By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 7
1. Illinois’ schedule hasn’t been one of the most difficult in the nation this year. However, the Illini are 6-0 and setup for a run at the Big Ten title, provided they knock off Ohio State on Saturday. The Fighting Illini are led by sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, and a stingy defense that is allowing only 17.8 points per game. The Buckeyes dropped to 3-3 with a 34-27 defeat at Nebraska last Saturday. Ohio State held a 27-6 lead early in the fourth quarter, but an injury to quarterback Braxton Miller limited the offense the rest of the game. Miller is expected to start, and the offense will get a boost with the return of running back Daniel Herron, after a six-game suspension for violating NCAA rules. Illinois’ last win over Ohio State in Champaign came in 1991, but the Illini defeated the Buckeyes in 2007 in Columbus. This is a big game for Illinois, considering they host Michigan and Wisconsin in November. While the Fighting Illini is positioning for a run at the conference title, Ohio State just needs a win. At 3-3, the Buckeyes could be in danger of a losing season with a loss on Saturday, while interim coach Luke Fickell needs a big win to keep his name in the mix for the full-time job in 2012.
2. Could Saturday’s Oregon-Arizona State matchup be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship? After wins over USC and Utah, the Sun Devils are firmly in control of the South. Oregon is no lock to win the North, especially with a Nov. 12 date at Stanford. The Sun Devils’ last victory over the Ducks was in 2004. Winning in Eugene won’t be easy, but Arizona State catches a break with Oregon running back LaMichael James likely sidelined with an elbow injury. With James sidelined, Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas and Tra Carson are expected to shoulder the workload in the backfield. Quarterback Brock Osweiler needs to have a big game for the Sun Devils to pull the upset. Also, Arizona State’s defense will have to contain Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas, who has accounted for 17 touchdowns this year. Even if the Sun Devils don’t pull off the upset, this is a good opportunity to build experience for a potential repeat trip to Eugene in December.
3. One week after getting torched by Oklahoma, Texas’ defense is under the spotlight once again. Oklahoma State travels to Austin on Saturday, looking to earn back-to-back wins over the Longhorns for the first time in school history. In last season’s matchup, Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden threw for 409 yards and one score, while receiver Justin Blackmon caught nine passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. In last week’s game against Oklahoma, Texas got very little pressure on quarterback Landry Jones and recorded only one sack. If the Longhorns want to win this one, they need the defense to get after Weeden and force some turnovers. The offense also has to pick it up, especially after last week’s statline – 259 total yards and five turnovers.
4. Without quarterback John Brantley, Florida knew it faced an uphill battle going into last week’s game against LSU. The Gators were very conservative with true freshman Jacoby Brissett guiding the offense and managed only 11 points. With Brantley sidelined one more week, it’s important for Brissett or fellow true freshman Jeff Driskel to spark the offense in Saturday’s game against Auburn. The Gators are still in the mix for the SEC East title, but cannot afford another conference loss. The Tigers aren’t without questions either, as starting quarterback Barrett Trotter has struggled and the defense has allowed at least 34 points four times this year. The Gators allowed only 46 points through their first four games, but have allowed 79 in their last two contests. With two struggling offenses, this game could be decided by whichever defense is able to create the most turnovers and stop the run. Neither team will be too aggressive throwing the ball, which forces a lot of pressure on running backs Michael Dyer (Auburn) and Chris Rainey (Florida).
5. Don’t expect many pleasantries to be exchanged in Saturday’s game between Baylor and Texas A&M. Baylor threatened to sue Texas A&M for leaving the Big 12, which has caused plenty of hard feelings between the two fanbases. On the field, this should be one of Week 7’s most entertaining matchups. Texas A&M’s secondary ranks last in the nation, and will be under fire from Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin and a deep group of receivers. The Aggies’ defense likely won’t be able to slow down the Bears’ passing attack, but can get help from their offense's solid rushing game to control the clock and keep the ball away from Griffin. Backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael are averaging 188 yards a game on the ground, which will test a Baylor defense that ranks 83rd against the run. Considering the hard feelings between these two schools, who knows when they will play again? These two teams have met every year since 1945, but with A&M moving to the SEC, it’s unlikely this rivalry will be picked up again anytime soon. However, considering the firepower on both sidelines, this matchup could be a memorable one.
6. Another week, just another tune-up for Alabamaand LSU in the collision course for its Nov. 5 matchup. The Crimson Tide is a big favorite on the road against Ole Miss, while the Tigers head to Knoxville to take on Tennessee. Without quarterback Tyler Bray, the Volunteers face an uphill battle to knock off the Tigers. Filling in for Bray will be senior Matt Simms, who started eight games last season. The countdown is on for both Alabama and LSU, as 2011’s most-anticipated game inches closer. With each team having two more games before the matchup, both will be looking to fine tune every area before Nov. 5.
