NFP Saturday Tailgate

We are halfway through the 2011 college football season, and Week 7 offers us a full slate of intriguing matchups.

While there may not be a standout marquee game, this week’s schedule features a boatload of important games in conference races.

So dust off that grill and get it fired up because we’re ready to start this weekend’s tailgate.

Arizona State (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) at Oregon (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12): Up until this point, the Sun Devils have done a great job of matching the high expectations that were bestowed upon them by the national media. Despite being tripped up in a road test at Illinois, the Sun Devils took care of business on the national stage against Missouri and USC at home to storm out to a 5-1 start and take command of the Pac-12 South. Now, however, their biggest test awaits in Eugene.

Darron ThomasICONOregon QB Darron Thomas must be more efficient both on the ground and through the air if RB LaMichael James misses significant time.

Oregon is scoring over 50 points per game, as usual. And while we don’t know officially if running back LaMichael James will miss this game, it’s a pretty safe to bet to say he’ll at least miss some time. In his absence will be Kenjon Barner, who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, and De’Anthony Thomas, who is averaging 7.6 yards per rush. However, will Barner be as effective with the increased workload? And how much of the Ducks’ offense will be affected by moving Thomas into the backfield from the slot, a spot where he has been so effective in helping Oregon’s passing attack? I think if Thomas plays more in the backfield, receiver Josh Huff will have to step up and become a bigger factor in the slot and in the team’s screen game. He has the talent, he just needs to live up to his billing.

Keep an eye on: Arizona State’s LBs

We know about Vontaze Burfict. The guy’s a stud. But the Sun Devils are also getting very good play out of fellow linebacker Colin Parker. Parker leads the team in tackles with 40 and has been a steadying force for a good defense that has battled injuries dating back to the offseason — losing cornerback Omar Bolden, linebacker Brandon Magee and defensive end Junior Onyeali. It’s an aggressive defense that makes big plays and has been blitzing more often this fall, and it’s going to have to play smart and disciplined against Oregon’s high-octane spread-option attack.

Can ASU contain the Ducks’ running backs on the edges? If the Oregon backs get to the corner and turn it up field, watch out. James is almost unstoppable when he gets to the outside, so the Sun Devils will catch a huge break if he’s sidelined.

This game ultimately could come down to the play of Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas, who stepped up in the second half against Cal last week after struggling in the first half. Daring No. 2 to throw may be the only way for ASU to spring the upset. Third-and-long situations will be necessary. Oh, and it would also help if the Sun Devils didn’t turn the ball over seven times as they did against the Ducks last season. And perhaps if do-everything Jamal Miles could make a big play. Miles, who will line up all over the field, is the only player in the nation who has scored on a kickoff return, a punt return, a reception and as a passer.

Michigan (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) at Michigan State (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten): The Spartans have won three in a row against the in-state rival Wolverines, but they won’t make it four straight seasons unless they can start consistently running the football. MSU really hasn’t been the dominant run team as it was last season, as the offensive line has yet to gel both in the run game and even in pass protection. Coming off of a bye week, can Mark Dantonio’s squad be efficient on the ground with LeVeon Bell, Edwin Baker and perhaps Larry Caper? The Wolverines are stout up front, led by tackle Mike Martin, but they still have issues in the secondary. The play in the trenches will determine who wins this matchup. Can MSU put together its best game of the season up front?

Keep an eye on: Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham

With all the talk about the need for Michigan State to effectively run the football, making plays through the air against a suspect Michigan secondary will be crucial. Expect Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins to find Cunningham a lot this game, especially if he’s able to use the patented play-action game — something that will only be effective if the run game is sound. Against Notre Dame, it wasn’t. Thus, MSU was never really in that contest against the Fighting Irish.

Brandon WeedenICONIf Texas can't get any pressure on Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden, it could be another long day for the 'Horns.

Oklahoma State (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) at Texas (4-1, 1-1 Big 12): The Longhorns get a second dose of Oklahoma football when the Pokes visit Austin. Last week, the Longhorns’ secondary didn’t stand a chance against Landry Jones and Co., getting blown out of the Red River Shootout. Making matters worse was a pass rush that was once again nonexistent — the Longhorns have only six sacks on the season. Without pressuring Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden, can the Longhorns stay in this contest? Or will it be a repeat of last week’s debacle?

