By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 10
1. The much-anticipated Alabama-LSU matchup is finally here. These two teams have been college football’s best teams through the first nine weeks and now they finally get a chance to settle it on the field. Alabama and LSU are nearly mirror images of each other. Both teams want to win with defense, while leaning heavily on the rushing attack on offense. With so much emphasis on stopping the run, the quarterbacks are going to have to make plays. Alabama’s AJ McCarron and LSU’s Jarrett Lee have been solid this year and will need to be once again on Saturday night. Whichever quarterback is able to avoid the big turnover and efficiently distribute the ball could decide the game. Points and yardage are expected to be at a premium, so a score on defense or special teams will be huge. Just how good has Alabama’s defense been in October? The Crimson Tide has not allowed a point in the second half of its last four games. And only one opponent (Arkansas) has managed more than 14 points on this defense in 2011. LSU isn’t far behind, as despite allowing 27 points to Oregon and 21 to West Virginia, the Tigers are giving up only 11.5 points a game. Will either team generate much offense? Will Jordan Jefferson play a key role for LSU? There’s a lot of questions on how this game will play out, but all signs point to this one living up to the hype of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. Alabama lost at LSU last season, but has won two out of the last three. Considering this game is in Tuscaloosa, it’s hard to pick against the Crimson Tide.
2. There’s no doubt the main course on Saturday will be LSU at Alabama. However, Oregon-Washington should be a good late-night dessert for college football fans. The Ducks trail in the all-time series to the Huskies, but have won the last seven matchups. With a game at Stanford next Saturday, this matchup in Seattle screams trap game for Oregon. The big question on Saturday night will be the health of Ducks’ quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James. Both players returned to action last week, but neither posted their normal stat line. If Oregon’s dynamic duo is healthy, they should have no trouble moving the ball on the Huskies, a defense that is allowing 33.4 points a game. However, Washington won’t be a pushover, especially with its offense. Quarterback Keith Price is having a solid season, while running back Chris Polk ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards per game. There should be no shortage of points scored in this one, but the Ducks have to be very, very careful to avoid a letdown in Seattle.
3. Despite losing to Texas Tech on Oct. 22, Oklahoma is very much alive in the national title picture. The Sooners jumped back into the No. 6 spot in the BCS standings this week, and there’s enough moving pieces in the top five to suggest getting back to No. 2 is a strong possibility. However, Oklahoma cannot afford another loss. Texas A&M visits Norman, which will be the last meeting between these two teams for the foreseeable future, as the Aggies are moving to the SEC for 2012. There’s a major mismatch shaping up between Oklahoma’s offense and Texas A&M’s secondary. The Sooners are averaging 396.63 passing yards per game, while the Aggies rank last in the nation at stopping the pass. Texas A&M’s best chance to win revolves around getting running backs Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray on track, while controlling the clock and keeping the Sooners’ offense on the sideline. With the national title still within reach, Oklahoma should have plenty of motivation to take care of the Aggies.
4. With LSU-Alabama taking center stage in the SEC, the other top-10 matchup between Arkansas and South Carolina has gone mostly unnoticed all week. However, there’s a lot on the line between these two teams. The Gamecocks are still in control of the SEC East, but a loss to the Razorbacks would put Georgia in the driver’s seat. Arkansas is also still holding on to slim hopes in the West. South Carolina’s offense suffered a major blow with the loss of running back Marcus Lattimore in the win over Mississippi State. Freshman Brandon Wilds filled in admirably against Tennessee, posting 137 yards on 28 attempts. With quarterback Connor Shaw still settling into the starter’s role and no Lattimore, the Gamecocks are going to have to win with their defense. The Razorbacks will test South Carolina’s secondary with the No. 1 passing attack in the SEC, and an offense that’s averaging 36.9 points a game. If the Gamecocks get behind early, it may be too much to overcome against one of the SEC’s best offenses.
