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October 18, 2010

Week 8 Watch: Look out, No. 1

Oregon aims to avoid starting a trend.

The Ducks have ascended to No. 1 in the polls, if not the BCS standings, and in each of the past two weeks, the top- ranked team has lost. Ohio State fell at Wisconsin on Saturday, a week after Alabama lost at South Carolina. This week, Oregon puts its No. 1 ranking on the line against visiting UCLA in a Thursday night game.

The Ducks are among 10 FBS teams that remain unbeaten, but that number will be reduced by at least two this week. LSU travels to Auburn and Oklahoma goes to Missouri in matchups of undefeated teams, so somebody has to fall off the list.

Oregon just hopes to stay on it. The Ducks have won their past two over UCLA, so that's one trend they want to continue.

Player under the gun

Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez

After emerging as an early season Heisman contender, Martinez is facing major adversity for the first time in his college career. Martinez, a redshirt freshman, was 4-of-12 passing for 63 yards and rushed for just 21 yards on 13 carries in a 20-13 loss to Texas. Although Martinez was pulled in favor of Zac Lee in the second half, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said afterward that Martinez remains the starter. Even so, Martinez must play much better Saturday for Nebraska to win a potential shootout at unbeaten Oklahoma State, which ranks second in the nation in scoring.

Best game: LSU at Auburn, 3:30 p.m., CBS. The SEC West lead is at stake when LSU visits Auburn. Auburn's offense is ranked ninth in the nation; LSU's defense is third. It's the fourth time in five years they've met as ranked teams, and each of the past four games was decided by six or fewer points.

Don't overlook this one: Michigan State at Northwestern, noon, ESPN. After a 7-0 start, the Spartans have reason to hope they will land in the BCS. Michigan State has three road games remaining, against Northwestern, Iowa and Penn State. Northwestern is the first opponent Michigan State has played outside of its home state. Evan at 5-1, Northwestern remains a question mark. The Wildcats have not played a challenging schedule and the loss came to Purdue.

On the midweek marquee: UCLA at Oregon, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN. How will Oregon react to being a front-runner in the national title race? The Ducks are No. 2 in the BCS standings, and they are the top-ranked team in the Harris and coaches' polls. Meanwhile, UCLA remains inconsistent. After opening 0-2, the Bruins won three in a row, including a 34-12 demolition of host Texas. Then UCLA's new "pistol" offense flopped in a 35-7 loss at California. RB Johnathan Franklin has rushed for 492 yards and five touchdowns in the three wins, but 187 yards and no touchdowns in the three losses.

Coach under the gun: Texas A&M's Mike Sherman. Sherman is only in his third season on the job, so perhaps it's too soon to put him on the hot seat. But he has plenty of work ahead of him as Texas A&M attempts to salvage a season gone awry. After winning their first three games, the Aggies have lost three in a row. They were just dominated 30-9 at home by Missouri. A&M should win easily Saturday at woeful Kansas, but that only increases the pressure on Sherman. If the Aggies don't win big, their fans will become even more disgruntled.

Best coordinator chess match: Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn vs. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. Auburn wins with offense and despite a spotty defense. LSU wins with defense and despite a spotty offense. Auburn leads the SEC and is ninth nationally in total offense (481.1 ypg) behind QB Cameron Newton, who leads the league in rushing and has proven to also be an adept passer. LSU leads the SEC and is third nationally in total defense (242.2 ypg) behind the play of DT Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard and CB Patrick Peterson. LSU has allowed just 585 rushing yards this season and only Mississippi State (152) has rushed for more than 101. Newton has 860 rushing yards himself. Chavis will feel comfortable creeping up his safeties to help against the run; he just has to make sure his linebackers can take on the 248-pound Newton.

BCS-buster watch: Navy vs. Notre Dame in East Rutherford, N.J., noon, CBS. The Midshipmen have won two of the past three meetings over the Fighting Irish. But it's important to note that Charlie Weis no longer is coaching Notre Dame. Still, Navy has another strong team that could add a heaping of misery to the debut season of Brian Kelly, whose team has won three in a row after a 1-3 start. It's important for the Irish to win this game to show that Kelly's regime is different than Weis'.

Best individual matchup of the week: Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon vs. Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara. Going into the season, everyone knew about Amukamara. But Blackmon, who had just 20 receptions last season, has burst onto the scene in a big way. This may be the best wide receiver-cornerback matchup of the entire season. Blackmon (6-1/205) is a physical receiver with great hands and good speed. Amukamara (6-1/205) is physical, too, and the prototype cover corner. Oklahoma State moves Blackmon around, but at some point on Saturday, he will be going against Amukamara.

Best unit matchup of the week: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Iowa defensive line. This is the second major test in a row for the Badgers' line, which did a good job against Ohio State's deep front four last week. Iowa's defensive line is even better. Can Wisconsin handle Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn? And can Iowa DTs Christian Ballard and Karl Klug be disruptive enough in the middle that John Clay and James White struggle to find running room? Clay had a big day against Ohio State in an upset last week, and that has to happen again if the Badgers are to prevail. Clayborn, Badgers G John Moffitt and Badgers OT Gabe Carimi are among the nation's premier linemen, so this will be a star-studded affair.

Injury report: There were some big ones suffered Saturday -- Arizona QB Nick Foles (knee), South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore (ankle) and Michigan QB Denard Robinson (shoulder) among them. But none may be bigger than the concussion suffered by Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. He left in the second quarter of the Hogs' 65-43 loss at Auburn. Mallett was 10-of-15 passing for 94 yards with a touchdown before leaving. Sophomore Tyler Wilson came on and played well, going 25-of-34 for 333 yards with four touchdowns and two picks. Still, the Hogs will need the vast skills of Mallett, who will continue to be evaluated, if they hope to play in a good bowl. The Hogs play host to Ole Miss in the "Houston Nutt Bowl" on Saturday.

Record watch: Virginia Tech has scored at least 40 points in its past three wins (over N.C. State, Central Michigan and Wake Forest). The Hokies haven't topped 40 points in four consecutive games since 2000-01; Duke gives them that opportunity this week. Virginia Tech last topped 40 points in four consecutive games in the last three wins of 2000 (UCF, Virginia and Clemson) and the opener in 2001 (Connecticut).

Coaching connection: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is going against Iowa, his alma mater. Bielema probably is the only coach in the country with a tattoo depicting the logo of a conference rival. Bielema has a Hawkeye tattoo on his calf. He's all Wisconsin now, but the Badgers have dropped two in a row to the Hawkeyes.



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