Plot threads to track this weekend:
• No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Texas: An undefeated will fall in Dallas, as the sure-thing Sooners and resurgent Longhorns meet for the 106th Red River Shootout.* This rivalry is at its best at times like this: Both teams are unbeaten, the case can be made that either team deserves the win and the position matchups promise to be closely fought.
The Longhorns' use of that rare functional quarterback tandem gives them options on offense, but Case McCoy and David Ash haven't seen anything like Oklahoma's defense this season. Opposite the hatchling QBs, Texas' secondary is the best-equipped unit Landry Jones will have seen so far this season. Jones is familiar with Texas, but not with Texas under Manny Diaz. Getting through to Jones may be problematic, however; the Longhorns have shown no particular affinity for hitting quarterbacks, and the Sooners rank third nationally in sacks allowed.
Given the prowess of OU's pass defense and the still-present egg teeth of the Texas quarterbacks, a ground attack should present the Horns' best chance to put points on the board. Malcolm Brown has made promising strides as a freshman, and the impeccably named Fozzy Whittaker will want his share of carries after Texas' rushers were held well under a hundred yards each in last year's meeting.
On spec, this looks like another Sooners win as OU guns for New Orleans. But a competitive game doesn't seem out of the question. (And if the the game gets out of hand one way or another and the announcers grow bored, there's always the new McCoy-Shipley roommate bond to discuss.)
*Programming note: It's the Red River Shootout, and will forever BE the Red River Shootout, on the grounds that fans of both teams still refer to it as such, and that "Red River Rivalry" is both hard to pronounce and stupid.
• No. 17 Florida @ No. 1 LSU: Expect this edition of one of the nastiest East-West rivalries to be nasty, brutish and short, as the increasingly terrifying LSU defense repeatedly confronts one of three potential freshman starting quarterbacks inside his own pocket. Ever watch a python digesting a pig on the Nature Channel? Right. Like that.
• No. 15 Auburn @ No. 10 Arkansas: Even Ted Roof's miserable defense looked adequate playing opposite South Carolina in Week 5, but Tyler Wilson is no Stephen Garcia. Should Wilson's arm begin to tire in the second half, this might be the time for Bobby Petrino to trot out a couple of the running backs he's let languish all season; the Tigers are giving up over 200 ground yards per game.
Arkansas is favored by 10 here, but Auburn's surprised us more often than not in 2011. Don't mistake this for a low-stakes game, either: Despite the perceived invincibility of LSU and Alabama, one or the other is assured a loss on November 5. With that team in prime position to be selected for the national title game barring a collapse, all one-loss teams in the SEC West would still have a potential Sugar Bowl berth to play for.
• Ohio State @ No. 14 Nebraska: These are not the feared and vaunted Blackshirts trying to stop Ohio State, but they might look like it Saturday night, because the Buckeyes don't have a whole lot of weapons to throw at them. A lot of this game is going to be like that, with various ineptitudes matching opposing weaknesses. Nebraska hasn't been so swell against the pass, but OSU hasn't been able to throw its way out of a wet paper bag so far. The Buckeyes have been dismal at quarterback protection, but the Huskers are no great shakes at sacking. (Where the interesting bits will happen: Thus far, Nebraska has been very good at running, and Ohio State adept at defending the run.) Give the Huskers the edge thanks to Ohio State roster depletion due to injury and suspension.
• Missouri @ No. 20 Kansas State: K-State is showing a quiet, almost Auburnian tendency to win close games that don't seem within reach, and this contest with Mizzou presents a couple of intriguing matchups, namely the serious contention between the Tigers' eighth-ranked ground offense and the Wildcats' 17th-ranked ground defense. I always like it when underutilized weapons are tested in the field, so I'm looking forward to seeing what the pass-averse Collin Klein might make of Missouri's unfortunate pass defense.
Kansas State being undefeated in Week 4 surprised us. Kansas State undefeated in Week 5 shocked us. The Wildcats are undercats again this week, albeit by less than a touchdown. Their most treacherous games lie in late October and early November, but if Bill Snyder & Co. can keep momentum rolling until then, a second consecutive bowl bid is guaranteed.
• Intrigue in the undercards:
- No. 24 Texas A&M @ Texas Tech: While the Aggies have hogged the headlines with conference-hopping and high-profile collapses, the Red Raiders have been quietly putting together an undefeated September. Tech's schedule is ludicrously back-loaded, however, with six ranked opponents to play in the next two months, starting with a three-game stretch against A&M, Kansas State and Oklahoma. If they're not prepared to at least feign effort at stopping Ryan Tannehill, it could be a long fall for Tommy Tuberville's band of brigands.
- Iowa State @ No. 25 Baylor: Greetings to the Cyclones' middling pass defenders. You've arrived just in time to help Robert Griffin get his touchdown pass stat line back up over his incompletions line. Enjoy your stay.
- Georgia @ Tennessee: The past couple years of this series have seen an exchange of brutal body blows, and with South Carolina's and Florida's losses in Week 5 there's an outside shot at a division title on the line. Let's do the math: If Tennessee is wretched at defending the run and Georgia's Isaiah Crowell appears to be the real deal, for how long can Tyler Bray just keep making up touchdown plays on the fly? The answer: Until it stops working, brah.
- Iowa @ Penn State: Will that Hawkeye defense make even Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin look adept? How much will watching that end of the field detract from the enjoyment of seeing James Vandenberg try his not-inconsiderable skill against an actual talented pass defense?
• Non-AQ not-to-be-missed tilts of the week: Air Force-Notre Dame and Bowling Green-Western Michigan.
• Not for human consumption: How long will West Virginia's offense take this week to spin up against a UConn team it should have in the bag from minute one? Will South Carolina manage a second consecutive inexplicable loss to Kentucky? And which will be higher: the sum total of points Houston and East Carolina inflict on one another or Stanford's final score against a Colorado team down four defensive backs? All these games will cause undue stress to viewers and should not be shown to young children, pregnant women, or those with heart or spinal issues.
• The nightcaps: Three games of varying degrees of quality kick off after 10 p.m. ET Saturday night. Cute as it is to see San Jose State put together a two-game win streak, you can't like its chances against a BYU squad that's played its best opponents close. Washington State's high-scoring roll has been slowed the past couple weeks, but the Cougars are bringing a team still averaging almost 45 points per game into the Rose Bowl to do battle with a 98th-ranked UCLA defense. And will another scoring shootout bookend the day, when TCU's and SDSU's disinterested defenses meet in San Diego? SI.com in the field: Stewart Mandel will be taking in the splendor of his first 9 a.m. kickoffs as a West Coast resident. Andy Staples is en route to the Red River Shootout, but not before he eats his weight in fried dough at the State Fair. And I'll be bound for Knoxville as soon as I hit the save button here, for my annual pilgrimage home to Neyland. Say hidee.