Well, Week 5 is upon us, and the last weekend of September usually offers fans a mix of conference games and final jaunts outside of league play. Questions for this week include whether or not Louisvilles defense can turn thinga around, who's ready to compete with USC atop the Pac-10, and just how good is 4-0 Michigan State. Here are ten games to keep track of this weekend, along with an honorable mention choice for each league. And if you haven't read it by now, I urge you to read Chad Nielsen's story on Colt Brennan in ESPN The Magazine (http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=3038443). Good story. Enjoy the games this weekend.
10. Southern Miss @ Boise State (Thursday 7:30 PM EST, ESPN)
Two of the better teams not in BCS leagues get together in this primetime matchup originally thought to be an eliminator in the "crash the BCS" race. Both teams have already lost a game (USM at Tennessee, BSU at Washington), but don't automatically disregard this game. Boise State has one of the nation's best running backs in junior Ian Johnson, and while Southern Miss has a capable defensive unit, it hasn't been up to the level that those who follow the program expect. Things to watch: the play of quarterbacks Jeremy Young (USM) and Taylor Tharp (BSU), and the turnover battle. USM is currently 97th in the country in turnover margin, and giving up the ball too much on the "Smurf Turf" could spell doom for the visitors.
9. Pittsburgh @ Virginia (Saturday 7 PM EST, ESPNU)
Heralded freshman running back LeSean McCoy will look to continue his progress as the Panthers head south to take on a Virginia team that's won their last three games. McCoy was Pitt's lone bright spot in their 34-14 home loss to UConn last week, one that saw the team booed off the field at the end of the first half. It wouldn't be a shock if the Cavs decided to load up the box and dare Kevan Smith or Pat Bostick to beat them through the air, but with a talented front seven that included probable first-rounder Chris Long at end and linebackers Jon Copper and Clint Sintim, they may not have to. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers will have their hands full with running back Cedric Peerman. If QB Jameel Sewell (and Peter Lalich if he's in the game) perform well, this one could get out of hand.
8. Louisville @ NC State (Saturday 3:30 PM EST, ESPNU)
Another Big East team that's reeling heads to ACC country when the struggling Cards take on an NC State team that's had its own share of trouble. While Louisville's offense has put up the numbers that people expected of them when the season began, the defense has been a disappointment. Ranked 90th overall (68th against the run, 104th against the pass), the Cardinals will need to corral running backs Andre Brown and Jamelle Eugene, along with wide receiver/ return specialist Darrell Blackman. The Wolfpack haven't been a whole lot better on defense, ranking 76th nationally (115th against the run), but they are 16th against the pass. This should help them deal with Brian Brohm and his stable of receivers. WR Harry Douglas (ankle) is expected to play for UL, but it remains to be seen whether or not the inconsistent Mario Urrutia holds onto his starting role. This one has all the makings of a shootout.
7. #21 Penn State @ Illinois (Saturday Noon EST, Big Ten Network)
QB Anthony Morelli and the Nittany Lions look to rebound from last week's 14-9 loss at Michigan, but the trip to Champaign isn't as easy as in years past. The Fighting Illini, at 3-1, look to be turning the corner under Ron Zook. In running back Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois has the nation's eighth-best running back in the country (134 yards per game), and Penn State's defense could have its hands full after Mike Hart went for 153 last weekend. But with the likes of Dan Connor and Anthony Scirrotto on defense, the Lions should be able to hold their own. The question is whether or not the offense, which struggled in Ann Arbor, can get its act together this week. But dealing with linebacker J Leman (one of the nation's best players that few people talk about) will not be an easy task.
6. Maryland @ #10 Rutgers (Saturday 3:30 PM EST, ABC)
After an off-week, the Scarlet Knights return to the field to take on their toughest non-conference challenge. But just how good is Maryland? That will all depend on how well QB Jordan Steffy performs under center. In running backs Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball, the Terps have one of the better tandems in the ACC. But when Steffy and the passing game struggles, this team struggles. Another thing to watch with Maryland is how much last week's overtime loss at Wake Forest affects their mindset. Ahead 24-3 in the third quarter with the game seemingly salted away, Maryland eventually lost the game despite forcing four turnovers. Rutgers' run defense, currently ranked 36th in the nation, gave up 254 on the ground to Navy, but the more conventional rushing style of Maryland (as opposed to the option) could prove itself easier to contain. As for Maryland, and defense led by linebacker Erin Henderson will have its hands full with an RU attack that's more than just RB Ray Rice.
