NCF Nation: what to watch week 4 2009


Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


1. Quest for respect, Part II: The Big East made a good impression last week with wins over Oregon State, Northwestern and Baylor. This is another big week, with games on tap against ACC opponents Florida State, NC State and Maryland, plus two strong nonautomatic-qualifying schools in Fresno State and Utah. Once again, the Big East will have to be road warriors, as only the Fresno game is on league turf. Can the conference keep up the strong early showing?

2. B.J. Daniels: Has a Big East freshman quarterback ever made a more-scrutinized midseason debut? Not only does Daniels lead South Florida into a landmark game at Florida State, he'll do so in his hometown. The kid has a lot of talent. He'll need a lot of poise as well.

3. The Bulls' defensive line: South Florida's deep D-line is the strength of the team, led by George Selvie. They will have to win the battle against a much-improved FSU offensive line and get pressure on Christian Ponder, who's been very accurate when he's had time to throw. If the Bulls can't consistently control this matchup, they'll have a hard time winning the game.

4. Carolina line battles: You know when teams coached by Dave Wannstedt and Tom O'Brien meet, it's going to be a physical encounter. Pitt's defensive line is the best in the Big East, and its offensive line has overpowered the first three opponents. NC State has been shuffling its offensive line around all season because of injuries, which would seem to work in Pitt's favor. There are some pretty good defensive ends on display, with Pitt's Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard versus the Wolfpack's Willie Young. This might be one game where it's more fun to watch the line of scrimmage than follow the ball.

5. Russell Wilson vs. Bill Stull: NC State quarterback Wilson is allergic to interceptions, having set an NCAA record for most attempts without a pick. But Stull has actually been more accurate so far this season. Stull has better receivers, while Wilson can make plays with his feet. Both will be pressured, and they'll both have to keep making smart decisions.

6. Big plays in the little house: Is Nippert Stadium big enough to hold all the potential long-yardage plays in the Cincinnati-Fresno State game? Fresno running back Ryan Mathews is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball, and the Bulldogs like to throw deep whenever possible. The Bearcats put up plenty of game-breaking moments themselves. This could turn into an exciting shootout, though Cincinnati would rather make Fresno State have to put together sustained drives.

7. Who is Rutgers?: The Scarlet Knights were embarrassed in the opener against Cincinnati. Then they played two nobodies, with another nobody on tap next week. Maryland isn't good, having just lost to Middle Tennessee State and needing overtime to beat James Madison. So, even though it's on the road, the Scarlet Knights need to win this game to show that they're to be taken seriously in 2009.

8. Rutgers' quarterback situation: Tom Savage is questionable after the head injury he suffered against Florida International. His potential replacement, Dom Natale, did not fare well against Cincinnati. Whoever starts on Saturday will have the chance to make plays against a Maryland defense that gave up more than 30 points to both James Madison and Middle Tennessee State.

9. Big East vs. Mountain West: Louisville is a heavy underdog at Utah and probably shouldn't be expected to win there. But if the Cardinals somehow pull that off or even keep it close until the end, Big East supporters can tell Mountain West backers to shove it. If the MWC is really worthy of an automatic BCS slot, then its defending champ ought to be able to beat last year's last-place Big East team handily. Right?

10. Syracuse and UConn taking care of business: There shouldn't be much noteworthy coming out of the Orange's game against Maine and the Huskies' date with Rhode Island. The Big East has done a good job thus far of dispatching lower-level opponents and avoiding any Maryland-style disasters. Syracuse and UConn, which don't normally operate with a lot of margin for error, need to keep that streak intact.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


1. Ralph Bolden and the Purdue offense vs. Notre Dame's defense: The Boilermakers are averaging more points per game (36.3) than the Irish, and Bolden is a big reason why. The sophomore running back leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally in rushing yards, which is a big uh-oh for Notre Dame's defensive front. Charlie Weis said he doesn't want to play in any more 35-34 type of games, but if the Irish can't slow Bolden down, they could easily find themselves in yet another Big Ten shootout.

