AUBURN, Ala. If Auburn was going to have an off week, it's nice that it happened to be this one.
After an abysmal schedule last Saturday, this weekend is chock-full of great matchups around the country. The game taking top billing will be in Athens, obviously, as LSU/Georgia represents the only game pitting two top-10 teams against each other. But that's just for starters; elsewhere in the SEC, there is also Ole Miss at Alabama and an uber-interesting contest with No. 12 South Carolina heading down to Orlando, Fla., to take on Central Florida. I could keep on talking about the fantastic games on tap for Saturday, but we'll touch on them below.
Before we get there, however, let me extend my apologies to Maryland. I vastly underestimated the Terrapins; instead of viewing them on their merits this year, I was too focused on 2012. After they whipped their arch-rival the West Virginia Mountaineers by a score of 37-0 last week, I have to give them their props. (And yes, it is a mere coincidence I'm not picking Maryland's game this weekend. Like Auburn, the Terrapins have an open date.)
Maryland's game was one of four losses I had last week (against 11 wins). The other three teams I incorrectly picked were Arkansas (lost to Rutgers 28-24), Duke (lost to Pittsburgh 58-55) and Kansas State (somehow lost to woebegone Texas 31-21).
But as Mark McGwire might say, "I'm not here to talk about the past."
On that pleasant note, let's get to this weekend's picks! (Please note that all times listed, as per usual, are Eastern. Adjust your plans accordingly.)
Strictly SECNo. 12 South Carolina at Central Florida, Noon
This is the rare game that has both teams coming off a bye week. Central Florida is undefeated (3-0) and riding high after beating Penn State in its last outing 34-31. It was the third time in as many games the Knights scored more than 30 points, setting a school record to begin the season. Not surprisingly, a sellout crowd is expected, which hasn't happened since Boston College came to town Sept. 10, 2011. The open date was good for South Carolina since it gave its injured players time to heal, chief among them being Jadeveon Clowney.
The Gamecocks are in for a fight (pardon the pun on their nickname), but they'll find themselves on top at the end of this one.
Black picks: Gamecocks 28, Knights 24
No. 10 Texas A&M at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
First things first: Last Saturday, Arkansas lost to Rutgers 28-24, the second straight year it lost to the Scarlet Knights. To make matters worse, the defeat came after the Razorbacks let a 24-7 third quarter lead slip away. Now they kick off SEC play against Johnny Manziel and the Aggies. For those who need reminding, Texas A&M won 58-10 last year, a season which saw the Aggies go 7-0 on the road.
My crystal ball isn't forecasting anything but pain for Arkansas this weekend.
Black picks: Aggies 48, Razorbacks 17
No. 20 Florida at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
Call me insane, but I say the Wildcats have a shot to pull the upset this weekend. The ingredients are there: Kentucky is playing with house money, Florida has a quarterback making his first career start (Tyler Murphy), just lost its top defender (defensive tackle Dominique Easley) for the season and the Gators aren't known for lighting up the scoreboard at least since Will Muschamp took over, that is.
And Kentucky has shown it can at least keep things close with more talented squads, making then-No. 7 Louisville work into the fourth quarter before sealing its 27-13 victory.
While I'm not going all the way and picking the Wildcats to beat the Gators for the first time since 1986, I was mighty, mighty tempted to do so.
Black picks: Gators 24, Wildcats 20
Arkansas State at Missouri, 8 p.m.
Arkansas State has alternated wins and losses this season, beating Arkansas-Pine Bluff (62-11), falling to Auburn (38-9), toppling Troy (41-34) and then losing to Memphis (31-7) last week.
The bad news for the Red Wolves? Missouri is a lot closer to Auburn's and Memphis' level than Arkansas-Pine Bluff or Troy.
So give the Tigers a 4-0 start before we finally see them enter SEC play next week against Vanderbilt.
Black picks: Tigers 41, Red Wolves 21
Other National Games of Some RenownNo. 14 Oklahoma at No. 22 Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
The Sooners come into the game as slight favorites and carrying a 3-0 record, though their victories came over teams (Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa) that are a combined 5-7. Meanwhile, Oklahoma represents the second ranked team Notre Dame has played in five games. The Fighting Irish beat up the Sooners last year in Norman, Okla., so the Okies are looking to return the favor Saturday.
Don't count on it. Notre Dame's defense, though it hasn't played up to its potential as much as its supporters would like, will test Oklahoma more than any team it has faced this season. And history is on the hosts' side: In 10 previous meetings between these two blueblood programs, the Fighting Irish have tasted victory nine times.
Black picks: Fighting Irish 27, Sooners 17
Arizona at No. 16 Washington, 7 p.m.
On paper, these two teams look fairly even. The Wildcats hold a slight edge in points per game (43.7 to 42.7) and points allowed per contest (8.7 to 10). But ... (you probably saw this coming, methinks), what separates this Pac-12 pair is its versatility on offense. While Washington can run and throw the ball (averaging over 300 yards per game in each facet), Arizona is one-dimensional. Incredibly, the Wildcats barely top the century mark in passing yards, averaging a little more than 108 yards per outing.
The Huskies will be too much for the Wildcats to handle, giving the hosts their first 4-0 start since 2001.
Black picks: Huskies 45, Wildcats 20
No. 23 Wisconsin at No. 4 Ohio State, 8 p.m.
One day, Ohio State is going to lose a game under Urban Meyer.
I don't think this is the week, though. Yes, the Badgers will be the best team the Buckeyes have seen this season, by far. But Ohio State playing at home coupled with Braxton Miller's return doesn't seem like it will add up well for Wisconsin. If this game was in Madison, Wis., I would likely pick differently.
