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.
We’re down to 11 undefeated teams halfway through the season, and now formerly undefeated South Carolina and West Virginia must bounce back from crucial losses as they try to turn the tables on Florida and Kansas State in the two biggest games of the week. Throw in the contrast-in-styles showdown between LSU and Texas A&M at noon, and for the second week in a row there’s a big game in each Saturday TV window.
Who will fall from the ranks of the unbeaten this week? The Pick ‘Em explores the possibilities.
(All times Eastern; rankings from the BCS; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
No. 7 South Carolina (6-1) at No. 2 Florida (6-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Florida by 3 ½
The Spurrier Bowl has more meaning than ever in 2012, a year in which both the Gamecocks and Gators are national contenders with stingy defenses and physical running games. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to have -- but South Carolina may be shorthanded, as star running back Marcus Lattimore (hip) may not be able to start, or even play.
The Gamecocks are finishing a brutal, emotional three-game stretch that included a blowout win over Georgia at home, and a physical trip to LSU in which they were worn down in the fourth quarter and lost their first game of the year. A limited or missing Lattimore makes the task of scoring on Florida’s sixth-ranked scoring defense even tougher, as Lattimore is the centerpiece of the offense and backup Kenny Miles has only 100 yards in seven games. South Carolina won 17-12 in Columbia last year, and you can expect a similar defensive battle here, with Florida attempting to get Mike Gillislee going on the ground against the Gamecocks’ fifth-ranked scoring defense. Last week, LSU’s running game eventually wore down South Carolina’s star-studded defensive front, and that will be the goal of Florida again, mostly with Gillislee, and possibly with QB Jeff Driskel, who broke out as a runner with 177 yards at Vanderbilt last week.
A win here, and South Carolina controls its national title destiny, as it would lead the SEC East with only two league games, plus the SEC title game, remaining. The same goes for Florida, which must turn around and play the Cocktail Party against Georgia next week. Unfortunately for South Carolina, the timing of the Lattimore injury couldn’t be much worse. The Gators stay unbeaten in The Swamp.
Prediction: Florida 20, South Carolina 16
FINAL SAY: Florida 44, South Carolina 11. This will go down as one of the weirdest box scores of the season. At first glance, it looks like Florida got its offense rolling and South Carolina’s defense once again wore down. Of course, not only did South Carolina out-gain Florida by eight yards, but it out-gained Florida only 191 to 183. At one point in the second quarter, Florida had a 21-3 lead with 28 total yards. That’s because the Gators forced three Gamecocks fumbles, converting them all into touchdowns. With a banged-up Marcus Lattimore only on the field for three carries, South Carolina finished with 36 rushing yards against a great Florida defense, and Steve Spurrier benched QB Connor Shaw for Dylan Thompson, who was just as ineffective. Florida’s defense is very, very good, and when the Gators win the turnover battle 4-0 and convert those turnovers into points, they’re not going to lose, no matter how much their own offense struggles. Florida controls the SEC East.
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No. 4 Kansas State (6-0) at No. 13 West Virginia (5-1)
7 p.m. Saturday, FOX
Line: West Virginia by 2 ½
Let’s remember a few things: 1) Kansas State plays a lot of really close games; 2) Kansas State can struggle when playing from behind; 3) West Virginia can still score on ANYONE. Yes, betting against Bill Snyder and Collin Klein feels foolish at this point. It’s quite possible the Wildcats will step into Morgantown, run the ball down the throats of a bad West Virginia defense, control the clock and emerge unscathed. But this is a night game in Morgantown. This is West Virginia attempting to bounce back from a bad loss. Geno Smith still hasn’t thrown an interception all year, and Kansas State thrives on winning the turnover battle to win close games. He had a couple fumbles against Texas, but Smith protects the ball well, and Kansas State’s 74th-ranked pass defense is nothing special.
I don’t want to call Kansas State’s absurd record in close contests (15-4 in games decided by seven points or fewer since Snyder’s return in 2009) luck, because Snyder is one of the best coaches in America and Klein is one of the best all-around players in America. Throw in tough running back John Hubert, and this is an ideal Snyder team. Still, nobody is getting through the Big 12 without a loss, and while Kansas State won at Oklahoma, expect the WVU offense to be back in high gear on Saturday night -- although the questionable status of WR Stedman Bailey (ankle) is an issue.
