NCF Nation: What to watch 100412

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
10:15
AM ET
A few storylines to keep an eye on this week.

1. Oregon-Washington: Let's just get this one out there first. One of the best nontraditional rivalries in the nation features both teams in the Top 25: the Ducks at No. 2 and the Huskies at No. 23 after last week's victory over Stanford. It's the first time since 2000 that both teams are ranked in the Top 25 for this game. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was brought in to make the Washington defense better. And so far it has been -- especially last week, when it held Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor to 75 yards and kept the Cardinal offense out of the end zone. But in case anyone needs reminding, Oregon is not Stanford. The Ducks rank fourth nationally in scoring offense, averaging 52.4 points per game. We'll see how far the UW defense has really come, and if it isn't emotionally/physically drained after already knocking off one top-10 team this year.

2. Ranked vs. unranked: Who is on upset alert this week? (Gosh, that would make a great poll question for later on this afternoon, hint, hint.) With ASU and Colorado both on bye and ranked teams Washington and Oregon going at it, that leaves the rest of the ranked Pac-12 teams facing unranked opponents. No. 13 USC is at Utah tonight, No. 14 Oregon State returns home to face Washington State, No. 18 Stanford hosts Arizona and No. 25 UCLA travels to Cal. Are there any Top 25 upsets out there this week?

[+] EnlargeStanford's Stepfan Taylor
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWashington's defense was able to bottle up Stanford, but how will they fare against high-powered Oregon?
3. Critical stretch: Arizona and Stanford are both at a critical junction. The Wildcats -- once 3-0 and ranked -- are in the midst of a two-game losing streak. And after playing the Cardinal, they face three more teams currently ranked: Washington, USC and UCLA. Stanford, meanwhile, has to figure out a way to get some offense going. Quarterback Josh Nunes -- though he has the confidence of his head coach behind him -- looked bad against Washington. The rest of the offense didn't do much to help him. If the Cardinal can pick themselves up, it will be a confidence boost heading into Notre Dame and then The Big Game. Arizona played Oregon State close, but will it be able to stop the run as effectively as Washington did?

4. No complacency: The Beavers are back at home for the first time in almost a month -- and they bring a 3-0 start and a top-15 ranking with them. The hype machine is in overdrive given the fact that OSU has, arguably, the three best wins in the nation with victories over ranked Wisconsin and UCLA and once-ranked Arizona. In theory, 2-3 Washington State should be relatively easy compared to the schedule OSU has faced so far. But players said they aren't overlooking anyone -- and they are motivated by their 3-9 record last season. Washington State, meanwhile, played a very good 30 minutes against Oregon last week. It didn't get the win, and no one likes morale victories. But it was really the first time we saw the Cougars play confident football for 60 minutes. Travis Long (quietly tied for the conference lead in total sacks) continues to be a bright spot on defense.

5. Make an impression: After falling out of favor, USC and its quarterback could go a long way toward getting some pollsters -- Heisman or otherwise -- back on their side with a nationally televised game against Utah tonight. The Utes' defensive front will do what it can to make life uncomfortable for Matt Barkley, and you can expect Rice-Eccles to bring the noise. A solid performance from Utah could erase some bad memories from earlier this year. A strong showing from the Trojans could be just what they need to kick-start the team.

6. The good and the bad: There is a lot of negativity surrounding the California Bears. Conversely, there is a lot of positive vibes flowing around the Bruins. Every coach will tell you that each game is a must-win game. But some games are more must-win than others. And this is one of those for the Bears. If they fall to 1-5, their bowl chances are almost extinct with a second half that includes Stanford, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State. Plus they travel to Pullman and Salt Lake City. A win over a Top 25 team could change the entire trajectory of the season. But UCLA is thinking the same thing. The Bruins are still a young team learning how to handle success. They run the ball very well (ranked second in the conference) and Cal has had issues stopping the run (worst defense in the conference). On paper, this seems like a no-brainer. But this one might not be so simple. Teams can be scary when they are backed into a corner. And the Bears are certainly in a corner.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
10:15
AM ET
Here's what I'm keeping an eye on across the Big 12 this weekend.

