Quarterbacks highlight marquee matchups

Updated: September 15, 2006, 11:21 AM ET
By Jim Donnan | ESPN.com

Joe Robbins/US Presswire
Brian Brohm can capture the nation's attention with a strong performance against Miami.
Grab your remote control, set the TiVo and don't make any plans -- this weekend pits a number of marquee teams against each other. It will settle conference battles in the SEC. It will thin out the title contenders from the pretenders. And it will showcase the nation's top quarterbacks.

Chad Henne vs. Brady Quinn. JaMarcus Russell vs. Brandon Cox. Kyle Wright vs. Brian Brohm. Graham Harrell vs. Jeff Ballard. Will Proctor vs. Drew Weatherford. Zac Taylor vs. John David Booty. Chris Leak vs. Erik Ainge. Save Troy Smith -- who was tested by Texas last week and has a breather this week against Cincinnati -- nearly every elite signal caller in college football will be in a high-pressure situation Saturday. The 2006 Heisman could be significantly affected by games in Week 3.

In big games, teams look for their leader to step up. These quarterbacks have proven they are talented. Some have been tested. Many have solid supporting casts to lean upon. But in big games, it often comes back to who converts the third down, who avoids the rush, who makes the big play. How do you know how good your quarterback is? Look at the number of passes he completes on first downs and on third downs. Be on the watch for missed assignments and needless penalties by their teammates. See whether he is poised in critical situations, whether the team looks to him in moments of battle. Often what differentiates good quarterbacks from the really great ones -- the kind you need to win a national championship -- isn't what they do; it's what they don't do.

The national title situation won't be sorted out for many more weeks, but Saturday should provide an indication of what is to come. And it should provide many hours of great television, so get comfortable.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Can Chris Leak and Co. leave Neyland Stadium with a win?
After two weeks of play, the SEC has proven to be the toughest conference in the nation from top to bottom. Georgia, Florida, LSU and Auburn all have the ingredients to make a title run. Tennessee isn't too far removed from those teams, either. The one problem all of these teams share is their schedule: They play each other. A division loss sets the team two games out of the conference race -- making it doubly tough to earn a Bowl Championship Series bid. The winning team in an SEC head-to-head matchup must lose twice for the loser to have a chance at the conference championship.

Four of the top teams in the SEC face off this weekend in what are sure to be two heavily watched games. LSU travels to Auburn, while Tennessee hosts Florida. The last two times these teams met, the games were decided by a total of four points. Last season, the Tigers' win came down to a field goal. These teams are so evenly matched in terms of talent, coaching and history. It will come down to which one of these two acclaimed quarterbacks -- LSU's JaMarcus Russell and Auburn's Brandon Cox -- can make the bigger play. Their supporting casts will play a large role in taking the pressure off the quarterback and the kickers will need to be on target, but the simple fact is that in a game like this, it often comes back to the smaller, intricate parts of the game like third downs, taking care of the ball and establishing an efficient run game. Both teams boast tough defenses which should make it harder for the offenses to move the ball against each other. Expect a balanced, physical performance on both sides of the ball.

In the Saturday night game, Florida travels to Neyland Stadium to take on the inconsistent Volunteers. Tennessee has made great strides on offense after its weak 2005 campaign, putting up an impressive 35-18 win against then-No. 9 Cal. But the Vols looked shaky on Saturday, squeaking out a one-point win against Air Force. Erik Ainge was able to lead the team to another 30-plus points effort, but the defense will need to provide more support against a powerful Florida offense. Tennessee's defense will be tested by Gators quarterback Chris Leak. Questions abound in this matchup: Can Florida's young receivers -- in particular, true freshman Percy Harvin -- go on the road and be as good as they have been? Can Tennessee play mistake-free offense? Mistakes in the kicking game, as well as an absurd amount of penalties (14 for 97 yards), accounted for much of the reason Tennessee lost last season. Florida's defense has an edge in Saturday's game; it boasts experience and depth that the Vols lack now that starting defensive tackle Justin Harrell and cornerback Inquoris "Inky" Johnson are out for the year with injuries.

Oklahoma Oregon No. 15 Oklahoma at No. 18 Oregon
(ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Oregon has quietly started the season at 2-0, with convincing wins over Stanford and Fresno State, the latter of which defeated Nevada the week before. The combo of quarterback Dennis Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart, who is enjoying a breakout year, has proven to be one of the most formidable in the country. Dixon has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes, while amassing 476 yards and a touchdown. Stewart has chipped in 171 yards on 23 carries for three touchdowns -- and he should be included even more in the offense. Oregon runs a lot of options, particularly quarterback runs. Usually defenses are built to stop the run and the pass, but the Ducks' added dimension of the quarterback run will be tough for the Sooners to stop on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback Paul Thompson has stepped up for the Sooners. Oklahoma's defense, however, is not what I thought it would be. The two teams do have the advantage of having played each other in the final game of the 2005 season and understand the other's philosophy. Speed won't be a surprise. The big questions, however, remain: Can Oklahoma's defense play better? Will Thompson be solid on the road? Can Oregon's D stop all-everything running back Adrian Peterson?

Miami Louisville No. 17 Miami at No. 12 Louisville
(ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
The No. 1 offense + The No. 7 defense = Louisville-Miami, a match made in heaven.

I can't wait to see how Louisville coach Bobby Petrino attacks the Hurricanes. He does such a good job of creating so many looks for his team; even after the Cardinals lost 1,400-yard rusher Michael Bush, they were still able to put a hurting on Temple, 62-0 (granted, it was Temple). Louisville is a superior executing team; I've always marveled about the way they get the ball to everybody -- even after losing Bush, they were able to plug in a group of receivers and succeed offensively. With games against Kentucky and Temple, Louisville hasn't been tested on offense or defense. Kyle Wright and Miami had a good first half against Florida State, but it's tough to judge a team on one game.