Prediction: West Virginia 42, Kansas State 38
FINAL SAY: Kansas State 55, West Virginia 14. Well. I’m done doubting Bill Snyder. I’m done doubting Kansas State. I’m done making any excuses for West Virginia. This was a beatdown in every sense, with Collin Klein completing 19 of 21 passes for 323 yards and accounting for six touchdowns, Tyler Lockett catching nine passes for 194 yards and a touchdown, and Geno Smith throwing for just 143 yards with his first two interceptions of the season. There’s not even much to say about the game itself. West Virginia has totally collapsed the last two weeks and has no ability to stop anyone. It’s hard to imagine Smith having a chance at the Heisman, while WVU’s collapse opens up the Heisman race for Klein. Kansas State still has a few tough games left (next week against Texas Tech, for one), but this is a team that can go undefeated.
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No. 6 LSU (6-1) at No. 18 Texas A&M (5-1)
Noon Saturday, ESPN
Line: LSU by 3 ½
Last week, LSU finally looked like the LSU we’ve grown accustomed to over the last few years. The Tigers trailed South Carolina after three quarters, then wore the Gamecocks down physically and got a breakout effort from freshman Jeremy Hill to provide a jolt to an underperforming running game. This week brings a fascinating contrast in styles. Kevin Sumlin’s offense was bottled up by a physical Florida defense, but that was in Sumlin’s first game in charge, and Johnny Manziel’s first game as a starting quarterback. Since then, Texas A&M has developed into one of the nation’s most explosive teams, with Manziel emerging as a star. After his ridiculous performance against Louisiana Tech (181 rushing yards, 395 passing yards, six total touchdowns), Manziel now leads the SEC in rushing and is second in passing efficiency. And he’s a freshman. It will be fascinating to watch Manziel adjust to the nation’s No. 2 defense after facing SMU, South Carolina State, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech.
These contrasts in styles are one of the most interesting aspects of college football, and while Texas A&M’s defense was actually decent until last week’s shootout in Shreveport, it feels like a game in which LSU can get its offense on track, assuming the Tigers’ offensive line holds it together -- something that could be a problem against Texas A&M end Damontre Moore, who leads the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss. This is a tricky game for the Tigers, in College Station with an 11 a.m. CT kickoff, but Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, Kevin Minter and the athletic LSU front seven are good enough to contain Manziel as a runner and push the Tigers to a win.
Prediction: LSU 28, Texas A&M 24
FINAL SAY: LSU 24, Texas A&M 19. Not many teams can pass for 97 yards and beat a Kevin Sumlin coached team. Les Miles’ LSU Tigers are unlike most teams. Texas A&M dominated LSU early, jumping out to a 12-0 lead, and the Aggies’ 416 total yards marked the first time this season LSU has given up more than 300 in a game. But LSU has made a living winning games by forcing turnovers, and that’s exactly what happened Saturday in College Station. LSU forced three Johnny Manziel interceptions and totally contained his running, holding him to 24 yards on 16 carries. Throw in another 100-yard game from freshman running back Jeremy Hill, and we have just your average, weird LSU road win.
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No. 1 Alabama (6-0) at Tennessee (3-3)
7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Alabama by 20 ½
At some point, Alabama has to be unexpectedly challenged, right? We’ve seen it before in the Third Saturday in October rivalry, mammoth lineman Terrence Cody plowing through the line to block a Tennessee field goal to give Alabama a 12-10 win in 2009’s national title season. But under Derek Dooley, the Vols haven’t come close to the Tide. Alabama won 41-10 in 2010, 37-6 last season, and another blowout win for Bama only pushes Dooley one step farther out the door in Knoxville. Really, even with the game at Neyland Stadium, and even with A.J. McCarron nursing a banged-up knee, it’s hard to imagine anything but a dominant effort from the Crimson Tide. Strange things can happen, especially with Tennessee’s offensive firepower, led by Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson (although Tyler Bray also has a knee injury), but all signs point to many, many yards on the ground from Alabama running backs T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy. Both backs had more than 100 yards last week against Missouri, and this is the same Tennessee defense that gave up 336 rushing yards to Florida and 274 to Georgia. As usual, Alabama will control the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide doesn’t appear to be capable of a full-game letdown.
Prediction: Alabama 41, Tennessee 17
FINAL SAY: Alabama 44, Tennessee 13. It’s just effortless at this point. Alabama has barely even been in the headlines each Saturday. The Crimson Tide just takes care of business, never leaving any doubt. The defense was dominant again, holding Tennessee to 282 yards, and while Tennessee has the biggest names at wide receiver, Alabama freshman Amari Cooper had a breakout game with seven catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns. A.J. McCarron threw four touchdowns, T.J. Yeldon ran for 129 yards and two scores, and there is still very little doubt that Alabama is the best team in the country, even with dominant efforts from Florida, Kansas State and Oregon this week.
