NCF Nation: what to watch week 4
Posted by ESPN.com
1. College football's focus moves from the West Coast to the SEC this weekend. Five SEC teams play huge games Saturday and three contests might go a long way in determining which SEC teams remain in the national championship race. Elsewhere, two ACC games will determine pecking order in that conference. Struggling Virginia Tech plays at North Carolina and No. 18 Wake Forest plays at No. 25 Florida State. Two unbeaten Mountain West teams also square off -- No. 20 Utah plays at Air Force. Undefeated Notre Dame plays at Michigan State, the site of the Fighting Irish's improbable comeback two years ago. -- Mark Schlabach
2. LSU redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Hatch hasn't played in a SEC game yet, much less on the road in the SEC. But Hatch has this much going for him: three LSU offensive linemen have started at least 27 games. That experience is critical against an Auburn defense that has allowed only three third-down conversions in 46 attempts -- a percentage of .065. -- Ivan Maisel
3. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer has been around too long to let his emotions get the best of him. But make no mistake, he hasn't forgotten the humiliation his Vols suffered last season in the 59-20 beatdown at the Swamp. He glared this week when asked if the players had watched much tape from the fourth quarter of that romp in which Florida's Tim Tebow was still throwing down the field with a 29-point lead. "What do you think?" Fulmer said, his eyes blazing. "Yeah, I'd say they've seen it a few times." -- Chris Low
4. Georgia wants to announce itself as a national title contender. Arizona State wants to redeem itself after an embarrassing home loss to 23-point underdog UNLV. The Pac-10 could use a marquee victory after the conference went 3-7 last weekend in nonconference games, and Sun Devils QB Rudy Carpenter is looking for a signature moment as he makes his 35th consecutive start. Both teams have questions on the offensive line, but the biggest difference is the Bulldogs will be featuring a Heisman Trophy candidate at RB in Knowshon Moreno, while the Sun Devils running game has been in the pits. -- Ted Miller
5. The road team has won the last seven games in this series, and to continue the trend, Notre Dame must beat Michigan State down the field. The Spartans likely will be without injured starting safety Kendell Davis-Clark, and another safety, Roderick Jenrette, remains off the team. Otis Wiley and a patchwork secondary have held up well so far, but Clausen and deep threat Golden Tate provide a tougher test. -- Adam Rittenberg
6. When Miami and Texas A&M agreed to a contract several years ago, neither probably expected their programs would be in such dire straits. That's what makes this game at Kyle Field so interesting. Both teams desperately need the win in order to build momentum for the rest of the season. A&M will aim to avoid its first 1-2 start since 1996. And Miami is hoping to regain a little swagger after losing nine of its last 11 road games. -- Tim Griffin
7. There should be some separation in both the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions this weekend, but the team with the most to prove is Florida State. Even Bobby Bowden didn't give his team a Top 25 vote after two wins against FCS schools, but they've got a chance to earn it against Wake Forest. -- Heather Dinich
8. Arkansas will be looking for a faster start when it opens SEC play against Alabama. The Razorbacks were outscored 20-13 in the first half of its first two games -- closer-than-expected victories over FCS opponent Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. The Hogs had to come-from-behind to win both those games, and it won't be easy against the Crimson Tide. Quarterback Casey Dick is throwing the football well in coach Bobby Petrino's offense, but the Hogs running game has struggled. Alabama leads the country in run defense, yielding only 42.7 yards per game and 1.9 yards per carry. The Tide hasn't allowed a run longer than 13 yards in three games. -- Mark Schlabach
9. It will be handoff heaven at Heinz Field. Iowa's Shonn Greene is averaging nearly 120 yards per game on the ground, spearheading a Hawkeyes' rushing attack that churns out more than 200 yards per contest. Pittsburgh has one of the nation's best tailbacks in LeSean McCoy. He's been a little slow out of the gate but can erupt at any time. -- Brian Bennett
10. Boise State meets No. 17 Oregon at Autzen Stadium for the first-ever meeting between these teams. The Broncos are the remaining undefeated team in the WAC, but they are 0-12 in true road game against BCS teams, losing by an average of 21 points. Oregon will use two green quarterbacks this week -- sophomore transfer Jeremiah Masoli and true freshman Chris Harper -- after the Ducks' top two quarterbacks have suffered major injuries. Expect a high-scoring affair in this one. -- Graham Watson
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
1. Carrying the WAC banner: For weeks, the talk has been about Fresno State and its ability to bust the BCS, but with the Bulldogs out of the race, Boise State is the remaining undefeated WAC team and the conference's best hope for a three-peat.
