Heading into the biggest weekend of the college football season so far, there’s a crowd of matchups that will pique people’s interest across the country.
The ACC and SEC each have two showdowns involving ranked opponents with one each involving teams among the top 11 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. There’s also a key clash in the Big 12 featuring the two teams that made the conference championship game.
Each of these showdowns could come down to one key matchup that determines the winner and loser. To address those potential turning points, here are the five biggest questions for Saturday:
Who wins the quarterback matchup between Spencer Sanders, Blake Shapen?
Shapen was making his second start when he outdueled Sanders as Baylor beat Oklahoma State in last year’s Big 12 championship game. Shapen threw for three touchdowns, while his counterpart had four interceptions, and the game was decided by a fourth-down stop by the Bears on the 1-yard line in the final minute.
The matchup in Waco provides the opportunity for Sanders to get redemption. He’s been brilliant through three starts this season, throwing for 305.3 yards per game and 10 touchdowns. The competition gets much tougher this week, however, as Baylor’s defense will be stingy. Shapen has been solid for Baylor since assuming the job this offseason. His one bobble of him came in a loss at Brigham Young, but he rebounded with a nice showing last week at Iowa State. With both defenses geared to stop the run, the one quarterback that functions the best in the passing game gives his team a significant advantage.
Has Alabama fixed its pass protection issues?
In the one close game we’ve seen Alabama play thus far, Bryce Young appeared to have respectable statistics. He completed 27 of 39 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown without a pick at Texas. Those who watched the game, however, saw him constantly under duress. Though he was only sacked twice, the Longhorns were credited with seven quarterback hurries, and the Tide never did, as they like to say, roll.
Enter Arkansas, which is averaging five sacks a game. Young and Co. have had a couple of weeks to retool, but how will the line respond as the level of competition is ramped up once again? If the reigning Heisman winner against struggles on the road with little time to throw then there’s a good chance the Razorbacks can pull a surprise.
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Is the Clemson secondary the cure for what ails the NC State passing game?
With one of the nation’s top returning quarterbacks in Devin Leary along with two of his significant receivers, big things were expected for the Wolfpack aerial attack this season. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Leary hasn’t been bad, completing 64% of his throws with nine touchdowns and just two picks. But overall the team is averaging 253.5 passing yards a game to rank 62nd nationally, squarely in the middle of the pack.
Conditions might not be ideal for stretching the field Saturday night, but Leary and speedster Thayer Thomas will still want to test the Tigers’ secondary that was torched for six touchdowns last week by Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman. Leary may not equal those numbers, but surely there’s an opportunity to get on track and that will be what’s needed against Clemson in Death Valley.
Does Chris Rodriguez’s return fix Kentucky’s running offense?
The numbers for the Wildcats aren’t pretty. They’ve managed just 81.5 rushing yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry in four games without their all-SEC running back. That puts them almost at the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision in both categories. Until now, those poor results haven’t stopped Kentucky from starting unbeaten, however its toughest test comes at No. 11 Mississippi this week.
Rodriguez, who was suspended for the first four games, provides a needed threat to the ground attack with his physical style. But he’s not a cure-all. The offensive line is going to have to do its part, too. So far, Will Levis has been carrying the Kentucky offense, but his numbers at Florida – the one Power Five opponent on the schedule so far – were just so-so. The Wildcats escaped because their defense set up one short scoring drive with an interception and took the lead in the fourth quarter when they returned another one for a touchdown. Asking that to happen again is unrealistic, so a balanced attack is needed for a key SEC road win.
How good is Florida State’s defense?
We absolutely will find out against Wake Forest, which just put up 45 points against Clemson with start quarterback Sam Hartman throwing for six touchdowns. The Seminoles have looked much improved on the defensive side of the ball in starting 4-0. They’re allowing just 310.5 yards and 18.8 per game. The secondary has been particularly good in slowing down some good quarterbacks in wins against LSU, Louisville and Boston College. Hartman and his receivers for the Demon Deacons are another story. He’s going to move the ball and put up points. But he has to be slowed down or Florida State is looking at another disappointing defeat that has come too often recently.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism