NCF Nation: what to watch week 8 2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

1. Honoring Howard: The rest of the country will watch to see how Connecticut reacts to the stabbing death of its starting cornerback, Jasper Howard. There will be a moment of silence before the West Virginia game, and both teams will be wearing decals to honor Howard's legacy. Perhaps the best tribute the Huskies could pay to their fallen teammate is to play with passion and pull off a victory.

2. Jarrett Brown: The West Virginia quarterback is supposedly feeling much better from his mild concussion last week against Marshall. If he does indeed start, will he be his usual effective self? Or will he be gun shy at all when he takes off to run?

3. Battle of the front fours: Pitt and South Florida probably have the best defensive lines in the Big East, and it will be a treat to see both on the same field Saturday. Who gets the upper hand in the showdown of defensive end duos? The Bulls' George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul or the Panthers' Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard? All of them could be on an NFL field very soon.

4. B.J. Daniels:
The South Florida quarterback was an acrobat in escaping from Cincinnati's pass rush last week, but many times he was just running around in the backfield and not coming up with positive plays. Pitt's defense is quick and athletic and can slow him down on the option-read plays. Where Daniels can make something happen is in the deep passing game against the Panthers' secondary. Provided, of course, that he's not spending all his time dancing around would-be tacklers.

5. Dion Lewis: The true freshman leads the Big East and is second in the nation in rushing and will obviously be a key to Pitt's chances against the Bulls. As strong as South Florida's pass rush is, you can run right at them. Pounding Lewis between the tackles -- and he loves to run inside despite his small stature -- will keep those defensive ends at bay.

6. Cincinnati's quarterback situation: As of Thursday morning, it's unclear who will start under center for the Bearcats. It could be Tony Pike, who underwent an operation to repair a plate in his left arm Tuesday morning. Or it could be one of the backups, Chazz Anderson or Zach Collaros. The situation bears monitoring. Can Pike sustain his level of play with another cast on his arm? And can Cincinnati keep the same offensive pace with one of his understudies in the game?

7. Louisville's running back health: The Cardinals' top three tailbacks -- Victor Anderson, Bilal Powell and Darius Ashley -- were all hurt during last week's game at Connecticut, and the team turned to former walk-on Blayne Donnell late in the fourth quarter. The trio is supposed to be better this week. For Louisville to have any chance against Cincinnati, it will need all hands on deck.

8. Rutgers' offense: The Scarlet Knights had four different players either line up at quarterback or attempt a pass last week against Pitt. There is creativity, and then there is desperation. This offense is still seeking an identity. Army, of course, provides our nation with great defense. But the Black Knights shouldn't be able to stop a capable Big East attack. Rutgers needs to go out and have a big night on the ground and through the air in West Point.

9. Greg Paulus: Doug Marrone insists that Paulus is still his guy. Paulus says he's as confident as ever. Still, after throwing six interceptions in six quarters and being pulled for the second half against West Virginia, the quarterback could use a strong performance this week. If he can't avoid mistakes against the Akron defense, there will be questions about whether it's time to turn to Ryan Nassib.

10. The BCS standings: Cincinnati was barely ahead of Iowa in this week's initial BCS standings. Can the Bearcats maintain their No. 5 position, or even move up? Iowa plays at Michigan State, while No. 4 Boise State has to go to Hawaii. Another game that could help Cincinnati's computer ranking is Oregon State at USC, since the Bearcats beat the Beavers earlier this season. The suspense will continue each week as long as Brian Kelly's team is hovering near BCS title game qualification.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

What to watch from Notre Dame in Saturday's home game against Boston College:

1. Stopping the run: Montel Harris broke Boston College's single-game records by rushing for 264 yards and five touchdowns last week against NC State. The Eagles used him to great effect in two different Wildcat packages. You can bet that will be a big part of their game plan again this week in South Bend. Notre Dame's defense, while still giving up too many points and yards, has been worse against the pass than the run recently, which is good considering future opponents like Pitt, UConn and Stanford all rely heavily on the handoff.

