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September 16, 2011

Keep an eye on: What our guys are watching

Each week, Rivals.com'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
Colorado State plus-7.5 vs. Colorado. Colorado State has a good pass rush and Colorado has had a litany of injuries along the offensive line. In addition, this "rivalry" game probably means more to the Rams than it does to Colorado, which played California last week and faces Ohio State next week. CSU often gives Colorado a hard time, and Colorado State QB Pete Thomas throws well enough to give the Buffs some problems.
Tom Dienhart
Tennessee plus-9 at Florida. Led by a high-flying offense, Tennessee is off to a fast start in its second year under Derek Dooley. Vols QB Tyler Bray has hit 78.5 percent of his passes for 698 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Is he the top quarterback in the SEC? Bray has a chance to stake that claim and feast on a Florida secondary that is dotted with youth and could be the weakest link in what otherwise is a strong defense. That's the biggest reason Tennessee could knock off Florida, which has won the past six in the series. The key defensively to the Vols notching their first win in Gainesville since 2003 will be their ability to stop the run. The Vols rank eighth in the SEC in rush defense (138.5 ypg). If Tennessee triumphs, it will emerge as the greatest threat to South Carolina in the SEC East.
David Fox
Temple plus-7.5 vs. Penn State. I never thought I'd see the day where I would pick Temple over Penn State, but that day is here. Penn State's offense was just abysmal last week, especially with Matt McGloin (1-of-10 passing, 0 yards) at quarterback. Despite those numbers, Penn State has yet to name a starting quarterback. Even without first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple expects to have a solid pass rush. For two years, Temple TB Bernard Pierce has been the focal point of the offense, and that will continue Saturday at home.
Mike Huguenin
Virginia plus-10 at North Carolina. This is the 116th meeting in the South's oldest rivalry, and the spread seems high considering UNC held Rutgers to 1 rushing yard and had four sacks, yet won by just two points last week. UNC QB Bryn Renner has thrown four picks against middling secondaries; UVa has a good secondary, and I think Cavs CB Chase Minnifield is going to make life difficult for Heels WR Dwight Jones, who is Renner's favorite target. If the Cavs can mount any type of running game, they can pull the upset. At the least, this should be close.
Steve Megargee
Arizona plus-9.5 vs. Stanford. This clearly is a leap of faith, considering that Stanford buried Arizona 42-17 last season. But I have a feeling Arizona can keep this one close, particularly if star WR Juron Criner is healthy enough to play after sitting out last week's loss to Oklahoma State. This game marks Stanford's first real test in the Jim Harbaugh-era after outscoring San Jose State and Duke 101-17 the first two weeks, though Duke at least stayed competitive for a half. Arizona shouldn't be intimidated by Stanford after playing at Oklahoma State last week. QB Nick Foles is good enough to keep this game close. The guess here is that Foles turns this game into a shootout that isn't decided until the fourth quarter.
Season Totals
For the season, eight of 10 picks have covered the spread and two won outright.

Washington State. The Cougars are aiming for their first 3-0 start since 2006. In fact, the Cougars haven't posted three wins in a season since 2007. They've gotten off to a great start and lead the nation in scoring, but that was against Idaho State and UNLV. Now, they're facing San Diego State, a respectable team that posted nine wins last season and have a good quarterback in Ryan Lindley and explosive tailback in Ronnie Hillman. A Washington State victory would signal that the Cougars no longer can be taken lightly and will have a legitimate shot at reaching a bowl.


Florida State QB E.J. Manuel. I think Manuel, a junior, is the key to the Seminoles' shot at toppling No. 1 Oklahoma. Manuel has shown flashes. He started twice in 2010 when Christian Ponder was battling injury, and Manuel also took over in the second quarter of last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl and led the Seminoles over South Carolina. As a redshirt freshman, Manuel guided FSU to a Gator Bowl triumph over West Virginia to cap the 2009 season in what was Bobby Bowden's last game. Big-game experience is no issue. And Manuel has looked good the first two weeks, though the 'Noles have faced overmatched foes. Now comes the biggest challenge of Manuel's career. If he can make the Sooners respect the pass, it will give Florida State's offense balance. And that will make it difficult on an Oklahoma defense that still is rounding into form, particularly in the back seven.


Florida QB John Brantley. At this time last year, all was well for Brantley. He was 14-of-23 for 167 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee, not spectacular but enough to help the Gators beat the Volunteers 38-17. Since then, though, Brantley has become Florida's whipping boy and Tennessee has improved greatly. Florida is going to rely on its defense, especially up front, to win games. Offensively, it appears Charlie Weis has found an interesting way to mix TBs Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Mike Gillislee. All that said, I can't picture Florida contending for the SEC East without major improvement and contributions from Brantley. He'll have tougher tests this year (Alabama, at LSU), but this will be a key sign for the direction Florida's quarterback play will go.


Arizona State's defense. The Sun Devils again were supposed to be nasty on defense and questionable on offense, but they sure weren't nasty in last week's OT win over Missouri. The offense has been just fine thus far, but the defense needs to step it up. Mobile Mizzou QB James Franklin hurt Arizona State last week; he's not necessarily considered a running threat. This week, the Sun Devils play at Illinois, and Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase is a better runner than passer. This is the second game in a big three-game stretch for Arizona State, which plays host to USC next week. But a loss this week by the Sun Devils would remove a lot of luster from next week's showdown. It's up to the defense to make sure that doesn't happen.


The ACC's search for respect. Saturday marks the first time ever that four ACC teams have played host to ranked non-conference opponents on the same day. Florida State hosts top-ranked Oklahoma, Clemson welcomes defending national champion Auburn, Maryland meets West Virginia and Miami plays Ohio State. The ACC typically gets criticized each season for its failure to win high-profile non-conference games, but the league seems to have at least a fighting chance in each of these four games. Florida State plays an Oklahoma team that's missing star LB Travis Lewis, and Clemson, Maryland and Miami enter their games as slight favorites. There's a sense that FSU's anticipated return to prominence eventually could help the ACC regain some national respect and finally become a player in the BCS championship race. In the short term, though, the ACC can command some respect by at least earning a split of these four games.


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