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.
Clarity is coming. As we move into the end of October, we have two of the biggest college football weekends of the season. Next week’s Alabama-LSU and Oregon-USC games could decide a lot, but first, several top teams face stiff tests that could make or break their national title hopes this Saturday. From Notre Dame’s biggest game in years, to a meaningful SEC rivalry, to an intriguing game between ineligible teams, there’s much to be learned before heading into the final month of the regular season.
(All times Eastern; rankings from the BCS; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
No. 5 Notre Dame (7-0) at No. 8 Oklahoma (5-1)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Oklahoma by 11
Welcome to the biggest Notre Dame game since the Bush Push. While the Fighting Irish already had a loss, No. 1 USC’s 2005 visit still had the undeniable game-of-the-year feel in South Bend. In fact, it was so big that Notre Dame lost and rewarded Charlie Weis with a 10-year contract two weeks later. We all know how that turned out. Now, last week, Weis’ hapless Kansas Jayhawks were smoked 52-7 by ... Oklahoma. In South Bend, Brian Kelly has taken command, with his defense stepping to the forefront as one of the most dominant units in the country behind Manti Te’o and Stephon Tuitt. We’ve once again been subjected to all the “return to glory” and “college football is better with Notre Dame relevant” talk, and this year finally does feel different than the previous false starts under Weis and Tyrone Willingham over the last decade-plus. The Irish defense is very, very good, and so far it has successfully masked the inconsistency on offense that includes a weekly QB shuffle between Everett Golson, who will start this week, and Tommy Rees.
But this is the Saturday where it’s expected to come crashing down. Oklahoma, which looked sluggish in September, is clicking now, having beaten Texas Tech by three touchdowns, rival Texas by 42 and Kansas by the margin top-10 teams are supposed to beat Kansas. Oklahoma owns the nation’s No. 5 scoring offense and the Big 12’s No. 1 scoring defense, and Landry Jones has tossed just three interceptions after totaling 15 last year. This is the best Notre Dame team in years, one that didn’t give up an offensive touchdown four games in a row, but it is not invincible. Neither is Oklahoma, of course, but Notre Dame’s national title hopes are about to face their stiffest test of the season thus far in Norman. Force Jones into turning over the ball, and Notre Dame can win, but, surprisingly, it might be Oklahoma’s defense that is too much for the Irish to handle.
Prediction: Oklahoma 26, Notre Dame 20
FINAL SAY: Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13. More on the Fighting Irish coming in The Professor, but … wow. Let’s please take them seriously as a national title contender. Notre Dame didn’t turn the ball over, put up 403 yards against a good Oklahoma defense and again was dominant with its own defense. Oh, the Irish also did this on the road in a tough place to play in Norman. What more do they need to prove? They’ll have to win at USC, but that could be the only thing standing in the way of an undefeated season with three easier games (Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest) next on the schedule.
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No. 2 Florida (7-0) vs. No. 10 Georgia (6-1) at Jacksonville
3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Florida by 7
The stakes couldn’t be much higher for the World’s Largest Outdoor Gathering of People That Does Not Involve Drinking Many Cocktails. A Florida win locks up the SEC East with only one conference game to play, putting them in position to play Alabama in the SEC title game with a national championship spot on the line. A Georgia win would give the Bulldogs control of the East, thanks to South Carolina’s two losses.
We’ve seen the Bulldogs play only one truly big game this year, and they laid the biggest of eggs at South Carolina, never having a chance in a 35-7 embarrassment. The defense has woefully underperformed, ranking ninth in the SEC, but the offense is perhaps the most balanced in the league with QB Aaron Murray and freshman RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. But that Georgia offense did hit a brick wall when it faced South Carolina, and now it gets a similar test in the Gators, who have been brilliant defensively, allowing no more than 20 points in a game. Safety Matt Elam in particular has been a force for a great all-around defense that doesn’t have gaudy individual numbers. Everything is about ball control for the Gators, who rank ninth in turnover margin, run the ball effectively with Mike Gillislee -- Georgia has been surprisingly poor against the run -- and have perhaps the game’s greatest weapon in the nation’s best punter, Kyle Christy, who averages nearly 48 yards per kick. The stakes don’t need to be high for both teams for the fan bases to get energized, but it’s never a bad thing when this game has a lot of meaning attached to it.