Keep an eye on: The Longhorns’ offensive line

Against OU, the Texas offensive line was manhandled when quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash dropped back to pass. While the Longhorns were able to run the football effectively early in the contest against OU with Fozzy Whittaker and Malcolm Brown, the offense became one-dimensional when the team fell behind so much. Physical play from the O-line was missing last season, but it seemed to be rediscovered until the OU disaster. It’s a big game for Mack Brown’s boys up front.

Other games worth monitoring

Baylor (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) at Texas A&M (3-2, 1-1 Big 12): This is a huge game for the Aggies, who must protect the football in the second half as they did last week against Texas Tech. Jeff Fuller could miss the game with a concussion for A&M, but Mike Sherman has good depth at receiver. I like the Aggies’ running game better than the Bears’ ground attack, but RG III is always an X-factor.

Ohio State (3-3, 0-2) at Illinois (6-0, 2-0): The Buckeyes looked good offensively in the first half last week against Nebraska before shutting down when true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller went down with injury. Miller should play, and running back Boom Herron will make his 2011 debut after serving his suspension. The youngster will face one of the nation’s most underrated defenses, which leads the nation in sacks. Illini end Whitney Mercilus is tops in the country with 8.5 sacks, and this Illini defense made life miserable for Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler when the teams met in September.

Kansas State (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) at Texas Tech (4-1, 1-1 Big 12): The Red Raiders lost leading rusher Eric Stephens for the season, and the running back was 15th in the nation averaging 114 yards per game. The Wildcats have the 16th-ranked run defense, so expect Seth Doege to throw the football a lot in this one. Doege has thrown 17 touchdowns against just one interception on the year. The problem is Tech is ranked 115th in the country against the run, so Wildcats dual-threat quarterback Collin Klein and Co. should have no problem moving the ball on the ground. Can the ‘Cats be a bend-but-don’t-break unit against Doege?

LSU (6-0, 3-0 SEC) at Tennessee (3-2, 0-2): Matt Simms replaces Tyler Bray under center for the Vols, and running back Tauren Poole is banged-up. These two teams played a classic last season, but the Tigers should overwhelm Tennessee’s offensive line in this one. The Vols are 114th in the nation in rushing, so a one-dimensional offense won’t be able to cut it against one of the top defenses in the nation.

Gene ChizikICONGene Chizik hopes his Auburn squad is able to bounce back from its loss to Arkansas.

Florida (4-2, 2-2 SEC) at Auburn (4-2, 2-1 SEC): The Tigers could be without receiver Emory Blake, who will be a game-time decision. And he’s a big piece of the passing game for Barrett Trotter, who will start for the Tigers at quarterback. However, true freshman Kiehl Frazier will play because of his running ability. Meanwhile, Florida will once again be without quarterback John Brantley. Jeff Driskel or Jacoby Brissett will get the start, but both true freshmen could see action. Auburn’s defense is still prone to giving up big chunks of yards, but this is a unit that is growing up fast in the SEC, led by end Corey Lemonier. The Gators, meanwhile, haven’t received the physical play from their front four that I expected.

South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC) at Mississippi State (3-3, 0-3): The Bulldogs are 0-3 in the SEC, and Dan Mullen’s squad desperately needs a win. Who will get the start at quarterback for the Bulldogs, Chris Relf or Tyler Russell? South Carolina’s No. 3 national pass defense ranking is a little deceiving because the Gamecocks haven’t played too many pass-happy attacks. I just think South Carolina’s defensive line is too overwhelming for a Bulldogs offense that just hasn’t clicked this fall. But Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw will need to play well in his first game as the unquestioned leader of the offense now that Stephen Garcia is no longer on the roster.

Have a great weekend. Enjoy all the games Saturday, and have a blast watching my Detroit Lions move to 6-0 against the San Francisco 49ers. #72dolphins

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