NCF Nation: what to watch 092012

What to watch in the SEC: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 4:

1. Punching back on the Plains: It’s no secret that No. 2 LSU is one of the most physical teams in the country and revels in pounding teams into submission in the second half. The beating LSU put on Auburn last season in Baton Rouge was R-rated. Auburn gets a chance to do something about it Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium. But it remains to be seen if Auburn is physical enough to stand toe-to-toe with LSU, which has barely broken a sweat in its first three games. Auburn is preparing to play more of its base 4-3 defense in this game to try to slow down LSU’s bruising running game. Auburn spent a lot of time in its 4-2-5 alignment in the first three games against teams that spread the field. It’s going to be more about winning one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage in this game, which has typically been LSU’s forte.

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Beth Hall/US PresswireThe Hogs, who have scored one touchdown in their past six quarters of play, could be without QB Tyler Wilson against Rutgers.
2. Tyler Wilson Watch: Even though Wilson has been practicing this week, the Hogs are still unsure if he’ll be cleared medically to play against Rutgers after missing the Alabama game last week with a concussion. It could be Friday or Saturday before the Hogs know, but they’re at least preparing as if Wilson will be able to play. Since he was knocked out of the Louisiana-Monroe game two weeks ago, Arkansas has scored one touchdown in its past six quarters of play. Clearly, the Razorbacks need Wilson back on the field if they’re going to make something of this season, and his leadership is needed as much as his ability to throw the football.

3. Running back revival: Everybody wondered in the offseason if South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis could return to their pre-injury forms. The jury is still out. Lattimore, coming off a torn ACL, rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, but has carried it only 25 times in his past two games. The Gamecocks haven’t really needed him, but that could change Saturday against Missouri. It has been tough sledding for Davis, who has 191 yards on 54 carries in his first three games. Davis missed all of last season with a fractured ankle and just hasn’t been as decisive about hitting the hole. And to be fair, there hasn’t been a surplus of holes to run through to this point. The Hogs need to get the running game going and may give Dennis Johnson a few more opportunities.

4. Absorbing the pounding: South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Missouri’s James Franklin are both hurting, and it’s still September. That’s not to question the toughness of either player, but it is a reminder that quarterbacks whose livelihood in this conference is running the ball have to be a special breed and also have to be able to absorb a serious amount of pounding. Shaw, who has a hairline fracture in his right (throwing) shoulder, will start Saturday against Missouri. He sat out the game two weeks ago and left the game early last week after aggravating the injury. Franklin is optimistic that he’ll be able to play Saturday after missing last week’s game against Arizona State. Franklin declined to take a painkilling shot after injuring his shoulder against Georgia two weeks ago.

5. Gators chomping away: There’s only one SEC team with two league wins, and that team is Florida. In fact, the Gators have two road wins and are home Saturday to face struggling Kentucky in the Swamp. To this point, Florida has been exactly what second-year coach Will Muschamp had hoped the Gators would be. They’re physical. They can run the ball, and they’ve been suffocating on defense in the second half. They’ve yet to allow any fourth-quarter points in three games and have forced 10 three-and-outs in the second half. Florida has a bye week after Kentucky’s visit and gets LSU at home on Oct. 6. So barring a major letdown in the Swamp this weekend, the Gators are poised to rejoin the SEC’s elite and will have a chance to rejoin college football’s elite that first Saturday in October.

6. Three straight shutouts for Alabama? In their first three games, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide have won by a combined margin of 128-14. They haven’t allowed any points in their past two games, and if they blank Florida Atlantic this Saturday, it would mark the first time since 1966 that Alabama had recorded three shutouts in a row. That 1966 team, which finished 11-0 and won the SEC championship, had four straight shutouts and collected a total of six shutouts that season. The 2012 version of the Crimson Tide has been equally dominant, and if you go back to the end of the 2010 season, Alabama has played only one game in its past 17 that was decided by fewer than 16 points. That was the 9-6 overtime loss to LSU last season. Only twice in its past 16 victories has Alabama won by fewer than 21 points.