1. Get 'em down and keep 'em down. Texas' tackling issues were on display in a big way in a narrow victory over Oklahoma State. The Longhorns got away with it in Stillwater. I don't think that'll be the case against West Virginia, even at home. Texas has emphasized the issue this week. How will it work?

2. Time for a quarterback change? Steele Jantz turned the ball over four times in Iowa State's loss to Texas Tech, and coach Paul Rhoads said this week the quarterback who looks best in practice will play. Does Jared Barnett finally see some time? For Jantz, it will ultimately boil down to turnovers.

3. Take care of opportunities. TCU has reached the red zone 20 times this season, but has come away with a touchdown on just nine occasions. The Horned Frogs have scored just 12 times. The touchdown percentage (45 percent) ranks 106th nationally. The Frogs are good enough to get away with it against Kansas or SMU or Virginia. Iowa State? The Cyclones will take advantage if the Frogs leave the doors open.

4. A big piece is missing. West Virginia's running game has taken a big hit with Shawne Alston on the sidelines. Coach Dana Holgorsen was tight-lipped this week in regards to Alston's status, but he's going to be needed this week against Texas. He's a better pass-blocker than Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, too. Will big back Ryan Clarke make a return, too?

5. It's real. We know that. But is it spectacular? Texas Tech took a step toward validating its defense, holding Iowa State to fewer than 200 yards of total offense, forcing four turnovers and maintaining its spot as the nation's No. 1 defense. How good is this unit, though? Oklahoma will be the toughest test yet, and its offense will be more like what Tech will see the rest of the season. Teams like OSU, Baylor and West Virginia have more high-powered offenses, but the Sooners will offer a huge checkpoint for Tech on its defensive road to redemption after an awful 2011.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
William Purnell/Icon SMIFreshman Johnathan Gray led Texas in rushing in relief at OSU; the spotlight will be brighter Saturday.
6. The young legs are back. Sophomore Malcolm Brown, Texas' leading rusher a year ago, is out against West Virginia, but he'll sit on Saturday with an ankle injury. Now's the time for hyped freshman Johnathan Gray to step up. He looked really good in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma State and led the Longhorns in rushing. How will he handle West Virginia and how will he look with a week to know he'll be counted on?

7. Getting competitive yet? I stick to my belief that Kansas is better than it was last year, despite its frustrating losses and worse record than in 2011. Nothing would signify progress more than hanging with in-state rival Kansas State. When Charlie Weis got the job, he looked at K-State and Missouri to see what they had and what KU didn't have, and how the Jayhawks could start closing the gap. Here's his first chance to measure up on the field.

8. Call it a Heisman special. Geno Smith's not throwing for 656 yards against Texas. Let's just get that out of the way. The Longhorns have defensive personnel and depth unlike anything Baylor's got. It's one of a few major hurdles for Smith to go from Heisman front-runner, as he is now, to Heisman winner in December. Can he maintain his crazy numbers that are better than RG3's from a year ago?

9. Where is the elder statesman? The young'un Devonte Fields, a true freshman, has grabbed all the headlines so far this year at TCU, leading the Big 12 with five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, preseason All-Big 12 representative Stansly Maponga has been really, really quiet thus far. He's got just 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack. Can he have a coming-out party against the Cyclones?

