Saturday Storylines: Week 7
Arkansas-Auburn is battle between top-tier SEC West teams and quarterbacks
Ohio State faces a real challenge in its first game as the nation's No. 1 team
Michigan needs to rebound against Iowa to avoid déjà vu from its 2009 slide
The 10 things we're buzzing about as we approach the season's midway mark:
Wild, Wild West: Arkansas-Auburn is a battle between possibly elite SEC West teams. It's also a showdown between certifiably elite quarterbacks. Ryan Mallett and Cameron Newton have quite a bit in common. They're both 6-foot-6 (ish). They're both Heisman candidates. They're both in the conversation for best quarterback in the SEC -- and nation. But when their teams face off on Saturday, their differences will be on display. Mallett is a classic pocket-passer, a lanky gunslinger who's at his best when he has time to survey the field and fire passes with his cannon arm. Newton is an ideal pilot for a new-age spread, a dual-threat behemoth who can make plays with his arms or legs and take what the defense gives him. Mallett leads the SEC in total offense and passing. Newton leads the league in rushing and passing efficiency. Mallett has a better defense behind him. Newton has a better stable of running backs on his side. And that might be the biggest difference of all: Newton can do it all, but he doesn't always have to.
No. 1 Ohio State hits the road: Ohio State is No. 1, and not everyone is happy about it. The Buckeyes received 34 votes in the AP poll, but 26 went elsewhere. They've won their first six games, but have taken heat for doing so against a schedule that no longer includes a Top 25 team. They rank 17th nationally in total offense and sixth in points scored, but questions still linger over whether the duo of Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor will ever get it quite right. Heavy is the head, eh? Luckily, Pryor and Co. can minimize those concerns this weekend by beating a ranked Wisconsin team that has won 40 of its last 44 contests at Camp Randall Stadium and 25 of its last 28 night games. Doing so won't be easy. The Buckeyes boast the nation's No. 3 defense (236.3 yards allowed per game), but they've yet to face a rushing duo as formidable as Wisconsin's John Clay and James White.
Nebraska's farewell tour continues: Remember when so much of this contest was about the bad blood between Texas and Nebraska in the wake of Realignment Gate? Funny how actually playing games changes things. Six weeks into the season, the storyline goes something like this: Texas is looking to avoid its first-ever three-game losing streak under Mack Brown, while Nebraska is looking to preserve its Big 12 and national championship aspirations. Of course, that reality doesn't mean Huskers fans have forgotten their team's gut-wrenching Big 12 Championship Game loss to the 'Horns last December, or the fact that Texas has beaten Nebraska eight of the last nine times the two have played. But Nebraska didn't have Taylor Martinez in those games -- and Texas didn't have Garrett Gilbert. These offenses have gone in opposite directions since that 2009 meeting, and while Martinez's inexperience is bound to surface against a fast, hard-hitting Texas D, Gilbert and Texas' running-back-by-committee stand little chance of hitting their stride against a Nebraska team allowing just 12.4 points per game.
Déjà vu for Michigan?: Heading into the 2009 season, few topics were hotter than Rich Rodriguez's job security. But then Rodriguez found a quarterback suited to running his spread (Tate Forcier), and the Wolverines won their first four games. Big Blue was back. Only, it wasn't. Michigan lost in overtime to Michigan State, then dropped a heartbreaker to Iowa (30-28). It wasn't a rough patch; it was a downward spiral. The team finished 5-7. Heading into the 2010 season, few topics were hotter than Rich Rodriguez's job security. But then Rodriguez found a quarterback suited to running his spread (Denard Robinson), and the Wolverines won their first five games. Big Blue was back. Only, then it started happening again. Michigan lost to Michigan State, and it wasn't close. Now, a date with No. 15 Iowa looms. Despite throwing three costly picks and being held to a season-low 86 rushing yards against the Spartans, Robinson remains Michigan's best hope of avoiding a repeat of last week -- and last year. Adrian Clayborn and a Hawkeyes defense that leads the nation in scoring defense (10.2 points per game) will be waiting for him.
Florida State looks to maintain momentum: After Florida State lost to Oklahoma in such spectacular fashion, it was almost impossible not to dismiss the Seminoles as the latest defensively challenged FSU team that would fail to live up to its considerable potential. But perhaps we were a bit rash. Since that 47-17 fiasco in Norman, Jimbo Fisher's crew has won four straight by a combined margin of 144-41, including a decisive 45-17 victory over then No. 13 Miami last week. It remains to be seen if Florida State is really good, or Miami is really bad, but the facts to date bode well for the 'Noles. (Miami hung with Ohio State, and that has to count for something. Just ask Illinois!) At the moment, FSU is the highest ranked team in Florida, which is almost as hard to believe as the fact that senior Seminoles quarterback Christian Ponder has never beaten Boston College, this week's opponent. The old 'Noles would be ripe for a fall after such a big win, and so we'll learn quite a bit about Fisher, Ponder and Co. even against a 2-3 BC team. And if the 'Noles do fall? Well, they're one win away from matching their 2009 regular-season total, and at the very least, that's progress.
