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Thursday, October 9, 2008
Week 7 College Pick 'em preview

By Will Harris
Special to ESPN.com

College Pick 'em is a pick-the-winner game with a twist: players must rank their picks in order of confidence. It's not as easy as it looks, so I'll weigh in every Thursday to help you make those tough decisions. Be sure to log in to the College Pick 'em page on Mondays for the upcoming week's matchups and previews, and don't forget to check the message boards for plenty of chatter about all the week's action.

Contest update

K. Willinger is alone in the College Pick 'em lead with 303 points. Previous leader J. Stewart, who has been near the top all season, fell into a tie for seventh place this week. Not bad for a contest with a couple hundred thousand participants! Congratulations to the leaders and good luck to all. Look for updates to my rankings on the contest message board prior to making your final selections at lock time on Saturday morning.

Penn State at Wisconsin (10 points)

The Badgers have now suffered two straight last-second losses, and must circle the wagons in a hurry to have any chance against a Penn Sate squad that's playing as well as any team in the land. Wisconsin hasn't gotten the expected production out of starting quarterback Allan Evridge, and coach Bret Bielema opened the door to a possible change at the position. The Badgers will need to reverse the decline in their passing numbers to win, as the Nittany Lions don't allow anyone much room on the ground. Plus, Wisconsin's run defense isn't progressing. The Badgers were outrushed by Michigan before allowing Ohio State's Beanie Wells to run wild last week. Penn State is firing on all cylinders right now, and the emotionally drained Badgers don't match up well. It's hard to believe that Wisconsin could open 0-3 in the Big Ten, but would-be contenders with tough early schedules can't afford upsets like the Michigan debacle.
Penn State 28-14

Oklahoma versus Texas (at Dallas) (9 points)

Top-five teams and Heisman candidates clash in the always-big Red River game. Surprisingly, recent meetings haven't lived up to the pedigree of the participants, as the rivalry has failed to produce a contest decided by less than a touchdown since 1997. Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis has been matching wits with Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables in every season of Bob Stoops' 10-year tenure in Norman, and Venables has gotten the best of it nearly every time. Texas' 2005 Vince Young-led national championship team was Mack Brown's first and only squad to win a Big 12 title. The Sooners, meanwhile, have represented the South Division in the league's December showdown in four of the past five years, winning three of those. Oklahoma has been dominant in this series during the decade-long rivalry between Stoops and Brown, and with the Sooners the nation's No. 1 team, there's little reason to think it will be different this year. The way Texas is playing, however, there's plenty of reason to think that this game will be the closest in several years. The Longhorns are lighting up the scoreboard behind quarterback Colt McCoy, and the run defense has been incredible. However, McCoy's supporting cast of offensive skill players isn't as dazzling as usual, and the Horns continue to have trouble in the secondary. Oklahoma doesn't have an offensive weakness, and Texas can't concentrate on just pressuring quarterback Sam Bradford as much as the Sooners can focus on slowing McCoy. Texas will put on a show in a higher-scoring game than is the norm for the series, but at the end of the day the Sooners will be on top, as usual.
Oklahoma 31-27

Illinois versus Minnesota (8 points)

Illini quarterback Juice Williams had a career day at Michigan, and at its best, his Illinois team features a balanced, potent offense and an improving run defense. However, this is an obvious letdown spot for Ron Zook's inconsistent squad, and after last year's 44-17 blowout, the Gophers won't be hard to overlook. However, Minnesota is much improved, especially on defense. The 5-1 Gophers are allowing just 354 yards per game after fielding one of the nation's worst defenses last year. Mobile quarterback Adam Weber is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, and he has a big-time target in junior Eric Decker. The Illini have definitely sustained last season's momentum, sitting at 3-2 with competitive losses to Missouri and Penn State. Plus, neither the close call on the scoreboard nor the pile of rushing yardage allowed versus Louisiana-Lafayette looks as bad now that the Cajuns have shown themselves a capable group. The Illini have the superior team, but Minnesota is far, far better than last year's 1-11 squad. The Gophers are plus-10 in turnovers this year, and if the host is even a little sloppy or underprepared, this one will go right to the wire.
Illinois 31-24

Missouri versus Oklahoma State (7 points)

