Saturday Update: We'll be reviewing all the picks as they happen throughout the day. Check back for more updates, each labeled "Final Say." For comprehensive coverage of the weekend in college football, look for The Professor on Sunday.
A recurring theme in college football this year has been too many good games happening at the same time, as more networks insert themselves in the prime-time mix. Well, that’s not a problem in Week 7. The football gods have spread out the three headline games this week, with the Red River Rivalry early, Notre Dame-Stanford in the afternoon and South Carolina-LSU at night. Throw in several undercard games featuring teams with something to prove (Oregon State, Louisiana Tech, Duke, Mississippi State, etc.), and there’s plenty to watch all day Saturday.
(All times Eastern; rankings from USA TODAY Coaches’ poll; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
* * *
No. 3 South Carolina (6-0) at No. 8 LSU (5-1)
8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: LSU by 3
Last week, LSU was beaten at its own game by Florida. South Carolina can do the same to the Tigers this week. The elite LSU teams of the last few years wore down opponents with their running game, protected the ball and came up with big plays on defense and special teams. We thought LSU could still do that, but the running game has weakened without the banged-up Alfred Blue, the offensive line is struggling and nobody is making the game-changing defensive and special teams plays that sent Tyrann Mathieu to the Heisman ceremony last year. South Carolina, meanwhile, looks like LSU is supposed to, only with a better passing game behind the efficient Connor Shaw. Marcus Lattimore has back-to-back 100-yard rushing games and leads the SEC with nine touchdowns. Jadeveon Clowney leads a deep pool of pass rushers. And receiver Ace Sanders is making Mathieu-like plays on special teams.
South Carolina is in an unfamiliar place, ranked No. 3 and coming off an historic blowout win over Georgia, and now it must go on the road to Baton Rouge, a place where it hasn’t won since 1994. Of course, this is a very different South Carolina team, so history doesn’t matter ... but then again the Gamecocks have been much better at home than on the road this year (a 17-13 win at Vanderbilt and a sluggish effort at Kentucky in which they trailed by 10 at halftime). And Baton Rouge at night certainly isn’t Nashville or Lexington. The Tigers don’t lose much, and they don’t lose much at home.
But all is not well with Les Miles’ club, and their season doesn’t have the same feel as the last couple years. Sure, they have playmakers like linebacker Kevin Minter and ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, but something’s missing. Getting through this three-game gauntlet (at Florida next week) unscathed is a tough task for South Carolina, but the Gamecocks are the better team this year.
Prediction: South Carolina 23, LSU 16
FINAL SAY: LSU 23, South Carolina 21. Now this is the LSU we’ve come to know over the past several years in the Les Miles era. After getting worn down by Florida, the Tigers changed things up and wore down a fantastic South Carolina defense, thanks in part to the emergence of yet another talented tailback – freshman Jeremy Hill, who ran 17 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns. LSU ended up with 406 yards, while its defense was suffocating, holding South Carolina to 211 yards (only 34 rushing). LSU actually trailed 14-10 heading into the fourth quarter, but a couple field goals and a 50-yard run by Hill gave the Tigers control of the game and a pivotal win as they look to fight for the division title with No. 1 Alabama.
* * *
No. 17 Stanford (4-1) at No. 7 Notre Dame (5-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Notre Dame by 7 ½
Notre Dame’s brutal schedule trudges on. The Irish don’t have to play an Alabama or an Oregon; just an endless parade of good teams, each capable of pulling off a win. Stanford’s loss to Washington makes it tough to tell if the Cardinal is Notre Dame’s biggest test yet, and, really, Stanford looks similar to (but a little better than) Michigan State -- an offense revolving around a star tailback and a physical defense. After out-slugging USC and getting out-slugged by Washington, Stanford was torched through the air by Arizona’s Matt Scott, only to mount a comeback behind inconsistent QB Josh Nunes. Notre Dame disposed of Michigan State 20-3 in East Lansing, and we may see a similar result in South Bend this week, given how dominant Manti Te’o, Stephon Tuitt and the Irish defense have been. Of course, Stanford’s defense is pretty good too, despite last week’s result, and if the Cardinal can shut down USC, it can shut down Notre Dame and freshman QB Everett Golson. It’s hard to imagine this being anything other than a defensive slugfest. Stanford has the best offensive player in the game in Stepfan Taylor, but Notre Dame’s defense has shown no signs of letting up. The Irish will slip up once or twice, but not this week.
