By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 3
1. It’s only Week 3, but Saturday’s game between Florida State and Oklahoma will have an impact on the national title race. The winner of this matchup has a good chance to run the table and finish undefeated. With both teams expected to rank among the top 5-10 spots in the final poll, this could be an elimination game for the national championship. The Sooners have won the last five meetings between these two teams, including a 47-17 blowout last year. The Seminoles should have a better showing this time around, especially with this game in Tallahassee. Keep an eye on the matchup in the trenches. Florida State’s defensive line is one of the best in college football, which will be an issue for Oklahoma, especially with tackle Daryl Williams hobbled by a high ankle sprain.
2. The annual Florida-Tennessee game has lost some of its appeal in recent years. Under Urban Meyer, the Gators won six in a row over the Volunteers. Also, Tennessee has struggled to contend for the SEC East title, posting a 10-14 conference record since 2007. This season’s matchup features a lot of intrigue. Florida coach Will Muschamp is familiar with Tennessee coach Derek Dooley from their days as assistants under Nick Saban at LSU. Also, the Volunteers have been impressive on offense through two games, while the Gators look like they have one of the best defenses in the SEC. Tennessee’s offensive line is still a work in progress and if it struggles to protect quarterback Tyler Bray against a very good Florida defensive line, the Volunteers will have a long afternoon in the Swamp. Bray has posted some big numbers in a short time as the starter, but has yet to face a defense the caliber of Florida.
3. If not for turnovers, there’s a good chance Notre Dame would be 2-0. The Irish rank last nationally in turnover margin, which has to be corrected in Saturday’s game against Michigan State. The Spartans have won three out of the last four in this series, including a 34-31 thriller in East Lansing last year. Saturday’s game is an important one for Notre Dame, as it needs to get back on the winning track. The Irish could still finish 10-2, and contending for a spot in one of the BCS bowls isn’t dead yet. Notre Dame has struggled against the pass, allowing 233 yards per game through two weeks. The Spartans should test the Irish secondary, but protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins is a concern. It’s hard to call the third game of the year a must-win, but after outplaying its first two opponents and losing, Notre Dame really needs this one.
4. With Utah joining the Pac-12 and BYU becoming an Independent, these two rivals won’t meet as conference foes for the first time in 113 years. However, that shouldn’t change the anticipation for this matchup. The Holy War is an underappreciated rivalry on the national front. Quarterback play will be huge. BYU’s Jake Heaps looks to bounce back after a sluggish performance against Texas (22 of 38, 192 yards and two interceptions), while Utah’s Jordan Wynn needs to build some confidence as he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Five of the last six matchups have been decided by a touchdown or less. Expect a similar outcome on Saturday.
5. Two of the top offensive minds in college football will meet when Clemson hosts Auburn this Saturday. Gus Malzahn (Auburn) will square off against his protégé Chad Morris (Clemson) in what should be an entertaining non-conference matchup. Over the last four years, Malzahn’s offenses have ranked no worse than 17th in scoring offense. Morris coordinated Tulsa’s offense to a No. 6 national ranking in scoring offense. These two offensive gurus are friends off the field, but for 60 minutes, it’s all about winning. Clemson has not impressed in two games, while Auburn has needed a late play in both games to win. With suspect defenses, Auburn and Clemson could be one of this week’s highest-scoring games.
6. Less than 225 miles separate the Maryland and West Virginia campuses, but this rivalry has been pretty quiet in recent years. The Mountaineers have claimed the last five in this series, with Maryland’s last victory coming in the 2004 Gator Bowl. The Terrapins should have a good chance to break that losing streak on Saturday, especially with Danny O’Brien under center. The 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year had a stellar performance in the opener, throwing for 348 yards and one score against Miami. West Virginia’s new pass-first offense is still a work in progress, largely due to a suspect offensive line, but Geno Smith is completing 66.7 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception. With both teams wanting to establish the pass, whichever offensive line can protect the best might be the deciding factor on Saturday.
