NCF Nation: what to watch week 6
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are the some items to watch for in the Big 12 in Saturday's games.
1. Success by ranked teams -- The Big 12's six ranked teams won't play each other this week, potentially allowing the conference another week jammed in the polls before the cannibalization begins in earnest next week with games like Oklahoma-Texas and Missouri-Oklahoma State.
2. Oklahoma's running game -- The Sooners struggled against TCU, producing only 25 rushing yards with an offense that was ultimately successfully with the pass. They won't be able to be as heavily tilted to passing and beat a good Big 12 team like Texas next week. Will the heralded Oklahoma offensive line regain its boost against Baylor Sunday? And can Oklahoma tailback DeMarco Murray regain some of his breakaway abilities? Aside from a 49-yard run against Chattangooga in the opener, Murray's longest run this season has been only 14 yards.
3. Missouri battles some heavy history -- The No. 4 Tigers will be looking for their first victory at Nebraska since 1978 -- a streak of 15 straight losses. The Cornhuskers have dominated the series, claiming nine of the last 10 home games against the Tigers by more than 10 points. A victory here will be an indication that the Tigers clearly are the North Division's team to beat and not just a one-year wonder after last season's title.
4. Texas faces a still-angry Colorado team - Even though the Longhorns' 70-3 Big 12 title game triumph over the Buffaloes happened nearly three years ago, several senior members of the Colorado team haven't forgotten the onslaught of that one-sided, embarrassing loss in Houston. It will be interesting to see if that loss sparks some emotion in the Buffaloes, who are in a similar position as when they hosted Oklahoma in the opener last season. Colorado had lost the previous two games to the Sooners by a combined 66-6 margin before last season. The Buffaloes responded with a 27-24 victory, starting a run of three-straight triumphs over South Division teams.
5. Texas Tech's running game against a leaky Kansas State defense -- The typically pass-happy Red Raiders also have developed an emerging running game that has topped 100 yards in four-straight games for the first time in any season under Mike Leach. Will that spark more use against a struggling Kansas State defense that has been gashed for at least 300 yards rushing in each of its last two games? It will be part of a huge challenge for a Kansas State defense that allowed Louisiana-Lafayette to score touchdowns in five straight drives last week before producing a big stop to preserve the game.
6. Austen Arnaud's role in Iowa State's offensive surge -- After spotting UNLV a 21-0 lead in their last game, Arnaud sparked Iowa State's comeback, leading a dramatic 98-yard drive that tied the score at the end of regulation. It was one of three touchdown drives of at least 80 yards in the second half than Arnaud directed. That late production should spark some confidence in ISU's offense, as well as giving Arnaud most -- if not all -- of the snaps as the Cyclones' starting quarterback. Some might bemoan Iowa State's lack of offensive firepower. But that shouldn't include Arnaud.
7. Oklahoma State's Hunter-Toston RB combination -- The Cowboys' backfield rotation ranks of Kendall Hunter and Keith Toston ranks as the top two rushers in the Big 12 in terms of yards. They are the only combination to lead a FBS conference in total rushing yards this week. That one-two punch has helped OSU to lead the nation in rushing, averaging 340.3 yards per game. OSU's ground-heavy attack will be vital against a struggling Texas A&M rush defense that ranks 115th nationally and was ripped for a season-worst 280 yards on the ground by Army last week.
8. Texas Tech reacts to the role of being a heavy road favorite -- The Red Raiders have struggled in previous seasons on the road against perceived lesser teams, losing at least one road game as a heavy favorite each of the last four seasons. Will this team, which comes into the game with the school's highest national ranking in nearly 32 years, play differently defending the unaccustomed ranking against Kansas State?
9. Darrell Scott's success against Texas -- The heralded Colorado freshman tailback nearly signed with Texas during an intense recruiting battle with the Buffaloes earlier this season before opting for the Buffaloes. But he's battled injuries and the emergence of Rodney Stewart to produce only 148 yards rushing and one touchdown this season. Scott's rushing total has dropped in every game this season. The Buffaloes will likely need a big effort from the bigger and stronger Scott along with Stewart if they have any hopes of springing an upset over the Longhorns.
