As the Fall season begins, and the leaves start to change color, it is rare in College Football, that there are two matchups between top 10 teams in one weekend, especially during the regular season. That's typically reserved for New Year's Day or later. But before October even hits, the football gods have blessed us with THREE of these battles this very weekend. What makes them even more compelling is that each features a preseason conference heavyweight going up against an upstart that has taken the early schedule by storm to vault into the national title conversation. Combine that with four legitimate Heisman contenders playing amongst these games and you have all the makings of loud statements being made and reverberating across the country.
The first of these games actually takes place Friday night as Christian McCaffrey and the #7 Stanford Cardinal travel to Seattle to take on the #10 ranked Washington Huskies. Stanford has defeated USC and UCLA in back-to-back weeks and barely survived last week against the Bruins. Will the Cardinal's third straight high-profile conference game plus a short week finally catch up to them? Meanwhile, the Huskies have finally come back to prominence under coach Chris Petersen's leadership and look to take the biggest step of their resurgence by taking down the defending Pac-12 champs under the lights and in front of their home fans on a national stage. I think David Shaw will have his Stanford team ready as always and McCaffrey is sure to make a couple of highlight plays as he has played his best football in the biggest games. But, I am going to go with the Huskies in this spot. A couple injuries in the starting secondary will hurt the Cardinal and I look for the raucous crowd in Seattle to push the home team over the top. However, a very important disclaimer here; a loss, by no means, knocks Stanford out of the College Football Playoff picture as they could still run the table while Washington still has plenty of land mines in the balanced PAC-12 coming, including trips to Oregon and Utah. A funny thing happened before the annual big Michigan-Michigan State showdown in mid-October. The Wisconsin Badgers have decided to crash the party and now will invade the Big House on Saturday afternoon, looking for what would be a historic third victory in five weeks over a top 10 team. The #8 Badgers took out LSU at Lambeau Field in the opener and then last week, did what many thought they could not do, which is win in East Lansing against the Spartans, doing it in impressive fashion by a score of 30-6; and it may not have been that close. Meanwhile, the #4 Wolverines have rolled over the first few opponents on their schedule as expected, coming into this game having no true test yet. Coach Jim Harbuagh has his own do-it-all star in sophomore Jabrill Peppers who is equally electrifying as a tackling machine at linebacker and a dangerous weapon as a punt returner. Peppers evokes memories of future Hall of Famer and former Wolverine Charles Woodson, who took home the Heisman trophy almost two decades ago after dominating games as a defender and returner as welll. The Badgers would do well to stay away from Peppers in all facets. The Wolverines are double digit favorites; so it looks like the Badgers still have some convincing to do. With visits to Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State still to come, Michigan cannot afford a home loss here, even if it is against a team who has perhaps been the most eye-opening team in the country. I would love to see Wisconsin continue this ride and see how Harbaugh would respond to the questions after such a loss, but I think the Wolverines' talent will overcome the very prepared, disciplined, and rugged Badgers in a game that won't be decided until late. Which brings us to the big one down in Death Valley on Saturday night. Lamar Jackson, Bobby Petrino and the #3 Louisville Cardinals will collide with Deshaun Watson, Dabo Swinney, and the #5 Clemson Tigers in what is one of the most underrated venues in College Football. Just four weeks ago, Watson was the preseason Heisman favorite and the Tigers were ranked #2 in the initial poll and a popular pick around the country to win the ACC and return back to the College Football Playoff and even win the National Championship that eluded them last season. Now, even though Clemson has not lost, they have dropped to #5 and depending on where you look, are a home underdog and an afterthought in this big time showdown. And why? Because two weeks ago, the experts' other preseason ACC favorite, Florida State, ranked #2 at the time, went to Louisville and received a historic beatdown by a score or 63-20, where the Cardinals probably could have scored 80 if they did not let their foot off the gas pedal. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has exploded onto the national scene and his 25 touchdowns accounted for (13 passing, 12 rushing) means that only one team, yes ONE TEAM, has more touchdowns overall than him (Michigan has 28). Yes, while some teams haven't played as many games, that is still the kind of statistic that has people comparing Jackson to some of the greatest college football players ever, such as Michael Vick. In fact, Vick himself has given Jackson his personal endorsement, stating Jackson was five times better than he was at Virginia Tech. And it's hard to argue at this point considering that Jackson and the Cardinals did put it to the mighty Noles a couple weeks back, while in the Tigers' toughest game, they plodded through an unimpressive victory against Auburn and Watson himself has stated that he has not dealt ideally with all of the offseason hype and spotlight. After this game, each team basically has one more big regular season test standing in the way of them and the College Football Playoff (Clemson goes to Florida State and Louisville goes to Houston), in addition to the likely ACC Championship Game where they would be a solid favorite. For Jackson and Watson, this is the type off stage where the Heisman can be won or lost, along with NFL draft positioning and the millions of dollars that come along with it. So what's going to happen Saturday night? At this point, it is probably foolish to go against Lamar Jackson with all he is done this month. But, call me a fool because I am going to do it. With Swinney as head coach and Brent Venables as defensive coordinator, Clemson is as well coached as any team in the country. They are in front of their home crowd and have to be feeling a little disrespected and are going to be playing with as much emotion and desire as they did in the Playoff last year. It is much easier said than done and it is cliche with quarterbacks of Jackson's abilities, but they will have to do everything they can to force Jackson to beat them from inside the pocket, as a passer, and then make him pay with some hits whenever he does have a designed run or is forced to scramble and try to make a play with his legs. But, the number one reason why I am going with the Tigers is Deshaun Watson. While Florida State had a redshirt freshman in that could not make enough plays to keep them in the game, Clemson has a guy who Nick Saban said was up there with Cam Newton as one of the toughest quarterbacks that he has had to face. Watson has been on the biggest of college football stages already and dominated, and is a potential #1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Now, he looks across the field at a guy who has basically snatched his spot and all of the headlines. I think Watson will reintroduce himself back to the country and make a couple more plays than Jackson to push the Tigers to victory.