"I'm encouraged by the fact that our run defense has been improving steadily over the last few weeks," coach Charlie Weis said. "It's a good thing because we're going to get dialed up as the year goes on, starting this week."

2. Jimmy Clausen: The Notre Dame quarterback had a nightmarish game last year against BC, throwing four interceptions in Chestnut Hill. Of course, Clausen is a much better player this year, though his turf toe injury was aggravated last week against USC when a couple of defenders stepped on it. BC has allowed some big passing days this year to Florida State and Wake Forest, and Clausen should find suitable lanes in which to throw.

3. Notre Dame's pass defense: Weis is shuffling up his secondary, seeking playmakers at cornerback. This could be a good week to find some. Boston College ranks just 106th in the FBS in passing offense behind 25-year-old freshman Dave Shinskie. If the Irish get shredded through the air this week, the secondary may just be a lost cause.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Having one SEC team unbeaten at the end of the season is rare enough.

But having two?

That’s the direction we’re headed with Florida and Alabama, who are No. 1 and No. 2 this week in the first BCS standings. The stakes only go up in the second half of the season.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 8:

1. Staying unbeaten: As Alabama and Florida attempt to keep their unblemished seasons going, it’s worth noting that the SEC has never had two teams finish a regular season unbeaten and untied in the same year. There have been a couple of years when two teams were unbeaten in the regular season, but one of them had a tie. The last time that happened was 1958 when eventual national champion LSU was 10-0 and Auburn 9-0-1. In 1951, eventual national champion Tennessee was 10-0 and Georgia Tech 10-0-1. In 1940, Tennessee was 10-0 and Mississippi State 9-0-1. So, obviously, Alabama and Florida are chasing history. The last time the SEC produced an unbeaten national champion was 1998 when Tennessee won it with a 13-0 record.

2. Excessive flags: One thing you won’t see this Saturday or any Saturday until Nov. 14 is Marc Curles’ officiating crew working another game. They’ve been suspended after the SEC had to come out and admit for a second time that they’d blown a call, this last one when Curles wrongly penalized Arkansas’ Malcolm Sheppard for a 15-yard personal foul on Florida’s game-tying touchdown drive last Saturday. Two weeks earlier, Curles’ crew penalized Georgia’s A.J. Green late in the LSU game for excessive celebration when there was no video evidence of excessive celebration. Something tells me that a player is going to have to be caught using a crowbar to draw a personal foul penalty this weekend or be caught doing a hula dance at midfield after scoring a touchdown to draw an excessive celebration penalty.

3. Ingram’s march: Mark Ingram’s romp into the middle of the Heisman Trophy race has been fueled by his ability to get so many yards on his own. His offensive line at Alabama has done a very good job this season, but Ingram is also one of the better runners after contact in the country. He had more than 100 of his 246 yards after contact last week against South Carolina and leads the country with 30 runs of 10 yards or more this season. The next closest guy, UAB’s Joe Webb, has 24 runs of 10 yards or longer. Ingram’s ability to break tackles will be put to the test this Saturday against a Tennessee defense that has tackled extremely well most of this season. Think the Vols might have Eric Berry hovering somewhere near the line of scrimmage?

4. Endorsing the Tide: Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin has gone out of his way this week to endorse Alabama as the No. 1 team in the country, which makes sense. The Vols face the Crimson Tide on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. But if you listen hard enough, Kiffin sounds like he might also be getting in some subtle digs at one of his favorite targets -- Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. Asked to compare the two teams, Kiffin had this to say: “They come at you in different ways. One team’s a physical, in-your-face, downhill [team], and the other one kind of tricks you and moves everybody around.” Kiffin has also gone out of his way this week to talk about how well-coached Alabama is. But remember his message the week of the Florida game? You didn’t hear a whole lot about how well-coached the Gators were, but rather how they were one of the most talented teams in college football history.

5. The Mullen factor: With Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen having spent 10 years with Urban Meyer, Florida is changing its offensive signals for this weekend’s game. Coaches always say a former coach going against his old team is overrated. But in this case, Mullen knows that Florida offense and personnel like the back of his hand, so it will be interesting to see how Mississippi State defensive coordinator Carl Torbush attacks the Gators. Losing Percy Harvin was the biggest blow to Florida’s offense, but it’s probably not coincidental that the Gators haven’t been as explosive the year after Mullen left and took offensive line coach John Hevesy with him.