10. A lesson in thievery is needed. Oklahoma's got just one turnover through three games this year. Buffalo is the only other team in the country who has forced just one turnover. Texas Tech has lost six turnovers this year (32nd nationally), but if Oklahoma doesn't force a turnover against the Red Raiders, the Sooners could very well be looking at an upset and a drop out of the top 25.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
10:15
AM ET
It’s the biggest weekend of the season so far in the SEC, and here’s a look at what to watch in Week 6:

1. Lassoing Lattimore: There’s no other way to say it. South Carolina junior running back Marcus Lattimore has owned Georgia. Lattimore rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown last season against the Bulldogs, and he racked up 182 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. Most notably, he’s been money in the fourth quarter. He had 94 of his yards last season in the fourth quarter. And in 2010, he had 56 yards in South Carolina’s final drive to ice the game. The Bulldogs simply haven’t been able to get Lattimore on the ground when it’s counted. Of his 358 rushing yards the last two years against the Bulldogs, 152 have come after contact. If they’re going to win this game, they need to put the clamps on Lattimore early and not allow South Carolina to ride him in the second half. He’s already had a pair of 100-yard rushing games this season against SEC foes Vanderbilt and Kentucky and combined for 145 rushing/receiving yards against Missouri. He’s answered a lot of the questions about whether he could regain his old form post-ACL surgery, but can make a resounding statement Saturday that he’s all the way back.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWhile Vanderbilt couldn't slow down RB Marcus Lattimore, Georgia plans to give it a try this week.
2. Battle in the trenches I: Georgia’s offensive line faces its toughest test of the season against a South Carolina defensive line that hasn’t given up much of anything this season. Jadeveon Clowney is one of the most explosive pass-rushers in the country and is second in the SEC with 5.5 sacks. Georgia junior left tackle Kenarious Gates will be matched up most of the game against Clowney. The other matchup to keep an eye on is Georgia’s true freshman right tackle, John Theus, against South Carolina senior defensive end Devin Taylor, who’s a fierce pass-rusher in his own right. The Gamecocks have also been a brick wall against the run and are allowing just 2.2 yards per carry. The Bulldogs will need their best game of the season up front offensively.

3. Battle in the trenches II: Similar to Georgia’s offensive line, Florida’s guys up front will also encounter their toughest test of the season. LSU will rotate eight or nine players in the defensive line, and there’s not a lot of drop-off when the starters are resting. Florida has made it known that it wants to run the football, and the Gators will need to if they’re going to keep LSU honest on defense. Not only do the Tigers have a pair of potential first-round draft picks at end in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, but they’re equally stout in the middle with Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson. The offensive line has been the most improved part of Florida’s team this season, but the stakes (and the level of competition) go up considerably on Saturday.

4. October grinder: Nobody in the SEC has a tougher October than South Carolina, especially when you consider the Gamecocks don’t have their bye until Nov. 3. It’s the major reason that picking South Carolina to win the East is hard to do. Even if they can pull out a win over No. 5 Georgia on Saturday, they still have to go to No. 4 LSU and to No. 10 Florida the next two weeks followed by a home game with Tennessee to close out the month. LSU’s October slate isn’t a walk in the park. After playing at No. 10 Florida this weekend, the Tigers return home to face No. 6 South Carolina and then hit the road to play Texas A&M the following week. After a bye week, LSU takes on Alabama at home to kick off November. The Gators are also embarking on a grueling stretch. After LSU’s visit, they travel to Vanderbilt and then get No. 6 South Carolina at home and No. 5 Georgia in Jacksonville in back-to-back weeks. Can any of the three get through October unscathed?

5. Gators’ signature moment: Will Muschamp earned his first win over a nationally ranked foe as Florida’s coach back in September when the Gators went into Knoxville and defeated Tennessee. That was a big step for the program, but taking down No. 4 LSU will make a resounding statement to the entire college football world that Florida is indeed back. This is a game the Gators lost by 30 points a year ago. It’s a chance to show how far they’ve progressed since that blowout, not to mention a chance to prove they can play their best football on the biggest of stages.

6. Taking back the Swamp: There was a time, not too long ago, when the Swamp was the best home-field advantage in the SEC. The Gators didn’t just beat teams at home. They buried them amid a deafening roar and usually sweltering heat. It was a lot like walking into the lion’s den for the opposing team, and that’s something the Gators have to get back if they’re going to start winning championships again. They lost five games at home during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. That’s the same number of games they lost at home in Steve Spurrier’s 12 seasons as coach from 1990-2001. And in Urban Meyer’s first five seasons, they only lost twice at home. This Saturday should be a great atmosphere, the first top-10 matchup at the Swamp since the 2006 LSU game.

