College Football Week 6: The Six Marquee Games

The SEC is home to the biggest game on the board for Saturday and after yesterday’s conference-by-conference overview, Georgia’s visit to South Carolina will lead up today’s discussion of the six biggest games of college football Week 6. It’s a game of huge consequence in the SEC East, with these two teams, along with Florida, each at 3-0 and all looking good enough to not simply make the SEC Championship Game, but perhaps to win the league championship. And since this is the SEC, we all know what means on the national stage.

Saturday night’s battle in Columbia will be a study in contrasts. South Carolina is at its best with defense, the running game of Marcus Lattimore and letting quarterback Connor Shaw run a high-efficiency passing game that also includes Lattimore. The Gamecocks got an opening night scare from Vanderbilt, but the offense has become considerably more efficient in the ensuing weeks, including a decisive win over Missouri, and turning it on in the second half after a sluggish start against Kentucky.

Georgia is much more aggressive on the offensive side. They can certainly run the ball well, with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but they dropped 51 points on Tennessee last Saturday because sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray excels in the passing game. Defensively, Georgia would seem to have the talent to do well, but they gave up 44 points against the Vols and looked vulnerable for three quarters at Missouri earlier in the year.

The Bulldogs are getting respect in Las Vegas. They’re only a one-point underdog on the road, an indicator that bettors and bookmakers see them as the better team. I disagree. In a big game I would much rather take my chances with a team that’s consistent on defense and in the running game, and then accentuates that with a passing game that seems to gradually improve each week. Furthermore, Georgia’s offense took a heavy blow when leading pass-catcher Michael Jenkins was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Then put all that into the homefield-in-prime-time mix, and I just see a lot going South Carolina’s way. I’d certainly expect a good game, but I can’t think of a reason not to pick the Gamecocks to win it.

The other highlight games of Saturday…

LSU-Florida: I’d be nervous if I were a Florida fan. LSU’s getting some bad publicity nationally right now after their poor showing against Towson and what looks to be a team several notches off last year’s national title pace. But from Florida’s perspective it would have been much better to have LSU’s shaky outings be more under the radar and then you can play host to an overrated Top 5 team, rather than a team slipping in the polls and likely to be aggravated.

Of course the flip side is that LSU’s motivation might not matter, because Florida just looks like a better team in 2012. The Gators have started to get some offensive balance with Jeff Driskell doing a nice job at quarterback, and he’ll need to loosen the Tiger defense up and create some room for Mike Gillislee to run. Florida also looks good on the defensive side and this will be the stiffest test for young LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberg. Ideally it would have been nice to get more than 2.5 points with Florida, but they’re still a home dog set to win outright and keep pace with the Georgia-South Carolina winner.

Miami-Notre Dame: From 1987-90 these two schools staged a rivalry that made the Steelers-Ravens look tame by comparison. It was hot enough that the schools decided it would be best not to play, although they did meet in a bowl game after the 2010 season. Now they’re at it again in what will be a home-neutral game for Notre Dame at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Miami’s Stephen Morris is throwing the ball extremely well, hooking up with Philip Dorsett consistently in what’s been shootout wins over Georgia Tech & N.C. State. As for the Irish, they’ve had two weeks to get ready, having not played since their win over Michigan.

Both teams are contenders to reach a major bowl, although this game won’t affect Miami’s chances, since that hinges on the ACC title. Notre Dame, with games against Oklahoma, USC and Stanford ahead, can’t let a de facto home game get away. The Irish are a better team in the trenches, and it’s looking like the Hurricanes are going to be without a couple offensive lineman, so it’s going to come down to Morris. Notre Dame handled Denard Robinson, picking him off five times and they should be able to contain Morris enough to get the win.

West Virginia-Texas: The Big 12 has a good shot at producing two bids to the BCS and both of these teams would be strong contenders even if they just got to second place. This game is also where Geno Smith’s Heisman campaign really gets underway. The Mountaineer quarterback ‘s dazzling numbers to date have made him the frontrunner, but Saturday night in Austin marks the first really big game on his team’s schedule.

A couple weeks ago I would have liked the ‘Horns defense and their chances of at least slowing him down. But after they were picked apart by Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh a week ago, I no longer have that confidence. The game should be as high-scoring as Vegas predicts, with a posted Over/Under of 73.5, and I’ll lean Geno to bring home the road win.

N.C. State-Florida State: This game is probably the last real test in deciding whether Florida State will win the Atlantic Division. Their position in the national title chase would still have to be settled week-to-week, but if FSU gets head-to-head wins over both the Wolfpack and Clemson, it’s impossible to see how the Seminoles could lose the division. Conversely, if N.C. State pulls an upset, not only are they in the race, but Clemson’s back in it too.

All of that sounds exciting until we ask ourselves if there’s any valid reason to think N.C. State would win in prime-time at Tallahassee. Their defense has failed in tests against Tennessee and Miami, and Florida State’s offense is better than either one. The Seminoles can provide a defensive test that the Pack haven’t seen yet. Florida State can run the ball well with Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr., given them excellent offensive balance. So no, there is no valid reason to think the 17-point road underdogs can actually win.

Nebraska-Ohio State: This is  game that looks juicier on paper than it’s actually likely to be in the standings, thanks to Ohio State’s probation. And Nebraska’s impressive second-half rally to beat Wisconsin last week means the Cornhuskers don’t have their backs to the wall. What is at stake is Ohio State’s pride, in wanting to show they’re the league’s best team, even if they can’t win the championship. And while a loss wouldn’t kill Nebraska’s title hopes, think about what a win in Columbus would do in altering the race for the Legends Division title.

Ohio State has won by playing decent defense, and letting Braxton Miller carry the offense with his ability to run and throw. Nebraska has much better balance. They can run it conventionally, with Ameer Abduallah and Rex Burkhead, while Taylor Martinez has the same kind of versatility Miller has. The Nebraska defense is a mild question mark, but they were able to dominate the line of scrimmage against Wisconsin. Overall, Nebraska is a better team. The question is whether homefield in prime-time can deliver Ohio State and whether Martinez will make enough mistakes to lose.

My guess is that if Ohio State stays patient, they’ll get the mistakes. I’d pick the Buckeyes to win, but if I were at a betting window, the prospect of Nebraska  and more than a field goal (the line is Ohio State -3.5) would look enticing.