7. Last week’s win over Florida State pushed Wake Forest squarely into contention for the ACC Atlantic crown. The Demon Deacons are 3-0 in conference play, with a key Nov. 12 date at Clemson. However, Wake Forest must first survive a visit from Virginia Tech this Saturday. The Demon Deacons have lost their last four games to the Hokies, with the last home victory coming in 1970. Virginia Tech rebounded from a disappointing 23-3 loss to Clemson by rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Miami last Saturday. Quarterback Logan Thomas took a step forward in his development in the win over the Hurricanes, totaling five touchdowns and misfiring on only two passes. The Demon Deacons have been solid on defense, particularly against the run. Considering the Hokies already have one conference loss, this is a must-win game, especially with Georgia Tech undefeated in the ACC Coastal race.
8. There’s not a ton of marquee matchups this Saturday, but Michigan-Michigan State should be the headliner. The Spartans have won three in a row over the Wolverines and will be looking to take advantage of a raucous crowd at home in East Lansing. Michigan is off to a 6-0 start under new coach Brady Hoke. Quarterback Denard Robinson continues to make plays, while the defense has shown big improvement under new coordinator Greg Mattison. Robinson faces a stiff test on Saturday, as Michigan State ranks first nationally in total defense and third in scoring. The Spartans have struggled to get their rushing attack on track, and the offensive line has not performed well. Considering Nebraska’s struggles and the loss of tackle Jared Crick, the winner of this game will take a step forward to contending for the Big Ten Legends Division title.
9. The South Carolina-Mississippi State matchup isn’t going to register on the national radar, but there’s a lot of intrigue surrounding this game. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier made the switch at quarterback from Stephen Garcia (now dismissed) to Connor Shaw against Kentucky, which sparked the offense for 54 points in Saturday’s victory. However, Mississippi State’s defense will present a tougher challenge, particularly against the pass, where the Bulldogs rank 20th nationally. Mississippi State’s offense is also under fire, as quarterback Chris Relf has struggled and sophomore Tyler Russell is expected to see more playing time. The Bulldogs and Gamecocks have not played since 2007. Mississippi State has lost the last five games in this series, and a win over South Carolina would be huge, especially with all three victories coming against teams from outside a BCS conference.
10. Kansas State continued its surprising start, defeating Missouri 24-17 to move to 5-0. Leading the charge for the much-improved Wildcats have been linebacker Arthur Brown and quarterback Collin Klein. Both players will be crucial to Kansas State’s hopes of moving to 6-0 Saturday, as the Wildcats travel to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech. The Red Raiders will test a Kansas State secondary ranked third in the Big 12 in pass defense. However, Texas Tech’s offense suffered a setback with the loss of running back Eric Stephens to a season-ending knee injury. Without Stephens, more of the focus is going to be on quarterback Seth Doege. The Wildcats would prefer not to get in a shootout with the Red Raiders, which is why Klein and running back John Hubert have to control the clock and keep Doege and his receivers on the sidelines.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 7 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Michigan State 26, Michigan 23
Oregon 44, Arizona State 30
Oklahoma State 41, Texas 27
Virginia Tech 27, Wake Forest 24
Texas A&M 41, Baylor 38
Ohio State 24, Illinois 20
Florida 23, Auburn 20
LSU 31, Tennessee 10
Florida State 38, Duke 20
Kansas State 34, Texas Tech 30
Pittsburgh 28, Utah 17
Miami 27, North Carolina 24
South Carolina 24, Mississippi State 20
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Miami at North Carolina (-2)
This game is a tossup. The Hurricanes have struggled on defense, but the Tar Heels haven’t exactly been a shutdown unit either.
South Carolina (-5) at Mississippi State
Just like Miami-North Carolina, this one has tossup written all over it. The Gamecocks had a good showing last week, but it’s hard to read much into beating Kentucky.
Kansas State at Texas Tech (-3.5)
The Wildcats aren't getting much respect from the folks in Vegas. Without Eric Stephens, the Red Raiders will have to lean even more on quarterback Seth Doege.
Northwestern at Iowa (-7)
Wildcats’ quarterback Dan Persa tore his Achilles in last season’s matchup against the Hawkeyes. Now that he’s back, Northwestern is a dangerous team in Big Ten play.
Western Kentucky at FAU (-3)
The Hilltoppers are coming off a solid road win at MTSU, while this is FAU’s opener in its new stadium. In a matchup with two sluggish offenses, I like Western Kentucky with running back Bobby Rainey leading the way.
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