Alabama-Arkansas (3:30 ET, CBS): It's the test the Notebook has circled for Alabama since the season started. This is the first real spot where the Tide can be beat. The young secondary met their dry run against a passing offense last week in shutting down Duke, and now steps into the fire against Ryan Mallett. The Razorbacks can throw the ball on 'Bama, but the issue is whether they can control the line of scrimmage. Can they make sure Mallet gets time? Can they make certain Alabama has to respect the run? If they can't, they're setting themselves up for a game where Mallet gets his stats, but between sacks, hurries and turnovers, gives too much of it back. When the Tide has the ball, Greg McElroy's been doing a great job finding receivers other than Julio Jones and Mark Ingram's return gives 'Bama a potent 1-2 punch in the backfield along with Trent Richardson. Arkansas will need to score points to win, and I think they're going to do it, in a 34-31 thriller.
South Carolina-Auburn (7:45 ET, ESPN): Both these teams have the right to think seriously about winning their divisions and upending the Alabama-Florida cartel that's ruled the SEC the last two years. South Carolina seems to me the better team in this one--their defense is playing very well, Marcus Lattimore gives a whole new dimension to the offense, and Stephen Garcia is very efficient at quarterback. On a neutral site I'd pick them without hesitation. But this one goes down in Auburn. The Tigers play some tough defense themselves and Cameron Newton is a dual threat at quarterback. Even given homefield advantage though, I don't think Auburn's straight-ahead running game is good enough to beat a really good team, and I don't think Garcia will make the mistakes the Auburn defense needs to force. It's going to be a good one, but South Carolina prevails 17-10.
Out west, Boise State meets its last big non-conference test against Sean Canfield and an explosive Oregon State offense. The game will be the main ABC telecast at 8 PM ET, with the Brent Musberger/Kirk Herbstreit team on hand. Last year's season opener in Boise, when they hosted Oregon, was a better pure football matchup. But this one is certainly the most hyped game played on the blue field. The media consensus is that this is the last real test for the Broncos on their way to another 12-0 season. I don't share that view--I think it underrates Nevada and possibly Fresno State. But there's no question this is still an enormous September game with national title implications all over it.
Canfield has to get the ball to the Rodgers brothers, Jacquizz out of the backfield and James on the flanks. Virginia Tech moved the ball against Boise and the Beavers can do the same. Oregon State has not played well defensively though, and Boise's offense has looked equally strong. They've got homefield in this one. All signs point to Boise, but there is this issue to worry about--the pressure is on the Broncos to not just win, but win big. They might do it, but having that kind of expectation is very tough to deal with it. Can they be patient when the situation calls for it? In short, can they avoid playing for style points and just focus on winning a football game? Oregon State is good enough to win this game if Boise gets mentally scattered from trying to do too much. I think Chris Peterson's team will get a stiff challenge, but also be mentally tough enough to keep their focus. Boise wins it 35-31.
Two other good games involving the Pac-10...
Oregon-Arizona State (10:30 ET): The Sun Devils sent a message in Wisconsin last week that they can be a dark horse. Oregon has just been burying people early on and has an offense that's firing on all cylinders. If ASU can pull an upset here, the key will be getting Oregon slowed down and then perhaps inducing little uncertainty in the minds of the favorite, as they deal with their first real test. The Sun Devils made some big plays on special teams last week and have to do so again. Sophomore quarterback Steven Threet played like a veteran last week and has to do so again. That's the scenario, and it's not out of the question, but would I bet on it? No way. Oregon's control of the ground game is too overwhelming, and stopping this is not something ASU did well against Wisconsin. Oregon wins it 35-13.
Stanford-Notre Dame (3:30 ET, NBC): Once again I have the Irish on the list of big games due partly to the fact it will be one of the few games shown to the entire country. But the interest here doesn't so much lie in Notre Dame but in the visitors from Palo Alto. How good is Stanford? They've pummeled UCLA and Wake Forest at home. Now they get a similarly soft opponent on the road. Will the Cardinal travel well? They're emerging as perhaps the best challenger to Oregon in the Pac-10 and this visit to South Bend will tell us a lot about their readiness. I think they meet the test, controlling the game on the ground, keeping Dayne Crist under control in the passing game and unleashing Andrew Luck on their own side. Stanford wins it 34-10.
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