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BYU (4-3) at No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Notre Dame by 13
BYU is only 4-3, lost to Utah State and scored only six points in a one-point loss to Boise State. Yet it still feels like this game is up for grabs. Despite BYU’s defensive lapses, which allowed Oregon State to score 42 points last week with a fourth-quarter run, this is still a very good defense that ranks fifth in the nation in total yards and is giving up just 13.6 points per game.
Then again, scoring on Notre Dame’s defense is another matter. The Irish have been relentless, giving up 8.7 points per game with no offensive touchdowns allowed since Sept. 8 against Purdue. That’s an absurd stat, and while Manti Te’o is getting a lot of deserved attention as the leader and best player on the defense, the entire unit has stepped up, especially a secondary that was expected to be a weak link heading into the season. Notre Dame starting quarterback Everett Golson (concussion) has been cleared, but we’ve learned to also expect to see Tommy Rees every week, too.
As good as Notre Dame has been, the offense still has major question marks, especially if Golson can’t protect the ball, but it’s less of a question mark than BYU’s erratic offense (six touchdowns, eight interceptions for QB Riley Nelson, who’s been dealing with a back injury). The Irish stay unbeaten, setting up a showdown with Oklahoma next week in Norman.
Prediction: Notre Dame 23, BYU 13
FINAL SAY: Notre Dame 17, BYU 14. Once again, the Irish survived, fighting through a 14-7 halftime deficit and two missed field goals to win a trap game sandwiched between Stanford and next week’s trip to Oklahoma. BYU got a pair of short TD passes from Riley Nelson in the second quarter, ending Notre Dame’s ridiculous streak of not allowing an offensive touchdown since the second game of the season. Overall, though, the Notre Dame defense was its typical suffocating self, forcing two turnovers and holding BYU to just 243 yards with no second-half points. On offense, Tommy Rees – who started for Everett Golson – struggled but was bailed out by a great afternoon from the running game, as both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood topped 100 yards. Seven games, seven wins. Yes, Notre Dame is still undefeated.
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No. 14 Florida State (6-1) at Miami (4-3)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Florida State by 21
Miami has dropped back-to-back games to Notre Dame and North Carolina, and now the only thing anyone wants to talk about in relation to the Hurricanes is the number of vacant orange seats at Sun Life Stadium. This week, they expect the stadium to be full -- which you’d think would be the case for a prime-time clash with in-state rival Florida State. After climbing as high as No. 3 in the polls, the Seminoles plummeted off the national radar after blowing a lead and losing to N.C. State. They rebounded to score 51 points against a bad Boston College defense last week, and they could do the same Saturday.
While E.J. Manuel threw for only 196 yards in last year’s 23-19 win against Miami, this Canes’ defense ranks 117th in total yards, and between Manuel and running backs Chris Thompson, James Wilder and Devonta Freeman, the Seminoles shouldn’t have much of a problem lighting up the scoreboard. Five of seven Miami opponents have scored at least 32 points, and to make life more difficult against one of the nation’s best defenses, the status of Miami QB Stephen Morris is uncertain because of an ankle injury. The seats may be full early in the game, but there could be a lot of orange by the end of the night.
Prediction: Florida State 42, Miami 20
FINAL SAY: Florida State 33, Miami 20. It was far from a perfect night for the Seminoles, who lost running back Chris Thompson early to a knee injury. But after falling into an early 10-0 hole, FSU pretty much took care of business, although it had to rely on four Dustin Hopkins field goals. With Thompson out, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder combined to score three rushing touchdowns, and the Seminoles’ defense put the clamps down on Miami’s offense, holding the Hurricanes to 258 total yards with a hobbled Stephen Morris at quarterback. Florida State maintains control in the ACC Atlantic.
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No. 17 Texas Tech (5-1) at No. 23 TCU (5-1)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN2
Line: Texas Tech by 1
After losing to Iowa State, TCU was just fine without QB Casey Pachall last week, as sophomore Trevone Boykin threw for 261 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 56 yards and another score in a dominant 49-21 win over Baylor. So dismissing the Horned Frogs without Pachall seems foolish, especially because their defense is, as usual under Gary Patterson, one of the stingiest in the country. Iowa State scored 37, but nobody has done anything against them otherwise, although they’ve yet to face any of the elite teams in the Big 12. The first major challenge comes this week against a Texas Tech squad that suddenly looked worthy of its 5-1 record in a shocking 49-14 win over West Virginia and should give Boykin more of a test than Baylor. The Red Raiders rank fourth in pass defense and fourth in passing offense, which is an unusual combination, especially for Texas Tech. They hold the offensive edge with QB Seth Doege (21 touchdowns), and even though this is the best defense they’ve faced, it’s hard to pick against them after last week’s shocker.