Prediction: Notre Dame 19, Stanford 16
FINAL SAY: Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13 (overtime). The problem with this score is that the game should probably still be going. After Notre Dame scored to start overtime, Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor broke off a 13-yard run down to the four-yard line. David Shaw proceeded to call four straight Taylor runs, and Notre Dame proceeded to stop Taylor on each attempt. However, replay showed that, on fourth down, Taylor was stuffed short … but he never stopped moving, twisted around and reached the ball into the end zone. It looked like a touchdown. The officials did not overturn it. Sure, we can say Stanford deserved to lose for its lack of creativity, running four straight times right at one of the nation’s best defenses. Except, you know, it did appear to work the last time. The ball crossed the goal line. We can complain all we want. It doesn’t matter. Notre Dame is still undefeated.
* * *
No. 15 Texas (4-1) vs. No. 10 Oklahoma (3-1), at Dallas
Noon Saturday, ABC
Line: Oklahoma by 3
The Red River Rivalry spent the better part of the last decade as the de facto Big 12 South championship game, but times have changed. For one, the Big 12 South doesn’t exist anymore. Both teams have been flawed the last few years, and while a resurgence was expected (and is still possible) this year, the game feels like a consolation to next week’s West Virginia-Kansas State showdown. Of course, any of these teams can win the Big 12, especially with its round-robin format, but Texas’ loss to WVU and Oklahoma’s lost to Kansas State both knocked this game down a peg.
Still, this appears to be the best version of the rivalry since 2008, when both teams were national title contenders. We’re in a bizarre place where Texas appears to have the better quarterback in David Ash, who threw for just 107 yards in a blowout loss to Oklahoma last year but has since found a rhythm and ranks third in the nation in efficiency. Landry Jones, formerly hyped as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick, ranks ninth in the Big 12 in efficiency, and he faces a stiff test in Texas defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor (and, possibly, top LB Jordan Hicks, who missed the last two games with a hip injury).
Oklahoma picked up a nice win at Texas Tech last week, but there’s still little evidence that this is a top-10 team. But there’s plenty of evidence that Texas, despite some lapses on defense, is a much better squad than the one that was blown out in this game last year.
Prediction: Texas 27, Oklahoma 21
FINAL SAY: Oklahoma 63, Texas 21. Better luck next time. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the Big 12, and perhaps Texas isn’t THAT much better than last year. The Longhorns offense was bad, no question, but more problematic is the defense, which is perhaps the most disappointing unit in the nation. With a bunch of stars on the line and in the secondary, Texas has given up 31 to Ole Miss, 36 to Oklahoma State, 48 to West Virginia and now an unforgivable 63 to archrival Oklahoma. As for the Sooners, they’ve put themselves right back in the thick of the Big 12 title race, with Landry Jones throwing for 321 yards and two touchdowns and backup QB Blake Bell coming on to rush for FOUR touchdowns. Good luck to Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz in explaining this one. Oklahoma has now won the last two Red River Shootouts by a total score of 118-38.
* * *
No. 4 West Virginia (5-0) at Texas Tech (4-1)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN
Line: West Virginia by 3 ½
For eight seasons, Dana Holgorsen worked under Mike Leach in Lubbock, coaching the Red Raiders’ wide receivers and assisting with the offense. While there, Texas Tech receivers and quarterbacks shattered records and helped change the game of college football. Five years after Holgorsen left, he returns to Lubbock in his second season as head coach of West Virginia, where he’s put his own spin on the Air Raid offense and is poised to push the Mountaineers to a Big 12 championship in their first year in the conference. Trips to Lubbock can be tricky (that 3 ½-point line is fishy), but Oklahoma easily dispatched of Texas Tech 41-20 last week after the Red Raiders beat Northwestern State, Texas State, New Mexico and Iowa State to claim the nation’s top-ranked defense. The defense is still No. 1 against the pass, but that’s not going to last.
Sure, Tommy Tuberville has this unit looking different than it did in the Leach era, but if Texas isn’t a match for West Virginia’s offensive weapons, then Texas Tech doesn’t have a chance. Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods are too good for anyone to defend, and to make things tougher, when Texas paid no attention to the run game, Andrew Buie ran for more than 200 yards. Smith has thrown 24 TDs without a pick, and his Heisman campaign will roll on here. It’s a trap game, but not one that’s actually going to trip up the undefeated Mountaineers.
Prediction: West Virginia 51, Texas Tech 31
FINAL SAY: Texas Tech 49, West Virginia 14. What just happened? What we learned on Saturday is that absolutely nothing in the Big 12 makes sense. The unstoppable machine that was the West Virginia offense ran into a brick wall in Dana Holgorsen’s former home. Tommy Tuberville’s Red Raiders held Geno Smith to just 275 yards and one touchdown with 26 incompletions (he had a total of 38 incompletions all season entering the game). The Red Raiders out-gained the Mountaineers 676 to 408 yards, with Seth Doege throwing for 499 yards and six touchdowns. And Texas Tech did this despite losing the turnover battle, 2-0. Very little makes sense anymore.
