Conference matchups dominate Week 6

Updated: October 6, 2006, 4:34 PM ET
By Jim Donnan |

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
You can't stop Adrian Peterson -- you can only hope to contain him.
If it's possible, the Red River Rivalry has more significance now than it did in the 1980s, when it was viewed as life-or-death by fans of the Longhorns and Sooners. Of course, the fans' attitude hasn't changed -- but the country's has. Since Texas and OU are both nationally ranked and are in the same conference and same division, Saturday's matchup has Big 12 and national title implications. It's about as big a conference matchup as you can have.

Each team enters Saturday's matchup with one loss. No. 14 Oklahoma is still festering over its controversial loss to Oregon and has had an extra week to prepare for this game. Having a week off near the beginning of the season is both good and bad -- it gives teams time to heal and time to prepare, but coaches hate to get out of a routine. Coaches spend the time worrying about players traveling home, doing too much, etc.

To beat No. 7 Texas, Oklahoma will have to establish a passing game. As good as running back Adrian Peterson is, he can't carry the Sooners by himself against a big, athletic, veteran Longhorns defensive line. Ohio State was able to defeat Texas by using a balanced attack; the progress of Sooners quarterback Paul Thompson will be measured by his performance Saturday. Peterson will get his yards, and it will be up to Texas' D to limit his yards after the initial hit, to keep him from getting 40 yards on what should be a 10-yard run. They have to gang-tackle him, which is easier said than done. When you commit your defense to one person, you run the risk that you'll give up big plays in the passing game. Oklahoma has shown it has the ability to do that.

Neither quarterback has started a game in the rivalry, and it will be interesting to see how they handle not only the pressure of the other team but also the hundreds of thousands of people in Dallas for the state fair and the general buildup -- it's as close to the days of gladiators fighting in the Coliseum as I've seen. This is the type of game you live to play in as a coach and a player -- the kind you remember long after your playing days are over.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
LSU's defense has swarmed the competition.
The SEC claims the nation's top four points-per-game defenses and four of the top 17 teams ranked in total defense. What makes these teams so good? A combination of athleticism, size, speed, quickness and outstanding coaching. LSU, Georgia, Florida and Auburn all lost key players to graduation and injury -- yet they are as good, if not better, than they were last season. Auburn even changed defensive coordinators yet continues to be dominant. One key is that these teams recruit the depth to sustain themselves. As the season wears on, it will be interesting to see how each team reacts to the inevitable injuries that occur. When important players go down, it can cause big changes in the leadership and decision making of the unit.

There isn't an overwhelming offense in the SEC this year, and because of the strength of the defenses, offensive coordinators have played much more conservatively and tried to win games around their defenses, which has mostly worked. When coaches know their defense can hold them, there is less pressure to win games on offense.

The SEC isn't home to all the top defenses, however. The trends I've noticed in the league -- big, mobile linebackers, a sleek secondary and a veteran defensive line that can take on blocks and rush the passer -- is what every coach is looking for. In watching the defenses of Michigan and Ohio State, I've seen the same characteristics that make the SEC so tough.

LSU Florida No. 9 LSU at No. 5 Florida
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Florida limps into this matchup with a rash of injuries to key playmakers, including running back DeShawn Wynn and freshman showstopper Percy Harvin, as well as suspensions (tackle Marcus Thomas). The Gators, however, have impressed me so far with their ability to withstand whatever has been thrown at them -- a quality they will need as they begin one of the nation's roughest three-game stretches (next, they play No. 2 Auburn and No. 10 Georgia).

The matchup I'm most interested in seeing in this contest is between the secondaries; Florida has improved, but LSU boasts possibly the best secondary in the country. There's no denying that the Tigers benefit from having such an experienced corps. Both teams' athleticism will be on display, and the D that can make tackles in the open field, swarm to the ball, make the play and keep the other team from moving the chains will ultimately be victorious. Florida had a tough time protecting against LSU's front last year -- will the Gators be able to improve? Before the season started, I thought that Florida had the best D-line in the country and that LSU had the best secondary. We'll get to see whether that's true on Saturday.

Both quarterbacks -- Florida's Chris Leak and LSU's JaMarcus Russell -- have been playing extremely well, making smart decisions and not pushing the offense. In the last three games, Russell is playing like the kind of quarterback I thought he would be. Since both teams have veteran quarterbacks, a wealth of receivers, high-powered offenses and stingy defenses, this game will come down to how well the offensive lines perform in protecting their quarterbacks from these defensive fronts.

This contest is another example of how good the SEC is. Undefeated Florida and one-loss LSU are both top-five teams, in my mind. LSU lost to Auburn, which plays the Gators next week. In a game like this, with both teams so talented and athletic, it really is must-see TV.

Tennessee Georgia No. 13 Tennessee at No. 10 Georgia
Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Georgia has had the upper hand versus Tennessee lately, winning five of the last six. Two years ago, the Vols upset Georgia in Athens 19-14. The Dawgs' defense has been carrying them as they figure out their starting quarterback situation. After losing senior Joe Tereshinski to injury, freshmen Matthew Stafford and Joe Cox have filled in. Although they've won, they've been plagued by inconsistencies and a lack of execution. The teams Georgia has beaten have been among the country's worst. Luckily for the Dawgs, Tereshinski will reportedly get the start this week.