7. Defenseless defenses: If you’re an old-school defensive junkie, you might want to avoid the Arkansas-Auburn affair. Defense hasn’t been either team’s cup of tea this season, although the Tigers were much better in their last outing two weeks ago against LSU. In nine games, the two defenses have combined to give up 4,228 yards. The one saving grace for Arkansas is that senior quarterback Tyler Wilson has feasted on Auburn. With the way it’s gone for the Hogs this season on defense, they’re going to have to score 35 points to even have a chance. Wilson passed for 262 yards and two touchdowns last season against Auburn and came off the bench in relief of Ryan Mallett in 2010 to pass for 332 yards and four touchdowns.

8. Manziel for Heisman: As a senior at Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, Johnny Manziel put up some outrageous numbers. He passed for 45 touchdowns and ran for 30 touchdowns. The Texas A&M fans couldn’t wait to see “Johnny Football” in maroon. He makes his fifth start for the Aggies on Saturday against Ole Miss and is still cranking out unreal numbers, especially for a redshirt freshman. He set an SEC record last week with 557 yards of total offense in the 58-10 drubbing of Arkansas and leads the SEC in total offense with an average of 365 yards per game. How long can he keep up this pace? Well, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin says Manziel is becoming a better quarterback every game, and while Ole Miss isn’t as bad as Arkansas on defense, the Rebels have still given up some big numbers this season. Either way, Manziel’s playing at a level right now that he could easily have close to 2,000 yards in total offense through his first five games as a starter.

9. Not turning it over: Not only is Mississippi State not turning the ball over, but the Bulldogs are also tied for the SEC lead in forcing turnovers. Through four games, they’ve forced 15 turnovers and committed only two, which is a big reason they’re unbeaten. A plus-13 turnover ratio, which is No. 1 nationally among all FBS teams, is going to mask a lot of other issues. The Bulldogs, who travel to Kentucky on Saturday, have played well to this point and have been resourceful, but they’ve by no means been dominant. What they’ve done is win the turnover battle in all four of their games, and they’ve been at least plus-three in the turnover department in three of those games. That’s a recipe for a lot of wins regardless of where you rank statistically in other areas. Case in point: Mississippi State is 10th in the SEC right now in total offense and eighth in total defense.

10. Finding some offense: Missouri and Vanderbilt meet on Saturday in Columbia, Mo., and both teams hope to cure some serious offensive ills. The Tigers have scored just 24 points on offense in their last two games, and one of those touchdowns came at garbage time in the waning seconds of a 31-10 loss to South Carolina two weeks ago. It’s been even more difficult for the Commodores to score points. In fact, they’ve yet to score a touchdown in the second half in any of their three games against FBS foes this season and have managed just two field goals after the break in those three games. One of the common denominators for both teams has been the inability to sustain drives. Missouri is next-to-last in the SEC in third-down conversion (20-of-73) and Vanderbilt is last (13-of-56).
Ten items to track on the first October Saturday of Big Ten football:

1. Miller Time, T-Magic on display: Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez might not be traditional Big Ten quarterbacks, but they're the faces of the quarterback position in the league these days. Both are dynamic dual threats who have made significant strides from the 2011 season. Miller aims to continue his Heisman Trophy campaign Saturday night against a Nebraska defense that struggled to contain him last year before he left the game with an ankle injury. Martinez led the biggest comeback in Huskers history last year against Ohio State and has accounted for eight touchdowns (6 pass, 2 rush) in his past three games.

2. Boiling point: Purdue coach Danny Hope says he already knows a lot about his team after three non-league wins and a 3-point road loss at Notre Dame. The rest of us aren't quite as sure about what the Boilers will be this season. The good news: Everyone will find out in the next three weeks, as Purdue opens Big Ten play with its defining stretch of the season. Before hosting Wisconsin and visiting Ohio State, Purdue hosts Michigan on Saturday in its most anticipated game since perhaps Wisconsin in 2004. The Boilers average 51 points per game on their home field, where they open league play against the Wolverines for the first time since 1970.

