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Three Intriguing Matchups For Week Nine

Daniel Guy
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(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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#11 Michigan State at #14 Nebraska: 12:00 p.m.

In one of only two top 25 matchups this weekend, the Michigan State Spartans will head to Lincoln to take on the Big Ten newcomer Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Fresh off their last second miracle win against Russell Wilson’s Wisconsin Badgers, Sparty will look to keep their four game winning streak alive.  It will be a tough test however, as the Spartans will be facing a Cornhuskers team that is more than capable of putting up yards and points in bunches.

The Nebraska offense isn’t fancy or flashy, and it certainly won’t be confused for East Carolina’s or Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense anytime soon.  It’s a physical, smash mouth offense led by one of the nation’s best running backs, junior, Rex Burkhead.  Burkhead, who split time in the backfield with Redskins rookie, Roy Helu Jr., has been sensational in the starring role this season.  Burkhead has carried the ball 130 times and his 752 yards is the 22nd highest mark in the nation.  His ten rushing touchdowns are tied for tenth best in the country.

But when I said you wouldn’t confuse Nebraska’s offense for the Air Raid I wasn’t kidding, they also have a quarterback who runs the ball nearly as much as he throws it.  Well at least he’s listed as a quarterback on the depth chart.  Sophomore Taylor Martinez’s quarterbacking numbers won’t wow anybody.  His 55% completion rate is the 97th best mark in the nation, and his 1,176 passing yards this season isn’t much better, at 77th in the country.  He’s only attempted 151 passes, which ranks 86th in the nation.  But what makes Martinez so deadly behind center is the threat of him taking off for an 80 yard touchdown.  Martinez has been a dangerous weapon when he tucks it and takes off, rushing 110 times for 636 yards, a 5.8 yard per carry average.  He’s also tied for 13th in the nation, with nine rushing touchdowns this season.  Simply put, if you give him a lane to run, he will make you pay.

When Martinez does attempt a pass, he has several playmakers to get the ball to, including three young wide receivers.  Freshmen, Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell, have been standouts.  Turner, a 6’1, 180 pound speedster from Arlington, TX, has shown his ability to stretch the field with a 16.2 yard average per catch.  Although he has yet to score, Turner leads the Huskers in receptions and receiving yardage, with 15 and 243 respectively.  Bell, a Boulder, CO native, is the same size as Turner, and has similar stats with 13 receptions for 188 yards and a touchdown.  Sophomore Quincy Enunwa, despite being a bigger receiver at 6’2 210 pounds, leads the Huskers in yards per reception at 16.6, and has totaled 11 catches for 183 yards in Nebraska’s first seven games.  In a show of how inept the Nebraska passing game is, he is also tied with fullback Tyler Legate for the team touchdown reception lead at two.  Perhaps the most surprising stat in the Nebraska passing game, is the performance or lack thereof, of tight end Kyler Reed and wide receiver Brandon Kinnie.  Reed, who led the Huskers with eight receiving touchdowns this year, has only caught eight passes this season and has yet to score.  Kinnie led the team in receptions last year with 44, and was second in yards, (494) and touchdowns, (5).  This season though, Kinnie hasn’t been able to make nearly as many plays, with just 11 receptions for 167 yards and zero touchdowns.

The defense for the Cornhuskers, has been about as far as you can get from the famed Blackshirts of the sixties.  The Huskers rank 54th in scoring offense allowing 25 points a game, and 70th in rushing defense, giving up 162 yards per game.  They’ve also had a dreadful pass rush, with just nine sacks this season.  However there are a few bright spots for the Blackshirts who rank 42nd in total defense.  They have done an exceptional job defending the pass, giving up an average of just 193 yards per game, and have been a solid redzone defense, allowing a conversion rate of 80%.

