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.
Now we take a breath. After a thrilling evening in South Bend, Los Angeles and Baton Rouge last week, this Saturday doesn’t have nearly the same feel to it … so much so that the ABC prime-time game is Notre Dame playing at a 2-7 Boston College team. But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to watch. We’re in crunch time for all four top unbeaten teams, and both Alabama and Kansas State will be under the microscope again with potentially tricky games.
(All times Eastern; rankings from the BCS; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
No. 15 Texas A&M (7-2) at No. 1 Alabama (9-0)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Alabama by 13 ½
No, this isn’t quite Nick Saban vs. Chip Kelly and Oregon, but Saban’s Alabama defense vs. Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M offense, led by freshman star Johnny Manziel, appears to be the highlight of a light weekend. Three weeks ago, Manziel ran into a brick wall in the form of the LSU defense, which intercepted him three times, held him out of the end zone and allowed him to run for only 27 yards on 17 carries. It was a dominant effort by the Tigers, and it’s possibly a sign of things to come against Alabama.
Last week, we did finally see the second-ranked Alabama defense bend a bit against LSU’s inconsistent passing game, and Manziel is the most dynamic threat the Tide has faced all year. Not only is he second in the SEC in passing yards, he leads the conference in rushing with 922 yards and 15 touchdowns. But he’s been contained by the best defenses he’s faced -- Florida (to be fair, in his first game) and LSU -- and nobody systematically breaks down opponents like the Crimson Tide. They’re solid everywhere, with Jesse Williams anchoring the front, C.J. Mosley cleaning up at linebacker and Dee Milliner locking down opposing receivers. They did wear down a bit, surprisingly, at LSU, so it’s possible Manziel will be able to make some plays. But is it enough to keep pace? Probably not. The Aggies’ defense is decent but unspectacular, and the key to Bama’s production could be the matchup of All-America A&M pass rusher Damontre Moore against a star-studded Alabama offensive line. Manziel is already a star, Sumlin is one of the game’s brightest coaches and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury may quickly become a hot coaching name.
With that said, this is still Alabama. A&M has proven it can compete in the SEC West, and compete immediately. It will be interesting test for the national title favorites, but Saban’s great teams don’t fail these tests.
Prediction: Alabama 28, Texas A&M 17
FINAL SAY: Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24. The machine-like Crimson Tide finally met their match in the form of freshman sensation Johnny Manziel, who dazzled with his playmaking ability at QB in leading Texas A&M to a shocking 20-0 lead in the first quarter and eventual stunning upset. A missed extra point lingered in the back of everyone’s mind for the rest of the game, and momentum began to swing, with Alabama battling back to close the gap to 20-14 by halftime. Alabama got after Manziel with pressure, but the Aggies increased their lead to 29-17 midway through the fourth quarter. A.J. McCarron and the Crimson Tide struck with a few big plays, including a 54-yard touchdown to close the gap to 29-24 with 6:09 left. However, in a very rare occurrence, turnovers and mistakes did Alabama in. T.J. Yeldon lost a key fourth-quarter fumble, McCarron was intercepted on fourth-and-goal at the two-yard line with under two minutes to play, and the game was sealed when Alabama jumped offsides on an A&M punt in the final minute. Alabama still clings to national title chances if two of the three undefeateds (Oregon, Notre Dame and Kansas State) lose, but, for now, the SEC’s six-year championship streak appears in serious jeopardy. With that said, the SEC West looks like it’s going to be a whole lot of fun the next few years. And the Heisman candidate on the field Saturday wasn't McCarron; it was Johnny Manziel.
* * *
No. 2 Kansas State (9-0) at TCU (6-3)
7 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Line: Kansas State by 7 ½
I will not pick against Kansas State. I will not pick against Kansas State. I will not pick against Kansas State.
Well, unless Collin Klein doesn’t play.
