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.
It’s finally here. No, Alabama, LSU, Oregon and USC aren’t all undefeated at this point, as some expected heading into the season, but Saturday is still an enormous night for sorting out the national championship race. These are the biggest tests of the season so far for the undefeated Crimson Tide and Ducks; fellow undefeated Kansas State also has a prime-time game against Oklahoma State’s high-powered offense. The day is top-heavy in quality of games, so the afternoon could be a bit sleepy, but the night promises to provide must-see TV, with three undefeated teams facing ranked opponents simultaneously.
(All times Eastern; rankings from the BCS; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
FINAL SAY: Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26 (3OT). Perhaps foolishly, I did not include this game in the original Pick ‘Em, wrongfully assuming that Notre Dame would take care of business, after an impressive win at Oklahoma, against a Pitt team that opened its season by losing to Youngstown State. Well, uh, not quite. Much more to come in The Professor column on Sunday, but the Fighting Irish rallied from a 20-6 fourth-quarter deficit and overcame two interceptions (one each by Everett Golson and Tommy Rees in another QB carousel) to force overtime. After the teams traded field goals in the first overtime, Pitt had a chance to win when Cierre Wood lost a fumble at the goal line, but Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal. Harper then hit a 44-yarder to open the third overtime, but Notre Dame finally ended it with a sneak by Golson at the goal line. Yes, the Irish survived again, moving to 9-0 with Boston College, Wake Forest and USC left – and the possibility of missing the national title game with an undefeated record still looming.
No. 1 Alabama (8-0) at No. 5 LSU (7-1)
8 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Alabama by 8
Let’s just hope we don’t get a repeat of last season’s horribly anticlimactic national title game in which LSU gained 92 yards and failed to score a point against Alabama. The defending champs have since lost several key NFL-quality players on defense but haven’t lost a step, ranking No. 1 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass defense, and No. 2 in turnover margin. The Crimson Tide is giving up a miniscule 8.1 points per game, and while LSU won the first meeting last year in Tuscaloosa, the Tigers still didn’t score a touchdown in either of the meetings. It’s quite possible that trend will continue Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
Zach Mettenberger hasn’t upgraded the passing game like they hoped -- the Tigers rank last in the SEC in passing -- and although the running game has been jumpstarted by freshman Jeremy Hill the last couple of weeks, running against the Alabama defensive front is almost always a losing battle. That’s not to say LSU can’t win. Its defense is by far the biggest test Alabama has faced this season, and if there’s ever a week for A.J. McCarron to finally throw an interception, it’s against LSU, even without Tyrann Mathieu in the mix. LSU ranks in the top 10 of all major defensive categories, and the matchup of Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter and the LSU front seven against Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and the Alabama offensive line is as good a battle in the trenches as we’ll see in college football this year. LSU has the benefit of a raucous nighttime crowd in Death Valley, but just about everything it does well, Alabama does better. Now’s the time for Alabama to get its signature win on the way back to another national title game appearance.
Prediction: Alabama 24, LSU 10
FINAL SAY: Alabama 21, LSU 17. The game lived up to hype. No, it wasn’t always pretty, but for drama, a big-game atmosphere and national-title implications, this was a great night for college football. Up 14-3 at halftime, Alabama appeared ready to slowly break down LSU and win like it usually does, but for the first time all season the Crimson Tide faced a team that was capable of fighting back. Suddenly, Zach Mettenberger sprung to life and delivered his best start as LSU’s QB, throwing for 298 yards and a touchdown against the nation’s No. 1 defense. Throw in another 100-yard game from freshman RB Jeremy Hill, and LSU’s mediocre offense put up an almost unfathomable 435 yards against a defense it couldn’t cross the 50-yard line against last January. But while LSU scored a couple touchdowns and carried a 17-14 lead through much of the fourth quarter, A.J. McCarron finally put together a drive at the end after a very rough night, ending with a perfect screen call to T.J. Yeldon, who took it 28 yards for a touchdown with 51 seconds left. Another week. Another win. It was much more dramatic than we’re used to from Alabama, but it’s still the king of college football.
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No. 4 Oregon (8-0) at No. 17 USC (6-2)
7 p.m. Saturday, FOX
Line: Oregon by 8 ½
For months, we hyped Nov. 3 as the night when all would be decided, a virtual four-team playoff between possibly the nation’s top four teams. Well, as always in college football, things haven’t worked out quite as expected. But that doesn’t mean the Oregon-USC game isn’t important. Despite USC’s flaws, it boasts the most talent Oregon has seen all year; of course, it’s worth mentioning that the Trojans just lost to a good Arizona team that Oregon beat 49-0. Last year, the Trojans knocked the Ducks out of the national title race with a 38-35 win in Eugene. This year, an even better Oregon team must travel to the Coliseum, where it won 53-32 in 2010.