On the other side of the field, is a juggernaut, both offensively and defensively.  For the Spartans, it all starts with senior quarterback Kirk Cousins.  Cousins is much different from Martinez though.  He’s a prototypical pocket passer, at 6’3 210 pounds, and he’s just mobile enough to escape the pass rush….most of the time.  His numbers won’t impress you, just a 67% completion rate, with barely over 1600 yards and an 11-4 touchdown to interception ratio.  He’s even been sacked eight times, which is tied for the 85th most in the nation.  But he’s just a solid all around quarterback, and he can raise his game when his team needs him to.  This was never more evident than last week, when Cousins had one of the best games of his Spartan career, completing 71% of his passes for 290 yards and a 3-0 touchdown interception ratio.  His performance was a major factor in the Spartan’s upset win over then #6 Wisconsin.

The Spartans also feature a duo of very talented backs, in junior Edwin Baker, and sophomore Le’Veon Bell.  Baker leads the Spartans in touches and yards, with 99 carries for 434 yards.  He also has contributed with a pair of rushing touchdowns.  Bell, the much larger goal line back, has added 75 carries 374 yards, and leads the Spartans ground game with six rushing touchdowns.  Junior Larry Caper, and freshman Nick Hill, have combined to add 183 yards and a touchdown on 49 carries.

At receiver, senior B.J. Cunningham is the main weapon.  Cunningham leads the Spartans in receptions with 48, receiving yardage with 723 yards and is tied with fellow senior Keyshawn Martin, and sophomore tight end Dion Simms for the touchdown lead with three.   Martin, the Inkster, MI native, is second on the team in receptions with 27, and reception yardage with 249 yards.  Another senior, Keith Nichol leads the team in yards per catch with 16.8.  He’s also added a touchdown on 12 receptions for 202 yards.  The tight end duo of Brian Linthicum, and Dion Simms have also been playmakers in key situations, with 21 catches for 203 yards.  Le’Veon Bell has been utilized in the passing game, contributing 13 receptions (third highest on the team) for 89 yards.

The story of the year for the Spartans though has been their smothering defense.  The Spartans are second in the nation in total defense, allowing just 222 total yards per game.  They’re also one of the best defenses against the run, holding opponents to 88 yards per contest.  Michigan State is one of the best teams in the country at pressuring quarterbacks, ranking ninth in the nation with 24 sacks.  Even more importantly, against the Spartans, being in the redzone doesn’t necessarily mean points on the board.  The Spartans rank 23 in the nation in redzone defense, allowing just a 75% conversion rate.

My prediction, this will be a tough physical game.  I think the Blackshirts will rise to the occasion at home, and come out matching the Spartan defense blow for blow, at least for a bit.  A key battle to watch will be the Nebraska redzone offense, which ranks 16th nationally scoring on 91% of possessions, against the Michigan State redzone defense.  Eventually, I think the Spartans defensive front is able to wear down the Nebraska offensive line, resulting in the Huskers having to resort to the pass.  Unfortunately for the Huskers, this is where Michigan State shines, ranking second in the nation in passing defense.  In the end I see a pretty convincing win for the Spartans, 37-20.

#9 Oklahoma at #8 Kansas State: 3:30 p.m.

In the only other top 25 matchup of the weekend, we’re treated to a Big XII matchup that should feature two undefeated teams.  I say should because Oklahoma had no business losing to Texas Tech last Saturday, but as they say, that’s why they play the games.  The Sooners will look to rebound after a gut wrenching loss, and the red hot Wildcats will look to continue their impressive and unexpected start to the season.  So will it be a second straight loss for the Sooners, or will another fall from the undefeated ranks this weekend?