That’s the question on everyone’s mind, the key to K-State undefeated hopes and national championship dreams. Bill Snyder has said he’s hopeful Klein can play after leaving last week’s win over Oklahoma State with what may have been a concussion, but Snyder is not exactly jumping to reveal things to the media. We don’t know. Perhaps the Wildcats can win without Klein, playing with freshman Daniel Sams. After all, TCU is playing with a freshman backup quarterback of its own in Trevone Boykin. The Horned Frogs have gone 2-3 since losing Casey Pachall, but they did pull off a win on the road against a disheveled West Virginia team last Saturday. Assuming Klein plays, TCU provides a decent test, like usual with a Gary Patterson defense. The Horned Frogs are eighth nationally against the run, and K-State is all about the run with Klein and 5-foot-7, 185-pound bowling ball John Hubert leading the Big 12 in team rushing. Even if the Wildcats struggle on offense more than usual, their Arthur Brown-led defense has played great football, and as a team Kansas State leads the nation in turnover margin. Throw in the fact that Boykin has thrown seven interceptions in five games as starter for TCU, and most signs point to Kansas State no matter what happens with Klein. If Klein is healthy, Kansas State should take care of business. If not, we should be in for some drama.
Prediction: Kansas State 31, TCU 20
FINAL SAY: Kansas State 23, TCU 10. It was all good news for K-State Saturday night in Fort Worth. Collin Klein started and played all game, and while he wasn’t spectacular, he was good enough, thanks to a phenomenal effort by the Wildcats’ defense. Kansas State held TCU without a point until the fourth quarter and without a touchdown until the final minute, while racking up six sacks and a couple takeaways. Meanwhile, Klein completed 12-of-21 passes for 145 yards with an interception and ran 15 times for 50 yards and two touchdowns, while John Hubert (11 carries for 23 yards) was stifled by TCU’s stout run defense. It didn’t have to be pretty. In a tricky game against a good defense with Klein’s questionable status, the Wildcats did what they had to do and are one step closer to the BCS title game thanks to Alabama’s loss.
* * *
No. 11 Oregon State (7-1) at No. 15 Stanford (7-2)
3 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Line: Stanford by 4
These two teams will spend the next two weeks taking their shot at Oregon, first with Stanford going to Eugene Nov. 17, then with Oregon State hosting the Civil War in Corvallis. For now, we focus on what feels like a consolation game in the Pac-12 North. Don’t expect this to be anything like the games with Oregon. This should look more like an SEC game, with two strong defensive fronts that are ranked first and second in the Pac-12 against the run.
We know what Stanford will do. Josh Nunes lost the starting QB job to redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, a dual-threat who gives the offense some versatility behind center. He’ll surely run a bit, but for the most part, the Cardinal will feed the ball to workhorse running back Stepfan Taylor, one of five players nationally to crack the 200-carry barrier so far this season. Ideally, Hogan will be able to spread the Beavers’ defense out, because they’ve undergone a massive defensive turnaround this year, led up front by Scott Crichton. On the other side, the Beavers have also shuffled QBs, reverting to backup Cody Vaz last week after Sean Mannion struggled upon returning from an injury. He’ll rely on a prolific tandem of receivers in Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton to stretch a Stanford defense that has given up more than 20 points only once all season (48 in an overtime thriller against Arizona).
This is certainly an odd game, two teams still with Rose Bowl hopes making QB switches, and while Oregon State is clearly very good, it still feels like the Beavers have overachieved.
Prediction: Stanford 24, Oregon State 20
FINAL SAY: Stanford 27, Oregon State 23. Suddenly, the Pac-12’s hopes of landing a second team in the BCS appear in trouble. The Cardinal shrugged off a four-turnover day and a nine-point third-quarter deficit to rally for a four-point win, meaning next week’s game at Oregon could decide the Pac-12 North title. New Stanford starting QB Kevin Hogan threw two picks, but overall he completed 22-of-29 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, while adding 49 rushing yards. RB Stepfan Taylor also had a productive day, rushing 19 times for 114 times and a touchdown and taking a short pass 40 yards for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Stanford took control of the game early, dominating the first quarter with a 14-0 lead, but Oregon State scored the game’s next 23 points. However, Stanford rallied late, and a key fumble by Beavers QB Cody Vaz set up the Cardinal for the go-ahead touchdown.
* * *
No. 21 Mississippi State (7-2) at No. 7 LSU (7-2)
7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: LSU by 14 ½
OK, Mississippi State probably shouldn’t be ranked. The defense has a great pair of corners in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, but the Bulldogs were torched by Johnny Manziel last week. The offense slowed to a crawl against Alabama and Texas A&M, and that’s certainly not going to change this week in Death Valley. Yes, Mississippi State opened 7-0, but it did that by beating Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama, Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee. The Bulldogs have three wins against SEC teams, all three of which have yet to win a conference game.
