SEC showdowns top the weekend


We're going to learn a lot about key teams in marquee matchups this week as they try to begin their runs toward the BCS.

First and foremost, it will be interesting to see how a young, inexperienced Florida team deals with the dynamics of playing at Tennessee (3:30 ET, CBS) in front of a crowd that seems to get the Volunteers into a different mindset, especially against the Gators.

Tennessee will try to establish the running game to take some pressure off true freshman quarterbacks Brent Schaeffer, who will start, and Erik Ainge. The Gators are breaking in a lot of of new people on defense and they will all be keying on Vols' running backs Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs, and because the Tennessee offensive line has a decided size and strength advantage, expect the Gators to load up the line of scrimmage.

Schaeffer is the scrambler and Ainge the dropback passer, so Tennessee will likely try to hit some big plays early on when Ainge is in. Robert Meachem and Tony Brown should get some one-on-one opportunities against the young Florida secondary, and a couple of long gains early will stretch the field and open things up for the ground game. That battle in the passing game is an advantage for the Vols despite the youth of the quarterbacks.

On the other side, Florida quarterback Chris Leak is the center of attention. His brother, C.J., is a former Tennessee quarterback who now plays defense for the Vols, and many of the UT defenders have already said they want a piece of Chris. Whether or not they have the chance will depend on whether or not Florida can gain some yards in the running game against UT's incredibly talented front seven.

The linebackers, led by Kevin Simon and Kevin Burnett, are not only going to be geared to stop Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn, but will also be trying to put pressure on the passer. But Tennessee also has an inexperienced secondary, and if Leak has time to throw, he will find some big plays to O.J. Small and Andre Caldwell.

With both teams having inexperienced secondaries I like the experience of Chris Leak to be the difference. Look for Fason to break a big play both running and passing. Florida wins, 27-20.

No. 4 LSU vs. No. 15 Auburn (3:30 p.m., CBS)

It looks like Hurricane Ivan will be gone by the time this one kicks off, but you have to believe the field will still be slick.

There has been a lot of talk about new Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges and his West Coast offense. He has a four-year starter at quarterback in Jason Campbell, and Borges is trying to get Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown into the backfield at the same time. But the one thing you can count on is Nick Saban and his LSU defense having a nice package designed to negate Williams and Brown in the running game. LSU is no doubt sick of hearing about how good that duo is and they will be motivated to shut them down.

The only way Auburn will move the ball will be to protect Campbell and find ways for Courtney Taylor, Devin Aromashodu, Anthony Mix and Ben Obomanu to get open. LSU will lock in on Williams and Brown, and put the ball in Campbell's hands to see if all the talk of his improvement has him ready to win this game for Auburn.

Pass protection will be just at big as Campbell's decision-making, because LSU will come with pressure from everywhere. And even though Oregon State did a good job dealing with that -- thanks to three- and five-step drops -- Auburn has to prove it has that in the gameplan.

On the other side, LSU will probably be incredibly predictable because of questions at quarterback. They will error on the side of caution and not ask Marcus Randall or JaMarcus Russell to do too much, but when they do ask them to make throws, look for defensive linemen Stanley McClover and Jay Ratliff to be chasing them all over the field. Look for Auburn to play well on defense despite being a little young.

Because of that predictability, LSU will have to win this game with the defense creating turnovers and giving the offense a short field to work with. And with the offense being so conservative, some of their best plays may come on scrambles by Randall when he drops back to throw.

The running of Justin Vincent, Alley Broussard and Joseph Addai, coupled with the scrambling of Randall, will be LSU's best offense. When Russell is in the game that presents a better chance to find some plays in the passing game with Skyer Green, Early Doucet and Dwayne Bowe. Auburn will have a slight advantage because Jimbo Fisher will have to pull the reins in a little bit.

Still, I like LSU's defense to lead them to a 24-17 victory on the road and put them in the driver's seat in the SEC West.

No. 19 Maryland vs. No. 8 West Virginia (noon, ESPN)
There has been a lot of talk about West Virginia being the team to beat in the Big East, and even some talk from my colleague Lee Corso about the Mountaineers making a run to the national championship game.

I agree they have a legitimate chance to make a run at the league championship, but before they worry about that, they have to get past Maryland, which has had WVU's number lately with four straight wins.

The key to this game is whether or not West Virginia's 3-3-5 defense can slow down Maryland quarterback Joel Statham and the rest of the offense. Statham is facing his first real challenge on the road, and this goes back to the original theme of finding out about teams. We're going to see what Statham is made of, whether or not he can remain poised and make good decisions in a hostile environment.

That unconventional West Virginia defense will have to take away either the run or the pass, because Maryland has killed the Mountaineers lately with balance. The Terrapins have a two-headed monster in the backfield in Josh Allen and Sammy Maldonado, and they will have to be slowed if the rest of the offense is going to be controlled.

West Virginia quarterback Rasheed Marshall is playing like the veteran he is and that will have to continue for the Mountaineers to win. Running back Kay-Jay Harris -- who rushed for 337 yards in the first week of the season -- has a tender hamstring, but I would expect him to play. Being without him does not eliminate West Virginia's chance to win but the Mountaineers have a much better chance if he is in the game.

