Kevin C. Cox - Getty Images
Heading into Week 7 of the college football season, conference play is finally underway across the landscape of college football. Here's a look at the best conference game from each of the 11 conferences (and Notre Dame, too).
No more beating up on FCS teams and sitting through games that don't count for anything at all (unless you lose). No, these are the games that count for something, and this weekend, finally, all 11 conferences have games worth paying attention to. That being the case, here's a look at the best conference game (with a notable exception or two thrown in) for each conference.
ACC - Duke at Virginia Tech
No, seriously. This is the best conference game on the ACC schedule this week. And it's not because the slate is terrible, either. Duke is one win away from reaching bowl eligibility. They haven't reached the postseason since 1994. Right now, only Duke and Miami are unbeaten in conference play in the Coastal division. A win against Virginia Tech would not only clinch bowl eligibility, but make Duke a legitimate contender for the Coastal division title (I really can't believe I'm typing that, but it's true).
Virginia Tech, conversely, is in danger of seeing its streak of 10-win seasons end. After disappointing losses to Pitt, Cincinnati and North Carolina, games in which the characteristically tough Hokies defense was pushed around, Virginia Tech desperately needs a win just to ensure it will reach the postseason. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster has recently been prickly with the local media about the performance of his defense. They'll again be tested by Sean Renfree and the Duke passing game, which is quietly one of the more efficient passing attacks in the country.
Big 12 - Texas vs. Oklahoma
The latest chapter in the Red River
Shootout Rivalry kicks off at noon on Saturday and should be fun to watch. Both teams can move the ball and score points.
Texas' offense looks vastly improved, and David Ash finally gives the Longhorns an answer at quarterback, something they've been missing since Colt McCoy graduated. Oklahoma has at times looked dominant offensively, and at other times its lack of playmakers at receiver is clear. The Sooners ended their losing streak at Texas Tech with a 41-20 win and come into the game with a little momentum after the tough loss at home to Kansas State. Texas, meanwhile, hopes to avoid a hangover from the narrow loss in yet another shootout to West Virginia. The losing team is likely eliminated from Big 12 contention, so the pressure will be on.
Big East - Louisville at Pittsburgh
Louisville finally begins conference play after opening the season 5-0 and having last week off. The Cardinals have looked dominant in stretches (the first three quarters against Kentucky, the first half against North Carolina) but have looked thoroughly disinterested at others (sleepwalking through a win at FIU, barely escaping at Southern Miss in game played essentially underwater). It's been 10 consecutive quarters since Louisville played good, crisp football.
Pittsburgh has been just as inconsistent in 2012, only its inconsistency has cost the Panthers games. After losing at home to Youngstown St. and getting blasted on the road at Cincinnati, the Panthers rebounded to beat Virginia Tech and blow out Gardner-Webb, only to turn around and lose on the road at struggling Syracuse. Quarterback Tino Sunseri, always a lightning rod for criticism, is having easily the best year of his career (1,463 yards, 8 TDs, 2 INT). Still, the Panthers are one of the worst teams in the country at protecting the quarterback (allowing nearly three sacks per game) and struggle to score in the red zone. A win would improve Louisville to 6-0 for the first time since 2006. Also worth noting: because of a schedule quirk with ESPNU, this game will kickoff at 11:00 a.m. ET.
Big Ten - Wisconsin at Purdue
NCAA sanctions have made a mess of the Big Ten Leaders Division. With the two best teams, Penn State and Ohio State, ineligible for postseason play, this weekend's game between Wisconsin and Purdue is critical in determining which team will advance to the Big Ten Championship Game.
The Badgers have slowly improved after looking rather shaky early on. Their losses to Nebraska and Oregon State don't look bad right now, but they were lucky to escape with a win against Utah State and didn't pull away from lowly Illinois until late in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin, typically one of the best rushing teams in the country, has struggled to run the ball consistently (just 133 yards per game on the ground). Purdue is 3-2, but its three wins have come against Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan and Marshall. Against the two best teams on the schedule, Notre Dame and Michigan, Purdue has been stifled offensively. With Wisconsin's offense slowly rounding into the form we're used to seeing, the Boilermakers will need plenty of points of their own to win.
Conference USA - UAB at Houston
The slate of games in Conference USA for this week isn't great, but this is the best one to watch, especially if you like offense.
UAB is 1-5 and its only win came against FCS opponent Southeastern Louisiana. But the Blazers can at least throw the ball (303 yards per game). Houston began the season with a crushing loss to Texas State. A loss deemed so bad, new head coach Tony Levine fired his offensive coordinator after the game. After losing to Louisiana Tech and UCLA, the Cougars have played like the Houston teams we've become accustomed to. Quarterback David Piland is 5th nationally in total offense (362 yards per game), and the Cougars have exceeded 600 yards of total offense in back to back wins over Rice and North Texas. If you want to see points and passes, this is your game.
