We've been waiting all offseason for Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M vs. Nick Saban and Alabama, Part II, and for four hours, all the distractions on both sides will temporarily be rendered irrelevant. It's the centerpiece of Week 3, possibly the centerpiece of the season. But it's not all there is this weekend. Obviously, everything else pales in comparison to the SEC West showdown in College Station, but the undercard is appealing in itself, headlined by intriguing Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchups and two national powers trying to avoid total meltdowns.
So, here's your guide to what to watch in Week 3 of the college football season. All times are Eastern, all rankings are from the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll and games are ordered based on importance/intrigue/etc.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M
3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Alabama by 7 ½
It's been 10 months since Johnny Football went to Tuscaloosa and upturned what we thought we knew about the 2012 college football season. Alabama went on to win the national championship anyway, of course, but Manziel's performance, and his Heisman moment, vaulted him into superstardom and was the launching point for a wild offseason. Meanwhile, while Johnny was being Johnny, one imagines Nick Saban spending every spare moment over the offseason in a lair somewhere, Rolling Stones on the stereo, maniacally searching for the answer to Manziel and Kevin Sumlin's offense.
This, understandably, is the pregame focus: strength vs. strength, the elusive Heisman winner whose unpredictability threw Alabama off its game, and the Crimson Tide's vaunted defense, again featuring NFL prospects at every position. It's a mind game between Saban and Sumlin, a chess match to see who can stay enough moves ahead of the other. This time, at least, Alabama knows what it's dealing with. Its veteran defense has seen Manziel, seen the way his already legendary improvisational ability and speed can alter a game. Whether or not it's come up with an answer is what we've been waiting for since last November.
Completely shutting down Manziel obviously won't happen. He still has a good offensive line in front of him, a deep rotation of running backs around him and a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers to throw to in Mike Evans and Ricky Seals-Jones. What Alabama needs to do is contain him enough to let its offense go to work and win the game. I'd call it weakness vs. weakness, but one game against a great Virginia Tech defense won't convince me that Alabama's offense is in for a long season. The offensive line was undoubtedly an issue in a game in which the Crimson Tide scored 14 offensive points and struggled to pass, but it was one game. Three new starters entered the lineup, and suddenly we forgot that even last year's "best of all-time" offensive line gave up six sacks to Western Kentucky in Week 2. Bad games happen, especially against good defenses, and Virginia Tech's defense might be as good as any the Crimson Tide faces this season.
The Hokies' defense is certainly better than Texas A&M's. Aside from end Damontre Moore, the Aggies lacked playmakers on defense last year, and with Moore gone, big question marks remain. Two weeks ago, the Rice offense steamrolled the Aggies' front, rushing for 306 yards. The good news is that Texas A&M is nearly back at full strength, with LB Steven Jenkins, DE Gavin Stansbury and CB De'Vante Harris all returning from suspensions, although the Aggies will be without injured free safety Floyd Raven. Jenkins, the team's best tackler, was certainly missed, and now, near full strength, coordinator Mark Snyder will have the flexibility to get creative and throw different looks at Alabama. Just as Alabama's game against Virginia Tech was just that, one game, so was A&M's against Rice. And neither put every card on the table.
On top of the entire offseason, Alabama has had two weeks to prepare for this game, and to correct mistakes made against the Hokies. The Tide played conservatively on offense in the opener, and you can bet a lot more will be shown against Texas A&M. If the offensive line gets into reasonable shape -- and, given the talent, with guys like center Ryan Kelly, it should -- the personnel advantage here clearly resides with Alabama, with AJ McCarron, T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, Christion Jones … and on and on.
If that proves true, then everything turns back to Johnny Manziel, and whether his artistry at quarterback can out-maneuver the precision of Saban's defense, the versatility of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, and keep pace. If he does, college football's biggest heel will be on the way toward taking Texas A&M to unprecedented heights.
But, over 10 months, no matter how smart Sumlin is and how good Manziel is, it's hard to bet against Saban finding an answer that's good enough to win the game.
Pick: Alabama 35, Texas A&M 31
* * *
No. 18 Wisconsin at Arizona State
10:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Arizona State by 5 ½
The Badgers and Sun Devils finally meet somebody with a pulse. With wins over UMass and Tennessee Tech (Wisconsin) and Sacramento State (Arizona State) by a combined score of 148-0, neither team has given up a point yet. Now it gets interesting. The Badgers get Ohio State and Northwestern in two of their next three games after this, while Arizona State continues one of the most brutal stretches of the season with Stanford, USC (well…) and Notre Dame. To kick things off, both teams, flying slightly under the radar, have a chance to firmly establish themselves as conference contenders in a key nonconference showdown.
