Interesting matchups highlight midway point

Updated: October 16, 2006, 2:13 PM ET
By Jim Donnan | ESPN.com

Florida's Natural
Leak
Jason Parkhurst/US Presswire
Chris Leak has led Florida to an undefeated record.

I thought it was tough to run the table in the SEC, but Florida's making it look easy. The No. 2 Gators are on a good roll and have made it through the first half of their season undefeated. Urban Meyer's squad still has tough tests ahead of it; the Gators take on Auburn on Saturday (ESPN Full Circle, 7:45 p.m. ET). I've been impressed with what they've overcome so far. Florida has beaten two very good teams, Tennessee and LSU, as well as Alabama and Kentucky. This weekend's matchup is critical in terms of Florida's conference and national title aspirations.

One of the most interesting things about Florida is its ability to find different ways to win. Few teams have found success when they use more than one quarterback, but both senior Chris Leak and freshman Tim Tebow have made an impact for the Gators. They've taken a short-yardage approach to their signal-callers; when most teams would add a tailback, the Gators use Tebow, who gives them the option of running and passing. This was critical in the win over LSU, in which Tebow ran for one touchdown and threw for two more.

I got to see Tebow play in high school, and he was an outstanding competitor there. He's learning from Leak, a consummate winner. Leak hasn't received as much publicity as other quarterbacks because he hasn't won at the highest level, but that could be changing. Ohio State is my clear No. 1 team right now -- but if Florida makes it through its season unscathed, it will be hard not to vote the Gators No. 1. They should be rewarded for the strength of their schedule.

Although Florida's offense is talented, it's not overpowering. The Gators' athletic defense has created turnovers and taken pressure off the offense. That balance is a formidable combination, and one that will be hard for Auburn to contend with if the Tigers can't get their offense going. Quarterback Brandon Cox and running back Kenny Irons haven't been as powerful as I expected them to be. Auburn is a tough place to play, but the Tigers proved they can be beaten at home. Florida can follow Arkansas' blueprint to victory by using its physical defense. Although Florida doesn't have the running game Arkansas boasts with Darren McFadden, the Gators should get by with their passing game.

It will be interesting to see how Auburn responds to its first loss. The Tigers had a tough time playing the ball in the air even in their win over South Carolina, and the Gamecocks racked up 240 passing yards. If Florida can attack the Tigers' secondary successfully, it should be able to open up the game early.

Super Mario
Manningham
Joe Raymond/AP Photo
Mario Manningham has had a breakthrough season for Michigan.

Michigan wide receiver Mario Manningham might miss only one game after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on his meniscus and MCL. Even if Manningham is out for the Iowa game Oct. 21, I still think Michigan has enough to beat the Hawkeyes. Michigan needs Manningham to be healthy for the Ohio State game, however, because that game has national championship implications.

As a player, the best way for Manningham to stay involved is by watching a lot of film and being around his teammates at practice as much as possible. He needs to try to keep his routine the same, even though it will be difficult. He needs to stay sharp mentally, which is fairly easy because he won't be sidelined for a significant amount of time.

Manningham is a rare talent who has been able to get behind defenders on big plays. I don't know whether Michigan has any other receivers who have that ability. While Manningham is out, Michigan shouldn't try to manufacture big plays. The Wolverines need to lean on their running game and short passing game and use the strengths of the players they have.

It is important for Manningham to be at full speed when he returns. You can't play tentative, even at wide receiver, which isn't the most physical position. If Manningham is not 100 percent, he has no business being out there. He will be pushed around even more, and his focus needs to be on the game, not his injury. Michigan's coaches will want to see him in practice -- even more than they normally would -- running his routes as hard as he can.

KEY MATCHUPS

Cuse West Virginia Syracuse at No. 5 West Virginia
Saturday, noon ET, ESPN GamePlan

You haven't seen it yet, but yes, West Virginia does have a passing game. The nation's 104th-ranked passing offense -- the Mountaineers average just 144 yards per game in the air -- has just been keeping it under wraps. I can't say I blame coach Rich Rodriguez; why give opponents a preview when you can win with the running game? West Virginia has yet to be challenged against the likes of Marshall, East Carolina and Mississippi State. I got to watch West Virginia's spring game, however, and the Mountaineers have a passing game that can attack anybody. I coached for a long time, and it wasn't magic dust they were using -- it was overwhelming how well Pat White could throw the deep ball with accuracy. The only key issue is: Can they do it when they need to do it? I believe the answer is a resounding yes -- and we might get to see a bit of it against Syracuse on Saturday.

The Orange have played West Virginia tough in the past, but Syracuse will be on the road, which is always tough. Syracuse has made great strides this season, but to pull an upset, the Orange will need some help from West Virginia with turnovers and penalties.