Miami's offense has an edge on Louisville's defense, but the marquee matchup is Miami's defense versus Louisville's offense. The Cardinals won't have the luxury of lighting up the scoreboard, so their defense will have to do a better job of tightening the clamps on the Hurricanes. The speed factor is tough to simulate, and Miami will be tough to tackle in the open field because the Canes are so athletic. Miami can't let Cardinals quarterback Brian Brohm get comfortable. They have to put vertical pressure on him; the pass rush will be very important. There will be a lot of chances for pass interference calls since Louisville throws so many deep balls, but if the Canes do a good job of stopping the big plays and not giving them any gifts, the Canes can stop the Cardinals.

Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.

TCU No. 24 Texas Tech at No. 20 TCU
I'm always impressed with Texas Tech's ability to replace quarterbacks seemingly interchangeably yet still boast such a high-octane offense. Graham Harrell has put up outstanding numbers in his first two tests of the season; he has completed 74 of 101 passes for 718 yards and seven touchdowns. The Red Raiders' defense still has some questions. Last year, Texas Tech had problems against the pass -- and UTEP torched the Red Raiders for 375 yards through the air last week. Texas Tech needs the defense to show improvement against the Horned Frogs.

TCU has also fixed its defense and has been tackling well. The Horned Frogs are up against a team that will make them execute. Both coaches -- Tech's Mike Leach and TCU's Gary Patterson -- have flown under the radar for several years, quietly building solid programs. They both have enjoyed success against the some of the nation's top teams in years past, most notably Tech's 2004 bowl win over California and TCU's 2005 win at Oklahoma.

Texas Tech Lost in the hubbub of this weekend is the postseason implications of this game. Both teams are fighting for a spot in a BCS bowl game, and while the Horned Frogs are considered a long shot by many, TCU has as good a shot as anyone. It will all boil down to whether TCU's defense can put some pressure on Harrell to slow down the Red Raiders.

WATCH LIST: Biggest Surprises
The Trojans' execution and talent were outstanding in Week 1. Will they continue to improve against Nebraska?
Boise State
Even with the change in coaches, the Broncos haven't missed a beat.
Chase Daniel looks like the real deal at quarterback.
Ohio State
After losing A.J. Hawk and a number of other starters, it's shocking how strong the Buckeyes' D is.
Good recruiting, good athleticism, good coaching -- the Scarlet Knights look like a much better team than I expected.
Before the season, D coordinator Bo Pelini told me the Tigers would be better. After losing that amount of talent, I had my doubts. It turns out, he was right.
WATCH LIST: Biggest Disappointments
The reigning Big 12 North champion's talent level is not where it needs to be. Who could have expected this much of a drop?
Mississippi State
Regardless of injuries, Sylvester Croom's squad has gone two games without scoring a touchdown.
The Cardinal appears to be a long way from having what it needs to have to compete in the Pac-10.
I thought the Razorbacks would be the surprise team of the SEC, but their offense has struggled so far.
I thought the Boilermakers' D would be better; they are currently ranked 108th in total defense.
Notre Dame faces its toughest test of the young season when it hosts No. 11 Michigan Saturday. This game promises to be much different than last year's matchup. The Wolverines, who were without offensive lineman Jake Long and running back Michael Hart last season, are a much more complete team with Long and Hart in the lineup. Hart gives quarterback Chad Henne options on offense and the line is now more cohesive.

Both offenses are really good. Both defenses are much improved; they have the ability to create turnovers without giving up the big play. Although the Irish defense has proven it is vastly improved in shutting down Georgia Tech and Penn State, it hasn't yet met an opponent as tough as Michigan. The Yellow Jackets' offense was one-dimensional, and Penn State was inexperienced. The Irish D gave up a lot of points and yards to Michigan State and Ohio State last year; how it answers the Wolverines' challenge will foretell a bit about the future.

Last week's offensive performance by the Irish featured a few real improvements. Brady Quinn and Co. were able to react more effectively to blitzes, and with Quinn's leadership and decision making, they should only continue to improve. If Notre Dame can somehow pull out this win, it has a good chance at running the table and setting up a big showdown with USC.

I was very impressed with Ohio State's performance in Austin Saturday night. The Buckeyes came out and were able to hold a team like Texas to one touchdown. It was a remarkable effort on both sides of the ball. It's difficult to win on the road, but to win that convincingly is even more impressive. Troy Smith is absolutely critical to that team. The touchdown he orchestrated at the end of the half -- a 29-yard pass to wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. with 16 seconds on the clock -- gave the Buckeyes a seven-point lead heading into the half. That score put a lot of pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback Colt McCoy. If you look back at past champions, all dominant teams have had a quarterback who might not have been the best athlete, but who can answer the challenge. Smith's athleticism is a big plus, but it's his decision making that is getting him closer to being added to that list each week.
USC As a former coach, I don't really look at the odds placed on college games -- no coach does -- but I find it incredible that USC is favored by more than three touchdowns in its showdown with Nebraska (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

It goes to show you how overwhelmingly the Trojans have established themselves. I talked to coach Pete Carroll last week, and he said he was excited about his team's start and glad to have an extra week to prepare (USC had its bye week in Week 2). Having two weeks to prepare is definitely an edge, but many coaches feel it's better to keep the season rolling and keep up the momentum. It also gave the secondary time to prepare after the loss of starting safety Josh Pinkard to injury. Most of the questions in this game focus on Nebraska: How much have the Huskers improved? They've been plagued by pass protection problems -- will that persist? Can they get any kind of running game established?

Jim Donnan

College Football
Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.