For the Sooners, the success, and unfortunately failures for Bob Stoop’s team rest on junior quarterback Landry Jones’ shoulders.  There may not be a better quarterback in the country then Jones when he’s on.  Third in the nation with 2,589 yards, and despite attempting 308 passes he has completed 65% of his throws.  Jones is seventh in the nation with 21 touchdowns, and he’s been incredibly hard to bring down, being sacked just twice in his 308 drop backs.  The problem is, Jones has gone ice cold several times this season.  Against a Florida State Seminoles team, who has shown they were overvalued in the preseason, Jones threw for just 199 yards, his second lowest number in his career.  He also had more interceptions then touchdowns, with a 1-2 ratio.  Then last week, despite throwing five touchdowns, Jones was incredibly inaccurate.  He completed just 55% of his 55 passes, and missed WIDE open receivers in the end zone on multiple occasions.  He also threw a momentum killing interception when Oklahoma was driving to pull within ten during the third quarter.  Still, when he’s on, he’s really on, and I expect him to be much more accurate this weekend.

At running back, junior Dominique Whaley, has been the star.  Whaley has carried the ball 113 times, and is sixth in the Big XII with 627 rushing yards.  His performance has been exceptional given the fact that Oklahoma is a team that throws the ball an average of 46 times per game.  His nine rushing touchdowns is tied for 13th best in the country, and is second in the Big XII behind Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle.  The sophomore Roy Finch, has been a playmaker as a change of pace back, with 29 carries for 186 yards and a touchdown.  His 6.4 yards per carry leads all running backs on the team.  Fellow sophomore Brennan Clay, is second in touches with 51, and has added 182 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

To say the Sooners are talented at wide receiver would be a huge understatement.  The Oklahoma passing game features three of the Big XII’s top ten in receiving yardage.  The amazing Ryan Broyles leads the Sooners, with 67 receptions for 899 yards and nine touchdowns.  These numbers are also tops in the Big XII across the board.  Behind Broyles, sophomore Kenny Stills, has been an exciting player as well, with 35 catches for 465 yards and seven touchdowns.  The third in the trio of Sooner receivers, is Jaz Reynolds, who leads the Sooners in average yards per catch with 19.7.  Reynolds has added 452 yards and two touchdowns to the Sooners passing stats.  Senior tight end James Hanna, has just 13 receptions this season, but has been able to turn them into 160 yards and two touchdowns.  Also worth noting, is Oklahoma’s use of their running backs in the passing game.  Whaley, Finch and Clay have combined for 36 receptions for 335 yards in the Sooner air attack.  With all this talent in the passing game, Oklahoma has been able to score points in bunches, converting 89% of their redzone opportunities.  However, a troubling stat is their ability to score touchdowns in the redzone, with only a 55% touchdown percentage.

On the defensive side of the ball, Oklahoma has struggled at defending the pass, while excelling at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run.  The Sooners rank 78th in the nation against the pass, giving up 237 yards per game.  Against the run though, the Oklahoma defense has held up, giving up an average of just over 115 yards per game.  The brightest spot for the Sooners has been their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.  Their 27 sacks this year is second to only Texas A&M, who have 28.  All together, the Sooners have been average on defense, ranking 41st in the nation in total defense, with 353 yards per game given up.

For the Kansas State Wildcats, their undefeated record has been built primarily on a strong running game and an opportunistic defense.  The Wildcats are 7-0 for the first time since 1999 when Head Coach Bill Snyder (during his first stint as Kansas State’s Head Coach) led the team to an 11-1 record.    And while these Wildcats aren’t likely to finish with just one mark in the loss column, their start has been impressive to say the least.

The biggest weapon for the Wildcats, is easily their do-it-all quarterback Collin Klein.  Much like Nebraska’s Martinez, Klein is a much better runner then passer.  That’s not to say he can’t throw the ball though.  He just won’t beat you with his arm.  He’s completed just 59% of his meager 138 passing attempts and has less than 1,000 passing yards in seven games.  Still, he’s been able to make plays through the air when called upon, and has an 8-3 touchdown to interception ratio.  Klein’s biggest weapon though is his legs, and that’s surprising when you look at him.  At 6’5 226 pounds, he’s much more pocket passer size then scrambler, and when you watch him, he doesn’t even look that fast.  The truth is, he’s not that fast, with just a 4.76 40 time, but he’s got great vision and his line has provided great running lanes all season.  Klein leads the Wildcats in rushing attempts and yards, with 151 carries for 670 yards.  He’s also scored 14 rushing touchdowns this season, which ranks as the fourth highest in the nation.

