Saturday Storylines: Week 8
Cam Newton will put his Heisman candidacy on the line against a fierce LSU D
Missouri has a lot to prove when it hosts fellow Big 12 undefeated Oklahoma
Former top five teams Ohio State and Nebraska look to rebound from defeats
The 10 things we're buzzing about as the season's second half begins:
Eye of the Tigers: My, how Cam Newton's legend has grown. Not too long ago, the masses were lumping the Auburn quarterback with Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez to form a group of emergent dual-threat quarterbacks. Since that company has ceased being comparable, names like Tim Tebow and Vince Young are starting to get tossed around. When LSU heads to Jordan-Hare for a battle between SEC West unbeatens, we'll find out if that kind of talk is premature or prophetic. The 6-foot-6 Newton leads the SEC in rushing (123 yards per game) and has made something of a habit of bulldozing opposing defenders. He's getting it done with his arm as well, ranking second nationally in pass efficiency and accounting for 25 total touchdowns. He's also yet to face a team like LSU, which ranks third nationally in total defense. Run, and Drake Nevis will meet you. Pass, and contend with Patrick Peterson. Or, find a way to beat them both. That's what Tebow and Young would do.
Stopping the Sooner Schooner: Reigning Big 12 freshman of the year Aldon Smith has missed Missouri's last three games with a broken bone in his leg, but the sack machine does not intend to ride the pine when No. 1 Oklahoma comes to Columbia on Saturday night. "There's nothing that would stop me from playing this weekend," Smith told media this week. "I don't think it's just another game. I think we'll attack it differently, putting a lot more focus and dedication to this game." If Smith feels that way, imagine what's going on inside of Coach Gary Pinkel's head. Pinkel has never beaten the Sooners, but he's not alone. Oklahoma has won seven straight over Missouri and 19 of 20 in the all-time series. The last two meetings, lopsided Oklahoma victories in the 2007 and 2008 Big 12 title games, left particularly sour tastes in Missouri's mouth. So yes, the Tigers feel like they have something to prove. To turn that desire into reality, they'll need a big day from a defense that's allowing just 13.3 points per game and is coming off a seven sack performance against Texas A&M -- without Smith.
On the rebound: Upset Saturday claimed many victims, but none as prime as Ohio State and Nebraska. The Buckeyes failed their first test as the nation's No. 1, falling 31-18 to a Wisconsin team that dominated all facets of the game. They'll look to bounce back against Purdue, which has found ways to win despite losing three key offensive players to injury. Still perfectly healthy: defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who headlines a unit that gave Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor plenty of problems in an upset win last season. The Huskers, meanwhile, fell from No. 5 to 14 after imploding offensively in a loss to Texas. Martinez and Co. should regain some of their mojo against Oklahoma State's No. 92 defense, but Nebraska's Blackshirts will need to limit a Cowboys offense trailing only Oregon in yards and points per game.
Pac-10 pecking order: Well, Oregon looks pretty good. The Ducks just dropped 60 in a conference game (albeit against UCLA) and show no signs of slowing down. That means Arizona and Stanford, both 5-1 overall and 2-1 in conference play, can't afford any more mistakes if they hope to stay in the Pac-10 hunt. That'll be a much easier task for Stanford, which gets lowly Washington State at home and has a healthy Andrew Luck at the helm. It'll be more of a challenge for Arizona, which draws a hot Washington team and will be without starting quarterback Nick Foles, who sprained his knee in last week's win over the Cougars. Foles ranked second nationally in completion percentage (75.3) and first in the Pac-10 in pass yards per game (305.8), so the Wildcats will undergo a bit of an identity shift under Matt Scott, who's less of a pure passer but is a threat to run. Offensive identity doesn't always matter for an Arizona team ranking seventh nationally in scoring defense (13.3 per), but with Washington QB Jake Locker coming off a career-best five touchdown performance against Oregon State, it might matter this time.
