John Mitchell: Most college football teams have either already started or will be starting conference play this weekend as the season continues on its rapid pace. I hate to see the season moving by so quickly, but I’m very excited about the upcoming slate of games this weekend and the coming weeks. We are through four weeks, so we have a decent sample size at this point. With that in mind, which team do you feel is the most overrated at this point in the season?
Zach Bigalke: Who is most overrated now? Well, one has to wonder what Florida State is still doing in the polls at this moment as the only two-loss team in the top 25. The Seminoles benefited from a preseason start in the top-6 of both the AP and coaches’ polls. Without that ranking before a game had been played, they would be among the “Others Receiving Votes”. Think of it this way… if you swap records with South Florida, the Seminoles undefeated and the Bulls 2-2, Florida State would be a top-three team in the nation and the Bulls wouldn’t even receive a scattering of votes. Separated by just a little Gulf coastline, perception and the past are the only thing keeping FSU in the top 25 at the moment.
Matt Strobl: I’ll define overrated here as over-ranked and the team that jumps out at me is Wisconsin. I’m sure the Badgers are an excellent team, and this week’s matchup may well prove that. But being 7th in both polls despite having played no one of consequence is a little much. Last week featured the beating of FCS foe South Dakota, which really shouldn’t be allowed to happen in college football. It’s time to eliminate the FBS-FCS games. Prior tot hat it was UNLV and Northern Illinois. The closest thing to a good team that the Badgers have played is Oregon State, and the Beavers are clearly not themselves this year. When you look at the teams around them and behind them in the polls, each has earned a win of reasonable quality. That’s not yet true for the Badgers.
Mitchell: At this point, it has to be Virginia Tech based on the quality of opponents they have faced, and how they have fared in such games. They’ve looked less than impressive in all three of their games against FBS opponents. They narrowly defeated East Carolina, and despite the margins against Arkansas State and Marshall, they still looked sluggish. But, despite all of that the Hokies are 11th in the AP Poll and 10th in the Coaches Poll. They get their first opportunity against a quality opponent on Saturday at home against Clemson, so we’ll see what this team is really made of.
We’ve seen plenty of upsets through the first four weeks of the season, and there is sure to be many more to come. Who are you putting on upset alert in week five?
Strobl: Unlike last week, the upcoming slate features no shortage of potential upsets. Clemson could knock Virginia Tech from the ranks of the undefeated, and Washington should give Utah quite a fight. But the line that jumped out at me was USC by 13.5 over Arizona. How can the oddsmakers keep straight faces? We’re talking about a Trojans team that was crushed by Arizona State last week, and that won by single digits against both Utah and Minnesota. USC’s only convincing win came against Syracuse, so to make them double-digit favorites is rather irresponsible. Arizona is by no means a great team, but neither is USC. Let’s see what Nick Foles and Juron Criner can do. The Wildcats are coming off of a brutal stretch in which they played three Top 10 teams, and by comparison the Trojans should be a rather soft target. Watch for Arizona to cover at worst, and upset USCat best.
Mitchell: Illinois is a curious team at the moment after looking impressive in a win over Arizona State, but following that up with a near-upset loss to Western Michigan. This week, they welcome Northwestern into Champaign. The Wildcats are coming off of a loss to Army last week, but they welcome back Dan Persa for his first game of the season. As much as people built up Kain Colter as a good substitute, it is obvious that Persa is the superior quarterback. We thought Northwestern would surprise in the Big Ten this season, and I still think they are a good team with Persa under center. I think Northwestern upsets Illinois.
Bigalke: Robert Griffin III and the rest of the merry crew Art Briles has assembled in Waco have been dazzling college football fans this season as Baylor makes a charmed run at becoming relevant in the Big XII for the first time since its inception. When the Bears pulled off the upset on opening weekend against TCU, everyone started to jump on the team’s bandwagon. But further north Bill Snyder is working his magic in Manhattan once more. Don’t blink now, but this showdown between the Wildcats and Bears is one of just four matchups this weekend pitting two undefeated teams against one another. And while Baylor beat TCU, they have yet to prove they can win in a hostile environment… while K-State went to Coral Gables last weekend and knocked off a Miami team that had stripped apart Ohio State seven days prior. With one of the top 15 defenses in the nation at this point, look for Kansas State to turn a 3-point spread the opposite direction as they blemish Baylor’s record.
