Now we’re talking. After a month of having to take any decent matchups we could find, we’re finally to the point where we have to turn serious games away. Nebraska’s win over Missouri Thursday night didn’t make the list, and neither will a handful of other games worth checking in on. Boston College-Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech-Florida State in the ACC, Michigan-Iowa in the Big Ten and Oregon-UCLA in the Pac 10 all have conference implications, even if they’re not nationally big games. For nationally big games, look to the SEC.
#1 Florida at #4 LSU. If there’s one thing that proves this season is wide open, it’s that even two undefeated SEC heavyweights have flaws. LSU put together their most complete game of the season last week to beat Georgia, but they only put up six points in a dominant first half, surrendered the lead twice in the fourth quarter and got an assist from a phantom excessive celebration penalty to finish it out. Previously, they’d struggled with both Washington and Mississippi State. Florida has most of last year’s team, which means the Gators are proven, but this year they’ve only played one decent team, Tennessee, and the Vols defense gave them trouble.
That said, these are clearly two of the most talented teams in college football. Florida doesn’t play Alabama, Ole Miss or Auburn, so a win today practically guarantees them a spot in the SEC Championship game. Of course, the flip side of this is that LSU’s road to the title game is that much harder, because they’re the only West contender that can pick up a loss to Florida. If they beat the Gators, though, computer rankings and tiebreakers will smile upon them.
#3 Alabama at #20 Mississippi. Time to test out the value of home field advantage. Alabama has been awesome so far. Everybody knew their defense was for real, but they’ve also put up 40 points a game, including 498 yards and 37 minutes of possession against Virginia Tech. Ole Miss has been struggling, with a terrible offensive showing at South Carolina followed by three more interceptions in an unimpressive win at Vanderbilt.
But there are a few reasons this game could be closer than it looks. First, Mississippi’s struggles have been on the road. This is their first big home game of the year, and the fans have been waiting all season for it. Second, Alabama’s offense isn’t that experienced, and even in the Virginia Tech game, they scored eighteen of their points in the fourth quarter when VT was wearing down. Third, and most important, Houston Nutt’s teams show up for big SEC games. Last year, Ole Miss upset Florida, lost just 24-20 to Alabama and beat LSU 31-13—all on the road. In 2007, Nutt’s Arkansas team beat LSU in Baton Rouge, almost knocking the Tigers out of the national title game. How many coaches have ever beaten consecutive national champions?
Wisconsin at #9 Ohio State. Two of the three Big Ten teams without a conference loss meet in Columbus. For Wisconsin, it’s a chance to prove they’re a team to be taken seriously, a point that four close wins and blowing out Wofford hasn’t quite yet made. For Ohio State, on the fringes of the national championship race, it’s the best chance for a statement game until November, where Penn State, Iowa and Michigan are waiting.
On the field, it’s Big Ten football: all about the run game and the turnover battle. In last year’s game, the teams combined for about 400 yards rushing and 250 passing. And this year, both squads have played in turnover-heavy ballgames. Wisconsin has 15 takeaways in 5 games, but 10 giveaways. Ohio State is at 12 and 8. If there really are four or five more turnovers this week, it’ll be an interesting game.
Florida (74/26). The other way to look at Florida’s struggles against Tennessee is that they don’t need Tebow-like production to win a game by 10. Even if his concussion keeps him out, Brantley—and more importantly, Urban Meyer—have had a bye week to prepare for this one. Giving Meyer a big game off a bye week is just unfair. On the defensive side of the ball, UF has been great, and the first three and a half quarters of the Georgia game don’t inspire confidence that LSU will move the ball too well.
Alabama (64/36). After all that arguing that Ole Miss is dangerous, which they are, I have to go with ‘Bama. The Ole Miss offense hasn’t been in sync at all, and there’s a decent chance the Tide defense wins it single-handedly. I know this is basically how the Rebels had been playing when they shocked Florida, but still. If there’s a 30% chance that Mississippi’s offense really is the one from the South Carolina/Vandy games, and otherwise the game’s a tossup, then the smart money is on Alabama.
Wisconsin (16/84). Yes, Ohio State is the better team, and in the Horseshoe. But at five to one (a -15.5 spread), you better have a team you trust, and that’s not the Buckeyes. So far, Ohio State has beaten Navy by a 2 point conversion play, lost to a USC team missing their best player and their starting QB, and then taken care of business against Toledo and the two last place teams in the Big Ten. Up against an undefeated team with a history of playing the Buckeyes tough, 84/16 is high.
Last Week: 97-73
Year to Date: 268-450, .373