Biggest Question Facing Each Top 25 Team Heading into Week 9

Jeff Bell@@JrayBellCorrespondent IOctober 25, 2013

Biggest Question Facing Each Top 25 Team Heading into Week 9

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    Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon
    Alabama RB T.J. YeldonMarvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

    The halfway point of the 2013 college football season has come and gone, and we're inching closer to the home stretch where players, coaches and teams are ultimately defined.

    Very few teams can still accomplish every goal set forth at the beginning of the year, but that doesn't mean up-and-down seasons can't become successful ones.

    For programs in the Top 10, now is the time to make a statement and fight for position. Others are simply an upset or two away from making the conference races a whole lot more interesting. Injuries are occurring everywhere you look, but the strong-willed teams will find a way to survive.

    Let's take a look at the biggest question facing each Top 25 team in Week 9 of the 2013 college football season.


    All stats via ESPN. The BCS rankings were used to determine the Top 25 teams.

25) Oregon State

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    WR Brandin Cooks
    WR Brandin CooksKelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Biggest Question: Can the offense continue to impress against better competition?

    Oregon State's prolific offense is putting up mind-boggling numbers in 2013.

    Quarterback Sean Mannion has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and already has 29 touchdown passes (versus just three interceptions). His top target, wide receiver Brandin Cooks, has nearly 1,200 yards receiving and 14 total touchdowns. To top it all off, the defense, which allowed 49 points in a loss to Eastern Washington to open the season, hasn't given up more than 24 points since their Sept. 21 date with San Diego State.

    That may not sound impressive when compared to some of the elite defenses in the nation, but when you combine it with a soaring offense, you have a team right in the thick of the Pac-12 North race.

    Ah, but before Beaver fans get too comfortable with their shiny new ranking, they should take a look at the daunting slate to close out the season: Stanford, USC, at Arizona State, Washington and at Oregon.

    It's safe to say this team is a whole lot better than it was in September, and that the offense is one of the better units in the country. But will that narrative begin to change after a visit from Stanford?

24) Nebraska

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    Head Coach Bo Pelini
    Head Coach Bo PeliniBrian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Biggest Question: Can Cornhuskers take care of business before games vs. Michigan schools?

    First there was a 37-34 victory over Wyoming. Two weeks later versus UCLA, Nebraska was blown out, 41-21, at home in a game that saw the home team get outscored 38-0 after jumping out to a 21-3 lead.

    But since the struggles of September, Bo Pelini's team has found a nice rhythm. In fact, the Cornhuskers still control their own destiny in the Legends Division.

    Before fans can start thinking about a return trip to the conference championship game, however, their squad must take care of business against Minnesota and Northwestern. Solid efforts in the next two weeks will keep Nebraska right in the thick of things before an all-important two-game stretch against Michigan and Michigan State (before closing out against Penn State and Iowa).

    Those contests will go a long way toward determining the division winner, but it won't matter unless the offense, led by Ameer Abdullah on the ground, can take care of business the next two weeks.

    After a couple of shaky games in the first month, the biggest question facing this team is how it will handle the "easier" games leading into the showdown with the state of Michigan.

23) UCF

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    QB Blake Bortles
    QB Blake Bortles

    Biggest Question: Can Knights avoid upset hangover?

    This one is easy. After arguably the biggest win in school history, a 38-35 triumph over Louisville, the Knights have a clear path toward an American Athletic title and a berth in a BCS bowl game.

    The question is, can the team bring the same effort to every game left on the schedule? Because let's be honest, there isn't a team remaining that should come close to the Knights.

    Quarterback Blake Bortles is more than capable of providing the offensive firepower, and the team itself is battle-tested after games against Penn State and South Carolina.

    So, will George O'Leary's guys seize the incredible opportunity the win over Louisville has given them?

22) Michigan

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    WR Jeremy Gallon
    WR Jeremy Gallon

    Biggest Question: Will the defense be ready for a season-defining November stretch?

