Now is when we really find out how the college football landscape shapes up.
Most upper-tier teams have spent the last 4 weeks getting their automatic wins out of their system, jockeying for good position heading into the harder portion of their schedules.
All of the teams in the five big-boy conferences (sorry, American Athletic Conference) will play fellow league members in at least seven of their final eight games, and many will face conference contests all the way through to the end of the regular season.
As excited as I am when the football season finally does return each August, the upcoming 2 months are what really gets me going. There will no doubt be some high-scoring games, but the days of 70-point performances have pretty much gone out the window now.
I know it’s early, but I’m so fired up that I can’t wait to take a look at how the conference races might play out. So here is a list of the Big 5 leagues, complete with predictions; I’ll revisit these in a couple of months, when we can all laugh together at how far off (or maybe spot-on; who knows, could happen!) I was.
Atlantic Division – Top dogs: Clemson, Florida Statel; On their heels: N.C. State
Coastal Division – Top dog: Miami; On their heels: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech
The chase: This conference belongs to whoever wins the Clemson-FSU game, although Miami has already proven that it can win under the bright lights with a victory over Florida. Still, the Tigers or Seminoles should claim the automatic BCS berth.
Legends Division – Top dog: Michigan; On their heels: Nebraska, Northwestern
Leaders Division – Top dog: Ohio State; On their heels: Wisconsin
The chase: This conference is the Buckeyes’ to lose. While the Legends is pretty wide open, Ohio State is by far the best team on the other side, and should easily take care of whoever it gets in the conference title game.
Top dogs: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State; On their heels: Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas
The chase: At first glance, it looks pretty top-heavy in this league. But the Sooners and Cowboys aren’t the world-beaters of the recent past, so look for the Red Raiders, Bears or (yes) even the Longhorns to make a run. Still, this year’s installment of Bedlam will more than likely decide the BCS qualifier.
North Division – Top dog: Oregon; On their heels: Stanford, Washington
South Division – Top dog: UCLA; On their heels: USC, Arizona State
The chase: The Ducks are the class of the west coast, but every year the best team in this league manages an inexplicable loss along the way. The North is stronger top to bottom than the South, giving whichever team comes from the higher latitudes an edge in the conference championship.
East Division – Top dog: Georgia; On their heels: Florida, South Carolina
West Division – Top dog: Alabama; On their heels: LSU, Texas A&M
The chase: As has been the case the past decade, this conference in the cream of the crop, and there are very few easy Ws. You have to call the Crimson Tide the favorites to play for their third straight national championship, but there are about six or seven teams who are good enough to get there if the Tide slip up.
Northern Illinois at Purdue
When: 11 a.m. Saturday TV: ESPN2
Where: Ross-Ade Stadium Line: NIU by 3½
What’s up: The Huskies have made a habit out of second-half comebacks. As poorly as Purdue is playing, NIU shouldn’t need one of those this week.
My pick: NIU 24-14
No. 6 LSU at No. 9 Georgia
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday TV: CBS
Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens Line: Georgia by 3
What’s up: The Tigers are taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes well right now, and the offense is far more dynamic than last season. The Bulldogs almost always play well at home, but QB Aaron Murray has struggled throughout his career against top-tier defenses.
My pick: LSU 27-24
Iowa at Minnesota
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday TV: ABC
Where: TCF Bank Stadium Line: Iowa by 1½
What’s up: The Hawkeyes have found some passing to go with their punishing ground game, but the defense has struggled to put teams away late.
My pick: Iowa 21-17
No. 14 Oklahoma at No. 22 Notre Dame
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday TV: NBC
Where: Notre Dame Stadium Line: Oklahoma by 3½
What’s up: The Sooners aren’t as high-powered without Landry Jones at QB, but the Irish have struggled with consistency.
My pick: Oklahoma 31-28
No. 21 Mississippi at No. 1 Alabama
When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday TV: ESPN
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium Line: Alabama by 14½
What’s up: The Rebels have established themselves as a consistent top-25 program the last couple of years … but they still have a ways to go to match the SEC elite.
My pick: Alabama 38-14
No. 23 Wisconsin at No. 4 Ohio State
When: 7 p.m. Saturday TV: ABC
Where: Ohio Stadium, Columbus Line: Ohio State by 6½
What’s up: The Buckeyes offense hasn’t missed a beat, no matter who’s playing quarterback. The Badgers will be the more physical running team, as both offenses will be better than both defenses.
My pick: Ohio State 31-27