John Mitchell: We are starting to get in the swing of the college football season, and week three offers some big out of conference matchups, and some early key conference games. Zach Bigalke and Matt Strobl will help me break down the coming week of action. Through two weeks, there have been some teams that have severely disappointed up to this point. At this point, which team is the biggest disappointment?
Zach Bigalke: My initial thought was to look a little further south, but the reality is that Notre Dame has to feel pretty damn down in the dumps after dropping both their home and road openers. First, in a display of on-again, off-again capitulation to the weather in what is supposed to be an all-weather sport, the Irish did the ignoble thing in forcing South Florida to play to the end when other games had been called for the same reasons. The gods chortled as they ribbed Touchdown Jesus with a loss. Then they went under the lights in Ann Arbor, allowed a pinball game to develop instead of a chess match. Expected to be a threat for a BCS berth, Notre Dame now must win out to keep the flickering flame of hope alive.
Matt Strobl: Disappointments are relative of course, and losing in the SEC doesn’t necessarily mean that a team isn’t talented. But Georgia needed to come out firing this year. Instead, the ‘Dawgs have dropped to 0-2 after losing to two good programs in Boise State and South Carolina. There’s no shame in either loss, but here’s the thing. Georgia likes to consider itself a power program. And if one wants that label, then beating other top-tier teams in a must. Winning the SEC East will be an uphill battle for this Georgia team, and coach Mark Richt could be giving us his swan song in Athens whether he likes it or not.
Mitchell: I agree that it’s Georgia, but I’ll go a different route in the SEC and say Mississippi State. The Bulldogs entered the season with lofty expectations following their nine win season in year two of the Dan Mullen era. They opened the season with a blowout win over Memphis, but have since dropped their last two games to Auburn and LSU. It’s hard to look down on the Bulldogs for losing to the defending National Champions and an LSU team that has Title aspirations of their own in 2011, but it showed the world that they are still Mississippi State. Auburn is nowhere near as good as they were last season, and if Mississippi State wanted to make a move in the West standings, they needed that win. As much praise as Dan Mullen has received in Starkville, he still hasn’t beaten an SEC West team other than Ole Miss.
There have been upsets and near-misses galore in the first two weeks of the college football season. Who are you putting on upset alert in week three?
Strobl: I find it hard to fathom how Clemson is favored against Auburn. Homefield advantage or not, and regardless of last year’s hotly contested meeting, it’s looking like Auburn is the far superior team at the moment. Clemson barely beat Wofford last week (yes, Wofford.) while Auburn won a shootout with a solid Mississippi State team. Admittedly, Auburn has no defense to speak of, but that shouldn’t be an issue. Clemson has a proud tradition of failing in big games, and while the hosts may have a chip on their collective shoulder that won’t be enough to earn them the win. In this all-Tigers matchup, Auburn has the edge.
Mitchell: In just the third week of the season, we are going to have our second big SEC East matchup of the young season with Tennessee traveling to Gainesville to take on Florida. Both teams are coming in 2-0, with the Vols sporting the only semi-impressive win over Cincinnati at Neyland Stadium last week. The Gators have feasted lower tier non-AQ’s in the season’s first week, and they face their first test at the Swamp against the rival Vols. Florida enters as 9.5 point favorites, but from what I’ve seen so far, Tennessee has looked like the better team. Look for Tyler Bray to continue his impressive 2011 campaign as Tennessee upsets Florida and announces themselves as contenders in the SEC East race.
Bigalke: Let’s see. I’ve called the USF win over Notre Dame and nearly got the upset pick again when BYU lost at Texas by a single point. Who is on my radar this week? Well… it’s one I had on my radar last year. Temple went to Happy Valley and nearly knocked off the Nittany Lions on their home turf. If Bernard Pierce — who is back near the top of the leaderboard, currently 6th in the nation in rushing — can stay healthy the whole game in Philadelphia, his presence will be the difference. Watch for the Owls to upset Penn State at Lincoln Financial Field tomorrow.
What team is in most need of a statement win in week three?
Mitchell: I think it’s Florida State. The Seminoles made major strides last season, winning 10 games and the Chick Fil-A Bowl, but now they’ve been touted as National Title contenders, sitting at #5 in the polls. Oklahoma embarrassed Florida State in Norman last season, to the tune of a 47-17 shellacking. Jimbo Fisher has been excellent in recruiting talent to Tallahassee, and now they get their shot at proving to the country that Seminole football is back as a National contender. A blowout loss at the hands of the Sooners at Doak Campbell could set the program back. But, if they can knock off Oklahoma on Saturday night, then they might just put themselves in the driver’s seat in the BCS Championship race.