2. The health of Jimmy Clausen and Armando Allen: Notre Dame's star quarterback and starting tailback both missed practice earlier this week. Clausen was in a walking boot and later was fitted for a special shoe to alleviate his turf toe injury, while Allen has been battling an ankle problem. Both expect to play Saturday, but if either are less than them full selves, that ups the probability of a Purdue upset.

3. The No. 2 receiver situation: Michael Floyd's injury raises all sorts of questions for Notre Dame. Can someone else step forward and help replace his production? Will Purdue double team Golden Tate, and if so how will that affect his effectiveness? Can the Irish find other ways to score? This game may provide a lot of answers for the rest of the season.

ACC: What to watch

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
8:25
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


Here are 10 things worth keeping an eye on this weekend:

1. The Coastal Division standings: The winner of the Virginia Tech-Miami game will be the team to beat in the division, but the winner of the Georgia Tech-North Carolina game won’t be far behind. If the Yellow Jackets lose, though, it will put them in a serious hole early with two losses to division opponents. That’s never good for a tiebreaker situation.

2. Struggling offenses. Clemson, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Boston College all have fallen below expectations offensively (though the Eagles knew breaking in a new starting quarterback would be difficult). And NC State has yet to show offensive improvement since the 7-3 loss to South Carolina against anyone other than a non-BCS opponent. All of those teams have capable, talented running backs. Can they get the help they need up front to make the most out of them?

3. Russell Wilson’s streak. Now that the Pack are playing a formidable opponent, it’s time to start watching “the streak.” Wilson has now thrown an NCAA-record 329 passes without an interception. He ranks ninth in passing efficiency. Pitt has intercepted three passes so far this season.

4. North Carolina’s young receivers. After a breakout game against ECU, can Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd build upon their success? The UNC offense appeared to turn the corner last week, and how the young playmakers fare against an experienced secondary will help determine whether that will continue.

5. How many times Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Williams carry the ball. It’s been one of the offense’s biggest strengths, but it also functioned in limited capacity against Nebraska. Virginia Tech’s passing offense is 106th in the nation, and the passing efficiency is 93rd. And yet Taylor has thrown the ball 63 times so far and run 26 this season. Williams is one of the top running backs in the country, yet had six carries in the second half last Saturday.

6. Georgia Tech b-back Jonathan Dwyer. He needs just 1 rushing yard Saturday to become the 10th player in Georgia Tech history to reach 2,000 yards. He’s been nicked up with a stinger since last Thursday night’s game, and when he has been healthy, defenses have done a good job of keeping him in check. Dwyer has been limited to 168 yards rushing and two touchdowns, but he sat out almost the entire second half of the Jacksonville State game and missed all of the second half last week against Miami because of a shoulder injury.

7. Maryland cornerback Cameron Chism. The loss of Nolan Carroll, the Terps’ top cornerback, was a huge setback, but it opened the door for Chism, who made the most of his first career start on Saturday against Middle Tennessee. He had 12 tackles and made his first career interception in the first half. With 4:52 remaining and Maryland clinging to a 31-29 lead, Chism made his second interception of the game.

8. Georgia Tech’s offense vs. UNC’s rushing defense. Georgia Tech leads the ACC and ranks 16th nationally in rushing offense (243.7 yards per game). North Carolina leads the ACC and ranks seventh nationally in rushing defense (52.3 yards per game). The Tar Heels have held all three opponents to 72 yards rushing or less, including just 30 yards rushing by The Citadel in the season opener.

9. Clemson’s running game in the red zone. The Tigers have been inside the 20-yard line nine times this season, and have one touchdown to show for it -- a passing touchdown. Clemson is going to have to start punching it in, and TCU’s defense will make that difficult on Saturday.