5. Even though Iowa is coming off a head-scratching defeat to lowly Minnesota, the Hawkeyes still have a shot to win the Legends Division. With games against Michigan State, Nebraska and Michigan remaining, Iowa can play its way into the division crown. The Wolverines visit Iowa City on Saturday, and they need a win to keep pace with the Spartans and Cornhuskers in the division. Was last week’s loss to the Golden Gophers a sign of things to come for Iowa? Or will the Hawkeyes bounce back with a big victory? Michigan’s offense may have found its go-to running back last week, as Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns. Iowa’s defense has been surprisingly questionable all year, ranking eighth or worse in the conference in rush, pass, total and scoring defense. Unless Iowa’s defense can answer the bell this Saturday, the Wolverines should leave Kinnick Stadium with a victory. And significantly damage the Hawkeyes’ division title hopes in the process.
6. Vanderbilt’s last victory over Florida came in 1988 and its last win in Gainesville was in 1982. Can the Commodores snap a 20-game losing streak to the Gators? Don’t be surprised if this one is much closer than the recent final scores in this series. Vanderbilt’s offense has found a spark behind quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy. The Commodores have scored 28 or more points in their last three games, but have managed only three points in SEC road games this year. The Gators are riding a four-game losing streak and desperately need two more wins just to make a bowl. Quarterback John Brantley returned to the lineup against Georgia, but the Gators finished with only 226 yards of total offense. Considering Florida’s struggles in October, this one is worth monitoring as a potential upset on Saturday.
7. Oklahoma State is firmly in the driver’s seat for a spot in the national title. Can the Cowboys continue to handle the expectations? So far, Oklahoma State is showing no signs of slowing down. The Cowboys take on Kansas State this Saturday, who suffered its first loss of this season last week. The Wildcats are allowing only 24.5 points a game, but was torched by the Sooners’ passing attack last week. No defense has found an answer for Oklahoma State’s offense and its unlikely Kansas State will be able to. The Wildcats’ best chance to win rests with a ball control attack and keeping Cowboys’ quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon off the field. Oklahoma State’s defense is allowing 455.6 yards per game, but has forced 29 turnovers. Unless the Wildcats can dominate the time of possession, the Cowboys should cruise to 9-0 and keep a national title berth squarely in the crosshairs.
8. There are a lot of interesting dynamics surrounding the North Carolina-NC State game this Saturday, especially when it comes to the coaches. Tom O’Brien is 29-29 in his fifth season with the Wolfpack, while interim coach Everett Withers has directed the Tar Heels to a 6-3 record. Withers has no guarantee he will return in 2012, while O’Brien is on the hot seat. However, NC State has dominated North Carolina during O’Brien’s tenure, winning all four matchups. Will that streak continue in 2011? The two coaches have already traded barbs this week, adding a little spice to Saturday's game. The Wolfpack has been hit hard by injuries, especially on defense where they rank 82nd nationally in points allowed. The Tar Heels are led by youth on offense, starting at quarterback with sophomore Bryn Renner and redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard. O’Brien will have his team ready to play and a win in this matchup would be huge for NC State. The Wolfpack still need three wins to get bowl eligible, and a loss to North Carolina will raise the frustration from the fanbase about the direction of the program under O’Brien.
9. Good luck trying to sort out the Big East title picture. Despite this Saturday being the first in November, there’s very little clarity. Cincinnati and West Virginia seem to be the favorites, but no team can be counted out of the conference race. However, things should become clearer after this Saturday, as Cincinnati plays at Pittsburgh, West Virginia hosts Louisville and South Florida travels to Rutgers. The Bulls started out the year as one of the favorites, but slipped back to pack with a three-game losing streak. The loser of the South Florida-Rutgers game figures to be off the radar for the conference title. The Cardinals - thanks to back-to-back wins - are starting to make a climb in the standings. And a victory in Morgantown would only help their chances to make a claim for the No. 1 spot. The Panthers are short-handed without running back Ray Graham, but the Bearcats will get all they can handle from Todd Graham’s bunch. Assuming the Bearcats and Mountaineers win this week, next Saturday’s matchup between these two teams should be one of the must-see games for Week 11. With a lot of uncertainty, it's going to be interesting to see how the Big East race unfolds over the final five weeks of action.