Bigalke: It comes right back to disappointments. For some inexplicable reason, Notre Dame is favored at home against Michigan State tomorrow. The Spartans are 2-0 after feasting on minnows and are 3rd in the nation in points allowed. They’re coming off a Big Ten co-championship that in retrospect should have been outright because of the Buckeyes’ indiscretions. If the Irish still fancy themselves a BCS contender, they have to beat the #15 team in the nation… and at least double the 3.5-point spread in the process.
Strobl: Zach made a great pick; this is a must-win for Notre Dame. And it feels like we’ve said that an awful lot in recent years. While week 3 doesn’t put the same pressure on Ohio State, the Buckeyes do need to make a statement in Miami. Many fans and experts expect this to be a down year in Columbus. Most believe that another program will end OSU’s run atop the Big Ten. After last week’s pathetic victory over Toledo, it’s easy to side with that line of thinking. The Buckeyes looked sleepy and powerless against a MAC team, and the performance begged the question of what we will see in this week’s clash of the NCAA violators. The Bucks could do themselves a great service by shaking off the near miss against the Rockets and taking the game to the Hurricanes; emerging from a night game on the road with a win would be invaluable for a team in search of a new identity.
What player do you see being the biggest game changer this week?
Bigalke: After a huge performance last Friday at home against Missouri, the Sun Devils take their show on the road to visit Big Ten middleweight Illinois. The Illini are ranked 28th in defensive pass efficiency and 34th in passing yards allowed. Look for them to plummet down the charts as Brock Osweiler carves up their secondary for plenty of yardage as Arizona State rolls to 3-0.
Strobl: I don’t really know what to make of the SEC East yet. South Carolina has gotten off to a good start by beating UGA, while Florida has yet to play a game of consequence. That will change when the Vols arrive in the Swamp. If Florida wants to re-establish itself as the team to beat in the division, there’s no time like the present to prove its worth. While the Vols have some questions to answer, they’re no pushovers. And QB Tyler Bray is off to a fantastic start this year, having completed 51 of 65 attempts (78.4%) for 698 yards and 7 scores. He has the talent to fare well against any defense. Will he be able to step up against the Gators? If so, Florida, like Georgia, could find itself in an early hole.
Mitchell: It’s Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. The junior quarterback’s performance on Saturday night in Tallahassee will likely decide the game. If he’s on his game, and throws the ball like we know he can, then Oklahoma should beat Florida State even on the road in a hostile environment. But, if Jones lets the road jitters get to him like we’ve seen in the past, then the ‘Noles are going to have a shot at knocking off the top-ranked Sooners. Last season, Jones tossed eight of his twelve interceptions in five road games. He has to take care of the ball on Saturday, and if he does, then Oklahoma should earn a key road victory over a top five opponent.
What positional matchup is most intriguing to you?
Strobl: Last season, Florida State traveled to Norman only to leave with a 47-17 beatdown. Oklahoma QB Landry Jones torched the Seminole defense to the tune of 380 yards and four touchdowns while FSU’s Christian Ponder bungled his way to an ugly stat line. This year, it’s E.J. Manuel under center for the ‘Noles and Jones must try to repeat his performance on the road. The outcome of this Top 5 matchup will depend in large part on quarterback play; which leader will step up and propel his team to victory? Oklahoma is perceived as the better team top to bottom, but don’t sleep on Florida State. I’m sure the Seminoles haven’t forgotten the rout. In many ways, I consider this game a direct competition between two talented signal-callers.
Mitchell: Obviously, all eyes are on Oklahoma and Florida State this weekend, but I’ll go another way. I’m intrigued to see how Jacory Harris fares in his first start of the season against the Buckeyes defense. He grabbed the starting job back from Stephen Morris after serving a one-game suspension and he will look to light up Coral Gables on Saturday evening. But, we’ve seen the past how turnover prone Harris has been, especially in big games. Miami was right there with Ohio State at the Horseshoe last season, but it was Harris’ interceptions that tilted the game permanently in Ohio State’s favor. The Buckeyes aren’t the same team they were last season, and they struggled mightily last week against Toledo. Miami probably has the better team at this point, but turnovers are the great equalizer. If Jacory Harris takes care of the ball, then Miami should win, but if not…
Bigalke: The Seminoles allow the 5th fewest passing yards of any defense in the country. The Sooners have the 3rd-ranked aerial attack offensively. Something is going to have to budge in Tallahassee when Oklahoma visits Florida State. Watch for Ryan Broyles to enjoy an even bigger day with Kenny Stills back from suspension, as the field opens up even more for Landry Jones to find open receivers. Finally playing a big-time offense, the Seminoles defensive backfield is going to have its hands full. So, FSU, want to announce that you’re back among the ranks of the elite? Stop the Sooners in the air and prove it…
It’s time for the picks. Early on Saturday, Maryland, coming off of a bye week directly following their huge season opening win over Miami, will play host to 18th ranked West Virginia, who is off to a 2-0 start under Dana Holgerson. Will West Virginia come out on top on the road, or will Randy Edsall lead the Terps to another big win?
