Top 10 College Football Games to Watch This Weekend and Predictions

Ross Bentley@@imrossbentleySenior Analyst ISeptember 29, 2011

Top 10 College Football Games to Watch This Weekend and Predictions

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    As Week 5 of the college football season draws nearer, things are shaping up in the national landscape. The contenders are shining, and the preseason pretenders are falling back into the pack. There are still 21 undefeated teams in college football, all of whom have their national championship hopes still alive.

    By the end of Week 5, how many of those teams will remain? What about the teams already with a loss or two? How will they rebound? There are several intriguing games on this week's schedule, so let's look at what all you college football fans should be watching this weekend.

10. Northwestern (2-1) at No. 24 Illinois (4-0), 12:00 PM ET

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    Don't look now, Big Ten fans, but the Illinois Fighting Illini are 4-0 and right in the thick of things in the Big Ten.

    After its impressive Week 3 win against Arizona State, Illinois held on to beat Western Michigan last week to stay undefeated heading into conference play.

    The Illini are led by sophomore quarterback Nate Scheelhaase, who has completed over 70 percent of his passes so far this season and is also the team's second-leading rusher. Illinois has also been helped by an improved defensive unit that has not allowed more than 20 points in a game this season.

    Up next is in-state rival Northwestern, which will see its starting quarterback Dan Persa return from injury after missing the team's first three games. Kain Colter filled in admirably for the star QB, but a returning Persa will certainly improve the Wildcats offense after scoring just 14 points in a Week 3 loss to Army.

    If Illinois can hold off Northwestern at home and open up 5-0, it will continue to jet up the polls. The Illini could stay unbeaten for a while as well, as they do not play a current ranked team until they face off against Michigan on Nov. 12.

    Prediction: Illinois 28, Northwestern 21

9. No. 16 South Florida (4-0) at Pittsburgh (2-2), Thursday, 8:00 PM ET

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    ESPN treats us with a decent Thursday night game this week, as No. 16 and still unbeaten South Florida goes on the road to face off against better-than-their-record Pittsburgh.

    South Florida looks to be Big East champions this season and get to a BCS bowl, and beating another Big East contender on the road would be a big step in doing that. After upsetting Notre Dame on the road in Week 1, the Bulls have notched wins over three non-BCS schools. Now they face their second tough task of the season as they travel to Pitt.

    South Florida QB B.J. Daniels is having a great season so far, having thrown for over 1,000 yards as well as eight touchdowns in his first four games, and will be a key for the Bulls in this game.

    Pittsburgh suffered a tough, close loss last week against Notre Dame but is still a very capable team that could end up winning the Big East when it's all said and done. However, a 2-3 start is not what Todd Graham had in mind.

    If you don't have any plans for Rosh Hashanah Night, what better option can you find than watching two quality football teams go at it on national television?

    Prediction: South Florida 31, Pittsburgh 20

8. Michigan State (3-1) at Ohio State (3-1), 3:30 PM ET

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    The only matchup on this list that involves two unranked teams comes at No. 8 between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan State Spartans.

    Even though neither of these teams is ranked, they both have only one loss on their résumé so far this season, and they both could be serious contenders in the Big Ten before it's all said and done.

    Both teams sit in third place in their respective divisions behind the four current undefeated Big Ten teams (Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska and Wisconsin), but the standings could change quickly as we move into conference play.

    The Buckeyes turn to Braxton Miller, who takes over as the starter for Joe Bauserman. Although Bauserman did not play poorly, Miller adds another dimension to the Buckeyes offense.

    After a tumultuous offseason, the Buckeyes find themselves out of the polls for the first time since 2004. It will now be up to coach Luke Fickell to see if he can turn it into an underdog mentality in Columbus and steer the Buckeyes back to the BCS before year's end.

    For Michigan State, the good news is that its defense ranks eighth nationally in points per game. The bad news: It gave up 31 to Notre Dame, the only good team it has played so far. We all know Kirk Cousins and the Spartans can play, and they will look to steal one on the road from Ohio State this Saturday.

    Whichever team comes out on top establishes itself as a legit contender in the Big Ten this season, while the loser will have to regroup with two losses in its first five games despite being ranked in the Top 20 at the beginning of the season.

    Prediction: Michigan State 35, Ohio State 31

7. No. 15 Baylor (3-0) at Kansas State (3-0), 3:30 PM ET

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    If any team in the Top 25 playing an unranked team is on upset alert, it may be the 15th-ranked Baylor Bears.