USC has ridiculous star power at the skill positions in QB Matt Barkley, RB Silas Redd and WRs Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, but that hasn’t made up for weaknesses in pass defense, and it hasn’t made up for some unexpected struggles along the offensive line (see the Stanford game). Oregon’s defense is better than expected, but Lee and Woods on the outside provide a unique test, and last year Barkley threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns. Oregon’s defense gets after opposing QBs, though, and it’s nearly impossible to keep pace with the Ducks’ offense. This will be a telling game for Marcus Mariota behind center, but he’s a talented player who’s benefited from being flanked by two of the most explosive runners in America in Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. USC has depth issues, the jury is still out on Lane Kiffin and while Oregon may face some adversity for the first time this year, it’s been on another level all year. USC was the “it” program of the 2000s, the one that put up a lot of points and easily sold recruits. Oregon has taken over its throne on the West Coast.
Prediction: Oregon 45, USC 35
FINAL SAY: Oregon 62, USC 51. Some numbers: Oregon put up 730 yards on offense. USC put up 615. Oregon RB Kenjon Barner ran 38 times for 321 yards and five touchdowns. USC WR Marqise Lee caught 12 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 31.4 yards on eight kick returns. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 96 yards. USC QB Matt Barkley threw for 484 yards and five touchdowns. Defense was not played in Los Angeles on Saturday night, but let’s not worry about such things. Oregon’s offense is remarkable, and I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t be excited about the possibility of this Ducks offense facing Alabama.
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No. 24 Oklahoma State (5-2) at No. 2 Kansas State (8-0)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Kansas State by 8 ½
Everything may look like it’s headed toward a BCS meltdown and an ideal situation for a four-team playoff, but college football has taught us over and over that someone big is going to lose, perhaps unexpectedly. Most of the attention this Saturday night will be on the other big games, Alabama-LSU and Oregon-USC. But let’s not forget the Oklahoma State Cowboys. It’s true that Oklahoma State doesn’t have any truly big wins; its best was last week over a TCU team that was playing without starting QB Casey Pachall. It’s also true that Oklahoma State boosted its stats early by winning 82-0 against Savannah State, a bad FCS team. But that doesn’t mean the Cowboys aren’t dangerous. Despite losing Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, they lead the nation in total offense, and they have one of the nation’s most underrated running backs in Joseph Randle, who leads the Big 12 in rushing and has hit 100 yards in six of seven games.
I’ve picked against Kansas State on multiple occasions, and Bill Snyder and Collin Klein have made those picks look foolish. I’ll probably look foolish again. Klein has played brilliantly, and the Wildcats have looked dominant defensively, not giving up more than 24 points all year. Oklahoma State isn’t coming close to winning the turnover battle like last year. Its offensive line isn’t as good. And instead of Weeden, they’ve had two freshmen at QB -- now back to Wes Lunt, who missed time with a knee injury but returned to throw for 324 yards against TCU. Still, Oklahoma State remains capable of scoring points in a hurry, and its defense is solid. Kansas State has to slip up in a close game some time, right?
Prediction: Oklahoma State 35, Kansas State 34
FINAL SAY: Kansas State 44, Oklahoma State 30. Well, you win some, you lose some with upset calls. Oklahoma State struck first and hung around for a while, but Kansas State, as usual, controlled the game most of the way, again winning the turnover battle, this time 5-0. The Cowboys ended up throwing for 417 yards between Wes Lunt and Clint Chelf, but star RB Joseph Randle was held to only 43 yards on 15 carries by the Wildcats’ defense. Going forward, the biggest story for undefeated K-State could be the health of Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein, who threw for 245 yards and ran 17 times for 64 yards and a touchdown. However, Klein was removed from the game with an undisclosed injury and missed much of the second half. Obviously, Kansas State’s hopes are closely tied to Klein.