Alas, that is not the case.
I'm taking the Buckeyes to pick up their 17th consecutive victory, in front of a primetime audience, no less.
Black picks: Buckeyes 27, Badgers 20
No. 5 Stanford vs. Washington State (at CenturyLink Field in Seattle), 10 p.m.
Most people didn't want to make much of Auburn's close win versus Washington State in the season opener. "Oh, the Tigers underperformed," they said.
"How did Auburn not beat a 3-9 team from the Pac-12 by three touchdowns?" others cried.
Well I'm here to tell ya folks, the Cougars are better than people gave them credit for at the outset of the fall. Mirroring Auburn, Washington State has already matched its win total from last season in its first four games this year. Will it matter in this game? Eh, no.
But by the end of the season, Washington State is going to be in the mix for a bowl. Mark my words.
(Note: If this doesn't happen, I reserve the right to expunge this from my archives.)
(Note No. 2: I don't actually have the power to expunge this article from my archives.)
Black picks: Cardinal 41, Cougars 24
Quick HitsVirginia at Pittsburgh, 12:30 p.m.
Ah, two teams who have burned me by picking against them earlier in the season. Each has its faults, but I'll take the home team in a tight, back-and-forth battle.
Black picks: Panthers 38, Cavaliers 31
Colorado at Oregon State, 3 p.m.
Appreciate this while you can: Colorado is 2-0. Though the Beavers aren't world-beaters (they lost to Eastern Washington in the season opener and barely squeaked by hapless San Diego State last week), it'll be enough to erase the zero in the Buffaloes' loss column.
Black picks: Beavers 27, Buffaloes 10
Troy at Duke, 3 p.m.
After a crushing loss last week Duke scored 55 points versus Pitt and somehow never held a lead playing Troy is just what the doctor ordered. The Trojans just lost to Mississippi State 62-7, after all.
And hey, with a victory here, that's three wins for Duke, getting it halfway to bowl eligibility for the second year in a row.
Black picks: Blue Devils 42, Trojans 24
Iowa at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m.
This is a literal toss-up game. I'm going with Iowa based solely on the previous successes of longtime head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Black picks: Hawkeyes 20, Golden Gophers 17
Southern California at Arizona State, 10:30 p.m.
My embedded tweet below should tell you all you need to know about this game.
Black picks: Sun Devils 31, Trojans 14
The Game You Probably Care About (Since Auburn Isn't Playing)No. 21 Ole Miss at No. 1 Alabama, 6:30 p.m.
Alabama has entered the "Tiger Woods Zone."
(No, not in that regard. Get your head out of the gutter.)
I mean it in the way that Alabama has created such high expectations for itself, anything less than utter domination in every victory has people asking, "What's wrong with the Crimson Tide?" It's just like Tiger; the world's top-ranked golfer won five times on the PGA Tour this season three clear of the next-closest player was voted player of the year for the 11th time in his career and captured both the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average and the PGA Tour money title. But it still wasn't good enough. All people want to focus on is how he did in the majors. (Let the record show his finishes were fourth at The Masters, tied for 32nd at the U.S. Open, sixth at The Open Championship and 40th at the PGA Championship.)
Now back to football.
I expect Ole Miss to give Alabama fits. Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans had his way with Alabama's secondary, and Ole Miss is double the trouble with Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell. But there's a reason Alabama has won the national title the last two years: It is really, really tough to beat. After a lackluster showing against Colorado State last week both offensively and defensively, Nick Saban will have his group prepped to play its best game of the season.
That's bad news for the Rebels, who will win the "Close But No Cigar" title that the Aggies wore two weeks ago.
Black picks: Crimson Tide 31, Rebels 21
GAME OF THE WEEKNo. 6 LSU at No. 9 Georgia, 3:30 p.m.
For those who have paid really close attention to my picks, you know Georgia has been a quagmire for me to read.
I picked Georgia to beat Clemson. It lost.
I said it would lose to South Carolina. Inevitably, it won.
So I can't do any worse this week. Either I start to crawl back toward .500, or I fall to 0-3.
It's eerie how much these two squads resemble each other. They both have experienced quarterbacks and a plethora of options in the backfield. When it's broken down into specific players, the Bulldogs have the best running back on the field in Todd Gurley while the Tigers own the two best pass-catchers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham.
Defensively, both units are young and still trying to find their way after massive talent drains. LSU has responded better thus far, giving up just 19.5 points and 310 yards per game, compared to 29.7 points and 388.7 yards for Georgia.
As anyone who has followed college football this season could tell you, though, the Bulldogs have faced much stiffer competition in its first four games relative to the Tigers. Some have prognosticated a shootout along the lines of Georgia's opener against Clemson, which finished 38-35 in the Tigers' favor. (Not happening.) Some think it might go the other direction, and look like a defensive slugfest worthy of recent Alabama/LSU matchups. (Again, not happening.)
In my book, it will end somewhere in the middle, and with a twist in the script: Georgia's defense will be the unit to make the game-sealing play, stealing the thunder away from its more highly-regarded offense (momentarily, anyway). I'll even call the play: Linebacker Jordan Jenkins will intercept a tipped pass from LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger who, you might have heard, played for the Bulldogs in a previous life as the visitors attempt to mount a game-tyng drive.
(My confidence in any of this prediction actually occurring hovers around the 15 percent mark.)
It very well may go in the other direction, dropping my record predicting Georgia's games this season to a pathetic 0-3. Should that come to pass, there's only one thought that will pop into my head.
That's just the way it geauxs.
Blacks pick: Bulldogs 28, Tigers 20
Last week: 11-4