10. Christian Ponder on third down. It's remarkable, really. Ponder was a perfect 6 for 6 passing for 75 yards and three touchdowns on third-down conversions in Florida State’s 54-28 victory over Brigham Young. He has also completed 65.5 percent of this third-down passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns in the first three games of the season. And he has rushed for 62 yards on eight carries and has converted 6 of 9 third-down opportunities in the first three games of the season.

What to watch with the non-AQs

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
8:07
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson


1. Double trouble: Houston has a chance to upset its second consecutive Big 12 team and put itself in the hunt for a BCS bowl berth. But watch out for Southern Miss, the conference’s other undefeated team with a Big 12 opponent this weekend. Yeah, the Golden Eagles aren’t receiving votes, but a win over No. 20 Kansas and that changes.

2. Mental fortitude: BYU didn’t respond well after losses last season, so it will be interesting to see how it responds against an undefeated Colorado State team. This is the first time in awhile that Colorado State comes into this game with the confidence that it can play with the Cougars.

3. Starting a new streak: Utah’s 16-game winning streak was snapped last week against Oregon, but with Louisville coming into town, the Utes could be in danger of starting a new streak -- a losing one -- if they don’t clear up some issues on both sides of the ball. Utah has been a confident group since the 2007 season, so look for the Utes to rebound.

4. BG’s big adventure: Bowling Green has been flirting with being a really impressive team this season, but mistakes in the fourth quarter have hurt the Falcons the past two weeks. They can’t afford to do that against an opportunistic Boise State team. Bowling Green does come into this game with confidence, but it’ll have to be perfect for the upset.

5. Defending C-USA: East Carolina’s nonconference play hasn’t made the Pirates look like they’ll be able to defend their conference title. UCF comes in with hopes of earning its conference prestige back and might be able to take advantage of an ECU team that still reeling from to losses to AQ rivals.

6. The Mountain West’s hope: TCU is the Mountain West’s last ranked undefeated team, and a win at Clemson would keep it right on Boise State’s tail in the national standings. Of course, there’s always Colorado State, which could be a huge sleeper with a win over BYU.

7. Bottom of the Mountain: Both San Diego State and Wyoming open conference play this week and are fighting to not be at the bottom of the Mountain West standings. Neither team has looked good this year, and both will be going against teams in the second tier of the conference -- Air Force and UNLV -- looking to make a move toward the top.

8. Upset in the making: In each of the first three weeks, at least one non-AQ school has upset an AQ school, and with the slate of games in Week 4, more upsets are on the horizon. Teams that should be on alert include Texas Tech, Kansas, Iowa State and Louisville.

9. Making new history: Both Idaho and Northern Illinois are in the process of rebuilding their programs, and both will make inroads in the endeavor with a win this weekend. As an FBS school, Idaho has never started a season 3-1. Northern Illinois is looking for its best start since 2003 when it won 10 games.

10. Best team you’re not watching: OK, maybe it’s not the best team, but Army is certainly the most interesting because it’s been quite some time since Army was competitive. The Black Knights are 2-1 and haven’t started a season this strong since 1996. They have a 6-foot-10 receiver, which is pretty rare, and they have a chance to knock off Iowa State on the road this weekend.

What to watch in the SEC

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
8:04
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


We get a little bonus action this week with Ole Miss taking on South Carolina on Thursday night in Columbia. I've got to find somebody who owns one of those Cockabooses so I can do a little tailgating before the game.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 4:

1. Garcia vs. Snead: Who’s been the more productive quarterback this season? You might want to do a little homework before you answer. Stephen Garcia has passed for 683 yards in three games with a 62.7 completion percentage and hasn’t looked anything like the guy who finished with eight interceptions and six touchdowns last season. He’s maturing as a quarterback and even the Head Ball Coach is starting to give him some props. Jevan Snead also hasn’t looked like the same guy who threw 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions during Ole Miss’ six-game winning streak to end last season. But, then, the Rebels haven’t really needed him to be on top of his game so far. They’ll need him Thursday night, though, if they’re going to get out of Columbia unscathed.