* * *
No. 21 Texas A&M (4-1) vs. No. 24 Louisiana Tech (5-0), at Shreveport, La.
9 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU
Line: Texas A&M by 7 ½
Louisiana Tech appears to be the nation’s best non-BCS conference team, with two convincing road wins against bad BCS conference teams (Illinois and Virginia), and it finally has a chance to solidify its reputation on Saturday night. The Bulldogs and Aggies were originally scheduled to meet opening weekend, but Hurricane Isaac postponed the game, which will be played in Shreveport. It’s the last chance for Louisiana Tech to grab a signature win before it descends into a dreadful WAC schedule. Win this one, and Sonny Dykes’ Bulldogs could be well on their way to an undefeated regular season and a BCS bowl bid. Dykes belongs to the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Air-Raid coaching tree, and he meets another Air-Raid coach in A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, who oversaw Case Keenum’s record numbers (with the help of Dana Holgorsen) at Houston. Both have talented QBs, as Louisiana Tech’s Colby Cameron has yet to throw a pick, and Texas A&M freshman Johnny Manziel is third in the SEC in rushing and third in passing efficiency. Expect offense, and more offense, and then more offense, even after A&M’s lackluster comeback win over Ole Miss last week. Many might hope the Bulldogs will pick up their first ever win against the Aggies and crash the BCS party, but look for Texas A&M to bounce back and end Tech’s BCS hopes.
Prediction: Texas A&M 41, Louisiana Tech 31
FINAL SAY: TEXAS A&M 59, LOUISIANA TECH 57. Look, a total lack of defense can get annoying, but games like Baylor-West Virginia and Texas A&M-Louisiana Tech pass a certain threshold where you have to just sit back and enjoy the show. The Aggies went up 27-0 in the second quarter, only to see the Bulldogs stage multiple second-half rallies, including two touchdowns in the final two minutes. Unfortunately, my dream of a game lasting until sunrise was ruined when Louisiana Tech foolishly attempted a fade on its two-point try with 38 seconds to go.
* * *
Tennessee (3-2) at No. 18 Mississippi State (5-0)
9 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2
Line: Mississippi State by 2 ½
It’s easy to forget that Mississippi State is undefeated. Given the state of Auburn, it’s safe to say the Bulldogs have beaten nobody -- Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama and Kentucky. There’s no reason a decent Mississippi State shouldn’t be undefeated right now. This week’s opponent, Tennessee, is far from elite, and once again the talk has turned to Derek Dooley’s job status. Even though Mississippi State is ranked in the top 20, this is the type of game that could push Vols fans over the edge in terms of support for Dooley. It’s also the type of game that Mississippi State, if it’s actually deserving of a top-20 ranking, needs to win. Tennessee’s offense is by far the best the Bulldogs have faced so far this year. Tyler Bray remains erratic as a passer, but he’ll challenge the Mississippi State defense, with the matchup of Tennessee WRs Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter against Mississippi State CBs Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay standing out as one of the best of the week. After undergoing hip surgery during the week, Dooley will coach from the press box in what looks like one of the most important games in his tenure, a must-win before games against Alabama and South Carolina. The cowbells will be ringing under the lights, but Mississippi State’s defense will falter in its first real test of 2012.
Prediction: Tennessee 31, Mississippi State 27
FINAL SAY: Mississippi State 41, Tennessee 31. Mississippi State: still undefeated. Derek Dooley: still on the hot seat. The Bulldogs still don’t have a signature win, but they’ve taken care of business in moving to 6-0, and that includes putting together a complete effort to take care of the Vols Saturday night. Tyler Russell threw for 291 yards and two touchdowns, LaDarius Perkins ran for 101 yards and a touchdown and the talented Mississippi State cornerbacks held Tennessee to only 148 passing holds, locking Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson down (two catches each). No, Mississippi State won’t challenge Alabama for the SEC West title, but this is a pretty good Bulldogs team.
* * *
No. 9 USC (4-1) at Washington (3-2)
7 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Line: USC by 12 ½
USC has done little particularly impressive this season. The AP’s preseason No. 1 team was out-muscled in a loss to Stanford in Week 3, and while the Trojans are still floating around the Top 10, they haven't done much to prove they actually belong there. Last week at Utah, they finally got their downfield passing game in gear after a rough start, and while Lane Kiffin’s play-calling has generally been too conservative, an underperforming offensive line is also to blame. It’s hard to know what to make of Washington as well, as the Huskies were torched by LSU and Oregon and have struggled on offense, ranking 107th in the country in total yards and last in the Pac-12 in passing with subpar blocking up front. Talent-wise, USC remains one of the best teams in the country, particularly with the weapons it has on offense. Superior talent wins out this week in Seattle with Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee once again leading the way.
