By Mitch Light(@AthlonMitch)
Here are previews and predictions for the 10 best college football games this weekend.
Stanford (-8) at USC
Stanford owns the nation’s longest active winning streak at 15 games, and each of the last 10 wins have come by at least 25 points. The Cardinal are balanced on offense and dominant against the run on defense — a formula that will win any team a ton of games. USC is coming off arguably the finest showing of the brief Lane Kiffin era, a 31–17 win over Notre Dame in South Bend. The USC defense has climbed 18 spots in the national rankings in the last two weeks (from 61st to 43rd) after giving up 329 yards to Cal and 267 yards to Notre Dame in back-to-back wins. Stanford will be tested, but the Cardinal will do what they always seem to do — win by double digits.
Stanford 37, USC 23
Oklahoma (-13.5) at Kansas State
Oklahoma’s shocking loss at home to Texas Tech — the Sooners’ first defeat in Norman since 2005 — ruined Kansas State’s chances of hosting ESPN College GameDay this weekend. It’s still a big game in Manhattan, but it’s no longer a showdown of unbeaten teams. Kansas State did its part, shredding rival Kansas, 59–21, in Lawrence. Bill Snyder’s amazing Wildcats are now 7–0 overall and 4–0 in the Big 12. This team won’t wow you with its talent, but the Cats run the ball well, stop the run and don’t turn it over. In four Big 12 games, K-State has committed only two turnovers, one interception against Baylor and one against Missouri. The Wildcats won five straight in this series from 1993-97 but have only won one time since, a 35–7 beatdown in the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game.
Oklahoma 31, Kansas State 21
Georgia (-3) vs. Florida (at Jacksonville)
Georgia heads to Jacksonville riding a five-game winning streak and coming off a bye week. The Bulldogs are tied with South Carolina atop the SEC East but do not have the tiebreaker by virtue of their loss to the Gamecocks in early September. However, South Carolina is now without star tailback Marcus Lattimore and has a more difficult remaining schedule. So it’s safe to say that Georgia is now the team to beat in the East. But first things first: The Dawgs must get by a Florida team that they have defeated only three times in the past 21 games. This Gator club, however, could be the least imposing of the last two decades. The offense has issues — even if John Brantley is back at quarterback — and the defense has given up an average of 206.3 yards rushing in the last three games.
Georgia 27, Florida 17
Michigan State (+4) at Nebraska
Iowa and Michigan are still in the picture, but there’s a very good chance that the winner of the Michigan State-Nebraska battle in Lincoln will represent the Legends Division in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game. The Spartans must come down from the emotional high of their thrilling win over Wisconsin last weekend. On paper, this is a pretty good matchup for Michigan State. The Spartans are strong against the run, and Nebraska is obviously a team that thinks run first (and second). Taylor Martinez is improved as a passer — he has thrown for at least 150 yards in all but one game — but it’s still a good idea defensively to make Martinez beat you with his arm, not his legs. Here’s an odd stat that doesn’t mean much: Martinez has attempted either 21 or 22 passes in every game this season.
Nebraska 24, Michigan State 21
Clemson (-3.5) at Georgia Tech
Those of us waiting for Clemson to have a Clemson moment and lose to an inferior team when it’s least expected might be waiting for a long time. The 2011 Tigers seem to have a mental toughness that has been lacking in previous Clemson teams. There have been some issues on defense — the Tigers have given up a total of 83 points in the last two games — but the offense, loaded with playmakers, has been unstoppable. Georgia Tech raced out of the gate with six straight wins, but the Yellow Jackets have lost back-to-back games, falling 24–21 at Virginia and 24–7 at Miami (Fla.). The defense has been fine, but the usually potent option attack averaged only 253.5 total yards in the two losses. In their six wins, the Jackets are averaging 553.5 yards.
Clemson 34, Georgia Tech 27
Wisconsin (-7) at Ohio State
Not many people expected these two teams to be a combined 3–3 in the Big Ten at this point of the season. Ohio State is 1–2 thanks to an offense that is struggling to score points against quality competition. Wisconsin was considered by most to be a legitimate national title contender before losing last week at Michigan State on the final play of the game. This is still a very important game in the Leaders Division. Penn State sits atop the division with a 4–0 mark, but the Lions have a very difficult remaining schedule and will have a hard time holding on to the lead. Wisconsin, if it can find a way to win at Ohio State, will be the overwhelming favorite to win the division.
Wisconsin 21, Ohio State 17
Baylor (+14) at Oklahoma State
Now the pressure beings to mount for Oklahoma State. Nothing is guaranteed, but the Cowboys, up to No. 3 in the latest BCS rankings, could very well play for the national championship if they keep on winning. And beginning with this Saturday, three of the Pokes’ most difficult games — Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma — will be played in Stillwater. Baylor has proven to be one of the top offensive teams in the nation, but the Bears struggled on defense against the better teams on the schedule. They gave up 36 points in a loss to Kansas State and 55 in last week’s loss at Texas A&M. It’s tough to envision this group slowing down Oklahoma State enough to win this game.
Oklahoma State 51, Baylor 31
South Carolina (-4) at Tennessee
South Carolina has issues of its own — most notably the absence of its best offensive player, Marcus Lattimore — but Tennessee is a mess right now. The Vols are 0–4 in league play, have lost each of their last two games by 31 points and will be sending out a true freshman at quarterback this weekend. Justin Worley, a South Carolina native who has yet to attempt a pass and has only played in one game, has replaced senior Matt Simms — who replaced the injured Tyler Bray. The Vols would like to rely on their running game, but they rank 115th in the nation in rushing (though they have run the ball better of late) and will be facing a Gamecock defense that specializes in stopping the run. Tennessee is at home, where it has an 8–1 record vs. South Carolina since the Gamecocks joined the SEC, but this doesn’t look like a favorable matchup for Derek Dooley’s club.
South Carolina 28, Tennessee 17
Illinois (+4.5) at Penn State
About a month ago, I threw out the possibility that Illinois, with its relatively soft Big Ten schedule, could run the table. I was wrong. The Illini have lost two in a row, 17–7 at home vs. Ohio State and 21–14 at Purdue. After scoring a total of 79 points in its first two league games, Illinois has managed only 21 the last two weeks. Not a good sign with Penn State on the schedule next. The Nittany Lions have their issues on offense, but they have been consistently strong on defense en route to a 7–1 start. They’ve held six of eight opponents to 18 points or less and four of those six to 10 points or less. The offense has shown some signs of life in recent weeks, scoring 18 vs. Purdue and 24 vs. Northwestern. Penn State might only need 17 points to win this game.
Penn State 17, Illinois 10
Wake Forest (+7) at North Carolina
Wake Forest, which is 4–1 in the ACC, is a seven-point underdog at North Carolina, which is 1–3 in the ACC. The Heels’ schedule might have been a bit more difficult, but there is nothing on their resume that suggests they should be a touchdown favorite. Wake averted disaster last week, coming from behind to beat Duke after squandering a 17–0 lead. Tanner Price has been consistent at quarterback for the Deacons, throwing between 200 and 300 yards in all seven games, and he has 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions. The running game should get a boost with the return of Josh Harris from a hamstring injury.
Wake Forest 24, North Carolina 21
Last week — 8–2 (6–4 vs. spread)
Season — 54–26 (43–36–1 vs. spread)