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 greatest month of the year is upon us. Happy October, everyone. As the MLB playoffs begin and the NFL kicks into high gear, we enter the heart of the schedule in college football. In addition to great rivalries -- Alabama-Tennessee, Texas-Oklahoma, Florida-Georgia, etc -- we get a series of important conference games in the SEC and the Big 12, the nation’s two strongest leagues. It all starts Saturday, with six of the top 11 teams in the USA TODAY Coaches’ poll squaring off against each other in conference games.
(All times Eastern; rankings from USA TODAY Coaches’ poll; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
N.C. State 17, Florida State 16. Let’s revisit a few weeks ago, shall we? Before Florida State beat Clemson, I wrote: “If the last decade is any indication, whoever wins will inexplicably lose to Maryland or Boston College and torpedo the conference’s national title hopes.” OK, it wasn’t Maryland, and it wasn’t Boston College. But it did happen. Saturday night, when no one was paying much attention to Raleigh, the Wolfpack rallied from a 16-0 deficit, shut out the Seminoles in the second half and scored on fourth-and-goal with 16 seconds left to win. Mike Glennon attempted 55 passes, completing 259 yards and two touchdowns, while E.J. Manuel’s Heisman campaign came to an abrupt end, along with Florida State’s national title dreams.
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No. 5 Georgia (5-0) at No. 6 South Carolina (5-0)
7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: South Carolina by 1
You never know what you’re going to get from a Georgia-South Carolina game. Last year in Athens, the teams traded leads in a shootout, with South Carolina winning 45-42. In 2009, Georgia won 41-37. The last two games in Columbia? South Carolina won 17-6 in 2010, and Georgia won 14-7 in 2008. This doesn’t mean we’re in for a defensive slugfest on Saturday with the series back at Williams-Brice Stadium -- especially after Georgia gave up 44 to Tennessee last week -- but the defenses are talented, headlined by two of the best individual players in the country in Gamecocks DE Jadeveon Clowney and Georgia LB Jarvis Jones. You can bet that Georgia will come after Connor Shaw and his banged-up shoulder, so expect a heavy dose of Marcus Lattimore, who has torn apart the Bulldogs defense for 358 yards and three touchdowns the last two years.
On the other side, it’s somewhat easier to throw on South Carolina than to run, and while Georgia has been riding freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, talented QB Aaron Murray has been efficient; he threw four touchdowns against the Gamecocks last year. Georgia took a big hit with the loss of leading receiver Michael Bennett to a torn ACL on Tuesday, but the Bulldogs still have experience at the position with Marlon Brown and Tavarres King. These games have been toss-ups the past few years, and with the stakes higher than ever, it looks like as much of a toss-up as ever. Georgia has the slightly better offense; South Carolina has the slightly better defense. I ranked the Gamecocks No. 3 in the preseason, so I’m sticking with them, even if history says the Gamecocks are destined to never win anything important.
Prediction: South Carolina 29, Georgia 24
FINAL SAY: South Carolina 35, Georgia 7. Well. That was unexpected. Nobody could ever have envisioned a blowout in Columbia, but this was never even a game. The Gamecocks scored. Then they scored again. Then again. Not even 10 minutes into the game, when Ace Sanders once again pulled off a ridiculous punt return TD, South Carolina led 21-0, and all life had been sucked out of the Bulldogs. South Carolina’s defense could be every bit as good as Alabama’s. The Gamecocks stifled the best offense in the SEC, holding Georgia to 224 total yards, with 76 rushing yards between freshmen phenoms Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. On the other side of the ball, Connor Shaw needed to attempt only 10 passes. He threw two touchdowns and ran for another, and Marcus Lattimore rattled off his third 100-yard game in three meetings with Georgia. The road only gets tougher with back-to-back trips to LSU and Florida up next, but, for one week at least, South Carolina looks like a national title contender and a threat to Alabama in the SEC.