    Michigan is on a bye week, and the team has a lot to think about before gearing up for a November slate that could turn 2013 into a very memorable year.

    The offense is humming along, having scored more than 40 points in three straight games (including a 63-point effort against Indiana last Saturday).

    The defense, however, is another matter.

    Brady Hoke's team has also given up 40-plus points in consecutive games, which includes 47 to the Hoosiers and 43 to Penn State in a 4OT loss. With so much at stake in the final month of the season, will the defense be able to help out the offense and vault the Wolverines to a division title?

    The first test will come at Michigan State, where the Spartans boast an outstanding defense and an extremely mediocre offense. If Michigan can't contain the attack in that one, it could be a long month.

    But should the defense stiffen up and move beyond its recent, terrible performances, it may just be ready for the likes of Nebraska and Ohio State.

21) South Carolina

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    RB Mike Davis
    RB Mike Davis

    Biggest Question: Can Gamecocks find balance on offense?

    With all the chaos going on in the SEC East, it seemed like South Carolina would be the team to emerge from the rubble and make it to the conference title game.

    That may still happen, but the task is a lot more difficult with a loss to Tennessee on the record. The Volunteers exposed a lot of problems, not the least of which is a lack of balance on the Gamecocks offense.

    Before leaving the game, quarterback Connor Shaw was 7-of-21 for 161 yards, one touchdown and an interception. His backup, Dylan Thompson, completed his only pass for five yards.

    What this tells us is that the Gamecocks have virtually no short-to-intermediate passing game (see 161 yards coming on just seven Shaw completions), and that there's a lack of balance with just eight total completions in the game.

    Running back Mike Davis has emerged as one of the best backs in the country, but South Carolina won't get by Missouri unless the passing attack improves. A strong ground game is important, especially in the SEC, but without the threat of being able to move the ball through the air, it doesn't mean much.

20) Louisville

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    QB Teddy Bridgewater
    QB Teddy Bridgewater

    Biggest Question: How quickly will Cardinals forget loss to UCF?

    The perfect season is over. Teddy Bridgewater's Heisman hopes are on life support, and even a second straight appearance in a BCS bowl is in jeopardy following a loss to Central Florida.

    For the Cardinals, it's about maintaining focus and finishing out the season strong, regardless of which bowl games are still in play.

    With so many lofty goals that are now unattainable, a loss won't be easy to bounce back from. However, the schedule didn't suddenly become harder over this past week, and if Bridgewater can continue to show off his NFL arm each week, Charlie Strong's team should be able to finish out the year without another loss.

    That, in turn, would put them in a decent bowl game with a chance to make the 2013 season a positive one.

    The loss cannot be undone. But if the Cardinals don't approach each week like they still have everything to play for, another one could be on its way.

19) Oklahoma State

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    QB J.W. Walsh
    QB J.W. Walsh

    Biggest Question: Will trap games become Cowboys' Achilles' heel?

    After three weeks of the 2013 season, it seemed Oklahoma State might give the Big 12 conference its best chance to put forth a national title contender. The Cowboys were thoroughly dominating admittedly inferior opponents, but the offense was clicking in all phases.

    A trip to West Virginia changed all of that, but Mike Gundy's team has responded with back-to-back victories over Kansas State and TCU. Against the Horned Frogs, the defense played inspired football and brought some light to a season that had begun to darken several weeks earlier.

    With the loss fully in the rearview mirror and a Big 12 title within reach, can the Cowboys avoid a similar letdown effort that doomed them in Morgantown?

    This Saturday's game against Iowa State fits the description of a trap game, with Texas Tech on the horizon. And a date with Kansas could be similarly troubling if the Cowboys are looking ahead to Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma.

    The big ones on the schedule will get this group's full attention, but will the Cowboys take care of business against teams of lesser caliber?


18) Northern Illinois

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    QB Jordan Lynch
    QB Jordan Lynch

    Biggest Question: Can Huskies ignore BCS hype?

