Friday Morning Quarterback: Meet the new Ducks, same as the old Ducks

Dr. Saturday

A weekly primer.

ARIZONA STATE at OREGON (-14½) 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN.

What's at stake: The Ducks and Sun Devils are on opposite sides of the Pac-12's new divisional divide, and both are likely to emerge with the conference title game still very much in sight regardless of the final score. For Arizona State, though, there won't be a better measuring stick for its chances of actually winning the league if it eventually punches its ticket: On the road, against the reigning class of the conference, is the Devils' best chance not only to separate themselves from the rest of a middling South Division, but also to put an at-large BCS bid on the horizon down the stretch.

Oregon wants: Not that the Ducks won't miss LaMichael James in the backfield — under no circumstances does a returning Heisman Trophy finalist who leads the nation in all-purpose yards qualify as a "cog" — but his absence won't change anything Oregon does: Fellow quarkbacks Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas will absorb James' usual 20 to 25 carries out of the shotgun and the offense will move at full tilt as always.

Consistent, down-to-down production may lag slightly with James on ice — even with James at full speed, Arizona State held the Ducks to their worst rushing game of the season last year in Tempe — and his absence may put more pressure than usual on Darron Thomas as a passer, certainly the lesser of two evils as far as ASU is concerned. But Barner brings more than enough to the table as a big-play threat to keep the defense occupied while the suddenly thriving Thomas-to-Thomas connection goes to work downfield. As long as the Devils are devoting extra resources to stop the run, Oregon is in business.

Arizona State wants: Oregon doesn't care about "time of possession," but it does care about number of possessions, and the fewer of them the better for Arizona State. That's not exactly the Devils' MO: The offense has lived and died to date on the right arm of quarterback Brock Osweiler, which has no shortage of targets and is currently accounting for about two-thirds of ASU's total yards. But it's not the type of attack that can reliably fly up and down the field with the likes of Oregon's if it turns into a basketball game.

To that end, the Devils need a steady, chain-moving effort from 215-pound tailback Cameron Marshall, on the order of the 25-carry, 141-yard night he delivered in a 43-22 win over USC last month. If there's anywhere the Ducks are vulnerable, it's against the run: LSU, Nevada and Cal have all had success running straight at the rebuilt Oregon front. Establishing control of the line of scrimmage will open things up for Osweiler in the passing game, and more importantly, keep the Duck offense off the field.

Constants: Oregon will come out of the locker with a quick score to start either the first or second half. … Arizona State will have some success running right at the Ducks. … Both quarterbacks will have time and success through the air.

Variables: How long can the ASU defense keep the ASU running game viable? … Will Cliff Harris play a significant role for Oregon? In what capacity? … How consistent is Darron Thomas' arm?

The Pick: Oregon hasn't lost a game in Autzen Stadium since early 2008, and hasn't lost a Pac-10/12 home game since 2007. Even when they sputter early, the Ducks have a knack for hitting the gas and putting the game out of reach — a la their four-touchdown burst last week in the third quarter against Cal, a game they actually trailed at the half but won going away in typical fashion. Arizona State hasn't beaten a ranked team on the road since 1997. As vastly improved as they are, surviving a punch from Oregon in this environment is too big a step.

OKLAHOMA STATE (-7) at TEXAS 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN.
The bloom didn't just come off of Texas' rose last week: It came off in a very specific, illuminating way, courtesy of Oklahoma's veteran passing attack against a Longhorn secondary consisting almost exclusively of freshmen and sophomores. The good news: Oklahoma State's defense is slightly more forgiving than the Sooners', by a little over 100 total yards per game. The bad news: The Cowboy passing attack is even more merciless, currently bombing opposing defenses at the rate of 431 yards per game — and that's after throttling down in the second half of all but one of them. Texas learned a lot last week, the chief lesson being that its mewling cornerbacks have absolutely no chance of covering Justin Blackmon.{YSP:MORE}

Michigan State's perch as the nation's No. 1 total defense — it's also ranked among the top three in rushing, pass efficiency and scoring D — has been largely taken for granted, coming as it has against the likes of Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan and the most inept Ohio State offense in ages, none of which has managed more than seven points. The one competent attack the Spartans have faced, Notre Dame, put up 31 in a rout.

