By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Here are previews and predictions for the 10 best college football games this weekend.
Oklahoma (-3.5) at Florida State
There’s a school of thought — which we at Athlon Sports subscribe to — that the winner of this early season non-conference clash will end up playing Alabama in the national championship game. Both teams have looked sharp in the early going, but it must be noted that Florida State has played arguably the softest schedule of any top-25 team, beating Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern by a combined score of 96–10. The key for Florida State will be its ability to move the all on the ground on an OU defense that was mediocre against the run last year and showed some vulnerability in its season-opening win against Tulsa. Oklahoma has tremendous weapons on offense, and has the ability to be dominant through the air and on the ground. This should be a classic.
Florida State 31, Oklahoma 27
LSU (-3) at Mississippi State (Thu)
A bit of the shine was removed from this Thursday night showdown with Mississippi State’s loss at Auburn, but it’s still a huge game in the SEC West. The Bulldogs can’t afford an 0–2 start in league play if they plan on being a factor in the division race. LSU took care of business on Saturday against FCS foe Northwestern State, cruising to a 49–3 win its home-opener. Expect the Tigers to lean heavily on their running game, especially after Auburn gashed Mississippi State for 235 yards on 36 carries Saturday afternoon.
LSU 24, Mississippi State 17
Tennessee (+9.5) at Florida
You can make a strong case that Tennessee boasts the nation’s best quarterback/two-receiver combo, with Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers — all sophomores. Through two games, Bray has completed 78.5 percent of his passes for 698 yards with seven touchdowns and no INTs. Hunter and Rogers have combined for 502 yards and five touchdowns on 31 receptions. Florida has been dominant in wins over FAU (41–3) and UAB (39–0), but the new-look offense is about to face a different caliber of athletes this week. Tennessee has some issues on the front seven — mainly a lack of depth — but the Vols’ secondary is solid. We’ll know far more about the Will Muschamp/Charlie Weis era at Florida by Saturday evening.
Florida 34, Tennessee 24
Arizona State (+1.5) at Illinois
This has the chance to be one of the best games of the day, and it features two of the nation’s most underrated quarterbacks — Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler and Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase. Arizona State is fresh off of an emotional, nationally televised overtime win over Missouri on Friday night. Now, the Sun Devils have another opportunity to make a statement, this time against a team that could surprise in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Illinois is very solid at the quarterback position and features a veteran offensive line that will open plenty of holes for senior tailback Jason Ford. This game won’t impact either team’s chances in their respective leagues, but it will go a long way in determining their postseason destinations.
Illinois 21, Arizona State 14
Ohio State (+2.5) at Miami (Fla.)
Expect a lot of the focus to be on each school’s respective off-the-field issues with the NCAA — and rightfully so. Ohio State is playing with an interim head coach (Luke Fickell) and a lineup that is lacking some of its best playmakers due to suspension. We are still in the early stages of the mess at Miami, but the Canes do have one thing working in their favor — the return of starting quarterback Jacory Harris (though some UM fans might argue that is not such a good thing). Harris was picked off four times in last season’s 36–24 loss to Ohio State in Columbus. He is capable of being a brilliant playmaker — but he’s also capable of making some very bad decisions. He will have to be at his best for the Canes to win.
Ohio State 20, Miami 17
Michigan State (+4.5) at Notre Dame
Notre Dame is 0–2 despite rolling up over 500 yards of offense in each of its first two games. The Irish have yet to win due to their inability to protect the ball (10 turnovers in two games) and because their defense allowed Michigan to march 58 yards and 80 yards for touchdowns in the final 2:16 of Saturday night’s epic game in Ann Arbor. Michigan State is coming off an astoundingly lopsided 44–0 win over a very bad Florida Atlantic team. The Spartans allowed only 48 yards of total offense and gave up only one first down — for the entire game. MSU, now 2–0, will be tested for the first time this season when it heads to South Bend. The Spartans had won six straight at ND before losing, 33–30, two years ago. This one is tough to call, but at some point the ball has to bounce Notre Dame’s way.
Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 21
Auburn (+3) at Clemson
I think it’s safe to say that no defending national champion has ever been an underdog in two of its first three games in the ensuing season. Auburn edged Mississippi State last week, 41–34, despite giving up 198 yards in the air and 333 yards on the ground. Through two games — both at home — the Tigers rank 111th in the nation in total defense and 118th in rushing defense. Now, they hit the road for the first time against a Clemson team that struggled with — but still beat — Troy (CU trailed 16-13 at the half before pulling away) and Wofford (35–27). Expect Clemson to lean heavily on tailback Andre Ellington, who is averaging 127 yards rushing. It’s always dangerous to pick against Auburn — so I won't.
Auburn 34, Clemson 28
West Virginia (+1.5) at Maryland
West Virginia has been a slow starter in 2011, with a total of three points in the first quarter of wins over Marshall and Norfolk State. Dana Holgorsen needs to find a way to get his team going a bit earlier now that the schedule is more difficult, starting with this week’s trip to Maryland. The Terps looked very good, especially on offense, in a Week 1 win over Miami (Fla.). Danny O’Brien was terrific at quarterback, completing 31-of-44 attempts for 348 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Florida State is clearly the team to beat in the ACC Atlantic Division, but don’t be surprised if Maryland remains in the race all season.
Maryland 31, West Virginia 27
Pittsburgh (+3) at Iowa
Pittsburgh is a rather soft 2–0 under first-year coach Todd Graham, with a 35–16 win over Buffalo and a 35–29 win over FCS opponent Maine. Graham’s teams at Tulsa were among the most explosive in the nation, but that has yet to translate at Pittsburgh — despite the inferior competition. Iowa must bounce back from a heartbreaking 44–41 triple-overtime loss at rival Iowa State. The Hawkeyes led five different times during the game but couldn’t stop ISU when it mattered. This is still a solid team that should be balanced on offense with James Vanderberg at quarterback and Marcus Coker at tailback.
Iowa 31, Pittsburgh 24
Utah (+3.5) at BYU
The road team hasn’t won in this series since 2006, when BYU edged Utah 33–31 in Salt Lake City. BYU has only scored one offensive touchdown this season, but the Cougs have played at Ole Miss and at Texas. Utah, too, has been sluggish on offense, scoring 27 points in the opener against Montana State and 14 last week at USC. The Utes will need a big game from junior college transfer John White, who is emerging as their primary ball-carrier.
BYU 24, Utah 20
Last week — 6–4 (2–7–1 vs. spread)
Season — 13–7 (9–10–1 vs. spread)