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No. 16 Texas A&M (6-2) at No. 15 Mississippi State (7-1)
Noon Saturday, ESPN
Line: Texas A&M by 7
Mississippi State had a nice 7-0 start and all, but its best win is over Tennessee, and Alabama delivered a painful reality check last week. Of course, nobody thought Mississippi State was actually a top-10 team. This week provides a more realistic challenge for a Bulldogs team searching for respect under Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs boast a great pair of cornerbacks in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, and they’ll be challenged by Kevin Sumlin’s wide-open Texas A&M attack led by star freshman QB Johnny Manziel. The Aggies are scoring 45.5 points per game, with Manziel throwing 16 TD passes and leading the conference in rushing yards (99.1 per game) and rushing TDs (13). Meanwhile, though the defense is mediocre, the Aggies do boast a playmaker at end in Damontre Moore, who has 10 ½ sacks and 18 tackles for loss. QB Tyler Russell and RB Ladarius Perkins have had very good seasons for the Bulldogs, but Manziel and Moore are the two best players in the game. A&M gets a big win before heading to Tuscaloosa next week.
Prediction: Texas A&M 38, Mississippi State 27
FINAL SAY: Texas A&M 38, Mississippi State 13. Mississippi State is by no means a bad team; there was just no reason to get too excited about the 7-0 start, given its horrible first-half schedule. The previously stingy Bulldogs’ pass defense was torched by star Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, who completed 30-of-36 passes for 336 yards and ran 21 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Manziel’s potential under Kevin Sumlin appears unlimited, and the Aggies could certainly become players in the SEC West much sooner than expected. In addition to Manziel’s big day, Ben Malena ran for 112 yards, and Ryan Swope and Mike Evans both had nine catches for more than 120 yards. It will be very interesting to see how Manziel and this offense handle Alabama next week in Tuscaloosa.
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No. 22 Arizona (5-3) at UCLA (6-2)
10:30 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Network
Line: UCLA by 3 ½
USC was expected to run away with the Pac-12 South in its return to eligibility but, amazingly, this game could go a long way toward determining the division title. UCLA backed its way into a title last year with a 6-6 record; clearly, it’s much improved this year behind Jim Mora, freshman QB Brett Hundley and senior running back Johnathan Franklin. The one near-certainty in this game is that many points will be scored. Neither UCLA nor Arizona is particularly capable of stopping anyone, but they both boast talented offenses (the Bruins’ inexplicable blowout loss to Cal aside). Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona offense with Matt Scott at QB has been on a tear recently, even beating USC last week despite falling behind by 15 and giving up 345 receiving yards to Marqise Lee, and that came after they scored 52 against Washington and 48 in a loss to Stanford. UCLA has the slight advantage defensively, but look for Scott and the Wildcats to keep rolling up points and hang on for another win.
Prediction: Arizona 45, UCLA 41
FINAL SAY: UCLA 66, Arizona 10. OK, one team got the memo about scoring points. Fresh off its win over USC, Arizona forget that it could contend for a Pac-12 South title by beating UCLA at the Rose Bowl, the place it’s never actually been in the postseason. The Wildcats were dreadful on offense (plus QB Matt Scott is banged up), while UCLA was amazingly balanced, with 303 passing yards (288 yards and three touchdowns for Brett Hundley) and 308 rushing yards (162 yards and two touchdowns for Johnathan Franklin).
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No. 20 Nebraska (6-2) at Michigan State (5-4)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Nebraska by 1 ½
The Cornhuskers won by two touchdowns against a hapless Michigan offense without Denard Robinson for half the game last week, and now they can really take control of the Legends Division with a win over the Spartans. The Big Ten is impossible to figure out, of course, and Michigan State’s defense gives it a chance against almost anyone. The Spartans beat Wisconsin by a field goal last week, and their losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan were by a combined six points. Its offense has been pretty inept with only RB Le’Veon Bell standing out, but its defense ranks fifth in the country and has shut down just about everyone. The Cornhuskers are pretty solid on defense, so don’t expect either team to score much. The game could come down to the performance of Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez, who still leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency. With Rex Burkhead still banged up, Martinez could have a really tough time with the Spartans. Hardly anything in the conference is going as planned, so instead of Nebraska cruising to the Big Ten title game, let’s go for the Spartans’ defense leading a slight upset in East Lansing.
Prediction: Michigan State 20, Nebraska 17
FINAL SAY: Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24. Poor Sparty. Michigan State lost another painfully close game, this time blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and losing in the final seconds. Le’Veon Bell (36 carries, 188 yards, two touchdowns) put the Spartans up 24-14 early in the fourth, but the game was all about Taylor Martinez, who tore apart the stingy Michigan State defense. Martinez ran for a 35-yard touchdown with 7:02 left, and then threw a game-winning five-yard TD to Jamal Turner with just six seconds left to give the Cornhuskers a win and a clear path to the Big Ten title game. As for Michigan State, it has now lost five games, four of which were by a total of 10 points, and the other of which came against undefeated Notre Dame.
