Separation Saturday: Which unbeaten teams are contenders and which are pretenders?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the Bay Area is upside down (California 3-0, Stanford 1-2):

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We are approaching a critical weekend in college football – perhaps no true marquee matchups, but there are eight games matching undefeated teams. Time to start separating some contenders from pretenders. A look at the nine showdowns to come:

Mississippi State-Georgia (21). Where: Between the hedges. When: 7 p.m. ET. Context: Not many people had this circled before the season, but here we are. The Bulldogs of the East might be the most solid team in a division fraught with weakness. The Bulldogs of the West are the only team in that division not named Alabama that hasn’t been a major disappointment so far. Key matchup: Can Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams mount a consistent running game against a defense allowing just 2.3 yards per carry and 71 yards per game? Dash pick: Mississippi State 21, Georgia 17.

TCU-Oklahoma State (22). Where: Stillwater. When: 3:30 p.m. ET. Context: The road to the Big 12 title runs through Stillwater, and the Horned Frogs are one of the few teams in the league who look capable of altering that fact. Key matchup: TCU’s pass defense, which is allowing opponents to complete just 45 percent of their throws, against an Oklahoma State offense that is completing 70 percent and lighting up secondaries. Dash pick: Oklahoma State 47, TCU 31.

TCU’s Gary Patterson and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy have a marquee matchup on Saturday. (Getty)
TCU’s Gary Patterson and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy have a marquee matchup on Saturday. (Getty)

Penn State-Iowa (23). Where: Iowa City. When: 7:30 p.m. ET. Context: Nittany Lions are looking good, Hawkeyes are getting by. Penn State has won its three games by an average margin of 42 points, while Iowa trailed at halftime Saturday against North Texas and trailed Iowa State by 10 in the fourth quarter the previous week before rallying. Key matchup: Big-play Saquon Barkley against an Iowa defense that, thus far, can be had. Barkley is tied for the national lead in most plays from scrimmage of 40 or more yards with five; Iowa’s defense is tied for last in the Big Ten in most 40-plus-yard plays allowed with three. Dash pick: Penn State 35, Iowa 24.

Washington-Colorado (24). Where: Boulder. When: 10 p.m. ET. Context: The Huskies, who have won their last seven true road games, have earned carry-over respect from their 12-2 season in 2016 and are ranked in the AP and USA Today top 10. The Buffaloes, who have won eight straight at home, have earned no carry-over respect from their 10-4 breakthrough season and remain outside the top 25. (True, they’ve played no one of note.) Key matchup: Colorado’s punt team, which has allowed just two returns for nine yards, against Washington return wizard Dante Pettis, who has a punt-return touchdown in each game this season and an amazing eight for his career. Dash pick: Washington 21, Colorado 19 in a #Pac12AfterDark special.

Alabama-Vanderbilt (25). Where: Nashville. When: 3:30 p.m. ET. Context: Vandy’s start has been strong, but keep in mind the Crimson Tide doesn’t lose to the Commodores. It’s only happened twice in the last 60 years, the last time in 1984. (Probably the definitive proof that Ray Perkins was never going to last long replacing Bear Bryant.) There will certainly be excitement on Vandy’s campus for this game, but the stands figure to have more crimson in them than black and gold. Key matchup: Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who leads the SEC in efficiency and hasn’t thrown an interception this year, against an Alabama defense that is tied for the SEC lead in interceptions with five. Dash pick: Alabama 20, Vanderbilt 7.

USC-California (26). Where: Berkeley. When: 3:30 p.m. ET. Context: Cal has been one of the better surprises early this season, beating North Carolina and Mississippi to start the Justin Wilcox Era in promising fashion. USC has been all over the board – vulnerable against Western Michigan, dominant against Stanford and dangerously close to a damaging loss to Texas. Now the Trojans go on the road for the first time, toting a 12-game winning streak. Key matchup: Cal’s ball-hawking defense against USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who has been surprisingly loose with the ball thus far. Darnold has thrown six interceptions and the Golden Bears have picked off five, tied for the lead in the Pac-12. Their nine takeaways are tied for third nationally. Dash pick: USC 42, California 28.

Central Florida-Maryland (27). Where: College Park. When: Noon. Context: Throw the Knights into the collection of mysterious Florida teams. They’ve yet to play a game this month, demolishing Florida International on Aug. 31 and then disappearing into Hurricane-caused obscurity. The Terrapins, meanwhile, have been explosive in victories over Texas and Towson. Key matchup: Which potent offense wins the day? These are the two highest-scoring teams in the country to date. UCF rolled up 587 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per play against FIU. Maryland leads the nation at 9.1 yards per play. Dash pick: Maryland 45, UCF 42.

Texas Tech-Houston (28). Where: Houston. When: Noon. Context: Despite dealing with a hurricane that created major upheaval and canceled the Cougars’ opener, Major Applewhite’s head-coaching debut season couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start. Both teams scored significant wins over teams from Arizona: Houston over the Wildcats and Tech over Arizona State. Key matchup: A Houston defense that leads the American Athletic Conference in fewest yards per play allowed at 4.5 against a Texas Tech team that does what it does, leading the Big 12 in total offense. Dash pick: Houston 37, Texas Tech 35.

Toledo-Miami (29). Where: Miami. When: 3:30 p.m. ET. Context: As previously mentioned in the second quarter, the Hurricanes are shrouded in mystery after having played just once against an FCS opponent. Toledo won a wild shootout with Tulsa last Saturday, coming back from 21 down and winning the game on a field goal at the gun. Key matchup: Rockets quarterback Logan Woodside, who has thrown 53 touchdown passes in his last 16 games, against a Miami defense that has allowed an average of just 15 points over its last five games. Dash pick: Miami 31, Toledo 24.

Wake Forest (30) has scored 50, 34 and 36 points in rolling to a very easy 3-0 start. Last time the Demon Deacons scored 34 or more in three games to start a season? Never. But then again, they’ve only been playing football since 1888. Wake has rarely been a great football program and even more rarely been an explosive one – even when the Deacons won in recent decades, it tended to be with defense. But here in year four, coach Dave Clawson seems to have instilled some offensive spark – Wake is averaging 29 points per game in the first half alone. Senior quarterback John Wolford is playing at a dramatically higher level than at any point in his college career, completing 64 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. Wake is at Appalachian State on Saturday before hitting an October gauntlet: Florida State, at Clemson, at Georgia Tech and Louisville.

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