Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech (6 ET, ESPN)
This dinner hour battle has a good case for inclusion with the other three games already discussed on the top tier. But yesterday’s column had a Heisman feel to it and no such contender is playing in this game. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a very big game though. If Virginia Tech wins this one on the road, they’d have head-to-head wins against their top two Coastal Division rivals in Miami and the Yellow Jackets. Meaning they would have to lose twice the rest of the conference schedule to lose a berth in the ACC Championship Game. And that’s assuming neither the ‘Canes or Jackets lose from here on out and Virginia Tech would have to lose those games with its two toughest foes behind them.
Will the Hokies all but lock up the division in Atlanta? Georgia Tech has a ferociously tough ground game, but Frank Beamer’s defense has the speed to control the option, and Josh Nesbitt isn’t a good enough passer to beat them through the air. If Tyred Taylor continues his recent improvement for Virginia Tech, they’ll get out to an early lead and the Jackets won’t be able to come back. But I like Paul Johnson as a coach, and I think he’ll get Virginia Tech into the kind of move-the-yardsticks slugfest that both teams usually play. But games like that can be tipped by a special teams or defensive score. And who gets those at more opportune times than Hokies? In a tense, taut game, let’s call it Virginia Tech 17-13.
The Atlantic Division will have two games among contenders (well, virtually everyone in the Atlantic is a contender). But Wake Forest-Clemson and N.C. State-Boston College will help shake things out a bit. Look for Riley Skinner to lead the Deacons to a road win, and N.C. State’s Tom O’Brien to go back up to his old haunts in Chestnut Hill and come out with a victory. Maryland can also stay in the hunt if they take care of Virginia, whose suddenly come to life since conference play started.
Iowa-Wisconsin (Noon ET, ESPN)
This border rivalry is one of the most underrated in the Big Ten. Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez and now the school’s athletic director coached under Hayden Fry. Current Badger mentor Bret Bielama has Iowa ties. It’s reasonable to say that Wisconsin’s rise in the 1990s came by getting top coaching talent out of Iowa City, and Alvarez and Kirk Ferentz retained a good personal relationship in spite of a fierce on-field rivalry. Iowa scored three straight huge wins from 2003-05, winning a winner-take-all game for a New Year’s Day bowl bid, then denying UW a Rose Bowl bid and finally ruining Alvarez’s final home game in Camp Randall. Wisconsin has since won two of the last three and this is another big one. Iowa is the better team, and still the one I think is the best in the Big Ten, but they did not impress at home against Michigan last week. Their defense was not as strong as I expected it to be. Meanwhile UW’s defense was much better than expected at Ohio State. That defensive improvement enables Wisconsin to pull the upset in this one by a 24-20 count. Iowa still bounces back and goes on to the Rose Bowl with a 7-1 league record.
Around the Big Ten, Ohio State will pick up another win at Purdue. An important game awaits Penn State at home against Minnesota. The Gophers have just enough to beat the Lions if they are sleepwalking, but they aren’t so good that anyone will be impressed with a win. Tough spot for Paterno to be in and I think they quietly take care of business. And on ESPN2, Michigan State hosts Northwestern. The Spartans are starting to look like the team many of us thought they’d be and they will handle the disappointing Wildcats.
Modest Home Tests: Florida & Alabama
Florida gets Arkansas in the Swamp, while Alabama hosts South Carolina. The latter is easily the more interesting of the two, if only because I could see an upset if the game was in Columbia. Whereas in the case of Florida-Arkansas, it really doesn’t matter where the game is played. Ryan Mallet’s played well for the Hogs, but not against the defense he’ll face here. And as Tebow works his way back into playing shape, the Florida offense will make life even more miserable for Bobby Petrino. Playing in front of a rabid home crowd on national television (3:30 ET, CBS) is just an added benefit the Gators didn’t need.
Now South Carolina plays the kind of defense that can keep a team in the game against a top-ranked opponent. But can sophomore Stephen Garcia stand up to the Tide defense? I don’t see that happening, and the ‘Bama offense is balanced enough, with Greg McElroy throwing and Mark Ingram running, that the Tide will put up enough points to win. In South Carolina, I’d call it Alabama in a hair-raiser. But in Birmingham, I see the Gamecocks doing enough hanging around to keep it worth watching (7:45 ET, ESPN), but the Tide to keep them at arm’s length with the outcome not in serious doubt.
Cal-UCLA (3:30, ABC Regional)
This one isn’t a monster clash, but at 3-2 and in the middle of a crowded Pac-10, the loser will be an early hole for getting a decent bowl bid (the conference championship won’t happen for either, but a Holiday Bowl shot at a good Big 12 team is a prize worth fighting for in the Pac-10). More importantly, this game is about respect. Cal can’t regain what they’ve lost in the eyes of the college football community after their horrific performances against Oregon & USC, but they can at least stop the bleeding by winning at UCLA. And Rick Neuheisel’s Bruins can make a major statement that they are a team to be dealt with in the Pac-10 and building fast to challenge their crosstown rival sooner rather than later. Today, though, I see Jahvid Best and the Golden Bears stopping their downward spiral and coming off a bye week with a badly needed win.
Stanford and Washington each have to pass winnable road tests in their own hunt for the Holiday Bowl and more. The Cardinal goes to Arizona, while Washington is further downstate in Tempe against ASU. The call here is that Stanford wins, while the Huskies falter as their suspect defense is picked apart by Sun Devil senior QB Danny Sullivan.
By Sunday night we’ll be about the halfway point of the season and the Notebook will be back to sort the weekend results out.