10. Can Chase Daniel continue his incredible recent effectiveness? Missouri's offense has been humming with Daniel in control. In 40 possessions with Daniel at the helm this season, the Tigers have scored 26 times and have yet to go three-and-out with him directing them. The Tigers will be stepping up in class against Nebraska's defense, but still should have the weapons to make for a long day for coach Bo Pelini. We'll see if Pelini can keep his temper in control as he tries to check the white-hot Missouri offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
The calendar has flipped to October, and the place to be this weekend is Vanderbilt Stadium. No, Garth Brooks isn't playing an impromptu concert in Nashville. The Vanderbilt football team is hosting the SEC's marquee game. When's the last time you could say that this late in the season? When's the last time you could say that at any point in the season? Vanderbilt has a chance to go to 5-0 for the first time since World War II if it can knock off Auburn. The Tigers have other ideas. They can't afford any more losses if they're going to stay afloat in the Western Division race. We'll also find out how legitimate Kentucky is after starting 4-0. The Wildcats travel to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama in a battle of unbeatens. Everybody had Kentucky and Vanderbilt a combined 8-0 at this point, right? Here's a look at what to watch for around the SEC in Week 6:
1. BCS positioning: The first official BCS standings have yet to be released, but ESPN's BCS guru Brad Edwards has some mock standings out, and it looks pretty good for the SEC. Oklahoma would be No. 1 and Alabama No. 2 in the current standings. LSU would be No. 3 and Georgia No. 7. In other words, there are still a bunch of SEC teams in prime position depending on what happens the rest of the year. Edwards says that Alabama would be the clear-cut No.1 team in the computers component of the BCS standings.
2. Wide-eyed Commodores: Are they ready for this kind of stage? Auburn is a tough, physical football team that's accustomed to playing in these type of games. This is all new ground for the Commodores, who all of a sudden are media darlings and receiving all sorts of attention. Do they get caught up in that glare or remember what got them here? Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson is as grounded as they come. He'll have his football team ready.
3. Bama's quick starts: The statistic that continues to define Alabama this season is the fact that the Crimson Tide have outscored their opponents 74-0 in the first quarter. What is that? That's preparation. That's discipline. That's intensity. That's understanding how important it is to set the tone in the SEC. It's also the last thing Kentucky can let happen if the Wildcats are going to win Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
4. Vandy's short fields: Vanderbilt is last in the SEC in total offense and total defense, which probably causes a few people to scratch their heads. But the Commodores have been so opportunistic, which will again be critical if they're going to take down Auburn. They will need some short fields to work with thanks to big plays from their defense or special teams. In both SEC games this season, Vanderbilt has either scored on defense or set up a touchdown with a special-teams play.
5. Crompton's fate: Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer will announce at the Vols' walk-through Friday afternoon who his starting quarterback will be Saturday against Northern Illinois. Even if Jonathan Crompton gets the start, the Vols have no choice but to play backup Nick Stephens some in the game. They've got to try something new simply because Crompton has been so ineffective. And if Stephens plays well, you wonder what that means for Crompton the rest of the way.
6. Auburn's offense: By now, we know that Auburn isn't running Tony Franklin's version of the spread offense. Tommy Tuberville said this week it's Auburn offense with some elements of the spread. Whatever it is, it's not very good. The Tigers have scored just three touchdowns in three SEC games and are killing themselves with bad plays. They've had 46 plays go for minus yardage, which is 117th nationally out of 119 teams.
7. Motivated Tebow: Tim Tebow's one of those guys who when he says something, you can usually take it to the bank. So when he says he's going to play as hard and as passionately as he ever has the rest of the season and push his teammates to play the same way, that has big game for Florida written all over it. That's great for the Gators and bad news for Arkansas, which really doesn't need anymore bad news after the last two weeks.