7. Carta-Samuels takes his shot: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin isn’t saying for sure who will start at quarterback this week against Georgia, but Austyn Carta-Samuels is listed No. 1 on the depth chart after playing the whole game last week in the Commodores’ 58-0 rout of Presbyterian. Jordan Rodgers, one of Vanderbilt’s team captains, had been the starter in the first two games, but the Commodores lost both and failed to score a second-half touchdown in either game. Franklin has shown in the past that he’s not afraid to switch quarterbacks. A year ago, the Commodores started playing some of their best football after Rodgers replaced Larry Smith. Now, it looks like Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming, will get a chance to show what he can do against an SEC defense. Franklin has been guarded about the whole situation and has refused to let either quarterback talk to the media this week.

8. Playing like a contender: Mississippi State played just well enough to survive last week in its 30-24 victory at Troy. The Bulldogs moved into The Associated Press’ Top 25 poll at No. 23 this week, but they still need to prove they belong there. A big step in that direction would be taking care of business against South Alabama in convincing fashion Saturday and not playing down to the competition. The Bulldogs are set up to have a special season when you look at their schedule. Quarterback Tyler Russell is playing lights out, and the defense stepped up big in the win over Auburn. But if Mississippi State is going to be a legitimate contender in the West, it’s time the Bulldogs start playing their best football every week … regardless of the opponent.

9. Most improved: Speaking of Russell, he’s right there at the top when you start reeling off the SEC’s most improved players three weeks into the season. Russell and West Virginia’s Geno Smith are the only two quarterbacks in the country with a passing efficiency rating of at least 160.0 with eight or more touchdowns and no interceptions. Florida’s Mike Gillislee, now that he’s the Gators’ go-to back, also has blossomed. He’s leading the SEC with 346 rushing yards. A few others who deserve mention are Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama place-kicker Cade Foster, South Carolina cornerback Jimmy Legree, LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, LSU running back Kenny Hilliard, Georgia receiver Marlon Brown and Florida receiver Frankie Hammond.

10. Maturation of Manziel: What has been the biggest difference in Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, who’s leading the SEC in total offense with an average of 325.5 yards through his first two games? That’s easy, said coach Kevin Sumlin. “The biggest transition for him has been moving from an athlete playing quarterback to a quarterback who’s an athlete,” Sumlin said. Manziel is still working on becoming a better passer and keeping his eyes down the field when he starts to scramble. But Sumlin likes what he sees from his first-year starter to this point. “The biggest compliment I can give him is how he’s led the team and taken care of the football,” Sumlin said.

What to watch: Week 4 vs. Michigan

September, 20, 2012
Here's what to watch for Saturday as Notre Dame hosts Michigan under the lights:

1. A big play from Shoelace. I may as well put "lights," "tackles" and "a big crowd" while I'm at it. The Irish defense is much better equipped this season to handle Denard Robinson, but he will still break off one long run -- say, 40 yards or more -- at some point Saturday night, regardless of how well Notre Dame plays.

2. One quarterback. Amid the ACC news and a sound performance at Michigan State, the "starter-closer" story line has gotten buried. Everett Golson will keep it that way Saturday night, directing an offense that won't need another perfect two-minute drill to get the victory. (Garbage time snaps do not apply to this prediction.)

3. Leis everywhere. The school spirit group, the Leprechaun Legion, will distribute 7,500 white leis to students at Friday night's pep rally to support Manti Te'o after the senior's tragic losses last week. That should make for an interesting sight in the student section, and it is certainly a great cause.

What to Watch in the Big East: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
Here's what to keep an eye on this Saturday. (Yes, every Big East game will take place Saturday, for a change.)

1. Paging UConn's offense: Yes, we say this every week. But until the Huskies show some semblance of a consistent offensive attack, we are going to be repeating ourselves. Their three-point win at Maryland put them at 2-1, but the Huskies managed just 223 total yards and only 70 through the air, getting a big boost from special teams and, as always, their defense.

2. Does Temple finally beat Penn State? This would be the year to do it, with the Nittany Lions losing 13 players -- who transferred before the season because of NCAA sanctions -- and getting off to just a 1-2 start. The Owls, who haven't beaten Penn State since 1941, will need to establish their ground game early against a strong front seven.

[+] EnlargePitt's Paul Chryst
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPaul Chryst and Pittsburgh hope to build on their upset of Virginia Tech.
3. Pitt continuing upward trend: It will be tough to tell, considering the Panthers are hosting FCS team Gardner-Webb. Then again, they lost their opener to FCS Youngstown State by two touchdowns, so they must show that their rout of Virginia Tech was no fluke, and could be something to build on the rest of the season.

4. USF bouncing back: A trip to Ball State is hardly daunting, but the Bulls' conference-opening loss to Rutgers last week brought back all sorts of bad memories from a year ago, and they can't afford to let mistakes turn into habits and one loss turn into two.

5. Rutgers goes for knockout blow: Remember when we thought this was the Big East's chance at a national statement against a title contender? Now a loss to the Razorbacks might qualify for humiliation, though they remain a talented -- and especially now -- desperate bunch who will look to take out their frustration on a Scarlet Knights team riding high after a win at USF.

6. Teddy Bridgewater takes show on the road: The Louisville sophomore has played as well as any quarterback in the nation through three weeks, but all of his games have come at home. This one, at FIU, might not seem all that hostile for the Miami native, who will have a homecoming of sorts with the No. 20 Cardinals.

7. Alec Lemon making history: The Syracuse receiver recorded just two receptions last week in a win against Stony Brook, and is four catches away from breaking the school career record of 139. Minnesota (3-0) will provide a stiff test for the 1-2 Orange, though the Gophers are expected to start Max Shortell at quarterback in place of MarQueis Gray (ankle).

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
Here's what I'm keeping an eye on in this week's five games across the Big 12.

1. Dominance up front is where it's at: How did Kansas State beat Miami so handily? By handling its business on both the offensive and defensive lines. Oklahoma's offensive line has been underwhelming, and it's thin, too. The defensive line is unproven and has had to shift around because of suspensions and personnel issues. If Kansas State is going to come into Norman and do the impossible (?), that's how it's going to happen.

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Rick Scuteri/AP ImagesLandry Jones is hoping for another monster game against Kansas State.
2. Was last year a reality, or a rarity? Where Oklahoma had the biggest advantage a year ago? On the outside. Landry Jones torched Kansas State's secondary for 505 yards, and the Sooners scored 58 points in the blowout win. The personnel is mostly the same for the Cats in the secondary, but if the Sooners hang 58 again, this one's going to just be another blowout.

3. How much better are you, really? Baylor's defense looked good against SMU in Week 1, but I'm not so sure how much Mustangs quarterback Garrett Gilbert has (A) improved or (B) was ready to run June Jones' offense. Last week, Baylor's defense didn't look great against Sam Houston State, especially in the first half. The second half was a different story. So which defense can we count on seeing from Baylor? The answer to that question might determine the outcome of the Friday-nighter.

4. Welcome to the land of the big-armed passers: Five of the nation's top six leaders in passer rating are in the Big 12, and Collin Klein gives the Big 12 six of the top nine. The Big 12 is living up to its reputation as the league with the best quarterbacks. Will that continue this week, the final one before conference play officially kicks in?

5. Keeping up appearances: Geno Smith has been downright ridiculous through two games. The competition doesn't get much tougher this week, but can he maintain his 9-9 touchdown-incompletion ratio? Craziness. Also, if you've lost track, TCU quarterback Casey Pachall isn't far off. He's got five touchdowns and six incompletions.

6. Don't get defensive about it. (On second thought, do exactly that): Kansas' defense looked decent last week against TCU, and helped force four turnovers, moving into the national lead with 12. Northern Illinois topped 40 points in Lawrence last year, but the Huskies' offense has been unimpressive to this point this season. What does the Kansas defense have in store this week, in its first road game?

7. Can we get a medic here? STAT! Wildcats star linebacker Arthur Brown went down with what looked like an ugly, ugly ankle injury last week against North Texas. However, after missing only limited time, he returned to the field and made two tackles on his first two snaps, and finished with a career-high 13 stops. He's expected to play again, but will he look like his usual self? Kansas State needs him to.

8. What about the supporting cast? TCU's Josh Boyce and Brandon Carter have been really good through two weeks, both grabbing multiple touchdowns, nine catches and amassing at least 160 yards. Skye Dawson was quiet last week, and LaDarius Brown didn't have a catch until breaking out for five catches and 70 yards last week against Kansas. What does TCU's receiver depth have in store for this week against Virginia?

