College Football Preview, Week 4: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma St. Face Tests

With conference play beginning to kick into high gear, four match-ups between Top 25 teams highlight a crucial weekend in college football that will help shape both conference and national championship races.

WEEK 3 IN REVIEW

In the 2001 Orange Bowl, Florida St. took on Oklahoma while in search of its second consecutive National Championship.  What ensued was an ugly, sloppy game featuring two missed field goals, four turnovers,  and ended with the Seminoles being awarded a safety in the closing moments to avoid being skunked, 13-2. 

Since that time, Florida St. had steadily drifted downward toward mediocrity, finally hitting rock bottom after the 2009 season when the team finished 7-6 and legendary coach Bobby Bowden was forced out after nearly 40 years on the job.

In 2010, with new head coach Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles rallied for their first 10 win season since 2003 and a berth in the ACC Championship Game (a shootout loss to Virginia Tech).  After taking a step forward in2010, Florida St. came back this year looking to make a statement that they were back to being one of the elite teams in all of college football.  How ironic then, that the opportunity to make that statement would come at home against top ranked Oklahoma.

Before a raucous crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida last Saturday, the Seminoles battled valiantly to validate their lofty pre-season ranking.  Despite the loss of two wide receivers and starting quarterback EJ Manuel, they never lost touch with Oklahoma despite every opportunity to do so.   Trailing 13-6 early in the fourth quarter, back-up quarterback Clint Trickett tossed a 56 yard touchdown pass to receiver Rashad Greene to tie the game.

Oklahoma hadn’t put together a competent drive since their opening series in the first quarter, and the game appeared to be getting away from them.  Fortunately for the Sooners, they have Landry Jones, one of the top quarterbacks in the country.  Jones led an impressive 83-yard drive that took just 2:32 off the clock and was capped by a brilliant throw and catch with wide receiver Kenny Stills to help the Sooners regain control and walk away with a hard fought 23-13 win.

For Florida St., the loss showed that while the Seminoles are vastly improved from the final years of the Bobby Bowden regime, they aren’t quite at the level of a national championship contender like Oklahoma.  For the Sooners, it was an impressive road win for a team that has struggled in this situation over the last few years under head coach Bob Stoops.  The win staked them as the favorites to reach the Superdome in New Orleans, site of this year’s BCS National Championship Game.

Elsewhere in the country, LSU picked up its second win away from Tiger Stadium over a ranked team when it wore down the Mississippi St in Starkville.  While the Bulldogs were game, the Tigers defense simply overwhelmed them and demonstrated why they might be the best unit in all of college football. 

Notre Dame finally stopped giving away games to their opponents last weekend when they took apart Michigan St. to get their first win of the season.  While the Irish certainly weren’t perfect, committing three more turnovers, the defense did its job in the second half, limiting the Spartans to just a single field goal.  This, after allowing Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines to rack up 28 points in the final quarter just a week before.

Conference play will start to shift into high gear this weekend with three sets of match-ups between ranked teams that will go a long way in shaping their respective conference and/or divisional races. Non-conference play isn’t over yet though.  LSU will take part in yet another challenging early season road test when they visit Morgantown to battle West Virginia in the best non-conference game of the week.

MAIN EVENT

No. 7 Oklahoma St. Cowboys (3-0) @ No. 8 Texas A&M Aggies (2-0) – 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN3.com)  Two teams that are anxious to stake their claims as legitimate contenders for both the Big 12 and the national championship will tangle in the conference opener for both.  Neither team has really been tested to this point in non-conference play, so this will be our first look at each in a high pressure situation.  The game shapes up as a classic "great offense vs. great defense" showdown.  The Cowboys boast one of the best offensive combinations in the sport with quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon.  Slowling Blackmon, who has already racked up 329 yards and 3 touchdowns this season, will be the Aggies top priority.  Tasked with this unpleasant assignment will be cornerbacks Terrence Frederick and Dustin Harris, neither of whom is considered a shutdown level player.  So expect a great deal of safety help from over the top.  On the other side, the Cowboys are much improved defensively, particularly against the run, which is what the Aggies do best.  Head coach Mike Sherman will need a great effort from his offensive line to get running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael into space, so they can do damage.

UNDERCARD

No. 14 Arkansas Razorbacks (3-0) @ No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0) – 3:30 p.m. (CBS) Last week, LSU had its chance to fire the first shot in the country’s toughest division, the SEC West.  This week, Alabama and Arkansas will get the chance to fire theirs.  The Razorbacks are still in a state of flux thanks to the loss of leading rusher Knile Davis to a knee injury.  Fortunately for them, all they’ve had to do was navigate a weak non-conference schedule while trying to work out the kinks.  This week though, the intensity will ratchet up infinitely when they travel to Tuscaloosa.  Ronnie Wingo Jr. has done an admirable job filling the hole left by Davis, but running against the Alabama defense will prove very difficult.  It’s a realistic possibility that Arkansas ability to win this game will rest on the shoulders of junior quarterback Tyler Wilson.  Wilson has been solid this season, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for over 800 yards through three games.  For Alabama, their defense continues to be dominant, but as was the case against Penn St. a few weeks ago, quarterback AJ McCarron must be efficient and avoid making crucial mistakes in order to keep their average offense on schedule.  Running back Trent Richardson hasn’t been as brilliant as everyone hoped, but he’ll be counted on to keep the offense humming this week against the Razorbacks.

