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Be sure to look for updates to my rankings on the contest message board prior to making your final selections at locktime Saturday morning. Late information moved South Carolina up seven spots on my board last week, and Missouri took a big dive down the list.
The Lions have dropped nine straight to Michigan, the longest losing streak against one team in Joe Paterno's career. The inconsistent Wolverines, fresh off a home loss to Toledo, undoubtedly will bring their A-game to Happy Valley, while Penn State might be peeking ahead to next week's tilt in the Horseshoe. It won't matter, however, as the Nittany Lions have far too many horses for Michigan to make it 10 straight. Rich Rodriguez's crew is averaging under 300 yards per game offensively, and hasn't managed to get any production from the quarterback position. Penn State, on the other hand, is averaging 45 points per game behind Jay Paterno's new Spread HD offense. Michigan could hang in for a while on sheer mojo, but this isn't really a winnable game for the rebuilding Wolves.
Penn State, 35-14
The Cavaliers got off to a miserable start this season, opening 1-3 while scoring 36 points in four games and kicking starting quarterback Peter Lalich off the team. Now Virginia has turned its season around a bit with consecutive 30-point outings in victories over Maryland and East Carolina. The Tar Heels, by contrast, are off to a 5-1 start, and have won three straight since losing quarterback T.J. Yates to injury in the third quarter of a 20-17 loss to Virginia Tech. However, North Carolina hasn't been as impressive as the scoreboard indicates. The Heels have been outgained in all five of their wins this year, using a 9-0 turnover margin in victories over Rutgers and Notre Dame, and blocking three punts to get past Connecticut despite being dominated at the line of scrimmage. North Carolina is still without Yates, and the team has now lost all-purpose star Brandon Tate to a season-ending injury. The Tar Heels are living on borrowed time, while Virginia is just hitting its stride. Expect the Heels to suffer their 14th straight loss in Charlottesville.
Duke has won a total four games the past four years, but the upstart Devils' next win will be their fourth of 2008. Clearly improved under first-year coach David Cutcliffe, Duke meets Miami with the advantages of the home field and an extra week to prepare. Devils quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is a Miami native, and though it's hard to believe, Lewis' meager 211 yards per game ranks second among ACC quarterbacks in total offense. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, haven't made that many strides from last year's transitional season. The defense is very solid as usual, but the offense is still a work in progress under freshman quarterback Robert Marve. This week, the offense will get a big lift from the return of star running back Javarris James, who hasn't played since Week 2, and also from right tackle Reggie Youngblood, the team's best lineman. Duke is legitimately the better offensive team, and the Devils have shown they're in Miami's league with hard-fought 20-15 and 24-14 losses the past two years. However, Miami is far more talented on defense, and with James finally back, the Canes' running game will have a breakout game against a Duke run defense that hasn't been all that stingy.
The Gamecocks appear to have crawled back into the SEC East race with back-to-back wins over Mississippi and Kentucky. The South Carolina defense has been outstanding, allowing just 241 yards per game, and the team has outgained each of its seven opponents. A few weeks ago, this looked like a bad spot for LSU. However, South Carolina still hasn't found any offensive consistency. The quarterback carousel continues to revolve, with triggermen Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia each constantly forced to look over his shoulder. The Gamecocks have proven that the team isn't ready to quit on the season despite an early 0-2 start in SEC play, but they haven't shown that it's capable of contending, either. I never bought into the idea that the defending national champion was again a top-five team despite losing its leading rusher, passer and receiver plus three key All-Americans on defense. However, the Tigers still look stronger than the Gamecocks, and the Florida debacle has served to refocus this team, rather than splinter it. A loss would end all hopes of an SEC East title for South Carolina, but a Tigers' loss likewise would mean that LSU needs help to get to Atlanta. It's a near must-win for the league title hopes of both squads, and LSU has the better overall personnel and the far more productive running game. Placekicking could also be a major issue for Carolina in what figures to be a defensive struggle. Normally reliable kicker Ryan Succop missed four field goals at Kentucky while bothered by an abdominal stain, and may not be available against LSU.
The homestanding Chippewas are the two-time defending MAC champions, but the visiting Broncos look like the better team in this rivalry clash that will determine the frontrunner in the West division. CMU quarterback Dan LeFevour didn't quite get Tim Tebow-like attention for 2007's stellar dual-threat numbers (27 passing TDs, 19 rushing), but he was the MAC offensive player of the year and became just the second player in NCAA history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 (Vince Young was the other in 2005). This year, however, it's WMU's Tim Hiller who looks like the league's player of the year. The junior has already thrown for over 2,000 yards, with 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Hiller's main target is senior Jamarko Simmons, and the All-MAC wideout has reason to be extra motivated for this game. Simmons was wrongfully ejected early in last season's 34-31 loss to CMU thanks to an officiating error. The Broncos have won just once in their past 16 trips to Mount Pleasant, but this year WMU has the resume of the favorite. Both teams have beaten Temple, Buffalo, and Ohio, but WMU outgained those squads by an aggregate 314 yards, while CMU logged a 62-yard deficit in its three MAC tilts. CMU has the better ground game, but Western sports a far better back seven on defense, which could be the difference-maker in what should be an aerial show. The Broncos will overcome home field and history en route to their first division title since 2000.