This is West Virginia's chance to prove to the country it can get things done and play with the big boys, but in the end the balanced offense and solid defense of Maryland will be the difference in a hard-fought 31-24 victory for the Terps.

No. 7 Ohio State vs. N.C. State (3:30 p.m., ABC)

N.C. State lost four-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers after last season, but the Wolfpack brought back 18 other starters and has their most athletic team since coach Chuck Amato came to Raleigh in 2000.

The health of tailback T.A. McLendon will be crucial this week because N.C. State just seems to play with more confidence when he is in the lineup, and with Jay Davis making his first start against a big-time opponent, the Pack will need all the weapons it can get.

Expect N.C. State to have success moving the ball, but what the Wolfpack does in the red zone will dictate whether or not they are truly successful offensively. If they have to settle for field goals rather than scoring touchdowns that will be a huge key for Ohio State.

The Buckeyes will also learn some things about a young quarterback on Saturday with Justin Zwick making his first career start away from Ohio Stadium. He is behind an offensive line that has been reshuffled, and at this point, appears to be OSU's Achilles heel. How that group performs against a very athletic Wolfpack front seven will have a lot do do with how this one turns out.

If Ohio State cannot establish the run with Lydell Ross and Antonio Pittman, leaving Zwick in obvious passing situations, the Buckeyes will see a lot of pressure both in the form of blitzes and the rush from N.C. State's front four, especially end Mario Williams.

N.C. State is athletic enough up front to contain the run with only the front seven, but if they have to bring the safeties down to slow the ground attack they will become vulnerable to one-on-one matchups against Santonio Holmes and the rest of the OSU receivers.

The Wolfpack should get a big boost from playing at home, though, with that fast defense playing an inspired game against an inexperienced offense. The loss of 14 players to the NFL will come back to haunt the Buckeyes in this one because they will simply miss the leadership that group provided too much. N.C. State wins, 27-23.

No. 12 Iowa vs. Arizona State (10 p.m., ESPN Plus)

Iowa is also breaking in a new quarterback and a young offensive line. New starting passer Drew Tate has had a bizarre set of circumstances, though, leaving both of Iowa's games thus far with cramps. And when he goes to the sideline, the offense is just not the same.

It will be important for the Hawkeyes to get tailback Jermelle Lewis involved in the passing game early to help out receiver Ed Hinkel. The first 15 minutes will be crucial because Arizona State underachieved big-time last season, and should Iowa jump on the Sun Devils early, it could destroy the confidence they build with a 2-0 start.

But if ASU quarterback Andrew Walter and his receivers can make things happen early against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, they will be dangerous. Defensive end Matt Roth will likely be in the Arizona State backfield all night, and he will be backed up by Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway, the best pair of linebackers in the country and two guys who will make it very tough for the Sun Devils to establish any kind of running game at all.

The game will come down to whether or not Iowa can get pressure on Walter before his wideouts find a way to get open. But in a matchup of a finesse offense and an aggressive defense I always give the edge to the defense. The Hawkeyes prevail, 27-17.

Michigan State vs. Notre Dame (7:00, ESPN)

I felt at the beginning of the year that Notre Dame had a chance to get to eight wins and I still believe that. This is Tyrone Willingham's most talented team on both sides of the ball since he came to South Bend, and last week's victory against Michigan has jump-started his team and pointed it in the right direction.

Freshman running back Darius Walker has provided a much-needed spark for the offense and that has brought back a little bit of swagger to the Irish. It will be interesting to see if they are able to continue that momentum in East Lansing.

Incumbent running back Ryan Grant is getting healthy and will also be a factor as a nice power complement to Walker's speed behind a very experienced offensive line. Receivers like Rhema McKnight and Carlyle Holiday have to continue to develop and make some plays for quarterback Brady Quinn, and if they do, they will have a real chance to execute against the Michigan State defense.

On offense, MSU will have quarterback Stephen Reaves making his first collegiate start. Facing the Irish on national television after their big win over Michigan is a tough assignment. Because of Reaves' youth, Notre Dame will load up against the run and try to get the youngster into obvious passing situations, trying to disguise coverages, confuse Reaves and put all kinds of pressure on him. Keep an eye on Notre Dame end Justin Tuck chasing Reaves all over Spartan Stadium.

No prediction for this one, though, because I'll be calling the game on ESPN.

Upset specials (according to the line)

UTEP over Boise State -- Can Mike Price make enough magic to get things rolling for the Miners?

N.C. State over Ohio State -- T.A. McLendon and the speedy Wolfpack defense will be too much for the youthful Buckeyes.

Kansas over Northwestern -- Quarterback Adam Barmann leads the Jayhawks to the win.

Maryland over West Virginia -- The Terrapins just have the Mountaineers' number.

TCU over Texas Tech - Horned Frogs QB Tye Gunn outguns Tech QB Sonny Cumbie.

Kirk Herbstreit is an analyst for ESPN "College GameDay" and a regular contributor to ESPN.com during the college football season.