Mitchell: I think both of these teams have looked good in the early part of the season. Maryland holds the impressive win of the two with their season opener against Miami. It will be a tale of the quarterbacks in this one with Maryland’s Danny O’Brien going head-to-head against West Virginia’s Geno Smith. It should be a shootout, and it’s likely a game that will be decided in the fourth quarter, but I have more faith in a Dana Holgerson offense putting up points than a Gary Crowton coached offense. Pick: West Virginia
Bigalke: What will the uniforms look like this weekend, Maryland? These might just be the top two teams in the ACC and Big East respectively this season. Edsall has instilled a fresh mentality with the Terps that is eerily reminiscent of the early success Ralph Friedgen had with the program. Holgerson’s team has looked Jekyll-and-Hyde. Of course, we’ve got twice the sample size for them. In this case that’s a bad thing, the second impression worse than the first. Pick: Maryland
Strobl: I like what I’m seeing from QB Danny O’Brien. Against Miami he was 31 of 44 passing for 348 yards and a TD; it seems that Randy Edsall’s system agrees with him. WVU’s Geno Smith has also gotten off to a good start, but succeeding against the likes of Marshall and Norfolk State is hardly a true litmus test. With their crowd behind them, I think the Terps edge the Mountaineers in what should be a high-scoring affair. Pick: Maryland
Last season, Auburn and Clemson went to overtime with Auburn eventually winning on their way to the BCS Title. Clemson has had this game circled on the schedule for months as the SEC’s version of the Tigers head to Clemson to take on the ACC’s version. Will Auburn keep their winning streak alive, or will Clemson pull off the mini-upset?
Bigalke: Why are there no longer ties in college football? Because I’d pick this as a wash, Auburn winning with horseshoes and four-leaf clovers and rabbits’ feet tucked among their padding to get to that 2-0 record and Clemson at 2-0 merely because they’ve done it against such luminaries as Troy and Wofford. Auburn’s magic can’t last forever, and this road trip might just be their undoing to vindicate the Vegas oddsmakers at the expense of the pollsters. Pick: Clemson
Strobl: There’s no questioning Auburn’s luck. This is perhaps the luckiest run any team has enjoyed in the past few decades. And I agree that at some point it runs out. The trouble is, Clemson excels at making other teams look good. Every time we hear about those Tigers being a threat, they find a way to disappoint. I’ve been snakebitten enough by Dabo Swinney and company; it won’t happen again. Pick: Auburn
Mitchell: As bad as Clemson looked last week against Wofford, I can’t help but think it could have been because they were looking ahead to this game. They’ve had this game circled on their calender since they lost in overtime at Jordan-Hare last season. Auburn is off to the 2-0 start, but we’ve yet to see them play on the road. As much as I want to pick Clemson, and as much as I think they truly have a shot at winning this game, from what we’ve seen so far, Auburn is the superior team. It should be close, but look for the SEC’s Tigers to continue the trend of winning close games. Pick: Auburn
Washington and Nebraska met twice last season, with the Huskers blowing out the Huskies in the regular season, and Washington earning payback in the Holiday Bowl. Who wins the rubber match in Lincoln?
Strobl: Nebraska is far more one-dimensional than it should be offensively. But Bo Pelini’s defenses have been legitimately talented. While Vegas’ 17-point spread is a bit much, I think the ‘Huskers will defend their home turf and hold the Huskies at bay. Washington has needed 70 total points just to squeak by Eastern Washington and Hawaii by a combined 11-point margin. Pick: Nebraska
Mitchell: I don’t know what to think of Washington right now. They struggled in their season opener against Eastern Washington, but then came back last week and looked impressive by beating Hawaii when I had them pegged to be upset. Taylor Martinez is going to have to throw the ball effectively to keep the Huskers balanced offensively. But, Nebraska is a better overall team than Washington, last year’s Holiday Bowl notwithstanding. I just can’t see the Huskies coming to Lincoln and getting a win. Pick: Nebraska
Bigalke: Well, Jake Locker isn’t there for the Huskies… and that Washington defense was phenomenal against another mobile quarterback last week. The difference is that, while Bryant Moniz is all too happy to beat you with his arm, Martinez is a run-first QB… and a run-second QB at that. I’m calling it a statement for the Pac-12 as the visitors repeat the favor of last season’s debacle in Seattle. Pick: Washington
Tennessee and Florida have both looked pretty good in their first two games of the season, but the first real test for both comes on Saturday in Gainesville when the two rivals take the field against one another. Which of these teams will get off to a 3-0 start?
