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September 3, 2010

Keep an eye on: What our guys are watching

Each week, Rivals.com's college football experts give fans things to keep an eye on over the course of the weekend. Here are some key things to watch during the first weekend of the season.

We're back with another season of trying to predict the big upsets -- or, at the least, pick teams that will cover the spread. The lone stipulation for our writers in choosing a game is that the spread has to be at least 7.5 points.
Olin Buchanan
Oregon State plus-13.5 vs. TCU in Arlington, Texas. Oregon State as a 13.5-point underdog doesn't seem right to me. Sure, the Beavers have a new quarterback, but the reviews on Ryan Katz have been positive. Also, look for Oregon State stars Jacquizz Rodgers and James Rodgers, two of the most explosive players in the country, to make impressive showings in their home state. TCU is a terrific team, but Jerry Hughes, Darryl Washington and Rafael Priest aren't on the defensive unit anymore. Oregon State could win outright.
Tom Dienhart
Illinois plus 11.5 vs. Missouri in St. Louis. Illinois should have a strong ground game, which could wear down Missouri's defense and keep the ball away from QB Blaine Gabbert and a prolific Tigers attack. And the Illini will be able to come after Gabbert without having to worry about Mizzou's run game with leading rusher Derrick Washington booted from the team.
David Fox
UNLV plus-20.5 vs. Wisconsin. Wisconsin deserves all of its hype this season. But I can see UNLV putting a scare into the Badgers in Vegas. In recent years, the Badgers have played UNLV and Fresno State on the road, and Wisconsin won by a single touchdown in each game.
Mike Huguenin
Colorado State plus-12 vs. Colorado in Denver. Both teams have issues at quarterback, with Colorado State starting true freshman Pete Thomas. The quarterback issues plus the added stakes of a rivalry game in the season opener means mistakes are going to be made -- and maybe a lot of them. I think Colorado wins, but that's a big spread in what is an extremely nasty rivalry.
Steve Megargee
Oregon State plus-13.5 vs. TCU in Arlington, Texas. Oregon State's recent history of slow starts makes it hard for me to pick the Beavers to beat TCU outright, but I can't believe they're two-touchdown underdogs. The Rodgers brothers will play well enough in their return to their home state to keep this game much closer than the spread, even if TCU ultimately prevails.

Michigan's pass defense. The Wolverines were vulnerable against the pass last seasons -- and that was with CBs Donovan Warren and Troy Woolfolk and DE Brandon Graham. Without them, how effective will Michigan's be against the pass? If the Wolverines have issues Saturday against Connecticut, which isn't a great passing team, that's a bad omen for when they face opponents that are adept in the passing game.


Notre Dame's defense. Has it improved under new coach Brian Kelly? Purdue's multi-dimensional offense will be a good test for an Irish defense that must get tougher. Last season, the unit ranked No. 86 in the nation (397.8 ypg). The rush defense was especially porous, yielding 170.3 yards per game to rank 89th in the nation. Kelly has installed a 3-4 scheme in hopes of being able to give multiple looks up front. If ND can't control a Purdue ground game that lacks a proven running back, it may be long season in South Bend.


Connecticut's linebackers against Michigan's spread option. Without much fanfare, Connecticut supplied one of the biggest surprises of the first week when Greg Lloyd was listed as the first-string middle linebacker on the depth chart for the game at Michigan. Earlier this month, coach Randy Edsall said it seemed likely Lloyd -- who supposedly had been moved to end -- would have redshirt because he wasn't ready after suffering a torn ACL and a torn MCL late last season. Even without Lloyd, Connecticut probably had the best group of linebackers in the Big East with Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson. If Lloyd is healthy and effective, this will be one of the best linebacker units in the country. How will those linebackers fare Saturday at The Big House?


Virginia Tech's front seven. The Hokies were surprisingly soft against the run last season, ranking 40th nationally in run defense. Only two starters return in the front seven, and one of those -- rising star LB Barquell Rivers -- is expected to miss Monday night's game against Boise State. In addition, the Hokies have no proven pass rusher and have two new starting ends; the lack of a consistent pass rush is a potential fatal flaw against ultra-accurate Broncos QB Kellen Moore. The Hokies' front seven needs to come up big in at least one area Monday, either against the run or on the pass rush.


BYU's quarterback situation. BYU has won at least 10 games for four consecutive seasons in large part because of solid quarterback performances from John Beck and Max Hall. The Cougars enter this season with much less certainty at the position. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has said Utah State transfer Riley Nelson and highly touted true freshman Jake Heaps will share time Saturday against Washington, but it's hard to imagine the Cougars going all season with a two-quarterback system. You'd have to think one of these candidates will step forward and win the job outright. This week should offer our first clues as to whether Nelson or Heaps is ready to take command of the competition. If neither quarterback separates himself, BYU could have a tough time reaching a double-digit win total for a fifth consecutive season.


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