at Kansas State and 41–25 vs. Texas A&M. This is still an elite team. Baylor averted disaster last week by rallying from a 24¬–3 deficit at Kansas to win 31–30 in overtime. The Bears rank second nationally in total offense (567.9 ypg), but the defense has been an issue all season. Junior quarterback Robert Griffin III is one of the most talented players in the nation, but he slipped out of the Heisman race when Baylor lost three of its first four Big 12 games. OU’s Landry Jones, however, is near the top of Heisman list, and he will have an opportunity to put up big numbers in Waco this weekend.
Oklahoma 48, Baylor 30
Penn State (+7) at Ohio State
Both teams are coming off of losses, but the circumstances were far different. Penn State lost at home to Nebraska, 17–14, in the first game in Happy Valley without Joe Paterno on the staff since 1949. Ohio State, meanwhile, dropped a 26–23 decision in overtime to a Purdue team that had given up a total of 96 points in its two previous games. The Buckeyes lost a total of four Big Ten games from 2006-10 but already have three league losses in ‘11, and there are still two games remaining. The main problem in Columbus is the offense; true freshman Braxton Miller is showing signs of life, but this team simply doesn’t scare anyone in the passing game. The Buckeyes have thrown for 90 yards or fewer in three of six Big Ten games and have not topped the 150-yard passing mark in a league game once. Fortunately for Ohio State, Penn State has major issues on offense as well. Don’t expect many points.
Ohio State 17, Penn State 13
Kansas State (+9.5) at Texas
Collin Klein authored another thrilling chapter to what has been a magical junior season, running for five touchdowns and throwing for another in Kansas State’s 53–50, four-overtime win over visiting Texas A&M last week. The Wildcats, picked by most to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 standings, are now 8–2 overall and 5–2 in the league. They will be tested by a talented but unproven Texas team that is still searching for its first quality win. The Longhorns appeared to have hit their stride in recent weeks, but it turned out the wins over Kansas (43–0) and Texas Tech (52–0) were a bit of fool’s gold. Last weekend, they lost at Missouri, 17–5, to drop to 3–3 in the Big 12. UT managed only 247 total yards against a Mizzou defense that was torched for 686 yards the previous week by Baylor. Let that sink in for a moment.
Kansas State 24, Texas 20
California (+19) at Stanford
Stanford’s national title hopes ended last Saturday night, but the Cardinal are still in play for a BCS bowl. They will have to win their final two games, starting with the Big Game this Saturday at home. Stanford beat the Bears last season, 48–14, but Cal had previously won seven of eight in the series. The 2011 Bears have won three of their last four games, beating up on the weaker teams in the league (Utah, Washington State and Oregon State). Zach Maynard has been inconsistent at quarterback in his first season at Cal, but he has played well the past two weeks. Maynard will have to be mistake-free, and underrated tailback Isi Sofele will need to run the ball well to give Jeff Tedford’s club a chance. The Bears have played two teams currently ranked (Oregon and USC) and lost those games by a combined score of 73¬–22.
Stanford 38, California 17
Vanderbilt (-1.5) at Tennessee
Will he or won’t he? The big question in the state of Tennessee this week is whether sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray will play Saturday night when Vanderbilt visits Neyland Stadium — as the favorite. Bray returned to practice this week for the first time since breaking his hand on Oct. 8 vs. Georgia. Bray will almost certainly give it a go, but there is no way to know how effective he will be until he is forced to perform against a live defense. With two games still to play, Vanderbilt has already won more games this season (five) than the last two seasons combined (four). And there has been nothing fluky about the Dores’ 5–5 mark; in fact, Vanderbilt, with three SEC losses by five points or less, is a few plays away from being 7–3 or even 8–2. I’m not sure Vanderbilt has a better overall roster, but the Commodores are surely playing better than Tennessee at this point of the season.
Vanderbilt 27, Tennessee 23
Wisconsin (-14.5) at Illinois
Wisconsin trails Penn State by a game in the Leaders Division, but the Badgers, who host Penn State next weekend, control their own destiny. This week, they head to Champaign to face an Illinois team that has lost four straight and is dealing with the distractions about the job security of coach Ron Zook. The Fighting Illini are struggling on offense, having scored 14 points or less in all four of their losses. They will have to find some way to score some points this week because Wisconsin boasts one of the best, and most balanced, offenses in the nation. The Badgers are averaging 250.1 yards per game rushing and 248.9 yards per game passing. And by the way, UW is also ranked No. 5 in the nation in scoring defense. This is an elite team.
Wisconsin 38, Illinois 14
Cincinnati (-3.5) at Rutgers
With six of the eight teams in the Big East with either one loss (Cincinnati) or two losses (Louisville, WVU, Pitt, Rutgers, UConn), pretty much every game in the league is a big game. Cincinnati has played three straight games that have been decided by exactly three points, beating South Florida and Pitt and losing to West Virginia. The Bearcats will be without starting quarterback Zach Collaros, who is out for the remainder of the regular season with an ankle injury. In steps Munchie Legaux, a dual-threat quarterback from New Orleans who threw for 144 yards and ran for 77 after replacing Collaros last weekend. Rutgers, like UC, has played a bunch of close games this season, with five of its 10 games decided by three points or less.
Cincinnati 27, Rutgers 23
Arizona (+10.5) at Arizona State
Both teams are coming off troubling losses. Arizona lost badly (48–29) to a Colorado team that had lost its previous five Pac-12 games by an average of 38.2 points. Arizona State, meanwhile, missed a huge opportunity in its quest to wrap up a spot in the Pac-12 title game by losing at Washington State, 37–27. The Sun Devils are tied with UCLA at 4–3 in the league (USC is 5–2 but ineligible), but UCLA owns the tie-breaker. The Bruins, however, still have to play at USC (as well as vs. Colorado at home), while ASU hosts Arizona and California. The Sun Devils have the easier path. Now it’s time for this team to care of business.
Arizona State 34, Arizona 20
Last week — 7–3 (5-5 vs. spread)
Season — 72–36 (55–53–2 vs. spread)