- Mark Schlabach, College Football Reporter
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Can West Virginia turn things around at home against Kansas State?
Will Tennessee finally put a scare into Alabama on the third Saturday of October?
Who takes control of the SEC East?
We tackle those topics and more in the On the Mark Mailbag:
Five things I'll be watching this weekend:
1. Can No. 2 Florida get a leg up in the SEC East race?
If the Gators can defeat No. 7 South Carolina at the Swamp on Saturday, they'll need only to defeat No. 11 Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27 to all but wrap up a trip to the SEC championship game. Their final SEC contest is against reeling Missouri on Nov. 3, and then they close the regular season with three straight nonconference games.
Both the Gators and Gamecocks are challenged when it comes to throwing the football in obvious passing situations, so the game figures to be won by the running game, solid defense and special teams.
South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore is banged up with a bruised hip and might not start on Saturday, so the edge could go to the Gators, who are finally running the ball effectively between the tackles with Mike Gillislee.
2. Can No. 13 West Virginia regain its mojo against No. 4 Kansas State on Saturday night?
I wasn't surprised Texas Tech sliced up West Virginia's defense like Swiss cheese in last week's 49-14 rout in Lubbock. But I was shocked the Red Raiders were able to slow down quarterback Geno Smith and his high-octane passing game.
Smith, who finally looked human by completing only 29 of 55 passes for 275 yards with one touchdown, was obviously affected by the howling winds in Lubbock. He should fare better against the Wildcats, who rank 74th in pass defense, allowing 238.5 yards per game.
As bad as West Virginia has looked on defense, it's allowing only 3.2 yards per rushing attempt, so quarterback Collin Klein will have to make some plays with his arm.
3. Will Tennessee put a scare into No. 1 Alabama?
The Crimson Tide certainly look like the best team in the country, but they haven't even been tested this season, so it's still too early to say this year's edition is as good as the team that won a BCS national championship last season.
Tennessee's defense isn't good enough to slow down Alabama's running game, but the Volunteers are capable of making some big plays in the passing game. If Tennessee can protect quarterback Tyler Bray, the Tide's defense might be tested for the first time this season.
4. Does No. 5 Notre Dame have anything to worry about against BYU?
BYU's defense is legit and will slow down Notre Dame's offense, which is still very much a work in progress. The Fighting Irish are much better this season because they're taking care of the football, but they had three turnovers in last week's 20-13 overtime victory over Stanford.
BYU probably can't move the football well enough to win the game -- it ranks 71st in total offense (396.5 yards) and 78th in scoring (25.6 points) -- but it can hang around if the Irish turn the ball over again.
Irish quarterback Everett Golson is expected to play after missing the end of the Stanford game and practice earlier this week with a mild concussion.
5. Will "Johnny Football" be effective against No. 6 LSU's defense?
The Tigers have obvious shortcomings on offense, but they still have one of the country's most menacing defenses. LSU made South Carolina's offense one-dimensional last week, limiting the Gamecocks to only 34 rushing yards in a 23-21 win.
Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel has been running wild during the Aggies' five-game winning streak, but he hasn't faced a defense nearly as good as LSU's. Manziel accounted for an SEC-record 576 yards in last week's 59-57 victory at Louisiana Tech, running for 181 yards and three touchdowns, while completing 24 of 40 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns.
Manziel will have to play well again -- and Texas A&M's defense will have to be better -- if the No. 18 Aggies are going to pull out an upset.
On to the Mailbag:
New York by way of Bama asks:
How is Nick Saban not on your coach list when the Tide dismantled -- both morally and physically -- the Wolverines on a neutral field? You say they are the team to beat, yet they get no props. Notre Dame beats nobody and a blown call saves it from the Cardinal -- a schizophrenic team at best -- and they are national-title hunting?
