Top 25 Picks: Breakout opportunities for Tar Heels, Cougars

Sometimes it takes a while for some of the most surprising teams in the country to be revealed.

North Carolina and Washington State have quietly moved into position to have big seasons and contend for conference titles. With victories this weekend, the Tar Heels and Cougars will start to make some noise.

North Carolina (6-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) is at No. 23 Pittsburgh (6-1, 4-0) on Thursday night. The winner moves into first in the ACC Coastal, where Duke looks to be the only other serious threat to reach the conference title game.

The Tar Heels have the ACC's top offense and maybe the most overlooked quarterback in the country in Marquise Williams. The dual-threat senior is averaging 261 yards of total offense per game and has accounted for 14 touchdowns, numbers not much different than Clemson star Deshaun Watson (269 ypg and 18 TDs).

Washington State will have a far more daunting task if coach Mike Leach is going to take the Cougars' turnaround to the next level.

Washington State (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) hosts No. 8 Stanford (6-1, 5-0), which has won six straight since a puzzling opening loss to Northwestern.

Not surprisingly, Leach's team is throwing more passes than any in the country (56.3 per game). Luke Falk is the latest Air Raid quarterback to benefit from Wazzu's passing obsession. The sophomore is averaging 412 yards per game, second in the nation.

Leach is 17-27 with one postseason appearance in three-plus season in Pullman, Washington. This might qualify as the biggest home game the Cougars have played under him.

The picks:

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

West Virginia (plus 14) at No. 5 TCU

Mountaineers looking at 0-4 start in the Big 12, but set up for a 5-0 finish after facing four best teams in the conference ... TCU 38-27.

North Carolina (minus 3) at No. 23 Pittsburgh

Panthers don't do anything particularly well (seventh in the ACC in yards per play; eighth in yards per play allowed), but they have won five straight one-score games ... NORTH CAROLINA 27-21.

MARQUEE MATCHUPS

No. 9 Notre Dame (minus 10) at No. 21 Temple

Biggest game in Temple football history? ... NOTRE DAME 38-17.

No. 11 Florida (minus 3) vs. Georgia at Jacksonville, Florida

Last season a disappointing Gators team spoiled a promising Bulldogs' season. Payback? ... UPSET SPECIAL, GEORGIA 24-21.

TRYING TO STAY UNBEATEN

No. 3 Clemson (minus 10) at N.C. State

Tigers would seem to be due for a let-down game ... CLEMSON 30-17.

No. 12 Oklahoma State (minus 3) at Texas Tech

Cowboys are lowest ranked unbeaten team from Power Five conference ... TEXAS TECH 42-35.

Maryland (plus 17) at No. 10 Iowa

Terps won first meeting with Hawkeyes last year ... IOWA 35-14.

Tulane (plus 31) at No. 16 Memphis

Tigers QB Paxton Lynch's draft stock rising ... BEST BET, MEMPHIS 52-14.

Vanderbilt (plus 11) at No. 18 Houston

Commodores solid defense tries to slow QB Greg Ward Jr. and high-powered Cougars ... HOUSTON 30-20.

PLUCKY UNDERDOGS

No. 8 Stanford (minus 12) at Washington State

Cardinal have won seven straight in the series by an average of 42-17 ... STANFORD 42-17.

No. 19 Mississippi (minus 7 1/2) at Auburn

Tigers freshman QB Sean White has yet to throw a touchdown pass in four games ... OLE MISS 28-17.

CONFERENCE CALLS

Oregon State (plus 23) at No. 13 Utah

Beavers coach Gary Andersen is former longtime Utes assistant ... UTAH 42-14.

No. 14 Oklahoma (minus 39 1/2) at Kansas

Sooners have won 10 straight against Jayhawks ... OKLAHOMA 45-10.

No. 15 Michigan (minus 14) at Minnesota

Gophers are the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten (20.3 points per game); Wolverines are No. 1 in scoring defense (9.3) ... MICHIGAN 35-7.

Syracuse (plus 20 1/2) at No. 17 Florida State

Orange have followed 3-0 start with four-game losing streak ... FLORIDA STATE 35-13.

Miami (off) at No. 22 Duke

No Al Golden; maybe no QB Brad Kaaya (concussion) for Hurricanes ... DUKE 31-14.

Colorado (plus 20 1/2) at No. 24 UCLA

Buffs earned second Pac-12 victory under third-year coach Mike MacIntyre last week ... UCLA 48-21.

TWITTER REQUESTS FOR PICKS

USC (plus 5 1/2) at California - (at)SEANPM61

Trojans have won 11 straight against the Bears ... USC 38-28.

Illinois (plus 6) at Penn State - (at)RadDadJeans

Illini defense is allowing 112 yards fewer per game and 1.2 yards fewer per play than last season ... PENN STATE 23-20.

Tennessee (minus 7 1/2) at Kentucky - (at)DFSingleton

This would not be the first Volunteers' season salvaged by the Kentucky, South Carolina, Vandy back end of the schedule ... TENNESSEE 28-23.

Georgia Tech (minus 6) at Virginia - (at)GTechYJ

Yellow Jackets schedule finally starting to lighten up ... GEORGIA TECH 31-17.

Texas (minus 6 1/2) at Iowa State - (at)TH-3

Can't lose to the Cyclones when you're trying to turn around a season and a program ... TEXAS 26-20.

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Last week's record: 18-4 straight; 9-12 vs. spread.

Overall: 123-41; 84-74-3.

Upset specials: 3-6.

Best bets: 3-4.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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