The calendar is just now flipping to October, and this young season may already be approaching its defining Saturday. Usually reserved for Rivalry Week, it appears as though Week 6 has the most at stake of any weekend slate this fall. Over the first 5 weeks of the 2014 season, there have only been 9 ranked matchups, and no more than 3 in a single week. Saturday gives us SEVEN, including 4 between undefeateds.
Part of what makes this Saturday special is what little we know after 5 full weeks of ball; some conference and division races are still completely unclear, while other playoff contenders have yet to be tested at all. Several Heisman candidates will face tough opponents, and surely others will emerge to join the discussion. We seemingly know nothing; that will change Saturday.
SEC WEST SHOWDOWNS
With 6 of its 7 teams ranked in the top 15, the discussion has to start with the SEC West, a division that is both top-heavy and deep, and whose only losses were to each other (28-3 overall).
College Gameday makes its first trip to Oxford, MS and the famous Grove tailgating atmosphere. Down in Ole Miss where its been over 50 years since the Rebels' last SEC Football title, the slogan has been, “We may not win every game, but we’ve never lost a PARTY.” The nation will finally see the Grove atmosphere front and center, but the bigger story is that Hugh Freeze has the Rebels playing at a high level, ranked in the Top 10, and poised for the program’s breakthrough win over #3 Alabama. A win Saturday will be the program's biggest in a long time, and will surely catapult the Rebels towards the top of Playoff discussion. Ole Miss has been so close to knocking off the league’s elite, and Saturday is their chance to join the elite themselves.
100 miles South on MS-Route 9 is yet another undefeated SEC West matchup as the hometown Bulldogs host the Aggies of Texas A&M. This is also easily Mississippi State’s biggest game in quite some time, as they are currently ranked #12 in the AP Poll – their highest under Coach Dan Mullen. Coming off of a spirited victory over LSU, MSU will face a more dynamic offense led by Kenny Hill. Both Hill and Dak Prescott are on the fringes of the Heisman discussion, but expect Saturday’s victor to enter the Top 5. The last time there was a Top 15 matchup in the State of Mississippi, it was the Egg Bowl of 1953…but in doubleheader fashion (Noon ESPN, and 3:30 CBS), the Magnolia State features TWO such games Saturday.
It’s hard to imagine that LSU and Auburn, with combined records of 9-1 and rankings of 15 and 5 respectively, have to share the SEC spotlight with 2 other SEC West matchups. But not to be overlooked, this rivalry game features two battle-tested teams, one of which is still the unbeaten, defending league champs. LSU needs the game to remain in both the league and Playoff races, while Auburn can use this win as a springboard into the Top 4.
BIG TEN STILL ALIVE?
Week 2 was as destructive a week as I’ve ever seen for a conference. The Big Ten lost all 3 of its national spotlight games (Ohio State to Virginia Tech, Michigan State to Oregon, and Michigan to Notre Dame), and needed miracles for its West Division contenders to escape upset bids from Ball State and FCS McNeese State. Then, just 3 weeks into the season, the league saw its only matchup of undefeated teams end up in a 13-10 struggle that saw Penn State survive thanks to 5 Rutgers interceptions.
Here we are at the start of October and just one Big Ten team remains undefeated: the Nebraska Cornhuskers. As the league limps out of September, Saturday’s top 20 matchup represents its only chance at producing a Playoff team in the inaugural 4-team CFP. Michigan State led Oregon for most of the first half, but the Ducks gashed them in the 2nd half, outscoring MSU 28-3. Still, MSU holds a top 10 rank, and IF that is their only loss, the Spartans are still alive for a bid. Nebraska avoided the McNeese State upset, and has dominated the rest of its schedule behind Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah who leads the nation in rushing and total yards. Is this the biggest game of the Bo Pelini era? Well, not counting the 3 conference championship games, this has to be it. A win Saturday night (8:00 ABC) throws Nebraska into the top 10 and solidifies them as the flag bearers of the Big Ten, its best chance at a bid. This is Nebraska’s toughest hurdle to a perfect regular season, with just Wisconsin and the lowly BigTen West remaining. But we have been here before with Pelini’s Huskers…can this year be different?
Big Showdown in the Big 12
Since joining the league in 2012, TCU has struggled to adapt and succeed. With a revamped offensive attack under Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meachem, TCU has a new identity on one side of the ball. Trevone Boykin has taken retaken the reigns with great success. But on the other side of the ball, its business as usual, as Gary Patterson’s trademark stingy defense is back. Saturday against #4 Oklahoma (3:30 FOX), the Horned Frogs are given a benchmark game to see just how far the team has progressed. For the Sooners, this represents their first high-quality, ranked test of 2014, and a chance to show the nation they belong in Playoff discussion. They got West Virginia’s best effort two weeks ago in Morgantown, but TCU offers a better challenge, especially on defense.
Pac-12 Elimination Games
Stanford returns to South Bend (3:30 NBC), where two years ago, the controversial goal-line stand cost the Cardinal. Having already exacted revenge on the Irish last fall, this one is more about Stanford fighting to keep its Playoff hopes alive, as a 2nd loss this early could be crippling. After a close loss to USC, one that Stanford dominated the yardage but failed in the red zone, the Cardinal had trouble moving away from Washington and held on to the 7-point win. Turnovers continue to be an issue; the defense is not an issue but rather a definite strength. This will be Notre Dame’s toughest challenge to date, especially given Michigan’s apparent incompetence. Notre Dame will jump into legit Playoff discussion with a win Saturday, and Golson may start to receive more hype. Will an 11-1 Notre Dame, with its gauntlet of a schedule, still earn a bid? Brian Kelly hopes to avoid using his get-out-of-jail-free card this early in the season.
Each with embarrassing losses - USC to a motivated Boston College squad, and Arizona State’s meltdown against UCLA – a crucial Pac-12 South matchup takes place in the Coliseum Saturday night (7:30 FOX). Adding to the Sun Devils woes is the unfortunate news that star QB Taylor Kelly must sit out yet again. Backup Mike Bercovici held his own in the first half until a 95-yard Pick Six started the unraveling. USC pounded Oregon State and looks to continue its Pac-12 march.
The ACC Coastal Mess
At any given second, all seven of the ACC Coastal teams can look like Division champs but then look like complete failures the next. This is where we're at in the ACC Coastal a full 5 weeks in. It is completely up in the air, and as unclear as we’ve ever seen a division. UNC and Virginia Tech (12:30 ESPN3.com) face off in a matchup of the two highest preseason predicted teams nationwide (we had Miami higher than VT). Miami and Georgia Tech (7:30 ESPN2) will add a bit more clarity to the race, while the Pitt-UVA (7:30 ESPN3.com) game could plant UVA at #1 and Pitt at #7 (FOR NOW) if the Wahoos defend their home turf.
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