Mitchell: I’m going to stick with my upset selection here. Tennessee looked really good last week against Cincinnati. Say all you want about the Bearcats’ porous defense, but I was still impressed with the way they played. Tyler Bray has been incredibly efficient in the first two games of the season, and he has progressed quite a bit from his freshman season on Rocky Top. This game being played at the Swamp gives Florida a natural advantage, but like I said earlier, at this point the Vols have looked like the better team. I see Will Muschamp’s first SEC debut being a tough loss at the hands of Dooley and Tennessee. Pick: Tennessee
Bigalke: The natural inclination would be to take the team that has had greater success in the recent past. The Gators have won six straight in this longstanding SEC East rivalry, but Tennessee has looked like a completely different team this season. Derek Dooley has centered on Tyler Bray as his man under center, and Bray hasn’t disappointed. The Vols look steadier offensively than they have since before Fullmer was run out of Knoxville, and that’ll make the difference. Pick: Tennessee
Strobl: I agree with Zach that Dooley is stabilizing the program. But until its proven otherwise, the Gators own this rivalry. Tennessee hasn’t won in Gainesville since 2003 and hasn’t beaten Florida anywhere since 2004. Given the massive turnover at both schools, recent history may be largely irrelevant, but it has surely put an underdog mentality in place for the Vols. That can be motivational. Or it can be crippling. While I think of this game as a toss-up, I’m inclined to go with the stronger program. Pick: Florida
Notre Dame, who started the season with BCS aspirations, have started the year 0-2 including a heartbreaking loss in the Big House to Michigan last week. It gets no easier for the Irish this week as they play host to Michigan State. Can Notre Dame avoid the 0-3 start?
Bigalke: They have to avoid the 0-3 start or face the facts that they’re once again irrelevant nationally. The flip-flop quarterback situation seems to have settled as Tommy Rees has proven his superiority to Dayne Crist in real-time game conditions. The Irish pass for a lot of yardage… but do it inefficiently. Brian Kelly needs to run Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray more this week to keep the Spartan D honest. Of course, they’ve also got to contain Kirk Cousins. Pick: Michigan State
Strobl: The Spartans can run. Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker offer a tremendous 1-2 punch. The Spartans can pass. The veteran Cousins has been in tough games before, and knows what it’s like to be in a close game against the Irish. Most importantly, the Spartans can play defense. Sure, Youngstown State and FAU are weak tests, but a combined six points allowed is still impressive. Notre Dame will ruin MSU’s magical scoring defense numbers, but I don’t have enough faith in Brian Kelly’s defensive skills. After two consecutive games decided by three points, I think this year’s matchup will offer just a bit more separation. Pick: Michigan State
Mitchell: If there was ever a must-win for Notre Dame, it’s this week in South Bend against Michigan State. The Irish have started the season 0-2 after losses to South Florida and Michigan, but the offense looked much better last week guided by Tommy Rees against the Wolverines. The only problem is that the Notre Dame defense couldn’t stop Michigan when it mattered the most. Kirk Cousins is a veteran quarterback who has seen it all for the Spartans, and the Michigan State running game led by Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell will cause problems for Notre Dame. For no other reason than a gut-feeling am I picking the Irish to get off the snide and beat Michigan State. Pick: Notre Dame
Arizona State passed their first test of the season last week by beating Missouri in Tempe. But, this week they’ll see their first game on the road as they head into Big Ten country to take on Nathan Scheelhaase and Illinois. Will the Sun Devils start 3-0, or will Illinois defend home turf and do the same?