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No. 3 LSU (5-0) at No. 11 Florida (4-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: LSU by 2 ½
An impressive 41-3 rout of Washington in Week 2 has been forgotten after LSU’s sluggish efforts the last two weeks against Auburn and Towson. Well, sleepwalking through the afternoon is no longer an option. Florida reinvented itself in September, notching a pair of solid road victories at Texas A&M and Tennessee, QB Jeff Driskel is playing improved football and Mike Gillislee leads a strong running game. LSU QB Zach Mettenberger has yet to put together the breakout game many are hoping for, and he’ll need to play better in The Swamp in his second SEC road game after a mediocre night at Auburn in his first.
This has the makings of a classic SEC slugfest, with two run-oriented offenses meeting two of the nation’s best all-around defenses. But while Florida is clearly improved and can contend in the SEC, the Gators still can’t quite match up with LSU’s playmakers on both sides of the ball. Florida has allowed 12 sacks in four games, and Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery will be after Driskel all afternoon. Driskel no longer appears to be a total liability after the wins in College Station and Knoxville, but beating LSU and its elite defense, even at home in Gainesville, is another story.
Prediction: LSU 20, Florida 13
FINAL SAY: Florida 14, LSU 6. Welcome back, Florida. Defense ruled the day in Gainesville, as expected, but it was LSU’s offense that couldn’t put anything together and failed to reach the end zone. Trailing 6-0 at halftime, Florida, which has been a second-half team this season, got on the board with a pair of 12-yard rushing touchdowns by Mike Gillislee, who finished with 146 yards on 34 carries. At times, Florida looked like the LSU of last year, as the game really swung on a key forced fumble by safety Matt Elam on the Tigers’ longest play of the game, a 56-yard pass down the sideline from Zach Mettenberger to Odell Beckham. Elam and LSU linebacker Kevin Minter were both all over the field, but, ultimately, the difference was Florida’s play up front, as the Gators dominated the LSU O-line and held the Tigers to 42 rushing yards. (For more, check out Tommy Tomlinson's story from Gainesville.)
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No. 7 West Virginia (4-0) at No. 9 Texas (4-0)
7 p.m. Saturday, FOX
Line: Texas by 6 ½
Whatever you thought of last Saturday’s 70-63 shootout between West Virginia and Baylor, the Mountaineers inarguably own the most explosive passing game in the country. Geno Smith is playing brilliant football, dissecting defenses with pinpoint accuracy and command of the Air Raid offense, while elite playmakers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are nearly impossible to match up with in this system.
Texas’ defense was widely considered the Big 12’s best heading into the season, but the unit has posted mediocre numbers so far. In particular, a secondary filled with talented players like cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom and safety Kenny Vaccaro has not lived up to expectations.
What makes the game even more interesting is that Texas quarterback David Ash suddenly looks like a pretty good player (amazingly, he’s second in the nation in efficiency, behind Smith), one certainly capable of taking advantage of a vulnerable Mountaineers defense. The Longhorns can run the ball and attempt to avoid a total shootout by controlling the clock, but they'll have to do it without tailback Malcolm Brown (ankle), meaning the run game will turn to Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray. On defense, Texas' best hope is to be aggressive, attacking Smith with ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat and hoping the secondary forces Smith’s first interceptions of the season. But when many points will be scored, it still feels silly to bet against Dana Holgorsen’s offense right now. The Geno Smith for Heisman campaign rolls on in another signature game in West Virginia’s first Big 12 road trip.
Prediction: West Virginia 42, Texas 38
FINAL SAY: West Virginia 48, Texas 45. I was pretty close in terms of the score. Texas scored plenty, thanks in part to two key fumbles involving Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, but the Longhorns didn’t have a 100-yard rusher and David Ash didn’t throw for 300 yards. That’s not shocking, but against the West Virginia defense in a high-scoring game, it was surprising. However, the Mountaineers’ offensive numbers were shocking. Geno Smith threw for four touchdowns with no picks, but ONLY 269 yards. Instead, the biggest numbers were for running back Andrew Buie, who bowled over the Texas defense for 208 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries. If you were told Texas won the turnover battle and held Smith to 269 yards, you’d think the Longhorns would have won by a couple scores. Obviously, defenses are spending as much energy as possible to defend West Virginia’s passing game, but the fact that Buie can take advantage with 208 yards makes this offense even scarier
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No. 20 Nebraska (4-1) at Ohio State (5-0)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Ohio State by 3 ½
The Big Ten really can’t win. Between West Virginia-Texas and Georgia-South Carolina, no one outside of Lincoln and Columbus is going to care about a prime-time showdown between two historic powers that are arguably the best two teams in the league. Believe it or not, the Big Ten is actually capable of putting together entertaining games, at least when the teams have to play each other instead of other conferences.