But the Wildcats aren’t limited to just a dual threat quarterback in their rushing attack.  They also have one of the Big XII’s running backs in the backfield.  In 2010, John Hubert received no more than five carries in any game.  Now, with Daniel Thomas splitting reps with Reggie Bush for the Miami Dolphins, Hubert has been asked to carry the load in the backfield.  The sophomore has responded in a big way, with 637 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 122 carries.

At receiver, the Wildcats haven’t had big contributions due to the focus on the ground game.  However, there are two players worth mentioning in Chris Harper and Tyler Lockett.  Harper, a junior leads the Wildcats in receptions (26), receiving yardage (306), and receiving touchdowns (3).  Lockett, a 170 pound freshman, has caught just 12 passes but has tallied 190 yards and two touchdowns.

On defense, the Wildcats are built around stopping the run and forcing turnovers.  Against the run, the Wildcats rank 13th in the nation, allowing just 94 yards per game.  Where they struggle however, is defending the pass.  The Kansas State secondary has been burnt routinely, surrendering an average of 243 yards per game.  The Wildcats have been able to make up for a poor pass defense with the ability to force turnovers.  The Wildcats rank tenth in the nation in turnover margin, with a plus 8 rating.

My prediction, I honestly think this one will be a little one sided.  I’m confident that Landry Jones will come out firing accurately, and probably will stay on fire throughout the contest.  That could spell doom for the Wildcats, and their 87th ranked passing defense is likely to struggle to contain all of Jones’ weapons.  A key matchup, will be the Wildcat running game against the Oklahoma defensive front.  This should provide a back and forth battle between the tackles, but I ultimately expect the Sooners ability to put up points in a hurry to decide the game.  I like the Sooners in this one, 45-27.

#5 Clemson at Georgia Tech

Two weeks ago this would have been one of the most talked about matchups of the week.  While it’s still a huge game in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Clemson at 8-0, and both teams in contention to represent their divisions in the ACC championship, it just doesn’t have the national implications it should.  That’s because the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who started out red hot at 6-0 are on a two game skid.  It’s not just any skid though, the two losses were to unranked teams in the Virginia Cavaliers and the Miami Hurricanes.  So will Georgia Tech get back on track or will the Clemson offense be too much?  These teams are very similar, very high scoring offenses with suspect defenses so it should be a thriller Saturday night.

For the Yellow Jackets, the offensive game plan is simple.  Run the hell out of the ball, and they do it extremely well.  Paul Johnson’s triple option offense has been executed to near perfection most weeks, which has led to a 6-2 record and second place in the Coastal division.  It all starts behind center, with the athletic and physical Tevin Washington.  Washington played sparingly in 2010 backing up former Yellow Jacket Josh Nesbit, but in the chances he had, he flashed a lot of potential.  He’s turned those flashes into great performances this season, both on the ground, and at times even throwing the ball.  While Washington, like K-State’s Klein, is at heart an athlete playing quarterback, it is important to give his actual quarterbacking a little credit.  He’s not accurate, completing just 48% of his passes.  But with a 25 yard average per completion, you can bet when he does hit a receiver it’s going to be an explosive play.

At the receiving end of those explosive plays is usually Stephen Hill.  The 6’5 junior has been incredible when called upon this season, he only has 18 catches in the Jackets eight games, but his ridiculous 31 yard average per catch speaks for itself.  He leads the Jackets in receiving by a wide margin, with 561 yards and four touchdowns.  When the Jackets air the ball out, there are several other players to watch.  Running backs Orwin Smith, Roddy Jones and Tony Zenon have combined for only 19 catches, but have also demonstrated big play ability with a combined 506 yards and five touchdowns.  Simply put, the Jackets don’t pass much, and they complete even less of them, but if they complete one….watch out!