9. Welcome to the Thunderdome: Bob Stoops didn't really "call out" Oklahoma's crowd this week, but he did say he wanted the atmosphere to be something special. Will the folks around Owen Field respond? I'll be there to find out. We'll see.

10. Time to improve: Landry Jones has been unimpressive through two games, completing just 62 percent of his passes, and his offensive line has put him on the run more than you'd like to see if you're in crimson and cream. He has to be much better this week, both to grab the win and also to feel encouraged about how the rest of the season will play out. He's still dealing with a young offensive line and inexperienced receivers, and those guys have to help him out.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
Time to take a look at what to watch in the ACC in Week 4. I think you probably already have a good idea of what is in store.

1. Top-10 clash. By now, you probably already know the matchup between No. 10 Clemson and No. 4 Florida State is only the ninth meeting featuring two ACC teams ranked in the top 10. So yes, it is a big game, one of the biggest games in league history, even. I have been asked this question several times during the week: What is the best possible outcome for the ACC? Clearly one team has to win and one has to lose. But in the best-case scenario, this game is competitive, thrilling and pretty clean, and goes down to the wire. To me, that validates having two teams ranked in the top 10 and keeps the loser somewhere in the top-15 range.

2. Offense vs. defense. This is your classic matchup of terrific offense against terrific defense. So which unit gets the edge? We find out Saturday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Florida State is one of two teams that has yet to allow a touchdown this season (TCU is the other) and has forced 22 three-and-outs in 42 opponent drives. Clemson, meanwhile, is averaging 39.7 points per game this season. The Tigers have 17 plays that gained 25 yards or more this season, tied for the most in the nation.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireAndre Ellington and Clemson can give the ACC a lift by knocking off SEC power LSU.
3. Andre Ellington vs. FSU run D. One of the matchups that has not been given too much attention this week is between Clemson running back Andre Ellington and the Florida State run defense. While much of the media focus has been on Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, Ellington is an absolute player to watch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ellington has gained more yards after contact (199) than Florida State has allowed in total rushing yards (101) this season. As for the FSU defense, the Noles have forced their opponents into no gain or negative yardage on 40 of 85 rushes (47.1 percent), the highest percentage in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Ellington has failed to gain yards on just four of his 53 rushes this season (7.5 percent) and has been hit in the backfield on just seven runs.

4. Bounce-back week. Now on to some of the other matchups. This could be called "bounce-back week in the ACC" for a few of the other teams in the league: Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia -- teams that all lost last week. I left out Maryland because the Terps play No. 8 West Virginia and face the biggest challenge of all these teams. Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina all are expected to win. Virginia? The Hoos are a double-digit underdog at No. 17 TCU.

5. Logan Thomas. Speaking of Virginia Tech, which Logan Thomas will we see Saturday against Bowling Green? Thomas played poorly against Pitt last week, throwing three interceptions. The mistakes were absolute killers, as Pitt used the turnovers to pull the upset. One of the big problems for Thomas and the Hokies has been an inability to run the ball. That, combined with ineffective quarterback play, has left this team stagnant on offense. We'll see what the Hokies try to do to jump-start both Thomas and the run game this weekend.

6. Can Georgia Tech beat Miami? The Hurricanes have won three straight in the series, but all signs are pointing to Georgia Tech this season. Last week against Virginia, the Jackets scored seven rushing touchdowns -- tied for the most under coach Paul Johnson. This is a pretty confident group on offense going into the game. The bigger question for Tech is how to slow down Miami freshman sensation Duke Johnson, who scored three different ways against Bethune-Cookman. Tech has not faced anybody nearly as good as Johnson in its first three games this season, and the Jackets have had problems slowing down some of the speed and athleticism Miami has presented in the past.

7. Does Maryland have a chance? There is always a chance in any game, but the Terps are going to have their work cut out for them. I got to watch Geno Smith play last year when West Virginia was in the Big East, and the only time I saw him flustered was when he faced heavy pressure. Maryland does have a good defense that can apply pressure, but there are two problems: 1. Smith is better this season and 2. He gets rid of the ball so fast. Maryland's only chance in this game is with a studly defensive performance, but I just don't think the Terps have the players to slow down Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.