    With Louisville's loss, Northern Illinois is suddenly looking at a potential return trip to the BCS.

    The Huskies have impressive victories over both Iowa and Purdue, and have rolled through MAC play fairly easily thus far. Quarterback Jordan Lynch is playing well (no surprise there), and you could easily see how this team could be looking ahead.

    But when that happens, teams often suffer surprising losses, so the onus is on the Huskies to stay the course and ignore and all BCS hype that may be bestowed upon them in the coming weeks. Ball State is no gimme, and a trip to Toledo will be challenging, as well.

    If the Huskies are to make it back to the BCS, they'll have to stay focused despite an increase in attention from national media.

17) Fresno State

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    QB Derek Carr
    QB Derek Carr

    Biggest Question: Will Derek Carr continue to dominate and lead his team to a MWC title?

    Quarterback Derek Carr has been phenomenal in 2013, leading his Bulldogs team to six straight wins to begin the season and putting them in prime position to capture a conference title.

    He's thrown for more than 300 yards in all six games, and also has a 460-yard, four-touchdown game against Boise State to his name.

    So the question here is simple: Will Carr's elite play continue as the games take on more pressure?

    The journey begins Saturday at San Diego State, but it also makes stops at Wyoming and San Jose State.

    This is the best Fresno State team we've seen in quite some time, and if you haven't seen Carr yet, make sure you do before the season is over. With a step up in competition over the next month, will the fantastic quarterback continue his strong play and lead his team to a Mountain West title?

16) Texas A&M

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    QB Johnny Manziel
    QB Johnny Manziel

    Biggest Question: Will the defense show any signs of improvement before LSU and Missouri?

    Originally, the thought was to have the biggest question be about Johnny Manziel's health. But we've seen enough grit out of the star quarterback the last few weeks to move that concern down the totem pole.

    The bigger concern, clearly, is the play of the defense. It let the team down against Alabama and couldn't make any key stops in a loss to Auburn this past Saturday.

    With Vanderbilt, UTEP and Mississippi State next in line, now is the time for the defense to show it can help the team win games. And let's face it, the Aggies don't have a chance against LSU or Missouri on the road unless they can stop the other team from scoring on occasion.

    Manziel is one of the best offensive weapons in the game, but he and wide receiver Mike Evans can't do it all by themselves. In this upcoming stretch of three very winnable games, can the defense improve enough to be ready for LSU and Missouri at season's end?

15) Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma celebrates a score.
    Oklahoma celebrates a score.

    Biggest Question: Can the offense keep up with Texas Tech and Baylor?

    The high point of the Sooners' season thus far has to be a 35-21 victory at Notre Dame.

    But since then, the offense hasn't managed to score more than 20 points.

    With the meat of the schedule up ahead, the biggest question facing Bob Stoops' team is how in the world can the offense keep up with Texas Tech and Baylor over the next two weeks?

    The unit is scoring just 30 points per game (which ranks 62nd in 2013), while the Red Raiders and Bears each average more than 40 points per game.

    Oklahoma has as much talent as anybody, but how the offense clicks over the next two weeks will define the 2013 season for the Sooners.

14) Virginia Tech

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    QB Logan Thomas
    QB Logan Thomas

    Biggest Question: Will Logan Thomas improve enough before visit to Miami?

    Credit Virginia Tech for bouncing back from a 35-10 defeat to Alabama to open the season.

    A lot of teams would see that score, accept the gap between them and the elite teams in the country, and fade into the distance. But not Frank Beamer's squad.

    The Hokies have since reeled off six straight victories and much-maligned quarterback Logan Thomas hasn't thrown an interception in three straight games. For all the problems he's had in the past, Thomas still has the potential to change the outcome of a game all by himself.

    Against the Crimson Tide, Thomas was downright awful, completing just 5-of-26 passes. He's improved a lot since that game, but is it enough to be able to put together a solid performance against Miami in a game that will likely reveal the winner of the Coastal Division in the ACC?

