8 college football games that'll help separate contenders from pretenders

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“This Is Offensive Pass Interference” training video sold separately to officials who worked Clemson-Texas A&M):

[More Dash: 4 playoff picks | Losing streaks snapped | G5 teams on the rise]

THIRD QUARTER

Unbeaten vs. Unbeaten: 8 games to help separate contenders from pretenders

The field of unbeaten teams remaining has been reduced to less than half of FBS — 54, to be exact. That number figures to be less than 40 after the upcoming weekend of games. At the very least, 11 teams will suffer their first loss because there are 11 matchups of unbeaten teams. The Dash looks at eight of those matchups here, plus three more Group of Five vs. Power Five games (including a really big one) in the Fourth Quarter.

In order of national relevance:

Ohio State-TCU (21). When: 8:00 EDT. Where: Arlington, Texas. Line: Ohio State favored by 13. The last game without Urban Meyer on the sidelines. The Buckeyes haven’t missed him so far, rolling up 64.5 points and 650 yards per game, while converting a nation-leading 72.4 percent of their third downs. TCU is coming off a pair of blowouts its own self, most recently a slopfest Iron Skillet rivalry game at SMU.

X Factor: TCU has returned two punts for touchdowns thus far, and has one of the most accomplished returners in the nation in KaVontae Turpin (“Quick as a cat,” was Buckeyes assistant coach Greg Schiano’s assessment of Turpin on Monday). Ohio State hasn’t allowed a punt return yet this year.

Key Stat: The Horned Frogs defense has allowed the fewest scrimmage plays of 10 yards or more in the nation, just 5.5 per game; Ohio State has produced 19.5 such plays per game. Can the Buckeyes take the top off this Gary Patterson defense?

Dash Pick: Ohio State 41, TCU 24.

Will Dwayne Haskins and the Ohio State Buckeyes still be undefeated after this week’s trip to take on TCU? (AP)

LSU-Auburn (22). When: 3:30. Where: Auburn. Line: Auburn favored by 9.5. Immense SEC West clash is a rematch of the last regular-season game Auburn lost and the first really big win for Ed Orgeron in Baton Rouge. That was last October, when LSU scored the final 20 points for a 27-23 upset victory. Through two games, the defenses surrendered almost identical yardage: 596 yards allowed by LSU, 603 allowed by Auburn.

X-Factor: Auburn has won 13 straight games in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the last eight of them by double digits. It has won the last five at home against ranked opponents by an average margin of 26.4 points.

Key Stat: LSU has yet to turn over the ball this season, after leading the nation in fewest turnovers last year with eight. Since a four-turnover fiasco against Troy last Sept. 30, LSU has just three turnovers in its last 10 games. Auburn has six takeaways thus far this season, including an SEC-high four interceptions. LSU QB Joe Burrow has yet to throw an interception in 83 college passes.

Dash Pick: Auburn 24, LSU 10.

Alabama-Mississippi (23). When: 7:00. Where: Oxford. Line: Alabama favored by 21. The Crimson Tide encounters its first quality opponent and first hostile atmosphere of 2018. But there are legitimate questions about whether an Ole Miss defense that gave up 38 first-half points to FCS Southern Illinois can even mildly inconvenience the ‘Bama offense.

X-Factor: This has been Alabama’s weirdest series of the last few years — the Tide was shocked by the Rebels in back-to-back seasons, 2014 and ’15, then had to rally to win a wild shootout in ’16, 48-43. Stuff has tended to happen when these two have met — or at least it did when Hugh Freeze was coaching Ole Miss — and especially in Oxford. “Any time you have a night game in Vaught-Hemingway [Stadium] against the number one team in the country, I think there is a little extra juice,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said Monday.

Key Stat: Mississippi leads the nation in yards per play at 9.39. Alabama is 10th nationally at 7.93. But Ole Miss is 98th nationally in yards allowed per play (5.93), while Alabama is 49th (4.48). The Tide has certainly been the more well-rounded team to date.

Dash Pick: Alabama 58, Mississippi 35.

Vanderbilt-Notre Dame (24). When: 2:30. Where: South Bend. Line: Notre Dame favored by 14.5. Commodores coach Derek Mason talked a good game in July at SEC media days. To those who gave Vandy the usual lack of respect coming into the season, Mason said this: “Watch out. I’m telling you right now, this team is going to show up. We’re going to play well. We are going to come out the blocks and play the way we need to, and we’re going to finish this the way we should, the Vanderbilt way, Vanderbilt men salute.” It would certainly be quite a salutation if the Commodores could win this one, with Notre Dame ranked in the Top 10.

X-Factor: The Fighting Irish have started super fast thus far this season, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions against Michigan and first possession against Ball State. But after the opening script has been executed, the offense has tailed off. To date, the Irish have accrued 39 percent of their season yards and 44 percent of their points in the first quarter. They have yet to score in the fourth quarter.

Key Stat: When senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur doesn’t throw an interception, Vanderbilt is 12-4. When he throws one or more, the Commodores are 2-13. In his past three games, all landslide Vandy wins, Shurmur has eight touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Dash Pick: Upset Special. Vanderbilt 24, Notre Dame 22.