Strobl: Illinois has some excellent players, particularly at the offensive skill positions. But as a team, the Illini aren’t ready to beat a quality non-conference opponent.Since Ron Zook took over in 2005, Illinois has lost to Missouri four times, Fresno State twice, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Syracuse, Cal, and Ohio University. The Missouri losses are particularly relevant; being unable to beat a team of that caliber doesn’t bode well for this matchup. Remember that ASU toppled Mizzou just last week. Pick: Arizona State
Mitchell: The Sun Devils were a trendy sleeper coming into this season, and so far they haven’t disappointed with an overtime victory over Missouri last week in Tempe. Traveling across the country to take on Illinois is a daunting task, with the Illini possibly a better team than last season’s seven win squad. Illinois has yet to face a test this season, dispatching of Arkansas State and South Dakota State in the first two weeks. While both offenses have good quarterbacks and solid playmakers, I think the difference will be the Sun Devils defense led by Vontaze Burfict, who has four sacks in two games. Look for him to get after Nathan Scheelhaase, and for Arizona State to win a close game. Pick: Arizona State
Bigalke: As I said earlier, QB Brock Osweiler is going to have a huge game for the Sun Devils. Illinois may be 2-0, but while Scheelhaase is a decent quarterback he’s going to face a fast, sideline-to-sideline 100-yard defense unlike anything that’s failed to challenge him yet this season. Both QBs rank in the top ten in efficiency, but the ASU field general produces 94 more yards per game — and has done it against tougher D. Vegas has this one wrong. Pick: Arizona State
Ohio State and Miami are set to battle in the back-end of their home-and-home in Coral Gables. This game looked to have more on the line before all the roster attrition due to NCAA allegations and suspensions. Will Miami get their first win of the year, or will Ohio State make a statement with a big road victory?
Mitchell: This is another game that I’m on the fence about. Like I said before, this game will hinge on whether or not Jacory Harris takes care of the football. Say what you want about Buckeye quarterback Joe Bauserman, but he’s not going to make dumb throws and turn the ball over. Harris too often tries to force throws into too tight of windows, and he throws interceptions. We saw that last season, as his four interceptions keyed Ohio State’s 36-24 victory in Columbus. I think people are too quick to point to that Toledo game as a sign that Ohio State is so bad off. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just one game, and a game that will be forgotten if Ohio State comes out on top in Coral Gables Saturday night. I expect Jacory Harris to struggle in ball control, and for him to throw one or two costly interceptions. Pick: Ohio State
Bigalke: Wow, was that one ugly game for Ohio State last weekend. Toledo should be hosting an even bigger contest this weekend as an undefeated BCS Buster contender playing an elimination game against Boise State. The Buckeyes gobbled up luck like Stummies in making it to this showdown 2-0. Is there any luck left in the candy dish? Miami looked strong despite their decimated roster at Maryland, and with the bulk of the suspended players returning look for the Hurricanes to show that same tenacity but with better results. Pick: Miami
Strobl: Of course I want my Buckeyes to return home at 3-0. But night games have traditionally been problematic for Ohio State. Factor in the big stage and the challenges inherent in going on the road, and the deck is stacked in Miami’s favor. Ohio State will get tailback Jordan Hall and cornerback Travis Howard back. And I expect Fickell to call a better game than he did against Toledo. But even if the players bounce back from that ugly week 2 win, it’s tough to imagine an upset here. I hope I’m wrong, but…Pick: Miami
Undoubtedly, the game of the weekend is in Tallahassee with top five powers Oklahoma and Florida State meeting up in what could be the marquee out of conference matchup of the season. Can Bob Stoops get back the reputation of Big Game Bob, or will Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles announce to the world that they are officially back among the National powers?
Bigalke: I’m stuck here. I’m not convinced that Oklahoma is the best team in the nation, as evidenced by my low ranks for them weekly in our Top Ten here at Breaking Tackles. However, I’m also not sold on Florida State after they’ve double-fisted cupcakes in the first two weekends of the season. Stoops has a reputation for mediocrity on the road, but his team should have the offensive firepower and the defensive stoutness to shut down the Seminoles. Pick: Oklahoma
Strobl: We don’t yet know enough about either team to make definitive picks. There’s a lot of hype surrounding both programs, and while Oklahoma has choked in big game situations before, I can’t help but think of last year’s blowout in Norman. This matchup will likely be much closer, and I have more faith in Jimbo Fisher than in Bob Stoops over the long term. But for the time being, I’ve got to go with the (slightly) better team. Pick: Oklahoma
Mitchell: I agree with both Zach and Matt that we really haven’t seen enough of either team to know which is truly better. Oklahoma had a bye week last week after stomping all over Tulsa in the season opener, while Florida State beat up on a Sun Belt squad and an FCS team in the first two weeks. I highly doubt we see another 47-17 blowout this time in Tallahassee, but I don’t think Florida State is that much better than they were last season to make up for that much of a lopsided defeat. It all comes down to how Landry Jones handles the pressure of playing in front of a hostile crowd. I expect him to handle it better this time around than he did in similar situations last season. It should be close, but the Sooners should pull it out. Pick: Oklahoma