The offensive game plan is to run, and they do this better than almost every team in the nation.  The Yellow Jackets rank fifth in the nation in rushing offense, grinding out over 321 yards per game.  The only teams ahead of them are three triple option teams (Army, Navy, Air Force) and the vaunted Oregon Ducks with their stable of backs, who run the more popular spread option. The star of the show is once again Tevin Washington.  He doesn’t lead the Yellow Jackets in rushing yards, but the threat of a quarterback keep frees up lanes for the other backs.  Washington’s 141 carries leads the Georgia Tech rushing attack, and he has 460 yards on the ground to add to his 1,139 passing yards.  He also leads Georgia Tech, and is tied for the ACC lead in rushing touchdowns with nine.

Behind Washington, the Georgia Tech running game is littered with playmakers.  Junior Orwin Smith is the game breaker, he leads the Yellow Jackets in rushing yards despite being third in carries.  Smith has 42 carries for 516 yards and eight touchdowns, including a 95 yard score against Kansas.  Sophomore David Sims is listed as a quarterback on the roster, but has yet to throw a pass and is second on the team in carries.  Sims has 87 carries for 496 yards and three touchdowns.  Seniors Roddy Jones, and Embrey Peeples have also been big play guys averaging over nine yards a carry each.  The pair has combined for 54 carries for 500 yards and three touchdowns.  Freshman quarterback Synjyn Days, much like Sims, has carried the ball 42 times this season, and has 220 yards and four scores.  Fullback Preston Lyons isn’t a typical blockers size at 6’1 and 211 pounds, but he’s been able to pick up tough yards in between the tackle with 22 carries for 130 yards and a score.  A pair of freshman in Tony Zenon and Charles Perkins round out the Jackets running attack, with 27 carries for 117 yards and a score between the two.

The Clemson Tigers offense has been exceptional this year, ranking 15th in passing offense with over 300 yards per game, and 40th in rushing offense at 179 yards per game.  The Tigers have one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in sophomore, Tajh Boyd.  Right now, there may not be a quarterback hotter than Boyd, who’s completed 64% of his passes for 637 yards and a 9-1 touchdown to interception ratio the last two games against Maryland, and North Carolina.  Boyd has been one of the country’s best quarterbacks all season.  He’s 13th in passer rating (160.1), and seventh in yards with 2,379.  In fact, until Case Keenum made the Rice Owls secondary look like a pee-wee league team last night, he was tied for the lead in touchdown passes with 24.  Even more impressive, is how rarely he turns the ball over.  His three interceptions this season is tied for the lowest mark among quarterbacks with 200 or more passing attempts.

While Boyd has certainly been incredible this season, he has a plethora of fast and highly talented wide receivers to get the ball to.  Sophomore DeAndre Hopkins has risen his game to another level this season.  He’s on the verge of surpassing his 2010 numbers already, with 37 catches for 510 yards and four touchdowns in eight games.  Last season, he had 51 receptions for 626 yards and four scores in 12 games.  Junior Jaron Brown has provided good depth off the bench, with 18 catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns.  The Tigers also have one of the best redzone weapons in the nation in tight end Dwayne Allen.  Allen is an athletically gifted tight end, and is third on the team in receptions and yards with 33 catches for 432 yards.  He’s also added five touchdowns this season, which is tied for fourth in the nation among tight ends.  Freshman wide receiver Martavis Bryant has been surprisingly good in very limited opportunities this year.  He has just six catches, but has averaged 33 yards per catch and also has a pair of scores.