5. #22 Alabama vs. Florida State (in Jacksonville) (Saturday 3:30 PM EST, CBS)
The first meeting in 3 years between these two proud programs takes place on neutral ground, but don't expect the inhabitants of "Sabanation" to be outnumbered, even with the game taking place in Florida. While the Seminoles spent their bye week looking to instill some confidence in a much-maligned offense, Alabama dropped a 26-23 overtime decision at home to Georgia. Quarterback play will tell the story in this one, with FSU needing Drew Weatherford to show more improvement. He hasn't been making the same number of mistakes that plagued him in each of his first two seasons,which is good. But Alabama's John Parker Wilson has shown so far that he is more than capable of leading the Alabama offense, and it helps when your line keeps you off your back too (only five sacks this year as opposed to 27 in 2006). Can Florida State contain RB Terry Grant? Can Alabama win the turnover battle? Don't be surprised if this is a low-scoring affair.
4. Washington State @ Arizona (Saturday 10 PM EST)
I know what you're thinking: how on Earth are two teams that were blown out last weekend at number four? Well, here's why: both programs are currently at a fork in the road regarding their prospects for both this season and the near future. At quarterback, Wazzu's Alex Brink has played better than Arizona's Willie Tuitama thus far, throwing 12 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. While Brink has done a good job of protecting the football, Tuitama has had a hard time realizing that it's sometimes OK to take the bland play (or even the incompletion) instead of forcing something for fireworks. The defense, thought to be the area of strength for the Wildcats heading into 2007, has struggled in its last two games, losses to New Mexico and Cal. But the Cougars "boast" the nation's 88th-ranked defense, so the opportunities for Arizona to put up some points will be there. These two Pac-10 foes usually play some wild games, and this one could be considered a "must win" for both.
3. Michigan State #9 Wisconsin (Saturday 3:30 PM EST, ABC)
At 4-0, Michigan State has shown signs of improvement under first-year head coach Mark Dantonio. But just how much has this team improved? We should get a definitive answer in Madison on Saturday. Three of the best running backs in the Big Ten will be on display (MSU's Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick, UW's P.J. Hill), but running up and down the field won't be easy when dealing with the nation's 26th (MSU) and 27th (UW) ranked run defenses. The winner of this one could come down to which quarterback holds onto the football, Brian Hoyer (MSU) or Tyler Donovan (UW). While the Spartans make their first appearance in Big Ten play under Dantonio, Brett Bielema's Badgers will want this one with two straight road games (Illinois, Penn State) next up on the schedule.
2. #5 West Virginia @ #18 South Florida (Friday 8 PM EST, ESPN2)
Neither team was caught looking ahead last weekend, with the two Big East rivals blowing out East Carolina and North Carolina, respectively. What we have here is a game that'll set the pace for the Big East title hunt, and have an impact on the national title chase as well. We all know about Pat White and Steve Slaton, but how well do you know USF sophomore defensive end George Selvie? Well, you'd better get to know Selvie, who currently leads the nation in both sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (15). The Mountaineers certainly know him, as he racked up 3.5 sacks and scored a touchdown in the Bulls' 24-19 win in Morgantown last year. WVU wants revenge, but it's going to be a tough fight in front the sold-out crowd in Raymond James Stadium.
1. #6 California @ #11 Oregon (Saturday 3:30 PM EST, ABC)
The Golden Bears head north for a game that will go a long way in figuring out who can best challenge USC for Pac-10 supremacy. In order for the Bears to get a win on the road, they're going to need to figure out how to slow down the nation's 7th-best offense, led by quarterback Dennis Dixon, running backs Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, and a stable of wide receivers. But Cal's no slouch when they have the ball, either, led by QB Nate Longshore, running back Justin Forsett and quite possibly the best trio of wideouts in the country (DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins). Who wins this game will be determined by which defense can stand up to the tremendous challenge in front of them. And even the loser of this one isn't out of the Pac-10 race, as both get USC at home later in the season.
Honorable Mention (all games on Saturday)
ACC: #13 Clemson @ Georgia Tech (3:30 PM EST, ABC)
Big East: #24 Cincinnati @ San Diego State (10 PM ET, Versus)
Big Ten: Notre Dame @ Purdue (Noon EST, ESPN)
Big 12: Kansas State @ #7 Texas (3:30 PM EST, ABC)
CUSA: East Carolina @ Houston (7 PM EST)
MAC: Kent State @ Ohio (3 PM EST)
Mountain West: BYU @ New Mexico (8:30 PM ET, CSTV)
Pac-10: #1 USC @ Washington (8 PM ET, ABC)
SEC: Auburn @ #4 Florida (8 PM EST, ESPN)
Sun Belt: Memphis @ Arkansas State (Thursday 7 PM EST)
WAC: UNLV @ Nevada (4:05 PM EST)