Michigan Penn State No. 4 Michigan at Penn State
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Michigan has experience with injury after losing Mike Hart last season. Fortunately for the Wolverines, it appears Manningham will only be out for a week. The team must respond in his absence, though. Penn State had to get some juice out of last week's overtime win against Minnesota. With a young quarterback and an improving defense, that type of win can set the standard for the season. Michigan must go into State College and take this game away from the Nittany Lions.

The Wolverines boast possibly the best defense in the country, and it can carry them if the offense isn't working at full speed. The D will put pressure on Lions quarterback Anthony Morelli. On offense, Hart must establish a running game. Quarterback Chad Henne has had an outstanding year so far, and he must keep it up while Manningham is out. If other receivers step up, the Wolverines will be in good shape.

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

MIDSEASON AWARDS
Smith
Smith

National
Plus: Athletic defenses; each of the top four schools have 'em
Minus: Officiating in the Pac-10
Push: Comeback stories; it's good to see Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee, Michigan and Arkansas back in the national picture
Team moving forward: Tennessee
Team moving backward: Fresno State
Coach of the midyear: Bobby Petrino, Louisville (Honorable mention: Phil Fulmer, Tennessee; Jim Grobe, Wake Forest)
Player of the midyear: Troy Smith, Ohio State
Emerging star: Garrett Wolfe, Northern Illinois

For conference-by-conference picks, click here.

SEC SHOWDOWN

Florida No. 2 Florida at No. 11 Auburn Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

It might be overly simplistic, but the questions are the same for both teams: Which is most stout defending the run? Which protects its quarterback with the most consistency? Which cuts down on turnovers and special-teams mistakes?

On Saturday, Auburn's defense was terrible against the run in its loss to Arkansas, but Florida has a different type of running game. The Gators aren't a power running team like Arkansas, so the Tigers should be able to do a better job of stopping the run. Florida has been good against the run all year long. If one team can't stop the run, then it will be in trouble.

Auburn Assuming Florida and Auburn find it difficult to run with any success, the big plays are going to have to come through the air. Both teams will be able to pressure the quarterback, but the team that does the best job of keeping its quarterback comfortable in the pocket for four quarters will have the best chance to win because this game going to be determined by big plays in the passing game. Pay particular attention to productive passes on first down.

Special-teams plays take two forms: momentum-changing or scoreboard-changing plays and field position. Last week, a muffed punt led to a Florida touchdown and a fumbled kickoff by LSU resulted in a safety. Those were huge special-teams plays that changed the momentum of the game.

SCARLET AFTERNOON

Rutgers No. 24 Rutgers at Navy
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET

Rutgers enters Saturday's matchup 5-0 and ranked in the Top 25. The Scarlet Knights are on top of the world -- which can be a dangerous place to be. I've been impressed with what coach Greg Schiano has done. Navy presents a new challenge for his squad, however. The Knights will be going up against a successful wishbone team -- Navy is 5-1 and has the top-ranked rushing offense in the country. This type of offense can frustrate teams by eating up the clock and controlling the ball.

Navy Rutgers' offense must be patient. It will get fewer snaps and must make good decisions with the opportunities it gets. If Rutgers begins to press, Navy will take advantage. Navy drilled Rutgers the last time the Knights visited Annapolis, 54-21. Paul Johnson is a great coach for the Midshipmen, and he has proved he can win with this style.

UNDER-THE-RADAR GAME

Mizzou No. 19 Missouri at Texas A&M
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Missouri is one of the biggest stories in college football. The Tigers' ability to lose a quarterback like Brad Smith -- who set 69 college, conference and NCAA records throughout his career -- and begin the season 6-0 is outstanding. Quarterback Chase Daniel has been the difference. He's absolutely lights-out. The Tigers' defense has played extremely well and caused a lot of turnovers.

Texas A&M Missouri proved it could win on the road against Texas Tech, taking the Red Raiders out of the game early Saturday. The Aggies will be another tough test for the Tigers, who are looking toward the Big 12 North title. Saturday's game should be the toughest test either team has faced so far this season. Both schedules will get tougher as the season continues. This could be a statement win for either team.

GAMEDAY PREVIEW

Since the start of the season I felt Florida was the most talented team in the SEC along with LSU, but that the Gators' schedule eventually would be too much.

Now, heading into the second weekend in October, Florida has proved me and others wrong by showing a maturity and toughness to go along with its incredible skill. With a win at Tennessee, a home win over Alabama and last week's impressive showing against LSU, Florida is building confidence and winning games along way.

Look at the notable games remaining on the schedule (Saturday at Auburn, vs. Georgia, at Florida State and a possible SEC title game) and you can see why the Gators still have a long way to go. But based on what Florida has accomplished in the first six games of the season, Gators fans have every reason to believe Urban Meyer's team has what it takes to survive.

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