NCF Nation: What to watch 091213

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 3:

1. Illinois' Chicago Homecoming: The Fighting Illini hope to capture some interest in the Windy City, as they'll be playing at Soldier Field for the first time since 1994. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said back in 2011 that he hoped the university would become the "king of Chicago," and while that won't be decided with a win or loss Saturday, a victory could help the Illini take that first step. They'll be playing No. 19 Washington and could start the season 3-0 with the upset -- already surpassing their two-win total from just a year ago. Nothing helps build up fan support quite like winning.

2. Best in the nation, worst in the nation: OK, the good news first -- the Nittany Lions are a perfect 4-for-4 on fourth downs, the best rate in the country. The problem? They've converted just two third-down attempts ... in 26 tries. That happens to be the worst rate in the country. PSU has been able to overcome that handicap with some long gains, but Central Florida's defense is built to prevent those. So, something will have to give in Happy Valley this weekend if PSU wants to remain undefeated.

3. No more cupcakes for Wisconsin: The Badgers got their fill of overmatched opponents in the first two weeks by outscoring UMass and Tennessee Tech by a combined score of 93-0. Saturday night will be the first true test for Wisconsin as it takes on a good Arizona State team on the road. Can Wisky adjust, and can the running game continue to shine? Stay tuned.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner opened the season on the edges of Heisman conversations. That has changed.
4. Devin Gardner's increasing Heisman stock: During the offseason, Gardner was a 40-to-1 long shot to win the Heisman. Then, as the season neared, he shot up to 25-to-1. Now, after his performance against Notre Dame? 14-to-1, according to Bovada. He's making Michigan fans and Big Ten gamblers pretty happy so far, and at this pace, he just might usurp Braxton Miller as the B1G favorite. He's contributing close to 300 yards per game and already has five passing TDs and three rushing scores to his name.

5. As the Spartans' QB carousel turns: Connor Cook will start again Saturday against Youngstown State, while true freshman Damion Terry appears to be the backup. That means Week 1 starter Andrew Maxwell could be riding the bench, alongside Tyler O'Connor, who saw action last week. It's definitely the most unique quarterback situation among teams hovering near the top 25, and Mark Dantonio is hoping to find something that works. Cook can run, and that's a plus, but the offense is still trying to find an identity outside of "three-and-out."

6. Braxton vs. sprained MCL: Ohio State's dual-threat quarterback remains a game-time decision against Cal, and Urban Meyer might be forced to start Kenny Guiton. Even if Miller can go, it will be interesting to see just how much the sprain affects him. He could have some stiffness Saturday, and that obviously could impact a quarterback who ran for more than 1,200 yards in 2012. It goes without saying that Miller plays a critical role in the OSU offense, so anything that affects Miller will affect this team in a big way.

7. Defensive vengeance: 653. Nebraska fans know what the number means. It's the number of yards the Huskers surrendered to UCLA last season, the second-most yards a Nebraska defense ever gave up. (UCLA won 36-30.) Now, with No. 16 UCLA headed to Lincoln, Neb., it's the Huskers' chance for some payback. "They're coming into our house, and we owe them," Bo Pelini told his players. This should be a good measuring stick for Nebraska's defense and should show how far it has come since last season ... if it has come anywhere at all.

8. Must-win for Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa State Cyclones have knocked off Ferentz's squad by a field goal in the past two meetings, and Iowa can ill afford a repeat here. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a loss to Northern Illinois, and a loss to their in-state rival would be devastating for a program that fans worry already might be on the decline. This is a statement game for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes.

9. Ball-hawking secondary. Quick, what college football team leads the nation in interceptions? If you said Northwestern, congratulations. This Wildcats defense has evolved into an opportunistic one and already has come up with seven picks in just two games. (It's tied with Tennessee, which also has seven.) Last season, three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Michigan, Illinois -- finished their seasons with just seven total picks. Northwestern has an easy matchup this week against Western Michigan and could pad its leading number.

10. Erasing the question marks: Taylor Martinez is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Nebraska history. He owns school records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. He's a Davey O'Brien Award candidate, and he is arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. BUT, he has been knocked for turnovers and the inability to win big games. Martinez can change that narrative and answer those question marks by beating No. 16 UCLA this weekend. This is his final season and last chance to prove he's able to win those important games -- and Saturday's is undoubtedly important.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
We've arrived at Week 3 of the season in the SEC, bringing us to one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire season: Alabama's trip to Texas A&M in a rematch of last season's thriller in Tuscaloosa, when eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the Aggies upset the eventual BCS champion Crimson Tide 29-24.

