By Mitch Light(@AthlonMitch)
Here are previews and predictions for the 10 best college football games this weekend.
Nebraska (+9) at Wisconsin
It’s a likely preview of the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game as Nebraska invades Madison for the first time since 1974. Neither team has been forced to break much of a sweat en route to their respective 4–0 records, though Nebraska did have a bit of a challenge two weeks ago against Washington. Wisconsin has been outstanding on both sides of the football in the early going, ranking No. 8 in the nation in total offense and No. 7 in total defense. Quarterback Russell Wilson, a transfer from NC State, could be the missing piece in a national title run for the Badgers. This team, on paper, has very few weaknesses.
Wisconsin 28, Nebraska 21
Alabama (-3.5) at Florida
Alabama has been tested twice this season, and Nick Saban’s club has passed each test with ease, beating Penn State 27–11 in Happy Valley and dismantling Arkansas, 38–14, last weekend in Tuscaloosa. Now, it’s a trip to Gainesville to face a Florida team that has cruised to a 4–0 record with an average margin of victory of 31.3 points per game. Florida has been living off the big play, with running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps doing most of the damage. Big plays, however, are tough to come by against Alabama — Arkansas had just one that went for more than 19 yards on Saturday. The key for the Alabama offense is to get a lead early so it can lean on its running game and not put quarterback AJ McCarron in a position where he has to make plays to win the game. Not saying he can’t do it, but Saban would feel much more comfortable with the ball in the hands of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.
Alabama 24, Florida 17
Texas A&M (-3) vs. Arkansas
The third annual Southwest Classic pits two teams who must rebound from very disappointing performances last weekend. Arkansas proved to be no match for powerful Alabama in a 38–14 loss in Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, Texas A&M jumped out to a 20–3 lead against Oklahoma State in College Station, but the Pokes responded with 27 straight points in the second half to hand the Aggies a painful 30–29 loss. Both teams are explosive on offense, with a ton of talent at the skill positions. The key for Arkansas will be finding some balance; against Alabama, Ronnie Wingo Jr. ran for only 35 yards on 11 carries. The Hogs will have to be better in the running game to remain a threat in the SEC West.
Arkansas 34, Texas A&M 30
Clemson (+7) at Virginia Tech
Clemson, off to a 4–0 start, has been one of the most impressive teams in the nation. The Tigers are averaging 37.8 points per game, led by first-year starting quarterback Tajh Boyd and an outstanding set of skill-position players. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is emerging as one of the elite true freshmen in the nation, averaging 7.3 receptions and 108.3 receiving yards per game. Now, it’s time to see if Clemson can take its show on the road. Virginia Tech has been good, but not great, en route to its 4–0 start. The offense is leaning heavily on tailback David Wilson, who is seventh in the nation in rushing at 129.0 yards per game. The defense has put up very good numbers against a soft schedule. We’ll find out a lot more about Bud Foster’s group this weekend.
Virginia Tech 22, Clemson 17
Auburn (+9.5) at South Carolina
Auburn gave up an average of 534.3 yards in its first three games, but the most alarming stat so far this season might be the 307 yards the Tigers allowed to FAU in last weekend’s 30–14 Auburn win. Prior to Saturday, the Owls had a total of 185 in their first two games, lopsided losses at Florida and Michigan State. The AU defense has serious issues. South Carolina, however, isn’t quite right on offense, despite the presence of a fifth-year senior quarterback (Stephen Garcia) and elite talent at running back (Marcus Lattimore) and receiver (Alshon Jeffery). In Saturday’s 21–3 win vs. Vanderbilt, Garcia was picked off four times and Lattimore was held to 77 yards on 20 carries. Steve Spurrier, to no one’s surprise, is not happy with the play of his team’s offense. The Gamecocks will have a great opportunity to get back on track this week.
South Carolina 37, Auburn 27
Baylor (-3.5) at Kansas State
It kind of flew under the national radar, but Kansas State picked up a very impressive road win over the weekend, edging Miami (Fla.) 28–24 on the strength of a brilliant goal line stand. The Hurricanes had a 1st-and-goal at the K-State 2-yard line with 1:52 remaining but failed to score on four straight plays, the last of which ended with quarterback Jacory Harris being tackled inside the 1-yard line. The Wildcats, now 3–0, return home with a ton of confidence to face a Baylor team that is also 3–0. The Bears rolled past Rice, 56–31, on Saturday and have won their three games by a combined score of 154–79. The stat of the year so far: Robert Griffin III has more touchdown passes (13) than incomplete passes (12). That won’t continue, but the Bears’ winning ways should.
Baylor 30, Kansas State 27
Mississippi State (+6.5) at Georgia
You would never know it because of all of the talk about Mark Richt’s job security, but Georgia is actually playing pretty decent football. The Dawgs are 2–2, with the losses coming to Boise State and South Carolina, two teams ranked in the top 10 in the AP top 25. Aaron Murray is playing extremely well at quarterback, and freshman Isaiah Crowell is emerging as a reliable every down back. Mississippi State is in a bit of a funk. There is no shame in losing at home to LSU, but it had to be a bit troubling that West Virginia rolled up 543 yards of offense against LSU one week after MSU managed only 192 in a 17–6 loss to the Tigers. Then, Dan Mullen’s club avoided disaster by surviving in overtime against a mediocre (at best) Louisiana Tech team.
Georgia 28, Mississippi State 20
Northwestern (+8) at Illinois
Dan Persa is scheduled to make his 2011 debut — and that is a very good thing for the Northwestern offense. Persa has missed the first three games of the season while recovering from an Achilles injury sustained late last season. You can make a strong case that no player in the country meant more to his team than Persa did to the Wildcats last season. Illinois remained unbeaten with a tougher-than-expected 23–20 win at home vs. Western Michigan last week. The Illini have a relatively soft Big Ten schedule and some people have thrown out the possibility that Ron Zook’s club could run the table in the regular season.
Illinois 31, Northwestern 24
Michigan State (+3) at Ohio State
This game had the potential to be huge — a possible Big Ten title game preview. But with Ohio State’s relative struggles coupled with Michigan State’s disappointing showing at Notre Dame two weeks ago, this has clearly taken a backseat to the Nebraska vs. Wisconsin epic clash in Madison. It’s tough to get an accurate read on Michigan State. The Spartans have dominated three very weak opponents (Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan) and got beat handily by the one solid team they have faced (Notre Dame). Ohio State has issues on offense (despite its 37-point effort against Colorado). The Buckeyes are starting a true freshman quarterback in Braxton Miller who will have to deal with a Michigan State defense that is solid on all three levels.
Michigan State 21, Ohio State 10
Washington (+7.5) at Utah
Keith Price isn’t getting a lot of attention nationally, but Jake Locker’s replacement at Washington is off to a great start. In his first season as the starter, Price has guided the Huskies to a 3–1 start, with the only loss coming in a 51–38 decision at Nebraska in a game in which he threw for 274 yards and four touchdowns. For the season, Price has completed 75-of-112 passes (67.0 percent) for 983 yards with 14 touchdowns (the most in the nation) and only three interceptions. Those numbers are good enough to rank him No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 9 in the nation with a passing efficiency rating of 176.58. Utah has had two weeks to celebrate its surprisingly easy 54–10 win over BYU in the Holy War. The Utes have nice balance on offense with Jordan Wynn at quarterback and junior college transfer John White emerging as the primary ball-carrier. The defense, as usual, is solid.
Utah 28, Washington 27
Last week — 7–3 (4–6 vs. spread)
Season — 25–15 (18–21–1 vs. spread)