7. The Arizona State-Illinois matchup might not generate as much interest as Florida State-Oklahoma, but this one has a lot of intrigue. Arizona State is coming off an overtime win over Missouri and has a key game against USC next Saturday. The Sun Devils crossed a big hurdle by beating the Tigers last week. Dennis Erickson’s team finally looks ready to contend for the Pac-12 title. Illinois has yet to be tested through two weeks, but is a dangerous team and one that could contend in the Big Ten Leaders Division. With two explosive offenses, this one could be a shootout. Both quarterbacks are off to solid starts, but this game could be decided by whichever offense imposes its will. The Illini will be more physical, while the Sun Devils are more finesse, wanting to run an up-tempo attack.
8. If you like offense, Saturday’s Louisville-Kentucky matchup is not for you. The Cardinals are averaging 415.5 yards per game, but have six turnovers and are managing only 19 points a game. If those numbers weren’t bad enough, it gets worse. The Wildcats rank 110th nationally in total offense and scored only 14 points to beat Western Kentucky and struggled to score 27 against Central Michigan. Kentucky will also be without running back Raymond Sanders, who suffered a knee injury last Saturday. The Wildcats have won the last four in this series, but with both teams struggling on offense, turnovers could play a key role in determining the outcome of the game.
9. The rubber match between Washington and Nebraska should provide a good gauge for where both teams are before conference play begins. The Huskies rank last in the nation in pass defense and are allowing 29.5 points a game. Despite the loss of quarterback Jake Locker, the offense has been fine, averaging 35 points and 358 yards per game. New quarterback Keith Price has thrown seven touchdowns to only one interception this season. Nebraska’s offense has scored at least 40 points in both games this year, but the offensive line is inexperienced in spots. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is one of the nation’s leading rushers, but is completing only 48.9 percent of his throws. The Cornhuskers had trouble blocking the Huskies’ defensive line in the Holiday Bowl and the matchup in the trenches will play a key role in deciding this one.
10. Before the scandals and off-the-field incidents, the Miami-Ohio State matchup was hyped as one of the top non-conference games of 2011. With Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor no longer in Columbus, and the black cloud hanging over the Miami program, the game has lost a little of its appeal. The Hurricanes fell short in their debut under new coach Al Golden, losing 32-24 to Maryland. The Buckeyes have won both of their games, but struggled in last week’s victory over Toledo. Ohio State quarterback Joe Bauserman likely holds the keys to the outcome of the game. The senior threw for only 189 yards last week, which could be a concern if Miami contains the Ohio State rushing attack. After serving a one-game suspension, the Hurricanes will turn to Jacory Harris at quarterback. The senior has had his moments, but also struggled with interceptions. In a tight game, Miami cannot afford another bad game from Harris.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 3 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Boise State 38, Toledo 20
Iowa State 24, Connecticut 17
Oklahoma 31, Florida State 27
Florida 30, Tennessee 20
Arizona State 31, Illinois 30
Georgia Tech 38, Kansas 27
Miami 24, Ohio State 20
Nebraska 31, Washington 20
Notre Dame 34, Michigan State 27
Auburn 38, Clemson 31
Maryland 34, West Virginia 31
Iowa 27, Pittsburgh 20
USC 38, Syracuse 20
BYU 24, Utah 20
Texas 24, UCLA 16
Stanford 38, Arizona 24
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Iowa State at Connecticut (-4.5)
The Huskies have one of the best defenses in the Big East, but the offense is downright awful. New Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz has been solid through two starts, and Cyclones have an underrated defense.
Penn State (-6.5) at Temple
It’s a longshot, but the Owls have what it takes to win this one. Temple running back Bernard Pierce is off to a great start and needs to continue that success to secure a victory. Penn State’s offense needs to find a spark, particularly at quarterback.
Auburn at Clemson (-3.5)
Auburn is very fortunate to be 2-0. While Clemson has struggled to beat Troy and Wofford. Going on the road to Death Valley is no easy task and it wouldn’t be a surprise if a young Auburn team struggled. However, Auburn has looked like the better team so far.
Ole Miss (-1.5) at Vanderbilt
According to the folks out in Vegas, the Rebels are a slight favorite. However, neither team has been impressive on offense. The Commodores have won two out of the last three at home in this series and coming off a confidence-building win over Connecticut, they should be in position to open SEC play with a win.
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Kansas State needs better execution on offense this week. The Wildcats struggled in their opener against Eastern Kentucky.