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Dr. Saturday

Friday Morning Quarterback: Texas A&M’s final Big 12 push begins… now

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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OKLAHOMA STATE at TEXAS A&M (-4½) 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2.

What's at stake: Neither the Cowboys nor Aggies are strangers to big games on a national stage, but they are strangers to winning them: OSU is 1-8 against top-10 opponents under Mike Gundy, all but one of the losses coming by at least two touchdowns; before last November's home upset over No. 9 Nebraska, A&M hadn't beaten a top-10 outfit since 2002. With both teams hovering in the upper echelons of the current polls, the winner Saturday instantly joins Oklahoma at the top of the Big 12 food chain, and noses into the lead "darkhorse" position in the national race.

Oklahoma State wants: Scorin' and more scorin'. The Big Change of the offseason — the much-lamented transition from spread passing maestro Dana Holgorsen to new offensive coordinator Todd Monken — hasn't slowed the Cowboys' pace at all: Through three weeks, they're still running more plays per game than any other offense in the country, for more yards than anyone except Georgia Tech. It's a more balanced attack than they get credit for — Joseph Randle has carried the ball more times than any other back in the Big 12 — but the pace is designed to give 27-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden maximum opportunities with his arm, and he's yet to be denied.

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In Weeden's 16 career starts, OSU has scored at least 33 points in all but one — that one, coincidentally, happening to be the only one in which ace receiver Justin Blackmon wasn't on the field. That won't be the case here, and A&M is no better equipped to deal Blackmon than it was when he and Weeden hooked up ten times for 127 yards and a touchdown last year in Stillwater.

Texas A&M wants: A&M isn't exactly "conservative," by a long shot, but it is equipped to control the clock with a pair of between-the-tackles workhorses, Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael, thumping away behind a big, veteran line that's helped Gray over 100 yards rushing in nine consecutive games. More importantly, it's equipped to make Weeden feel a little heat: Seven different Aggies have combined for 11 sacks over the first two games, the best rate in the nation in the early going, from nearly every position on the field in the Aggies' 3-4 defense. (Even the starting cornerbacks, Coryell Judie and Terrence Frederick, each have one QB takedown apiece.) Obviously, A&M will have to move the ball and score in any case, but with no answer for Blackmon in the secondary short of leaving everyone else open, their best chance on defense is to limit Weeden's opportunities to get rid of the ball cleanly in the first place.

Constants: Points. … Multiple big plays from Weeden to Blackmon. … Points. … Multiple sustained, balanced drives by the A&M offense. … Points.
Variables: How often does A&M hit Weeden? … How effectively do the Aggies establish the run? … Who touches the ball last?

The Pick: In any standard-issue Big 12 shootout, Oklahoma State has the advantage of sauntering in with the biggest gun (Justin Blackmon) and a determination to fire every last round of ammunition. In this case, though, there's no reason Texas A&M can't match the Cowboys shot for shot offensively, and plenty of reasons — the raucous home crowd, the A&M pass rush, Weeden's six interceptions in just three games — to downgrade OSU's chances on leaving the kind of scorch marks it's capable of. The box score will say "shootout," but the victory will belong to the 12th Man and Tim DeRuyter's defense.

Onwards and upwards…

LSU (-6) at WEST VIRGINIA 8 p.m. ET, ABC.
Before the season, I might have been convinced that LSU's pedestrian offense — operating in Morgantown, at night, after a full day of hype and heavy drinking on campus — could be outgunned by the latest incarnation of Holgorsen's up-tempo spread attack. I might have bought that two weeks ago. But after watching LSU's defense dump the remains of Mississippi State's up-tempo spread attack in the same hole where it left Oregon's up-tempo spread attack after the opener, I'm sold on the Tiger D from front to back: Wherever they're playing, the secondary is fully capable of putting any passing game on lockdown until reinforcements arrive at the quarterback, and the offense is going to have the luxury to keep grinding until it eventually breaks through. Even an offensive mastermind can't out-scheme a defense his team can't block. {YSP:MORE}

ARKANSAS at ALABAMA (-11) 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS.
It's impossible to say much about Arkansas' new personnel on offense based on wins over Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy, but there's no doubt what it's up against: As expected, the Alabama D is already among the top five nationally in every major category — total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense — and the Crimson Tide have outgained their first three opponents by more than 300 yards per game.