No. 2 LSU Tigers (3-0) @ No. 16 West Virginia Mountaineers (3-0) – 8:00 p.m. (ABC) Nobody will ever be able to accuse the Tigers of not scheduling ambitiously out of conference this year.  After their season opening dismantling of Oregon in Dallas, the Tigers now must battle a second ranked opponent, this time in a true road game when they visit Morgantown.  For West Virginia, this is an opportunity to earn some respect, not just for themselves after several down years, but for the much maligned Big East conference.  Morgantown is one of the most hostile environments for a visiting team in the country and this may be the biggest home game in school history.  The Tigers are battle tested though and won’t be intimidated by a hostile opposing crowd.  Tigers quarterback Jarrett Lee was truly tested for the first time this year when he was forced to be a bigger force in his teams road win over Mississippi St, tossing the game clinching touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.  For West Virginia, quarterback Geno Smith will need to continue to post the type of numbers he did last week as the team impressively beat Maryland in College Park.

No. 11 Florida St. Seminoles (2-1) @ No. 21 Clemson Tigers (3-0) – 3:30 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN3.com) Florida St. will have to try and pick itself up off the ground after a hard hitting battle with Oklahoma as they get ready for the suddenly formidable Tigers from Clemson.  Clemson drilled the defending national champion Auburn Tigers last week, handing them their first loss since the 2009 season and now have a chance to take control of the ACC’s Atlantic Division with a win this week.  Given the apparent weakness of the division, this game could well decide one of the entrants into the ACC Championship Game in the first week of December.  For the Tigers, quarterback Tahj Boyd had his coming out party against Auburn, throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns.  His counterpart, EJ Manuel, struggled against Oklahoma as the game went along before leaving with a shoulder injury.  He is expected to play for the ‘Noles but freshman back-up Clint Trickett made a great accounting of himself and could see action if Manuel isn’t 100%. 

UPSET SPECIAL

Missouri Tigers (2-1) @ No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners (3-0) – 8:00 p.m. (FX) Even though this game is in Norman, it has all the makings of a trap game for Oklahoma.  Coming off an impressive win on the road against Florida St., it’s not unreasonable to expect a little bit of a letdown the following week.  Relaxing against a strong Missouri team would not be a good idea though.  Despite a tough loss to Arizona St. a few weeks back, this is a team capable of putting up big offensive numbers behind improving quarterback James Franklin.  In addition, the Tigers defense is loaded with great size and talent and should be able to at least contain the explosive Oklahoma offense.  If the Sooners come into this game without the proper mindset, they could find themselves battling to keep their #1 ranking in tact in the late stages of this game.

LOCAL SPOTLIGHT

UMass Minutemen (2-0) @ Boston College Eagles (0-3) – 1:00 p.m. (ESPN3.com) UMass is ineligible for the FCS playoffs this year because of their impending move to the Mid-American Conference next year as they begin their lives as an FBS member.  What does this mean for the struggling Eagles?  With no playoffs to look forward to, this game is essentially the Super Bowl for the Minutemen.  They’ll likely throw absolutely everything they have at BC in hopes of securing a signature win that will provide them with some momentum when they move up next year.  For BC, this is a crucial game, because if they were to lose to what is unquestionably the weakest remaining opponent on their schedule and start 0-4, the possibility of an 0-12 season would become much more of a possibility.  BC has shown a startling lack of ability to hold the line of scrimmage defensively, and UMass will try and exploit that with running back Jonathan Hernandez.  BC will try and use its superior size on the offensive line to do the same, particularly if Montel Harris sees his first action of the season, a possibility after he practiced this week. 

 OTHER LOCAL GAMES

UConn Huskies (1-2) @ Buffalo Bulls (1-2) – 6:00 p.m. (ESPN3.com)

Fordham Rams (1-1) @ Rhode Island Rams (0-2) – 1:00 p.m.

New Hampshire Wildcats (1-1) @ Richmond Spiders (3-0) – 3:30 p.m.

Brown Bears (1-0) @ Harvard Crimson (0-1) – Sep. 23 @ 7:00 p.m.

Cornell Big Red (1-0) @ Yale Bulldogs (1-0) – 12:00 p.m. (Versus)

Dartmouth Big Green (1-0) @ Sacred Heart Pioneers (0-2) – 1:00 p.m.

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