2. Carolina on my mind: East Carolina dealt with injuries prior to the season and found suitable replacements. However, replacing linebacker Quentin Cotton, who suffered a knee injury, is going to be a different chore. Cotton was the leader of the defense both physically and emotionally.
3. Battle of the undefeateds: The Mountain West has four undefeated teams, but one will fall this weekend when Utah and Air Force match up. Three of the last five games have been decided by three points or fewer.
4. Speaking of Air Force: The Falcons were 0-for-7 passing against Houston last weekend for 0 yards. Although the Falcons are known for their running game, they'll need some diversity if they want to stay unbeaten.
5. Hold it Horned Frogs: TCU plays crosstown rival SMU this weekend and the undefeated Horned Frogs could get caught looking ahead to next weeks matchup against No. 2 Oklahoma if they're not careful.
6. Upset alert: Ohio State might be ripe for the picking when Troy rolls into the Horseshoe this weekend. The Trojans have played well this season and are known for giving the BCS teams all they can handle.
7. Glass Bowl gauntlet: Fresno State is on upset alert when it heads to Toledo this weekend. The Rockets have never lost to a Top 25 team in the Glass Bowl and the No. 25 Bulldogs are still smarting from their loss to Wisconsin.
8. Bringing down the BCS: Both Florida Atlantic and Central Florida have opportunities to be BCS busters, at least for the weekend, when they head to Minnesota and Boston College, respectively.
9. High with the highs: Notre Dame is 2-0 for the first time since 206, but can they maintain their winning ways on the road against a Michigan State team that has proven to be a formidable opponent?
10. Riding the Green Wave: Tulane has been close in its bid for a win this season and the Green Wave will have a good opportunity against Louisiana-Monroe. But don't sleep on the Warhawks, they did beat Alabama last year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are 10 items to watch for across the Big 12 this weekend.
1. Chase Daniel's offensive surge: Missouri has scored on its last 13 possessions over the last two games with Daniel directing the offense. They should have another easy game Saturday against Buffalo, but can Daniel keep his amazing offensive production going? His Heisman candidacy is improving with each performance.
2. Texas A&M's starting quarterback: Stephen McGee's streak of 29 straight starts as Texas A&M's quarterback is in jeopardy after he sustained a sprained right shoulder in the Aggies' most recent game at New Mexico. Will he be ready to go Saturday against Miami? Or will Coach Mike Sherman instead opt for talented backup Jerrod Johnson, who passed for three touchdowns to direct the Aggies' first victory of the season after McGee's injury?
3. Texas' young secondary against Rice's sophisticated passing offense: Freshman safeties Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon made it through unscathed against UTEP. But they'll be taking a big step forward when facing Rice QB Chase Clement and the Owls' talented and underrated receivers James Casey and Jarrett Dillard.
4. Any lingering reaction from Miami's beat-down over Texas A&M last season: Dennis Franchione's program is gone for the Aggies. The Aggies will have a chance Saturday to blot away memories from one of the recent humiliations in school history stemming from last season's disappointing loss at the Orange Bowl. And new A&M coach Mike Sherman can regain some of his lost luster after his season-opening loss against Arkansas State with an upset on Saturday.
5. How will Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree react to the pointed criticism of Mike Leach? Harrell passed for 418 yards and five touchdowns and Crabtree won AT&T national Player of the Week honors after grabbing eight receptions for 164 yards and three TDs last week after a 43-7 victory over SMU. And Leach still wasn't happy. What will they do for an encore against a leaky Massachusetts defense that has allowed an average of 47 points per game in its last two games?
6. Iowa State's Vegas vacation: Gene Chizik says the Cyclones will bunk far away from the Strip in preparation for Saturday's game against UNLV. Will staying away from the bright lights of the casinos help them snap a 12-game road losing streak, including the last six games with Chizik?
