Originally Published: October 13, 2011

Road To Excellence

By Rece Davis
ESPN.com

Seven of the top 10 teams in the country hit the road Saturday. Other than the obligatory warning against sleepwalking (Stanford, Clemson), there's little evidence to suggest that this weekend will be the one that finally shakes up the top 10.

Of course, it usually happens when you least suspect it. The biggest danger for the top 10 might be not realizing they're in a fight until it's too late, but the No. 11 team should arrive with its eyes wide open. Michigan is undefeated, though I'm still not quite sure what to make of the Wolverines. Snatching victory from Notre Dame's jaws like a honey badger taking a football from a Gator was a thrilling finish. But the rest of Michigan's season has been as scripted.

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Rick Osentoski/US PresswireBrady Hoke can lead Michigan to its first 7-0 start since 2006 with a win over Sparty.

The win at Northwestern was nice, but the day Michigan defines itself by beating the Wildcats is the day TCU coach Gary Patterson donates to an SMU fundraiser. If Michigan is legitimately the 11th-best team in the country, it needs to beat Michigan State on the road.

History hasn't been kind to new maize-and-blue coaches the first time they match up with Michigan State. Writer Michael Rothstein points out on WolverineNation that Bo Schembechler, Lloyd Carr and Gary Moeller all started 0-1 versus Michigan State. Bennie Oosterbaan beat State in his first try in 1948 but then lost the first Paul Bunyan Trophy game in 1953. Rich Rodriguez was 0-for-Sparty. Brady Hoke, your turn.

Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi tied "Shoelace" in knots last season, holding Denard Robinson to 86 yards on 21 carries. The Spartans also picked off Robinson three times.

Robinson has thrown nine picks already this season. That's the same number as now-former South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia. Only two quarterbacks in the country have thrown to the wrong jersey more often. Obviously, Michigan needs much more than that from its star quarterback if it is going to taste victory on the banks of the Red Cedar River.

Michigan State's offensive line needs to do a better job creating space for running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. It's unfathomable that those two average a little over 100 yards per game combined. That's less than half the number the duo put up against Michigan last season.

On Saturday, they'll face a greatly improved Michigan rush defense. Quarterback Kirk Cousins hasn't had the senior season he expected up to this point. But in East Lansing, all wrongs can be righted with an offensive explosion against their despised rival to the south.

The keys are simple. Who can run it? Robinson or the Spartans running backs? If the answer is neither, then who takes care of the ball passing? Cousins' touchdown-to-interception ratio is only 6-to-4. The winner emerges as a favorite, along with Nebraska, in the Legends Division of the Big Ten.


History suggests that Oklahoma State will have its hands full with Texas. OK, so recent history, like last weekend, doesn't suggest it -- but Longhorns coach Mack Brown has never lost the week after the Oklahoma game.

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Brett Deering/Getty ImagesBrandon Weeden's eyes might light up when he sees the Texas secondary on Saturday.

Three times in the past seven years, the Cowboys coughed up leads of at least 19 points against Texas. In 2004, the Horns rallied from 28 down. In 2007, Texas came from 21 down in the fourth quarter. But Vince Young and Colt McCoy aren't walking through that door.

Brandon Weeden is, though. The QB wears Cowboys orange and he doesn't lose on the road. Weeden is 7-0 as a starter on the road and beat Texas in Austin last season. All of those years riding buses in minor league baseball must've made the home versus road factor inconsequential.

The Horns have some inexperienced spots in the secondary, which is not a good thing against Weeden. Weeden, who turns 28 Friday, is fourth in the nation in passing yards but is far more than the product of the system. He's led big comebacks. He never gets rattled. He deftly handled all the heat Texas A&M threw at him. Now defensive coordinator Manny Diaz opens his bag of tricks and stunts against the Pokes' QB.

Don't get caught up in comparing scores between Oklahoma-Texas and Oklahoma State-Texas. Not only does my colleague Lou Holtz remind me it's a different team every week, but the Horns' pride has been wounded. They'll fight.

The Sooners put up three defensive touchdowns versus Texas. Ball security figures to be better for the young Horns quarterbacks this week. Frankly, it couldn't be worse.

Oklahoma State doesn't need style points. It just needs wins. BCS guru Brad Edwards believes the Cowboys -- along with Oklahoma, Alabama and LSU -- control their BCS fate. I agree. The pollsters and computers should too.


