Saturday Update: We'll be reviewing all the picks as they happen throughout the day. Check back for more updates, each labeled "Final Say."
The lesson of college football is to never get comfortable. This Saturday’s slate of games appears to be one of the sleepiest in years, but that probably means we’re in store for a couple significant upsets, a couple multi-overtime games and pure chaos. I could be wrong, of course, and there are really no games that are appointment viewing, unlike last Saturday night’s loaded schedule. Still, the Saturday everyone complains about at noon is often the Saturday everyone ends up wide-awake at midnight. Here are this week’s Games Above Replacement activities.
(All times Eastern; rankings from USA TODAY Coaches’ poll; ordered by value above replacement activities.)
No. 10 Texas (3-0) at No. 22 Oklahoma State (2-1)
7:50 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Line: Texas by 2
Few expect Oklahoma State to stick around in the Big 12 title race after losing 59-38 to Arizona, but the Cowboys are still capable of scoring points in a hurry, even with the uncertain status of starting quarterback Wes Lunt, who is dealing with a knee injury. The game is notable for being the first true test for a Texas team that lost five games last year, but has already risen to the top 10.
The Longhorns, with a much-maligned offense, scored 37 against Wyoming, 45 against New Mexico and 66 on the road against Ole Miss in a coming-out party for embattled sophomore QB David Ash. Ash threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns in that game after throwing four touchdowns all of last season while splitting time with Case McCoy. It’s possible Ash will be in for a shootout, something that this offense isn’t built for, as the Cowboys can rack up points quickly thanks to the running of Joseph Randle, who has 100 yards in all three games. However, Texas’ defense is the best in the Big 12, while the 59 points Oklahoma State surrendered to Arizona wasn’t exactly encouraging. Ash still hasn’t earned total trust, but against a mediocre defense he should be OK, especially with a solid running game behind him. This is a crucial game for Texas to win as it embarks on a brutal four-game stretch that also includes West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor.
Prediction: Texas 34, Oklahoma State 27
FINAL SAY: Texas 41, Oklahoma State 36. This game wasn’t without controversy; instant replay sure made it look like Joe Bergeron fumbled away the game-winning touchdown before crossing the goal line. But, what’s done is done, and the Longhorns have a huge road win to kick off Big 12 play. The Big 12’s best defense slipped against Oklahoma State’s freshman backup QB J.W. Walsh – who threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns – and star RB Joseph Randle – who ran for 199 yards – but the real story was the continued development of Longhorns QB David Ash. Ash got the biggest win of his career, completing 30 of 37 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns, and he made one of the biggest plays of the night on a crucial fourth-and-six with the game on the line. He completed a 29-yard pass, and then led the Longhorns down the field for the go-ahead score.
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No. 24 Baylor (3-0) at No. 7 West Virginia (3-0)
Noon Saturday, FX
Line: West Virginia by 11
Do you like points? Of course you do. That means Saturday’s noon kickoff in Morgantown is must-see-TV for those looking for an early afternoon jolt. The Mountaineers disappointed against Maryland last week, winning 31-21, but there’s no need to hit the panic button. The Baylor defense -- the one that gave up 56 points in an Alamo Bowl win last year -- proved it hasn’t changed much when it gave up 42 points to Louisiana-Monroe last week. After three games against the Warhawks, SMU and Sam Houston State, Baylor ranks 113th in total defense and 113th against the pass.
Good luck containing the West Virginia Air Raid. Numbers wise, Geno Smith has picked up right where he left off in the Orange Bowl, making himself an early Heisman favorite. In three games, he’s thrown for 1,072 yards, 12 touchdowns and no interceptions, throwing only 10 more incompletions than touchdowns. And then there’s the receiving duo of Tavon Austin, who had 13 catches last week, and Stedman Bailey, who had 13 catches two weeks ago. Yes, West Virginia’s defensive issues are problematic; even without Robert Griffin III, Baylor is capable of putting up a lot of points under Art Briles and new quarterback Nick Florence, who’s thrown for 1,004 yards in three games. But even though Florence, Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese are good, Baylor’s firepower doesn’t match West Virginia’s. The Mountaineers will roll on offense.
Prediction: West Virginia 49, Baylor 34
FINAL SAY: West Virginia 70, Baylor 63. Wait, what if this game had gone into overtime? Everyone expected an offensive explosion. Two terrible defenses and two wide-open passing offenses coached by Dana Holgorsen and Art Briles was clearly a recipe for a ridiculous offensive shootout. Somehow, this exceeded all expectations.