SEC squads on the rebound: Alabama may sit ahead of South Carolina in the rankings, but don't let the polls fool you: The Gamecocks' upset win over the Tide was the biggest development of the season. Now, 'Bama is looking to get back on a championship track, while SC is looking to continue its East-leading ways. Alabama faces the easier task this weekend. The Tide return home to Tuscaloosa, where they've won 17 in a row, and where they'll face a Mississippi team allowing 32.6 points per game (103rd nationally). That said, beating the Rebels won't be a cinch. Jeremiah Masoli and the Ole Miss offense have settled in and, just like the Gamecocks last week, the Rebels are coming off a bye. As for those Gamecocks: They're heading to Lexington, where they're bound to come out a bit flat against a Kentucky team that nearly beat Auburn last week. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, their starting running back (Derrick Locke) is hurt; South Carolina's (Marcus Lattimore) is not.
Sooner Schooner still rolling: It's a pretty safe bet that Oklahoma will beat Iowa State this weekend. For starters, the Sooners just beat Texas, and they're 11-0 under Bob Stoops in the game that follows Red River. For another, the Cyclones just surrendered 68 points in a loss to Utah. And of course, Oklahoma leads the all-time series by a respectable 67-5-2 margin. But we still need to talk about the Sooners, because they're suddenly popping up in conversations about the best team in the country. A trendy sleeper national title pick this preseason, OU fell out of the limelight after barely beating Utah State, Air Force and Cincinnati. But at the end of the day, the Sooners beat those teams. They also beat Florida State and Texas. And after emerging from that challenging stretch unscathed, they're facing a cakewalk of a conference slate that currently features just two ranked teams (Missouri and Oklahoma State). That said, the Utes didn't do the Sooners any favors by hammering Iowa State. Style points matter for all teams, not just Boise State, but with the exception of that lopsided 47-17 victory over Florida State, Oklahoma has failed to score more than 31 points or hold the opposition under 20 in any game.
Hope for Heisman hopefuls: Despite throwing three picks and failing to rush for 100 yards in a losing effort against Michigan State, Michigan's Robinson still earned SI.com's honorary Halfway Heisman. But Shoelace will have a tough time maintaining his place atop Heisman Watch lists nationwide if he struggles against Iowa. A clump of players lurks in Robinson's shadow, but three quarterbacks are particularly well-positioned to supplant him with a strong showing this week. Newton can do wonders for his candidacy by outdueling fellow hopeful Mallett; Pryor can reclaim his preseason place atop the pecking order with a productive and mistake-free day against Wisconsin; and Martinez can officially get the "Can a freshman win the Heisman?" talk going by maintaining his touchdown pace against Texas. Because Oregon plays before the next installment of Saturday Storylines (Thursday vs. UCLA), it's worth noting that LaMichael James is currently the nation's leading rusher, and might have a better claim than them all after he's finished feasting on the Bruins.
Flying under the Big 12 radar: We've talked about Oklahoma and Nebraska, but the Sooners and Huskers aren't the only undefeated teams in the Big 12. Missouri and Oklahoma State are also 5-0, and since they play Oklahoma and Nebraska in Week 8, respectively, we've got a doozy of a Big 12 slate in store if all four squads take care of business this weekend. For Missouri, taking care of business entails beating Texas A&M, which will be a lot easier if quarterback Blaine Gabbert isn't slowed by a sore hip. Even if Gabbert's not at full strength, though, Missouri's defense should be able to limit the Aggies and Jerrod Johnson, who has thrown nine interceptions in his last three games. For Oklahoma State, taking care of business entails beating Texas Tech, which likely means firing a few more bullets in a shootout. The Cowboys rank fourth nationally in total offense and 88th in total defense; the Red Raiders 29th and 89th. If Cowboys running back Kendall Hunter can keep the Tech defense honest (and with 700 yards under his belt, that shouldn't be hard), quarterback Brandon Weeden will do some damage with receiver Justin Blackmon, one of the biggest breakout stars of the season's first half.
In the Pac-10 spotlight: There are only three games this weekend involving Pac-10 teams, and while the mass bye week probably isn't part of Larry Scott's branding vision, it's darn good news for Oregon State, which won't have to share the spotlight with those greedy Ducks and Cardinal. The Beavers could certainly benefit from a little more time on SportsCenter. Maybe more airtime will result in the voters who currently have Mike Riley's team at No. 24 rethinking where to rank a squad that beat a top 10 team (then No. 9 Arizona) and saw both of its losses come on the road against top five teams (TCU and Boise). Then again, with dynamic receiver James Rodgers lost for the year to a shredded knee, maybe not.
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