2. Finally a real game: Despite its lofty ranking, Ole Miss hasn’t been challenged. There were a few anxious moments in the first half of the Memphis game to open the season, but the Rebels won going away. Then came the open date and flu outbreak followed by the rout of outmanned Southeastern Louisiana last week. It’s been a strange September for the Rebels, only one Saturday game all month. We know they’re talented. We know last year’s team ended the season playing superb football. But this is a different team and a different season. We find out a lot more about THIS team under the lights Thursday in a tough place to play against a South Carolina team that’s already been in a couple of battles.

3. Petrino vs. Saban: It’s the classic offense vs. defense debate. Bobby Petrino is a whiz at exploiting defenses and finding ways to score points. Nick Saban is a whiz at rendering offenses helpless and finding ways to keep the score down. In his second year at Arkansas, Petrino has a quarterback in Ryan Mallett and enough playmakers around him to put up Xbox-like numbers. See last week’s shootout against Georgia. Saban’s defensive front seven at Alabama is one of the best in college football. They specialize in putting opposing quarterbacks on their backside. Something’s got to give Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

4. Chomping at the bit: It wasn’t a loss, but it sure sounded like it around the Florida camp this week. Even after a win over Tennessee, albeit one that wasn’t all that flattering, Florida coach Urban Meyer found himself talking more about what the Gators didn’t do than what they did do. The bottom line: It wasn’t a championship performance against the Vols. Not even close, and these Gators are all about winning another championship. In retrospect, it may have been a blessing in disguise, because Meyer’s had his team’s attention and then some this week. That’s probably not good news for Kentucky.

5. Taking down No. 1: The last time the No. 1-ranked team in the country visited Commonwealth Stadium, that team walked away with a loss. LSU suffered a 43-37 triple-overtime setback to Kentucky in 2007, but still went on to win the national title. Seeing a scenario where Florida could stumble at Kentucky on Saturday and still remain on course in the national championship race is difficult to imagine. But so was seeing LSU climb back into position later in the 2007 season after the Tigers lost to an unranked Arkansas team on the final weekend of the regular season. In this league, you never know.

6. Getting offensive: LSU’s offensive numbers have been pretty pedestrian, and that’s being kind. The Tigers are last in the SEC in total offense, 10th in rushing offense and ninth in passing offense. They’ve just sort of gotten by to this point. None of their running backs have rushed for 100 yards in a game. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson has thrown five touchdown passes and just one interception, but he’s yet to throw for more than 172 yards in a game. It’s been a little bit here and a little bit there heading into Saturday’s game at Mississippi State. The Tigers are due for a breakout game on offense.

7. Linebacker U.: Want to see the best linebacker tandem in the country? Tune into Alabama’s game with Arkansas on Saturday and find No. 25 and No. 30. They will be the guys always around the football. Junior Rolando McClain has been a force from his middle linebacker position since his freshman season. Sophomore Dont’a Hightower is quickly emerging into one of the best big-play linebackers in the SEC. He moves outside on obvious passing downs, which is where he’ll be for most of the game against Arkansas, and is tied for second in the league with four tackles for loss.

8. Getting a pass?: The Georgia fans aren’t happy with the Bulldogs’ pass defense, and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez has been their target. It was a similar story last season when the Bulldogs gave up 38 or more points in four of their last five regular-season games. Well, they’ve given up 37 or more points in their last two games, although they’ve managed to win both. Georgia coach Mark Richt isn’t ready to hit the panic button. He likes the way the Bulldogs have stopped the run, but said they haven’t gotten enough inside pressure against the pass. That’s surprising when you look at the talent and depth the Bulldogs have at tackle. Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens are both future NFL players.