But that's not the only game worth watching in the conference this season. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch on Saturday around the conference.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMaybe it's something, maybe it's nothing, but Nick Saban is 7-1 at Bama in rematch games following a loss, with an average win margin of 20.9 points.
1. Revenge factor in College Station: At No. 6 in this week's AP Top 25, the Aggies won't sneak up on anyone this year. In fact, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and his troops have stewed over that loss throughout the offseason -- and that has typically been a bad sign for opponents. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Tide is 7-1 in rematch games following a loss, with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points. Of course, the Aggies have no intention of simply rolling over before its home crowd. Kevin Sumlin's club leads the SEC in scoring (58.5 ppg), total offense (600.0 ypg) and passing offense (392.0 ypg), so the Aggies should provide an enormous test for a formidable Alabama defense that allowed just 212 yards to Virginia Tech in its first game.

2. Run the X factor for Alabama: How the Aggies' porous defense fares against Alabama's strong running game might be the determining factor Saturday. An A&M defense that was depleted by suspensions has been horrendous so far, ranking last in the SEC by allowing 273 rushing yards per game to Rice and Sam Houston State. Oddly enough, Alabama is last in the league in rushing after totaling only 96 yards on the ground against Virginia Tech, but that trend is sure to be short-lived with star-caliber talent on the offensive line and T.J. Yeldon among the standouts in the backfield. Alabama is sure to try to control the pace of this game by hammering the Aggies' defense with its talented stable of running backs on Saturday. It will require an infinitely more effective performance by A&M's defense than what we've seen thus far if the Aggies are to do an acceptable job against the Tide's ground game.

3. Tough nonconference matchups: The SEC hasn't fared so well in its marquee nonconference games thus far, with Georgia and Florida falling to a pair of ACC opponents, Clemson and Miami, and Mississippi State laying an egg against Oklahoma State. Yes, LSU and Alabama held up their ends of the deal with wins against TCU and Virginia Tech, respectively, but this might be another weekend where SEC teams come up on the short end of high-profile nonconference matchups. As of Tuesday night, Tennessee was a 27.5-point underdog for Saturday's game at Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon, and Kentucky was also a double-digit underdog (plus-13.5) for its in-state rivalry game with Louisville. One of the more intriguing games of the weekend is Ole Miss' visit to a Texas program in turmoil, but the Longhorns are the favorite in that game, as well.

4. Measuring stick for Vols: New Tennessee coach Butch Jones' club has been impressive in its first two games, routing overmatched Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, but its next two games are a completely different animal. The Vols have the pleasure of facing No. 2 Oregon on national TV Saturday, followed by another tough road trip, to No. 18 Florida, the following week. Tennessee ranks 13th nationally with an average of 48.5 points per game and it leads the SEC with a plus-seven turnover margin, but slowing down Oregon's offensive juggernaut in Eugene is no simple task. The Ducks are 27-2 at Autzen Stadium dating back to the start of the 2009 season and at 62.5 points per game in wins against Virginia and Nicholls State, this year's club looks to be just as good as its recent predecessors.

5. Odell Beckham show: LSU's multi-talented return man and receiver punctuated an outstanding night by returning a missed field goal 100 yards for a touchdown last weekend against UAB. He also caught 136 yards worth of passes for three touchdowns against the Blazers. Kent State should provide ample opportunity for Beckham to add to his impressive stats -- he already has 10 catches for 254 yards and three TDs -- before the Tigers jump into conference play next week against Auburn.

6. Rebels primed for upset?: What do we make of Saturday night's Ole Miss-Texas game in Austin? The Longhorns won last year's game in Oxford by five touchdowns, but they hadn't just performed so poorly that coach Mack Brown felt compelled to fire a coordinator two games into the season. Texas' defense was horrendous last week, allowing 550 rushing yards -- the most by an opponent in school history -- in a 40-21 loss at BYU. That prompted Brown to reassign defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and bring back Greg Robinson to take his job. Flash forward to this weekend. At No. 25, Ole Miss is ranked for the first time since 2009, and the Rebels aren't too shabby on offense with an average of 510.5 yards per game. That matchup between Hugh Freeze's up-and-coming team and a Texas club on the verge of imploding makes for one of the weekend's most compelling storylines.

7. Arkansas' running game: Those around the conference are starting to take notice of the new-look ground game that first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has brought to Fayetteville. Once a pass-heavy offense under Bobby Petrino, Arkansas is 11th nationally with an average of 312.5 rushing yards per game. The Razorbacks have both the No. 6 (Alex Collins at 151.5 yards per game) and No. 12 (Jonathan Williams, 138.5 ypg) rushers in the country, and they'll face a Southern Miss defense this weekend that has been vulnerable against the run so far, ranking 81st with an average of 179.0 yards against.