Prediction: Florida 22, Georgia 17
FINAL SAY: Georgia 17, Florida 9. Three weeks ago, Georgia was embarrassed by South Carolina. Now it controls the SEC East, thanks to Florida turnovers and a generous SEC schedule. It was an ugly game in Jacksonville, with undefeated Florida coughing up the ball six times, including a crucial Jordan Reed fumble in the red zone late to clinch the game for the Bulldogs. Georgia QB Aaron Murray had plenty of trouble with the Florida defense, throwing for only 150 yards with three interceptions, but RB Todd Gurley ran for an impressive 119 yards and a touchdown, and WR Malcolm Mitchell caught a 45-yard touchdown to put Georgia up eight in the fourth quarter. With only two conference games left against Ole Miss and Auburn, the SEC East title is Georgia’s to lose, while Florida’s national title hopes appear lost.
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Ohio State (8-0) at Penn State (5-2)
5:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Night game at Beaver Stadium between two sanctioned, ineligible teams that happen to be the Big Ten’s best -- Mark Emmert must be thrilled. Penn State lost to Ohio, then missed four field goals and lost to a bad Virginia team by a point. Since then, Bill O’Brien’s Nittany Lions have been winning in dominant fashion, most recently in front of a stunned crowd at Iowa. O’Brien is creatively staying one step ahead of defenses with a revolving cast of running backs and tight ends, a talented receiver in Allen Robinson and smart QB play from Matt McGloin. Throw in a constantly improving defense with two of the best linebackers in the country, and Penn State is the toughest test Ohio State will have faced this year, capable of making life difficult for Braxton Miller and testing a shaky secondary.
The Buckeyes may be undefeated, but aside from the Nebraska game, they have been pushed to the brink almost every week. The good news for Ohio State is that the team’s centerpiece, Miller, appears set to play after a scary injury knocked him out of last week’s game. The bad news is its defense still isn’t very good, and, amazingly, O’Brien’s offense is capable of exploiting that weakness. With the way Penn State is playing, in an emotional environment in Happy Valley, the Buckeyes’ undefeated run appears ready to come to an end.
Prediction: Penn State 28, Ohio State 24
FINAL SAY: Ohio State 35, Penn State 23. Penn State’s creative, fast-paced offense finally ran into a brick wall in the form of the Buckeyes’ defensive front, which pressured McGloin and never really allowed the Nittany Lions to find an offensive rhythm. Penn State’s only first-half score was a blocked punt for a touchdown, and Ohio State began to take control in the third quarter on a Ryan Shazier interception return for a touchdown. McGloin ended up throwing for 327 yards, but it was too little, too late, as Heisman candidate Braxton Miller starred again for the Buckeyes, rushing for 134 yards and two touchdowns and putting the game out of reach with a 72-yard TD to Jake Stoneburner in the fourth quarter.
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No. 14 Texas Tech (6-1) at No. 3 Kansas State (7-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, FOX
Line: Kansas State by 7
A big part of me wants to call for an upset. Kansas State is coming off a blowout win on the road in Morgantown, returning home to face a pesky Texas Tech team that’s proving doubters (myself included) wrong by blowing out West Virginia and edging TCU in a multi-overtime shootout. The Red Raiders are equipped to do it all, with the best defense we’ve seen in Lubbock in years and a QB in Seth Doege (28 touchdowns) who puts up numbers we expect to see at Texas Tech, even though Mike Leach is long gone.
But … no. I just can’t pick against Kansas State again. Not after last week. This may be the Wildcats’ toughest remaining test, and the truth is that they could lose any of the games left on their schedule (Oklahoma State, at TCU, at Baylor, Texas). Still … no. Kansas State won in Lubbock, 41-34, last year behind three rushing touchdowns from Collin Klein, and you can expect more of the same from the Heisman favorite, who has been on a tear lately, including seven total touchdowns last week. Toss in the fact that Kansas State’s pass defense totally shut down Geno Smith last week, and it’s hard not to feel great about the Wildcats.
Prediction: Kansas State 31, Texas Tech 24
FINAL SAY: Kansas State 55, Texas Tech 24. Any questions? After the blowout win at West Virginia, the Wildcats returned home, shook off a slow start and blew away Texas Tech with a dominant performance. The two teams were almost even in total yards, but Kansas State once again won the turnover battle (3-0), and Collin Klein once again asserted his status atop the Heisman leaderboard (four total touchdowns). Kansas State scored 42 second-half points, and it has now scored more than 50 points in five of eight games in 2012. Yeah, Bill Snyder’s a pretty good coach.