The Missouri offense is amazing. The Tigers average 53 points and 569 yards per game. Chase Daniel has thrown 15 touchdowns and just one interception. Missouri is converting 53 percent of its third-down opportunities, did not punt against Nebraska and, incredibly, has not gone three-and-out this year! The Tigers could be in trouble here, however, because the Oklahoma State offense is nearly as good. The Cowboys are rolling up 53 points per game as well, and the Missouri secondary has been torched at times this season. Missouri will probably continue to score on nearly every possession, but OSU is one of several Big 12 opponents that can match the Tigers blow for blow. This is a big, big game for the Cowboys in their quest for respect and relevance, while Lone Star native Daniel and his Tigers have the 2008 season's circled game against Texas up next. Expect Missouri to be challenged for the first time since Illinois quarterback Juice Williams lit up the Tigers for 451 passing yards in the season lid-lifter. The Cowboys lead the Big 12 in time of possession and will look to keep the potent Missouri offense off the field with a running game that's averaging 314 yards per contest. The potent Pokes view this as an opportunity for a program-making win, while Missouri will be hard-pressed to avoid overconfidence and peeking ahead to the Longhorns. In a game where neither side figures to do much punting, it would only take a couple of timely turnovers to spark an upset.
Missouri 44-41

Arizona at Stanford (6 points)

Arizona entered 2008 with its highest expectations of the Mike Stoops era, and on cue, it has been one of the most-improved teams in the country thus far. The Wildcats are outscoring foes by an average margin of 43-15 en route to a 4-1 start. The pass defense has been incredible and the new offense installed last year by former Texas Tech understudy Sonny Dykes has been clicking all season under the guidance of senior quarterback Willie Tuitama, a fourth-year starter. Stanford's attack has been more pedestrian, focusing on a between-the-tackles running game with a solid duo of backs and throwing mostly off play-action. The Cardinal is a capable defensive team, but after giving away multiple opportunities to win last week at Notre Dame, this Stanford squad may not have enough left in the tank to slow the red-hot Wildcats. Arizona is clearly the stronger team, and last year's Stanford upset in Tucson should keep the Cats from peeking ahead to upcoming games with Cal and USC.
Arizona 31-17

Florida versus LSU (5 points)

LSU hasn't faced a powerful offense yet this season, but the Tigers' defense looks good so far despite losing six starters from last year's squad, including its top three players. The consistently prepared Tigers never have a poor showing after a bye week, and the offense is finding an identity with Charles Scott running behind a top-shelf offensive line. Scott will need to be productive, as LSU is still unproven at quarterback. Jarrett Lee has grabbed the lead in the competition from Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch, and the redshirt freshman played very well in LSU's road win at Auburn. The Florida offense isn't posting the eye-popping numbers of a year ago, but the team is gradually finding more playmakers to complement Tim Tebow and wideout Percy Harvin, who has been banged-up but is expected to be ready. The Gator stop unit, meanwhile, is displaying its usual solid run defense and getting far better play from a secondary that drew a lot of criticism last year. The Tigers, who have just as much talent and just as many playmakers, are the more consistently physical team, but the Gators can smash mouths, too, when needed. Much has been made of LSU lineman Ricky Jean-Francois' comment that the Tigers are looking to knock Tebow out of the game. Florida State's public calling-out of Tebow last year got the Noles nowhere but the wrong end of a 45-12 score, and while Tebow and his teammates may not care a whit about Jean-Francois' comments, the attention on the quarterback underscores the Gators' biggest edge. Florida has a big-time player under center, a reigning Heisman winner who has yet to play his best game. LSU, meanwhile, has a redshirt freshman making his first road start at the Swamp. The defending national champions are tough again, but the gap at quarterback and the home field are enough to give Florida the edge.
Florida 21-14

North Carolina versus Notre Dame (4 points)

The Notre Dame passing attack is picking up steam, with quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his offensive line showing big improvement from 2007, while serious playmakers are emerging at wide receiver in Michael Floyd and Golden Tate. North Carolina counters with its own Tate -- all-purpose star Brandon, no relation -- but the Tar Heels can't match the visitor's productivity in the passing game. Cam Sexton has filled in admirably for injured triggerman T.J. Yates, but there's still a big dropoff at the position. Carolina has been outgained in all four of its wins this season, and a Heels team that has been forced to find a different way to win each week may be living on borrowed time. The good news for UNC is the emergence of converted safety Shaun Draughn at running back. Draughn will be instrumental in keeping the pressure on a suspect Irish run defense -- and off his green quarterback. The Heels have also played very good pass defense thus far this year, though the schedule has not yet provided a matchup with a capable passing team. This is a big game for two 4-1 teams, and while a Yates-less North Carolina is extremely vulnerable to an improving Irish squad, the home-field edge and the mismatch in sideline generalship provide sufficient advantages to make the Heels a slim choice in a game featuring closely matched teams.
North Carolina 24-23

