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September 27, 2010

Week 5 Watch: OU, others look to settle score

Despite all the blocking, tackling, runs and passes, the difference between winning and losing a game often comes down to one swing of a kicker's leg.

When that happens, the losing team may stew for a year waiting for a rematch and a chance to even the score.

That chance comes this week for Air Force, USC and Oklahoma, which are out to avenge identical 16-13 losses from a year ago. Last season, a field goal in overtime lifted Navy over Air Force. Washington beat USC on a field goal with three seconds left and Oklahoma couldn't answer a fourth-quarter field goal by Texas.

The Red River Rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas, which usually determines the team that finishes first in the Big 12 South Division race, is one of five games on this week's schedule matching two nationally ranked teams. The others are Florida at Alabama, Stanford at Oregon, Wisconsin at Michigan State and Penn State at Iowa.

The outcomes of those games figure to have a significant impact on conference races. And all could come down to a field goal.

Player under the gun

Florida QB John Brantley

Brantley, a junior who is a first-year starter, has performed well enough to keep the Gators unbeaten with quite a bit of help from his defense, but he's never faced a challenge quite like what he will experience Saturday. Alabama just forced probable first-round pick Ryan Mallett of Arkansas into a career-high three interceptions, so the Tide should be licking their chops as they prepare to face the nation's 90th-ranked pass offense. Florida has relied mainly on defense and a decent rushing attack, but the Gators will need to throw downfield more against the reigning national champions.

Best game: Stanford at Oregon, 8 p.m., ABC regional/ESPN2. The weekend schedule is teeming with great matchups, but the most compelling is this one, which may decide the Pac-10 winner. The Ducks lead the nation in scoring, and Stanford is fourth. Oregon RB LaMichael James is second in the nation in rushing, and Stanford QB Andrew Luck is among the nation leaders in passing efficiency. Both teams have solid defenses, too.

Don't overlook this one: Miami at Clemson, noon, ESPN2. The Hurricanes rebounded from their loss at Ohio State by dominating Pittsburgh 31-3, looking like the team to beat in the ACC Coastal Division in the process. With an extra week to prepare for Miami, Clemson will look to make a similar statement coming off its deflating overtime loss to Auburn. The extra week also gives battered and bruised Clemson QB Kyle Parker a chance to recover in time for the ACC opener for both teams. Clemson won in OT at Miami last season.

On the midweek marquee: Texas A&M at Oklahoma State, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN. The scoreboard operator should be busy in this one. Oklahoma State leads the nation in total offense (596.0 yards per game), while Texas A&M is ninth (501.3 ypg). The "x-factor" could be the Aggies' run defense, which has been solid but hasn't faced anyone as good as the Cowboys' Kendall Hunter. If Oklahoma and/or Texas are vulnerable in the Big 12 South, one of these teams could fill the void.

Coach under the gun: Colorado's Dan Hawkins. Georgia's Mark Richt, our coach under the gun last week, is hoping his team can snap a three-game skid. We instead will focus on the guy who will be working the opposite sideline in Saturday's Georgia-Colorado game. Colorado's 2-1 start hasn't removed Hawkins from the hot seat because the loss was a 52-7 blowout to California. If Hawkins can't win at home against a team on a three-game losing streak, how can he be expected to make Colorado a factor in the Big 12 North race?

Best coordinator chess match: Stanford OC David Shaw vs. Oregon DC Nick Aliotti. Oregon allowed just one TD in its first three games, but the Ducks were exposed a bit last week by Arizona State, which rang up 31 points and 597 yards on 99 plays. The flipside: Oregon forced seven turnovers. This week, the Ducks face a potent Stanford attack (48.0 points per game, 457.5 yards per game). Stanford ran all over the Ducks last season, but the Cardinal are far more dangerous throwing the ball this season. Is an experienced Ducks secondary up to the task? And can Stanford QB Andrew Luck stand up to all the blitzes he is sure to see from Aliotti?

BCS-buster watch: East Carolina at North Carolina, 3:30 p.m., no TV. The Pirates have had a week off to prep for the trip to Chapel Hill. East Carolina will find a motivated Tar Heels team coming off its first win of the season, over Rutgers. North Carolina's roster still figures to be depleted because of suspensions, which may give the Pirates a chance to pull the upset for first-year coach Ruffin McNeill.

Best individual matchup of the week: Wisconsin RB John Clay vs. Michigan State LB Greg Jones. Wisconsin is a balanced team, running for 257.5 yards per game and throwing it for 226.5 yards per game. But the Badgers' offense is predicated on a physical ground attack, and tailbacks don't get much more physical than Clay, a 248-pounder who has rushed for 501 yards and six TDs through four games. Jones might be the nation's best linebacker. He has 33 tackles, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and a sack through four games. He and Clay should get together quite often in what should be an extremely physical affair.

Best unit matchup of the week: Alabama wide receivers vs. Florida secondary. Florida leads the nation with 12 interceptions and is sixth in pass efficiency defense. Junior CB Janoris Jenkins is playing at an extremely high level, and fellow starting CB Jeremy Brown is one of three Gators with three picks (LB Jon Bostic and SS Ahmad Black are the others). The Gators' nickel backs are true freshmen, and Alabama QB Greg McElroy will look to exploit them. McElroy completed just 12 passes in the Tide's SEC championship game rout of the Gators last season, but the completions covered 239 yards. WR Julio Jones is the standout, but Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks also are dangerous.

Injury report
Purdue QB Robert Marve may be out for an extended period after his left knee buckled in the first quarter of the Boilermakers' loss to Toledo. It was the same knee Marve had surgery on a year ago. Purdue already has lost its best running back (Robert Bolden) and best receiver (Keith Smith) to season-ending injuries. If Marve is out, the Boilers will turn to redshirt freshman Rob Henry; he followed Florida's John Brantley as quarterback at Ocala (Fla.) Trinity Catholic.

Record watch
Navy has dominated the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in the Paul Johnson/Ken Niumatalolo era, winning 15 consecutive games against the other service academies. The last Navy loss was Oct. 5, 2002, to Air Force, and the Midshipmen play at Air Force this week. The Falcons may have their strongest team since then, starting 3-1; a three-point loss at Oklahoma is the only blemish on the schedule. Navy is coming off its best performance of the season, a 37-23 victory over Louisiana Tech on Sept. 18.

Coaching connection: Washington's Steve Sarkisian vs. USC's Lane Kiffin. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll likely will keep an eye on this game, as a handful of his former assistants face each other when Washington visits USC. Huskies coach Sarkisian and Trojans coach Kiffin teamed on USC's offensive staff from 2001-03 and 2005-06. The game also includes former Carroll assistants Ed Orgeron (USC's defensive coordinator) and Nick Holt (Washington's defensive coordinator). This is a revenge game for USC, which lost 16-13 in Seattle last season.

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