Prediction: Texas Tech 31, TCU 24
FINAL SAY: Texas Tech 56, TCU 53 (3 OT). Yeah, it’s probably time to take Texas Tech seriously. After a cupcake nonconference schedule, the Red Raiders have beaten Iowa State, West Virginia and TCU with their only loss coming to a good Oklahoma team. Arguably the two best defenses in the Big 12 ended up in a multi-overtime shootout Saturday afternoon in Fort Worth, and the Red Raiders got another great effort from QB Seth Doege, who completed 30 of 42 passes for 318 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. The lead swung back and forth all game, with TCU taking a 26-21 lead early in the fourth quarter, Texas Tech scoring back-to-back TDs to go up 10 and TCU scoring a TD and kicking a field goal in the final 2:25 of regulation. What’s encouraging for TCU is that QB Trevone Boykin had another encouraging game, but it’s Texas Tech that appears to be a legitimate conference contender.
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Virginia Tech (4-3) at No. 19 Clemson (5-1)
Noon Saturday, ABC/ESPN2
Line: Clemson by 8
Virginia Tech has not looked very good this season, but perhaps last Saturday’s wake-up call against Duke (down 20-0 in the first before storming back for a 41-20 win) is a springboard into the second half of the season. It’s weird saying that about a game against Duke, but the Hokies will take what they can get at this point. Despite the 4-3 record, they still have only one conference loss, and that was to an ineligible North Carolina team, so they’re once again in the Coastal driver’s seat by default.
This is a rematch of last year’s ACC title game, in which Clemson unexpectedly trounced Virginia Tech, 38-10. Clemson has been laying low since its Florida State loss, beating Boston College and Georgia Tech, and this remains the same team with an explosive offense but a highly vulnerable defense. Clemson is at least as good as it was last year; Virginia Tech is clearly worse, with mediocre performances on both sides of the ball. With Tajh Boyd handing off to Andre Ellington and throwing to DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, Clemson has too many weapons for Virginia Tech to handle in Death Valley.
Prediction: Clemson 40, Virginia Tech 30
FINAL SAY: Clemson 38, Virginia Tech 17. The fact that Virginia Tech managed only 17 points against the Clemson defense says it all. The Hokies took the lead within five minutes of the opening kickoff, then they fell asleep and turned the ball over four times. Inexplicably, they lost by three touchdowns despite holding the explosive Tigers to just 295 yards on offense (they entered the week averaging 525 yards per game). But QB Tajh Boyd accounted for three total touchdowns, and Clemson got a big 74-yard interception return for a TD by Jonathan Meeks, one of two picks thrown by Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas. The ACC might as well forget divisions this year and just let Clemson and Florida State play again in the championship game.
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WILD CARD: No. 21 Cincinnati (5-0) at Toledo (6-1)
7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3.com
Line: Cincinnati by 7
Really, it’s worth briefly writing about Toledo just to mention last week’s absurd third quarter against Eastern Michigan. The essential MAC blog Hustle Belt breaks it all down, complete with video, but in short, the Rockets and Eagles combined to score 55 points and rack up 578 yards in 34 plays in the third quarter alone. Of course, moving forward to a game against 5-0 Cincinnati, it’s worth noting that the Toledo defense is, uh … not good. The Rockets rank 116th against the pass, and they gave up those yards and points to a winless Eastern Michigan team that ranks 106th in total offense. With that said, Toledo can at least score points, especially with receivers Bernard Reedy (52 catches) and Alonzo Russell (18 yards per catch).
Games at Toledo always feel like weird trap games, and that’s exactly what this could be for Cincinnati, six days before its Big East showdown at Louisville next Friday. Still, while Toledo could make this interesting, the Bearcats and QB Munchie Legaux will have no problem moving the ball against this Rockets defense.
Prediction: Cincinnati 42, Toledo 28
FINAL SAY: Toledo 29, Cincinnati 23. Well, I didn’t actually call for the upset. But I did tell you to watch this game, and I did refer to a trip to the Glass Bowl as a trap game. Toledo running back David Fluellen was the star of the night for the Rockets on offense, finishing with 24 carries for 162 yards, but, miraculously, Toledo won despite scoring no offensive touchdowns. The Rockets had a 75-yard interception return and a 91-yard kick return, and kicker Jeremiah Detmer hit all five of his field goal attempts. Toledo is 7-1, and its only loss was in overtime in the opener at Arizona, while Rutgers and Louisville are left as the two undefeated teams in the Big East.