Northwestern at Michigan State (3 points)

The Spartans have won three straight behind the nation's second-leading rusher, Javon Ringer. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, however, has completed just 47 percent of his passes and the offense has been a bit one-dimensional. Northwestern has really stiffened against the run this year, allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, but the team's defensive strength is the pass rush. The Wildcats will stack the box against Ringer while harassing Hoyer, and Michigan State should find it tough sledding on offense all day. Northwestern's spread attack is directed by capable signal-caller C.J. Bacher, but Tyrell Sutton is the main man. The oft-injured running back missed last year's meeting, but Bacher picked up the slack with 520 yards and five touchdowns through the air in Northwestern's 48-41 overtime win. Bacher also played well in the 2006 meeting, marked by Michigan State's historic comeback from a 38-3 third-quarter deficit. Sutton has been banged-up again this year, and the bye week allowed him time to get back in top form. Michigan State is hurting on defense, as all four starters in the secondary were missing by the end of last week's win over Iowa, and two of them are still out this week. The patchwork secondary will be severely tested by MSU nemesis Bacher, who is 10-0 as a starter when throwing fewer than two interceptions. The rested, homestanding Wildcats have the defense to contain the plodding Spartan attack and enough offensive weapons to keep the chains moving.
Northwestern 24-20

Mississippi State versus Vanderbilt (2 points)

The Commodores are off to their best start in decades with the team's first win over Auburn since 1955. The danger of a letdown against 1-4 Mississippi State is obvious even to the most causal observer, and it's highly doubtful that Vandy will bring its A-game a second straight week. Compounding the Dores' problem is that the fact that the team's A-game isn't all that good. Vanderbilt was outgained in each of the three games prior to Auburn, and the offense is producing only 278 yards per game. The Commodores have won with defense and turnovers thus far, and that recipe is a good one against a Mississippi State offense not known for production or ball security. The run-first Bulldogs seem to have found a quarterback in touted junior college transfer Tyson Lee, though, and the team has had an off week to build on an encouraging performance at LSU. State is by no means a terror on the offensive side of the ball, but the Bulldogs' offense is at least the equal of Vanderbilt's anemic attack. The same can be said of the defense, which is allowing the same 333 yards as the visiting Commodores. Vandy is the better team here, but only in terms of confidence and coaching. This year's Cinderella has had a lot of good fortune so far, and is no better than a tossup to beat a fellow SEC also-ran. The 14th-ranked Commodores likely will get ambushed by a rested Bulldog squad that's hungry for the season's first meaningful win, but don't look for Vandy to crack 300 yards or 15 first downs no matter what the scoreboard says.
Mississippi State 14-0

South Carolina at Kentucky (1 point)

The Steve Spurrier quarterback carousel may have come to a halt, as sophomore Chris Smelley actually went the distance at Mississippi, turning in a 327-yard performance in the 10-point win. South Carolina's defense, ranked sixth overall nationally, has played well all year and now the offense is beginning to produce. The Gamecocks will need to keep the momentum on the defensive side of the ball against a Kentucky team that's 12th nationally in total defense. The Wildcats field what is by far the best defense of the Rich Brooks era, but like Carolina, Kentucky has struggled to move the chains. An increasingly banged-up offensive line will be hard-pressed to win the battle with an active Carolina front, and the Cats will find the sledding tough both on the ground and through the air. Kentucky players are calling this a must-win game for their hopes of an SEC East title, but this team is not a legitimate contender. Carolina looks like the better overall team, but masked by Smelley's recent performance was the continued disappearance of the running game. Two very good pass defenses and two offenses still trying to establish an identity make this a matchup likely decided by which team can control the line of scrimmage when it has the ball. Carolina's lack of recent rushing prowess is therefore a concern, but the Gamecocks' edges in talent and coaching should produce a road win.
South Carolina 21-17

Will Harris is a college football and fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com