3. Oktoberfest: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made October a major point of emphasis as far back as the summer, mindful of his team's struggles in the season's middle month. The Wildcats have done well in September (20-9) and November (13-8) under Fitzgerald, but they've had their difficulties in October (10-15), including a 1-4 mark in 2011. Northwestern is 5-0 for the third time in five seasons and takes a national ranking to Happy Valley, where it faces a streaking Penn State squad. It's a good chance for Northwestern to change its October fortunes against its most challenging opponent to date.

4. Seeking mojo in Mad City: Austin Powers would steer clear of the Illinois-Wisconsin game Saturday. Both teams are looking for their mojo after the first five weeks. Illinois tries to find it in a very tough place (Camp Randall Stadium) after being embarrassed on its home field in back-to-back weeks. Asked this week about boosting team morale, first-year coach Tim Beckman said, "That's what we're dealing with each and every day." Wisconsin appeared to make strides last week against Nebraska before collapsing down the stretch. Coach Bret Bielema is encouraged with his team's progress amid transition, but Wisconsin can't start Big Ten play at 0-2. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis called the Illinois game a must-win for Wisconsin.

5. MSU offense looks for green flag: After puttering around the track in the first five games, Michigan State's offense heads to the Crossroads of America (Indiana) hoping to finally shift into fifth gear. Coach Mark Dantonio shuffled the depth chart a bit this week, as freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge will start and other young players like freshman receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. should see increased time. Michigan State can't neglect the run game, though, as it boasts a 15-1 record when Le'Veon Bell scores at least one rush touchdown. Indiana surrendered 704 yards to Northwestern last week (394 rushing). Saturday is the time for Michigan State to finally put it all together on offense.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Chris Williams/Icon SMIDenard Robinson and Michigan look to break out of their away-from-home scoring malaise at Purdue.
6. Michigan wants better road show: The last time we saw Michigan, Denard Robinson was turning over the ball and the Wolverines weren't crossing the goal line at Notre Dame. Michigan's 13-6 setback in South Bend continued a troubling trend for the Wolverines offense, which has averaged just 20.9 points away from Ann Arbor (as opposed to 40.1 points at home) in the past two seasons. With future road tests against Nebraska and Ohio State, it's important for the Wolverines to get on track Saturday at Purdue. The Boilers defense has been solid most of the season but surrendered 41 points and 534 yards last week against Marshall.

7. Whiteout in Happy Valley: Sparked by their team's three-game win streak, Penn State students are planning a whiteout at Beaver Stadium for Saturday's game against Northwestern. The Lions aim for their first home win against a ranked opponent since the 2008 season, and several players called the contest a must-win. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has owned Northwestern in his career (417 pass yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs in two games), and McGloin is a much better quarterback in Bill O'Brien's offense. After an ominous start, Penn State can enter an off week with a ton of momentum with a victory.

8. Bo heads home: While his team aims for a signature road win in the Big Ten, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini makes a homecoming of sorts Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Pelini played safety for the Buckeyes from 1987 to '90 and hails from Youngstown, Ohio. Not surprisingly, the Huskers' boss downplayed his Ohio State roots this week, saying he's "at a different time in my life, a different place" and "has a job to do." It's wise for Pelini to keep himself out of the spotlight as much as possible, but he'll likely experience some emotion when Nebraska takes the field at The Shoe. And a victory against his alma mater will mean a little extra.

9. Two Hoosiers take aim: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson doesn't see much separating quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, and he'll likely use both against Michigan State. Coffman has started the past two games, while Sudfeld has finished them, providing a spark down the stretch. Wilson likes the competition and plays down the other C-word (controversy), but the picture could clear up Saturday as the two quarterbacks face by far the best defense they've seen this season. Whoever better commands the IU offense -- and gets the ball to talented receivers Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer -- will take a step closer to locking up the top job.