Prediction: USC 33, Washington 20
FINAL SAY: USC 24, Washington 14. The Washington pass defense has been strong this season, and that didn’t change Saturday night. Matt Barkley completed only 10 of 20 passes for 167 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and the Huskies were able to hold Marqise Lee to two catches for 32 yards. The Trojans were all about the ground game behind Penn State transfer Silas Redd, who had his second 150-yard game in three weeks, rushing 26 times for 155 yards and one touchdown. It’s a solid road win for USC, given that Washington beat Stanford, but the Trojans have still done nothing to prove they’re capable of taking down Oregon.
* * *
No. 14 Oregon State (4-0) at BYU (4-2)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: BYU by 6
BYU scored only 12 points in two of its last three games (losing to Boise State 7-6, and beating Utah State 6-3), but somehow the Cougars are favored by six points against an undefeated Pac-12 team. Vegas may be on to something this week. Oregon State has been a great story early in the season, already eclipsing its 2011 win total with wins over Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona and Washington State, a vastly improved run defense and terrific production in the passing game. Well, unfortunately, the first bad vibes of the season arrived this week when sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion was lost to knee surgery (he’ll be out a few weeks). With Mannion out, junior Cody Vaz will make his first career start against a BYU defense that ranks near the top of the nation in all major categories and is allowing just 8.8 points per game. BYU has also been hurt by injuries, as freshman QB/leading rusher Taysom Hill tore his ACL, but senior QB Riley Nelson, who opened the season as the starter, is ready to return after a back injury sidelined him for two games. Oregon State’s defense will make this a game, but the unbeaten streak will end against an even better BYU defense.
Prediction: BYU 13, Oregon State 10
FINAL SAY: Oregon State 42, BYU 24. BYU’s defense entered Saturday No. 1 against the run, No. 3 in points allowed and No. 5 in total yards. The Cougars had given up 10 points in their last THREE games total. Oregon State had to play without starting QB Sean Mannion. It’s safe to say that 42 points were quite unexpected. Mike Riley’s Beavers just keep rolling on, now 5-0, and in his first start in place of Mannion, Cody Vaz threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns. The game was tied, 21-21, after three quarters, but Oregon State scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 47-yard interception return by Jordan Poyer – one of three Riley Nelson interceptions.
* * *
WILD CARD: Duke (5-1) at Virginia Tech (3-3)
12:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3.com
Line: Virginia Tech by 9
Duke has been a great story so far, winning five of its first six games, but, let’s look at the schedule: Duke has beaten Florida International (1-5 record), North Carolina Central (FCS team that lost by 20 to Elon), Memphis (one of the worst programs in the country), Wake Forest (OK, it did beat UNC, but also nearly lost to Liberty) and Virginia (four straight losses since it was handed a gift win over Penn State). To be fair, the games against Virginia and Wake Forest are ones most Duke teams would lose, but the Blue Devils also lost 50-13 to Stanford, the only good team they’ve played. David Cutcliffe clearly has something going for a program that hasn’t been to a bowl since 1994, and the Blue Devils fortunately should see the return of starting QB Sean Renfree from an elbow injury. But even if times have changed, it's unlikely that Duke marches into Lane Stadium and beats a Virginia Tech team that is bound to turn things around soon. Bowl eligibility won’t come easy with a much tougher second-half schedule, even with only one win to go.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 30, Duke 20
FINAL SAY: Virginia Tech 41, Duke 20. For 15 minutes, Duke football looked nothing like the Duke football we’ve grown accustomed to. The Blue Devils came out firing in Blacksburg, hurtling toward bowl eligibility as they jumped out to a 20-0 lead in front of a stunned Lane Stadium. Then, with 41 seconds to play in the first quarter, Martin Scales scored a four-yard TD for the Hokies, and things wouldn’t be the same again. Virginia Tech went on to score 41 straight points to close out the game, forcing four Duke turnovers and holding the Blue Devils to 22 rushing yards on 29 attempts, while Hokies freshman tailback J.C. Coleman ran wild, racking up 183 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. For a few moments, Duke looked like it could actually contend in the ACC Coastal. But reality set in, and now Duke must pick up the pieces against a much tougher second half of the schedule.