What to watch Week 9

Originally Published: October 26, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

No love for Notre Dame?

How good is Florida's defense?

Alabama coach Nick Saban wants even more contraction in major college football?

We tackle those issues and more in this week's On the Mark Mailbag:

Five things I'll be watching this weekend:

1. Can No. 5 Notre Dame's defense slow down No. 8 Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Co.?

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Matthew Emmons/US PressiwreNotre Dame's defense will need to apply pressure on Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones.

The Fighting Irish have ridden their defense back into national prominence, but they haven't faced an offense as explosive as Oklahoma's. The Sooners are averaging 44.7 points and are very balanced, averaging 290 passing yards and 199.7 rushing.

If Notre Dame is going to knock off the Sooners in Norman, Okla., which is never easy, they're going to have to put pressure on Jones. He has played well since OU's 24-19 loss to Kansas State on Sept. 22, completing 62.2 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and one interception in routs of Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas. Notre Dame's defense has to hit Jones early and often to take him out of his rhythm. History shows he has a tendency to get happy feet and rush his throws when he's under pressure.

Oklahoma's defense has played better under coordinator Mike Stoops, the former Arizona coach and brother of Sooners coach Bob Stoops. Notre Dame is going to have to run the ball effectively, and freshman quarterback Everett Golson is going to have to complete at least a few passes to keep OU's defense honest.

2. Which Georgia defense shows up in Jacksonville?

If No. 10 Georgia is going to upset No. 2 Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday and gain control of the SEC East, the Bulldogs are going to have to play their best defensive game of the season.

Georgia's defense has been one of the country's biggest disappointments this season. Despite being loaded with potential NFL first-round draft picks such as linebacker Jarvis Jones, nose tackle John Jenkins, linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety Shawn Williams, UGA ranks No. 47 nationally in total defense (367.4 yards) and No. 49 in scoring defense (24.1 points).

Worse, Georgia's 3-4 defense is designed to pressure the quarterback, yet the Bulldogs rank tied for 82nd in sacks with only 1.5 per game.

Earlier this week, Williams accused his defensive teammates of being "soft" and questioned whether the right players were on the field. Georgia's coaches admit the defense hasn't been playing hard and needs to play with more effort.

3. Will undefeated Mississippi State put a scare into No. 1 Alabama?

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban isn't worried about his team looking ahead to next week's SEC West showdown at No. 6 LSU, especially not with No. 11 Mississippi State coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.

The Bulldogs are 7-0, 3-0 in the SEC, but their three SEC victories came against Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee, which are a combined 0-14 against league opponents. Are the Bulldogs ready for the likes of Alabama, which ranks No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (8.3 points) and averages 220 passing yards and 219 rushing?

Alabama, the defending BCS national champion, hasn't been tested in SEC play yet, either, winning its four league games by an average of 34.5 points. The four SEC opponents the Tide have played (Arkansas, Ole Miss, Missouri and Tennessee) are a combined 3-12 in league play.

4. Can Tommy Tuberville pull another magic trick out of his hat?

During his time as Auburn's coach and during the past two seasons at Texas Tech, Tuberville has been known to produce a few stunning upsets, such as the Red Raiders' 49-14 rout of then-No. 5 West Virginia on Oct. 13.

Can Tuberville do it again at No. 3 Kansas State on Saturday? The Red Raiders have been up and down on defense, and they'll have to contain Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein, who probably jumped to the front of the Heisman Trophy race with last week's seven-touchdown performance in a 55-14 rout at West Virginia.

Texas Tech is probably Kansas State's most difficult remaining obstacle; the Wildcats play back-to-back road games at TCU and Baylor in mid-November and host No. 23 Texas in their Dec. 1 regular-season finale.

5. Is No. 9 USC in danger at Arizona on Saturday?

The Trojans shouldn't be in trouble unless they get caught looking ahead to next week's showdown against No. 4 Oregon.

USC has won five straight and nine of its past 10 games against the Wildcats, including a 48-41 victory at home last season. Quarterback Matt Barkley, who threw six touchdowns in last week's 50-6 shellacking of Colorado, threw for a school-record 468 yards with four touchdowns on 32-of-39 passing against Arizona last season. Arizona's defense is a work in progress in coach Rich Rodriguez's first season and ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in total defense (464.7) and tied for 10th in scoring defense (30.4 points).

