September 9, 2011

Keep an eye on: What our guys are watching

Each week,'s college football experts give fans things to keep an eye on over the course of the weekend. Here are some key things to watch this weekend.

We're back with another season of trying to predict the big upsets - or, at the least, pick teams that will cover the spread. The lone stipulation for our writers in choosing a game is that the spread has to be at least 7.5 points.
Olin Buchanan
Penn State plus-10 vs. Alabama. Alabama is a top-five team and some think the Tide could be the best team in the nation. But neither of Alabama's inexperienced quarterbacks has started a game in the kind of atmosphere that awaits at Penn State. Penn State won't be an easy win, and if the Lions can avoid turnovers, this one should be much closer than last season's 24-3 Tide win in Tuscaloosa. And if the Nittany Lions can keep it close into the fourth quarter, they'll have a chance to pull the upset.
Tom Dienhart
Toledo plus-19 at Ohio State. Toledo won't beat Ohio State, but look for the Rockets to take the game deep into the second half before the Buckeyes are able to rest easy. This is a good Toledo team loaded with experience on both sides of the ball. The veteran offense is especially good, led by WR Eric Page, and has depth at quarterback and running back. The line also is big and physical. Nine starters return on defense. Rockets coach Tim Beckman will be motivated against Ohio State, where he was an assistant in 2005 and '06 before leaving to become defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.
David Fox
Utah plus-9.5 at USC. Utah's opener against Montana State was ugly, but I'm willing to credit some of that to first-game jitters and to the Utes looking ahead to their next two games - at USC (the Utes' Pac-12 debut) and at BYU (the Utes' biggest rival). USC had an ugly start, too, against Minnesota in a game where only Matt Barkley and Robert Woods seemed interested. More than that, USC's 19-17 win displayed a more systemic problem with the Trojans: fourth-quarter flops. USC has been outscored in the fourth quarter in nine of the past 10 games and 11 times under Lane Kiffin. If USC's fourth-quarter problems have spilled into the third, USC will be in for a long season.
Mike Huguenin
Utah plus-9.5 at USC. Utah's first conference game in the Pac-12 comes against the league's titan, and I think the Utes will be extremely ready. Neither team looked all that good in winning in Week 1, and I'm not sure the return of TB Marc Tyler - who was suspended for the opener - is going to add the needed juice to USC's rushing attack. Look for the Utes to keep it close into the fourth quarter; then it will be up to Kyle Whittingham to out-coach Lane Kiffin - which easily could happen.
Steve Megargee
Missouri plus-7.5 at Arizona State. Although Arizona State's defense has garnered plenty of attention, I'm guessing the preseason injuries to LB Brandon Magee and CB Omar Bolden eventually will take their toll. Bolden would have been particularly useful this week as Arizona State attempts to contain T.J. Moe, a 1,000-yard receiver last season. I'm also not sold on the Pac-12 in general this season after the conference's miserable overall performance in the opening week. If Missouri QB James Franklin steps up his play after a so-so performance last week, the Tigers could win this game outright.
Season Totals
For the season, four of five picks covered the spread and two won outright.

Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees. How could you not be compelled to keep a close eye on Notre Dame's quarterback situation? Dayne Crist won the job by presumably outplaying Rees through the spring and fall camp, then lost it after a poor showing in the first half of last week's loss to USF. Rees played well in the second half, so I can understand promoting him to the starter. If Rees plays well, that should settle the issue. But what if he falters against Michigan? Will Crist come back in? Or will coach Brian Kelly show more patience and commitment to Rees? This could turn into a long controversy if one of the quarterbacks doesn't take command of the position. - OLIN BUCHANAN

Auburn's defense. The unit was awful against Utah State last week. The Tigers were breaking in eight new starters, and it showed in a harrowing 42-38 win that required two touchdowns in the final 2:12. Auburn yielded 448 yards to the Aggies, including 227 on the ground. More grim details: Utah State had four touchdown drives of at least 14 plays. Where was the pressure? Now, here comes Mississippi State, which has a physical ground game led by RB Vick Ballard and a blossoming passing game behind QB Chris Relf. Auburn will have no chance to stop the Bulldogs unless its defense makes huge strides against the run. A loss would push the Tigers behind Mississippi State in the SEC West pecking order.


Alabama's rushing attack. Alabama went into its opener against Kent State planning to experiment with its offensive line. Barrett Jones played tackle, guard and center, moving to the interior of the line to guide freshman T Cyrus Kouandjio and to gain experience at center in the event of injury. That kind of tinkering will end against a solid Penn State defense, but it will be interesting to see how it settles. As for the running game, Trent Richardson was not productive with 37 yards on 13 carries. Last season's Penn State game, on the other hand, yielded a career-high 144 rushing yards for Richardson. Alabama's line and run game will be fine and probably one of the best units in the nation, but it will be a storyline to watch this week.


Georgia's line play. The Bulldogs got whipped up front by Boise State last week, especially the Bulldogs' offensive line by the Broncos' defensive line. Next up is South Carolina, which has one of the two or three best defensive lines in the SEC. The Gamecocks might not be as physical as the Broncos, but they have more speed. Georgia's rushing attack managed 137 yards last week against Boise - but 80 of those came on a gadget play of sorts, when CB Brandon Boykin went for a score on the second play of Georgia's third drive. Plus, Georgia QB Aaron Murray was sacked six times. Can the Bulldogs get any kind of push against the Gamecocks' front four? If not, Murray is going to get pounded for the second week in a row. And can the Bulldogs' defensive front seven stymie South Carolina TB Marcus Lattimore, who ran for 182 yards and two TDs against Georgia last season? Georgia did a good job against Boise's running game, holding the Broncos to 129 yards. But the Bulldogs had no sacks.


TCU's defense. TCU's defense can't be as bad as it looked against Baylor, can it? After leading the nation in total defense in each of the past three seasons, TCU got picked apart by QB Robert Griffin and WR Kendall Wright in a 50-48 loss to Baylor. Now the Horned Frogs head to Air Force trying to avoid their first 0-2 start since 1999. The youth in TCU's secondary proved costly against Baylor, but it might not be as much of a factor against Air Force's option attack. As well as Air Force runs the ball, its plan of attack plays into the strength of TCU's defense - its linebacker duo of Tank Carder and Tanner Brock. That should allow TCU's defense to reassert itself this week. If not, it could be a much rougher season than expected for the Horned Frogs.


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