6. Jefferson still the man: When a team is ranked 112th nationally in total offense the way LSU is and scored a grand total of three points in its last game, the backup quarterback invariably becomes a pretty popular guy. That’s even the case at LSU, where you’re starting to hear rumblings that maybe Jarrett Lee should get a chance since Jordan Jefferson hasn’t been able to consistently get the Tigers into the end zone. Keep in mind that this is the same Jarrett Lee who threw 16 interceptions last season, seven of which were returned for touchdowns. LSU coach Les Miles insists that Jefferson is still his guy. He’s also saying (again) that the Tigers are going to get freshman Russell Shepard more involved on offense this Saturday against Auburn. However it shakes out, LSU had better add some punch to what’s been a punch-less offense if the Tigers want to hang around in the Western Division race.

7. Ole Miss’ last stand: It would take a serious collapse by Alabama for Ole Miss to have any chance of winning the Western Division at this point. But that doesn’t mean the season is over for the Rebels. In fact, it may be just beginning if they can take care of Arkansas at home Saturday. The Rebels need a win over a legitimate team to gain some momentum. They’re 4-2, but their four victims -- Memphis, Southeastern Louisiana, Vanderbilt and UAB -- are a combined 10-16, and Southeastern Louisiana is one of two FCS foes on the Rebels’ schedule. They’re pretty bunched up in this league after Alabama and Florida, and if Ole Miss is going to make a move, it’s now or never.

8. Getting defensive: Arkansas’ defensive improvement in the last three games has been glaring, which is a big reason the Razorbacks are playing their best football entering Saturday’s game at Ole Miss. The Hogs have gone from giving up an average of 32.3 points in their first three games to 21.7 points in their last three games. They allowed eight passing touchdowns in the first three and three since. They recovered two fumbles in the first three games and nine since, and they sacked the quarterback five times in the first three games as opposed to 11 since. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson has his guys playing at a high level right now, and if that continues, it could be an impressive close to the season for the Hogs.

9. True Blue performance: What’s it take to break out of a three-game losing streak in this league? Get your hands on the tape of Kentucky’s 21-14 win over Auburn last week. The Wildcats unveiled a formula that should work well for them for the rest of this season as they face Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday in the first of three straight home games in which they will be favored, and three games that will ultimately dictate if they’re going to spend their holidays at a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year. The first ingredient of that formula is running the ball. Kentucky had 282 rushing yards against Auburn, the most the Wildcats have gained against an SEC team in 14 years. They also didn’t have a single penalty in the game, the first time that’s happened in 18 years.

10. Ending the curse: Anybody who’s followed South Carolina football has surely heard about the Chicken Curse, which according to legend, is at the root of everything bad that happens to South Carolina athletics. But closer to home, the Gamecocks need to end the Vanderbilt Curse. South Carolina has lost to Vanderbilt each of the past two years, and you could make a case that the Gamecocks’ program hasn’t been the same since the last time they lost to the Commodores in Columbia. They had just debuted at No. 6 in the BCS standings in 2007 only to fall flat on their faces and lose 17-6 at home to the Commodores that weekend. In their last 25 games, going back to that game, the Gamecocks are just 12-13 overall and 6-10 in the SEC.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The home stretch begins Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.

1. Iowa's quest for perfection continues: The Hawkeyes are halfway through one of the nation's toughest road schedules, and it doesn't get much easier Saturday night at Michigan State (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). Spartan Stadium recently has posed problems for the Hawkeyes, who have dropped four consecutive games there, including a 16-13 decision last year. A win Saturday night will convince any nonbelievers left that Iowa is for real and move the Hawkeyes to at least No. 5 in the BCS standings. Iowa has shown no fear of tough environments and tough situations so far, but the Hawkeyes are now the team to beat in the Big Ten, which can bring unique challenges.