Which team is in most need of a statement win this week?
Mitchell: Sticking with the team that I said was most overrated at this point, Virginia Tech gets their first opportunity to play a quality opponent at home against Clemson. All the preseason hype surrounding Logan Thomas supposedly being the next Cam Newton has yet to yield Newton-like results. David Wilson has been strong running the football this season, but the Hokies have yet to be tested. Clemson wasn’t on anybody’s preseason radar as a contender, but they have two big wins over Auburn and Florida State. Virginia Tech is in need of a statement win this week to prove themselves worthy of such a high ranking.
Bigalke: They got everything they dreamed for during the offseason, the original BCS Buster becoming so well-respected that they were invited to join the establishment in an expanded Pac-12. But for Utah, respect will only last so long if their move up the ladder to a higher-profile conference amounts to them becoming a whipping boy for the crew that was already there. The Utes host their first-ever Pac-12 home game when the surging Washington Huskies come to Salt Lake City… the time is now for Kyle Whittingham’s team to take charge and show that a non-AQ school can compete on a level playing field in a power conference for an entire season’s worth of showdowns, lest they fall into the cellar and give ammunition to the detractors.
Strobl: Both Texas A&M and Arkansas were toppled in marquee matchups last week. Each needs a bounce-back performance, but only one will get it. In terms of need, it is the Aggies who must step up. A&M worked its way into the Top 10 (somehow) before allowing Oklahoma State to steal a comeback win. We’re still waiting for proof of why we shoudl take the Aggies seriously. That becomes even more important in light of the fact that this is now, essentially, an intra-divisional rivalry. The Aggies are set to join the SEC West in 2012, and if they can’t hang with the likes of Arkansas, it won’t be a very pleasant transition. It’s the perfect chance for A&M to prove it’s not coming in as a doormat.
Which player do you see being the biggest game changer in week five?
Bigalke: In the past two weekends, he’s hung 386 yards and 4 touchdowns on Auburn and then 344 yards and 3 more scores on Florida State. But in his first year as a starter, Clemson QB Tajh Boyd has yet to take his show on the road. I agree with John that Virginia Tech has been incredibly disappointing so far this season, with slow starts against inferior competition. Their defensive numbers look incredible right now, those cupcakes masking and padding the statistics so that they look like a top-ten defense. But this unit lost six starters from last year’s Orange Bowl squad, and Boyd will show how much work needs to be done this season in Blacksburg.
Strobl: One way or another, it will be Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez. For the ‘Huskers, that could be good or bad depending on how their QB is able to function against the Badgers. Martinez can run; we’ve all seen evidence of that. But his passing ability is highly suspect, and Nebraska can’t afford to be one-dimensional in this contest. Trying to win at Camp Randall demands near perfection, and if Martinez can put together a good effort then Big Red has a chance. If not, expect Wisconsin to earn that quality win I spoke of earlier.
Mitchell: I think it’s Alabama QB AJ McCarron. Florida has one of the best statistical run defenses so far in 2011, and you have to believe they are going to stack the box to try and stop Alabama’s potent run defense led by Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. McCarron has been solid so far this season, completing 66.3% of his passes for 779 yards and 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. But, there hasn’t been a lot asked of the sophomore quarterback to this point, but you have to believe at some point this season Nick Saban and the coaching staff will have to rely on McCarron to make a big throw or two. The Swamp is a very hostile environment, and if Alabama wants to maintain offensive balance, they need McCarron to have a good game.
What positional matchup is most intriguing to you?
Strobl: I’m anticipating this weekend with both hope and dread. Ohio State’s freshman QB Braxton Miller is about to face his first Big Ten defense and it just so happens to be the nation’s best, statistically speaking. Michigan State’s stop unit has been smothering for the most part this season, though their loss to Notre Dame shows the potential for weakness. Now a Buckeye offense that is still struggling to rebuild must try to do so against former insider Mark Dantonio. How will Miller fare against the Spartans? The answer to that question should determine the outcome of this game. With the Columbus crowd behind him, the kid has a shot to beginning his Big Ten career in style, but it won’t be easy.
