— Welcome to Super Saturday in college football — with some high-profile battles of the unbeatens taking center stage. The national-championship picture will come into sharper focus. And down the dial just a bit, some highly touted teams are clinging to hope. The Top 25 rankings could have an entirely different look. Here are five storylines to help guide you through the big day:
1. QB or not QB? That is the question
Experience at quarterback is a highly desirable characteristic for any team with designs on winning a national championship.
OK, that theory is not exactly like splitting the atom.
But it remains true, oh so true.
While breaking down Saturday’s most compelling matchups — Stanford-Oregon, Florida-Alabama and Oklahoma-Texas — my picks all centered around the teams with the most experience at quarterback.
It’s no coincidence.
But there was a fatal flaw for followers of Stanford, an academic mecca. So many people failed to do their homework.
The Cardinal returned a veteran offensive line, a unit capable of maintaining a capable running game and protecting its quarterback. There was 244-pound fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic, a wrecking-ball blocker who makes life considerably easier for Stanford tailbacks.
And there was the quarterback himself, sophomore Andrew Luck (as in pluck).
Luck is completing 62.7 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Stanford rushed for 254 yards last season in its 51-42 drubbing of Oregon, putting the Ducks in quite a quandary. Loading up against the run is a possibility, but Luck’s athleticism and cerebral approach would play off that nicely, perhaps leading to a string of play-action passes and deep scoring plays.
“We like our quarterback,’’ said Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, whose relentless team has trailed for all of four minutes, 34 seconds this season.
Oregon likes its quarterback, too.
He’s sophomore Darron Thomas, a multi-faceted performer who has emerged as the Ducks’ leader. The program was shaken in the offseason with the dismissal of Jeremiah Masoli, who helped Oregon to last season’s Rose Bowl.
Thomas played exceptionally well in last week’s 42-31 rally against Arizona State. Long-term, he looks like a keeper.
This is the first big test for Thomas. But Luck is better-equipped for this challenge.
Meyer, who is returning to the site of his first loss with Florida (31-3 defeat to Alabama in 2005), will give Burton a new wrinkle for Saturday night.
Alabama coach Nick Saban will adjust to that.
And on … and on … and on.
The coaching matchup here is a game in itself. For a few years now, it has been Meyer’s conference. Saban knocked the Gators off their perch in last season’s SEC championship game — and now Alabama will take firm control of the SEC.
Because of Saban.
Because of Alabama’s edge at quarterback.
Florida’s John Brantley is making steady improvement each week. And Burton offers a nice change-up at the position. But how do you go against a guy who hasn’t lost as a starter since … the eighth-grade?
That’s the story of Alabama’s Greg McElroy.
He has persevered to the point where he’s now recognized as one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks. He was most valuable player of last season’s SEC championship game. On the road last week against Arkansas, he helped the Crimson Tide to a 24-20 victory, hanging in there after throwing a pair of second-quarter interceptions.
McElroy has a body of work to adequately prepare him for Saturday night’s showdown.
Brantley does not.
The Sooners, who don’t play Nebraska on the rotating Big 12 schedule, have a very realistic shot at 12-0 if they can defeat the Longhorns.
Smooth sophomore quarterback Landry Jones is one of the biggest reasons for that.
Remember 2009, the gloom and doom when Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford went down in the opener (then went down again — this time for good — about a month later)? The upside of that became the tremendous experience gained by Jones, who completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
The Sooners are just fine at QB.
The Longhorns, meanwhile, are trying to replace four-year starter Colt McCoy, obviously no easy task.
Somehow, it was glossed over in the preseason, but Texas simply lost too much firepower from last season’s team.
There was McCoy, of course. There was Jordan Shipley, the wonderful wide receiver. There were three defensive stalwarts, all selected in the first 45 picks of the NFL draft. Even a program such as Texas has to occasionally take a step back, giving it time to adjust and reload.
Such a moment has happened for the Longhorns.
Longhorns sophomore quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who played much of last season’s BCS championship game against Alabama after McCoy’s injury, currently ranks 11th in Big 12 passing efficiency. He’s coming off the team’s 34-12 home meltdown against UCLA. And now he is thrust into the Red River Rivalry.
Texas has won four of the past five games against Oklahoma, but I think this series is about to reverse its field — primarily because of the Sooners’ advantage at quarterback.
2. Conference call
As we enter into October — and the heart of conference play — the annual ritual already is playing out.
My conference is better than your conference!
Here’s my take on the BCS leagues, from top to bottom:
3. Desperate times
October also represents the last chance to salvage a season for teams that have underachieved:
4. Brick wall meets brick wall
The Big Ten’s game of the week — No. 11 Wisconsin (4-0) at No. 24 Michigan State (4-0) — features the ultimate game within a game.
Wisconsin running back John Clay against Michigan State middle linebacker Greg Jones.
Clay was last season’s Big Ten offensive player of the year.
Jones was last season’s Big Ten co-defensive player of the year (along with twice being selected as the league’s preseason defensive player of the year).
Clay goes about 6-foot-1, 250 pounds and can wear down a defense (in last season’s 38-30 win against Michigan State, he had 25 of his 32 carries in the second half).
He has 501 rushing yards this season and is 98 yards away from the career mark of 3,000. He has at least 100 rushing yards and one touchdown in 10 consecutive games (remarkable when you think about it). Last season, Clay had 142 yards against Michigan State.
Jones, the Big Ten’s version of Ray Lewis, has averaged 13.5 tackles in two games against Michigan State. He’s trying to lead the Spartans in tackles for a fourth consecutive season.
Much of the game’s attention will be centered around the press box, where Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio will operate. Hours after calling for a fake field goal that beat Notre Dame in overtime, Dantonio suffered a heart attack. Now he’s back, admittedly at a much slower pace, watching his diet, employing a more sensible approach.
He didn’t want to miss this game.
Hey, he wants a good seat for Clay vs. Jones, just like everybody else.
5. Unbeaten and winless
Heading into Saturday, there are 24 unbeaten teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Saturday also features four battles of unbeaten teams — Stanford-Oregon, Florida-Alabama, Wisconsin-Michigan State and Michigan-Indiana (you read that right; the Hoosiers are rolling, after dispatching Towson, Western Kentucky and Akron, the latter two being winless).
And speaking of the winless …
On the flip side, there are still six FBS teams looking for that first victory — Akron (0-4), Eastern Michigan (0-4), Florida International (0-3), New Mexico (0-4), New Mexico State (0-3) and Western Kentucky (0-4).
Mark your calendars: New Mexico is at New Mexico State on Oct. 9.