7. Robert Griffin's encore: After breaking the Big 12 single-game rushing-average record last week against Washington State in only his second career start, the freshman Baylor quarterback now steps up in class against an underrated Connecticut defense in a national television contest. A big effort could be huge statement for Art Briles' rebuilding efforts.
8. Rhett Bomar's return to the Big 12: The former Oklahoma quarterback transferred to Sam Houston State after washing out with the Sooners. Bomar led the Sooners to a 19-3 victory over Kansas in his last trip to Lawrence in 2005. Will he be as productive against a much improved Jayhawks team?
9. Texas' running game: The Longhorns have struggled at times running the ball. But the emergence of Fozzy Whittaker might have given them a breakaway threat. He should have a lot of opportunities against Rice, which has been gashed for an average of 317.4 rushing yards per game in its seven games against Mack Brown's Texas teams.
10. Missouri's retooled secondary: Starting FS William Moore isn't expected to play Saturday against Buffalo after reinjuring his right foot last week. Converted CB Del Howard will start in his place. Howard will be challenged by Buffalo WR Naaman Roosevelt, who made headlines last week with his game-winning, final-play TD catch against Temple.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Only eight games on the slate this week, but there's no shortage of subplots, especially on the defensive side.
Let's take a look:
1. Ringer vs. the world: Notre Dame will do all it can to stop Michigan State's Javon Ringer on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Ringer likely can expect to see eight or nine men in the box, as the Fighting Irish dare Brian Hoyer to beat them. The overloading still might not be enough, as Ringer has racked up 417 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in his last two games.
2. Pryor's coronation in Columbus: Terrelle Pryor and Todd Boeckman will split snaps for Ohio State against Troy, but this game is a chance for the freshman to take control of the offense. If Pryor continues to show good poise and playmaking ability, he'll continue to be featured when the Buckeyes enter Big Ten play. Boeckman will get his opportunities as well, but with the top goal off the table for the Buckeyes, they have to look toward the future.
3. Iowa D takes on real McCoy: The Hawkeyes have already collected eight takeaways without allowing a touchdown this season, but they face their first major test in Pitt running back LeSean McCoy. Expect McCoy to run away from Iowa star tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul, which will put pressure on less proven players to step up.
4. Indiana on the defensive: I've already heard from several furious Hoosiers fans about my upset pick of Ball State against their unproven team. Let's see if an improved Hoosiers defense proves me a fool when it faces dynamic quarterback Nate Davis and FBS receiving leader Dante Love. There's no doubt Kellen Lewis will make plays for Indiana, but the team's fate, as usual, rests with the defense.
5. Northwestern chases history: Nonconference losses have been Northwestern's biggest bugaboo, even during the program's renaissance in the mid-1990s. The Wildcats can sweep their nonleague slate for the first time since 1963 by beating Ohio at home. It won't be easy, as the Bobcats are much better than their record indicates and athletic quarterback Boo Jackson spells trouble for an improved Northwestern defense.
6. Tiller gets record: Joe Tiller already should be Purdue's all-time winningest coach, but his team lost another winnable big game last Saturday against Oregon. Tiller sets the record this week as Curtis Painter and the Boilermakers pick apart a Central Michigan defense that looks overmatched against BCS foes. Dan LeFevour makes the game interesting for a while, but Purdue beats the Chippewas for the third straight time.
7. Gophers secondary tested: No one would mistake Minnesota's nonleague schedule for, say, Washington's, but the Gophers deserve a ton of credit if they go 4-0 after winning one game all of last season. Standing in their path is Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith, who will perform much better than he did in the rain last week in East Lansing. Minnesota's new-look secondary of Tramaine Brock, Traye Simmons, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret have shown good playmaking skills so far and need continued progress against the Owls.
8. Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen: Coach Kirk Ferentz seems to be telling Christensen, "Take the job already, will ya?" The junior gets a great chance to do so on the road against a desperate Pitt team already knocked off its preseason perch. Christensen steadied the offense in the clutch last week against Iowa State but will need to make more pressure plays against the Panthers.