Mitchell: I’m interested to see the speed of Florida’s offense against the speed of Alabama’s defense. Florida hasn’t had many problems so far this season, overwhelming opponents with the speed of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. But, they won’t get by on speed alone against Alabama’s defense, which might just be the best stop unit in the nation. While the Crimson Tide have faced a high powered offense in Arkansas already this season, the Hogs didn’t posses the same kind of offensive speed that Muschamp and company have at their disposal. If Rainey and Demps can have big games for the Florida offense, then it will take the pressure off of quarterback John Brantley. But, if not, then they will have to ask Brantley to do more than he has up to this point.
Bigalke: The Badgers have looked better than ever before on offense… but they’ve played relative minnows to build up their numbers through the first third of the regular season. The Cornhuskers have looked downright mortal on defense… but they’ve played deceptively tough opponents to get there. In Madison on Saturday, I’ll be looking to see how the Blackshirts of Nebraska’s front seven fare against the massive Wisconsin offensive line. The Huskers’ first taste of Big Ten play comes at the unfriendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium, and this showdown of top-ten teams will be decided in the trenches. If the Pelini brothers can stop Russell Wilson and company before they get to the second level, they have a chance at victory. If not, an unbalanced offense has no chance at outlasting the Badgers in a shootout.
Let’s move on to our week five picks. Mississippi State and Georgia both entered 2011 with high expectations, but got off to rough starts this season with two losses apiece. Which Bulldogs will earn a key SEC win in Athens?
Mitchell: I wasn’t as high on Mississippi State as some, but I was higher on Georgia than most. I actually picked Georgia to win the SEC East in the preseason. Instead, they started the season 0-2 with losses to Boise State and South Carolina. Mississippi State also has two losses on its resume against Auburn and LSU, and they needed overtime last week to take down mighty Louisiana Tech. I think both of these teams still have the potential to be good this season, but as of now I have more faith in the East version of the Bulldogs to get it done at home. PICK: Georgia
Bigalke: None of the four losses scattered between these two teams are anything about which they should be ashamed… well, except maybe for that Auburn defeat suffered by Mississippi State, and even then the shame is mitigated by the fact the Tigers are the defending BCS champs. The difference between the two is one of perspective. They’re both allowing over 23 points a game, but Georgia has proven to be vastly better on defense against both the run and the pass. Field position has failed Mark Richt’s crew, not the defense itself, and they should be able to right the ship against a Mississippi State offense that is a fairly one-dimensional rushing attack. Meanwhile, Aaron Murray has quietly risen into the top twenty nationally in passing, and held his own against both the Broncos and Gamecocks in defeat. Georgia has been better than their defeats would suggest; Mississippi State has not… PICK: Georgia
Strobl: Flip a coin. Literally. These are two teams that opened with lofty expectations and arrive in week 5 with disappointing resumes. I’m not sure I see Zach’s silver lining in this Georgia team, but the Dawgs do have several things working in their favor. Being in Athens will be key, and having an offense that can produce might be the difference-maker. Mississippi State seems to lack big play ability and have struggled to get separation from their opponents. A close game or a high-scoring game works in the hosts’ favor. I’ve gone back and forth several times, but after running the numbers, I think the Bulldogs beat the Bulldogs. Which in this case means…PICK: Georgia
Utah’s first Pac-12 game didn’t go as hoped as they fell to USC. Now, the Utes get their second crack in a Pac-12 game at home against a Washington team that is 1-0 in the conference after beating Cal last week. Who comes out on top in this Pac-12 battle?
