Week 3 is here, and the Six-Pack can feel it in the air: the sun’s going down a little earlier, the nights are a bit more crisp, and college football games are growing more meaningful. Indeed dear reader, fall is here. It’s the Third Saturday of September, which means Tennessee-Florida, Michigan State-Notre Dame, and in general, a lot fewer cupcakes being served up.
Key conference games, non-conference clashes and even some rivalry trophies are at stake in Week 3.
ARIZONA STATE at MISSOURI
The surprise of Todd Graham’s first two games isn’t that the Sun Devils are 2-0: it’s how good his team’s looked in those wins. Blasting in-state foe Northern Arizona is hardly awe inspiring stuff, but the complete domination of Illinois is worthy some attention. True, the Illini were without Nathan Scheelhaase. However, ASU was without Brandon Magee. Offsetting absences.
ASU had no problem with an Illini defense that ranked No. 15 in 2011, rolling off 510 yards and 45 points with some creative play calling. It was retribution for a narrow defeat on the road the season before, but these week the tables are turned. The Sun Devils forked Missouri in an overtime classic in Tempe last September, surely a loss that stings Gary Pinkel given some late game miscues that did in the Tigers.
Mizzou’s defense showed some mettle despite the final score, wearing down after its offense could muster little against Georgia. The Tigers don’t see Jarvis Jones this week — rather, MU draws a Sun Devil defense that surrendered over 200 yards to an Illini rush without Scheelhaase. James Franklin will be in the Missouri backfield to provide that dual threat look Illinois was lacking. ASU gets Magee back to patrol the defensive front and potentially counteract the rush.
“He has really got command of what he’s doing,” Graham said of Franklin. “They have a great scheme and a great system.”
This one should tell a lot about two teams that are still somewhat mysterious.
NOTRE DAME at MICHIGAN STATE
Two of the best defense in the country mix it up in pursuit of the Megaphone Trophy and BCS aspirations. Being the home team was once death in this series, but the tide turned in 2008. The Irish put it on the Spartans last season in South Bend 31-13, the Irish’s first double-digit win over MSU since 1993 and some retribution for the trick play that sealed the 2010 installment.
Don’t think the 31 points Notre Dame scored last season haven’t built festering frustrations in a very mean MSU defense over the off-season. Sparty actually held the Irish to 275 yards, but lost the field position battle and were playing without much turf behind it. A reason for that? The UND defense held MSU to 29 total yards rushing. And don’t that isn’t motivating Le’Veon Bell.
The big Spartan back has had an outstanding start to 2012, rushing for four touchdowns and 280 yards in two MSU wins. In the Irish, he faces an imposing front seven with Manti Te’o leading the way. Notre Dame’s entire defense feeds off Te’o's sideline-to-sideline presence. Andrew Maxwell has to carry the momentum from a strong showing against Central Michigan into the initial possessions this week to give Bell breathing room to operate. The problem with that? UND is no CMU.
VIRGINA at GEORGIA TECH
Georgia Tech’s perfect 2011 start came to a halt when the Yellow Jackets visited Charlottesville on Oct. 15. The Cavaliers capitalized on a stout defensive effort, containing the triple option offense to 21 points. UVa appears to be back to its defensive ways, holding its first two opponents below 20 — albeit FCS Richmond and a depleted Penn State side. Tech is the first challenge to the Virginia defense.
The Yellow Jackets need a win about as desperately as a team can on Sept. 15, facing an 0-2 ACC hole should they fall short. Tech had victory slip out of its fingers in Week 1 at Virginia Tech, leading in the final minute despite struggling to establish consistency against the Hokie defense.
Georgia Tech is still rushing the ball far more than it’s passing, though Tevin Washington has shown an improved touch airing out the ball. He’s completing two-thirds of his attempts and has spread the ball around for nearly 300 yards on 17 completions. Washington must click with his receivers early, particularly Jeff Greene. Greene is a big target in the mold of recent standout Jacket wideouts like Stephen Hill and Demaryius Thomas. His presence gives Tech a dynamic that could lure Virginia defenders out of the box — critical to the Jackets’ efforts.