2. Penn State enters (Big) House of Horrors: Iowa isn't the only Big Ten team trying to end its struggles in the state of Michigan on Saturday. Penn State can't buy a break in Michigan Stadium, where it has lost five consecutive games stretching back to 1995. Head coach Joe Paterno is still haunted by the 2005 loss in Ann Arbor, the lone blemish on his team's record. The jury remains out on this Penn State team, which has looked very impressive against weak competition and seems to be getting stronger each week. The Lions can validate their record and end a rough run at Stadium and Main with a victory Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

3. Pryor under pressure: Ohio State's offense and sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor are under the gun after a mistake-filled loss to Purdue last week. Critics and fans are questioning the scheme, the coaching and Pryor. Head coach Jim Tressel said this week that no major changes are coming and Pryor's teammates remain in his corner. Pryor handled himself well in responding to his critics this week. Still, the offense must bounce back strong against Minnesota (ESPN, noon ET). The Gophers boast an improved defense led by three excellent linebackers (Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence) and a playmaking cornerback (Traye Simmons). If Ohio State's offense starts off slowly, it could be a rough afternoon.

4. Postseason implications in Evanston: Northwestern and Indiana bring identical 4-3 records into Saturday's game at Ryan Field, and quite frankly, it's tough to see both squads reaching the postseason. The winner of the game should be in good shape for at least an invitation to the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, while the loser will have an uphill climb. Northwestern's banged-up yet improving defense faces a confident Indiana offense led by quarterback Ben Chappell and wide receivers Tandon Doss, Damarlo Belcher and Mitchell Evans. The series usually produces plenty of excitement, as the last five meetings all have been decided by seven points or fewer.

5. Desperation at Boiler Station: The Big Ten's bottom two teams meet at Ross-Ade Stadium with very different mindsets. Purdue comes off an energizing upset of Ohio State, its first win against a ranked opponent since 2003. The Boilermakers hope the victory springboards them into a big second half as they try to turn those near misses into wins. Illinois, meanwhile, seems to be falling apart after its fourth consecutive double-digit loss and its fifth this season. The Illini remain undecided at quarterback and might soon need to make a decision about head coach Ron Zook's future at the school unless things turn around fast, beginning Saturday.

6. Jones vs. Sash: Two of the leading contenders for Big Ten defensive player of the year will be on the same field Saturday night in East Lansing. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones had a monster first half, leading the nation with 85 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He'll try to slow down Iowa's young running backs and put pressure on quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Hawkeyes safety Tyler Sash hopes to build on his Big Ten interceptions lead against Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has thrown only four picks in 156 attempts. Sash leads the most opportunistic secondary in the country, which faces a talented crop of Michigan State tight ends and wide receivers.

7. Wolverines offense vs. Lions defense: Something's got to give as the Big Ten's top scoring offense (37.3 ppg) takes on the nation's No. 2 scoring defense (8.7 ppg). Both units are getting healthier, as Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has recovered from head and shoulder injuries, while Penn State star outside linebacker Sean Lee should see his reps increase despite tweaking his knee against Minnesota. The Wolverines will use multiple quarterbacks and mix personnel behind an offensive line that gained confidence from the Iowa game. Penn State hasn't faced an FBS offense ranked higher than 79th nationally, but the Lions are receiving excellent play from their front four and linebackers Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.

8. Gophers offense looks for a spark: Pryor isn't the only quarterback feeling the heat in Columbus on Saturday. Minnesota junior Adam Weber has struggled in recent weeks, and some are calling for backup MarQueis Gray to get more playing time. Weber could certainly use some help from his running backs, but it won't be easy against a dominant Ohio State defensive front. The Buckeyes undoubtedly will gear their defense toward Minnesota star wideout Eric Decker, so Weber must find other targets and do a better job of freelancing to make plays. Ohio State already owns two shutouts this season, and the Gophers were blanked last week at Penn State.

9. League title race taking shape: It's pretty easy to size up the Big Ten title race right now, with Iowa as the league's lone unbeaten team and in the driver's seat for the Rose Bowl and possibly more. But if Michigan State knocks off the Hawkeyes, things could really get interesting. You could have four one-loss teams by the end of play Saturday (Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State), and an Iowa loss would open the door for some two-loss teams as well. Michigan State has a favorable schedule down the stretch and could legitimize itself as a league title contender. Losses by Penn State and Ohio State could really turn things around in the standings, given the preseason forecast for the league.