Bigalke: The Utes score a field goal less per game so far this season than the Huskies… but they also allow 19 fewer points per game than Nick Holt’s defense. Both teams have been tested this season, with Washington surviving I-AA national champion Eastern Washington in their opener before a minefield of Hawaii, Nebraska and Cal yielded a 3-1 record through the first third of the season. Utah beat a Montana State team that crushed Eastern Washington last week, then lost to the Trojans at the Coliseum before demolishing former conference rival BYU in an early-season edition of the Holy War. While Keith Price has made everyone forget what was perceived to be so great about Jake Locker (a day I foresaw before the season started), he hasn’t faced a defense this good yet. And yes, I just said Utah’s defense is better than Nebraska’s… PICK: Utah
Strobl: Bold statement, sir, and while I may or may not agree, I do think that Utah will edge out the Huskies. The Utes are still forming an identity under QB Jordan Wynn, but last week’s blowout victory had to have done wonder for their confidence. It seems like things are beginning to come together for Kyle Whittingham as he rebuilds his squad. He can no longer be a BCS-buster, but he could be a BCS conference division winner if things go right. Expect Utah to tak one step in that direction this week. PICK: Utah
Mitchell: I’m not quite sure I understand how Utah is 7.5 point favorites against Washington. To me, this game is a tossup. The Huskies got off to a slow start to the season with a narrow win over Eastern Washington, but they have two other wins over Hawaii and California, while also playing well on the road against Nebraska. Utah may have lost their Pac-12 opener to USC, but they looked mighty impressive last week in their 44 dismantling of rival BYU. I expect this game to be closer than the line suggests, but Utah should get their first ever Pac-12 victory. PICK: Utah
Ohio State failed miserably in their first test of the season on the road against Miami, and the same holds true for Michigan State, who lost their lone test of the season in South Bend against Notre Dame. The two teams play each other in Columbus on Saturday in their respective Big Ten openers. Which team gets an early Big Ten victory?
Strobl: I am obligated by loyalty to go with my Buckeyes, but I’d be lying if I said I’m comfortable with the choice. Michigan State has a monster running game and a defense that comes in ranked tops in the nation. Even though I know the Spartans aren’t actually the best, those numbers do reflect the fact that this is a seriously good stop unit. That doesn’t auger well for Braxton Miller and a still-developing passing game. On the other hand, there is a lot of talent on this Ohio State team, and coach Luke Fickell has made some good decisions of late. This could be the fan in me overriding my own good sense, but I’m hoping that the Bucks find a way to win, even if it’s ugly. PICK: Ohio State
Mitchell: This is one of the toughest picks of the week. I haven’t been impressed by either the Buckeyes or Spartans to this point, with both teams failing their first tests of the season. Ohio State did look better last week against Colorado with freshman Braxton Miller at the helm, and Michigan State has had little trouble with their opponents not named Notre Dame. This is another game that is a toss-up, and when in doubt I’m going to go with the home team. Look for the Buckeyes to squeak by the Spartans in this Big Ten opener. PICK: Ohio State
Bigalke: Michigan State is tougher than they’re given credit. They haven’t had the magic of “Little Giants” or a “Mousetrap” for opponents this year, but they’ve still allowed fewer yards against opposing defenses than any other team in the nation this year. Even against Notre Dame, they held the Irish 150 yards below their season average in total yardage and have been the only team to keep Tommy Rees under 200 yards this year. That doesn’t bode well for an Ohio State team still waiting for its suspended reinforcements, a team that is 110th in the nation in passing and barely in the top 40 in rushing. Watch out, because Mark Dantonio’s crew is ready to rekindle the magic moments this weekend in Columbus… PICK: Michigan State
At Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, we have a rematch of the SEC Championship game between Auburn and South Carolina. The Tigers beat the Gamecocks twice last season including a 56-17 thrashing in the SEC Title game. Will South Carolina get revenge, or will Auburn beat the Gamecocks for a third time in two years?
Mitchell: You know South Carolina has had this game circled on their calendars since their blowout defeat at the hands of Auburn in Atlanta last December. While South Carolina’s offense has been pretty one-dimensional up to this point with Stephen Garcia struggling to get the passing offense going, they get the remedy of facing Auburn’ poor defense. Auburn is 110th nationally in total defense to this point, and are giving up over 226 yards per game on the ground. I look for Marcus Lattimore to have a huge day running the ball, and for the Gamecocks to win by double digits at home. PICK: South Carolina
Bigalke: What’s the line on this one… ten points? Double it, because the Tigers have been downright abysmal so far this season. They are the luckiest 3-1 in all of college football right now, and probably should be 1-3. The Gamecocks, meanwhile, have picked right up where they left off last season, grinding the ball on the ground on the legs of Lattimore and living and dying by the Jekyll-and-Hyde arm of Garcia. Here’s guessing Garcia looks great this week against a secondary giving up over 250 yards a game and that Lattimore continues to pad his Heisman credentials… PICK: South Carolina
Strobl: Auburn lacks a reliable defense. Auburn also saw its luck finally run out against Clemson. Those two factors will combine to make week 5 very ugly for the Tigers. South Carolina is hardly consistent, but the Gamecocks are superior on both sides of the ball. Add in the extra motivation that John discussed and this should be a fairly comfortable win for SC. PICK: South Carolina
Texas A&M and Arkansas both suffered tough defeats last week against Oklahoma State and Alabama respectively. Both teams had BCS aspirations entering the season, and if either wants to get to a BCS bowl they need a win on Saturday in Arlington. Which team avoids a second straight loss?