Geno Smith solidified his status as an early season Heisman favorite by putting together one of the greatest quarterback performances in college football history. He completed 45 of 51 passes for 656 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions, throwing two more TDs than incompletions. With that absurd production comes absurd production from the receivers: Stedman Bailey had 13 catches for 303 yards and five touchdowns. Tavon Austin had 14 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns. J.D. Woods had 13 catches for 114 yards and one touchdown. Somehow, West Virginia even found the time to give tailback Andrew Buie 25 carries (82 yards and two touchdowns). And that’s just West Virginia.
Let’s not forget that Baylor, without Robert Griffin III or Kendall Wright, put up 63 points. Nick Florence completed 29 of 47 for 581 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Terrance Williams caught 17 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns. All told, the teams combined for 133 points and 1,508 yards. Complain all you want about the lack of defense, but how can one not be entertained?
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Ohio State (4-0) at No. 18 Michigan State (3-1)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Michigan State by 3
Sigh. The Big Ten can’t stop being the Big Ten. Ohio State is undefeated but banned, and the Buckeyes looked lousy last week against UAB. They trailed 12-7 late in the second quarter before turning things around and winning 29-15, and quarterback Braxton Miller continues to be the one true bright spot.
As for Michigan State, the loss of Kirk Cousins and receivers Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham clearly dealt a huge blow to the offense. The Spartans play good defense and have one of the nation’s best running backs in Le’Veon Bell, who ran for 253 yards last week, but that’s it. The rest of the offense was dreadful against Notre Dame (somewhat understandable) and Eastern Michigan (inexcusable; the Spartans didn’t score a touchdown until the final seven minutes of the 23-7 win). The game has lost a lot of luster through the Spartans’ brutal last two weeks, yet it remains one of the weekend’s headliners. Michigan State edged Ohio State 10-7 last year, and it wouldn’t be a total shock to see similar results, even if the Buckeyes’ defense has been criticized by Urban Meyer. The Spartans are all about Bell, and the Buckeyes are all about Miller. The edge goes to whichever team can better contain the star. Michigan State’s defense carries it at home.
Prediction: Michigan State 20, Ohio State 17
FINAL SAY: Ohio State 17, Michigan State 16. As expected, the no-defenses-allowed memo in college football failed to reach East Lansing. And, also as expected, the team that got the better game out of its star won. While the Buckeyes shut down Le’Veon Bell, holding him to just 45 yards on 12 carries with eight catches for 58 yards, Braxton Miller had another big game, running 23 times for 136 yards and throwing for 179 yards and a touchdown. Miller has been one of the most effective offensive players in the nation early in the year, and while it’s still concerning that Miller is basically the entire Ohio State offense, there’s little to be discouraged by at this point. Urban Meyer has been critical of his defense, but the Buckeyes stepped up and held the Spartans to 303 yards, and very few defenses are going to be capable of slowing down Miller. The Big Ten is weak overall, and it looks like the best team is one that's banned from the postseason.
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Tennessee (3-1) at No. 5 Georgia (4-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Georgia by 13 ½
Remember how happy Tennessee was just two weeks ago? “College Gameday” was in town, and the Volunteers were hosting Florida in a springboard game in the SEC East. Then Tennessee lost by 17, then Tennessee was ahead of Akron by only four early in the fourth quarter, and suddenly we’re back to discussing how warm Derek Dooley’s seat is. Things get even tougher now, as the Volunteers play their first true road game between the hedges in Athens against one of the nation’s most talented defenses. The best hope for Tennessee is that Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson can exploit Georgia’s secondary. But don’t count on it, especially with safety Bacarri Rambo expected to return from suspension.
As always, the assumption is that star pass rusher Jarvis Jones will give Bray nightmares, although the Vols have given up only two sacks in four games. The bigger issue may be on the other side of the ball, as the Bulldogs have been fantastic on offense in September, averaging 47.5 points per game. QB Aaron Murray has been efficient, as expected, but what’s surprising is that Georgia has not missed RB Isaiah Crowell, who was dismissed from the team in the summer. Freshman Todd Gurley leads the SEC with 406 yards and six touchdowns, while fellow freshman Keith Marshall has chipped in another 264 yards. This is a complete Georgia team capable of exposing Tennessee’s weaknesses.