    Baylor takes on Kansas State this weekend, with both teams holding perfect records through the first three games of the year.

    Robert Griffin III got the nation's attention after his explosive performance in the opener against TCU and established himself as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Griffin is an astounding 70-of-82 so far this season with 13 TDs and no interceptions, in addition to rushing for over 160 yards.

    Led by Griffin, Baylor's offense is third in the nation in PPG with a staggering 51.3. While those numbers will assuredly go down once the team gets into Big 12 play, the sky is the limit for Griffin and Baylor this year.

    However, they could feel the pain of defeat for the first time this year as they travel to Manhattan to face off against the Kansas State Wildcats.

    K-State proved its worth last week with a goal-line stand to knock off Miami. The strength of K-State is its defense, which is averaging just over 10 points allowed per game, good enough for seventh in the country.

    The battle between K-State's D and Baylor's offense means that something has to give, and the winner will gain national attention as a contender in the Big 12 after a 4-0 start.

    Prediction: Kansas State 34, Baylor 27

6. No. 17 Texas (3-0) at Iowa State (3-0), 7:00 PM ET

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    The other Big 12 matchup this Saturday featuring unbeaten teams is 17th-ranked Texas visiting Iowa State.

    Many experts expected the Longhorns to not be serious contenders for the Big 12 title this season, but after wins over BYU and UCLA, Texas has itself back in the Top 20 of the polls.

    The name McCoy is very familiar to Texas fans. Older brother Colt was Texas' starter for four years before moving on to his current gig with the Cleveland Browns. Now it's younger brother Case's turn to lead the Longhorns. After taking over as the starter, McCoy has completed 19-of-25 passes and thrown for two touchdowns. 

    Now he faces a real test, as he and the rest of the Longhorns travel to Iowa State, where they will face off against an undefeated Cyclones team.

    Iowa State has not blown out any of its three opponents this season, but the Cyclones do have two quality wins over Iowa and UConn in the last two weeks.

    For Texas, which faces off against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State the next two weeks, looking past the Cyclones would be a critical error, as they are fully capable of pulling off the upset. However, Mack Brown should have his team prepared come Saturday.

    Prediction: Texas 28, Iowa State 14

5. No. 14 Texas A&M (2-1) vs. No. 18 Arkansas (2-1), 12:00 PM ET

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    Two Top 20 teams coming off disappointing losses will face off on the early slate Saturday in Arkansas as the Texas A&M Aggies get set to take on the Razorbacks of Arkansas.

    Although the two will be conference foes in the future, for now this presents an intriguing inter-conference game between the Big 12 and the SEC.

    The Aggies are likely still trying to figure out how they lost last week against Oklahoma State. Texas A&M held a 17-point halftime lead, but Oklahoma State stormed back in the second half behind quarterback Brandon Weeden and pulled out a 30-29 victory.

    Now the Aggies must regroup against an Arkansas team that was embarrassed last week by third-ranked Alabama 38-14. Although losing to Alabama is nothing to be ashamed of, its normally stout defense allowed the Tide to rush for 197 yards.

    The losing team in this one will be reeling, having lost two straight, while the winning team will rebound nicely from a loss and move forward with BCS hopes still alive and well.

    Prediction: Arkansas 17, Texas A&M 13

4. Auburn (3-1) at No. 10 South Carolina (4-0), 3:30 PM ET

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    The second-best SEC matchup of the week pits defending national champion Auburn against the 4-0 and 10th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks.

    After escaping the first two weeks with dramatic victories over Utah State and Mississippi State, Auburn saw its winning streak snapped two weeks ago, falling to Clemson, before responding with a win last week over Florida Atlantic.

    Cam Newton's replacement, Barrett Trotter, has played fairly well in Auburn's three victories but struggled against Clemson. Trotter's efficiency will be a key if the Tigers are going to pull off the upset.

    South Carolina's passing game has severely struggled so far this season. Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia has thrown for just three TDs and seven INTs since taking over as the starter and is completing just 39 percent of his passes that travel more than five yards.

    Despite their struggles, the Gamecocks are undefeated and ranked in the Top 10, due in large part to the rushing of Marcus Lattimore, who has over 600 yards and eight TDs already this season.