Bigalke: Both teams have strong passing offenses and mediocre passing defenses. Texas A&M has a better running defense, getting 40 more yards a game on the ground than the Razorbacks, but other than that there’s little to distinguish them offensively. Both teams have been losing the turnover battle consistently. Both the Aggies and Arkansas have been scoring about 20 more points a game than their opponents, even following defeats last weekend. In reality there’s little to separate these two former SWC and future SEC conference rivals. But while Arkansas was trounced by Alabama, A&M was a score away from beating the Cowboys after a 4th-quarter implosion. I figure the Aggies will be wary about another letdown and will play tougher — for the full 60 minutes — than they did last week… PICK: Texas A&M
Strobl: A&M’s second-half flop last week was just awful; the one-point differential in the final score belies just how badly the Aggies were beaten after halftime. And I’m still struggling to figure out what had A&M ranked so highly in the first place. Ryan Tannehill’s talent aside, this is not a great team. Arkansas is also coming off of a tough loss, and a much more lopsided one. But Alabama has the nation’s best defense and just happened to put together a truly complete game. In short, I don’t think A&M is as good nor Arkansas as bad as each looked in week 4. PICK: Arkansas
Mitchell: Arkansas is fresh off of a physical and emotional beating at the hands of Alabama in Tuscaloosa last Saturday, and it’s not going to be easy playing against another quality opponent after that. Tyler Wilson got hit a lot last week against the Crimson Tide’s defense, and the Arkansas offensive line will need to keep him upright against Texas A&M. The Aggies blew a huge lead against Oklahoma State at home last week, and that is probably still on their minds. I’m expecting a shootout in Jerry World, and I have a little more faith in the Razorback offense. Pick: Arkansas
A couple of undefeated ACC teams battle in Blacksburg with a surprising 4-0 Clemson, fresh off of back-to-back wins of Auburn and Florida State, going on the road to take on a 4-0 albeit untested Virginia Tech team. Will the Tigers or Hokies get to 5-0?
Strobl: This is yet another toss-up game in a week full of competitive matchups. Virginia Tech has been winning, but no convincingly. Clemson has a couple of surprising victories and should be feeling confident. If we’re going off of this year’s respective performances, then the Tigers would appear to be the superior team. I’m not sure that’s actually the case, but does have a good-looking offense going right now. The Hokies defense should be up to the challenge, but I remember thinking the same thing about Florida State…PICK: Clemson
Mitchell: I’m not sold on either team. Clemson has the two big wins so far, but in hindsight, how impressive were they really? Auburn is a shell of its 2010 National Championship team, and has one of the worst defenses in all of college football. Florida State seems to be a pretty solid team, but they were playing without starting QB EJ Manuel. I’ve been burned way too many times by placing my faith in Clemson. I’ll buy into their legitimacy if they go to Blacksburg and beat Virginia Tech. The Hokies have yet to be tested, but they have a very good defense that will cause problems for Tajh Boyd and the high-powered Tigers offense. It should be close, but I like Virginia Tech at home. PICK: Virginia Tech
Bigalke: You know, John, I hate to keep contradicting you this week. But I am really starting to build faith in the Tigers after I picked them against both Auburn and Florida State. As I said earlier, Tajh Boyd has only continued to grow with each start in his first year as the leader of the Clemson offense. Yes, this is the first road game of his college career, and Lane Stadium is no easy place to play. But the Hokies defense isn’t as good as its reputation, and they’ve been absolutely mediocre in confronting the loss of six defensive starters this season. I have a feeling the Blacksburg faithful are going to be downright bitter after this showdown… PICK: Clemson
A couple of Big Ten contenders — Wisconsin and Nebraska — are set to square off in Madison on Saturday. The Badgers and Cornhuskers enter the game undefeated and ranked in the top-10, but the level of competition takes a major step-up this weekend. Who submits themselves as legitimate contenders in the Big Ten and on a National level?
