NFP Saturday Tailgate

The last weekend of September is here, which means the college football season is just now starting to get interesting.

Let’s not waste any more time. Get that grill fired up and let’s start this weekend’s tailgate.

Is there a new king of the SEC West?

The entire city of Fayetteville likely has not stopped partying since Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett hit wide receiver Greg Childs for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute last week to beat Georgia. With the win, the Razorbacks ensured that Saturday’s home game against Alabama would be one of the biggest games in school history.

And Mallett had his first Heisman moment of the season.

Ryan MallettICONRyan Mallett won his first SEC road game last week against Georgia.

Coming into the year, the biggest question for Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks was whether they would be able to improve on a horrific defense. The prolific offense from last season was expected to only get better — specifically its aerial attack led by a future pro quarterback and featuring incredible depth at receiver along with a tight end who creates mismatches for defenses.

But for the Hogs to compete for an SEC West title, they eventually needed to show that they could come up with some key stops and win a tough conference road game.

Despite blowing a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead last week against the Bulldogs, Mallett was able to get his first road win in the SEC.

However, the Razorbacks get a different animal this week.

It sounds crazy to even think that Alabama could be stronger this season. How can one begin to compare a national championship team with a squad that’s only played three games in a new season? But after the Crimson Tide racked up 626 yards and 62 points at Duke last week, we saw just how explosive this emerging offense is and just how many athletes are on the defensive side of the ball — the same defense that was the team’s biggest question mark entering the season.

Trent Richardson better than Mark Ingram? Ingram showed just how valuable he is to the Tide by taking his first carry of the year for 48 yards and rushing for 151 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries.

Greg McElroy just a game manager? The signal caller leads the nation in passing efficiency at 200.03 through three games and is extremely dangerous in the play-action game.

While the Tide’s offense is a lot less conservative than most would assume, it’s still all about defense in Tuscaloosa. And Mallett knows this better than anyone.

Remember last season’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium? In the 35-7 Alabama win, Mallett finished just 12 of 35 for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was harassed all day — getting sacked three times and hurried in eight other instances. McElroy, meanwhile, was a cool 17 of 24 for 291 yards for three touchdowns and no picks while the Hogs tried to stack the line and stop the rushing attack.

Although short on experience, Alabama’s defense ranks second in the SEC in pass defense and is first in total defense. Saturday, it will still be about Mallett needing to exorcise some demons from last season. And about Arkansas showing that it can defend with consistency. The Hogs rank second in the conference in total defense and has racked up 12 sacks to lead the league, but can they win the line of scrimmage war against the Tide’s offensive line?

If the Hogs can win Saturday, they essentially would have a two-game lead on Nick Saban’s squad, with ‘Bama set to play Florida and South Carolina the next two games.

The Razorbacks passed one test last week in Athens. Are they ready for their biggest test yet Saturday afternoon?

Boise State’s final test?

As much as Boise State has improved its talent level the past decade, the fact remains that Oregon State and its Pac-10 brothers still get the better athletes on the recruiting trail.

Chris PetersenICONChris Petersen is 4-0 against ranked teams from a BCS conference at Boise State.

Meanwhile, the Broncos keep on winning.

Will that be the case Saturday night when Boise faces its last real difficult hurdle in its quest for an undefeated season?

While Fresno State and a road game against Nevada will be tough tests for Chris Petersen’s bunch, the college football world knows the importance of this game in the season’s road to the BCS. If the Broncos go unbeaten, there’s a strong chance that they will be playing for a national championship. And if quarterback Kellen Moore plays up to his talent level, a Heisman Trophy could also be in the cards.

Boise as the king of the mountain?

The Broncos, a 17-point favorite over the Beavers, are a phenomenal 130-25 since 1998, an incredible 63-2 at home since 2000 and have lost once in their last 29 contests. Under Peterson, Boise is 4-0 against ranked teams from a BCS conference.

The last time the Beavers came into Bronco Stadium in 2006, they were routed 42-14. Two years before that, Boise cruised to a 53-24 win. Despite falling behind by two touchdowns early in both contests, the Broncos never panicked.

OSU’s Mike Riley is one of the best coaches in the nation and clearly understands the opportunity his team has on a national stage. ESPN’s College GameDay will be live from Boise for the first time ever.

The Broncos will score points by giving Moore plenty of time to make his reads and connect with a dangerous receiving corps, which features Titus Young and Austin Pettis. And don’t sleep on Boise’s running game led by Doug Martin and D.J. Harper.

But the Beavers counter with the Rodgers brothers — two of the most skilled players in the nation.

However, Boise is one of the best at controlling the line of scrimmage even against the toughest of opponents, and the Broncos are no strangers to bottling up the biggest of stars. Jacquizz and James, beware.

Beavers signal caller Ryan Katz hasn’t thrown an interception this year in two starts. That ends Saturday night on the Smurf Turf.

The other top matchups

The Alabama-Arkansas SEC West clash and Oregon State-Boise State matchup are the biggest games on the Week 4 schedule, but don’t forget about these intriguing contests.

West Virginia at LSU: I’ve been really impressed with Geno Smith’s poise under center for West Virginia. But will he be rattled by Death Valley? Meanwhile, can LSU signal caller Jordan Jefferson make enough plays down the field to keep the Mountaineers defense honest?

South Carolina at Auburn: The Gamecocks passed their test against Georgia. But can Stephen Garcia be effective against a bruising Auburn defense? And who wins the showdown between freshmen phenoms Marcus Lattimore and Michael Dyer?

