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September 12, 2011

Week 3 Watch: Showtime for Seminoles

It's Week 3, and we have questions.

Has Florida State really resurfaced as a national championship contender? Can Notre Dame beat a team other than its own? Can Auburn continue to make Houdini-esque escapes? Will Tennessee, Texas, Clemson and others prove their 2-0 starts are more than mirages?

These and other questions will be answered in the season's third week, which offers a matchup of top-five opponents.

Player under the gun

Miami QB Jacory Harris

Although he has returned from his one-game suspension and regained his spot in the starting lineup, Harris can't take anything for granted. Miami coach Al Golden knows he has a capable alternative in Stephen Morris if Harris struggles Saturday against Ohio State. Harris threw four interceptions in last season's 36-24 loss at Ohio State. If Harris repeats the mistakes he made against Ohio State last season, Golden probably wouldn't hesitate to make a change.

All appearances suggest that fifth-ranked Florida State is again a bona fide national championship contender, but that won't be assured unless the Seminoles can beat -- or at least stay competitive -- against No. 1 Oklahoma, which blasted them by 30 points last season.

Notre Dame would give anything to get its first win when it plays Michigan State. The Irish already have committed nine turnovers in two games and had a last-minute defensive meltdown in losing at Michigan.

Conversely, Auburn just can't lose. The Tigers have extended the nation's longest winning streak to 17 in a row by escaping Utah State in the first game and leaving Mississippi State inches shy of a tying touchdown last week. Now Auburn faces a Clemson team it beat in overtime a year ago.

Clemson also is 2-0, with less-than-impressive wins over Troy and Wofford. Auburn presents a chance to prove the fast start isn't just a byproduct of advantageous scheduling.

Tennessee hopes to end a six-year streak of futility against Florida in new Gators coach Will Muschamp's first SEC game. Texas, which seems likely to have a new starting quarterback this week, hopes to finally get by UCLA, which has beaten the Longhorns by at least 18 points each of the past three times the teams have met.

Best game: Oklahoma at Florida State, 8 p.m., ABC. Perhaps this season's second matchup of top five teams --Oklahoma is No. 1 and FSU No. 5 -- will be more competitive than the first (LSU 40, Oregon 27). Oklahoma QB Landry Jones and WR Ryan Broyles head an explosive offense that rolled up 47 points in a season-opening win over Tulsa. Florida State's defense has allowed just 10 points in two games, and QB E.J. Manuel directs an offense that already has scored 96 points.

Don't overlook this one: Arizona State at Illinois, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network. After defeating Missouri 37-30 in overtime on Friday, Arizona State will be tested again, this time on the road. Missouri's James Franklin passed for 319 yards and rushed for 84, accounting for three touchdowns. Against Illinois, Arizona State's defense will be tested by a more experienced quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini are averaging 283 yards on the ground, but their wins have been against Arkansas State and South Dakota State.

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Under-the-radar storyline: Washington at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m., ABC regional/ESPN. These teams face off for the third time in less than a year. Last season, Nebraska routed Washington 56-21 in Lincoln during the regular season but lost 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl. Possible bad news for Washington: Huskers QB Taylor Martinez looks to have regained his running form from last season. He's tied for third in the nation in rushing at 301 yards and has five touchdowns.

On the midweek marquee: LSU at Mississippi State, Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN. The Bulldogs would have liked for this nationally televised game to be a chance for them to show they plan on contending for the SEC West. But after losing 41-34 at Auburn, Mississippi State is just trying to avoid a 0-2 start in the league. QB Chris Relf and TB Vick Ballard combined for 436 yards of total offense against Auburn's defense. They should have a much tougher time of it against an LSU defense that stifled Oregon two weeks ago.

Coach under the gun

Notre Dame's Brian Kelly

Those dreams of a BCS bid for Notre Dame received a rude awakening once the season actually started. Notre Dame has gained more than 500 yards in each of its first two games, yet lost both. Aren't well-coached teams supposed to take care of the ball and show poise in the red zone? The Irish have done neither. Notre Dame ranks 116th nationally in red zone offense and has committed 10 turnovers, the most of any FBS program. Kelly helped the Irish bounce back from all sorts of adversity last season. Now he must do it again. The road doesn't get any easier, as Michigan State comes to town this week. The Spartans beat the Irish on a fake field goal last season.

Best individual matchup of the week: Iowa OT Riley Reiff vs. Pittsburgh OLB Brandon Lindsey. Lindsey is one of the best pass rushers in the nation. Pitt has switched to a 3-4 scheme from a 4-3, and while Lindsey opened the season as an outside 'backer, rumblings are he will return to end this week. His best trait is his ability to get to the quarterback. That's where Reiff comes in. He has a chance to be one of the best Iowa linemen in history and a big part of his day Saturday will be making sure Lindsey and other Pitt defenders don't get to QB James Vandenberg. Iowa has allowed two sacks in its first two games; Pitt has five sacks and Lindsey has two of them.

Best unit matchup of the week: Oklahoma wide receivers vs. Florida State secondary. Oklahoma rolled over the Seminoles 47-17 last season, and it wasn't even that close. OU QB Landry Jones torched/embarrassed FSU's secondary, going 30-of-40 for 380 yards and four TDs. WR Ryan Broyles had 12 catches for 124 yards and a score. OU didn't run all that well, but it didn't matter. FSU managed just one sack, and Jones carved them up. FSU obviously needs things to be different this season, and they have the experience to come up with a better performance. The Seminoles have a nice three-man rotation at corner with senior Mike Harris, junior Greg Reid and sophomore Xavier Rhodes, and sophomore FS Lamarcus Joyner, who moved from corner, gives them another solid cover man. There needs to be some kind of pass rush, too, meaning E Brandon Jenkins, who had 13.5 sacks last season but was neutralized by the Sooners, needs to show off his skills.

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Best coordinator chess match: Oklahoma co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell vs. Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. FSU's vast improvement on defense has coincided with the arrival of Stoops, who is the younger brother of OU's coach. Stoops is known for deploying a variety of coverages and schemes for a defense that picks its spots to attack. He'll match wits with Heupel, another young coach with a bright future. Heupel, a former Oklahoma quarterback, co-coordinates the Sooners' attack with Norvell, but Heupel calls the plays. He's also developed a reputation for developing quarterbacks, making Landry Jones a Heisman candidate after seeing Sam Bradford win the award in 2008.

Spotlight conference: ACC. The Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 have some nice matchups, but the ACC leads the way with four key non-conference games played in league venues. The headliner is the top-five matchup between Oklahoma and Florida State in Tallahassee. Auburn's trip to Clemson is a chance for Clemson to show it's legit this season. Ohio State's visit to Miami may be the Buckeyes' toughest test among the first five games, with several key Ohio State still suspended. And can the Hurricanes get a win amid the chaos in Coral Gables? West Virginia at Maryland is one of the more interesting coaching matchups, with veteran Randy Edsall going against precocious Dana Holgorsen. While Kansas' visit to Georgia Tech isn't a headliner, it's a big game for programs coming off disappointing 2010 seasons. There also are two league games: Virginia at North Carolina and Duke at Boston College. BC is in desperate need of a win.

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