October 09, 2009
• Alabama at Ole Miss.
This retains the "big game" tag thanks to the inertia of preseason expectations, Ole Miss' ability so far not to fall to pieces against vastly inferior competition and the Rebels' accompanying position in the top 20 of both major polls, both of which hold that this is one of the critical SEC West "deciders." The five-point line in Bama's favor backs that up. But the Rebels haven't done anything yet to justify any of those assumptions, especially on offense, where Jevan Snead has been very average and the running game hasn't even made it that far behind a suddenly sketchy offensive line in the first two SEC games.
Alabama has been exactly the opposite; the Tide are business-like, consistent, and haven't played a bad game yet. In fact, with Greg McElroy's emergence at quarterback, 'Bama's only apparent weakness is on the kickoff team, which allowed two returns for touchdowns in the first two games, and that may have been fixed over the last three weeks. Ole Miss has much bigger problems, mainly on offense, and though the Tide still may not be the type of team that's likely to run away from a competent opponent, the Rebels are going to need a lot more than an emotional high to crack the nation's No. 2 total defense with the very little they've shown on offense so far.
• Georgia at Tennessee.
The Vols are the better team on paper, and it's not really that close: UT ranks ahead of Georgia right now in every major statistical category except passing and pass efficiency. In the trenches, they've been a vastly better running team, and better against the run, by the numbers, which provides the template for how the Vols can win this game -- the methodical, grinding approach behind hard-charging Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown only mitigated the damage at Florida, but might find some more room against a Georgia front that's been far more forgiving.
Re: The numbers, though, recall that Georgia hasn't had a week off in its brutal schedule, and Tennessee has been able to mitigate its three losses to competent opponents with wipeouts over Western Kentucky and Ohio U. Either way, despite their struggles on the ground, the Bulldogs have given us far more reason to believe in the UGA offense -- chief among them, of course, A.J. Green, a big-play threat Tennessee's punishing running game can't match. The fewer points, the better for the Vols, but even in a low-scoring game, even at home, we've seen enough of Jonathan Crompton to know not to trust him in a big game.
• Georgia Tech at Florida State.
The "Bowden Blackout" sideshow may be more interesting than the game, and Florida State's season threatens to spiral out of control if the Jackets find a rhythm in the option game; it's not hard to picture Jonathan Dwyer busting a run or two, the 'Noles begin to unravel at the seams and the crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium file out split between resignation and anger. I'm going to go the other way: FSU is still as talented as any team in the ACC and still has enough pride to avoid the all-out death spiral toward Bobby Bowden's first losing season here. But if they fall on their face again for the third straight week, it's the last time I'm going to give the 'Noles the benefit of the doubt this year.
• Oregon at UCLA.
A dangerous game for the Ducks, who come in sans starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli against a feisty, underrated defense: The Bruins are allowing less than 300 yards per game, and also get starting quarterback Kevin Prince back from a three-week absence for a broken jaw on the other side; Oregon's going on the road with a first-time starter in Nate Costa.
But Costa's no bum: He was in the driver's seat to start last year, several slots on the depth chart ahead of Masoli, before missing the season to an ACL injury for the second year in a row. And the Ducks may be able to win this game with half of their resurgent production over the last two weeks, anyway -- with or without Prince, the Bruin offense remains the worst in the Pac-10 outside of Washington State, with a makeshift offensive line and no one resembling a consistent playmaker. The L.A. defense was effectively pounded by Stanford on the ground last week, as well, which Oregon can also do even if Costa struggles to get into a rhythm (and especially if he doesn't). The Bruins may keep it close for a while, but ultimately they don't have the personnel to keep up.
• Stanford at Oregon State.
Two teams in roughly the same position that want to do exactly the same thing on offense: Milk the clock by pounding their workhorses straight ahead until they drop. These are two very different workhorses -- Toby Gerhart is the big, punishing bruiser, Jacquizz Rodgers the short, thickly-built jitterbug who's hard to find and harder to corral in tight quarters. Neither will break the game open, big play-wise, but both should be in the 20-25-carry, 100-yard range by the time it's finished.
If Quizz and Gerhart are a wash, it could come down to the quarterbacks, and though everyone expects big things from Stanford's Andrew Luck, the Beavers' fifth-year senior, Sean Canfield, may be the better bet at home. The Beavers' run defense has been among the best in the country, as well, and this is the point in the season OSU has hit a solid winning streak en route to at least nine wins each of the last three years. Stanford will have proven its mettle as a darkhorse conference contender gets out of this one at 5-1.
• Auburn at Arkansas.
The Razorback offense broke out again last week and certainly has enough juice on offense to hang with almost anyone in the SEC this side of Florida, and Auburn's defense hasn't been anything special. But the Tiger offense came out of Tennessee, incredibly, still ranked in the top five nationally in rushing, total and scoring offense, and Arkansas is in no position to stop anyone right now on defense: The Razorbacks are dead last in the SEC in rushing, passing, pass efficiency, total and scoring D. If Malzahn and Co. somehow stumble against that after their barn-burning start on the Plains, we'll have to reassess the entire turnaround.
• Oklahoma State at Texas A&M.
I suspect Dez Bryant's absence may have some people flocking to A&M at home, but Arkansas' offensive explosion last week should have exposed the Aggies as the pending bottom dwellers everyone assumed they were before the season. The Cowboys still have some firepower -- in the running game, if no one steps up to replace Bryant's production in the passing game -- and more than enough remaining talent to weather an upset bid from an outfit that remains well behind the curve.
• Arizona at Washington.
Arizona is quietly off to one of the best starts in the Pac-10, 3-1 against teams that are a combined 13-2 outside of their games with the Wildcats. 'Zona is also leading the conference in rushing, and if there's one area Washington has struggled dramatically to improve, it's run defense: USC and Stanford both pounded the Huskies for 250-plus yards on well over six yards per carry, and Notre Dame badly gashed U-Dub through the air. After the upset over USC and the close calls against LSU and Notre Dame, this is the "back to earth" game that knocks the Huskies' optimism down a notch with a third consecutive loss.