Even in that game, though, MSU held the Irish below 300 total yards — by far their worst total of the year — and forced three turnovers. And as it turns out, Ohio State's offense may not be quite as dead as it looked. They may not hold Denard Robinson to a single touchdown, but if the Spartans do anything like what they did to him last year in Ann Arbor, it's probably time to start thinking of them as the new frontrunners in the Legends Division.

OHIO STATE at ILLINOIS (-3) 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN.
The Buckeyes' Jekyll-and-Hyde routine at Nebraska may have left them reeling with most of their usual goals — a Big Ten championship, a BCS bid, a 10-win season — effectively off the table, but it also left them with an opportunity: Before freshman quarterback Braxton Miller's exit in the third quarter, the offense seemed to have found an identity it can live with for the rest of the season, and maybe win a few games with. Miller is expected to start in Champaign, sore ankle notwithstanding, and with the Wisconsin death machine steamrolling into Columbus next week, this looks like a drop-dead point for OSU to salvage anything resembling a successful season.

FLORIDA (-2) at AUBURN 7 p.m. ET, ESPN.
A new round of negativity seems to be descending on Auburn after last week's second half fade at Arkansas — the defense remains at the bottom of the SEC rankings, the quarterback situation is hanging by a thread and the Tigers are generally not looking like a 4-2 outfit still claiming a position in the polls — but whatever's going wrong on the Plains, it pales in comparison to starting a true freshman quarterback on the road for the second week in a row.

Jacoby Brissett's first go-round last weekend was a predictable nightmare — he was 8-of-14 with two interceptions in a 41-11 loss at LSU, and 65 of his 94 yards passing came on one play after the outcome was all but decided — but with senior John Brantley out and fellow freshman Jeff Driskel still nursing a bum ankle suffered in Florida's loss to Alabama, the Gators have nowhere else to turn.

LSU (-17) at TENNESSEE 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS.
At one point, very early in the season, I might have considered Tennessee a viable upset threat on the strength of their prolific young talent in the passing game. But that was before the Vols lost their best receiver for the year, and then got nowhere offensively against Florida or Georgia, and then lost their starting quarterback for a month-and-a-half to a broken hand. It was also before LSU began demonstrating actual competence on offense in addition to its smothering, opportunistic defense and special teams. I'm a sucker for home-field advantage these days, but all things considered, I think I'll stick with the Tigers.

I'm not sure how long I can go on picking against Kansas State, after the Wildcats' back-to-back-to-back upsets against Miami, Baylor and Missouri to remain unbeaten at 5-0. But it's at least one more week: Lubbock is a notoriously tough locale, and K-State hasn't excelled in any one phase in a way that screams "this team is for real." And if I'm wrong, at least I know I've got Vegas on my side. Again.

Yes, Texas A&M's secondary has been ripped to ribbons in consecutive weeks by Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Texas Tech, which have combined to bomb A&M for 1,339 yards and 8 touchdowns through the air alone — with no interceptions — en route to 112 points between them. And of course Baylor QB Robert Griffin III seems like just the quarterback to exploit that for another huge afternoon at the Aggies' expense. Which he is. But the A&M offense has given as good as the defense has gotten, and the Bears' relative meekness against the run isn't going to serve them well opposite Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. Again, I lean toward the home field in a shootout of epic proportions.

VIRGINIA TECH (-6½) at WAKE FOREST 6:30 p.m. ET (No television.)
Objectively, judging them strictly by their resumés to date, Wake has been every bit as good as Virginia Tech — in fact, considering the Demon Deacons are one blown fourth quarter lead at Syracuse away from a perfect record, they may come out slightly ahead after the Hokies' struggles the last two weeks with Clemson and Miami. But Tech found its rhythm offensively last week behind Brobdingnagian quarterback Logan Thomas, and the Wake bandwagon still needs more to entice me aboard than a win over perpetually underachieving Florida State. This would be it.

SOUTH CAROLINA at MISSISSIPPI STATE 12:20 p.m. ET, SEC Network (Regional).
Mississippi State is a dramatically better team at home, South Carolina may be distracted this week by inner turmoil and the SEC West still owns the East. From the outside, the Gamecocks look like a team in a little bit of turmoil at the moment, and the Bulldogs need this kind of win to restore some of the preseason luster that's been missing since opening night.

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

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