The Razorbacks were left for dead after a trio of blowout losses, but most teams would have looked bad facing Texas, Alabama and Florida in consecutive weeks. The Hogs proved they had more to show us by utterly dominating Auburn, rolling up 416 yards while holding the host to 193, 76 of which came on the Tigers' final drive. Michael Smith is quietly leading the SEC in rushing, the offensive line has emerged as the heart and soul of the team both on the field and in the locker room, and quarterback Casey Dick is improving each week. The Hogs still rank among the SEC bottom feeders this season, but there's clear improvement, and the Auburn upset seems to have given the team a big boost in confidence that's carried over into preparations for Kentucky. The Wildcats are also SEC bottom feeders, though they don't realize it yet. Yes, the Kentucky defense is easily the best in Rich Brooks' tenure, but that's not saying much, and the offense is awful. A struggling offense with an anemic running game and unproductive quarterback play has now lost its biggest weapon. Star wideout Dicky Lyons suffered a season-ending injury against South Carolina, and the Cats just don't have the personnel to replace him. Kentucky has been outgained by 262 yards this year against FBS competition (compared with 88 for Arkansas). This UK edition is a marginal team that's no better than a tossup to even make the postseason despite a 4-0 start.
Arizona's defense is allowing just 261 yards per game, but the Wildcats haven't faced a decent offense yet. That might be the case again on Saturday, as California emerges from its bye week with a lot of questions on that side of the ball. Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley have been splitting reps with the first team in practice, and coach Jeff Tedford won't name a starting quarterback until later in the week. Star runner Jahvid Best, who dislocated his elbow against Colorado State, also will be evaluated later in the week. The Bears' running game is far more effective with Best, and his presence will be key as they look to move the chains against an Arizona rush defense that was pounded by Stanford and New Mexico, the two best rushing teams the Wildcats have faced. The Bears also have a banged-up offensive line, and generally the bye week came at an excellent time for the visitor. Arizona knocked Cal from national championship contention the last time the two teams met in Tucson. That game is often considered the most damaging loss in Tedford's career, and he has been showing his team video of the Wildcats players and fans storming the field in 2006. Cal is as ready for this game as health will allow, but the Wildcats will come to play as well after acknowledging that the team took Stanford for granted last week. Arizona has played much better at home, and responded by whacking UCLA after a previous loss to New Mexico. Still, the better coaching staff roams the visiting sideline, and the superior talent wears black and gold.
Connecticut, though 5-1, hasn't been much more productive than 1-5 Rutgers. The Huskies' run defense is highly suspect, and the offense is a one-man show, with Donald Brown carrying the load since starting quarterback Tyler Lorenzen went down with a broken foot against Louisville. The Knights' run defense hasn't been that great, though it kept West Virginia's Noel Devine in check two weeks ago. With sophomore Zach Fraser making just his second start for Connecticut, Rutgers will sell out to stop Brown. The defense has been playing better as the season has progressed, though it remarkably hasn't forced a turnover against an FBS team all year. Connecticut likely won't score 20, but the same can be said of a struggling Rutgers offense. The Knights rank last in the Big East in rushing, and quarterback Mike Teel hasn't been effective all year. This looks like a defensive struggle between two closely matched teams without much offensive punch. Rutgers should find some running room and have decent success containing Brown. This has been a team with great unity and pride under Greg Schiano, and UConn at home is basically a must-win spot for the Knights' postseason hopes. I doubt they'll rally to go bowling, but I will call for a narrow victory here.
The Longhorns are the nation's No. 1 team after downing Oklahoma in the Red River game, but three more tilts against top-12 teams loom in the next three weeks. The rough stretch continues with Missouri, fresh off an upset home loss to unbeaten Oklahoma State. The Tigers are a mentally strong group with outstanding senior leadership, so a bounce-back, not a letdown, is the expected result of the coming week's practice. One of those senior leaders is quarterback Chase Daniel, the 2007 Big 12 offensive player of the year and a Texas native who wasn't recruited by the Longhorns. He'll throw into a Texas secondary that has once again fallen short of expectations. Daniel will need to find his targets, because the Horns give up absolutely nothing on the ground. Missouri's defense played well last week, too, and facing mobile Oregon State quarterback Zac Robinson will help the team get ready for Texas signal-caller Colt McCoy. This has been the circled game all season for Daniel and the Tigers, whereas the Longhorns just played theirs. Expect a much better performance from Missouri as the Tigers look for their first win in Austin since 1896.
Expectations were naturally sky-high for a team that made the national championship game for two consecutive seasons, then returned nearly all of its key contributors in 2008. Since the loss to USC and the demotion of quarterback and senior captain Todd Boeckman, the Buckeyes' upperclassmen have been playing like a typically bubble-burst group. The offensive line play in particular has been well below its usual standards. Consequently, Ohio State's offense is really struggling. The Buckeyes were held to zero or negative yardage on 22 of 56 plays against Purdue, the Big Ten's worst defense. The passing game has barely been a factor, averaging just 125 yards in three games since conference play began. Terrelle Pryor's lack of productivity has sparked a quarterback controversy, with several upperclassmen suggesting publicly that a two-quarterback system might be better. Michigan State, meanwhile, is also 6-1. The Spartans are a close-knit, mentally tough group who views this game as the biggest opportunity for national respect in Mark Dantonio's two-year tenure. Sparty will be ready to play Saturday, but this is the perfect game for Ohio State to regroup. The Buckeye offensive line was embarrassed by the performance against Purdue, and has been holding player-only meetings and the like this week. If the Buckeyes can come together, passing might be an unnecessary luxury. Michigan State's run defense has been torched all year, with Indiana's Marcus Thigpen, Iowa's Shonn Greene and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton all having an easy time of it against a Spartans stop unit that's allowed over five yards per carry during the past three weeks. Pryor already passed his first road test against Wisconsin, leading the team to victory on a game-winning touchdown drive that recalled Vince Young's heroics against USC. With Beanie Wells also in the backfield, the Buckeyes will move the chains on the ground if the offensive line decides to step up.
Ohio State 21-20
Will Harris is a college football and fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com.