Originally Published: October 21, 2010

Gearing up for the second half

By Rece Davis
ESPN.com

The No. 1 team in the polls has lost the past two Saturdays. Nebraska lost at home to a previously unranked Texas team that had been previously pummeled by UCLA. That would be the same Bruins team that is last in the Pac-10 among teams not named Washington State. Accept my quick apology for the gratuitous poke at the improving Cougars. That string of results is surprising.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, brings the tumult of the first half of the season into focus more than this: If Vanderbilt were to beat South Carolina on Saturday, the Commodores would be in first place in the SEC East. First place. Alone. Controlling their own destiny. To Atlanta. As in the SEC Championship game.

The court stipulates that is a most unlikely turn of events, but I point it out for this reason.

The most overused phrase in college football right now is "if they run the table." Run the table? Child please. Teams should be happy just to have a spot at the table. I'm sure some teams in automatic qualifying conferences will likely win the rest of their games. Write me from your new mansion on Maui if you pinpoint exactly who that will be. If you had South Carolina running the table before last week, you lose.

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Andrew Weber/US PresswireEdwin Baker and Michigan State have sported one of the nation's most balanced offenses.

So rather than expending a lot of energy on BCS combinations and permutations of teams that could "run the table," let's just try to see who can get the Week 8 ball in the corner pocket without scratching.

The BCS standings are just taking shape, and will change a lot over the second half of the season. Similarly, teams need to make some halftime adjustments as they head to the second half.

Michigan State will have to adjust to its surroundings. Oct. 23 will be the first time this season the Spartans have played a game outside the state of Michigan.

Sure, Ann Arbor is no picnic for the green and white, but the surroundings are still familiar. Mark Dantonio's team showed a lot of maturity to beat back feisty Illinois last week.

They'll need to have a full supply of that maturity this week in Evanston against Northwestern. This is a classic lookahead game. Michigan State has won its past two trips to Ryan Field, but it's an early start, 11 a.m. CT, with a trip to Iowa looming next week.

The Wildcats are sneaky. Did you realize QB Dan Persa is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency and fifth in total offense, accounting for 326 yards per game? I'm sure stud linebacker Greg Jones knows it. He'll be busy trying to corral Persa.

Northwestern also has a knack for getting into and winning close games. Dating to last season, nine of the Cats' past 11 games against FBS opponents have been decided by seven points or fewer. Of those nine games, Northwestern has won seven. It is 3-1 in such games this season.

Michigan State's extraordinary balance on offense could be too much for the Cats' defense to handle. Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell are among the top 45 rushers in the country. Kirk Cousins is having an outstanding season.

A win this week sets up Michigan State for a gargantuan showdown with Iowa next week. With Ohio State conspicuously absent from the schedule, it looks as if only that trip to Iowa stands between the Spartans and running the table … oops.

Nebraska's season halftime adjustment comes in terms of focus. The Huskers spent much of the first half of the season pointed toward the Texas game, whether they want to admit it or not. Texas had its pride on the line. The Huskers might have been wound a little tight. They laid a massive egg. Now they have to get over it and get a handle on the ball.

Nebraska remains among the most fumble-prone teams in the country. They are tied with Georgia Tech for most fumbles at 23. The Huskers have lost eight of them, which is third-most in the nation. Eight is also the number of dropped passes Nebraska had against Texas.

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Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty ImagesJustin Blackmon versus the Nebraska secondary will be a matchup to watch this weekend.
Dropped passes aren't a problem for Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon. He leads the nation in receiving yards per game and is second in catches. His battle against the Huskers' stud corners, Prince Amukamara or Alfonzo Dennard, will be the most entertaining individual matchup of the week to me. All three guys have "next level" written all over them. Nebraska leads the nation in pass defense and pass efficiency defense.

Just a week ago, the Huskers were in the national championship conversation. The combination of this game and the Missouri-Oklahoma game could determine whether Nebraska is even realistically in the Big 12 North hunt by the end of the day. It's a rather large game. Oh, and there's the little matter of the Cowboys still being undefeated. This is easily their biggest test. Their thrashing of Texas Tech should have given them a confidence boost.

After beating Ohio State, you'd figure Wisconsin wouldn't need to adjust much. On the field, that's exactly right. It has a tough running game and solid defense. The major adjustment for the Badgers is not to be a South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat then-No. 1 Alabama and spit it right back out by blowing a huge second-half lead at Kentucky.

Now the Badgers have to get back down from the euphoria of beating Ohio State and deal with Iowa. There's one major difference: With all due respect to the Wildcats, they aren't Iowa. Some believe the Hawkeyes are the best team in the Big Ten.