8. Does Virginia have a chance? Late news Wednesday night -- TCU will be without running back Waymon James for the rest of the season. The Horned Frogs have depth concerns at that position, but the bigger problem for Virginia will be slowing down Casey Pachall and the passing game. Virginia is so green in the secondary, the advantage might go in TCU's favor.

9. Will the real North Carolina please stand up? Are the Tar Heels the team that trailed Louisville 36-7 at halftime last week or the one that outscored the Cardinals 27-3 in the second half and nearly won? Coach Larry Fedora sure would love to find out against East Carolina on Saturday. This is a game that should have plenty of juice in-state. East Carolina sold out its ticket allotment for the game.

10. Could be a good day for the state of North Carolina. Wake Forest plays Army, NC State plays the Citadel and Duke plays Memphis in games almost everybody expects to go the ACC's way. The hope for these teams is that there is no look-ahead factor with conference games set for next week: Duke travels to play Wake, and NC State will be at Miami.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
A few storylines to keep an eye on in Week 4.

  1. Conference time! After kicking off league play last week with a thrilling (albeit ugly) Stanford-USC game, the conference is in full swing this week with five Pac-12 games (Stanford and Washington have the bye). Four of the five games feature North-vs.-South opponents, with Utah at Arizona State as the only intra-division matchup.
  2. Who will fall? There are five undefeated teams left in the Pac-12. There will be three when the weekend is over. Stanford (3-0) isn't expected to lose this week. But Oregon (3-0) hosts Arizona (3-0) and Oregon State (1-0) travels to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA (3-0).
  3. Kicking woes: Not a good time to be a kicker in the Pac-12. Through the first three weeks, Pac-12 teams are a combined 31 of 52 (59 percent) on field-goal attempts. That's last among all BCS conferences. The ACC is first at 82 percent (yes, I did that math just for you). Every Pac-12 school recruits hard in California, the national hub of soccer and outdoor sports that involve foot and leg. The fact that the conference can't convert at least 60 percent of its kicks through three weeks is pretty embarrassing.
  4. Making a statement: The feedback your Pac-12 bloggers have been getting is this: Why hasn't Matt Scott been added to the Heisman tracker? It's a fair question, considering Scott commands the No. 2 scoring offense in the conference and leads all passers in passing yards. He's fourth in touchdowns and third in completion percentage and pass efficiency. If he puts up big numbers against the Ducks, expect to see his Heisman stock -- at least within the Pac-12 -- trend upward.
  5. [+] EnlargeMatt Scott
    Matt Kartozian/US PresswireFacing Oregon on national TV, Arizona QB Matt Scott has a chance to really boost his profile.
  6. Who is for real? Arizona? UCLA? Oregon State? Utah? We're going to find out a lot about these teams this week. Arizona is on the road for the first time this season against the most athletic defense it has seen so far this season. The Bruins get a stiff test this week against an Oregon State squad that is well-rested but doesn't have a ton of game experience this year. As for Utah, how much of that victory last week was a reflection of how good of a team it is versus an inspired reaction to the loss of a quarterback and no starting running back? The Utes are a mystery right now.
  7. Trojans bounce back? We've seen teams bounce back from tough losses so far this season. Washington State did it after a dreadful opening weekend against BYU (granted, it was an FCS team, but a win's a win). And Utah pulled off an emotional victory over BYU last week. Now USC, which came into the season with a truckload of hype, has to pick up the pieces. The Cardinal gave teams the road map. Can Cal follow it, or will the Trojans recover?
  8. Heisman watch: We already talked about Scott, who is going to get a chance to make a big impression in a game televised by ESPN. The same can be said for De'Anthony Thomas, who will be on the other sideline. This game is expected to net big yards and big scores. It's the kind of offensive shootout both players were made for -- and both could boost their standing on the national stage with big numbers. UCLA's Johnathan Franklin faces an Oregon State squad that was fantastic at stopping the run in its Week 2 victory over Wisconsin. And where does this leave Matt Barkley? The preseason favorite stumbled against the Cardinal. One more bad game would likely put him out of the running. Is Cal the team to stop him for a second week in a row?

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.