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No. 11 Mississippi State (7-0) at No. 1 Alabama (7-0)
8:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Alabama by 24
Late October, two undefeated SEC West teams, and no one outside of Starkville is picking Mississippi State to stay within single digits. The Bulldogs are undefeated and have done all they can do, beating the teams on their schedule -- but that includes two FCS teams, and their only two wins over above-.500 teams are Middle Tennessee and Troy. They have an efficient QB (Tyler Russell has 15 TDs and one interception), the SEC’s leading rusher (LaDarius Perkins) and a terrific pair of cornerbacks (Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks have four picks each). But, no, they are not ready to go into Tuscaloosa and win. Mississippi State does a lot of things well, but Alabama does them all better. To be fair, Alabama hasn’t played a tough schedule either, with its best win over a decent Michigan team, but no one doubts the Crimson Tide’s dominance. The Alabama defense ranks No. 1 in everything (total, scoring, rushing, pass efficiency), the Tide is No. 3 nationally in turnover margin, A.J. McCarron hasn’t thrown an interception, the offensive line is full of NFL prospects and RBs T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy are both All-American talents. Try to find something to complain about; Nick Saban would love for you to do so. But anything negative is probably just nitpicking.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Mississippi State 13
FINAL SAY: Alabama 38, Mississippi State 7. Shocking. Another Alabama blowout win, another dominant performance in all facets of the game. The Crimson Tide didn’t even put up impressive individual numbers. It was just another standard all-around effort, as the Bulldogs were held to 256 yards and Alabama won the turnover battle 3-0. A.J. McCarron still hasn’t thrown an interception this season.
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No. 9 USC (6-1) at Arizona (4-3)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN2
Line: USC by 6 ½
USC has been quietly lurking around the top 10 the last few weeks, staying off the radar ever since a loss to Stanford. Now the Trojans start moving into the spotlight again. A home date with undefeated Oregon looms next week, but this Saturday, the Trojans must avoid a trap in Tucson against an Arizona team that can score against anyone (except Oregon, apparently). Since the shutout in Eugene, Arizona has scored 35 against Oregon State, 48 against Stanford and 52 against Washington. The offense ranks fifth nationally, with Ka’Deem Carey hitting 100 yards on the ground five times and Matt Scott leading the Pac-12 in passing. USC has an effective pass rush thanks to Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams, who have 12 ½ sacks between them, but the secondary remains vulnerable, and Scott has proven capable of attacking vulnerable defenses. Of course, we must mention that Arizona’s defense is rather beatable as well, and USC happens to have the most talented group of skill players in the country. But this just has the feeling of another one of those random USC losses we’ve come to expect the last several years, doesn’t it? The Trojans really haven’t beaten anyone good yet this season, and that may not change any time soon.
Prediction: Arizona 35, USC 31
FINAL SAY: Arizona 39, USC 36. So, USC’s elite skill players took full advantage of Arizona’s weak defense. Matt Barkley: 493 yards and three touchdowns. Marqise Lee: 16 catches for 345 yards and two touchdowns, plus a 72-yard punt return. Oh, USC still LOST. The Trojans fell into an early 10-0 hole, then went up 28-13 in the third quarter, then gave up 26 straight Arizona points. Rich Rodriguez’s offense continues to score on everyone not named Oregon, as QB Matt Scott once again had a huge game, throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown. Toss in 119 rushing yards from Ka’Deem Casey and 10 catches for 259 yards for Austin Hill, plus five USC turnovers, and Arizona pulled off the upset, delivering another blow to the AP’s preseason No. 1 team. Don’t count out USC in next week’s game against Oregon, but it’s hard to imagine the Trojans’ defense slowing down the Ducks.
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Cincinnati (5-1) at No. 16 Louisville (7-0)
8 p.m. Friday, ESPN2
Line: Louisville by 3 ½
Finally, the Big East was to have its big moment in October. Two undefeated I-71 rivals, meeting in front of a national Friday night audience, no World Series game to compete with. Then Cincinnati went out and lost to Toledo team that failed to score an offensive touchdown. Sigh. At least the Keg of Nails is on the line. This game really is worth it for the bizarre rivalry trophy, for a quarterback named Munchie Legaux, and for another quarterback named Teddy Bridgewater. Louisville’s Bridgewater has been one of the nation’s most accurate QBs, with a 73.4 percent completion rate, and there’s nothing special about the Bearcats’ pass defense. There’s nothing special about the Cardinals’ defense either, but the better quarterback isn’t who Legaux thinks it is. Charlie Strong has Louisville in position to change its fortunes and beat the Bearcats for the first time since 2007, causing the first domino to fall in the Big East title race.