Prediction: Georgia 37, Tennessee 17
FINAL SAY: Georgia 51, Tennessee 44. OK, so much for Georgia’s dominant defense. But how about the Bulldogs' running game? No Isaiah Crowell, no problem. For the second time this year, both freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall rushed for 100 yards. This time, Marshall had 10 carries for 164 yards and two touchdowns, and Gurley had 24 carries for 129 yards and three touchdowns. The Georgia defense isn’t quite living up to expectations, but the Bulldogs came through with some crucial turnovers late and did largely contain Tennessee star receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. So, not all was bad. This is one of the most complete teams in the country, and now all eyes are on next week’s SEC East showdown at South Carolina. As for the Volunteers, yes, the pressure remains on Derek Dooley, but they showed some fight, at least, digging out of an early hole and really putting pressure on a good Georgia team.
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No. 23 Wisconsin (3-1) at No. 20 Nebraska (3-1)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Nebraska by 11 ½
The only thing semi-exciting about this game now is Adidas repeating last year’s Notre Dame-Michigan game with somewhat terrible uniforms devoid of numbers on the front. Unfortunately, the Big Ten’s September has been dreadful, and the fact that Wisconsin is ranked shows everything that’s wrong with college football polls. The Badgers have been a shell of their former selves, losing at Oregon State, 10-7, and beating Northern Iowa, UTEP and Utah State by a total of 18 points. After a mass coaching exodus in the offseason, including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Bret Bielema has already fired his offensive line coach. To make things even worse, Heisman finalist Montee Ball is coming off a concussion, although he’s expected to play. The Badgers don’t even know who their QB is, with Joel Stave supplanting transfer Danny O’Brien already.
Now Wisconsin must go back on the road to a tough environment at night, against a Nebraska team that’s been solid despite its 36-30 loss at UCLA. The offense ranks ninth, Rex Burkhead returned from injury to rush for 119 yards last week and Taylor Martinez has actually thrown nine touchdowns and only one interception. Credit where credit is due for Martinez, who has endured years of throwing motion-related vitriol yet ranks 10th in the nation in efficiency. The Cornhuskers could be the Big Ten’s best hope.
Prediction: Nebraska 28, Wisconsin 20
FINAL SAY: Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 27. For about a half, Wisconsin looked like the Wisconsin we’ve grown accustomed to the past few years. New QB Joel Stave and the Badgers' offense moved the ball, Montee Ball scored three touchdowns and they went up 27-10 early in the third quarter. Then the Badgers imploded. By the end of the game, Nebraska had out-gained Wisconsin 440-296 and finished the game on a 20-0 run, led by QB Taylor Martinez (116 rushing yards, three total touchdowns), RB Rex Burkhead (86 rushing yards) and a dominant defense that held Ball to three yards per carry. If nothing else, it’s about time we got some entertaining Big Ten football. Picking the Big Ten race is an impossible task at this point, especially with Ohio State ineligible, but it’s entirely possible these teams will get it together and meet again in the Big Ten championship. It’s also possible Wisconsin will lose five games and Nebraska will finish fourth in the Legends Division. Maybe the Big Ten is irrelevant nationally, but it doesn’t mean the league race won’t be good.
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No. 21 Oregon State (2-0) at Arizona (3-1)
10 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Network
Line: Arizona by 2 ½
I told you to watch Arizona last week against Oregon, but the Wildcats chocked away early opportunities and ended up getting pummeled by the Ducks, 49-0. Oh well. A blowout loss wasn’t surprising, but it was jarring to see Rich Rodriguez’s offense come up empty, especially after scoring 59 points in a win over Oklahoma State two weeks earlier. This week, the Wildcats return home to face the enigma that is Oregon State, which won three games last year but has upset Wisconsin and UCLA and also raided In-N-Out Burger.
The Beavers were brutal on both sides of the ball last year, ranking 100th in scoring and 101st against the run, but they’ve shut down two of the best running backs in the country and have gotten encouraging production from new quarterback Sean Mannion. Still, I hate to doubt Mike Riley, but it may be tough for Oregon State to keep this magic going, and Arizona’s Matt Scott-led offense is better than it appeared last week.