West Virginia-North Carolina State (25). When: 3:30. Where: Raleigh. Line: West Virginia favored by 4. If you want to watch a compelling quarterback duel, this could be it. Both teams are led by veteran QBs who are free to sling it — Wolfpack’s Ryan Finley has thrown it 81 times in two games, and he’s 10th nationally in both passing yards per game (339.5) and accuracy (74.1 percent). The Mountaineers’ Will Grier has been even better, ranking third nationally in efficiency.

X-Factor: Then again, Hurricane Florence could obliterate the potential aerial circus. And perhaps even the game. (Editor’s Note: This game has been canceled.) In the event that this turns into a repeat of the Notre Dame-N.C. State hurricane quagmire of 2016, West Virginia has been the far better running team this season.

Key Stat: West Virginia has lost nine fumbles in its last five games against FBS competition, and in that same span only recovered two of its opponents’ fumbles. The Mountaineers haven’t had a plus turnover margin in a game since last Sept. 23, against Kansas.

Dash Pick: West Virginia 37, North Carolina State 31.

Boston College-Wake Forest (26). When: 7:30 Thursday night. Where: Winston-Salem. Line: Boston College favored by 7. The rare much-hyped matchup between the Eagles and Demon Deacons. Winner is likely to assume the role of second-best team in the ACC Atlantic Division, behind Clemson. Interestingly, the road team has won the last four meetings.

X-Factor: This game could certainly be impacted by Hurricane Florence, with the National Weather Service forecasting Monday that the storm could make landfall in North Carolina around kickoff time. Wake Forest is 240 miles inland, but a game ending at 11 p.m. and sending fans out into approaching hurricane seems like a risky proposition. Among all the potentially rescheduled ACC games, this one might be most likely. (Editor’s Note: This game was moved up to 5:30 p.m. Thursday.)

Key Stat: Greg Dortch of Wake Forest is back after a late-season injury in 2017, and every bit as explosive as he was as a freshman. Dortch leads the nation in all-purpose yardage at 255 yards per game, with one touchdown receiving and two on punt returns thus far. BC’s problem hasn’t been covering punts as much as getting them off — Holy Cross blocked two of them for its only touchdowns last Saturday.

Dash Pick: Boston College 27, Wake Forest 21.

Duke-Baylor (27). When: 3:30. Where: Waco. Line: No line. The outlook for this game shifted from strong Blue Devils advantage to unknown with the major injuries to standout quarterback Daniel Jones (collarbone) and all-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert (hip). That improves the Bears’ chances for their first significant victory under second-year coach Matt Rhule, and their first non-Kansas victory over a Power Five opponent in their last 22 games.

X-Factor: Duke backup quarterback Quentin Harris has at least played in 13 games, so he shouldn’t go into this wide-eyed. Harris is probably better as a runner than a passer, but he has completed 9 of 12 career passes. Coach David Cutcliffe will likely pare down the playbook for Harris, putting him in more of a game-management role than the playmaking duties entrusted to Jones.

Key Stat: The Blue Devils have faced two teams that want to run the football in Army and Northwestern, and prevented both from doing it effectively (79 carries for 267 yards, 3.8 per carry). Baylor ran with predictable productivity against Abilene Christian, but was largely shut down in its second game by UTSA. Bears quarterback Charlie Brewer could have a lot on his shoulders Saturday.

Dash Pick: Duke 26, Baylor 24.

Eastern Michigan-Buffalo (28). When: 6:00. Where: Buffalo. Line: Buffalo favored by 5. It’s not easy for Mid-American Conference teams to start 2-0, because they’re usually playing early games on the road against bigger programs. But both the Eagles and Bulls scored big Week 2 victories — EMU at Purdue and Buffalo at Temple. The Bulls are 2-0 for the first time since 1983. Suddenly a game nobody was talking about has some unexpected juice.

X-Factor: Pro scouts will have their eyes on a couple players here, Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson and EMU defensive end Maxx Crosby. Jackson, a 6-7, 245-pound specimen, already has thrown nine touchdown passes this season with just one interception. Crosby, a 6-5, 265-pound rush end, had a sack and half a tackle for loss against Purdue after sitting out the first game of the season.

Key Stat: Both teams mounted clutch drives to win Saturday. Eastern Michigan went 72 yards in 15 plays to kick the winning field goal at Purdue on the last play, and Buffalo marched 81 yards in 10 plays to score the winning touchdown with 59 seconds remaining. Which offense will be able to move the ball when it absolutely has to?

Dash Pick: Buffalo 31, Eastern Michigan 24.

Ruinous drinking game of the week

Continuing our series of broadcast cliches/crutches that can get a viewer drunk, try this one this weekend: every time an analyst or sideline reporter said they “had an opportunity to sit down with (29)” either a player or coach involved in the game, take a drink. That’s seven words and 11 syllables where two and three, respectively, would do just fine: “talked to.”

Stat of the week

Among teams that have played two or more games thus far, Utah (30) is the only one that has yet to give up a gain of 20 yards or more from scrimmage. The Utes surrendered a long play of 19 yards to Northern Illinois and nothing longer than 10 yards to opening opponent Weber State.

Saturday, that buttoned-up Utah defense will run up against a Washington offense that has broken 17 plays of 20 yards or longer through two games, tied for 11th most in the country.

Strength vs. strength, which one wins?

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