Andrew LuckICONWill Andrew Luck and the Cardinal give ND its third loss?

Stanford at Notre Dame: Notre Dame will have its secondary at full strength for the first time all season, but can it make enough stops against Andrew Luck and the Stanford aerial attack? Even if the Irish fall to 1-3, it’s clear that Brian Kelly is the right man for the job in South Bend.

Oregon at Arizona State: Arizona State outplayed Wisconsin last week in Madison but couldn’t quite finish enough drives. Can Steven Threet, who has played well under center, deliver the Sun Devils a victory in their Pac-10 opener? Or will the highest-scoring team in the nation keep rolling in Tempe?

UCLA at Texas: The Bruins stopped the bleeding last week with a win over Houston, but quarterback Kevin Prince may run into all kinds of trouble against the Longhorns. Texas is allowing just 12.7 points per game.

NC State at Georgia Tech: NC State takes its unbeaten record into Atlanta against a Georgia Tech team that bounced back from its loss to Kansas with a win over North Carolina last week. Which Russell Wilson will show up against Chan Gailey’s 3-4 defense?

Virginia Tech at Boston College: The Hokies look to put their nonconference mess behind them as they open ACC play. Will BC quarterback David Shinskie be able to make enough plays if the Hokies bottle up Montel Harris?

Temple at Penn State: My friend and colleague Wes Bunting proclaimed victory for the Owls on Twitter. Will it be too much Bernard Pierce for the Nittany Lions to handle? Or can true freshman Robert Bolden hit on the deep throws he missed against Alabama?

Keep an eye on…

Kentucky at Florida: Rich Brooks did some nice things when he was at Kentucky. But he couldn’t beat the big boys in the SEC. Can Joker Phillips elevate the program even higher?

Skinny posts

Zach CollarosICONZach Collaros has struggled behind poor offensive line play.

…Two-time defending Big East champion Cincinnati sits at 1-2 under new head coach Butch Jones and welcomes in Oklahoma to Paul Brown Stadium Saturday evening. After already losing wide receiver Vidal Hazelton for the season in the Fresno State loss, the Bearcats will be without the services of senior tight end Ben Guidugli, who will miss the game because of a sprained ankle. It’s just another setback for an offense that looks out of sync post-Brian Kelly. Guidugli is one of the nation's top tight ends and he finished fourth on the Bearcats in receiving last season. The biggest concern for Jones has to be the play of the offensive line, which hasn’t been able to protect quarterback Zach Collaros. Jones also wanted to establish a ground attack this season but hasn’t been able to with the team falling behind in its losses. The Bearcats rank 96th in the nation in rushing at just 117.7 yards per game. Even though it’s still nonconference season, if the Sooners jump on them early, can this team recover enough to compete for a Big East three-peat?

…NC State, which beat Cincinnati last week, is off to its first 3-0 start since 2002. The main reasons? Better defense and the return to form of quarterback Russell Wilson. The Wolfpack are allowing just 15.7 points per game and were able to pressure Collaros all game long last week. And Wilson rebounded from a poor outing against Central Florida and looks to be in a groove after missing all of spring practice and spending much of his summer playing baseball. The All-ACC signal caller as a freshman two seasons ago has talent that hasn’t even been fully developed under center. We’ll find out a lot about Tom O’Brien’s team in the next few weeks. The Wolfpack are at Georgia Tech before hosting Virginia Tech and Boston College. Keep in mind that new athletic director Debbie Yow needs to be impressed by O’Brien’s bunch this year after a tough start in Raleigh for the former Boston College head coach.

…There’s no question California did nothing to quiet its doubters by getting shelled by Nevada last week. But the Golden Bears have a golden opportunity to put the loss to the Wolf Pack in the rearview mirror when they head into Tucson to take on an Arizona team that could possibly be overlooking Jeff Tedford’s bunch in light of the big win last week against Iowa. If you want to be considered one of the better teams in the nation, at some point you have to beat some good teams.

Joe PaternoICONJoe Paterno earned win No. 396 last week.

…Just think about this for a second: Penn State’s win over Kent State last week was the team’s 500th since Joe Paterno joined the coaching staff as an assistant in 1950 and the 396th victory since Paterno was promoted to head coach in 1966 — the most wins for a major college head coach. We hear about Paterno’s legacy all the time. But that is an insane amount of wins at a major program in this day and age.

…Arizona State may be able to surprise this year after all. Despite Wisconsin playing very poorly on special teams last week — save for the game-saving blocked extra point — the Sun Devils easily could have left Madison with a win. Quarterback Steven Threet and the up-tempo spread offense kept the Badgers off balance, but the Sun Devils had trouble finishing drives with points. We’ll find out just how good Dennis Erickson’s team is this week when the Devils host Oregon.

…What happened to Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson last week? The Aggies stud signal caller threw interceptions on A&M's first four possessions of the second half and the Aggies nearly lost to Florida International after being down 20-6 entering the fourth.

…Big ups to San Diego State freshman running back Ronnie Hillman, who ran for 235 yards — including touchdowns covering 75 and 93 yards — last week as the Aztecs nearly beat Missouri.

Quote of the week

“This is one of the reasons why you come to the (Southeastern Conference). If we win this game, we’re basically in the driver’s seat for the SEC and maybe even the national championship…The winner of this game could possibly win a national championship.” —Arkansas senior defensive end Damario Ambrose, on playing Alabama

Have any suggestions for this column or have a college football question? Feel free to send me an email at dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com.

Enjoy the games!

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