Last week in September, and we've already hit one of those Saturdays. Front and centre -- four huge matchups pitting ranked teams against each other. A few of which, as you'll soon discover, could mean the end of the road for some national championship contenders.
A quick primer on what should be the best weekend of the season yet:
- Those not buying into another spotless USC march to a national crown point to the next two weekends as a prime opportunity for a stumble. At Oregon (and zany Autzen Stadium) this Saturday, and a trip to the desert to face resurgent Arizona State next weekend. The Trojans will surely be tested, but there's a rather valid belief out there that the Ducks and Sun Devils are simply too one dimensional (Read: Pass happy) on offence to knock off the men of Troy.
- Tennessee flunked the first end of its crucial two-game Southeastern Conference gauntlet run last Saturday at Florida. Now comes the tougher end of it: LSU, under the lights. Les Miles' crew is supremely talented, and back in Baton Rouge for the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck. Those who have been there will tell you there is no tougher place in America to play on a Saturday night than Tiger Stadium. Given the raw emotion of the moment, the decibel level might hit record levels on Saturday.
- With their OT victory at Notre Dame last Saturday, Michigan State might have taken a huge step toward wiping out its reputation -- well earned in 2004 -- as the country's most schizophrenic team. We'll get a better read on the Spartans this Saturday when they play at pesky Illinois. As in, precisely the kind of game Michigan State would have lost a year ago.
On to this week's picks, which, with a bit of luck, will surpass last week's rather putrid effort against the spread:
GAME OF THE WEEK
No. 10 Tennessee (+6 1/2) at No. 3 LSU (Saturday) -- At last, QB JaMarcus Russell looks like the real deal for the Tigers. Meanwhile, the pendulum in the Volunteers' QB shuffle swings back to Eric Ainge. What's that old saying ... if you've got two quarterbacks, you really don't have any. Make it 11 straight for the Bayou Bengals at home. Pick: LSU.
NEXT BEST THINGS
No. 15 Georgia Tech (+11) at No. 4 Virginia Tech (Saturday) -- Yellow Jackets QB Reggie Ball was laid out by viral meningitis, and his status remains in doubt. Georgia Tech desperately needs Ball against a Hokie defence that's posted two straight shutouts. Close games seem to suit the Jackets this season. Expect another, but the Hokies march on. Pick: GEORGIA TECH.
No. 21 Iowa (+7) at No. 8 Ohio State (Saturday) -- Now that the Buckeyes have finally settled on the dynamic Troy Smith at QB, watch the offence begin to roll. Hawkeyes were exposed somewhat in upset loss at Iowa State two weeks ago, but QB Drew Tate could still make life miserable for the home folks. Buckeyes have won Iowa four straight against Iowa in Columbus. Make it five. Pick: OHIO STATE.
No. 11 Purdue (+3 1/2) at Minnesota (Saturday) -- The Gophers have stud RB Laurence Maroney and a powerful ground game, but the visiting Boilermakers counter with the nation's No. 1 run defence (16 ypg). Something's gotta give. Watch for unheralded Purdue RB Jerod Void. PICK: PURDUE.
BLOWOUT OF THE WEEK
Indiana State (NL) at No. 19 Texas Tech (Saturday) -- Florida International, Sam Houston State, now this cupcake ... who's next for the Red Raiders, the Sisters of the Poor? Texas Tech hung 80 on the board last week. Triple digits, anyone? Pick: TEXAS TECH.
No. 22 Iowa State (-17) over Army.
No. 13 California (-30) over New Mexico St.
No. 24 Oregon (+21 1/2) over No. 1 USC.
Kentucky (-22 1/2) over No. 5 Florida.
No. 7 Georgia (-15) over Mississippi State
No. 9 Louisville (-21 1/2) over S. Florida.
Colorado (+14) over No. 12 Miami.
No. 14 Michigan (-3) over Wisconsin.
No. 16 Notre Dame (-13 1/2) over Wash.
Illinois (+10 1/2) over No. 17 Michigan St.
No. 18 Arizona St. (-6 1/2) over Oregon St.
No. 20 Alabama (-15 1/2) over Arkansas.
Duke (+25) over No. 23 Virginia.
Last week -- 17-3 straight up; 7-11-2 ATS.
Season record -- 42-14 straight up; 26-27-3 ATS.
Best bet -- LSU (1-2).
Upset special -- Purdue (0-3).