10. Badgers' 2-minute drill: Joel Stave is Wisconsin's starting quarterback, and he looked the part last week against Nebraska in his first career road start. But in crunch time, after Stave got a bit shaken up, the Badgers followed their plan and went with veteran Danny O'Brien under center rather than Stave. O'Brien moved Wisconsin to midfield but botched the call on a fourth-and-1 play, leading to a fumble that clinched the victory for the Huskers. It'll be interesting how the Badgers proceed should a two-minute situation come up against Illinois. Will they turn to O'Brien or give Stave a shot? Stay tuned.

What to watch in the Big East: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
10:15
AM ET
The first real weekend of conference play. Bring it.

1. Syracuse returns several offensive pieces. The Orange get back all-conference left tackle Justin Pugh (shoulder) for the first time this season, and receiver Adrian Flemming returns as well for Friday night's visit from Pittsburgh (7 p.m., ESPN). Flemming emerged as a threat in camp before suffering a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the season's first month.

[+] EnlargeRay Graham
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPitt's Ray Graham averaged more than 90 yards per game while dinged; are bigger things ahead?
2. Pitt offense looks to stay hot. The Panthers recovered from an 0-2 start to go on a historic two-game explosion in a pair of wins. Does Ray Graham -- who was second in the conference in rushing through four games despite being less than 100 percent -- take it to another level following a bye week to recover?

3. Defenses on display in Piscataway. UConn and Rutgers boast the conference's two best defenses, so a shootout isn't likely. But the Scarlet Knights have gotten a huge lift from Jawan Jamison and, more recently, Gary Nova. The Huskies are slowly picking things up behind Chandler Whitmer, but they'll need to be on their A-game to pull off the upset.

4. USF tries to get back on winning track. Two tough losses gave way to an admirable showing against Florida State, so there are signs of life from Skip Holtz's squad. The Bulls probably can't ask for a better opponent to take their frustrations from a three-game losing streak out against than Temple.

5. A new era in Philly. Temple officially returns to the Big East on Saturday. But have the Owls developed a consistent passing game yet, following a one-win month that featured two byes?

6. Can Munchie continue his magic? Cincinnati's first-year starting quarterback put up career highs and drove the Bearcats past Virginia Tech. But Legaux's accuracy still must improve after three games. He'll look to build on that against Miami (Ohio) and not suffer a letdown like the way he and the offense did against FCS Delaware State in their most recent game at Nippert Stadium.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
10:15
AM ET
What should you be watching in the ACC in Week 6? Glad you asked.

1. Can Miami deliver a marquee victory? Just think about how great it would be for the ACC if both Florida State and Miami were Top 25 teams again, the way they used to be. Miami has a major opportunity Saturday against No. 9 Notre Dame. A win in this game would give the Hurricanes their first victory over a top-10 team since defeating No. 8 Oklahoma in 2009. They will be facing the best defense they have seen so far, but Miami has some pretty dynamic offensive players that could give the Irish fits. Stephen Morris is playing lights out right now, better than any quarterback the Irish have faced this season. Morris versus the Notre Dame D will be a great matchup to watch.

2. David Amerson vs. Florida State receivers. It is plain to see that Amerson is not the player he was a year ago. His coach, Tom O'Brien, put it more bluntly when he said, "The film doesn't lie." Amerson gave up two long touchdown passes against Tennessee in the opener, and two long touchdown passes last week to Miami, including the game winner. Florida State presents another tough challenge given the playmakers on the outside, from Kelvin Benjamin to Kenny Shaw to Rashad Greene to Rodney Smith. Amerson can't whiff this week against the Noles.

3. Hello, Phillip Sims. Coach Mike London says Sims will most likely be the starter against Duke in a critical Coastal Division game. Sims would be making his first career start, after transferring in from Alabama during the summer. The No. 1 thing the Hoos will need from him is to protect the football. Michael Rocco had too many costly interceptions and just didn't do enough in Virginia's three-game losing streak.