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TCU (5-3) at No. 21 West Virginia (5-2)
3 p.m. Saturday, FOX
Line: West Virginia by 6 ½
Formerly the Big 12 favorites with Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith, West Virginia has fallen off the map. The Mountaineers went to Lubbock and were blown out, 49-14, then returned home to get blown out by Kansas State, 55-14. So how do they respond after getting a week off to regroup? They’re incredibly unpredictable, but one has to think Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and that offense will get back on track, even if the TCU defense is pretty solid. While TCU QB Trevone Boykin has put up some numbers, the Horned Frogs are 1-3 in life after Casey Pachall and flopped last week with only 14 points against Oklahoma State. Anyone can score against West Virginia, but the Mountaineers have to get back on track offensively at some point.
Prediction: West Virginia 41, TCU 35
FINAL SAY: TCU 39, West Virginia 38 (2OT). Don’t let the final score fool you. West Virginia’s offensive troubles continue, as Geno Smith was held under 300 yards for the fourth straight game since throwing for 656 in the Baylor game. The Horned Frogs and Mountaineers went back and forth in the second half, including a ridiculous ending to regulation in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter. WVU’s Tavon Austin returned a punt 76 yards for a TD with 3:19 left to give the Mountaineers a seven-point lead, but TCU responded with a 94-yard TD pass from Trevone Boykin to Josh Boyce to force overtime. Amazingly, neither team scored in the first overtime, but after a WVU touchdown to open the second, TCU scored on a 25-yard pass and opted to go for two and the win, with Boykin just barely hanging onto a pass for a dramatic road win. TCU became bowl eligible with its sixth win, while West Virginia has dropped three straight and is now 2-3 within the Big 12.
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No. 23 Texas (6-2) at No. 18 Texas Tech (6-2)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Texas Tech by 7
Perhaps I should tell you to ignore this game after Texas needed a late comeback to beat Kansas last week, but I feel obligated to at least mention games between top-25 teams, even if one of the teams hardly deserves the ranking. So, let’s keep it short. The pressure continues to increase on Texas coach Mack Brown, who is sticking with David Ash as starting QB despite last week’s near-debacle, and despite the embarrassing blowout loss to Oklahoma a few weeks ago. And the Longhorns’ defense has been one of the most disappointing units in the country, ranking 97th in points allowed. Texas Tech has a better offense behind Seth Doege. Texas Tech has a better defense. Texas Tech has a better team.
Prediction: Texas Tech 34, Texas 26
FINAL SAY: Texas 31, Texas Tech 22. The Longhorns rebounded from their ugly win at Kansas, going on the road to Lubbock and largely controlling the game. In particular, QB David Ash bounced back from recent struggles despite limited attempts, completing 11 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, and Johnathan Gray ran for 106 rushing yards. The Longhorns held a 24-13 halftime advantage and nearly let it slip away, but a 25-yard TD pass from Ash to Mike Davis put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter.
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WILD CARD: San Diego State (6-3) at No. 19 Boise State (7-1)
10:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS Sports Network
Line: Boise State by 14 ½
Many (me included) are starting to assume that Boise State will actually get a BCS bid by slipping into the top 16, ahead of the Big Ten champion. This can now happen because the Broncos have built enough of a reputation to get respect from the polls, despite the fact that they may end the season with no truly impressive wins. So now we sit and watch for an upset. Not surprisingly, this is probably the weakest Boise State team in years, after the loss of 15 starters, but the Broncos are still the Mountain West’s overwhelming favorites and still rank fifth nationally in scoring defense. Of their four remaining games, the two decent challenges are Nevada in the finale, and San Diego State this week. The Aztecs have rebounded from a slow start to win four games in a row, although they’ll start sophomore Adam Dingwell at QB for the second straight game after losing Ryan Katz (ankle) for the season. Boise State’s defense gives it a clear edge, but the Broncos are more vulnerable than usual, and San Diego State pulled off a road win at Nevada a couple weeks ago, so maybe the Aztecs can make things interesting for the late-night crowd.
Prediction: Boise State 28, San Diego State 21
FINAL SAY: San Diego State 21, Boise State 19. Well, there you have it. Another upset that I kind of wanted to call but didn’t. So ends the Broncos’ BCS bowl hopes in a rebuilding season in which they still may win 10 games. When the Broncos fell behind 21-13, it was the first time since the 2007 Hawaii Bowl that they trailed by more than seven points, which is a totally absurd stat. The game was controlled by the defenses, and San Diego State got a great effort from RB Adam Muema, who ran 25 times for 127 yards and a touchdown.