It wouldn't hurt if Wisconsin could work the wide receivers into the mix a little more. Badgers wide receivers have one TD catch this season. Wisconsin won't change who it is. It believes it can run on anyone. But Iowa has the Big Ten's leading rush defense, with a monster D-line that has Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Mike Daniels all ranking in the top 15 in the Big Ten in tackles for loss. There won't be a better battle in the trenches this week than the Hawkeyes' defensive line against the Badgers' behemoths on the offensive line.

Bret Bielema's team is playing for the eighth consecutive week. The bye mercifully comes next week. We'll see how much Wisconsin has left in the tank in a most hostile atmosphere.

This is the first of three huge home games for the Hawkeyes. Michigan State comes calling next week. Ohio State rolls in three weeks after that. If the Hawkeyes stay in the national title conversation, they will earn it.

The LSU-Auburn game has major BCS implications. One gets its first loss and a de facto two-game deficit in the SEC West. Kelvin Sheppard and Drake Nevis lead a defense that is as suited as any could be to slow down Cam Newton. It just remains to be seen whether that's possible.

The problem for LSU is keeping up on the other side of the ball. The Bayou Bengals have shown little capability to mount the type of aerial assault that has given Auburn's defense trouble. Both teams have a way of pulling games out of the fire late. LSU's issue is being productive enough offensively to get it to that point.

I hope you'll join us for "College Football Final" late Saturday night. Mark, Lou and I will put the final stamp on what figures to be a season-shaping day in the SEC West, Big 12 and Big Ten. The "BCS Countdown" show Sunday night (ESPN, 8:15 ET) gives you an exclusive first look at the BCS standings. If we've learned one thing over the past two weeks, it's not to expect the status quo to continue.

Weekend Watch

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

Five things I'll be watching in college football this weekend:

1. Will Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton be able to run the football against No. 6 LSU's defense in Saturday's SEC West showdown at Jordan-Hare Stadium?

Newton leads the SEC and ranks No. 11 nationally in rushing with 122.9 yards per game. He's on pace to become the first SEC quarterback to pass for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in the same season, and he already has four games with 170 rushing yards or more (the only other Auburn player to accomplish that feat was Bo Jackson).

But LSU's defense leads the SEC and ranks No. 6 nationally in run defense, allowing only 83.6 yards per game. The Tigers might load up the box on defense to try to slow down Newton. Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis might have to pick his poison, though, because Newton also leads the SEC and ranks No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency with a 180.5 rating.

2. Can No. 18 Arizona beat Washington without quarterback Nick Foles?

Foles isn't expected to play after spraining his right knee in the first half of last week's 24-7 victory over Washington State, and Wildcats coach Mike Stoops isn't sure when his quarterback will be back.

If the Wildcats are going to stay in the Pac-10 race, they'll need a strong effort from backup quarterback Matt Scott, who completed 14 of 20 passes for 139 yards with one interception against the Cougars last week. Scott is a mobile quarterback and might find running room against the Huskies, who rank 98th nationally in total defense, allowing 416.8 yards per game.

Washington is coming off a 35-34 victory over Oregon State in double overtime in which quarterback Jake Locker threw a career-high five touchdowns.

3. Will anyone notice what TCU is doing this season?

The No. 5 Horned Frogs are 7-0 going into Saturday's home game against Air Force and are playing defense as well as any team in the country. TCU came within a field goal of shutting out three straight opponents, which hasn't happened since Boston College did it in 1992.

The Falcons might have got caught looking ahead last week, losing to much-improved San Diego State 27-25 on the road. Air Force has the country's No. 1 rushing offense with 346.9 yards per game, and its option attack will be a big test for the Horned Frogs.

4. Which team will step forward in the SEC East?

Georgia, which started the season by losing four of its first five games, is suddenly only a half-game out of first place. The Bulldogs have won two games in a row and can climb back to .500 by winning at Kentucky on Saturday night.

The Wildcats are coming off a 31-28 upset of South Carolina last week and can climb into the SEC East hunt with another victory. The No. 21 Gamecocks are still in control of the division, but they'll have to play at Vanderbilt on Saturday without star tailback Marcus Lattimore, who is out with a badly sprained ankle. South Carolina has lost eight consecutive SEC road games.

5. Can North Carolina keep on winning?

The Tar Heels have won four games in a row going into Saturday night's game at Miami, which is pretty remarkable given that they are missing most of their star players.

The bad news continues to pile up for the Heels, who learned Wednesday that they'll have to play the rest of the season without junior cornerback Charles Brown and at least one more game without star cornerback Kendric Burney.

Brown is the sixth UNC player to be declared ineligible for the season, joining defensive tackle Marvin Austin, defensive end Robert Quinn, receiver Greg Little and safeties Brian Gupton and Jonathan Smith.

The school said Burney has an "unresolved issue" related to the NCAA's ongoing investigation into improper contact with agents and academic fraud and won't play against the Hurricanes.

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