[+] EnlargeBoyd
Melina Vastola/US PresswireTajh Boyd could become Clemson's all-time leader in passing touchdowns on Saturday.
4. Clemson record watch. Considering what the Georgia Tech defense has looked like the past few weeks, it is a near certainty that Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd will become the school's all-time touchdown leader Saturday. Boyd needs one touchdown pass to become the school’s career leader. He has 49 going into the game, tied with Charlie Whitehurst, who set the mark from 2002 to '05. Also, receiver DeAndre Hopkins needs two catches to pass Derrick Hamilton for second place on the career receptions list. Hopkins has 166 headed into the game. Aaron Kelly set the school mark of 232 from 2005 to 2008.

5. Can Virginia Tech snap out of its funk? Though the Hokies beat Georgia Tech in the season opener, there were warning signs that this season may not go smoothly. Indeed, Virginia Tech has struggled in every phase on offense (Logan Thomas, run game, offensive line), while the defense has had breakdowns at critical moments. Can they get all that fixed at North Carolina on Saturday? Let's not forget the Hokies are 1-0 in ACC play and have won 23 straight road conference openers.

6. Can Duke keep it up? The Blue Devils are not throwing a bowl party just yet, but they are off to their best start since 1994 and have had recent success against their opponent this week, Virginia. Duke has won three of the past four meetings between the two teams. The Blue Devils need two more wins to become bowl eligible, and the way the rest of the schedule sets up, Duke has got to win this game. If they don't, it will be difficult to find two wins in their final six games (at Virginia Tech, North Carolina, at Florida State, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, Miami). Keep an eye on the status of quarterback Sean Renfree, who has an elbow injury.

7. Maryland opens conference play. Maryland, the last ACC team to play a conference game, hosts Wake Forest following a bye week. Wake Forest has really struggled defensively this year with injuries to some key starters and is going to have its hands full with Stefon Diggs, who's having a breakout freshman season. Maryland has shown signs of improvement each week and is favored to win.

8. Who can break their losing streak? Maryland, Boston College and Georgia Tech go into the weekend on two-game losing streaks; Virginia has lost three straight. Will anybody break their losing skid? Georgia Tech has had only one three-game losing streak in the past five years (in 2010 against Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami).

9. Do we know any more about North Carolina? The last time we saw the Tar Heels in conference play, they lost to Wake Forest. They have looked good in their past two wins, but they came against overmatched opponents East Carolina and Idaho. Has the defense improved? Is the offense more in sync? Though Virginia Tech has looked shaky, Saturday's game will tell us just where the Heels stand.

10. Hitting the road. After playing three of its first four games at home, Boston College hits the road to play Army. The Black Knights run a style of offense similar to Georgia Tech's, but they have had some problems on defense -- much bigger than that of the Eagles. This is the start of a three-game road trip for BC, with games following at Florida State and Georgia Tech.

What to watch: Week 6 vs. Miami

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
10:15
AM ET
Here's what to keep an eye on Saturday at Soldier Field:

1) Uniforms! C'mon! These have been talked about more than the game. The Irish finally break out their 60/40 split uniform helmets -- more than half sparking gold, less than half navy, with a leprechaun for good measure -- along with darker jersey and striped pants. As Robby Toma recalled Wednesday, coach Brian Kelly said October is the month everyone dresses up in, so have some fun.

2) Irish's D-line. Eyes will be on that young secondary waiting for it to show its age, but much of the defensive backs' success or failure will depend on the pressure Notre Dame gets up front. Facing a young offensive line that lost a redshirt senior last week, the Irish should have as clear an edge as they've had since facing Navy in Week 1.

3) Quarterback. Coaches and players remain convinced that Everett Golson's bad night against Michigan was just that -- one bad night. The jitters will have to be put aside for another prime-time performance this weekend, and the Irish offense has to take advantage against a struggling Miami defense.

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