10. Star search on offense: The Big Ten is clearly a defense-oriented league this season, but the lack of stars on offense is really stunning. Things weren't much better in 2008, but at least the league boasted the nation's best group of running backs. As the stretch run begins, who will emerge at quarterback, running back or wide receiver? Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark has played well since the Iowa loss and needs a big performance at Michigan. Forcier, Stanzi, Purdue's Joey Elliott, Northwestern's Mike Kafka and Chappell also have had their good moments. I'm interested to see if the league's unheralded wide receivers (Keith Smith, Zeke Markshausen, Doss, Blair White) can keep up their strong play.

What to watch in the Pac-10

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
8:03
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

A full slate of games -- nobody's sitting home this weekend eating Doritos.

1. It's going to be nasty fun in Husky Stadium: Oregon has beaten Washington five consecutive times. And by at least 20 points each time. What was once the most bitter rivalry in the Pac-10 has become a mismatch, which has been galling for the Huskies because, historically, they've dominated the Ducks and still lead the series 58-38-5. Yet this one figures to be more competitive than any of the recent games. Washington has rejuvenated itself under Steve Sarkisian, and that rejuvenation has include renewed energy in Husky Stadium. It should be pretty intense. Just like the old days.

2. Jacquizz Rodgers won't back down: The conventional wisdom is that USC is looking for a little revenge after Oregon State shocked the Trojans 27-21 last year in Corvallis. And the best way to get that revenge is to shut down Rodgers, who sliced and diced them for 186 yards. Folks on the Trojans' side whisper that they didn't know much about the diminutive then-true freshman in 2008. Now they do. And they will put a hurting on Rodgers. Not so fast on that, though. Rodgers has surged of late, and he's an ultra-competitive sort who will be eager accept the Trojans' challenge. Don't be surprised if Rodgers makes some plays against the rugged Trojans run defense.

3. UCLA's secondary will challenge Arizona QB Nick Foles: UCLA's secondary is much better than Stanford's secondary, so Arizona quarterback Nick Foles doesn't figure to find things as easy in the passing game against the Bruins as he did when he piled up 415 yards and three TDs vs. the Cardinal. While UCLA's run defense has sprung a leak -- or two -- of late, the pass defense ranks second in the conference, giving up just 169 yards per game. It's grabbed nine interceptions while surrendering just six TD passes.

4. Vontaze Burfict vs. Toby Gerhart: Burfict is Arizona State's hard-hitting true freshman linebacker. Gerhart is Stanford's 235-pound battering ram of a running back. Burfict looks as good as any young linebacker in the country, but he hasn't faced a back like Gerhart -- probably in his life. These two figure to have plenty of impressive collisions Saturday. So, who wins most of them?

5. Washington State should be motivated by 66-3: On Sept. 6 of last year, everyone found out how deeply down Washington State was when California delivered a stunning 66-3 beatdown in Martin Stadium. It was a humiliating home loss, the second game of the Paul Wulff era. The Cougars haven't suffered a whipping like that this year (though Oregon came close). They probably won't win at Cal on Saturday, but the Cougs should fight hard to earn the Bears' respect. They didn't get it last year.

6. Will Masoli or Locker rule the day? First things first: Will Jeremiah Masoli be 100 percent? The Oregon quarterback appears on track to start, but how much of a running threat he is depends on how close his knee injury is to fully healed. Before Masoli got hurt against Washington State, he was playing with the same dual-threat sharpness he showed late last season. Washington's Jake Locker, meanwhile, is only the most highly touted quarterback in the conference. At their best, both are spectacular playmakers. It will be interesting to see who makes more plays.

7. Does Barkley just keep getting better? USC's Matt Barkley seems to improve every week, and the true freshman already is a pretty good quarterback. While Oregon State's defense has improved of late, it still ranks ninth in the conference against the pass (275 yards per game). The Beavers have given up the most TD passes (11) in the conference and grabbed the fewest interceptions (3, curiously tied with USC). The Beavers are stronger against the run, so it makes sense that Barkley might put the ball into the air. Does he turn in another stellar performance, or does he finally reveal some freshman fallibility?

