As we enter autumn, a new phase of the college football season begins. The non-conference schedules are ending and the intersectional matchups are dwindling, leaving teams competing for conference wins, trying to avoid falling to teams nearer to their talent level than September's diet of cupcakes, and inevitably making the college football polls do the tarantella. In this column, we'll examine a few of the week's biggest games and figure out which BCS championship contenders need to be on upset alert this week.
The Crimson Tide may have the most talented team in the nation. Nick Saban has recruited enough talent that Alabama has reloaded rather than rebuilt, despite rolling out a defense nearly devoid of seniors and a secondary that has just one returning starter, safety Mark Barron. Alabama's second in the nation in pass efficiency defense and 11th in pass defense, but has done that against San Jose State, freshman-helmed Penn State, and Duke. Arkansas' Heisman candidate Ryan Mallett and his trio of excellent pass-catchers, wide receivers Greg Childs and Joe Adams and tight end D.J. Williams, are several rungs higher than anything this defense has seen, and probably the best passing game Alabama will see all year. Add in a hostile crowd in Fayetteville, a sense that this is the Razorbacks' biggest game since the 2006 SEC Championship, and an underrated Arkansas defense, and there's reason for fear in Tuscaloosa.
Chances of Upset: 40 percent. Mallett will need to have a great game, and his defense will need to keep Alabama's offense, led by Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, averaging a combined 8.79 yards per carry, from churning out drives that keep Mallett on the sideline.
We may have seen this show before: Oregon, the last Pac-10 team to visit the Blue Turf of Death, spent three quarters playing heinously ugly football, mustered just eight points, and made more news for their visit with one postgame punch than they did between the first and final whistles. Oregon State has likely learned from that, and the Beavers' savvy decision to paint their practice field blue could help prepare them for tackling blue-clad Broncos on blue turf. But Oregon State might be able to win in a shootout, too: Jacquizz and James Rodgers will trouble Boise's defense with speed on the edges, and either one having a big day could help fell the BCS busters-to-be.
Chances of Upset: 20 percent. Oregon State has to defend Boise, and limiting Kellen Moore and that offense is likely too tall an order. Also, the Broncos beat a better TCU team than the version Oregon State lost to in its season opener in last season's Fiesta Bowl, and haven't lost a regular season home game since September 8th, 2001. (The Broncos lost to Boston College in the 2005 MPC Computers Bowl, played in Boise.
No. 9 Florida vs. Kentucky, 7:00 p.m.
Florida hasn't lost to Kentucky since 1986, and hasn't fallen to the Wildcats in Gainesville since 1979. If ever there were a year for Big Blue to end both streaks, it would be this one, as Florida's two-dives-and-a-cloud-of-Jeff-Demps'-dust offense sputters and Kentucky's versatile Randall Cobb leads a resurgent Wildcats offense. There is the matter of Florida's excellent defense to contend with, and Kentucky's leaky rushing defense (148 yards per game allowed against Louisville, Western Kentucky, and Akron) could well be gashed by Demps or any of the other Gators backs. But there's a chance.
Chances of Upset: 15 percent. I never said it was a good chance.
South Carolina has been the most consistent team in the SEC East. Stephen Garcia's gunslinger tendencies have been reined in, Marcus Lattimore has been a reliable battering ram, and the defense has held opponents to 12.6 points per game. So why worry about Auburn? First, there is Cameron Newton, who has essentially served as an occasionally accurate rhinoceros at quarterback for the Tigers, and recovered nicely from an awful first half against Clemson to lead Auburn to a comeback victory. Then there is Gus Malzahn's spread-on-steroids attack, which combines a wide-open offense with enough motion and gimmickry to make big plays not just possible, but probable. Most importantly, though, Auburn's defensive line is stacked with large, fast, mean individuals, including tackle Nick Fairley, tied for third in the country with four sacks, and end Antoine Carter, tied for 20th with three.
Chances of Upset: 65 percent. There's no chance that a Garcia-led team goes undefeated in SEC play, and Vegas doesn't like the higher-ranked Gamecocks on the road, anyway, installing them as three-point underdogs. Getting that loss out of the way early and at Auburn might be a good thing.
There is a very real possibility that this could be the worst-coached football game in human history. That team that Ed O'Neill coached in Little Giants — you'll remember it as the one that gave up a game-winning 99-yard touchdown on The Annexation of Puerto Rico — might have had a better sense of time management in football than the squads marshaled by Les Miles or Bill Stewart do. Both of these teams' primary deficiency is at quarterback, too, which may lead to an entertaining, "Here are some chickens with their heads cut off playing football" sort of affair. LSU's defense should be the best unit on the field, though, and it would take a lot of Noel Devine magic (and yardage) to beat that crew.
Chances of Upset: 35 percent. Chances that both quarterbacks throw interceptions: 97 percent. Chances that at least one laugh-out-loud decision made by a head coach: 175,029 percent.