Then there’s this kid named Watkins or something.  Less than six months ago true freshman Sammy Watkins was preparing for his senior final exams and high school graduation.  Now fast-forward, and he might be the most dangerous playmaker in college football.  There aren’t many words to describe what Watkins has been able to do on the field, and maybe Webster’s should start thinking of some new ones to describe the kid.  That’s how special he is.  He leads the ACC with 54 receptions, which is also good enough for 11th in the nation.  His 819 receiving yards is eighth best in the country, and falls just slightly behind some guys you may have heard of in Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles and University of Southern California’s Robert Woods.  He also was tied for the nation’s lead in receiving touchdowns with nine, until Houston’s Patrick Edwards caught five of Case Keenum’s nine touchdown passes.  Watkins isn’t just a weapon in the passing game though.  He’s also carried the ball 21 times for 126 yards, and has added 446 return yards including an 89 yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Maryland.  It’s easy to see that this kid is special, and it’s scary (at least to opposing teams) when you think about how good he’s going to be in two years.

Not to be overlooked, the Clemson rushing attack has been strong as well.  Several years ago, the Clemson ground game was called thunder and lightning, for the physical style of James Davis and the home run ability of C.J. Spiller.  If this attack had a nickname, it would probably be lightning, lightning and even more lightning.  All three of the main weapons in the rushing attack are virtually the same size at 5’10 190 pounds, and all of them have homerun ability.  Junior Andre Ellington leads the way, with 146 carries for 745 yards.  His seven rushing touchdowns is tied for third among all ACC running backs.  Freshman Mike Bellamy is third on the team in carries, with 38 rushing attempts for 238 yards and two touchdowns.  Fellow freshman D.J. Howard leads the team in average yards per rush with 6.7 yards per attempt, and has 167 yards and a score on 25 carries.  Second on the team in carries is Boyd with 81, and although he only averages two yards per carry, he has been able to score four times this season.

Defensively, both teams have been average, with Georgia Tech holding a slight edge.  They are almost equally bad against the run, with Clemson giving up 169 yards per game and Georgia Tech at 170.  They both hold teams to almost the exact same score with Georgia Tech holding opponents to 24 points per game and Clemson 25.  However, there is a pretty big margin in total defense, where the Jackets are ranked 34th in the country compared to Clemson at 60.  This is where my x-factor for the game comes in.  Georgia Tech is ranked eighth best in the nation against the pass, giving up just 170 yards per game, Clemson however is ranked 40th at over 200 yards surrendered per game.  This stat will decide the game, if Georgia Tech’s pass defense lives up to their ranking, they win.  If not, they lose.

My prediction, I don’t think the Jackets pass defense will live up to that #8 ranking, but it will be a back and forth battle all day.  There will be big plays for both offenses, both in the running game and through the air.  There will also be a ton of points scored when this one is over.  Looking at the betting lines, the total points for the game is expected to be 63.  If I was a betting man I would be taking the over with confidence, along with the Tigers deadly air attack, 47-40.

First, I want to say congratulations to Houston’s Case Keenum for setting the new FBS touchdown passing record last night.  Second, here’s a few extra picks. 

Missouri @ #16 Texas A&M: 12:00 p.m.

I like the Tigers to take the Aggies to the wire, but the Aggies depth will prevail 38-31.

#12 Virginia Tech @ Duke: 12:30 p.m.

I’ve heard all week long how Virginia Tech isn’t as good as their ranking and Duke is better than people think.  I’m not buying it, I’m taking the Hokies 37-20.

Baylor @ #3 Oklahoma State: 3:30 p.m.

Lots of points scored in this one, RGIII puts up big numbers but Weeden and the Cowboys come out on top 48-38.

#22 Georgia vs. Florida: 3:30 p.m.

John Brantly’s return won’t be enough for the Gators, in the world’s “largest outdoor cocktail party” I like the Dawgs to be victorious 31-24.

Wake Forest @ North Carolina: 3:30 p.m.

I’m taking the Heels in this one 27-20.

#6 Stanford @ USC: 8:00 p.m.

Andrew Luck is the best quarterback to ever play the game right?  The Stanford Cardinal have been impressive yes, but last year’s team was better and it took a field goal as time expired to top the Trojans in Palo Alto.  The USC offense is on fire behind junior QB Matt Barkley, and sophomore WR Robert Woods.  My upset special of the week, I like the Trojans to topple the Cardinal 44-41.

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