9. Dixon’s back: Sort of quietly, Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon has rushed for 215 yards the past two weeks after being suspended for the opener. He definitely has more burst now that he’s down around the 235-pound range and showed off that burst last week with a 40-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up Mississippi State’s clinching touchdown in its 15-3 win over Vanderbilt. Dixon talked to the media this week for the first time since his DUI arrest in July and said all the right things. There’s no question that he understands how important he is to this team, and the Bulldogs are going to ride him the rest of the way. Look for LSU to get a steady dose of No. 24 on Saturday.

10. Must-win mode: If Vanderbilt is entertaining serious thoughts about getting back to a bowl game this season, the Commodores can’t afford to come back from Rice with a loss. This is a game Bobby Johnson’s club absolutely has to have to keep any postseason hopes alive. Ultimately, it’s not going to matter if the Commodores can’t work out the kinks offensively. They’ve scored just 12 points in their past two games and have struggled to get anything going in their passing game. Quarterback Larry Smith hasn’t thrown it well, but the receivers haven’t caught it well, either. The plan Saturday will be to simplify and narrow the playbook to find something the Commodores can hang their hat on offensively.

What to watch in the Pac-10

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
8:03
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


After a strong showing in nonconference games, the Pac-10 slate gets rolling in earnest this week, with a couple of marquee matchups in Oregon. Oh, and there's a little nonconference game down south.

1. Jahvid Best vs. the Oregon run defense: Lots of defensive coordinators say stopping the run is the first priority, but Oregon's defense is more obsessed with it than most -- a big reason they've yielded significant passing yards through the years, despite the presence of a handful of NFL-quality defensive backs. Yet this year the run defense has been just fair-to-middling, see 151 yards surrendered per game, which ranks eighth in the Pac-10. No runner in the country stresses a defense more than Cal's Best, who's trying to make a Heisman Trophy statement.

2. Danny Sullivan making his first road start at Georgia: Arizona State fans have been wringing their hands over Sullivan since Rudy Carpenter trudged off at the end of the disappointing 2008 season. Even a solid spring and frequent praise from coach Dennis Erickson hasn't helped win over skeptical fans. Sullivan hasn't done much early on, in large part because he hasn't had to. Well, he'll have to at Georgia, though the Bulldogs' defense is yielding 406 yards and 34 points per game and won't be nearly as good as what Sullivan will see in Pac-10 play. Sullivan's biggest adjustment will be dealing with 93,000 screaming Bulldogs fans who don't like him much.

3. Will Nick Foles bolster the Arizona passing game? Arizona ranks ninth in the conference in passing with just 167 yards per game. That won't cut it, and that's why Mike Stoops replaced Matt Scott with Foles. The Wildcats have a nice run game, but without balance, conference teams will just gang up on Nic Grigsby and dare the quarterback to throw. Foles is a better pure passer than Scott. He'll have an opportunity to make a claim for the full-time job against a questionable Oregon State secondary and pass rush.

4. Washington on letdown alert: The "letdown" game is a college football cliche, but it's a cliche because it happens so often. Teams that win big games tend to relax or lose focus -- just ask the USC team the Huskies beat. If USC isn't good enough to win while unfocused, Washington certainly isn't either. If the Huskies manage to win at a solid Stanford team, however, there will no longer be any question over whether they are a legitimate conference contender and potential bowl team -- they will be, a year after going 0-12. And one of the biggest stories of the season will only get bigger.

5. USC QB play: Will it be Matt Barkley or Aaron Corp vs. Washington State? And how will the starter play? And will that effort allow us to stop talking about the USC quarterback for a day or two?

6. Washington State's fight: You never say never in college football, but it would be beyond shocking if Washington State upset USC in the Coliseum a year after losing 69-0 at home, particularly with the Trojans coming off an embarrassing loss at Washington. Not to mention that the Cougars are -- again -- ravaged by injuries. Yet, if Washington State scraps and claws and keeps the final tally respectable -- say within three TDs -- it will distinguish the Cougars of 2009 vs. 2008. Last year, the Cougs quit. That's the thing they cannot do if they expect to keep the heat off coach Paul Wulff.