8. Watching Wilson: We've heard so much this season about Alabama's dominant offensive line, how suffocating the defense has been and even the contributions of the freshmen. But where would this team be right now without senior quarterback John Parker Wilson? He's been that "X" factor in the Tide's success and has played his role splendidly. He's managed the game, been a leader, taken care of the ball, made plays when he's had to and been a steadying influence for the entire offense.
9. Blocking Hardy: Ole Miss' Greg Hardy served notice that he was back last week with 1.5 sacks against Florida and constant pressure on Tim Tebow. Protecting the passer has been one of South Carolina's weaknesses this season. The Gamecocks are tied for last in the league with 17 sacks allowed. One of the reasons Steve Spurrier isn't starting Stephen Garcia in this game is that he holds the ball too long. That's a sack waiting to happen against Hardy and his mates.
10. Arkansas' woes: Bobby Petrino knew this could be a long season. He knew it was going to take time. He knew the Razorbacks were going to have to lean on a lot of young players this season. But getting decimated 49-14 and 52-10 in back-to-back weeks has a way of beating on you, especially with someone as competitive as Petrino. The key for him is keeping all of his younger players mentally strong and making sure they can see some improvement as the season goes on.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.
1. We should know fairly quickly if USC solved its run defense problems: What stood out more than anything in the Trojans loss to Oregon State was their poor run defense, with true freshman Jacquizz Rodgers rushing for 186 yards and USC's defensive linemen and linebackers struggling to get off blocks. Oregon is the nation's No. 4 rushing team and its passing game is still trying to find its rhythm with juco-transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli running the show. Ergo: The Ducks will immediately challenge the Trojans up front.
2. Who will start at quarterback for California and what will it mean?: Coming off a 42-7 victory in which your quarterback doesn't throw an interception is a curious time to renew a quarterback competition, but that's just what Bears coach Jeff Tedford did. And based on news reports this week, both sophomore starter Kevin Riley and senior challenger Nate Longshore -- who started 26 games before losing out to Riley -- practiced well, with neither surging ahead or falling behind. So Tedford said he'd wait until pregame warmups to announce who will start against Arizona State. How much of this is gamesmanship, and how much of an advantage does this garner Cal, if any? Here's a guess that the tag goes to the incumbent, and Riley remains the starter, with Longshore seeing spot action, which was the plan entering the season.
3. As usual, Rudy, not the run game, will be the key for Arizona State: Dennis Erickson said the Sun Devils need to run the ball more, period. The return of running back Keegan Herring from a nagging hamstring injury should help the Sun Devils sagging (110th in the nation) ground attack. But that won't change the basic fact that quarterback Rudy Carpenter is Arizona State's centerpiece, its singular star who will determine this team's fate almost every week. The speedy Herring might break a run or two for a big gain, but the Sun Devils will live or die by the pass in this game and the rest of the season.
4. Washington's new quarterback Ronnie Fouch won't wilt at Arizona: Don't be shocked if the Huskies offense puts up some points against the Wildcats with Fouch, a redshirt freshman, making his first start on the road after Jake Locker was lost to a broken thumb. Fouch has looked solid in limited action and seems confident in his abilities. More than a few folks have noted that he's already a more accurate passer than Locker. He might inject energy into a sagging team that may, in fact, be grateful to be away from its unhappy home fans.
5. Notre Dame will attack Stanford's secondary: Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen is rapidly improving and is developing timing with his young, talented receiving corps. Stanford's secondary is mediocre at best -- it allows opponents to complete 65 percent of their passes -- so the Cardinal will rely on pressure to keep Clausen in check. Stanford is second in the Pac-10 with three sacks a game, and the Fighting Irish offensive line is still figuring things out. But if Clausen gets time on his home field, he'll pick the Cardinal apart.