8. Gamecocks, Commodores with something to prove: Steve Spurrier was livid after the way his defense performed in last week's loss to Georgia, vowing that the Gamecocks would change things up to force more turnovers. The Gamecocks risk falling out of the SEC East race if they suffer another division loss, so games like Saturday's visit from Vanderbilt are essentially must-wins. Although there have been a few near-misses, the Commodores are still in search of their first win against the East's power trio of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. With an SEC-high eight sacks and an overall productive defense, the Commodores might be able to give themselves a chance in Columbia if they contain South Carolina's offense and hit a big play or two against a Gamecocks defense in transition.

9. Enormous test for Kentucky secondary: Saturday's matchup against Louisville is a minor nightmare for a Kentucky team that lists three freshmen and four sophomores on the two-deep at its five secondary positions. Led by Heisman contender Teddy Bridgewater (376.0 ypg, 9 TDs, 1 INT) at quarterback, Louisville possesses one of the most potent passing offenses in the country. Kentucky has actually defended the pass fairly well so far, ranking fourth in the SEC with 147.0 yards allowed per game and limiting opponents to an 11.5-percent conversion rate on third down, but the Wildcats posted those numbers against Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio). Defensive end Za'Darius Smith (an SEC-high four sacks) and company must get after Bridgewater for the Wildcats to have a chance on Saturday.

10. Bowl implications for Auburn, Mississippi State: For a pair of teams harboring mid-level bowl hopes, Saturday's matchup is a big one. Already 2-0, Auburn is a win away from matching its win total for all of last season. But with games remaining against LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, bowl eligibility likely hinges on beating the Mississippi States of the world. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs, meanwhile, are desperate to right the ship after dropping six of their last games since starting the 2012 season 7-0. They flat-out stunk in a 21-3 loss to open the season against Oklahoma State and still have all of the West's heavyweights left on the schedule, plus South Carolina. The loser of this one might very well be home for Christmas.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
Here are a few things to keep an eye on this weekend as we head into Week 3:

1. Famous Jameis. It's been a nearly interminable two weeks since we've seen Jameis Winston take the field. And who can blame us for complaining? His college debut was sensational, and his home debut will come this Saturday against Nevada. (He's excited, meanwhile, because Wolfpack end Brock Hekking has a mullet.)

Steve Addazio
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmBoston College is playing better under coach Steve Addazio so maybe, just maybe BC could pull off the upset at USC.
2. Another upset on the horizon? OK, so it will take a lot for BC to pull off the upset at USC. But who's to say that it cannot happen after watching the first two weeks? The Trojans are reeling after a 10-7 home loss, and the fans are calling for Lane Kiffin's firing. The Eagles, meanwhile, have shown a renewed sense of grit under new coach Steve Addazio. Just imagine Addazio's reaction if his squad pulls it off ...

3. Edsall's reception. Randy Edsall's exit from UConn three years ago was not exactly smooth. Now the Maryland coach returns to his old stomping grounds as the Terrapins look to improve to 3-0. The Huskies beat them last year in College Park, Md., 24-21.

4. Pitt getting back on track. All we have on which to judge the Panthers' ACC era so far is a Week 1 loss to Winston and FSU. But the Panthers do show promise offensively, and they have a great chance to get in a rhythm this week against New Mexico, especially coming out of a bye.

5. Duke QBs. It's Brandon Connette time for the Blue Devils, who kick off their ACC season at Georgia Tech. With Anthony Boone out indefinitely with a broken collarbone, Connette will start, though coach David Cutcliffe has said he wants to get freshman Parker Boehme some playing time as well.

6. Georgia Tech's A-back. The Yellow Jackets start an eight-week stretch of eight games, with the first four coming against division opponents. They will be without A-back Deon Hill (illness), with B.J. Bostic or Synjyn Days likely to step in for Hill.

7. Syracuse's QB shuffle. A home opener against FCS Wagner may be the perfect remedy for the 0-2 Orange. Drew Allen will start again at quarterback, but Terrel Hunt has been assured of playing time as well. How both fare could determine who gets the nod moving forward this season.

8. Wake looks for answers on offense. The Deacs struggled in their 10-point outing last week at BC, particularly running the option. Coach Jim Grobe said the option is here to stay, though he'd like to see more out of the passing game when defenses focus on the run.