8. Stanford's defense needs to step up: Stanford's defense has given up 81 points and 1,016 yards in the past two games, which, not surprisingly, were both losses. However, Arizona State doesn't have the offensive weapons that Oregon State and Arizona do, and quarterback Danny Sullivan has struggled much of the season. The Cardinal probably won't be able to pile up points in bunches against the Sun Devils' stout defense, but they shouldn't have to if they muzzle ASU's struggling offense.

9. The Bruins are desperate: Arizona coach Mike Stoops described UCLA as "desperate," and it's true. The Bruins are riding a three-game losing streak, and it's hard to find the three wins necessary for bowl eligibility on the remaining schedule. That desperation should translate into an inspired effort at Arizona. The offense seems to be improving after a solid performance against California. Now, if the defense reverts to the way it played during the first three games, the Bruins should give the Wildcats all they can handle.

10. Jahvid Best should run wild: Washington State ranks last in the Pac-10 in run defense. It's surrendered 17 rushing touchdowns, seven more than any other Pac-10 team. This should be a great opportunity for Best, Cal's spectacular runner, to regain his mojo. While Best had a 93-yard TD run against UCLA, he's still been mostly muted of late -- he's dropped to third in the conference in rushing (102.7 yards per game) and might no longer be a sure-thing for first-team All-Pac-10. He rushed for 200 yards last year at Washington State, including an 86-yard TD. So it might be time for another spectacular game.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson

1. BCS busting on the line: Boise State had a tough test against Tulsa last week and now it's time for TCU to face one of its fiercest foes on this year’s schedule. The Horned Frogs trounced BYU a year ago and the Cougars haven’t forgotten about that defeat and what it did to their season. It should be a tough battle in Provo, Utah, where the Cougars haven’t lost a conference game since 2005.

2. Boise State live: Boise State has had a huge advantage over the Mountain West in terms of nationally televised games, and while Saturday’s game against Hawaii will begin when most people are going to bed, most voters will be up watching and the Broncos will have a chance to continue to show voters that they’re deserving of their high ranking.

3. No holds Barnes: There’s hasn’t been a more dynamic player in the country in the past two weeks than Bowling Green receiver Freddie Barnes. In that span, Barnes has 32 catches for 438 yards and six touchdowns. Central Michigan has cracked down in the secondary, but the Chippewas, winners of five straight, have yet to see a playmaker like this.

4. Surging in the Sun Belt: This is a bad time for Louisiana-Monroe to step out of conference and play a tough Kentucky team, especially with a pivotal game against Troy coming up next week. Troy has an opportunity against North Texas this week to break the tie atop the conference with the Warhawks and hold first place alone when the teams meet on Halloween. A tough loss to Kentucky could break the Warhawks' momentum.

5. I don’t know Idaho: There’s been no better feel-good story this season than the Idaho Vandals, but their game might suffer a setback this week against a Nevada team that’s been playing its best football the past few weeks. The Idaho rushing defense is stout, allowing just 95.57 yards per game hasn’t faced a running attack like the Wolf Pack’s.

6. Life without Locksley: For a little over a week, New Mexico has practiced without the services of head coach Mike Locksley, who was suspended for 10 work days and Saturday’s game against UNLV. It will be interesting to see how the 0-6 Lobos, the only winless team in the Mountain West, respond. Saturday’s game against a struggling UNLV team is a winnable contest.

7. Someone has to win: Either Ball State or Eastern Michigan will get their first win this weekend when they face each other. EMU is 0-6 while Ball State is 0-7. Other than being winless, the two teams also share the dilemma of losing their starting quarterback. EMU lost Andy Schmitt early in the season and Ball State announced Tuesday that starter Kelly Page will have season-ending thumb surgery.

8. Don’t forget about us: While the TCU-BYU game will get the bulk of the press this week, the Utah-Air Force game is equally important. Neither one of those teams is out of the race for the Mountain West title. Air Force has just one conference loss while Utah is undefeated. This will be a close contest that, at the very least, might determine second or third place.