Ohio State put together a dominant defensive effort and rode Braxton Miller’s running ability to a one-point win over Michigan State last week, while Nebraska rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to beat Wisconsin 30-27. The Buckeyes shut down Spartans RB Le’Veon Bell, and now they’re in for another challenge in Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead, both of whom rushed for more than 100 yards in a 34-27 comeback win over Ohio State last year. The Nebraska defense has looked improved of late, but this is still the same unit that gave up 344 rushing yards to UCLA. Give the edge to Miller’s Buckeyes in the Horseshoe.
Prediction: Ohio State 28, Nebraska 24
FINAL SAY: Ohio State 63, Nebraska 38. This puts an end to any “Who’s the best team in the Big Ten?” discussion. The Buckeyes may be ineligible for the postseason, but they’re halfway to an undefeated season with games against Purdue, Indiana and Illinois still left. Urban Meyer has his Ohio State offense clicking, thanks mostly to the brilliant play of star QB Braxton Miller, who completed only seven passes but ran 16 times for 185 yards and a touchdown. Plus, Miller got unexpected help from RB Carlos Hyde, who broke out with 28 carries for 138 yards and four touchdowns. There’s still room to be concerned about the Ohio State defense, but the Buckeyes forced four Nebraska turnovers, including an interception return for a touchdown to open the night’s scoring. Yeah, Meyer and Ohio State may be a scary marriage for the rest of the Big Ten.
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Miami (4-1) vs. No. 10 Notre Dame (4-0) (at Chicago)
7:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Notre Dame by 13 ½
It’s kind of amazing that an undefeated Notre Dame team is playing a 4-1 Miami team and the game is relegated to second-class status. Catholics vs. Convicts this is not.
We’ve come a long way since the ’80s, of course, and now somehow a surprisingly competent Miami team is flying under the radar. QB Stephen Morris has been unexpectedly phenomenal, throwing for 1,002 yards in dramatic wins over Georgia Tech and N.C. State, and the Miami backfield also features one of the most exciting young players in the country in freshman Duke Johnson, who averages 6.9 yards per carry. But one problem for the Canes is that the Notre Dame defense has been one of the best in the country. Manti Te’o deservedly gets all the attention, but the unit as a whole has been stingy. The Irish have an inconsistent offense with a cloudy Everett Golson/Tommy Rees situation at QB, but the Miami defense has been abysmal, giving up at least 32 points in all four games against FBS opponents. It’s a perfect opportunity for the Irish to get Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick rolling on the ground. Notre Dame will slip a couple times this year, but not this week.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Miami 21
FINAL SAY: Notre Dame 41, Miami 3. Of course, the game wasn’t without controversy for Notre Dame, as Tommy Rees got the start at quarterback because of an apparent team rules violation by Everett Golson. Well, it didn’t last long. It was Golson relieving Rees this week, completing 17-of-22 passes, although the big story was Notre Dame’s ground game, which steamrolled a weak Miami defense. Notre Dame piled up 379 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 52 attempts, with 100-plus yards for both George Atkinson III and Cierre Wood. Miami entered the game with the 112th-ranked rush defense in the country, and Notre Dame took full advantage of that and some early Miami miscues, in addition to getting yet another brilliant effort from its defense, which held Stephen Morris to 201 passing yards.
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No. 14 Oklahoma (2-1) at No. 24 Texas Tech (4-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN2
Line: Oklahoma by 6
Last year’s preseason No. 1 team, Oklahoma dropped to third by mid-October, and then blew its season with a shocking 41-38 loss to a Texas Tech team that finished 5-7. Once again, Oklahoma entered 2012 with all the expectations, but the Sooners quickly threw them away in September with a home loss to Kansas State, and now they go to Lubbock with a worse record than Tommy Tuberville’s Red Raiders.