10. Missouri has played one of the toughest schedules in the nation so far this year. The Tigers are a much better team than their 4-4 record indicates, with close losses to Arizona State, Oklahoma and Kansas State. Last week’s win at Texas A&M should give Missouri some much-needed momentum for the final four games. On the other side, Baylor has lost two out of its last three and has suffered blowout losses to Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. Neither team is going to win the Big 12 title, but both need two more victories to get bowl eligible. Baylor’s defense has struggled in the first year under coordinator Phil Bennett, ranking 108th nationally in yardage allowed. Missouri is one of the most balanced teams in the nation, averaging 243.9 rushing yards a game and 246.4 through the air. Although both teams are going to score plenty of points, whichever defense can get stops will be the difference in this game. Containing Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin is nearly impossible, but that’s the task for Missouri if it wants to move to 5-4 this season.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 10 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Alabama 24, LSU 20
Missouri 38, Baylor 34
Oklahoma State 45, Kansas State 27
Arkansas 27, South Carolina 17
Oregon 44, Washington 34
Oklahoma 48, Texas A&M 27
Arizona State 34, UCLA 24
Cincinnati 31, Pittsburgh 20
Notre Dame 34, Wake Forest 17
Michigan 27, Iowa 20
North Carolina 31, NC State 27
West Virginia 34, Louisville 20
Florida 24, Vanderbilt 17
Texas 34, Texas Tech 27
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
South Florida (-1) at Rutgers
The Bulls enter Week 10 desperate for a victory. With three losses in a row, South Florida still needs two wins to get bowl eligible. However, after losing back-to-back games, the Scarlet Knights are also hungry for a win. What does it mean? This game is essentially a coin flip.
Virginia at Maryland (-2.5)
The Cavaliers scored an impressive road victory at Miami last week, while Maryland lost at home to Boston College. With that in mind, this game feels like is a matchup of two teams headed in the opposite directions.
Syracuse at Connecticut (-3.5)
The Paul Pasqualoni Bowl. Even though the Orange is coming off a loss to Louisville, the Huskies still have major offensive question marks.
North Carolina (-3.5) at NC State
Tom O’Brien seems to have North Carolina’s number, as the Wolfpack have won the last four in this series.
Vanderbilt at Florida (-11)
The Gators have more talent than their 4-4 record indicates, but it’s not showing up on the field this year. The Commodores are a much-improved team under first-year coach James Franklin and will give the Gators all they can handle.
Missouri at Baylor (-2.5)
Last week’s win over Texas A&M should help the Tigers build some confidence for the rest of the year. The Bears have one of the nation’s best offenses, but the defense will have its hands full trying to stop Missouri quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey. And if this game comes down to a defensive stand, I trust the Tigers more than Baylor.
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 10
Oklahoma is expected to get center Ben Habern and cornerback Jamell Fleming back in the lineup this week.
Freshman quarterback Gary Nova has made some mistakes, but he's still Rutgers' starting quarterback.
Arizona State is inching closer to locking down a spot in the first Pac-12 title game.
Should BYU join the Big East? Here are 10 reasons that suggest the Cougars are a good fit in the remodeled conference.
Kentucky could have a new starting quarterback for Saturday's game against Ole Miss.
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson knew he had a major rebuilding job ahead of him this year, but the Hoosiers are down three key playmakers.
With running back Ray Graham out for the rest of the year, Pittsburgh will have to lean even more on quarterback Tino Sunseri.
Kansas coach Turner Gill continues to search for answers. Barring an upset, the Jayhawks will likely finish without a win in Big 12 play.
Back-to-back wins may have saved Ohio State's season.
Vanderbilt's offensive line has made big progress this year.
Colorado coach Jon Embree is vowing to get rid of any complacent players.
Is Kirk Ferentz's way still working for Iowa?
Thanks to its upset win over Texas Tech, Iowa State has momentum going into Saturday's game against Kansas.
Former Texas starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert plans to transfer to SMU.
Penn State is in the driver's seat to win the Big Ten Leaders Division, but the upcoming schedule won't be easy.
California quarterback Zach Maynard is struggling, which could prompt a change under center this week.
The pressure continues to build on Ole Miss' coach Houston Nutt. Will he return in 2012?