Prediction: Louisville 27, Cincinnati 21
FINAL SAY: Louisville 34, Cincinnati 31 (Overtime). Much was made of the QB matchup between Munchie Legaux and Teddy Bridgewater, and while both started the game very poorly, Bridgewater turned things around and led Louisville to a dramatic win. Bridgewater completed 24 of 41 for 416 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, putting the Cardinals ahead in the fourth quarter with two long touchdown passes to DeVante Parker. Legaux brought the Bearcats back with a 26-yard TD pass with a minute left to force overtime, but he was intercepted in overtime, setting up Louisville’s game-winning 30-yard field goal (with the help of a botched icing the kicker attempt by Butch Jones). All signs point to the season finale at Rutgers as the Big East championship.
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No. 22 Michigan (5-2) at Nebraska (5-2)
8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2
Line: Nebraska by 2 ½
Most of the Big Ten attention will be on Ohio State-Penn State, but this is the game that will actually matter in the league title race. After Nebraska’s win over Northwestern last week, we’re looking at a possible Legends Division title game. Michigan is the only eligible undefeated team in league play at 3-0, with its losses to Alabama and Notre Dame, while Nebraska has lost to UCLA and Ohio State on the road. So, let’s not totally underestimate these two teams. None of their four losses were at home, and the four teams they lost to have dropped a total of two games -- both belonging to UCLA. Flawed? Yes. But not pushovers. Somehow, Michigan’s defense actually ranks 10th nationally and has barely given up anything in the last five games, therefore making up for Denard Robinson's struggles as a passer. Nebraska has gotten a surprise of its own in the passing of Taylor Martinez, who has improved where Robinson has regressed. Martinez leads the Big Ten in efficiency, throwing 15 touchdowns and four picks, on top of his 405 rushing yards. His drastic improvement has been especially necessary considering the injury problems of I-back Rex Burkhead, who is questionable with a knee injury. Martinez struggled in Nebraska’s two losses, though, throwing four interceptions, and Michigan’s defense is easily the best he’s faced.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Nebraska 21
FINAL SAY: Nebraska 23, Michigan 9. The Michigan offense has fizzled, failing to reach the end zone and putting up a miserable 188 yards with three turnovers in Lincoln. The Wolverines struggled in the first half and received a big blow when Denard Robinson went down with an elbow injury. Backup Russell Bellomy replaced him and completed three of 16 passes with three interceptions. It was another Big Ten field goal fest with the Wolverines and Cornhuskers combining for six made kicks, and Nebraska also got a touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez and a 101 yards and a touchdown from RB Ameer Abdullah, who nicely filled in for Rex Burkhead against a good Michigan defense. Making sense of the Big Ten is pretty much impossible this year, but halfway through the league schedule, Nebraska now controls the Legends Division at 3-1.
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WILD CARD: Kent State (6-1) at No. 15 Rutgers (7-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3.com
Line: Rutgers by 13 ½
A brief history of the MAC vs. the Big East in 2012:
Connecticut 37, Massachusetts 0
Western Michigan 30, Connecticut 24
Ball State 31, South Florida 27
Connecticut 24, Buffalo 17
Cincinnati 52, Miami (Ohio) 14
Toledo 29, Cincinnati 23
Pittsburgh 20, Buffalo 6
TOTAL: Big East 4, MAC 3
This is not to say Kent State stands much of a chance of upsetting undefeated Rutgers. It’s in Piscataway, Rutgers’ defense doesn’t give up much of anything to anyone (11.3 points per game), and while the Golden Flashes are 6-1, they were blown out by Kentucky, and Ball State is the only team they’ve beaten that has a winning record. In other words, that 6-1 record does not come close to telling the whole story. Still, Kent State forces turnovers and is effective on special teams, and dynamic athlete Dri Archer leads the nation in all-purpose yards, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Golden Flashes make things interesting, at least for a little while. Ultimately, though, Rutgers has too much talent, particularly on defense with Khaseem Greene and company, for Kent State to come out with an upset.
Prediction: Rutgers 31, Kent State 14
FINAL SAY: Kent State 35, Rutgers 23. For the second week in a row, a MAC team has taken down an unbeaten Big East team. Last week, it was Toledo over Cincinnati at home. This week, the Golden Flashes stormed into Piscataway and controlled the game thanks to SIX interceptions thrown by Rutgers QB Gary Nova, 131 rushing yards by RB Trayion Durham and, of course, another TD by all-purpose star Dri Archer. Kent State won the turnover battle 7-2 and controlled the clock for 37:05, and while Rutgers remains undefeated in the Big East, this is obviously a huge hit to its 2012 reputation, and the reputation of the Big East– even if Kent State is a pretty good team at 7-1.