    South Carolina also has the added benefit of playing at home, and it will be a significant favorite. But Auburn has shown flashes this season of a team that is still capable of playing with anyone in the country, and South Carolina, specifically Garcia, will have to step up if it wishes to remain unbeaten.

    Prediction: South Carolina 24, Auburn 17

3. No. 13 Clemson (4-0) at No. 11 Virginia Tech (4-0), 6:00 PM ET

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    While the ACC may be one of the weaker BCS conferences overall, two of its top-tier squads will battle it out Saturday evening for conference supremacy.

    Thirteenth-ranked Clemson travels to Blacksburg to battle the 11th-ranked Hokies of Virginia Tech in one of the marquee matchups of the weekend.

    After being unranked after its first two games, Clemson has jetted up the polls to No. 13 after upsets over Auburn and Florida State in back-to-back weeks. The Tigers are 16th in the nation in passing yards per game thanks to the play of Tajh Boyd, who has thrown for over 1,200 yards and 13 TDs, including three last week against FSU.

    For Virginia Tech, this will be the first real test of the season after opening up with a weak non-conference schedule that included four non-BCS opponents. Although the offense has done its job, it's the defense that Frank Beamer really hangs his hat on. Virginia Tech is allowing just 10 points per game, which is sixth in the nation.

    Considering these two teams play in opposite divisions of the ACC, this very well could be a conference championship preview and could certainly go either way. The question will be whether the Hokies can shut down the vertical passing game of Boyd and the Tigers. If they can't, look for Clemson to continue its hot streak.

    Prediction: Clemson 34, Virginia Tech 24

2. No. 3 Alabama (4-0) at No. 12 Florida (4-0), 8:00 PM ET

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    Saturday night's game in the Swamp should be a real doozy this week, as Florida gets a visit from third-ranked Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

    This matchup pits two of the nation's top four defenses against one another, neither of which is allowing more than 9.0 PPG this season. It's not as if they are doing it against nobodies either. Alabama has already beaten two ranked teams, and Florida has notched two SEC wins already.

    The Tide come off an impressive victory against then-14th-ranked Arkansas last Saturday. Trent Richardson continued his stellar play as Mark Ingram's replacement, and their defense overwhelmed the Razorbacks, causing two turnovers as well as notching 10 tackles for a loss and six pass breakups.

    Florida looks to be better than advertised in its first season under head coach Will Muschamp. Star Wars references aside, Muschamp is doing an outstanding job with this team in his first season. The Gators not only rank fourth in defense but also 15th in the nation in offense, thanks to senior QB John Brantley and a solid running game led by Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.

    These two teams should face off in a defensive struggle where turnovers and the running game could be the difference. Don't count out Florida's home-field advantage, but in the end Bama's defense is stingy enough to secure a win.

    Prediction: Alabama 14, Florida 10

1. No. 8 Nebraska (4-0) at No. 7 Wisconsin (4-0), 8:00 PM ET

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    While some may argue for Florida versus Alabama to be the game of the week, to me it has to be Nebraska versus Wisconsin. These two Big Ten schools rank next to each other in the polls, and this is the only matchup this week featuring two Top 10 teams.

    Nebraska, looking to establish dominance over its new conference, will face its biggest challenge yet, as it must go on the road and beat defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin.

    To do so, dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez will have to be on his game, like he has been so far this year. Martinez is still looking to become more consistent in the passing game, but where he can really beat you is on the ground, where he is the team's leading rusher at 421 yards (although he is just one yard ahead of running back Rex Burkhead).

    The defense has been solid so far this season, but in Nebraska's toughest game so far, against Washington, it gave up 38 points to the Huskies. That number will certainly need to improve if it is going to escape with a win this week.

    Wisconsin has found gold in transfer quarterback Russell Wilson. We knew Wilson was talented from his time at N.C. State, but with talent around him like he has with the Badgers, Wilson is even more explosive. Wilson has thrown for over 1,100 yards and 11 TDs to go along with 110 yards on the ground.

    Wisconsin's running game has also been solid, averaging over 245 yards a game, 13th in the country. But the real dominating part of Wisconsin's game has been its defense, which is currently ranked third in the nation and has been dominant so far this season.

    Both of these teams are playing for pride as well as the chance to be in first place in the Big Ten and show the rest of the conference that they are the team to beat. I expect this game to be well played by both teams, who could end up in the national championship picture by year's end, but Russell Wilson and home-field advantage are enough to push Wisconsin over the top.

    Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 28