7. ASU's defense vs. Joe Cox: Georgia fans were all over Cox after the Bulldogs were dominated by the Oklahoma State defense in the opener, but Cox played better in Game 2 against South Carolina and was lights out at Arkansas in Game 3, throwing for 375 yards and five TDs. It helps that he's got A.J. Green, one of the nation's best receivers, to throw to. We've heard a lot about the Sun Devils' new and improved defense. Cox will test those assertions.

8. Chris Owusu, TD maker: Who's the best playmaker in the Pac-10? Other than Best, it might be Owusu, who's already returned a pair of kickoffs for TDs this year. The Huskies might want to bone up on their kick coverage this week. And Owusu is no slouch at receiver. The sophomore ranks fourth in the conference with 65.7 yards receiving per game and has two touchdowns. He averages 16.4 yards per catch. He's the guy who's going to keep defenses from ganging up against running back Toby Gerhart.

9. Jeremiah Masoli's passing: There has been no more bigger disappointment than Oregon's passing offense. The Ducks rank last in the conference with 126 yards per game and have yet to throw a TD pass. Masoli has completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season, and he was 4-of-16 for 95 yards with an interception in the win over Utah. Some fans started asking whether backup Nate Costa should be given a chance. The Ducks can't beat Cal without a passing game, which means Masoli needs to revert to his form at the end of 2008 when he was one of the nation's premier pass-run threats.

10. Oregon State's offensive line: The Beavers have given up 10 sacks, four more than any other Pac-10 team -- their 3.33 sacks per game ranks 107th in the nation. The run blocking has been OK -- 146 yards rushing per game, 4.1 yards per carry -- but the effort has been inconsistent. Arizona's front seven is fast, and Brooks Reed is one of the Pac-10's best pass-rushers, even if he's off to a slow start. The Beavers, who start a true freshman at left tackle and two sophomore former walk-ons, need to grow up fast. Saturday would be a good time to start.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are 10 things I'm looking forward to watching across the Big 12 this weekend:

1. Taylor Potts vs. Case Keenum in the weekend’s best aerial battle. Texas Tech travels to cozy Robertson Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston to meet up with the Cougars, who at No. 17, are ranked highest in the Associated Press poll since they were No. 10 on Sept. 12, 1991. Saturday’s game should be an aerial circus featuring two of the nation’s top-four passers. Their individual battle underscores the matchup between their two teams, who will be meeting for the first time since 1995 -- the last season of Southwest Conference play.

2. Blaine Gabbert’s first true road game: Missouri’s sophomore quarterback has his first start away from Faurot Field as the Tigers travel to winless Nevada. Veteran Nevada coach Chris Ault will likely pack the box and force Gabbert to beat him with his arm. When the Tigers are balanced, Gabbert is extremely effective, leading the conference and ranking 11th nationally in passing efficiency. The Missouri defense ranks a pedestrian 86th nationally in pass defense and will be challenged by multi-talented Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

3. Kansas' stout run defense against Southern Mississippi’s Damion Fletcher: The improving Jayhawks defense will receive its biggest test of the preseason in the conference’s only battle of unbeaten teams. Kansas will be challenged by Southern Mississippi running back Damion Fletcher, who ranks 11th nationally in rushing (114.7 yards per game). The Jayhawks' defense ranks fourth nationally in sacks, sixth in scoring defense and eighth in rush defense, but will be facing its biggest challenge of the season so far.

4. Can Colt McCoy break his recent first-half slumps? Texas’ Heisman Trophy candidate has struggled through difficult first halves and has been victimized by four interceptions in his first three games after throwing only eight picks in 433 pass attempts last season. McCoy’s first halves so far this season have produced a pedestrian quarterback rating of 122.57, compared to 177.64 in the second half. He’ll be challenged by UTEP’s defense, which ranks 92nd in total defense. The game seems like a perfect salve for McCoy’s recent struggles.