Saban and his staff have done a nice job of rebuilding Alabama's defense, but their success to this point hasn't been a surprise. They were ranked in the top five to start the season. And, as I wrote earlier, the Tide haven't exactly been tested yet. In fact, Alabama's schedule has turned out to be one of the softest in the country, given Michigan's struggles and Arkansas' collapse.
Notre Dame wasn't supposed to do much of anything this season, and neither was Oregon State, which is why Mike Riley was on the list. It's hard to dispute that Kansas State's Bill Snyder continues to do miracle work, too.
Mitchell in Dallas writes:
With Arkansas appearing to be in the market for a new head coach after this season, which candidate tops their list? Do they try to pull [current Texas Tech coach Tommy] Tuberville back into the SEC? Do they latch onto Sonny Dykes from Louisiana Tech? Do they elevate someone from the current staff?
With the job Tuberville has done this season, I think he'd be one of the safer choices out there. He really inherited a difficult situation at Texas Tech, replacing the ultrapopular Mike Leach and having to change the way the Red Raiders play. He had a lot of success at Auburn, is a native of Camden, Ark., and played at Southern Arkansas.
I think the more popular choices will be Louisville coach Charlie Strong, a native of Batesville, Ark., and Butch Davis, the former defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida and former North Carolina coach. Davis played at Arkansas and worked as a student assistant there after an injury. I'm not sure how much Davis' NCAA troubles at North Carolina will affect his chances of landing the job. Dykes is going to be a hot candidate for a bigger job in the offseason, and Baylor's Art Briles would be another good choice for the Hogs.
Will G in Louisville, Ky., writes:
Earlier this week, you wrote: "Could Auburn really fire a coach who won a national championship two seasons ago? It is Auburn, so you really don't know." I'd love to know exactly what you are trying to imply. It sounds as if you are saying that Auburn runs through coaches at an alarming pace. The Tigers have had four head coaches in my lifetime (27 years). A quick scan of other big programs in the SEC indicates that this number is on the low side. By comparison, Alabama and LSU have each had six (not counting Mike Price for UA), Florida has had five, while Georgia and Tennessee are equal at four apiece. So, where in that is Auburn as a team that "you don't really know" about in regards to changing coaches?
I wrote "you really don't know" because you don't know how Auburn is going to react to coach Gene Chizik's recent struggles. After all, it is the same school that interviewed Bobby Petrino in an airplane in southern Indiana when Tuberville was still its coach. Former coaches and powerful boosters seem to meddle in Auburn football more than they do at other schools, and many of its past decisions seemed to be predicated on what was happening at the other in-state school (Alabama).
With the Crimson Tide having won last season's BCS national championship and being ranked No. 1 now, I'm not sure Auburn will have the patience to let Chizik turn it around, especially if the Tigers finish the season 0-8 in the SEC.
You would think a coach would have some built-in equity for winning a national championship two seasons ago, and I'm sure Chizik's lofty buyout will be a factor in the decision. However, Auburn has looked pretty bad the past two seasons. It makes you realize how special of a player former quarterback Cam Newton really was in 2010.
Kelvin in Lawrence, Kan., asks:
I'm a K-State fan in enemy territory. I don't understand how KSU vs. WVU isn't one of the biggest games of the second half when it has major national championship and Big 12 championship implications? Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame?? OU has been so inconsistent this year, and while [the Sooners] are certainly tough at home, if ND is as good as everybody wants them to be, and if the "lowly-lucky" Wildcats can go in there and beat them, then ND shouldn't have any problem taking care of business.
Saturday's game in Morgantown, W.Va., was actually No. 4 on my list of big second-half games. But West Virginia's loss at Texas Tech -- and especially the way the Mountaineers played -- certainly took some luster off the contest. It's still going to be a big game and a tough road contest for the Wildcats.
A matchup of a potentially undefeated Notre Dame team playing at Oklahoma is going to make a bigger blip on the national radar.
Friday's On The Mark Mailbag covers five things to watch this weekend, Gene Chizik's hot seat and Kansas State-West Virginia.