6. Rick Neuheisel's UCLA honeymoon will end if the Bruins lose: Neuheisel talked about noticeable improvement in the Bruins loss to Fresno State, but moral victories don't inspire a fanbase. And losing at home to the Cougars, a bad team even before it became a M.A.S.H unit, could cause some early grumbling in our win-now-or-else culture. UCLA should win going away. They should run right at the Cougars sagging defense and pressure redshirt freshman quarterback Marshall Lobbestael into making mistakes as he makes his first start on the road. Most of the schedule will be an uphill slog for the Bruins, so they shouldn't treat a rare weekend as a favorite as a time to relax.
7. Arizona should score 50: Arizona had a bye week to prepare for Jake Locker, and now they don't even have to deal with the annoyance of a running quarterback who can play keep-away from the Wildcats potent offense. And that offense will be rested and reloaded as it faces one of the nation's worst defenses. Tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be completely back to form after missing the first three games with mono. Also, receiver Terrell Reese returns from a suspension, giving quarterback Willie Tuitama another option in the Wildcats potent spread attack.
8. Who will lead USC's tailback-by-committee this week?: Joe McKnight had emerged as first among equals in USC's crowded running back depth chart, but then he fumbled and was mostly ineffective in the loss to Oregon State. This past week, Allen Bradford, who had fallen off the radar, expressed frustration to coach Pete Carroll about his lack of carries. More than a few observers piped in that Stafon Johnson is being underused. And C.J. Gable remains the most complete back the Trojans have. The chatter won't matter if USC runs for 200-plus yards and rolls to victory -- success has always been Pete Carroll's justification for trying to distribute the ball among so many talented backs without establishing a consistent pecking order. But another meandering performance by the offense, particularly the rushing attack, might force a philosophy change.
9. Cal's offense won't be worse without Best: Well, of course, there will be some dropoff without the playmaking of speedy Jahvid Best, who's expected to return from a dislocated elbow on Oct. 18 at Arizona. But Shane Vereen is pretty fancy, too. Sure, Best has two 80-yard touchdown runs, but Vereen has an 81-yarder to his credit and he went 39 yards for another score for good measure. Vereen is averaging 69.8 yards rushing per game and a stout eight yards per carry. He also has 10 catches for 44 yards, so, like Best, he's also a good receiver. If Arizona State's defense exhales
because it doesn't see Best in the backfield, that could be a critical mistake.
10. This is Washington State's best chance for a Pac-10 win, at least until the Apple Cup: UCLA should beat the Cougars. The Bruins also should have beaten the Cougars last year, but Washington State won 27-7, a game that became a significant nail in then-Bruins coach Karl Dorrell's coffin. UCLA is prone to distraction. It may look at the schedule and yawn. Moreover, the Rose Bowl is hardly a hostile environment these days, so redshirt freshman quarterback Marshall Lobbestael might not be overwhelmed in his first road start. The Cougars may, in fact, benefit from being on the road, considering they lost by an average of 56 points in their first two conference home games. This might not qualify as an upset alert, but it won't be written very often this season that Washington State actually has a shot to win.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
1. Miami quarterback Robert Marve vs. Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder -- Youth versus youth, and the future of both teams. Who has the better day in this storied rivalry, and how will their heralded backups be used this time?
2. Virginia Tech rover Dorian Porch -- He took over for Davon Morgan, who tore his ACL in the Nebraska game. Porch was also the top backup at free safety, and has played about a quarter of the games at rover.
3. The Carolina quarterbacks -- NC State's Russell Wilson will be making a comeback against Boston College after missing the South Florida game with an undisclosed injury, and North Carolina quarterback Cameron Sexton is looking for a repeat performance against UConn.
4. Positive signs in Charlottesville -- Literally and figuratively. The 1-3 Cavaliers need to show fans they're not destined for doom, and the fans need to show them support now that signs are once again allowed in the stadium.
5. Duke's offensive line against Georgia Tech's veteran front four -- This will be the Blue Devils' toughest test to date, and while mobile quarterback Thaddeus Lewis can make things happen, he'll need some time to do it.