    The Hokies must slip by Duke and Boston College first, so moving forward, it's crucial that Thomas continues to grow and be mentally ready for the showdown with the Hurricanes on Nov. 9.


13) LSU

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    QB Zach Mettenberger
    QB Zach Mettenberger

    Biggest Question: Will Tigers put it all together for Alabama?

    Apologies to Furman, but there's a good chance LSU has already taken a sneak peek at Nov. 9, when they'll head to Tuscaloosa to take on top-ranked Alabama.

    The biggest question moving forward is can the Tigers be prepared to bring a complete game with them to Alabama? The offense, at times, has looked incredible (see 41 points in a loss to Georgia). The defense has also had its moments (just six points allowed to Florida).

    But the Tigers haven't had many games where both units brought their A-game, and it has led to Les Miles' team being plagued with a pair of losses before the end of October. If this team is to seriously challenge the Crimson Tide, they'll have to put it all together.

    Furman will give the Tigers an excellent chance to work out any kinks remaining from Saturday's loss at Ole Miss, and the bye week will give the squad additional time to heal. But will it be ready for the biggest test of them all, a road game vs. Nick Saban and company?


12) UCLA

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    QB Brett Hundley
    QB Brett Hundley

    Biggest Question: Will the offense show some fight against the Ducks?

    Against Stanford last Saturday, the UCLA offense mustered just 10 points. It'll have to do better against an Oregon team averaging more than 50.

    To be fair to Jim Mora's team, both the offensive line and backfield have been plagued by injuries. But quarterback Brett Hundley is the type of talent who can take over a game, and he just didn't make it happen against the Cardinal.

    Traveling to Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks is brutal, and even with a loss to the Ducks, UCLA will control its own destiny in the Pac-12 South.

    But if Hundley and company want to retain national respect, they'll have to put forth a much better offensive effort in Eugene. Without one, not only will the Bruins lose the game, but they'll head into the month of November with a lot of questions, and that's not something a team with BCS hopes should have this late in the season.

11) Auburn

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    QB Nick Marshall
    QB Nick Marshall

    Biggest Question: Can Tigers reach Iron Bowl with just one loss?

    Before the season began, there weren't many games on Auburn's schedule that appeared to favor the Tigers.

    Now, after upsetting Texas A&M, Gus Malzahn's team suddenly has a very realistic chance to make it to the Iron Bowl with just a lone loss to LSU on the resume.

    With the way the team is playing, games against Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia are more than winnable. But now that the national spotlight is being showered down upon Auburn, the team must respond accordingly, or it will quickly fade back into the pack.

    The goal inside the locker room was probably to win-out following the loss to LSU, but nobody on the outside would have believed that was possible—until now.

    Will the Tigers make it to the Iron Bowl without another loss, or will they revert back to old habits and turn what might have been a memorable 2013 season into a mediocre one?

10) Texas Tech

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    Head coach Kliff Kingsbury
    Head coach Kliff Kingsbury

    Biggest Question: Are Red Raiders ready for tough Big 12 stretch?

    Texas Tech is 7-0 and appears ready to take on anything in its path as we inch closer to the month of November.

    But what if, in its path, is Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas? Because the Red Raiders have done everything they needed to do to this point, but success has come against teams that frankly aren't very good.

    Coaches will tell you that every team in their conference can win in any given week, and that their league has quality programs from top to bottom, but a seven-point win over Iowa State and a 10-point win over West Virginia may be a sign that Texas Tech isn't quite ready to challenge for the Big 12 title.

    Before Red Raiders fans get all hot and bothered, considered what another contender did to these teams. Baylor beat West Virginia by 31 and Iowa State by 64. The transitive property is imperfect, but when the difference in margin of victory is that much, it can certainly be telling.

    We're not writing off the Red Raiders just yet, however, because they have an excellent coach and a potent offense. But it's fair to question if this team is ready for the month ahead.

9) Clemson

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    QB Tajh Boyd
    QB Tajh Boyd

    Biggest Question: How will Tigers regroup after humiliating loss?