9. Penn State's defensive line: Coach Joe Paterno admits his team hasn't faced any adversity so far this season, at least on the field. Temple quarterback Adam DiMichele should be a good challenge for Penn State's defensive linemen, who have held together nicely despite injuries, dismissals and suspensions. Paterno also should address the status of linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma after the game.
10. Michigan State safety Otis Wiley: Wiley once again looks like the guy who led the team in tackles (94) and pass breakups (10) as a sophomore in 2006. The Spartans need him at his peak against Notre Dame because of lingering personnel issues in the secondary. Fighting Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen will look to stretch the field with Golden Tate, and it's up to Wiley to limit the damage.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Who has the best defense in the SEC: Auburn or LSU? Can the pride in the Tennessee program rise to the forefront? How close to 100 percent is Florida's Percy Harvin? Is Vanderbilt poised to go to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in the league? Can Bobby Petrino's passing game give Alabama some trouble?
It's time to find out a lot more about this league with four intriguing conference games, highlighted by LSU's trip to Auburn on Saturday night in a battle of Top 10 teams at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It's the kind of Saturday you'd love to be at home for with the remote safely in hand and lounging on the couch. Enjoy. The SEC action starts at noon and goes to midnight. Here's a look at some of the things to watch for this week:
1. Five quarterbacks: Everybody's going to be watching the quarterbacks in the Auburn-LSU game. How many will play? The over/under is five, which includes LSU true freshman Jordan Jefferson. The Tigers have a package in place that would take advantage of his running skills. Chris Todd will again start for Auburn, but it sounds like Tommy Tuberville also wants to get Kodi Burns into this game. Andrew Hatch will start for LSU and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee will also play. There might be more quarterbacks to play in this game than the teams score combined touchdowns.
2. Tennessee's running game: For all the stats you want to throw out in the Florida-Tennessee game, no stat has defined this rivalry more than being able to run the football. The team with the highest rushing total has won 16 of the last 18 meetings. The Vols have lost three in a row in the series and have averaged just 31.3 yards on the ground in those three losses. If they don't at least flirt with the 100-yard mark in this one, they're looking down the barrel of a fourth straight loss.
3. Harvin at tailback: Is he a receiver, or is he a running back? Percy Harvin says both. The most important thing for Florida is that he finally appears to be healthy. So much so that Urban Meyer has told several people this week that Harvin will be very involved in the Gators' running game on Saturday. He sure looks the part of a running back, weighing 205 pounds and now benching well over 400 pounds.
4. Auburn with a slight edge?: If defensive football is your thing, then you better find your way into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night. Auburn has only given up an amazing 3-of-46 third-down conversions this season, and LSU has outscored its opponents 58-3 in the first half this season. LSU middle linebacker Darry Beckwith being out with a knee injury might give the slight edge to Auburn's defense
5. Hardy back in action: The SEC's best pass-rusher will be back on the field Saturday. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said after practice Thursday that junior defensive end Greg Hardy would play against Vanderbilt after missing the first three games with a stress fracture in his right foot that was surgically repaired. Nutt said Hardy, who led the SEC with 10 sacks last season, looks great. His explosiveness off the edge should be a big boost for an already strong Ole Miss front four.
6. The unveiling of Green: It's that time for Georgia's offense, time to quit feeding the offense in bits and pieces to A.J, Green and time to get him the ball. The 6-4, 200-pound freshman is the most talented receiver on the team and the guy no cornerback wants to see running at him. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo both acknowledged this week that the ball needs to go to Green more. He's a big play waiting to happen.
7. Centers of attention: Two of the best centers in America will be on the field in the Alabama-Arkansas game, and they're a couple of seniors who epitomize leadership. Arkansas' Jonathan Luigs was the Remington Award winner last season as the most outstanding center in college football. Antoine Caldwell, versatile enough to play anywhere up front, is back at center and anchoring one of the strongest offensive lines in the SEC.
8. Going after Carpenter: One of the defensive disappointments for Georgia in the South Carolina game was that the Bulldogs didn't do a better job of pressuring the quarterback. They'll get their chance to make up for it Saturday against Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter, who's tough as nails and not easily rattled. Still, the Sun Devils gave up 55 sacks last season. Carpenter gets hit a bunch, and the Bulldogs will no doubt go after him.
