There's no Texas-Oklahoma or Florida-Alabama on today's schedule, but there are some really interesting games this week that will probably fly a little under the radar.
TCU at BYU. Texas at Missouri. Iowa at Michigan State. Oregon State at USC. Penn State at Michigan. Auburn at LSU. The first four of those all have potential national title implications, while the second two are just great matchups.
The game in Provo was chosen by the almighty higher-ups at ESPN as the site of "College Gameday" this week, and while it might end up being a great one, I'm having a hard time ignoring BYU's debacle against Florida State that saw FSU running backs scampering left and right through the BYU secondary to the tune of 313 yards. Oh, and TCU beat BYU last year 32-7. I know that game was in Waco, but a whoopin' like that isn't dependent on location. Max Hall, who was one of the best QBs in the country last year statistically, had his ass kicked in a 22-for-42, 273-yard, two-interception performance. It was ugly.
The scary thing is that TCU is actually better this year; the Frogs are built on an outstanding, versatile running game (11th nationally) and an elite defense that could hold its own against anybody in any conference, particularly because of defensive end Jerry Hughes and his eight sacks (he also had 15 last year, including a ridiculous FOUR against BYU).
I'm struggling to see how BYU can win this one outside of an otherworldly performance from Hall and some turnovers from TCU, and I wouldn't expect either of those things based on past performances. Prediction: TCU 27, BYU 17.
The other game I'm most interested in (obviously) is Michigan-Penn State, which features two teams that are ... well, I'm not really sure. Penn State hasn't played anybody of note except Iowa, and that game featured a hideous three-interception effort from Darryl Clark that made it fairly clear how much the Lions miss Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood from last year's team. The running game has picked things up of late, but only after struggling against such dominating defenses as Akron and Syracuse.
Michigan's defense might not be a whole lot better than Syracuse's, but I will give Greg Robinson some credit: The rush defense has sharply improved as the strategy has focused less on "bend but don't break" and more on "destroy the running back under all circumstances." The pass defense has suffered (I'm having nightmares about Tony Moeaki), but it was already terrible outside of Donovan Warren, and I'm not sure that will have much of an impact against Penn State anyway. The Lions' receivers are ... how do I say this nicely? ... not exactly intimidating, so if Michigan can just put up a solid fight against the Penn State ground game (hold Evan Royster to under 100 yards and maybe one touchdown), I think they'll win this one.
The whole "freshman quarterback grumble mistakes grumble" meme hasn't mattered at Michigan Stadium this year, and I don't think it will in this one either. The weather scares me -- everyone on the team has had fumbling problems at some point, usually at an inopportune time -- but at home, I can't pick against UM (at least not based on what I've seen from Penn State so far). I'll say Michigan 27, Penn State 21.
The Iowa-Michigan State game is a little hard to figure out. Michigan State opened as a favorite in that one, which seemed crazy/bizarre/odd/insane. Iowa isn't dominating (which makes it hard to be entirely convinced that they're a top-10 team), but the defense is very solid and the offense does enough to get by. Iowa actually reminds me a lot of the 2002 Ohio State team that squeaked its way through the regular season and somehow ended up with a national title, although the Hawkeyes would need a lot of help to get that sort of chance.
Here's what I think could eventually kill Iowa: Despite Ricky Stanzi throwing a crapload of interceptions, the Hawkeyes are fourth nationally in turnover margin. That might seem like a good thing, but muffed punts and passes that slip out of a quarterback's hand aren't forced errors; those are just lucky, and that stuff eventually evens out.
I don't think that happens this week, though. Iowa's defense gives up some yardage on the ground, but the going gets tough through the air -- the Hawkeyes are fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense -- and that'll be a problem for MSU. The Spartans' strength is their passing game (mostly because Glenn Winston and Larry Caper are providing very little at running back), so Kirk Cousins will eventually have to make some plays for Michigan State to win this game. In crappy, cold weather against a defense that's shredded Darryl Clark and Tate Forcier already this year, I just don't see it. Prediction: Iowa 23, Michigan State 13.
As for Texas, USC and LSU, I'm not really expecting any upsets, but I also don't think any of those teams is unbeatable this weekend. I've been impressed with Missouri's defense so far this season, and there are enough weaknesses in the Texas offense that an off day from Colt McCoy or the defense could be disastrous. Is Blaine Gabbert good enough (or ready enough) to make that possibility relevant? Probably not, but I think this will be a better game than a lot of people are expecting. I'll say Texas 24, Missouri 21.
I like the way USC's passing game is coming around, but why the hell are the Trojans 22.5-point favorites over an Oregon State team that's had their number recently? Maybe Jacquizz Rodgers gets shut down and the USC offense stays on a roll, but there's just something about this game that strikes me as being weird. USC is coming off an intense win over Notre Dame while Oregon State is coming off a bye, meaning Mike Riley has had two full weeks to prepare. Expectations have suddenly gone through the roof again for USC, and it just seems like that's always when they have a letdown. My prediction (keep in mind that I never pick against USC under any circumstances): USC 30, Oregon State 22.
I don't really care who wins the LSU-Auburn game, but it'll be awesome to watch Gus Malzahn call plays against the LSU defense. Auburn has slid back to reality after a 5-0 start -- there's still a definite lack of talent/fit at certain spots -- but LSU isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut, so staying in the game shouldn't be difficult unless Chris Todd continues to regress to the 2008 version of himself and throws multiple vomit-inducing interceptions. Unfortunately for Auburn, that's probably more likely than him pulling out of his tailspin against a defense as tough as LSU's. I'm expecting something relatively low-scoring, and if that's the case, LSU probably comes out on top. Prediction: LSU 17, Auburn 13.