MAC - Akron at Ohio
Why would a game with 1-5 Akron be the MAC's best game this week? Well, for two reasons. First, any Ohio game is going to be the most important game in the MAC going forward. The Bobcats have a nice opening week win over Penn State (a win that keeps looking better as the Nittany Lions keep winning) and because of the Big Ten's sanctions situation, could be a "BCS buster." The Bobcats just need to keep winning.
Second, Akron really isn't beating anyone, but man can the Zips score points. While they were shut down last week by Bowling Green, they managed to score 38 in a loss to FIU and 49 in a loss to Miami (OH). Ohio hasn't looked all that crisp the past few week in squeaking by lowly UMass and Buffalo, but they've won. If Akron is able to put points on the board, the Bobcats will be hard-pressed to score enough to keep up.
Mountain West - Fresno State at Boise State
The old WAC rivals now meet as Mountain West Conference foes for the last time.
Boise State is off to the Big East after this year and still has an opportunity to wiggle its way into a BCS bowl if it wins out. Fresno State and new head coach Tim DeRuyter are re-energized after the program went stagnant under Pat Hill. The Bulldogs are 4-2, with the losses coming at Oregon and at Tulsa. The Bulldogs are in top 20 nationally in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense.
They'll be a significant challenge for a Boise State team that struggled to move the ball so far 2012. Outside of games against overmatched opponents, the Broncos haven't moved the ball consistently against anyone. Quarterback Joe Southwick has been inconsistent and, if nothing else, has made fans appreciate just how automatic Kellen Moore was. There aren't very many tests left on the Boise State schedule, so if the Broncos pass this one, they could be staring at another 10-plus win season.
Pac-12 - USC at Washington
USC got pushed around by Stanford and for a time looked like they were going to get pushed around by Utah, too. But the Trojans responded and now are in the driver's seat in the South division of the Pac-12. Stanford went to Washington two weeks ago and lost. USC will try and avoid the same fate.
This has been a rather entertaining series lately, with Washington winning two of the last three. The relationship of former co-workers Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian only adds to the intrigue. Washington, like most teams, was able to mount little resistance to Oregon and will need a much better defensive effort against USC, which seems to finally be getting it going on offense. USC has been decent against the run this year, so the ability of Washington quarterback Keith Price to make plays both running and throwing will be key here.
SEC - South Carolina at LSU
This game features a team just hoping to stay in the divisional race against a team that is in the thick of the BCS Championship Game hunt. Only, the roles are reversed from what we might have thought a few weeks ago.
South Carolina looked sloppy in the opener against Vanderbilt, but has improved weekly and last week dominated Georgia en route to a 35-7 win. LSU, meanwhile, is limping into the game after being physically pushed around by Florida last week in a loss. The Tigers still aren't moving the ball consistently, and instead of games against Towson and Auburn being the exception, they now look like the rule. South Carolina has an even better defensive line than Florida, so life won't get any easier for Zach Mettenberger. It's hard to believe, but a loss would effectively eliminate LSU from West division contention just two weeks into October.
Sun Belt - Western Kentucky at Troy
Western Kentucky is America's best kept secret. Head coach Willie Taggart is a Jim Harbaugh clone, and his Hilltoppers team plays just like Harbaugh's Stanford teams. They're physical, they run the ball, and have a dominant defensive line (led by the nation's leader in sacks Quanterus Smith).
Troy is the video game offense of the Sun Belt and will give Western Kentucky a test. The Hilltoppers have covered the spread (which is WKU -2) in 15 consecutive games.
WAC - Texas A&M at Lousiana Tech
This isn't a conference game, but it's the most important game for the WAC this season. The Bulldogs are one of the few remaining potential BCS busters, and a win over a better than expected Texas A&M team would go a long way towards making that happen.Texas A&M has been better than perhaps many expected in its first year in the SEC, and the adjustment to Kevin Sumlin's offense has been smooth, thanks to the play of quarterback Johnny Manziel.
If this game hadn't been delayed due to Week 1 weather, I'd like LA Tech's chances a lot more, but this should still be a great game to watch. If the Bulldogs do pull the upset, they're looking at an undefeated season and a BCS bowl bid in their final season in the WAC.
Stanford at Notre Dame
Obviously, this one isn't a conference game, but it still has huge implications for every conference. Notre Dame has navigated its schedule well so far and is within striking distance of not only earning a BCS bowl game berth, but of the BCS Championship Game itself. It sounds a bit silly right now, but if the Irish run the table, few teams, if any, will have a better resume.
Likewise, if the Pac-12 hopes to send two teams to the BCS this season, Stanford needs to keep winning. The Cardinal still have a game with Oregon looming, and another loss (along with USC and Oregon likely playing each not once, but twice) would greatly diminish the chances of the conference being able to earn an at-large bid. In the previous two meetings, both wins, Stanford has outrushed Notre Dame 362-101. That figures to change with the Irish getting markedly improved play from their front seven in 2012.
Check the national college football scoreboard right here, and look through SB Nation's many excellent college football blogs to find your team's community.