Once the major colleges settle into their conference schedules, the college football season usually becomes much more enjoyable. Those who feel they have a shot at the national championship stop playing tomato cans and start playing real opponents who might give them a game. We start sorting through who the real contenders are.
There are two matchups this weekend that have really caught my eye. One involves the defending national champion against one of the bigger in-conference threats to their reign, while the other gives us a chance to eliminate a team more likely a pretender to the throne.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama gets Florida at home. The Tide got quite the scare from Ryan Mallett's right arm, but Arkansas couldn't stop the run in the second half, and 'Bama had a comeback win over the Razorbacks.
That could be a theme Saturday. Last year, Florida used the ball-control game to smother LSU in an early-season road test. The same can be expected Saturday, only the other way around. The Gators are actually showing signs of life after a pretty hideous start on the offensive side of the ball. But Alabama has Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and they run behind one of the nation's best offensive lines.
Alabama's defense got beat up a bit by Mallett last week, but can John Brantley do that to them? Florida needs to unleash the passing attack, currently ranked 90th in the nation. The Tide have inexperience in the secondary, and while they can make plays, they can also be vulnerable.
Florida's air assault can beat Alabama, if only Florida had an air assault. When this turns into a ground battle, look for the Tide and Heisman Ingram to prevail again.
The pick: Alabama
The other marquee game in the country comes Saturday night in Eugene, where Oregon and their 3,969 uniform combinations host Stanford. The Cardinal have a 35-0 win at UCLA that looks much more impressive now than it did when they got home from Los Angeles. Outside of that, they haven't done much, beating bad teams and Notre Dame, who isn't exactly a good team at this point.
Oregon, meanwhile, went cross-country and lambasted Tennessee, and they also won over a good Arizona State team that was killed by turnovers.
I like the Ducks. They can run the ball, and Darron Thomas gives them a solid threat to throw. It's a really good Oregon offense, but you have to wonder about the defense's ability to get stops.
Stanford has recovered nicely from losing Toby Gerhart to the NFL. Instead of moping without their offensive machine, the Cardinal have Andrew Luck throwing, and it's not like Stepfan Taylor is a slouch running the ball. Luck spreads it out, with his 11 touchdowns going to seven different receivers (no one has more than three scoring grabs).
Jim Harbaugh has retooled the program, gets blue-chippers, and he makes the most of his talent. It's a great matchup with Chip Kelly, but I'll take the homestanding Ducks. Autzen Stadium is a typically tough place to play, and Saturday night should be rocking.
The pick: Oregon
The Big Ten season opens Saturday, and unbeatens will clash in East Lansing. Normally, I'd talk about how the Badgers are ready to go in and power-run Sparty into oblivion, but there are a couple problems with that idea.
For starters, Michigan State gets coach Mark Dantonio back with the team, just two weeks after he had a heart attack. The injection of emotion into Spartan Stadium Saturday afternoon will be a lot for Wisconsin to deal with. The Badgers have a good offense, but they looked lifeless at times in non-conference play, and they're missing top linebacker Chris Borland for the season.
The other problem? With Dantonio, the Spartans are more than capable of playing the power-run game, too. And Wisconsin's defense is thin and a little vulnerable. Asking Bucky to stop Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell is asking too much.
The pick: Michigan State
Other games (home team in CAPS)
Miami over CLEMSON
Northwestern over MINNESOTA
Ohio State over ILLINOIS
Michigan over INDIANA
LSU over Tennessee
Oklahoma over Texas (at Dallas)
IOWA over Penn State
Last week: 16-2