9. Can the Hokies' offense get it going? Logan Thomas was better last week but still threw two picks in the end zone against Western Carolina, resulting in a total QBR rating that ranks 132nd out of 138 passers. He will need to improve against the East Carolina Pirates, whom the Hokies remember for their opening-week upset in 2008.

10. Unlikely fireworks? Five ACC teams are off this weekend, including Clemson and Miami, which have provided the league with its signature victories so far this season. Where will the surprises come from this week? The Coliseum is where the biggest one can probably take place, though Winston could surprise us all and re-create his opening-week performance when FSU faces Nevada.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
A few storylines to keep an eye on in Week 3.

  1. [+] EnlargeUCLA's Brett Hundley
    Gary A. Vasquez/US PRESSWIREUCLA's Brett Hundley threw for four TDs and the Bruins celebrated a win over Nebraska last year. Can they do it again this season?
    B1G tests: The Pac-12 faces the Big Ten four times this week. The league went 4-1 last season against its Rose Bowl partners, including Stanford’s win over Wisconsin in the Grand Daddy. This week, UCLA travels to Nebraska, Arizona State hosts Wisconsin, Ohio State travels to Cal and Washington takes on Illinois in Chicago. The Big Ten is already up 1-0 this year after Northwestern beat Cal in Week 1. Over the past five seasons, the leagues are nearly even, with the Pac-12 going 11-10 (including 2013).
  2. Getting defensive: Last week the Pac-12 had five interceptions returned for touchdowns -- including two by Colorado, two by Arizona and one by Washington State. Utah also returned a fumble for a touchdown.
  3. Speaking of defensive: Stanford has the longest streak in the nation with 25 consecutive games with a takeaway. Safety Ed Reynolds kept it alive last week with an interception. Oregon has 40 takeaways since the start of the 2012 season, the most of any team in the country. The Ducks already have six this year (three interceptions, three fumbles).
  4. Rematches: Three of the nonconference games this week are rematches from last season. In 2012, the Bruins topped Nebraska in Pasadena, Cal hung tough against the Buckeyes but ultimately lost and Colorado was blown out by Fresno State on the road.
  5. Heavy hearts: The Bruins travel to Lincoln this week with the memory of wide receiver Nick Pasquale still very much on their minds. The Bruins will wear Pasquale’s “36” on their uniforms. In a very classy act, the Huskers will do the same with a “36” decal on their helmets, along with a moment of silence before kickoff.
  6. Off and running: Through two games, Oregon has already produced five 100-yard rushing performances: two from De'Anthony Thomas, two from Marcus Mariota and one from Byron Marshall. Of their 17 touchdown drives, 15 of them have come in less than two minutes.
  7. League play continues: For the first time this season, all 12 teams will be in action in the same week -- all on the same day, for that matter, with no Thursday or Friday night games. One week after USC and Washington State kicked off conference play, Oregon State (1-1) and Utah (2-0) open their league play with the Beavers heading to Rice-Eccles. Not to put too much into one game, but this one could be huge for the trajectory of each team. The Utes face BYU next week and then have back-to-back home games against UCLA and Stanford. Four of their final six are on the road, so the Utes are looking to take advantage of a schedule that is front-loaded with home games.
  8. Are you for real? If last week was the Pac-12’s cupcake week, this week is all about measuring sticks. All four of the Pac-12/Big Ten showdowns feature at least one ranked team (No. 4 Ohio State; No. 16 UCLA and No. 23 Nebraska; No. 19 Washington; No. 20 Wisconsin). Eight of the nonconference opponents are 2-0. Fresno State might be the best non-AQ team in college football. Teams such as ASU and UCLA can certainly make a splash on the national stage. And a team like Colorado can take a huge step forward in terms of its perception. Cal beating the No. 4 team in the country couldn't hurt, either.
  9. North vs. South: For those keeping track at home, the Pac-12 North features three of the league’s four ranked teams. But through the first two weeks, the North Division is a combined 7-3 while the South is 9-1 with five of its six teams undefeated. The North is 2-1 against ranked teams (including a win over then-No. 25 USC), while the South has yet to play a ranked opponent. That of course changes this week with ASU and UCLA. Not making any statements, just an observation.
  10. QBs on the move: Last season, four Pac-12 quarterbacks accounted for 10 rushes of at least 30 yards each, with half of those coming from Mariota. Through two weeks this season, five Pac-12 quarterbacks have accounted for eight rushes of at least 30 yards. Among them are Arizona’s B.J. Denker (30, 35) and Javelle Allen (61); Mariota (46, 71); UCLA’s Brett Hundley (37); and Utah’s Travis Wilson (38, 51). Each of the eight rushes resulted in a touchdown.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
Several intriguing games in the Big 12 this week. Will Texas put out the fire? How will Iowa State respond? Is Texas Tech for real? Should Blake Bell take over the reins at Oklahoma? Can’t wait to get those answers.