    Florida State is an excellent football team. Heck, the Seminoles might be playing the best football out of anybody. But when you're a national title contender in your own right and you lose by 37 at home, regardless of opponent, it's embarrassing.

    So, like Louisville, which also suffered a knockout punch to its chances of posting an undefeated mark in 2013, the biggest question now becomes, how will Clemson respond?

    Will quarterback Tajh Boyd get the yips and be unable to consistently move the ball? Has the defense lost so much confidence that it'll be unable to stop anybody?

    Or, will Dabo Swinney rally his guys and turn the 2013 season into a successful one?

    Up next is Maryland, followed by Virginia, Georgia Tech and Citadel. To close out the season, the Tigers will face the rival Gamecocks of South Carolina.

    On a national stage, Clemson wet the bed. Can the team repair its image and move past the Florida State game?

8) Baylor

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    RB Lache Seastrunk and QB Bryce Petty
    RB Lache Seastrunk and QB Bryce Petty

    Biggest Question: Will the defense help the offense to a national title?

    Life has been pretty sweet for the Baylor Bears this season. The offense is scoring nearly 65 points per game and the defense is giving up an average of just over 16.

    But while quarterback Bryce Petty, running back Lache Seastrunk and the rest of the offense appears to be legit, the defense still has a lot to prove despite its impressive mark in points allowed per game.

    Against West Virginia and Kansas State, the only two teams on the schedule thus far with even the faintest of heartbeats on offense, the Bears allowed a total of 67 points.

    Now, look at the schedule and you'll see teams like Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State coming up in the month of November.

    Art Briles' team may very well be the best in the Big 12, and perhaps the defense is better than the games against the Mountaineers and Wildcats would indicate. But it will have to prove it down the stretch in order for this team to capture a conference championship.

7) Miami

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    QB Stephen Morris
    QB Stephen Morris

    Biggest Question: Will limited sanctions give Hurricanes new energy for stretch run?

    With the recent announcement by the NCAA that Miami would not have to forego its bowl game following the season, the team can now move forward with the highest of goals still intact.

    The question is, will it give players a boost heading into the final stretch where they'll face both Florida State and Virginia Tech?

    Because as it stands, this team is going to have a tough time against the Seminoles. A four-point win over North Carolina does little to inspire confidence, and even a September victory over Florida, which "The U" fans have hung their collective hats on, looks a lot less impressive with the Gators falling out of the Top 25.

    Quarterback Stephen Morris has an elite arm and all the tools to be able to lead this offense, but he's been erratic at times and turnover prone. What the Hurricanes need is a boost, or something that will help this team put forth its very best effort in the month ahead.

    Will the fact that they'll get to go a bowl game give them some energy, or will Florida State and Virginia Tech wash away such a promising start?

6) Stanford

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    Head coach David Shaw
    Head coach David Shaw

    Biggest Question: Can Cardinal conquer the state of Oregon?

    Stanford's next two games are against Oregon State and Oregon, and it's likely this stretch will define the 2013 season for David Shaw's team.

    After a loss to Utah, the Cardinal responded with a dominating 24-10 victory over UCLA in which the defense maintained control from start to finish. But the loss to the Utes showed everyone that this is far from a perfect product, and Stanford will have to bring its A-game against the Oregon schools.

    Oregon State is throwing the ball better than any team in the country and the Ducks, well, you're probably familiar with what they've been doing.

    Can Stanford continue to move past the loss to Utah and put together a couple more complete games, or will the state of Oregon be its ultimate downfall?

5) Missouri

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    Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel
    Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel

    Biggest Question: Is Missouri ready for national spotlight after win vs. Florida?

    The Missouri Tigers' first season in the SEC was a disaster, but year two has seen a complete turnaround and the suddenly chaotic SEC East is theirs for the taking.

    So, with the only ranked teams left on the schedule (South Carolina and Texas A&M) having to come to their house, can the Tigers seize the opportunity and win the division? Or maybe, this team has even larger goals, such as a spot in Pasadena for the national title?