The Razorbacks certainly aren't short on firepower, but that was true last year, too, when they had an NFL-bound quarterback throwing against a depleted 'Bama defense and a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and still couldn't pull out the win at home. This time, with a new quarterback making his first road start against one of the most vicious, veteran units in the country, they'll be defying logic to keep it within reach that late.

MISSOURI at OKLAHOMA (-19½) 8 p.m. ET, FX.
Twenty points is a big spread for a serious challenger to the Sooners' supremacy at the top of the polls — Mizzou ended Oklahoma's brief run at No. 1 last year, after all, and OU barely made it to 20 points in last week's slugfest at Florida State, period — but the respect for any Bob Stoops-coached team in Norman is well-earned: Oklahoma hasn't lost a Big 12 home game in a decade, and hasn't won a Big 12 home game by fewer than 10 points since 2005. Missouri… well, Missouri was awfully impressive against Western Illinois.

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FLORIDA STATE at CLEMSON (-2½) 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.
Two of the most obvious takeaways from last Saturday were the emergence of Florida State's young defense in a tough loss and Clemson's young offense in a shootout win. Naturally, the buzz surrounding the Seminoles' visit to Death Valley is all about the FSU offense, specifically: Is E.J. Manuel going to play, or what?

The lingering uncertainty over the 'Noles' QB situation has moved the line a full five points in Clemson's direction — Florida State opened the week as a three-point favorite — a good gauge of just how little faith Clint Trickett inspired after Manuel went down last week against Oklahoma. He'll fare better against Clemson, but based on last week's returns, not quite well enough to outduel his counterpart, Tajh Boyd.

USC at ARIZONA STATE (-2½) 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN.
The Trojans have spent a good portion of the last week talking about what a dirty team Arizona State is, which is probably not going to lead to the warmest reception in Sun Devil Stadium. The more relevant theme, though, is the ongoing disintegration of ASU's starting defense: With defensive end Junior Onyeali's decision to undergo season-ending knee surgery earlier this week, the Devils are down four defensive starters since the start of spring practice, three of them — Onyeali, linebacker Brandon Magee and All-Pac-10 corner Omar Bolden — to injuries and one (defensive end James Brooks) to a premature departure before his senior year. Generally speaking, that's not the kind of trend you want to bring into a game against a future first-round quarterback who's just starting to find a steady rapport with a young but very, very talented set of receivers.

Not that Notre Dame's killer instinct is anything to write home about, but Pitt's fourth quarter collapse at Iowa managed to one-up even the Irish's late flop at Michigan: Unlike Denard Robinson two weeks ago, Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg didn't appear to break a sweat in the process of leading four consecutive touchdown drives covering 60, 73, 64 and 64 yards in a span of 15 minutes. For a secondary that also allowed 337 yards and three touchdowns passing in a six-point win over Maine, dealing with Michael Floyd is a no-win proposition.

COLORADO at OHIO STATE (-16½) 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2.
This is a non-conference game, and the Buckeyes clearly aren't harboring any BCS ambitions after last week's debacle in Miami. But make no mistake: With true freshman Braxton Miller taking the reins at quarterback, this game sets the tone for the rest of Ohio State's season, which already appeared to be running on fumes in a to-the-wire struggle against Toledo two weeks ago. At this point, Miller is really the only card the Buckeyes have left to play. Another flop against a three-score dog, at home, with Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin looming as the first four games in Big Ten play, and it's strictly survival mode the rest of the way — if it's not already.

GEORGIA (-10) at OLE MISS 12:20 p.m. ET, Regional.
Georgia may be enduring a bit of an existential crisis re: its head coach — and is pretty banged up on the offensive line, to boot — but the mounting frustration in Athens is nowhere near the naked desperation in Oxford, where every day Houston Nutt doesn't find himself facing a firing squad after nine consecutive SEC losses is a good day. Georgia, at least, is a team with some semblance of hope; if last week's no-show at Vanderbilt was the Rebels hitting rock bottom, they'd better get used to it down there.

Meanwhile, Vandy is 3-0 and feeling kinda great about it. South Carolina is 3-0 and still trying to figure out where it's going wrong. Under no circumstances do the Commodores get the benefit of the doubt on the road where Marcus Lattimore is involved, much less the Gamecocks' many other first-rate talents. But the more competitive Vandy is, and the more USC has to rely on its workhorse in a game that realistically offer him a breather from the Herculean workload he's carried so far, the longer its chances of a legitimate run at the SEC title are going to look.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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