The Bulldogs could hang around a bit, especially after LSU’s deflating loss to Alabama last week, which surely took its toll on the Tigers’ roster. And this LSU team did score only 12 points against Auburn; the Tigers are good but hardly invincible. LSU just has to hope it builds on the positives of last week, namely QB Zach Mettenberger’s sudden emergence against one of the best defenses in the country. So, maybe this won’t be a blowout, like Mississippi State’s loss to Texas A&M last week. LSU doesn’t really blow decent teams out. But it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs moving the ball effectively against Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, Kevin Minter and that relentless LSU defensive front.
Prediction: LSU 27, Mississippi State 13
FINAL SAY: LSU 37, Mississippi State 17. After last week’s soul-crushing loss at home against Alabama, LSU started slowly, falling behind 7-0, then settling for a couple chip-shot field goals before Zach Mettenberger found Jarvis Landry for a 19-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The Bulldogs kept things close for a while, cutting LSU’s lead to 20-17 early in the third quarter, but the Tigers tightened up defensively and didn’t allow a point. To cap things off, they got a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by Craig Loston with 1:13 left to seal the game. Mettenberger played well again, throwing for 270 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, and LSU appears set to finish the regular season 10-2 with games against Ole Miss and Arkansas left.
* * *
No. 4 Notre Dame (9-0) at Boston College (2-7)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Notre Dame by 18 ½
There’s a good chance this game will be in no way worth watching. Boston College is not very good. The Eagles lost to Army, and their only two wins are against Maine and a Maryland team that lost all its quarterbacks. They rank 90th in total offense, 109th in total defense, 112th in kick returns, 119th in sacks -- near the bottom in almost everything.
However, at this point in the season, it seems foolish to not recommend a game involving the top four undefeated teams, especially when the undefeated team involved is Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have a knack for playing close games, even against mediocre teams, like Purdue in September and last week’s triple-overtime game against Pitt. It’s possible that this game will finish something like 13-10, because that’s how Notre Dame’s season has been going. But more likely is that the Irish defense totally controls the game, even if BC has gotten decent numbers out of the combination of QB Chase Rettig and WR Alex Amidon. The Irish will get pressure on Rettig, get a few takeaways, and get their running game rolling with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Boston College 10
FINAL SAY: Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6. Yawn. We know what we’re going to get from Notre Dame at this point, but style points might not even matter if either Kansas State or Oregon loses down the stretch. The Fighting Irish were sloppy at times at Boston College, losing a couple fumbles, but they survived a couple scares and mostly controlled the game, holding the Eagles out of the end zone. Everett Golson threw a couple touchdown passes, Theo Riddick ran for 104 yards and now the Irish are 10-0, two wins away from perfection in the regular season.
* * *
No. 3 Oregon (9-0) at California (3-7)
10:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Oregon by 28
The last time Oregon played for a national title ago was 2010, which was also the last time the Ducks played in Berkeley. It didn’t go well. Over the last few years, Oregon has had slow starts, only to come out firing on all cylinders in the second half and win going away. That wasn’t the case at a sub-.500 Cal team two years ago, as Oregon barely hung on to win 15-13 with only one offensive touchdown. Here’s a guess that history won’t repeat itself.
This is the one cakewalk game for Oregon in November after last week’s fast-paced win at USC and before finishing with Stanford and Oregon State the next two. At 3-7, Jeff Tedford could be in his final days as Cal’s head coach, and there’s no more daunting task in the Pac-12 than trying to keep pace with Oregon with your job on the line. Perhaps this can get the “trap game” label for the Ducks after their big win in L.A. last week -- and Cal isn’t completely hopeless; it did nearly win at Ohio State -- but it’s not going to happen. The Bears don’t have the firepower on either side of the ball to keep up with Heisman candidate Kenjon Barner and the rest of the Oregon offense.