On to this week's Mailbag:

Elisabeth in Grand Rapids, Mich., asks: Wondering why the Notre Dame Irish are getting no love from ESPN? You guys keep talking about the top four strength of schedule. The fact is Notre Dame has more quality wins than three of the teams. Florida beat LSU [for a] quality win, but look at the other three. Oregon's win at Arizona? Who has Bama played [besides] Michigan? ND also won against them. Kansas State beat Oklahoma so that is respectable, but that's it. Wondering why the Irish still get no love from the ESPN analysts?

Notre Dame moves the meter more than any other team in the country, and I'm sure there are just as many fans already tired of hearing about the No. 5 Fighting Irish. Notre Dame's schedule strength has been weakened by the struggles of Michigan State and Miami, but I think the victory over Michigan will look better at season's end than it looks now.

I can promise you this: If Notre Dame wins at No. 8 Oklahoma on Saturday and at No. 9 Southern California on Nov. 24, it will get all the respect it deserves.

Sean Azarin in Santa Clara, Calif., writes: Southern Cal is clearly an overhyped fraud this year. After they get slaughtered by Oregon and lose at least one other conference game, will the heat start to mount on Lane Kiffin? They're not paying him to have three- or four-loss seasons. Or will he be given a pass because of the sanctions the program is under?

I was one of Kiffin's biggest critics during his time at Tennessee because of off-field antics and overall immaturity. But I actually think he's done an outstanding job at USC, which didn't have a lot to play for because of NCAA sanctions the previous two seasons.

The Trojans have played pretty well since their 21-14 loss at Stanford on Sept. 15, and I think they'll play Oregon pretty well next week. Of course, the Trojans might have to beat Oregon twice and Notre Dame to climb back into the BCS national championship race. I wouldn't be surprised if they're 10-2 or even 11-1 at season's end. Barkley is playing as well as any quarterback in the country right now, and the USC defense seems to be getting better. We'll find out how good the defense is next week when it tries to slow down the Ducks' high-paced offense.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp has Florida's defense playing as well as any team in the country.

Tito in California writes: You mention how Texas A&M and Johnny "Football" Manziel have not faced a defense nearly as good as LSU. Why the putdown to Florida's defense? Did ESPN forget that the Aggies faced the Florida Gators in the second week of the season? The Aggies didn't score a single point in the second half against the Gators.

If memory serves me correctly, I wrote that Texas A&M hadn't faced a defensive "front" as menacing as LSU's. Florida is playing as well as any defense in the country. Coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn probably make second-half adjustments as well as any coaches in the country, and the Gators have greatly benefited from stellar special-teams play, which has put opponents in bad spots and allowed the defense to pin its ears back and pressure the quarterback.

Florida has two terrific lock-down cornerbacks, and linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins are physical and athletic. I don't think Florida's defensive line is as deep and athletic as LSU's, however.

J.J. in Tumalo, Ore., asks: Mark, if the SEC is all that then why did Georgia cancel a home and home with Oregon? And why did Vandy just cancel out on Ohio State and Northwestern? Dropping games like this just screws over the scheduled opponent. Kansas State canceling out destroyed Oregon's out-of-conference strength of schedule this season. Georgia canceling means Oregon will play a home and home with Wyoming! Ohio State will have to find a substitute opponent. If Ohio State is in the BCS playoff mix you can bet the folks from the Southeast will scream the most about Ohio State's bad out-of-conference schedule. If you claim to be the best don't you have to play someone to prove it? There needs to be a real penalty established, especially once the playoff starts, for teams that back out. Thanks for the great college football coverage.

Georgia and Oregon agreed to cancel games in 2015 and 2016, although I think the Bulldogs probably requested the cancellation because of a change in scheduling philosophy under athletics director Greg McGarity. But Ohio State canceled its games with UGA in 2020 and 2021 because of the Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership, which never came to fruition.

I don't blame Vanderbilt for canceling games with Ohio State and Northwestern. The Commodores have a hard enough time trying to get to bowl games playing an SEC schedule every year, and I really don't see why they need to make it that much harder on themselves.

I was a guest on Alabama coach Nick Saban's radio show Thursday night and he brought up a good point when I asked him about conference realignment. Saban said he believed there only needed to be 60 to 70 FBS teams in four or five conferences and they needed to play each other and no one else (meaning no FCS opponents or lower FBS teams).

Saban said he believed the changes would improve the product on the field and keep fans coming to stadiums every week. I'm sure fans of Conference USA, SunBelt and WAC schools wouldn't appreciate the change, but it certainly would make major college football much more competitive.

Mark Schlabach | email

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