9. More of Moore: The most underrated player in the league to this point has been Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore. He can play anywhere and is the kind of difference-maker the Commodores simply haven't had. He's a shutdown cornerback, plays some on offense and is a dangerous return man. He's the difference in winning four or five games and winning six or seven games. The Rebels will have their hands full with No. 17 on Saturday.
10. The Garcia Chronicles: South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia made his long-awaited debut against Georgia, albeit for just a few plays. The Wofford game Saturday gives South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier a chance to get Garcia some more snaps in a game and see if he's ready. Spurrier hasn't given up on Chris Smelley, who played better in the second half against Georgia. But if Garcia shows some promise, he's going to play as this season progresses.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
How does the Pac-10 bounce back after Black Saturday?
1. Georgia is a road warrior: Everyone is now aware that Georgia hasn't been to the West Coast since 1960 or even west of the Mississippi for a regular-season nonconference game since 1967. But the Bulldogs don't figure to be blown away by their trip to Arizona State. In coach Mark Richt's eight seasons at Georgia, the Bulldogs are a 26-4 on the road and are 9-2 against ranked teams. Of course, the Bulldogs are 1-5-1 in games west of the Mississippi since they started playing football in 1892.
2. Autzen Stadium is no place to start your first road game: Boise State, 0-12 vs. BCS teams on the road and 0-7 in Pac-10 stadiums, will try to take down Oregon on Saturday with a redshirt freshman quarterback, Kellen Moore, and four new starters on the offensive line. The Broncos offense has mostly been its regular proficient self thus far, scoring 69 points and averaging 461 yards in two victories. But Oregon isn't Idaho State and Bowling Green and Autzen is different than a home game. Moore and his green line won't be able to communicate. That's a problem when the Ducks high-pressure defense is trying to force a QB to make quick decisions against one of the nation's best secondaries.
3. Rudy isn't afraid of the blitz: Richt must be on the ESPN.com research team's e-mail list, too. He noted repeatedly this week that pressuring ASU QB Rudy Carpenter with extra rushers hasn't been the best defensive tactic. Carpenter actually seems to play better when he has less time to think about where he wants to go. His totals in two games against FBS opponents:
4. We'll find out who the real UCLA is against Arizona: The Bruins likely will be down five starters from their preseason depth chart Saturday, and, no, that doesn't include QBs Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan. One word: ouch. This isn't a terribly deep team in the first place. Of course, that's only two more injured starters than the shocking Tennessee victory, when three went down, so maybe there's more smoke-and-mirrors with Rick Neuheisel and his crack coaching staff. If the Bruins do beat the Wildcats to open Pac-10 play after going down 59-zip at BYU, it will establish them as a peculiarly dangerous team and -- egad! -- a crew that might scrap out of the bottom third of the conference.
5. We'll find out who the real Arizona is against UCLA: This title should have been "The return of TE Rob Gronkowski will give Arizona a big boost", but we wanted symmetry with our UCLA entry. Gronkowski will provide a huge lift for the Wildcats offense, particularly QB Willie Tuitama, who threw two interception and fumbled twice against New Mexico. Arizona is mostly healthy, which is good, and completely desperate, which is could be good or bad. A loss puts coach Mike Stoops' job in serious jeopardy, while a victory puts him back on track for a breakthrough season. An overstatement? Perhaps. But that's life in a "What have you done for me lately?" business, and Stoops knows that.
6. Tavita Pritchard needs to step up to remain Stanford's QB: Stanford ranks 116th in the nation in total offense (242.3 yards per game) and 112th in passing offense (111 ypg). Not many ways you can dress that up and make it look good, and when an offense is sagging, the QB takes most of the blame. That's why word out of The Farm is true freshman Andrew Luck has been getting more reps with the first-team in practices and may doff his redshirt against San Jose State. If the Cardinal musters any passing threat, that will help a good offensive line create cracks for RB Toby Gerhart, the offense's best weapon. This could be Pritchard's last stand.