Prediction: Oregon 49, California 14
FINAL SAY: Oregon 59, California 17. Oregon had some struggles early, and there were even some (brief) visions of 2010. The Ducks had several injuries on defense, and both QB Marcus Mariota and RB Kenjon Barner also briefly left the game with injuries. But, in the end, none of it mattered. Mariota torched the Cal secondary for 377 yards and six touchdowns, making up for the fact that Barner was held to 65 yards on the ground. The Ducks won 59-17, setting FBS records for consecutive 30-point games (23) and 40-point games (13).
* * *
Penn State (6-3) at No. 16 Nebraska (7-2)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN2
Line: Nebraska by 7 ½
The weekly Pick ‘Em has tended to ignore the Big Ten, rarely advocating multiple games per week. And with undefeated Ohio State off, there unfortunately aren’t many reasons to turn into the league this week, even though Wisconsin is playing for the Leaders “championship” against Indiana. This game between Penn State and Nebraska is the best of the bunch. Penn State lost a bit of its luster with the loss to the Buckeyes, but Bill O’Brien’s offense keeps putting up numbers behind Matt McGloin, who leads the Big Ten in passing, a bruising running back in Zack Zwinak and a parade of tight ends. Of course, the biggest offensive weapon in this game is Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez, who, like McGloin, has made great strides as a passer -- although he can still be wildly inconsistent, as shown by his three picks last week -- but also continues to be a great running threat, rolling up 205 yards on the ground against a good Michigan State defense. The Cornhuskers have needed him to play an even larger role thanks to the continued uncertain status of I-back Rex Burkhead. Martinez will face a stiff challenge in Penn State’s excellent linebacking corps led by Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, but this is a pretty good all-around team that appears to be on a path to the Rose Bowl.
Prediction: Nebraska 28, Penn State 21
FINAL SAY: Nebraska 32, Penn State 23. Unfortunately, a thoroughly entertaining game with a lot riding on it for Nebraska will be overshadowed a bit by what most of the world agreed was a bad call by replay officials. Trailing 27-23 in the fourth quarter, Penn State drove down to the Nebraska 3-yard line and had a second-and-goal. QB Matt McGloin threw a short pass to TE Matt Lehman, who lunged for the end zone and lost control of the ball as he crossed the goal line. The play was ruled a fumble, recovered for a touchback by Nebraska. Instant replay showed that Lehman had control of the ball as he reached the goal line just before losing it, but officials apparently saw it differently, and Nebraska was given the ball – the second straight week it has benefited from questionable officiating. Officiating aside, Nebraska pulled off another comeback win after trailing 20-6 at halftime. Both teams ran the ball effectively, with Penn State’s Zack Zwinak and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah all cracking the 100-yard mark on the ground.
* * *
Wild Card: No. 9 Louisville (9-0) at Syracuse (4-5)
Noon Saturday, ABC
Line: Louisville by 3
Vegas apparently agrees with me. Yes, that’s right, the undefeated Cardinals are only three point favorites against a sub-.500 Syracuse team. Not that it means anything, but does this really feel like a Louisville team that can go undefeated? The Cardinals’ best wins are against North Carolina and Cincinnati, so it’s not like they’re cruising through a difficult schedule, and aside from last week against Temple (in which they started slow), they’ve mostly been winning close games. Louisville certainly has a great centerpiece in QB Teddy Bridgewater, who’s thrown just four interceptions, but this just feels like a massive trap, another noon kickoff, this time in the cavernous Carrier Dome. Syracuse can move the ball behind QB Ryan Nassib, and it has finally found some balance thanks to the emergence of RB Jerome Smith, who has cracked 100 yards in three straight games. The key for Syracuse is protecting the ball, as it’s had a turnover problem all year. Avoid coughing it up, and the Orange can pull off an upset.
Prediction: Syracuse 34, Louisville 31
FINAL SAY: Syracuse 45, Louisville 26. I wasn’t the only one to pick the upset here. Syracuse was a popular pick across the Internet, but it’s safe to say no one saw a blowout like this coming. The game was tied 10-10 after the first quarter, but the Orange scored three straight touchdowns to take control of the game in the second quarter. Ryan Nassib threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns, while RB Jerome Smith kept rolling with 18 carries for 144 yards and one touchdown. Trailing most of the game, Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater ended up throwing for 424 yards and three touchdowns, but the Cardinals finally slipped up. With an undefeated season no longer on line, attention now turns to winning the Big East title, which will likely come down to the Nov. 29 trip to Rutgers.