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Senior College Football Columnist

Weekend Watch List: Big showdowns in Big Ten, Big 12; East no longer the SEC Least

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Ah, the memories of another nonconference September ...

The Sun Belt's traditional forced march through BCS opponents, playing guarantee games just to balance the budget. Thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another, so the SBC can keep playing ... football.

It was wonderful for a moment that Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky didn't get the memo. Still ...

 Who can forget Arizona State 63, Northern Arizona six-figures? That's a reference to the number of dollars the Lumberbacks received to play their annual in-state big-brother game.

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 There was UMass' splendiferous tragical history tour to Connecticut and Michigan to get beat by a combined 108-19.

 To this point, Florida Atlantic is best known for breaking Alabama's shutout streak.

 If the games weren't openly advertised in public months in advance, LSU could be accused of consumer fraud. A total of 184,236 fans jammed Tiger Stadium for a pair of games to watch their team beat Idaho and North Texas by a combined 104-28.

 Thank goodness for Jacksonville State. That win is all that stands between John L. Smith and Arkansas being winless.

 Here's what you won't hear from Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher in January if he's up there on stage grabbing the crystal football from BCS executive director Bill Hancock ...

"Savannah State really prepared us for the rest of the season."

Once again, non-cons have been mostly a non-factor. For every Alabama-Michigan and Syracuse-Southern California, there have been scores of New Hampshire-Minnesota matchups. Praise the Bored, then, that widespread conference play breaks out this week. While some conferences have already begun inter-species play, there are still 56 teams yet to play a league game. The start of that Second Season adds an extra shot of hot sauce to the wings.

Here's why ...

Ohio State at Michigan State: Urban Meyer's first Big Ten game is loaded with frustration for both sides. The Buckeyes struggled to put away Alabama-Birmingham. The week before they barely survived California. "I think we seem like a very passive team," Meyer said. Mark Dantonio can't figure out why his team drops so many passes and is being snippy with the media. "Right now, we're searching," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. This looked like a clash of contenders until the NCAA (Ohio State) and the NQS (New Quarterback Syndrome at Michigan State) intervened. Because the Buckeyes can't go to a bowl, they are a curiosity. How dangerous would they be in the big picture if they were bowl eligible? Is this game when Meyer develops a running game not named Braxton Miller?

Baylor at West Virginia: The Mountaineers couldn't be more suited for the Big 12. They have a big-time quarterback and two big-time receivers. You know, everything Baylor used to have. Such is life after RG3. Baylor is a one-trick bear itself with an offense that has to keep its defense off the field. You know, like West Virginia.

Texas at Oklahoma State: Mack Brown has had all kinds of problems with the Cowboys. Oklahoma State has won the past two and averaged 28 points against the Longhorns in the past five meetings. Oklahoma Light looks vulnerable with quarterback Wes Lunt nursing an injured left knee. Plus, the 'Horns travel well now with a serviceable defense. It would be nice if Texas won to set up the Red River Shootout on Oct. 13. One problem, West Virginia goes to Austin next week. The Cowboys are on pace to gain more than 8,200 yards this season. Look for that pace to slow down as Savannah State and Louisiana-Lafayette are replaced by Big 12 opponents.

Wisconsin at Nebraska: Officially the Big Ten is a tossup because conference play kicks off this week. Unofficially, Nebraska is becoming the league favorite. Within their own division (Legends -- see, I knew), Northwestern and Minnesota are the undefeated teams. Michigan has totaled 20 points against the two best teams it has played (Alabama, Notre Dame). Michigan State (see above) has profound offensive issues. Wait, what? What about Saturday's game? It's a revenge game against Wisconsin. This is where Nebraska begins to assert itself and win the Big Ten in its second season.

Texas Tech at Iowa State: The Big 12's Iron Bowl. Just try to score on these guys. Iowa State has gone more than 129 minutes since allowing a touchdown (remember this hashtag: #paulrhoadsisgod). The Red Raiders are tops nationally in total defense (against Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico). Still, things look a bit brighter in Lubbock than they did at the beginning of the season. Might as well ask the question now, given early season results: Who's going to have the better season, Washington State or Texas Tech?

Western Kentucky at Arkansas State: The best team in Kentucky vs. the best team in Arkansas? Let's just say a case could be made. Gus Malzahn gets a Sun Belt showdown in his first conference game with the Red Wolves. Western's Willie Taggart has already beaten Kentucky. Both coaches look like short timers in their current positions. First one to the Sun Belt title this year gets to move up to a BCS job.

The return of the SEC East

There was a time when the East was the other conference in the SEC. The division's winner has lost three straight conference title games by an average of 30 points. Within that time frame, South Carolina has been ascending, Florida and Tennessee suffered a bit while changing coaches. Georgia?

That's what Saturday is about. The Dawgs have that undefeated look. They're off to their best start (4-0) since 2008. They've won 14 consecutive regular-season games. If they can beat Tennessee at home, an undefeated season isn't out of the question. Too soon? The remaining road games are at South Carolina (next week), Kentucky and Auburn. And, no, WWL isn't forgetting the Cocktail Party.

With South Carolina facing the tougher SEC schedule, Georgia looks like the most complete team in the East. The suspended players are (supposedly) returning. Aaron Murray is on track for a 30-touchdown season. At his present pace, Todd Gurley would have 1,200 yards.

If you haven't noticed, the East goes four deep this year. That includes Tennessee, which is showing signs of life. Florida looks much smoother on offense and has an identity, thanks to offensive coordinator Brent Pease. The point being, the SEC East champion might not be the pushover in Atlanta it has been these past three years.

Discuss

 Four games into its first SEC season, Missouri is an underdog (by one point) going on the road to a Conference USA venue (Central Florida).

 BCS buster of the week, perhaps of the season: Louisiana Tech goes to Virginia having scored at least 52 in each of its first three games. The Bulldogs are legit under Sonny Dykes. If they beat Virginia and Texas A&M on Oct. 13, they'll have almost the same exact profile as Boise State in the early years -- a team good enough to beat the big boys but weighed down by the WAC schedule.

 Of course rapper Tech N9ne has collaborated with Iowa State d-lineman Jake McDonough on a Cyclone-inspired track. Comin' Thru will be played at the Cyclones' game against Texas Tech. What's next, Nebraska and death metal?

 Mismatch of the week? Oregon vs. Washington State in Seattle. "Because their mentality is pass first, pass second and pass third, they're always going to be in the ballgame," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. Isn't that how Mike Leach lost a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead last week to Colorado?

Stat package

Urban Meyer is 38-4 in September. ... There have been 46 games involving SEC teams. In only one has at least one helmet not come off (resulting in a player missing a play, per new NCAA rules). That game was Northwestern-Vanderbilt, the so-called "Brain Bowl." ... The surprise is not that the SEC has the most former players in the NFL at the moment (288), it's the runner up. The ACC comes in second at 226. The NDNC (Notre Dame's New Conference) has been consistently high in recent years in number of players drafted. The Pac-12 is a close third at 216. ... Since 2006 when the SEC went on its championship run, all 14 of its current teams have been ranked at one time or another in the AP or coaches polls. Seven teams have been ranked in almost half of the 102 polls since the beginning of that season -- LSU, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Arkansas and South Carolina. ... Definition of parity: The Sun Belt and Mountain West have neither an undefeated team nor a winless team. They're the only two like that in FBS. ... Alabama (vs. Ole Miss) has scored first in 18 straight games. ... Zach Mettenberger (playing against Towson this week) has four of LSU's five turnovers this season.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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