9. It’s Ohio’s to lose: As the MAC East heads into the second half of the season, Ohio seems to have the most favorable road to the division title. Currently, the Bobcats are tied with Temple, but the Owls face a tough Toledo team this week, which could give Ohio a one-game advantage before the two teams meet at the end of the season.

10. Highly offensive: SMU is 2-0 in Conference USA, but those wins came against East Division teams. This weekend, the Mustangs take on a Houston team that was predicted to win the division and the conference title. Both of these teams have good offenses, and while Houston hasn’t been great in conference play, it does have more big-game experience.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich

Just because the Hokies aren’t playing doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to keep an eye on in the ACC …

1. Georgia Tech on third-downs. The Yellow Jackets have the best third-down conversion percentage in the ACC (52.6), but Virginia has the best defense on third downs in the ACC, holding opponents to 29.3 percent. The Cavaliers’ defense hasn’t been the problem this year, but it will face a different challenge in the triple-option offense.

2. Virginia inside the red zone. The Cavaliers have been successful inside the 20-yard line on 17 of 20 chances, but Georgia Tech’s defense is second in the ACC in red zone defense at 75 percent. The Jackets played much better defensively against Virginia Tech last weekend, but will have to continue to clamp down when it counts against quarterback Jameel Sewell, who has shown improvement the past few weeks.

3. Kevin Steele vs. Mark Whipple. The two first-year coordinators will likely get into a chess match in Miami, as both of them have made immediate impacts for their teams. Under Steele, Clemson has the No. 17 scoring defense in the country, holding opponents to just 15.33 points per game. Under Whipple, Miami is averaging 29 points per game and 16 different players have caught a pass this season.

4. Clemson left tackle Chris Hairston. He suffered a knee injury late in the win over Boston College and missed the TCU game and played just nine snaps at Maryland. Clemson lost both of those games and averaged just 99 yards rushing and 15.5 points in the two contests. With Hairston back in the lineup, Clemson had 195 yards rushing against Wake Forest -- the second best by the Tiger this year. Clemson is 3-1 this year when Hairston is in the lineup and 0-2 when he is not.

5. FSU’s passing offense vs. UNC’s pass defense. Quarterback Christian Ponder has the Noles ranked 13th in the country in passing offense with 297.5 yards per game, but UNC’s stingy pass defense is No. 1 in the country with 125.17 yards per game. Most teams have shied away from veteran cornerback Kendric Burney this season, giving him few opportunities for pass breakups and interceptions, but that could change tonight.

6. Ponder’s first-down success. Of his 26 pass completions against Georgia Tech, 16 went for first downs. That was even better than his performance at Boston College,when 16 of his career-high 29 completions moved the chains. Ponder’s pass completions have accounted for better than 60 percent of the Seminoles’ first downs in each of the last three games.

7. Boston College senior kicker Steve Aponavicius. The former walk-on kicker, nicknamed “Sid Vicious,” is five points away from setting BC’s career scoring mark. He has accumulated 258 points in his three-plus seasons, hitting 40 field goals and 138 extra points. Aponavicius is the ACC active leader in both field goals (40) and PATs (134).

8. The Eagles’ streak. Boston College has won six straight against Notre Dame, including the last three on the road. If the Eagles win, the senior class will graduate having gone undefeated against the Irish. But this is an improved team under Charlie Weis, as quarterback Jimmy Clausen leads the nation’s No. 7 passing offense.

9. The scoreboard in Durham. No, seriously, aside from the fact Duke might win its second conference game, the winner in this series has scored at least 41 points in six of the last 11 games. Considering Duke is averaging 31.83 points per game, and Maryland is allowing about 33, it’s not out of the question for Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to continue that trend -- especially considering the Blue Devils just put up 49 against NC State.

