- Kirk Herbstreit, College Football analyst
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In the buildup to Saturday's primetime showdown, both Ohio State and Washington have had all the distractions they can handle.
The Buckeyes have dealt with the never-ending Maurice Clarett saga while former Huskies head coach Rick Neuheisel was replaced by Keith Gilbertson just a month ago. Now, both teams are anxious to finally talk football. Those NCAA investigators will be forgotten for a few hours on Saturday and what happens on the field will once again be the focus.
After a 2002 season that saw quarterback Cody Pickett set various Pac-10 passing records, Washington has rededicated itself to balance on offense. All those yards from Pickett resulted in only seven wins last year because opponents knew the Huskies were one-dimensional and could not win the possession battle in the running game, so the offseason saw a commitment to becoming more physical.
UW will look to Rich Alexis and Kenny James on the ground, and working in their favor is the fact that Ohio State is breaking in new starters at safety (Will Allen and Donnie Nickey) and linebacker (Bobby Carpenter and Robert Reynolds).
If Washington hopes to take advantage of stud wide receiver Reggie Williams it is imperative the Huskies establish the run and then get the linebackers and secondary out of position with play-action. Williams' matchup with OSU corner and two-way star Chris Gamble might be the best one-on-one battle of the weekend, featuring two All-American players who are as good as it gets at their respective positions.
But should UW fail to establish the running game Williams won't have a chance to be a factor, because the Ohio State blitz package will be in Pickett's face all night.
On the other side, everyone is talking like the Buckeyes' offense is facing a crisis without Clarett at tailback, but quarterback Craig Krenzel and the rest of the team feel like Clarett's absence is just one more distraction they can overcome. You can't blame them after all the breaks they caught last year, but things are different now. The formula that mixed conservative offense with a ferocious defense won't work anymore -- with or without Clarett -- because of all the changes on the defensive side of the ball.
Ohio State will have to attack down the field more often than last season and feature more varied play-calling, but the Buckeyes will always fall back on their bread-and-butter power game. Backup running backs Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross have waited for this chance and are finally in the spotlight, so they must come through.
One of the big advantages for OSU will be the atmosphere in Columbus. The Buckeyes do not play a lot of home games at night, but when they do it is the closest thing the Big Ten has to the SEC. Ohio Stadium will be electric and the pregame festivities will have the crowd at its optimum level for the return of the defending national champs, especially against a big-name, ranked opponent.
That energy will have the Ohio State defense flying all over the field, but Washington relishes the underdog role and won't be intimidated by the frenzy. Don't forget, the Huskies opened last season against Michigan at the Big House and had the game won until a couple of unfortunate calls cost them late.
It should be a tremendous game, and don't forget to tune into GameDay Saturday morning for my prediction.
No. 8 USC vs. No. 6 Auburn
This one is all about heat and humidity. The weather is going to be hot and nasty on the Plains of Auburn, and depth is going to be the key factor for these evenly matched teams. The game will not simply come down to who has the best starters at the skill positions.
The home field is going to be a big advantage for Auburn with USC breaking in new starters at quarterback and tailback. The Trojans finished last year scoring at will with veterans like Carson Palmer and Justin Fargas, but even with terrific athletic ability on the offensive line and at wide receiver, that backfield inexperience could be costly in a hostile environment.
The USC defense can keep the game close by stacking the line against Auburn's vaunted stable of running backs and putting the game in the hands of quarterback Jason Campbell, but Campbell's scrambling ability and improved throwing should be the difference. The team of Campbell and 6-3, 210-pound redshirt freshman receiver Courtney Taylor should lead Auburn to victory by a touchdown.
No. 24 Oklahoma State vs. Nebraska
People have been talking for months about Oklahoma State taking it to Nebraska, but the closer we get to game time the more I get the feeling the Cowboys are getting too much hype. A team has to be a whole lot better than the Cornhuskers to win in Lincoln and Oklahoma State has not won there since 1960, so all this chatter could backfire.
The key for Nebraska will be defending OSU's three-headed monster of quarterback Josh Fields, wide receiver Rashaun Woods and running back Tatum Bell. New NU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini will have the Blackshirts looking first and foremost to neutralize Bell, then rely on zone-blitz pressure to get after Fields. Keep an eye on Barrett Ruud against Bell and the running game and watch for Trevor Johnson and Demorrio Williams to pressure Fields.
I look for the defense and the athleticism of Nebraska quarterback Jamaal Lord to lead the Huskers to a solid victory.
No. 9 Georgia vs. Clemson
This matchup was one of the better openers last season, and this year the game moves to Death Valley in Clemson. The concern for Georgia is up front on offense, where the Bulldogs are breaking in a new offensive line. The Tigers will try to expose that group with a variety of looks and as much pressure as possible, and because of that I would not be shocked to see UGA coach Mark Richt put athletic backup quarterback D.J. Shockley in the game.
The throwing of Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to Derrick Hamilton and Kevin Youngblood, along with the running of new tailback Duane Coleman, should be effective for the Tigers.
I like Clemson by a field goal in the upset of the week.
No. 20 Wisconsin vs. West Virginia
I picked Wisconsin to win the Big Ten, but the Badgers get a tough start to the season in Morgantown. Wisconsin will likely welcome back All-American receiver Lee Evans back from injury in a big way, with quarterback Jim Sorgi airing it out to Evans, Jonathan Orr and Brandon Williams. After showing the pass, it'll be back to basics with zone blocking and tailback Anthony Davis.
The Badger defense will be geared to stop the WVU running game and put the outcome game in the hands of Mountaineer quarterback Rasheed Marshall. It'll be a hard-fought game in front of the Morgantown faithful and the home field should help West Virginia stay close, but I like Wisconsin by a touchdown.
Kirk Herbstreit is an analyst for ESPN College GameDay and a regular contributor to ESPN.com during the college football season.
1dSam Khan Jr.
7hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
1dSam Khan Jr.
10hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information