    These questions would have warranted a trip to a mental institution several weeks ago, but they're the kind that get asked after dominating victories over Georgia and Florida.

    Will Gary Pinkel's team be able to weather injuries and a newfound spotlight and beat South Carolina this weekend? Or do the Tigers of old rear their ugly heads and bring the program back down to earth?

4) Ohio State

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    Head coach Urban Meyer
    Head coach Urban Meyer

    Biggest Question: Can Buckeyes stay focused despite BCS ranking?

    Unfortunately for Ohio State, back-to-back undefeated seasons probably won't get it to Pasadena for the national title game in this BCS era where strength of schedule and impressive victories are more important than simply winning.

    Regardless of whether you think it's fair, it's the truth and for the Buckeyes to have a chance to win it all, they'll need help. So the question now is, can the team stay focused despite knowing that running the table doesn't guarantee anything?

    Because that sort of idea can creep into players' heads and become discouraging, especially considering the complete body of work over the past two seasons. Still, college football is crazy and there's still a lot to play for.

    Will Urban Meyer's team be able to take care of business the rest of the way and at least give itself a chance at a national title, or will the Buckeyes slip up and drop a game it probably shouldn't lose?



3) Oregon

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    QB Marcus Mariota
    QB Marcus Mariota

    Biggest Question: Will the Ducks remain dominant against elite competition?

    The Oregon Ducks have been as dominant as anybody in the country, averaging well over 50 points per game and giving up less than 20. Both the rushing offense and passing attack rank in the Top 20 in yards per game, and as you would expect with those numbers, the team is undefeated.

    The only issue is that they haven't played a great schedule to this point. A three-touchdown victory over Washington in Seattle was impressive, but it lost some luster when the Huskies were subsequently destroyed by Arizona State.

    Not to fear, Duck fans, because the chance for this team to prove itself begins this Saturday against UCLA. After that, it will face Stanford, Utah (which upset Stanford), an improving Arizona team and suddenly hot Oregon State.

    So the question is rather simple: Will Oregon continue to prove itself to be one of the best teams in the country, or will the step up in competition get the better of the Ducks?

2) Florida State

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    Head coach Jimbo Fisher
    Head coach Jimbo Fisher

    Biggest Question: How will Seminoles handle national love?

    Beating Clemson 51-14 in its own building is one way to make a statement, and that's exactly what the Seminoles accomplished on Saturday.

    Now, the entire nation is familiar with quarterback Jameis Winston and this Florida State team is playing better football than anybody in the country.

    With a relatively easy schedule ahead, how will this team handle the spotlight? Because up until this point, we only thought this team was good. Now we know it. Expectations have been raised, and people want to see Winston and company take care of business in the manner that the No. 2 team in the country should.

    Will the Seminoles respond accordingly, or will the pressure of an undefeated season and a possible national championship appearance best Jimbo Fisher's squad?

1) Alabama

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    QB AJ McCarron
    QB AJ McCarron

    Biggest Question: Can anybody expose a weakness in the Crimson Tide's armor?

    While the nation attempts to decide whether Florida State or Oregon is the real No. 2 team, the top-ranked Tide continue to dominate everybody on their schedule.

    Aside from a 49-42 victory over Texas A&M, Alabama hasn't allowed more than 10 points in any game. In fact, the Crimson Tide have only allowed two touchdowns outside the trip to College Station, and no team has reached the endzone in Tuscaloosa.

    Simply put, this team is quietly winning and doing so impressively. Up next is Tennessee, who will give its best shot before LSU comes calling. Can either team expose a weakness in Nick Saban's team? If not, perhaps it will be a feisty Auburn team that makes noise in the Iron Bowl.

    And should none of these teams put up a fight, well, we may just have to settle in and watch Alabama capture its third straight national title. But we've said it before and we'll say it again: College football never follows a script, and that is why we continue to watch.

    Can anybody put a scare in the Tide?