10. Turnovers in Annapolis. In Wake Forest’s loss to Navy last year, the Deacs committed an uncharacteristic season-high six turnovers. This year, Wake Forest trails its opponents in turnover margin with 10 takeaways and 13 turnovers.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are 10 things I’m looking forward to seeing in Saturday’s Big 12 games:

1. Will Texas’ run defense continue its tormenting ways against Big 12 teams? The Longhorns have allowed opponents only 29 rushing yards in their last four games (7.3 yards per game) and a 0.3 yard-per-carry average. How will the Longhorns fare against Missouri, whose running game has been an early disappointment and has produced only 79 yards per game in its last three games? It will be important for the Tigers to try to establish at least a little bit of continuity to keep Blaine Gabbert from having to rely too much on passing. Against Texas, that's going to be tough.

2. Missouri’s resiliency. The Tigers have been an early disappointment with two early losses starting the season that have dropped them into the North Division cellar. They will be big underdogs to Texas as they try to avoid their first 0-3 start in conference play since 2002.

3. Landry Jones returns to the starting lineup. Sam Bradford is likely out for the season, leaving Jones in his place for Saturday's game at Kansas. Jones was better than expected in his previous three starts, notching a 2-1 record and tying the school record with six touchdown passes against Tulsa. The Jayhawks have a formidable pass rush (3.17 sacks per game), but are susceptible to patient passers who are willing to pick their spots. Jones falls into that category.

4. Mark Mangino against coaching mentor Bob Stoops. Mangino was the offensive coordinator on Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship team before taking the job at Kansas in 2002. During his previous matchups against Stoops, Mangino is 0-3 and never played the Sooners closer than 14 points. Things might be different Saturday as the Jayhawks get the injury-ravaged Sooners on their home field for the first time since 2001.

5. Kansas State’s rejuvenated pass rush against Colorado. The Wildcats produced six sacks last week against Texas A&M as their defensive pressure served as the key defensive factor for them against the Aggies. Earlier in the season, the Wildcats had produced six other sacks in the first six games. The Wildcats have to continue to dial up that pressure, but it will be a difficult challenge against elusive Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen.

6. After all those early stumbles, could Colorado really be a North challenger? And is Kansas State really a division challenger? We’ll find that out when the Buffaloes travel to Kansas State. Kansas State made a turnaround of 100 points in two weeks after losing by 52 points to Texas Tech and then beating Texas A&M by 48 points the following week -- the biggest two-week turnaround in victory margin in Big 12 history. That run has pushed the Wildcats into first place in the North over three other teams, including the Buffaloes who are a half-game behind. The Wildcats can continue their unexpected run to title contention by winning on Saturday in Manhattan.

7. Who starts at quarterback for Nebraska? After Zac Lee struggled last week and Cody Green orchestrated a late touchdown drive, coach Bo Pelini has thrown competition open for the position. Green’s running and passing skills could give the Cornhuskers a different element as they meet plucky Iowa State. Look for both quarterbacks to play, but it will be interesting to see who gets the majority of snaps and if Pelini makes a change in his starter in the middle of the season.

8. Will Austen Arnaud and Alexander Robinson be back in the starting lineup for Iowa State? Both Arnaud (bruised hand) and Robinson (strained groin muscle) were hobbled in the Cyclones' victory last week over Baylor. Both need to be close to 100 percent to enable the Cyclones to have any hope of claiming their first victory in Lincoln since 1977 -- a streak of 15 straight games.

9. Who will be Texas Tech’s starting quarterback against Texas A&M? Texas Tech sensation Steven Sheffield sustained a foot injury that reportedly will keep him out of the lineup for Saturday’s game in Lubbock against Texas A&M. Coach Mike Leach has only said his starter will be a game-time decision and hasn't released who he is considering as a starter. But if Sheffield can’t go, Leach could turn to original starter Taylor Potts who has missed the last two complete games after sustaining a concussion against New Mexico. Or he might be forced to start third-string freshman Seth Doege.

10. Keith Toston emerges as the league's best backup running back. Toston has been a strong producer for the Cowboys since taking over the starting position when Kendall Hunter went down with a foot injury earlier this season. Toston has averaged 94 yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry and scored four rushing touchdowns since then. He should have the opportunity for a big night again against Baylor, which ranks 100th nationally against the rush.

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