Wisconsin doesn't appear to be skipping a beat from the Bret Bielema era to Gary Andersen. The Badgers have rushed for 780 yards in two games, with Melvin Gordon, James White and true freshman Corey Clement each rushing for 100 yards in both games. Of course, Arizona State will present a much tougher challenge. The Sun Devils lost their top two tacklers from last season, but they returned six of their seven starters to the defensive front, led by All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton. Expect a larger role for Gordon carrying the ball, as he has only 84 carries in 16 games in his Wisconsin career, but he's averaged an absurd 10.8 yards per attempt, with 12 of those 84 carries going for more than 20 yards. And, last year, despite the talent up front, Arizona State was much better against the pass than the run.
We know what we'll see out of Wisconsin's offense, though; Gordon and White will run a lot behind a massive offensive line, while QB Joel Stave will throw off play-action to talented wideout Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, and all of them will finally be challenged by Arizona State's talented front seven and strong pass rush (Sutton and Carl Bradford totaled 24.5 sacks in 2012). What's different is Wisconsin's new 3-4 scheme on defense, facing an emerging Arizona State offense with underrated playmakers. Sun Devils tailback Marion Grice split carries last year, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry and also caught 41 passes for 425 yards with 19 total touchdowns. Junior QB Taylor Kelly's top two returning targets are actually Grice and TE Chris Coyle, who caught 57 passes, and this is a chance for all three to break out on a national (albeit late, with the 10:30 ET kickoff) stage. Alabama-Texas A&M may be the most important game of the day, but Arizona State-Wisconsin is one of the season's most intriguing nonconference matchups.
Pick: Arizona State 38, Wisconsin 31
* * *
No. 17 UCLA at No. 15 Nebraska
Noon Saturday, ABC
Line: Nebraska by 4 ½
It feels like this game should be played in prime time, but perhaps it's nice for a UCLA-Nebraska shootout to break up the usual monotony of noon kickoffs and serve as an Alabama-Texas A&M appetizer. UCLA sophomore Brett Hundley is one of the best quarterbacks in America, and he'll test a Nebraska defense that gave up 602 total yards to Wyoming in Week 1. Yes, the Cornhuskers improved against Southern Miss last week, returning two interceptions for touchdowns, but slowing down the Bruins is a whole different story. The biggest concern UCLA's offense faced entering the season was figuring out how to replace 1,700-yard back Johnathan Franklin, but in one game against Nevada, 5-foot-9, 193-pound junior Jordan James looked the part, rushing 21 times for 155 yards and a touchdown in UCLA's 58-20 win.
Of course, we can go both ways with this. UCLA's defense played well against Nevada, but Nebraska can run on anyone with the backfield trio of QB Taylor Martinez and RBs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. As a team, the Huskers have run for 660 yards in two games, and last year both Abdullah and Martinez put up 100 yards against the Bruins. Still, UCLA was even more effective, with 653 total yards in that 36-30 win, and while they're young in the secondary, they have more playmakers defensively, led by All-American pass rusher Anthony Barr and inside linebacker Eric Kendricks. Played at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, this may be the biggest toss-up of the weekend, but it could also be a perfect time for Hundley to vault further up the list of second-tier Heisman candidates.
Pick: UCLA 41, Nebraska 38
* * *
No. 25 Ole Miss at Texas
8 p.m. Saturday, Longhorn Network and various local stations near Oxford (because nobody actually gets Longhorn Network)
Line: Texas by 2 ½
An avalanche of offseason hype, of belief that the Longhorns' talent would suppress the program's larger issues, came to a stunningly quick halt in Provo last Saturday night. Texas went to BYU to face a team that had lost to Virginia despite forcing 13 punts, and it left with a 40-21 loss and 550 rushing yards allowed, including 259 to Cougars QB Taysom Hill. Coach Mack Brown apparently had to watch the tape twice to learn that his assistant Manny Diaz didn't make any adjustments, and then he subsequently used Diaz as a sacrificial lamb, firing him as defensive coordinator and hiring … Greg Robinson. You may remember Robinson from his unsuccessful (10-37 in four seasons) stint as head coach of Syracuse, or maybe from his three years as defensive coordinator under Rich Rodriguez at Michigan (total defense rankings of 101, 82 and 110). Syracuse and Michigan fans certainly remember him well. Robinson's last good defense? His one year as the Longhorns' defensive coordinator in 2004, when they finished 11-1.