Mitchell: Wisconsin is being touted as a legitimate National Title contender, and Russell Wilson has been touted as a serious Heisman Trophy candidate. Due respect to the Badgers, but they’ve proved absolutely nothing to this point. I think they are a very good football team, but non-conference wins over UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois, and South Dakota won’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. This week will be the first true test for Wisconsin, and I think they should pass with flying colors, welcoming Bo Pelini and Nebraska to the Big Ten. Wilson’s passing, and the running of Ball and White should be too much for the Huskers defense to handle, and I think Taylor Martinez will have trouble moving the ball through the air. PICK: Wisconsin
Bigalke: This much we can agree upon. The Badgers haven’t played the best of competition so far this season, but they’ve done exactly what a superior team is supposed to do in such contests. Nebraska has looked less than its stellar defensive self so far, though it has been against stronger competition so far. The difference between the two teams expected to be this year’s Big Ten elite is a matter of balance. Wisconsin has managed with transfer QB Russell Wilson to strike a dominant balance between the run and the pass. Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez has always been a run-first kind of guy and was held in check both on the ground and in the air… by Wyoming. Look for another state U beginning with the letter W to finish the job that the Pokes couldn’t last weekend… PICK: Wisconsin
Strobl: What else is there to say? Wisconsin is the better team with the better dual-threat quarterback, and will have the Camp Randall crowd on its side. I still say the line is a bit too big given the magnitude of the matchup, but the Badgers should come out on top. PICK: Wisconsin
In the primetime slot on CBS Saturday night is the 3rd ranked Alabama Crimson Tide travelling to the Swamp to take on 12th ranked Florida. The Tide and Gators are usual SEC heavyweights with Florida looking to reclaim that title under new head coach Will Muschamp. Will the Gators defend their home turf, or will Alabama earn a crucial road win in a hostile environment?
Bigalke: I’m going to disregard the numbers for a moment… or at least some of them. Let’s just look at what these two teams have done so far against BCS competition. Florida has played Tennessee and Kentucky… Bama has faced Penn State and Arkansas. Advantage Tide as far as the level of competition beyond the two cupcakes each scheduled. Against that competition Alabama has allowed 50 fewer passing yards, 30 fewer rushing yards and four fewer points per game. There’s a reason that the Tide are considered by many to be the best defense in the country, or at least a 1B alongside fellow SEC West contender LSU. And the fans in the Swamp are going to learn that lesson the hard way on Saturday… PICK: Alabama
Strobl: Alabama has the toughest defense in the country. Its special teams are outstanding. Its running game superior. If there is a weak point it is passing, but A.J. MacCarron is hardly a liability. Though its early in the year, and though crazy things can and will happen in college football, I would venture to say that this could be the best Alabama team we’ve seen in years. And that’s saying a lot. Will Muschamp is getting Florida back on track in short order, but there’s still a talent gap here. The Gators are working their way back toward controlling the SEC East, but the conference’s true might lies elsewhere this season. PICK: Alabama
Mitchell: Alabama made a strong statement last week with a 38-14 thumping of Arkansas at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But, the trip to the Swamp this weekend is the toughest test to date for the Crimson Tide. Florida’s offense has gotten by with sheer speed in the first four games of the season, and have just overmatched all of their opponents. They won’t get by with just speed against Alabama’s defense that has plenty of it. John Brantley has looked a lot more comfortable in Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense, but just like his counterpart AJ McCarron, he hasn’t been asked to do much at this point in the season. I think it could come down to which quarterback is kept upright, an which is able to make a couple big throws. I look for that guy to be McCarron, and for Alabama’s defense to swarm Brantley. PICK: Alabama