After a week where there was minimal shake-up at the top of the rankings, week #5 has a couple of interesting matchups that will impact the national stage. Earning top billing on Saturday is a great matchup of high powered offenses as California heads north to take on the Ducks of Oregon in a pivotal early season Pac-10 showdown. The Big East also earns its first critical battle of the year as the Mountaineers of West Virginia travel to surging South Florida in a game between conference leaders that sits alone in the spotlight on Friday evening. One of the weekendís most interesting games is a matchup of unbeatens in the Big 10 as Michigan State travels to Wisconsin in the hopes of keeping their early season momentum rolling. Letís breakdown the best games in the last weekend of September.
GAME OF THE WEEK
California at Oregon
These two teams are on fire out of the gate, as both programs have utilized tremendous skill position talent to overpower their opposition on their way to 4-0 starts. Oregonís offense has exploded so far this season, averaging 48.5 points per game and ranking 7th in the nation, while California trails by a touchdown, averaging 41.5 per contest. This past Saturday, both of these teams got their conference schedules off to a good start with wins, Oregon 55-31 over Stanford and California 45-27 over Arizona. In this series, the home team has won 4 straight, and the Ducks always have an edge when they play within the friendly confines of thundering Autzen Stadium. Letís see how these two Western powers stack up head-to-head.
The Oregon offense has rebounded nicely after the unit had major struggles at the conclusion of the 2006 season. The Ducks will attack the Bears with running back Jonathan Stewart, who is off to a great start, ranking 11th in the nation in yardage. If Stewart can get rolling early, the field will open up for the Ducks' spread offense and quarterback Dennis Dixon, who is having a great start of his own as he is currently 4th in the country in passing efficiency. The Bears have been nothing special on defense to this point in the season, as the unit has given up at least 27 points in 3 of their 4 games, and now they face their greatest challenge yet. California has struggled especially in defending the pass, and there is reason for concern after the Bears yielded 27 points this past weekend to a mediocre Arizona offense.
California has survived the loss of All-American running back Marshawn Lynch quite well with Justin Forsett ably filling Lynchís shoes. Forsett is pounding away on the ground, averaging 121 yards per game as he is the perfect complement to quarterback Nate Longshore and his downfield passing game, led by wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins. A major strength for the Bears is a powerful offensive line that has provided Forsett with plenty of running room and Longshore with plenty of time to survey the field and find his dangerous targets. The combination of the Bear offensive front and the relatively weak Oregon run defense, which is giving up 165 yards per game, makes for a healthy dose of Forsett all afternoon long. Oregon would also be smart to avoid punting directly to DeSean Jackson, a game breaking talent who is capable of scoring on every touch of the football.
This game should be fun to watch with offensive playmakers lining the field on both sides. The featured matchup should be between Oregonís Jonathan Stewart and Californiaís Justin Forsett, to see which of these two strong runners is capable of taking control of the game and establishing ball control. The advantage for Oregon lies with Dennis Dixon, a dual threat in the backfield, who is just as dangerous rushing as he is passing. The Duck offensive staff does a great job spreading out defenses and getting their weapons the ball in open space, making the offense extremely difficult to contain; just ask Michigan. In a game as evenly matched as this one on paper, the home field advantage will play a huge role in the outcome, potentially earning the Ducks the overall edge.
OTHER MUST-SEE MATCHUPS
West Virginia at South Florida
Both of these teams are on a roll in the early going with the Mountaineers cruising to a 4-0 start while South Florida has won their first three games. The game plan for WVU is simple: run the ball until a defense can slow you down, and so far no one has come close to stopping the three headed monster of Steve Slaton, Pat White, and Noel Devine. The Mountaineers rank 2nd in the nation in rushing offense, powering their way to 357 yards per game, and even when Pat White is forced to throw, he has become an accurate passer with a great weapon at his disposal in Darius Reynaud. For South Florida to win this game, their defensive unit will need to continue their strong play, which has the Bulls ranked 7th in the nation in total defense. The stop troops must at least slow down WVU to allow quarterback Matt Grothe and back Mike Ford to establish a ground game and keep the West Virginia offense on the sidelines. In years past, the WVU defense has been a major concern, but so far this season, the unit has played strong, and if the trend continues, WVU will have their sites set on a national championship run.
Alabama vs Florida State (in Jacksonville)
The Crimson Tide went from an ultimate high after a huge win over Arkansas two weeks ago to a devastating loss to Georgia in overtime this past weekend. Now Bama must get refocused quickly as they head back out of conference for a crucial battle with Florida State. This game sets up as a battle of strengths, as the Tide will look to pound away on the ground with Terry Grant, who will be staring directly at an FSU front that has been tough against the run, ranking 12th in the nation. The Seminoles must rely on their defense to provide their sputtering offense with favorable field position as Drew Weatherford continues to struggle with the passing game. The struggles were further magnified in their last game versus Colorado as FSU managed to convert on only one out of their thirteen 3rd down attempts, a stat that cannot be repeated on Saturday for FSU to have a chance to win. These two football powers have not met since 1974, and this time FSU has given up a home game at Doak Campbell to play this one at Alltell Stadium in Jacksonville.