Texas Tech, amazingly, owns the nation’s No. 1 defense, but that number is not so amazing when you realize the four wins are over Northwestern State, Texas State, New Mexico and Iowa State. Rule nothing out, of course, given last year’s result, and the fact that Texas Tech has won three of the last five in this series. But this year’s defensive pace can’t last. Texas Tech may be improved after last year’s sub-.500 season, but this is also a defense that ranked 114th last year. Regression to the mean will begin Saturday afternoon, even if Landry Jones and Oklahoma are nowhere near the force some thought they might be.
Prediction: Oklahoma 33, Texas Tech 20
FINAL SAY: Oklahoma 41, Texas Tech 20. Yeah, that was nice while it lasted for Texas Tech. The nation’s No. 1 defense finally got tested and proved that it’s not actually the nation’s No. 1 defense, while Oklahoma finally put together a solid all-around game. Landry Jones was efficient, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns, backup QB Blake Bell ran for a couple scores and the defense stepped up by forcing three turnovers. There’s still plenty to prove, of course, with Texas and Notre Dame coming up in the next three weeks, and the Sooners’ leading rusher, Damien Williams, had only 48 yards. But Oklahoma did what it had to do, notching a very solid, convincing road win against a team that turned its season upside down last year.
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Washington (3-1) at No. 2 Oregon (5-0)
10:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Oregon by 24 ½
We have no idea what Washington is. Are the Huskies the team that lost to LSU 41-3? Or are they the team that beat Stanford 17-13? Really, it doesn’t matter. We know what Oregon is.
If West Virginia has the most explosive passing game in the country, Oregon has the most explosive running game behind QB Marcus Mariota and RBs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. Washington’s offense had fairly high expectations behind junior QB Keith Price, but the Huskies have totaled just 41 points in three games against FBS competition and are struggling along the offensive line, ranking 97th in sacks allowed and 104th in rushing. And as Oregon has showed in the past few weeks, it can play some defense too. Washington has lost five straight games at Autzen Stadium, and there’s little reason to expect anything different. Still, Oregon’s offense is always worth tuning in to watch.
Prediction: Oregon 42, Washington 17
FINAL SAY: Oregon 52, Washington 21. Another week, another offensive clinic from the Ducks. Chip Kelly’s squad has yet to receive a test, even from a Washington team that just beat Stanford. Marcus Mariota threw four touchdowns, Kenjon Barner ran for 122 yards and De’Anthony Thomas ran for 75 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, the Ducks forced another five turnovers. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Less than a month until the USC game.
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Wild Card: Louisiana-Monroe (2-2) at Middle Tennessee (3-1)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3.com
Line: Louisiana-Monroe by 3 ½
As was proven in September, both the Warhawks and Blue Raiders are worthy of a slice of our attention. Louisiana-Monroe is America’s Team, having beaten Arkansas, taken Auburn to overtime and gotten clipped by Baylor in a nationally televised shootout. But Middle Tennessee isn’t a stranger to success against teams from BCS leagues either.
The Blue Raiders upended Georgia Tech 49-28 last Saturday; in recent years, they've beaten Maryland twice and played one-score games against Minnesota and Purdue. Of course, they also lost to McNeese State to open this season, but that’s beside the point. Both teams will contend for the Sun Belt championship, and both teams have exciting players to watch in ULM QB Kolton Browning and MTSU RB Benny Cunningham, a senior who emerged from nowhere to rush for 217 yards and five touchdowns last week.
Prediction: Louisiana-Monroe 35, Middle Tennessee 34
FINAL SAY: Louisiana-Monroe 31, Middle Tennessee 17. A week after scoring 49 points at Georgia Tech, the Blue Raiders couldn’t get their offense in gear at home against the mighty Warhawks. MTSU tailback Benny Cunningham ran for another two touchdowns but was held to 62 yards, and the Blue Raiders turned it over three times. Meanwhile, Kolton Browning kept rolling, completing 26 of 38 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown, giving Monroe a nice road win to start Sun Belt play.