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September 30, 2011

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 in Week 5.

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
Auburn plus-9.5 at South Carolina. Yes, Auburn gives up a lot of points, but the Tigers score a lot, too. South Carolina's defense has been vulnerable, especially against the pass. Look for a high-scoring shootout, and don't be surprised if QB Barrett Trotter has a big day and leads Auburn to an upset, especially if the Tigers have the ball last.
Tom Dienhart
Northwestern plus-8 at Illinois. Illinois is off to its first 4-0 start in 60 years, thanks largely to a defense that's playing better than most people expected. But Western Michigan almost toppled the Fighting Illini last week at home, and Illinois could be in danger Saturday when Northwestern visits. The Wildcats were off last week, giving Northwestern extra time to prep. But even more vital to the Wildcats' upset bid is the expected return of QB Dan Persa from an Achilles' injury that kept him out of the first three games this season. Persa is a special talent who can run and pass with equal aplomb, which may be enough to keep Illinois' defense off-balance and lead Northwestern to victory.
David Fox
Washington plus-7.5 at Utah. After the first four weeks of the season, I really don't know what to make of either team. I don't trust Utah's offense, but the Utes scored 54 points at BYU, thanks to a bunch of turnovers. I don't trust Washington's defense because it's just not very good. I believe in Washington QB Keith Price, though. He'll give the Huskies a chance to beat Utah in the Utes' first Pac-12 game at home.
Mike Huguenin
Akron plus-8.5 at Eastern Michigan. OK, Akron is bad - really bad. But Eastern Michigan is horrible, as well. This is just the fourth time since the beginning of the 2006 season that EMU has been favored in a game (think about that - four times in 61 games). The Eagles were favored by a combined six points in the other three games - and they're giving 8.5 in this one?
Steve Megargee
Nebraska plus-9 at Wisconsin. I expected Wisconsin to be favored over the Huskers at home, but this point spread stunned me. Wisconsin has looked better than Nebraska thus far, but not nine points better. I also wonder how Wisconsin will fare in its first legitimate test of the season after cakewalks against UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota. I expect Wisconsin to win the game, but I also think the Badgers' offense could struggle for the first time all season against Nebraska's defense. Nebraska should cover the spread and keep the game in doubt until the fourth quarter.
Season Totals
For the season, 11 of 20 picks have covered the spread and three have won outright.

Clemson QB Tajh Boyd. He has been so spectacular in the past two games that he deserves to get in the Heisman discussion. But all four Clemson games have been played at Death Valley. I want to see how Boyd performs in his first road start, in a hostile environment such as Lane Stadium against a strong Virginia Tech defense.


Can Nebraska pass at Wisconsin? For the Huskers to have a shot at the upset in "Mad City," QB Taylor Martinez must pass. No one doubts his ability to run, as he ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing (105.3 ypg). But can Martinez pass against a Wisconsin defense that ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten (246.5 ypg)? Nebraska will arrive in Madison with the Big Ten's 11th-rated (106th nationally) passing attack (166.5 ypg). All eyes will be on Martinez, who is the Big Ten's 10th-rated passer, hitting just 50.6 percent of his attempts for 647 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. The Badgers know this, which is why Martinez often can expect to see eight men in the box to take away the Nebraska run and force him to pass.


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Nebraska's pass rush. Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson looks like a Heisman winner so far this season, playing behind an offensive line that is giving him plenty of time to rack up passing yards. That's partly because of a typically strong Wisconsin offensive line but also because the Badgers have not played anyone who poses a serious threat with a pass rush. It remains to be seen if Nebraska can pressure him. The Huskers' defense has been shaky at times, but some of that can be credited to absences on the defense, including tackle Jared Crick and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. I want to see if Nebraska's defense can pressure Wilson, and if so, how will Wilson respond?


Florida's line play. The Gators have run the ball extremely well - they lead the SEC in rushing offense - and they also are the only team in the nation that hasn't allowed a rushing TD. Saturday, though, is a big step up in competition with Alabama invading the Swamp. If Florida can't run, the offense is in big trouble because the Gators don't look to have any type of downfield passing attack. Defensively, Florida wants to make Tide QB A.J. McCarron throw the ball, but McCarron won't have to - and instead can rely on TBs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy - if the Gators' defensive line doesn't rise up.


Will Stephen Garcia redeem himself? South Carolina has enough talent to compete for an SEC and BCS title if it gets consistent production from its quarterback, but that might be expecting too much of Garcia. The senior's up-and-down career reached another pitfall last Saturday, when he threw four interceptions against Vanderbilt. South Carolina won anyway because of its dominant defense, but Auburn's offense figures to give the Gamecocks much more of a challenge. On the other hand, Garcia should be able to have success against Auburn's vulnerable defense as long as he avoids mistakes. Garcia needs to turn things around this week. If he can't perform well against a mediocre Auburn defense, it's tough to imagine him leading South Carolina to an SEC title.


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