Michigan State at Wisconsin
Wisconsin seems to have decided to play every game close this season as they won a hard-fought 17-13 battle last weekend versus Iowa in their Big 10 opener. The Badgers do nothing spectacular on offense, lining up and pounding away with P.J. Hill on the ground, and Hill has responded by ranking 10th in the nation in rushing yardage. The Spartans have been staunch against the run in their initial four games, so the Badgers will need production from quarterback Tyler Donovan to open up the field for Hill. The Spartans have a balanced offensive game plan, and they will first attack the Badger front with running back Javon Ringer, who is coming off a huge 144 yard effort versus Notre Dame. If MSU has plans on winning this one in Madison, quarterback Brian Hoyer must play better than he has in the past couple of games, where he connected on less than 50% of his pass attempts. This is a chance for MSU to proclaim their official entrance into the Big 10 title chase, while Wisconsin looks to make a statement of their own after three consecutive weeks of mediocre performance.
Southern Cal at Washington
The Trojans are off to yet another great start and basically have been able to do what they have wanted on their way to a 3-0 record. This past week, the Men of Troy threw all over Washington State, while the week prior they ran right through the Nebraska defense. There are just too many weapons for opponents to contain. For Washington they have had trouble this season in stopping opposing ground games, so I suspect that the stable of SC running backs will get plenty of work on Saturday. The Husky game plan this week will yet again be centered on their star quarterback Jake Locker, who leads the team in both passing and rushing. Locker will have to play his best game of the year by far though in order to keep pace with the lethal USC offense that is likely to pile up yardage all night long in Seattle. The Trojans have won five straight in this series, but last season Washington was on the door step late and came close to pulling off the upset before falling by a 26-20 score.
Clemson at Georgia Tech
Clemson entered the season with question marks on both sides of the ball with massive personnel losses from last seasonís team, but so far this squad is playing like a veteran unit. Quarterback Cullen Harper has taken over the starting role and done a great job directing the offense, and in combination with the top-notch running back duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, Clemson has one of the ACCís best offenses. Georgia Tech has lost their first two ACC games, and a loss here would end the hopes of a Jacket ACC title run. Tech must get a passing game on track that has struggled the past two Saturdayís, as quarterback Taylor Bennett has been unable to get his team into the end zone on a regular basis. Clemson should expect a healthy dose of Tashard Choice this weekend, as Tech will look for ball control behind one of the conference's top running backs. A win by Clemson in this one could set the Tigers on a collision course with Boston College for the ACC Atlantic Division title.
GAMES OF INTEREST
Mississippi State at South Carolina - Saturday 11:30 AM CDT
The Bulldogs are off to their best start of the Sylvester Croom era, winning 3 of their first 4 games, including a huge win at Auburn. South Carolina suffered their first loss this past weekend at LSU and now must get refocused quickly with a vastly improved MSU team heading to Columbia on Saturday.
UCLA at Oregon State - Saturday 5:30 PM CDT
The Bruins got back on track this past Saturday with a big win over Washington, while Oregon State suffered a set-back in their Pac-10 opener at Arizona State. The Beavers need this one to keep their hopes of a top tier Pac-10 finish alive, while UCLA is looking to get their conference season off to a 3-0 start.
Maryland at Rutgers - Saturday 2:30 PM CDT
Maryland comes into this contest needing a win after a heart breaking loss to Wake Forest, a game in which the Terps blew a 24-3 lead and lost in overtime. Rutgers has been uncontested so far this year and makes a step up in competition level as the Knights play their 2nd game ever as official members of the nationís top ten.
Southern Miss at Boise State - Thursday 6:30 PM CDT
This is an interesting matchup between two of the premier non-BCS conference powerhouses. Boise State has been dominant on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium, especially against non-conference foes, so Southern Miss needs their best effort of the season if they plan on heading home with a win.
Notre Dame at Purdue - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
The Irish continue to have major struggles, beginning the year at 0-4 for the first ever time in school history, and their season does not get any easier with a visit to West Lafayette. Purdueís offense has been lethal in the early going, but the level of competition has been questionable, so this should be a nice challenge.
Penn State at Illinois - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
This Illini program is on the verge of turning the corner, and a win over Penn State in their Big 10 home opener would make a major statement. Penn State has to get their offense back on track after an abysmal performance versus Michigan.
Auburn at Florida - Saturday 7:00 PM CDT
Florida has revenge on their mind after the Tigers dealt the Gators their only loss last year in their national championship run. Auburn has been sluggish on offense in the early going and will need major improvement from Brandon Cox if they harbor any chance of pulling this upset.
Louisville at North Carolina State - Saturday 2:30 PM CDT
The season for Louisville is close to getting away, and this game has become a must win if the Cardinals are going to salvage what had the potential to be a great season. The Wolfpack is having major struggles in the early going, but can make a statement with an upset win in this one.
Brigham Young at New Mexico - Saturday 7:30 PM CDT
BYU rebounded from two straight losses to get a dominating 31-6 win this past weekend over surging Air Force, establishing themselves as the team to beat in the Mountain West. New Mexico has won three straight since losing their opener and can put themselves in the middle of the conference title chase with a win in this one.
Kansas State at Texas - Saturday 2:30 PM CDT
Texas finally was able to blow out an opponent on Saturday, demolishing a hapless Rice team before entering conference play. Kansas State upset Texas last year and will look for their second straight win in the series.