7. Expect some fancypants from Boise State and Oregon: Boise State's Chris Petersen and Oregon's Mike Bellotti are two of the best offensive-minded head coaches in the nation. And they like to get cute every once and a while. Everyone saw what the Broncos did to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, so it's not like they're afraid to take risks in big games. Meanwhile, even though Bellotti is down two QBs and is splitting the ball between first-year players Jeremiah Masoli and Chris Harper, he intimated strongly this week that he and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly may have some tricks up their sleeves, too. Heck, The Oregonian wrote an entire story this week about trick plays.
8. Washington State will take a step forward vs. Portland State: Unless Portland State decided to reinvent itself this week and no longer use the pure run-and-shoot -- highly unlikely -
- then Washington State's beleaguered, nation's-worst run defense will get a break. The pass probably looks good for a team that gives up 330 rushing yards per game. And a FCS opponent also probably looks good to the Cougars, who are still trying to break in first-year coach Paul Wulff's no-huddle spread offense. On the other hand, there's a lot of pressure on them to win Saturday because a loss could suggest a winless season is possible. Don't count on that happening, though. There's too much pride in Pullman for a complete flop.
9. Erickson is a streak buster: Georgia has won 10 games in a row, dating back to last season, the second-longest active streak among FBS schools (BYU, 13). That's the Bulldogs longest streak since winning 11 straight with Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in 1982. But a 10-game win streak shouldn't intimidate Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson. While head coach at Miami, his teams stopped a 14-game streak by Florida State(1990), a 16-game streak by Florida State (1991) and a 23-game streak by Notre Dame (1989).
10. Can the Pac-10 redeem itself? There are only five games this weekend involving Pac-10 teams, and only Arizona State is an underdog. What if the conference wins all five -- it has to win one with UCLA and Arizona playing! -- beating quality opponents like Boise State and Georgia? Will that restore the conference's luster in the college football nation's eyes? We're not even going to ask about another weekend of egg laying.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
1. Graham Gano vs. Sam Swank: Swank is coming off a game-winner against Ole Miss and Gano is coming off the DL. Swank is 5-for-5 this season, but this is the first season Gano was going to kick field goals and extra points.
2. The rise (and fall?) of Maryland: Eastern Michigan should be a piece of cake, no? So should have been Middle Tennessee State. Watch to see if the Terps learned their lesson or if they continued to play to the level of their unheralded competition.
3. FSU receiver Preston Parker: Don't be surprised to see this versatile athlete run the ball again. He's back from a two-game suspension and with so much depth at receiver and so little at running back, the Noles could certainly use an extra playmaker there.
4. An upset in Chestnut Hill: Central Florida is not a team the Eagles can take lightly, especially after the Knights pushed South Florida to overtime. BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski said he wouldn't mind playing backup quarterback Dominique Davis if the situation permits, but finding mop-up time is unlikely.
5. NC State linebacker Nate Irving: He has had one interception in each of State's first three games, including a 33-yard touchdown return against Clemson last week. The Wolfpack defense will have to pressure ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney to stand a chance against the surging Pirates.
6. Virginia Tech's passing game: If you're watching it, that means it's there, unlike last weekend. Tyrod Taylor only threw the ball 14 times against Georgia Tech and has a tendency to pull the ball down. How much has Taylor and his pass protection improved in the past week?
7. Dueling defenses: Mississippi State just lost a 3-2 game to Auburn, and Georgia Tech has one of the better defenses in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets don't change their scheme, so it will be up to the Bulldogs to adjust to the option quickly.
8. Turnovers: Wake Forest leads the league in turnover margin, as it has gained eight and lost three. Miami spent its bye week putting an emphasis on creating turnovers. And Georgia Tech is looking to stop giving it away.
9. How quickly Miami can adjust to the Aggies' defense: Coach Randy Shannon said the biggest thing in this game will be determining whether Texas A&M goes to a three-man front or a four-man front defensively.
10. UNC's linebackers: Brandon Tate has stolen the spotlight on this team, and deservedly so, but don't miss the play of linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant. They both had interceptions at Rutgers.
Once again, this list comes out a day earlier than normal because of the Big East's wacky weekday scheduling. Here are the major story lines, beginning with tonight's Boulder-dash.