Apparently anticipating this exact situation in the summer, Brown hired Robinson as a consultant in July. Now, cornerback Quandre Diggs and the rest of the Texas defense are getting their coach up to speed, in September, before a key nonconference game against a good SEC team. If all this wasn't bad enough, quarterback David Ash (who, despite Texas' phenomenal depth at running back, leads the team in rushing with 125 yards) is questionable to play with a head injury, and speedy tailback/receiver Daje Johnson is out with an ankle injury, so the offense has plenty of its own issues to worry about.
All of that said, Texas, on paper, is talented enough to beat almost anyone, especially at home. But the team appears to be a mess right now, and this is a good opportunity for Ole Miss to get a big win after last year's blowout home loss to the Longhorns. The "who will replace Mack Brown?" talk isn't ending anytime soon.
Pick: Ole Miss 31, Texas 27
* * *
No. 3 Ohio State at California
7 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Line: Ohio State by 15 ½
When your star quarterback runs a lot, like Braxton Miller for Ohio State, it's comforting to know that the backup can keep the offense humming. We still don't know if Miller will play, after he injured his MCL against San Diego State, but the offense appears to be in solid hands with backup Kenny Guiton, who, like Miller, runs well and can execute the same type of offense. Guiton easily guided the Buckeyes to a 42-7 win over what appears to be an unexpectedly bad San Diego State team, completing 19 of 28 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns and rushing nine times for 83 yards and a touchdown. Obviously, the offense is in better hands with Miller, a Heisman frontrunner, but Ohio State should be able to score against Cal regardless of who's playing QB. Last week, the Golden Bears gave up 553 yards (10.6 per pass attempt, 6.3 per rush) to FCS Portland State, holding off the Vikings for a 37-30 win. It's pretty much what we expected from Cal in the first year under pass-happy coach Sonny Dykes, who despite a loss to Northwestern and the shaky outing against Portland State has helped guide true freshman starting QB Jared Goff to a national-best 930 passing yards through their Bear Raid offense.
But Ohio State is in better shape on defense now, with star linebacker Ryan Shazier healthy after injury issues in the opener, and lockdown cornerback Bradley Roby back from suspension. Cal will have success moving the ball -- Ohio State is certainly familiar with RB Brendon Bigelow -- and maybe can put a scare into the Buckeyes for a bit after last year's tight game, but Ohio State has a decided talent advantage here. California will get better under Dykes, but right now the Golden Bears are too young and volatile, and their defense far too thin. Ohio State will score plenty of points with or without Miller.
Pick: Ohio State 41, California 27
* * *
Tennessee at No. 2 Oregon
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Oregon by 28
It doesn't seem that long ago that Oregon entering a game vs. Tennessee as a four-touchdown favorite would be unthinkable. But over the last five years, the Ducks have won 56 games and the Vols have won exactly half, 28. (One of those Oregon wins was a 48-13 dismantling of Tennessee in Knoxville in 2010.)
It's tough to tell what to take away from last week's Tennessee win over a Western Kentucky team that turned the ball over five times in six snaps, but signs are finally pointing up for Tennessee under new coach Butch Jones. Still, while Tennessee may be competitive again, it's hard to expect much out of a road trip to Eugene. After wins over Nicholls State and Virginia, Oregon ranks second nationally in yards per play (9.49) and has won its games 125-13, showing no drop off, so far, from Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich. Tennessee is better than Virginia, but, at home, with Marcus Mariota looking every bit like the Heisman contender he was expected to be, Oregon has too many weapons, even for a Tennessee team that boasts NFL-caliber talent like linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers. Between Mariota, running backs De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall, receiver Josh Huff, tight end Colt Lyerla and the offensive line, the Ducks have stockpiled a ridiculous amount of talent, more than enough to run Tennessee off the field to start a gauntlet that also sees the Vols play Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama before the end of October.
Pick: Oregon 52, Tennessee 21
* * *
Vanderbilt at No. 14 South Carolina
7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: South Carolina by 13 ½
Only two SEC games have been played this season, and the losers were the Commodores (in the opening-night thriller vs. Ole Miss) and the Gamecocks (at Georgia last week). In other words, they currently occupy the small-sample-size basement in the SEC East, with South Carolina in particular needing a win to keep its SEC East title hopes in decent shape.
Vandy gave South Carolina a game last season, with the Gamecocks winning 17-13 in Nashville in the opener. Expect higher scoring this time around. Once again, the focus will be on Jadeveon Clowney, who has been a colossal disappointment only in the eyes of those with unfair expectations, as he draws one of his toughest matchups of the year against versatile Vanderbilt tackle Wesley Johnson. Aaron Murray picked the Gamecocks apart last week, and while Austyn Carta-Samuels won't do the same, the Commodores have weapons to attack downfield, particularly in star receiver Jordan Matthews. But the biggest advantage will come on the other side of the ball, where South Carolina should control the line of scrimmage and get another big game out of emerging star RB Mike Davis. Vandy CB Andre Hal will give South Carolina WR Shaq Roland problems, but otherwise the Gamecocks have the weapons and the physicality to control the game and take care of business at home.