TEXAS at OLE MISS
Good news for Ole Miss? The Rebels are 2-0, having already matched their entire 2011 win total. Bad news? The schedule’s about to get a lot more difficult.
Hugh Freeze’s offense at Arkansas State was explosive — basically, the antithesis of Ole Miss a season ago. It’s difficult to glean how much Ole Miss as improved when compared via Central Arkansas and UTEP, even if the Miners came in off holding Oklahoma’s spread attack to just 24 points the week prior. There is no guesswork necessary evaluating the Texas defense; the Longhorns are among the nation’s best in that facet.
Bo Wallace has flourished initially in Freeze’s offense, piling up seven touchdowns in the Rebels’ two wins. Wallace isn’t the first two-way quarterback the Horns are facing this season, though. Texas contained Wyoming’s Brett Smith to just 18 yards on eight rushes in Week 1, and intercepted the Cowboy quarterback twice. Smith was able to move the ball to the tune of 276 yards, though. Wallace’s best option might be going to the air early, as establishing the rush against Longhorns Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor without forcing the coverage beyond the box is an unlikely proposition.
BYU at UTAH
The sun is setting on one of the sport’s oldest rivalries. The Holy War was first played in the late 19th and has been played every season consecutively since World War II, but is not guaranteed to continue in the future. Last season’s Ute romp was an eyesore on an otherwise impressive first season of independence for the Cougars.
BYU has to feel good about its chances for rectifying last year’s lopsided outcome. The Cougar defense rallied after surrendering 54 points to Utah, and has since been among the stingiest in college football. Just ask Mike Leach and Washington State how hard nosed BYU is on that side of the ball.
UU limps into this match-up in need of a win, and seeking an offensive identity with Jordan Wynn’s sudden retirement amid myriad shoulder injuries. Jon Hays is back behind center, sharing snaps with Travis Wilson. The Ute offense became almost rush exclusive with Hays quarterbacking it a season ago, but Kyle Whittingham says don’t anticipate dramatic changes this time.
“He is a lot better this year. I don’t think we have to reel in and modify the offense because of the progress he’s made,” Whittingham said. “He came in with a minute to go in the second half and put up 20 points [against Utah State].”
Of course, USU is not BYU. Should Kyle Van Noy and the defense limit the Ute offense in the early going as Utah State did, Riley Nelson won’t leave the window open for a comeback.
USC at STANFORD
Stanford’s three-game win streak against USC is the longest any Pac-12 member has built against the Trojans during the program’s decade of domination. A four-game run would be unprecedented, and certainly unexpected. The absence of Andrew Luck has tempered anticipation of this Pac-12 showdown, but don’t think another classic isn’t possible. In fact, it’s likely.
True, the Cardinal no longer have the surefire No. 1 NFL Draft pick captaining its offense — that would be the quarterback on the other side, USC’s Matt Barkley. But Stanford does have an experienced defense, one much more talented and disciplined than those USC faced in Hawai’i and Syracuse.
Trojan running back Curtis McNeal had his breakout performance against Stanford a season ago. Containing McNeal and backfield mate Silas Redd could prove to be more important for the Cardinal’s upset bid than worrying too extensively about the dynamic receiving duo of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Woods and Lee will get their yards against most any defense, but keeping USC from monopolizing the ball while limiting its dimensions will give the Cardinal its best opportunity.
Jim Harbaugh is gone, but David Shaw is a holdover from a staff that has had the Pete Carroll coaching tree’s number like no other. His offensive scheme has exploited weaknesses in the Trojan defense each of the last three seasons. Can he do so without Luck? This is the greatest challenge facing Shaw both in the post-Luck era, and in his young head coaching career.
SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale
With autumn’s arrival, pumpkin ales are in stock and Sam Adams’ is a great offering. Pumpkin Ale is included in the Sam Adams Harvest Collection, but is worth seeking out on its own. It has a nice spicy flavor that captures the season, and adequately ushers the most thrilling time of year when every Saturday is meaningful.