1. The West Virginia running game: It's been nearly two weeks, and it's still hard to believe that the Mountaineers scored only three points at East Carolina. This madness must end. Colorado's strength on defense lies up front, with tackles Brandon Nicolas and George Hypolite, while the secondary looks suspect. But West Virginia's passing attack is really only dangerous because of the threat of Pat White and Noel Devine running. It's time to re-establish that ground dominance.
2. The West Virginia defense: Very shaky through two games, the Mountaineers hope the return of middle linebacker Reed Williams can start to shore things up. Williams, though, likely won't be 100 percent after his offseason shoulder surgeries. Colorado will score some points with its spread offense and the explosive uncle-nephew combo of Josh Smith and Darrell Scott. But the Mountaineers need to show more competence in their open-field tackling and coverage assignments, at the very least.
3. UConn's defense vs. Robert Griffin: The Huskies have had no success slowing down Pat White over the years. No shame in that, because few have. Now they face a young version of White in Baylor freshman Griffin, who ran for 217 yards on just 11 carries last week against Washington State. Some have wondered whether the fundamentally sound UConn defense is athletic enough to stop speedy teams like West Virginia. This will provide a good early test.
4. Donald Brown in the spotlight: The Connecticut running back has steamrolled everyone in the first quarter of the season. Baylor has held its last two opponents to under 100 yards rushing after allowing 156 to Wake Forest. Brown is a humble, team guy who doesn't seem to care much about attention. But if he has another 200-yard, multiple-touchdown type game on a national TV stage, his name recognition will soar.
5. Tony Pike's opening salvo: Cincinnati fans have had two weeks to fret over their team's fate since starting quarterback Dustin Grutza went down with a broken leg. Pike won't have to win the game by himself against Miami of Ohio. But a sturdy performance in his first career start will build his confidence and restore faith that the Bearcats can still contend for the conference championship.
6. South Florida's focus: Let's be honest. Florida International is one of the most toothless teams in the FBS. So even though it's a road game against an in-state opponent, South Florida should have no trouble. But after two big victories -- the overtime win at Central Florida and the Kansas thriller -- the Bulls are primed for a letdown. If they come out with all guns blazing, that may tell us a lot about how much they've matured since last year's midseason collapse.
7. Pittsburgh's toughness: Dave Wannstedt wants to build his program around defense and hard-nosed running no matter how much his fan base pleads for more creativity. Here's the time to show that philosophy works. And that the Panthers can do it better than Iowa, a throwback-type Big Ten team. The Hawkeyes have barely allowed a point this season, are averaging more than 200 yards rushing per game and have a major size and strength advantage on their offensive line. If Iowa outplays Pittsburgh in the areas Wannstedt emphasizes, that's a troubling sign.
8. Rutgers' execution: The Scarlet Knights' toughest opponent so far has been themselves, as they keep making critical mistakes to kill drives and allow big plays. They need to bring some military-style precision against Navy, a team that yielded 41 points to Duke and 35 to Ball State. The talent and size chasm between these two teams is enormous, and the only way Navy can stay in it is by playing smarter and cleaner. Sadly, that seems like a real possibility.
9. Greg Robinson's last gasp: OK, Greg, you've got one teed up this weekend, as winless FCS school Northeastern comes in to play sacrificial lamb to your Orange. This might be your only chance for a win this season, and a convincing victory is what you need to keep the fans off your back for at least another few days. You can't possibly mess this up, right? (Also watch: the Carrier Dome attendance).
10. The Big East vs. the Big 12/Big Ten: No, there is no such thing as a Big East/Big 12 challenge in football. It only seems that way. In the last 12 days, the two leagues have squared off three times, with two more showdowns the next two days. So far, the Big East has two wins (South Florida over Kansas, Louisville topping Kansas State) to one for the Big 12 (Oklahoma blowing out Cincinnati). It must be noted that the Big East hasn't faced some of the other league's best teams, like Texas, Texas Tech and Missouri, and that the majority of the games are on Big East turf. Still, a winning record in these matchups, plus a good show by Pittsburgh over Big Ten contender Iowa, would provide a struggling conference a small shred of credibility.