Georgia's defense has not gone up against an offense like Tennessee's; the Dawgs have had a beneficial schedule (Western Kentucky, South Carolina, UAB and Colorado). Tennessee certainly has an edge on competition -- the Vols already have played two nationally ranked teams (Cal and Florida), which should help them. Georgia's pass rush will be important against Vols QB Erik Ainge, a rhythm passer who likes to get his feet set; Ainge is not as mobile as the last two quarterbacks Georgia has faced. Georgia will have to watch out for Vols receivers Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain, who have developed into two of the top receivers in the nation.

Georgia is notorious for not giving up big plays, and I am anxious to see how the Dawgs match up against a Tennessee squad that dominated then-No. 9 Cal and lost a 21-20 heartbreaker to Florida. In coach Mark Richt's five years at the Georgia helm, he has forced Tennessee to give up a lot of punt returns. The secret to this matchup is the hidden yardage in the kicking game. Georgia has a kicking game that can really help in a game like this; Tennessee can't afford to give that up.

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

Oregon No. 11 Oregon at No. 16 California Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

Cal has made a tremendous resurrection since its first game, in which the Bears were pummeled by Tennessee. The offense is living up to its potential; quarterback Nathan Longshore is making good decisions and running back Marshawn Lynch is living up to his preseason Heisman hype.

Cal Oregon also boasts a balanced offense, with quarterback Dennis Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart leading the way. The Ducks' secondary, however, raises many questions. Cal also has problems defensively; the Bears have to make tackles in the open field -- that's what killed them against Tennessee. These teams are capable of challenging USC for Pac-10 supremacy, but it starts with Saturday's game. I'm high on both of these teams, but I give the edge to Cal because the Bears' defense is better.

Keys to Victory
Michigan State
Michigan StateIf any team is going to come back from two unexplainable losses, it's going to be against its archrival. Michigan State is in luck; it can wash the bad taste from its mouth with a win against in-state rival Michigan. A lot of these kids grow up dreaming about playing in this game, and the added pressure of trying to salvage a season just makes the game that much bigger. There's a lot of negativity around this team right now -- but stranger things have happened than a Spartans upset of the No. 6 Wolverines.
The No. 2(s)
MichiganAlthough Auburn currently has the privilege of the No. 2 ranking, there are many teams that are deserving. You can make a case for Michigan, USC, Florida -- any number of teams. That might change this weekend. Although Mike Hart and Mario Manningham have received the lion's share of the pub, Michigan's Chad Henne looks like one of the nation's top quarterbacks in terms of arm strength and accuracy, and Adrian Arrington continues to step up and make big plays. Michigan is operating like a championship team -- and the Wolverines might make that clear this weekend.
Air Force-Navy
NavyThis annual service academy matchup doesn't receive the attention of Army-Navy, but it's always interesting to see two teams with the same system -- in this case, they both run three-back sets -- play each other. Unlike against the rest of their schedule, their unique offense doesn't give them an upper hand. It's fun to see how the defenses react. It's also good for the country to see the military academies in action; it's one of the heartwarming stories of college football.
Texas A&M
Texas A&MThere are one or two plays every season that influence a team's season. Saturday's final play ? a touchdown pass to push Texas Tech past the Aggies -- was one of them. It will be interesting to see how Texas A&M bounces back. The Aggies were among the unchallenged undefeateds -- along with Missouri and Georgia -- who had not played schedules comparative to undefeated Florida and Ohio State. Now it's showtime for everybody.
Garrett Wolfe
Northern IllinoisHeisman hopeful Garrett Wolfe continues to elevate his game, rushing for a career-high and school record 353 yards versus Ball State. But he's not just tearing up MAC defenses -- he put up more than 200 all purpose yards against Ohio State. Troy Smith and Adrian Peterson have a real edge on the Heisman, but Wolfe is putting up numbers that are really going to challenge them. It will be an upset if he doesn't break Barry Sanders' season rushing record.
Clemson No. 15 Clemson at Wake Forest
Saturday, noon ET, ESPN

How good is undefeated Wake Forest? That's the question everyone wants to know. The Demon Deacons snuck up on everyone, but yet haven't played anyone. (Their five wins have come against powerhouses Syracuse, UConn, Liberty, Mississippi and Duke.) Then again, Clemson lost to a team (Boston College) that lost to NC State. The ACC is a strange conference these days. Wake Forest is one of the feel-good stories of the year -- they're 5-0 even after suffering injuries to their No. 1 running back (Micah Andrews) and quarterback (Benjamin Mauk). Even with a beneficial schedule, that's hard to do.

Wake Forest The Tigers remind me a lot of coach Tommy Bowden's father's Florida State teams in the 1990s. Clemson has great overall team speed, solid quarterbacks, running backs and receiving corps, and the defense is very fast. The Tigers have played well on the road, which is good, because they played three of their first six games on the road, and still must travel to No. 21 Virginia Tech on Oct. 26.

Clemson got a break in the conference race with BC's loss to NC State, and with the way Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami are playing, they still have a good chance to compete for the conference title. Of course, the Tigers will have to make it through the rest of their schedule unscathed and hope the Eagles drop another game in-conference.

Jim Donnan and Michael Kim break down all of the week's top matchups every Friday on the ESPNU College Football Insider. Listen

Jim Donnan

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