Pick: South Carolina 31, Vanderbilt 21
* * *
No. 21 Notre Dame at Purdue
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Notre Dame by 20 ½
I never want to say I feel bad for someone like Kirk Herbstreit, who has one of the best jobs in the world, but it must be a letdown to go to College Station for "College GameDay" and then have to hop on a plane to call the Notre Dame-Purdue game in West Lafayette instead of Texas A&M-Alabama, unless Eminem decides to show up again. But such is the hand ABC has been dealt this week, getting none of the week's biggest games in prime time; instead "Saturday Night Football" features Notre Dame, off a loss to Michigan, against a dreadful Purdue team that was blown out by Cincinnati before edging mighty Indiana State 20-14. To be fair to the Boilermakers, they nearly won in South Bend last year, losing on a late field goal, but new coach Darrell Hazell clearly has a significant rebuilding job on his hands. Notre Dame's defense has issues against the pass, but the Fighting Irish shouldn't have a problem controlling this game. Look for a big night out of either DaVaris Daniels or T.J. Jones out wide.
Pick: Notre Dame 34, Purdue 10
* * *
Nevada at No. 9 Florida State
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Florida State by 34
It's hard to imagine Jameis Winston coming close to duplicating his ridiculous debut on Labor Day, but he's taking all the hype stride. This week? He's excited to face the mullet of Nevada defensive end Brock Hekking. Despite the efforts of Hekking's mullet, Nevada gave up 58 points and 647 yards to UCLA in its opener, and while we can't necessarily expect that much from Winston and the Seminoles, we can probably expect similar results.
It's not that Nevada doesn't have talent, but the Wolf Pack are still finding their footing under new coach Brian Polian, and it doesn't help that quarterback Cody Fajardo's status is in doubt because of a sprained knee. This is a loaded Florida State team at almost every position, on both sides of the ball, so even if Winston falls back to Earth, it shouldn't matter much in the end. Fajardo and the Nevada Pistol offense can give the Seminoles a nice challenge, but it's not one they can't handle with relative ease.
Pick: Florida State 48, Nevada 17
* * *
No. 23 Washington vs. Illinois (in Chicago)
6 p.m. Saturday, Big Ten Network
Line: Washington by 9 ½
I honestly did not think I'd be previewing an Illinois football game this season. The Fighting Illini may actually have a chance to be more relevant than even the most diehard fans thought after their surprising 45-17 blowout of Cincinnati -- a week after they struggled with Southern Illinois and Cincinnati blew out Purdue. That's not to say Illinois is going to be great or even particularly good this season, but new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit appears to have breathed life into a stagnant offense behind QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who has thrown for 728 yards in two games out of more creative and versatile looks. Still, this week, the Fighting Illini don't have the horses to match up with Washington.
The Huskies are one of the most experienced teams in the country, and they appear to be ready to capitalize on their talent after a dominant second half in a 38-6 Week 1 win over Boise State. The Huskies are especially talented at the skill positions, where QB Keith Price is surrounded by a great core featuring RB Bishop Sankey, WR Kasen Williams and the nation's best TE, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who returns from a one-game suspension and a minor finger injury. Washington looked like a threat in the Pac-12 race against Boise State. If the Huskies actually are that good, now's the time for a convincing win against a solid team in what is essentially a road game in Chicago.
Pick: Washington 38, Illinois 24
* * *
Boston College at USC
3 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Network
Line: USC by 14
Vegas apparently thinks USC is capable of scoring 14 points, let alone winning by 14, so there's that. In the past week, Lane Kiffin has named Cody Kessler his starting quarterback on YouTube, been on the receiving end of "Fire Kiffin" chants in his own stadium while losing to Washington State 10-7, and been unaware of an apparent players-only meeting (although Marqise Lee later backtracked, of course). The obvious assumption now is that he's running out of time, and the only question left is how it ends. Boston College, which went 2-10 last season, can certainly help move that topic forward on Saturday in Los Angeles.
But USC's passing offense has to improve in some capacity, right? Marqise Lee is the best receiver in the country. The tight ends are talented, as is No. 2 wideout Nelson Agholor. It certainly can't get worse … right?
Pick: USC 13, Boston College 12
* * *
Contact me at email@example.com and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE. Check back on Sunday at Sports on Earth for The Professor, a weekly guide to everything we learned from the weekend in college football.