5. Battle of the running attacks as Iowa State faces Army's option attack: The most consistent part of Iowa State’s offense has been its running game, which is averaging a potent 209 yards per game. Underrated Alexander Robinson has been the key with an average of 108.7 yards per game to rank second in the conference behind Roy Helu Jr. The Cyclones’ power will be countered by Army's traditional running attack, which ranks seventh nationally in rushing and features four backs who average at least 44 yards per game.

6. A Nebraska celebration of football: The Cornhuskers’ disappointing loss at Virginia Tech last week will be forgotten as the team returns for a big weekend to celebrate the school’s fanatical support. Saturday’s game will be the 300th consecutive home sellout in a remarkable streak that dates back to 1962. The Cornhuskers will be wearing some cool throwback uniforms and will be looking to win against Louisiana-Lafayette -- a team that has already notched one upset over a Big 12 team this season after beating Kansas State two weeks ago.

7. What will Uzoma Nwachukwu do for an encore? Texas A&M’s scintillating freshman wide receiver had a remarkable game last week against Utah State, touching the ball four times and scoring four touchdowns to set a school freshman one-game scoring record. With top receiver Jeff Fuller out up to six weeks with a cracked fibula, Nwachukwu will need to become a bigger part of the offense. The Aggies’ chances should be bolstered against 1-2 UAB, which has lost its last two games in a row and is allowing 333.7 passing yards a game to rank 118th nationally. Jerrod Johnson has to be excited about playing that leaky pass defense.

8. Can Brandon Banks return to Kansas State’s offense? The Wildcats have had trouble getting Banks open for the big gains that marked him last season as a junior. Banks ranks among the nation’s top 50 receivers with an average of 5.3 grabs per game. But his yard-per-catch average has dropped significantly from 15.7 last season to 8.3 this season. And he could be facing a bigger challenge than expected from FCS challenger Tennessee Tech, which is allowing only 128 yards passing per game. It's important to get Banks back and producing to balance Kansas State's offense.

9. Robert Griffin’s chance at redemption: The Baylor quarterback struggled through the worst game of his career last week, producing just 139 yards of total offense in the Bears' loss to Connecticut. If the Bears have any legitimate hopes of rebounding for a bowl trip, they need to get the production of their playmaker back. They start their comeback Saturday against Northwestern State, which has been singed in three straight losses to Houston, Grambling and North Dakota. It will also represent the return of Quentin Castille against Big 12 opponents. Castille, formerly of Nebraska, is Northwestern State’s second-leading rusher at 51.3 yards per game.

10. What Bill Young will do with Oklahoma State's struggling defense: After a strong effort in a season-opening victory over Georgia, Oklahoma State’s pass defense has disappeared in its last two games. The Cowboys have allowed their last two foes to complete an average of 30 passes for 333.5 yards per game. The slump has dropped Oklahoma State to 90th in total defense and 108th in pass defense. Grambling isn’t known for its passing attack as quarterback Greg Dillon has thrown for an average of 101.5 yards per game. But wily Oklahoma State coordinator Bill Young still needs to get the Cowboys back and productive for the beginning of conference play in two weeks.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Conference play kicks off on Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.

1. Health in Happy Valley -- Both Penn State and Iowa could be without key players when they meet Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Nittany Lions star linebacker Sean Lee (knee) is iffy for the game and Navorro Bowman (groin) likely won't be 100 percent, putting a lot of pressure on Josh Hull and Nate Stupar. Iowa could once again be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness), while pass-catching threats Tony Moeaki (ankle) and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (hamstring) are questionable.

2. Illinois hopes The Shoe fits -- After a bye week, the Illini make their first trip to Ohio Stadium since shocking the top-ranked Buckeyes back in 2007. With a brutal stretch of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, the Illini need another minor miracle against a tough Buckeyes defense. Illinois' high-powered offense is finally healthy, while the defense plays its first game without starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson (neck, out for season).