There are a few other sneaky "identity" games Saturday too. Is Wake Forest really an ACC contender? The Demon Deacons get Virginia Tech at home. Coach Jim Grobe's team is already 3-0 in the ACC for the first time. A 4-0 start with wins over Florida State and the Hokies would stamp Wake Forest as legit in the conference.

Is Baylor more than just a real-life version of a video-game team? Robert Griffin III takes a shot at Texas A&M. If the Aggies lose, they join Florida State on the big disappointment list.

Arizona State can put itself on the fulfilling potential list at Oregon on Saturday night. The Sun Devils have the talent to give the Ducks fits. Oregon is as explosive as ever, as we witnessed last Thursday night against Cal. Even without running back LaMichael James, Oregon still has Kenjon Barner, and De'Anthony Thomas is a streak of lightning that coach Chip Kelly lines up everywhere.

Oregon's defense is growing with a lot of new faces and young players. Standout defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has done a great job keeping the Ducks from breaking. But they bend. A lot. They give up more than 400 yards per game.

QB Brock Osweiler can fit some throws into tight quarters. He's also frustrating to defenses when he takes that 6-foot-8 frame that was once committed to play basketball at Gonzaga and commits to scrambling for 8 yards on third-and-7.

Arizona State's D was loaded in the preseason, but injuries to guys like Brandon Magee and Junior Onyeali, not to mention CB Omar Bolden (who blew an ACL in the spring) have thinned the ranks. Vontaze Burfict is still there.

The Sun Devils' identity has been to make just enough dumbfounding errors to keep them from breaking through as an upper-echelon team in the conference. The Sun Devils need to be near-perfect to pull a stunner in Eugene, but a win would send their profile soaring.

"College Football Final" will be late this week. We'll be on one hour after the Sun Devils-Ducks game is done. That's just more time for my colleague Mark May to brush up on his legalese and try to stop his Final Verdict losing streak. Hit us on Twitter on Saturday.

Weekend Watch

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

Here are five things to watch this weekend:

1. Can No. 15 South Carolina win on the road with QB Connor Shaw? Shaw played really well in last week's 54-3 rout of Kentucky, and now he's the No. 15 Gamecocks' only real option at quarterback after senior Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team. Saturday's game at Mississippi State might be hairy if Bulldogs QB Tyler Russell plays as well as he did in the second half of last week's 21-3 victory over UAB. But South Carolina's defense -- ranked No. 9 nationally in total defense at 274.5 yards per game -- will be a much more difficult challenge.

2. Will Kansas State's defense be ready for another big test? The No. 17 Wildcats have been awfully stingy during their 6-0 start, but Saturday night's road trip to Texas Tech presents another huge challenge. The Red Raiders average 45.8 points and 354.6 passing yards per game. Texas Tech quarterbacks threw eight touchdowns against the Wildcats in 2009, a 66-14 rout. QB Seth Doege will have to carry an even bigger load without leading rusher Eric Stephens, who is out after dislocating his left knee in last week's loss to Texas A&M.

3. Can Texas A&M's defense slow down Baylor QB Robert Griffin III? The No. 21 Aggies rank dead last among FBS team in pass defense, allowing 347.6 yards per game. They'll face another stiff test from Griffin in Saturday's game in College Station, Texas, which might be the last meeting between the schools, at least for a while. Griffin has completed a whopping 80.3 percent of his passes and ranks No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency with a 212.9 rating. A&M has won 18 of its past 20 meetings against Baylor, and the Bears haven't won in College Station in their past 12 trips.

4. Can Florida find enough offense to beat No. 23 Auburn? The Gators looked more than lost on offense without QB John Brantley, who remains sidelined with a lower leg injury. Freshman QB Jeff Driskel should be back for Saturday's game at Auburn, but freshman Jacoby Brissett has been working with the No. 1 offense in practice this week. The Tigers figure to use two quarterbacks, too, with Barrett Trotter starting and freshman Kiehl Frazier coming off the bench.

5. Will Wake Forest upset another nationally ranked opponent? The Demon Deacons are 4-1 (3-0 ACC), their best start in conference play since joining the ACC in 1953. Demon Deacons QB Tanner Smith was the difference in last week's 35-30 upset of then-No. 23 Florida State, completing 21 of 35 passes for 233 yards with three touchdowns. Wake Forest's defense has been really stingy against the run, allowing only 102 yards per game, but it will have its hands full trying to slow down Hokies tailback David Wilson.

For more things to watch this weekend, click here.

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