Prediction: Arizona 30, Oregon State 27
FINAL SAY: Oregon State 38, Arizona 35. The Beavers just might be for real. They’re now 3-0 with wins over Wisconsin, UCLA and Arizona, and they did it in dramatic fashion Saturday night in Tucson, winning on a nine-yard touchdown pass with 1:09 left. QB Sean Mannion continues to play brilliant football, throwing for 433 yards and three touchdowns, and he got a lot of help from freshman tailback Storm Woods, who ran for 161 yards and a touchdown. Sure, the Beavers gave up 403 passing yards to Matt Scott, but with talented young skill players and a good run defense, Oregon State looks nothing like the 2011 team that finished a dismal 3-9.
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No. 4 Florida State (4-0) at South Florida (2-2)
6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Florida State by 16 ½
The natural assumption for all familiar with the recent history of the ACC and Florida State football is that the Seminoles are in for a massive letdown in the near future after re-emerging on the national scene last Saturday against Clemson. The Seminoles gave up big plays but pulled their dominant defense together in the second half, while quarterback E.J. Manuel announced to the world that he’s capable of being an elite player.
Count me in the group that thought Florida State was flawed and would eventually slip up (I said last week that the winner of the game would probably lose to Maryland or Boston College). It’s still possible, and Florida State must get through Florida and Virginia Tech at the end of the season if it wants to win a national title, but the Clemson game was nothing but impressive. The Seminoles defense is one of the best in the country -- Clemson can score on anyone -- and Manuel, Chris Thompson and James Wilder give them a lot of power in the backfield. South Florida is talented, but it followed a loss to Rutgers by inexplicably losing to Ball State. Still, this is the type of sneaky road game in which it wouldn’t be surprising to see a close score at halftime. Even if that happens, expect the ‘Noles to wake up and take care of business before another possibly tricky game at N.C. State next week. They’re too talented not to.
Prediction: Florida State 38, South Florida 17
FINAL SAY: Florida State 30, South Florida 17. Well, I don’t want to brag … but I told you so. This one went exactly as predicted. The Seminoles slogged through a 13-3 first half, then gave up a touchdown early in the third quarter to cut their lead to 13-10. Eventually, they snapped out of it, scoring 17 points in the final 5:09 of the quarter and winning by 13. It wasn’t pretty, but Florida State did what it had to do in the second half to avoid an inexcusable letdown loss a week after an important win over Clemson. The defense held South Florida to 268 yards and forced three turnovers, and now Florida State will work again to avoid faltering in a trap game next Saturday at N.C. State.
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Wild Card: Central Michigan (2-1) at Northern Illinois (3-1)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3.com
Line: Northern Illinois by 11 ½
I apologize for the lack of MACtion in this column every week. All told, Week 5 of the college football season is lousy. There are few great matchups, so if you want to be entertained, you might as well watch the MAC, which had a banner Saturday last weekend. Two of the big winners were Central Michigan (32-31 over Iowa) and Northern Illinois (30-23 over Kansas), and now they meet for a MAC West showdown in DeKalb. It was expected to be another down post-Dan LeFevour year for the Chippewas, who won three games each of the last two years after going 12-2 in 2009, and it still may be one, but the win over Iowa was certainly impressive. Northern Illinois nearly beat Iowa as well, losing 18-17 in Chicago in Week 1, but let’s not go solely by the transitive property here. NIU is likely the better team, thanks in part to junior QB Jordan Lynch, who is third in the MAC in both rushing and passing efficiency despite being a new starter. Northern Illinois should win, but this is the MAC, where the unexpected or thrilling often happens. Last year, 3-9 Central Michigan beat 11-3 Northern Illinois 48-41. The Huskies then won the rest of their games en route to a MAC title. You never know.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 41, Central Michigan 36
FINAL SAY: Northern Illinois 55, Central Michigan 24. Well, I was right to recommend a MAC game. Unfortunately, I was wrong to recommend this one. The Huskies held a slim 24-21 lead in the third quarter, but they out-scored the Chippewas 31-3 the rest of the way thanks mostly to a dominant running game. QB Jordan Lynch ran 20 times for 156 yards and a touchdown, and RB Leighton Settle added another 24 carries for 138 yards and three touchdowns, helping to give NIU 407 rushing yards and 626 total yards. The best MAC games were elsewhere, with Kent State beating Ball State 45-43, Miami (Ohio) beating Akron 56-49, and Ohio beating UMass 37-34.