6. Paul Johnson vs. David Cutcliffe -- This could be a Coach of the Year elimination game, no? Both of these guys have their programs ahead of schedule in their first seasons. Can Cutcliffe take the next step, and win an ACC road game, or will Johnson stay in the hunt for his first Coastal Division crown?
7. Boston College's passing game -- Have they found it? Offensive coordinator Steve Logan knows the Eagles won't survive the second half of the season without it. There has been instability at quarterback, and either Chris Crane or Dominique Davis needs to assert himself as the leader of the offense.
8. Florida State's defense against Miami's tight ends -- It's been something the Seminoles have been working on all week, and historically a matchup that's made a difference in this game. Miami's Dedrick Epps, who caught the game-winner last year, is the one they're most likely to key in on.
9. Interceptions in Dolphin Stadium -- If there are any. So far, both Florida State and Miami have just one interception each. Both programs are tied for last in the FBS in this category with five other teams.
10. Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey -- Somehow, he left Death Valley with just one touch -- albeit a 76-yard run on a reverse -- and somehow, the Terps still won. Odds are Virginia won't keep one of the most exciting receivers in the league quiet again.
1. Watch the undefeated: Two of the five undefeateds heading into this week remained unscathed (barely). Now it's time to see if the other three can come through. All but Tulsa are playing one-win teams, so at least four teams should remain undefeated.
2. Go tell it on the Mountain: With Utah's win over Oregon State on Thursday, the Mountain West is 6-1 against the Pac-10, with Colorado State suffering the lone loss against Cal. Not only does that solidify the MWC as one of the best conferences in the country, it should play into the BCS standings.
3. Offense aplenty: If you're in the mood to watch some scoring, check out Tulsa and Rice this weekend. Tulsa is the nation's top team in scoring and total offense and Rice is averaging 41 points per game. This game could determine the West Division champion.
4. UCF quarterback situation: Who will it be, Michael Greco or Rob Calabrese? Coach George O'Leary said Thursday that the starting signal-caller will be a game-time decision, but all of his comments seem to indicate that Calabrese, who was the quarterback in the team's 58-13 loss to UTEP, will be the starter against SMU.
5. Sneaky upset: Prior to the season, Northern Illinois' game against Tennessee looked like a perfect opportunity for an upset, but as the Vols have struggled, sneaking up on them the week before they play Georgia seems less and less likely.
6. Watch out for Western Michigan: A lot of the Mid-American Conference chatter has been about Ball State, Central Michigan and Buffalo, but the Broncos have put together a quiet, but nice season so far. They'll face their biggest test this weekend against Ohio. Even though the Bobcats are 1-4, they've been close in almost every game.
7. Fresno State goes for WAC win: If Fresno State wants to keep pace with its chief competition for the WAC title, it will need to start with a win over defending league champion Hawaii this weekend. The Bulldogs actually seem to be playing better since their loss to Wisconsin.
8. Notre Dame goes for fourth win: The Irish defeated Stanford last season, so this year's much-improved team shouldn't have much trouble against the Cardinal. The key to this game will be if quarterback Jimmy Clausen can continue his progression and maturity in the offense.
9. Battle for Commander In Chief Trophy: The first leg of the battle for the Commander In Chief trophy begins Saturday with what looks to be a heated game between Air Force and Navy. The Falcons have had two weeks to prepare for Navy's triple option.
10. Running games on display: Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette will put their running games on display this weekend as the two fight for Sun Belt position and in-state supremacy. The Warhawks won last year's bout 17-11 and it should be another close affair this week.
Once again, this is coming in a day early because the Big East's best game is tonight and there's a light slate the rest of the weekend.
1. Pittsburgh's running game vs. the South Florida defensive front: For the Panthers to have any chance in this game, they need this matchup to go in their favor. South Florida is allowing fewer than 60 yards per game on the ground, but the Bulls haven't seen a team as committed to the run or with as talented a backfield as Pitt. LeSean McCoy was held to a season-low 55 yards last year by South Florida at Heinz Field (though he did score three times). If he doesn't do more than that, his team won't put up much of a threat.