Here’s what to watch in the Big 12 for Week 3:

1. Can Texas rebound? Texas has brought in Greg Robinson to turn things around for the Longhorns’ defense. The veteran coach has experience but he’s been thrown into the fire and asked to make a miracle happen against Ole Miss in less than a week. The odds aren’t on his side, but if Robinson completely turns around the UT defense, the entire Big 12 landscape will have changed in a matter of days.

[+] EnlargeBaker Mayfield
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman QB Baker Mayfield has been nearly flawless his first two games, but he hasn't seen defensive playmakers like TCU will have on Saturday.
2. First real test for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders haven’t seen anything like TCU’s defense thus far this season. Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield has been outstanding, having thrown for 780 yards and seven touchdowns (he's also rushed for a TD) while leading the Red Raiders to a 2-0 start. But he hasn’t seen playmakers like TCU’s Devonte Fields, Jason Verrett and Kevin White. How Mayfield handles his first Big 12 game could define if the Red Raiders’ hope of becoming the Big 12’s surprise team can come true.

3. Character test for the Cyclones. Iowa State can redeem itself with a win over Iowa on Saturday. The Cyclones’ disappointing 28-20 loss to Northern Iowa was one of the most surprising results of the season’s first weekend, particularly since their defense couldn’t stop UNI on the ground or through the air. Nothing can get things back on track like a rivalry game and ISU is looking to make sure its horrible Week 1 performance doesn’t snowball into a horrible multi-game stretch to start the season.

4. Blake Bell’s opportunity. The Sooners quarterback gets the chance to prove he should have been OU’s starter when his squad hosts Tulsa on Saturday. Bell, the preseason favorite to replace Landry Jones, lost the quarterback battle to Trevor Knight. But Knight’s knee injury has opened the door; will Bell walk through it?

5. How will Oklahoma State handle a week of distractions? The Cowboys have been in the news throughout the week due to allegations of misconduct throughout the program in a series of stories by Sports Illustrated. OSU’s home opener against Lamar will be the first time to see the football program in action since the series was published and Boone Pickens Stadium promises to be a lively atmosphere. Nonetheless, it should be pretty easy to tell if the Cowboys are distracted. And if they are, it might be a sign that the distractions could affect them for the remainder of the season as the ripple effect continues.

6. Will West Virginia’s quarterback situation ever become clear? Dana Holgorsen plans to continue his search for a solid No. 1 quarterback until Paul Millard, Clint Trickett or Ford Childress separates himself from the pack. Holgorsen is extremely disappointed in the play of his offense and has shouldered the blame, saying, “It’s embarrassing, we have to put our guys in better position to make plays.” But one of those guys needs to seize the opportunity to trigger Holgorsen’s offense starting against Georgia State on Saturday.

7. Can Trevone Boykin take TCU’s offense to a different level? Boykin will be asked to shoulder the load for the Horned Frogs with Casey Pachall out. He’s much better prepared to be the main man in the offensive backfield this season and his dynamic running will test any defense. Much like Bell, Boykin has the chance to prove he should have been the guy in the first place.

8. Kansas looks to keep momentum. The Jayhawks opened the season with a win over South Dakota and will get the chance to start off 2-0 when they visit Rice. KU coach Charlie Weis is trying to build a quality program and a win over the Owls would be step in the right direction after several close calls in 2012.

9. Will Kansas State’s defense return to its 2012 form? The Wildcats replaced several starters, including linebacker Arthur Brown, but the cupboard is not bare. Yet the Wildcats have allowed 24 points to North Dakota State and 27 points to Louisiana-Lafayette in back-to-back weeks. Last year’s defense allowed 19.5 points per game in nonconference play. KSU needs a strong defensive performance against Massachusetts on Saturday to get its confidence going on that side of the ball with a road trip to Texas looming next weekend.

10. Are any Big 12 teams ripe for an upset? OSU has had a week full of distractions, Kansas State is still a work in progress, WVU’s offense has been substandard and OU can’t seem to create any offensive balance. All four teams host opponents they should beat with relative ease but it wouldn’t be a shock to see any of those squads struggle because, quite simply, no Big 12 team has looked like dominant squad during the first two weeks of the season.

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