3. Spartans face must win -- Like Illinois, Michigan State can't afford a prolonged losing streak to open conference play. The Spartans have dropped back-to-back close games, and they now head to Wisconsin, where the Badgers rarely lose. Head coach Mark Dantonio still likes his team's poise in defeat, and quarterback Kirk Cousins handled the Notre Dame loss extremely well, but the Spartans need to get over the hump and win. Cousins' response against a vulnerable Wisconsin defense will be key, and Michigan State's defense needs to step up against the Badgers' rushing attack.

4. IU turns up the heat in the Big House -- Indiana is off to a surprising 3-0 start, but the Hoosiers are three-touchdown underdogs heading to Michigan. To have any shot at an upset, Indiana needs standout defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton to harass Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier all game long. Kirlew and Middleton have combined for 40 career sacks, the most for any tandem in the FBS, and both have to make plays to slow down Michigan's offense.

5. Boilers run game tries to get back on track -- After being shut down by Northern Illinois, sophomore running back Ralph Bolden and the Purdue offense try to rebound against Notre Dame, which ranks 74th nationally against the rush (149.3 ypg). The Irish offense won't be quite as explosive with Michael Floyd out and Jimmy Clausen a bit hobbled, but Purdue will need to put up points like it did in Weeks 1 and 2 to keep pace. Quarterback Joey Elliott wants to revive the downfield passing attack, but he refuses to abandon the run.

6. Clark vs. Stanzi -- The Penn State-Iowa game features a fascinating matchup at quarterback. Iowa's Ricky Stanzi prevailed last year in a game where he began a trend of slow starts and fast finishes. Stanzi really struggled in the first half before leading two fourth-quarter scoring drives. He has followed a similar pattern this year but likely can't afford to make the same early mistakes in Happy Valley. Clark was still battling the effects of a concussion and really struggled at Kinnick Stadium, completing just 9 of 23 passes with an interception. The senior will be determined to bounce back Saturday night.

7. Northwestern's defense vs. Decker -- Wide receiver Eric Decker has done it all for Minnesota's offense to this point, and he'll look for another big day in Evanston. Northwestern had no answer for Syracuse star wideout Mike Williams last week, but the Wildcats should get top cover corner Sherrick McManis back from a leg injury. Decker could be limited by a sprained ankle, and Minnesota needs to spark its rushing attack, which ranks last in the Big Ten (85.7 ypg). Northwestern has struggled with tackling and fundamentals so far, so the unit that gets on track Saturday likely will prevail.

8. Pryor vs. Juice -- Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Illinois' Juice Williams both came to college amid lofty expectations. Both were thrust into starting roles as true freshmen and endured their ups and downs. The two talented quarterbacks meet at Ohio Stadium in a key game for both teams. Pryor performed well last year at Illinois (110 rush yards on 13 carries), while Williams had a career day in his last trip to Columbus (4 TD passes). "There’s a lot of similarities," Williams said. "Last year he did a great job of leading his team to the Fiesta Bowl. He did an extraordinary job. This year, he just got better. ... It’s hard to play against another great player."

9. Wisconsin's revolving door at running back -- It seems like the Badgers' situation at running back changes every week. Zach Brown was a surprise starter for the season opener, while John Clay leapfrogged him after the Fresno State game. But Clay's three fumbles (one lost) last week against FCS Wofford put Brown back on the top of the depth chart. Both Brown and Clay will compete for carries this week, and it'll be interesting to see who emerges against the Spartans, who rank 25th nationally against the run (87 ypg).

10. Lions, Buckeyes try to change history -- It's hard to explain why certain teams fare better against others, and Big Ten title contenders Penn State and Ohio State both face tricky tests Saturday. Penn State has dropped six of its last seven meetings to Iowa, including last year's last-second loss at Kinnick Stadium. Ohio State has dropped seven of its last 10 home games against Illinois, including three of the last four. Will history repeat or be rewritten Saturday? Stay tuned.

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