Big Ten's big three: Michigan State should beat Northwestern. Ohio State should beat Purdue. That means the game between Wisconsin and Iowa should determine the third dog in the Big Ten race. The Badgers may have knocked off the nation's No. 1 team, but they already lost to Michigan State and would be toast if they suffered a second conference defeat. The Hawkeyes are 2-0 in Big Ten play, but a loss would put them in the hole with games against the Spartans and Buckeyes still to come. Look for this one to boil down to the run -- namely Wisconsin's ability to execute it, and Iowa's ability to stop it. The formidable tailback tandem of John Clay and James White gets all the credit, but much of Wisconsin's success belongs to the line, which is led by SI.com midseason All-America honorees John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi. How does Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz evaluate this week's competition? In two words: "They're gigantic." Iowa may not be able to match Wisconsin's sheer girth, but the Hawkeyes' defensive line boasts a pretty huge number of its own: 83.8. That's how many rushing yards the unit allows per game, seventh best nationally.
TCU's tough test: The Horned Frogs have not allowed a touchdown in October. In fact, they were a field goal shy of posting three consecutive shutouts. In that trio of games against Colorado State, Wyoming and BYU, TCU allowed a grand total of 499 yards. That's undeniable dominance. And yet -- that stingy stretch came against offenses that rank 83rd, 120th (also known as dead last) and 107th nationally. That's worth noting, because this weekend Air Force brings the nation's top rushing attack to Fort Worth. Because the Falcons run the triple option, the Frogs can't key in on one back. Asher Clark, Jared Tew and Tim Jefferson all rank among the nation's top 100 rushers, and they'll be hungry for redemption after falling 27-25 to San Diego State last week. A Nov. 6 date with Utah remains the biggest hurdle on No. 4 TCU's road to the BCS, but Air Force should prove a far stiffer challenge than the Frogs' October slate to date.
Luck of the Irish: Don't look now, but Notre Dame is on a bit of a roll. After a hard-luck 1-3 start to the season, the Irish have won three straight against Boston College, Pitt and Western Michigan. Now comes a revenge game against Navy, which had the gall to beat the Irish in two of the last three seasons after serving as their doormat for 43 straight years. Remember, though, that this is the same Notre Dame team that lost to Michigan State on a fake field goal in overtime. This is not a lucky Irish squad. So it's no surprise that heading into a potentially season-defining game, the injury toll is mounting. Already missing stud tight end Kyle Rudolph for the rest of the season, Notre Dame will be without slot receiver Theo Riddick (ankle) and possibly star wideout Michael Floyd, who has been limited in practice with a sore hammy. But as least Navy's D is soft, right? Wrong, naturally: The Mids ranks 22nd nationally in scoring defense and 29th in total D.
Coastal clarity: Florida State certainly seems to have the ACC's Atlantic Division well in hand. The Coastal is still very much up for grabs. Virginia Tech may have started the season with consecutive defeats, but the Hokies are 3-0 in conference play. In their shadow: Georgia Tech (3-1), North Carolina (2-1) and Miami (2-1). Yes, the Georgia Tech team that lost to Kansas. Yes, the UNC squad decimated by suspensions. Yes, the Miami team that got rocked by FSU and couldn't hang with Ohio State. This is not exactly the kind of depth the ACC had in mind. While Virginia Tech faces a favorable Week 8 matchup against Duke, Georgia Tech lands Clemson and UNC and Miami land each other. 'Noles and Hokies fans, you might as well starting booking your title-game travel now.
Rutgers believes: It might seem like West Virginia has no challengers in the Big East, but the Mountaineers haven't locked up the conference yet. With Rutgers and Pitt both 1-0 in conference play, Saturday's matchup could go a long way toward determining which squad is best positioned to challenge WVU for the crown. But the truth is, the Scarlet Knights -- and the entire football community -- have more on their minds than league standings. It's impossible to predict how Rutgers will perform in its first game since defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down. The Knights want to play for their teammate, but who knows how much they'll have left after such a draining week. They won't have to honor him alone; countless Rutgers fans have purchased T-shirts bearing LeGrand's No. 52 and the message "Believe" and nearly 200 New Jersey teams will wear helmet stickers to show their support.
Minnesota's new era: Jeff Horton has 22 years of college coaching experience, but it's debatable whether he's ever faced a tougher challenge than righting the ship for 1-6 Minnesota, which fired Tim Brewster this week and appointed first-year offensive coordinator Horton as its interim head man. At least Horton is a pragmatist. "It's not like you're going to change the offense or the defense here with five weeks left in the season," he said at his introductory press conference. Well, that's what Week 8 opponent Penn State is counting on.
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