Ohio at No. 23 Kent State (11:00 a.m. ET)
Ohio vs. Dri Archer & Trayion Durham. A year ago, Kent State was a team with a strong defense and not even the slightest hint of an offense. The Golden Flashes ranked 37th in Def. F/+ and 116th in Off. F/+ in 2010, and they ranked 15th and 117th in 2011.
But in November 2011, the tide began to turn. After scoring just 23 total points in their first three MAC games, they averaged 28.5 points in their next four games and won four of five to finish the season. And in 2012, the running back duo of junior Dri Archer and sophomore Trayion Durham has simply been incredible. The defense has actually regressed (to 48th in Def. F/+), but Kent State is 10-1 for the first time ever thanks to the run game. Archer ran for 222 yards versus Army, Durham went for 260 combined against Western Michigan and Rutgers, the two combined for 233 versus Akron and 323 versus Miami (Ohio), and Archer exploded for 241 versus Bowling Green, 153 on these two runs (the second one is absolutely magnificent, especially considering Bowling Green's defense has been outstanding over the second half of the season).
Oh yeah, and Ohio's defense ranks 109th in Rushing S&P+. Like Nebraska below, Kent State stalls when it falls into passing downs, but Ohio has not really proven it will be able to force passing downs. Archer and Durham, one of the nation's most enjoyable duos, could have another big day.
No. 14 Nebraska at Iowa (12:00 p.m. ET)
Iowa vs. First-and-10. Let's face it: Iowa probably isn't going to move the ball very well against a revived Nebraska defense. The Hawkeyes might find a little bit of success running the ball, but as soon as the Hawkeyes fall behind schedule and into passing downs, the drive will likely be ending in a play or two.
For Iowa to pull an upset over its "rival," then, it will have to figure out how to stop Nebraska as much as Nebraska stops the Hawkeyes. (Science!)
And when it comes to slowing down the Huskers, it's all about stopping first-and-10. Nebraska does a brilliant job of early-down play-calling, running frequently with quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Ameer Abdullah but mixing in a nice amount of short passing as well. They keep opponents off-guard and avoid passing downs as well as almost anybody in the country (which is good because passing downs aren't their friend). If Iowa can force second-and-9's and third-and-7's, the Hawkeyes will have a chance. That is almost always true, but it is doubly so against Nebraska.
No. 7 LSU at Arkansas (2:30 p.m. ET)
Arkansas vs. Field Position. On a play-for-play basis, Arkansas' offense has been close to what everybody expected it to be this year. The Hogs rank 15th in Off. S&P+ (the Football Outsiders play-by-play measure). But they struggle to finish drives, in part because of issues on passing downs -- quarterback Tyler Wilson is a bit too predictable, throwing to No. 1 target Cobi Hamilton almost as frequently (44 targets) as the next four targets combined (49) -- and in part because of a significant field position disadvantage. Arkansas ranks 109th in Field Position Advantage, and even good offenses will often stall facing long fields.
LSU, meanwhile? Sixth. Punter Brad Wing is still a tremendous weapon for Les Miles' Bayou Bengals, and LSU still has a dangerous return game (just ask Ole Miss, which was victimized by an untimely punt return score from Odell Beckham, Jr.). If Arkansas is able to somehow break even in the field position game, the Hogs could spring an upset. But evidence suggests that is an enormous "if."
West Virginia at Iowa State (3:30 p.m. ET)
West Virginia offense vs. West Virginia defense. For the most part, West Virginia's collapse from 5-0 to 5-5 has been a team-wide issue. Yes, the WVU defense is awful (it has improved to a certain extent over time, but still), but so is the special teams unit, and when Geno Smith began to press a bit, the WVU offense lost any semblance of consistency as well. (Star receiver Stedman Bailey's lingering injury didn't help.)
But last Saturday, West Virginia posted nearly 800 yards against what has been a pretty strong Oklahoma defense in 2012. Tavon Austin moved to running back and did a pretty incredible Reggie Bush impression, gaining a ridiculous 426 total yards (344 rushing, 82 receiving), while a healthy Bailey caught 13 of 20 passes for 205 yards and four scores.
One game does not mean an offense is "back," but … damned if WVU's offense didn't look fantastic again. If this wasn't a one-game mirage, then West Virginia should score plenty of points against an Iowa State defense that is good, but for the season as a whole has not been as good as Oklahoma's. It will be up to the WVU defense, then, to slow down Iowa State enough to finally score Win No. 6. That might be easier said than done. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam B. Richardson looked awfully (and unexpectedly) good when thrust into action versus Kansas last week, and he adds quite an unknown variable to the ISU offense.
No. 25 Washington at Washington State (3:30 p.m. ET)
Washington State vs. big games. Last week at Football Outsiders, I tackled the concept of covariance, which, in football terms, is simply the comparison of a team's performances versus the quality of the opponent. Some teams play their best against the best opponents; for others it's the opposite. Neither way is necessarily better -- an undefeated team like Notre Dame has benefited from playing its best against the best (while barely surviving games against lesser opponents), but a team like Washington State has not fared as well.
The Cougars really played pretty well against Oregon and Stanford but still lost. Meanwhile, they laid eggs against lesser opponents like Utah, California and Colorado, and lost those games, too. They are a "best against the best" team with only a 2-9 record to show for it in Mike Leach's first season in Pullman.
Well, there is no bigger game than a rivalry game, right? Washington is a bit overrated, sliding into the BCS Top 25 (because the computers love the Huskies' schedule) despite just a No. 52 F/+ ranking. That said, the Huskies are hot, confident and winners of four in a row. If Good Wazzu shows up, this will be a game. If Bad Wazzu makes one final appearance in 2012, then Washington's often brilliant pass defense could have a field day. (That said pass defense is led, in part, by redshirt freshman cornerback Marcus Peters and true freshman safety Shaq Thompson is a very, very good sign for UW's future.)
Arizona State at No. 24 Arizona (10:00 p.m. ET)
Arizona vs. Taylor Kelly's rabbit hat. Arizona is going to move the ball. That much, we know. Arizona State's defense is pretty strong against the pass, but the Wildcats and star back Ka'Deem Carey should find plenty of room to run against the Sun Devils. But whether this means an easy win for Arizona or a complete shootout will depend on which version of the Arizona State offense shows up. ASU has gained 500 yards or more four times in conference play and did so against a solid UCLA defense just a few weeks ago in a 45-43 loss. But the Sun Devils also gained just 250 yards against USC two weeks ago and 294 against Missouri in September.
The difference for ASU often resides in quarterback Taylor Kelly's ability to pull off magic acts on passing downs. ASU's run game ranks just 71st in Rushing S&P+, and ASU is a mediocre 61st in the country on standard downs. But they are 22nd on passing downs, in part because of Kelly's elusiveness and ability to improvise. He is almost more dangerous outside of the pocket, either running or throwing on the run to one of five different receivers. Meanwhile, Arizona's defense is a bit of a passing downs sieve, ranking 88th in Passing Downs S&P+. If Kelly is able to extend drives after ASU inevitably falls into second- or third-and-long situations, Arizona State will stick around.
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