2. Matt Grothe vs. Pittsburgh's defense: Pitt is averaging more than three sacks per game this season and ranks seventh in the country at taking the quarterback down. But if the Panthers pressure Grothe, they'd better wrap him up, because he is adept at making plays on the move. He proved that last year by ripping off an 80-yard touchdown run at Heinz Field. Grothe has been the best quarterback in the Big East so far this season and will pick apart the Pittsburgh secondary if given adequate time.
3. Special teams and tomfoolery in Tampa: One area where Pittsburgh seems to have a clear advantage is on special teams, as it boasts the Big East's most automatic kicker in Conor Lee. This might also be a place where the normally-conservative Dave Wannstedt could dial up some trick plays or fakes in order to give his team another edge. Wannstedt has shown a proclivity for going for it on fourth down the past two weeks, so maybe he's got more of a riverboat gambler side than anyone can see.
4. North Carolina's offensive line vs. UConn's defense: The Huskies' front four got pushed around by Louisville's line last week. Some of that can be pinned on injuries to three defensive tackles. The Tar Heels have a hulking O-line that weighs over 300 pounds per man. Connecticut needs to get better penetration and stop the running game (Louisville averaged 6.4 yard per carry last week).
5. Donald Brown: We'll keep putting him up here until somebody figures out how to slow down the nation's leading rusher. North Carolina is allowing 138.5 yards rushing this season, so Brown should find holes to dash through. He needs only 94 yards to reach 1,000 already for the season.
6. Zach Frazer and Cam Sexton: Both guys began last week's games as backups but came in to rally their teams to victory. UConn's Frazer made his first collegiate appearance after senior Tyler Lorenzen broke his foot and played well after a shaky first couple of series. Sexton relieved the ineffective Mike Paulus -- who was starting because of T.J. Yates' broken ankle -- and went 11-of-19 for 243 yards and two scores in a win over Miami. Sexton lost his job as the starter last year. Are these guys the answer? Or were they one-week wonders?
7. Brandon Tate and Darius Butler: These two athletic, multi-skilled players could have a huge impact on the Connecticut-North Carolina outcome. The Tar Heels' Tate holds the NCAA record for career kickoff return yards and is a dangerous playmaker at receiver. Just ask Rutgers, for whom he burned for 138 yards and a score on just four catches. UConn's Butler is a lock-down corner who has also become one of the team's top options at receiver -- he caught a crucial TD pass last week at Louisville. And he also returns kicks.
8. The QB situation at Cincinnati: The Bearcats are down to the fourth string under center, and coach Brian Kelly will choose between redshirt freshmen Chazz Anderson or Zach Collaros for Friday's game at Marshall. Collaros will most likely start, but both could play some. It's a tricky situation, especially in a short week on the road, and Cincinnati may just have to try to survive with a limited game plan. If one of the youngsters plays very well, it will be a tribute to Kelly's coaching.
9. West Virginia's point total: The Mountaineers seem to be getting their offense pointed in the right direction. They accumulated 316 yards rushing at Colorado and 319 last week versus Marshall. Still, they scored a total of 41 points in both games, a number they used to put up regularly in fewer than four quarters. Can West Virginia finish off drives and convert key third downs against a Rutgers team that has been soft defensively against quality competition?
10. Rutgers' offense vs. the West Virginia defense: Quarterback Mike Teel had been awful so far this season before enjoying a better day against an FCS opponent (Morgan State) last weekend. Did he find his confidence, or was that just a byproduct of easy scheduling? Rutgers has had more success running the ball with Jourdan Brooks, and the return of receiver Kenny Britt from a one-game suspension means Teel should have plenty of weapons. They'll have to get something going against a West Virginia defense that has grown up the past two games, allowing no touchdowns in the past seven-plus quarters.