|Alex Brandon/Associated Press|
|West Virginia's Geno Smith is the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, with 20 TDs and no INTs through four games.|
The exciting yet efficient play of West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith has, hands-down, been the biggest story of the 2012 college football season.
Smith ranks at the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing efficiency and total offense, throwing as many (or more) touchdowns as incompletions in three of the undefeated Mountaineers' first four games. He's completed 83 percent of his passes (141-for-169) for 20 touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception.
Though he does zing short darts to the nation's leaders in receptions -- senior Tavon Austin (5-foot-9, 171 pounds) and junior Stedman Bailey (5-10, 195), who in turn elude defenders and turn on the speed -- Smith also has shown excellent accuracy and velocity on throws in the intermediate-to-deep range. His growing frame, confidence and ability to make plays with his feet also whet the appetite of NFL scouts, some of whom are probably thinking the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Miami native has passed USC star Matt Barkley as the top quarterback in the 2013 NFL Draft class.
But the current Heisman Trophy favorite faces his toughest test in Austin, Texas, on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET, FOX). The 4-0 Longhorns' two future NFL pass rushers, strong-side end Alex Okafor (6-5, 265) and junior rush end/linebacker Jackson Jeffcoat (6-5, 245), have combined for seven sacks already this season. But if Smith steps up into the pocket to avoid the outside pressure, then safety Kenny Vaccaro (6-1, 218) and cornerbacks Carrington Byndom (6-0, 180) and Quandre Diggs (5-10, 200) must prove they can neutralize the run-after-catch ability of Austin, Bailey and underrated J.D. Woods (6-1, 190).
There are some interesting matchups and intriguing players throughout the rest of Saturday's schedule, but most eyes will be on Smith to see if he can will his team to a big road win in West Virginia's first season in the Big 12.
All games are scheduled for Saturday; all times listed are Eastern.
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Virginia Tech (3-2) at North Carolina (3-2), 12:30 p.m., ACC Network
The Hokies and Tar Heels are still finding their way this season, but they both have several NFL prospects worth watching as part of the early slate. Junior quarterback Logan Thomas (6-6, 260) is tough to bring down in the pocket and throws lasers to a gaggle of receivers led by Marcus Davis (6-4, 232), who will be a star at the NFL Scouting Combine with his size and speed combination. But defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (6-3, 305) is playing strong for UNC, leading the team in sacks, so Tech guard Michael Via (6-7, 304) must get low to keep Williams out of the backfield while senior tackles Nick Becton (6-6, 317) and Vinston Painter (6-6, 309) try to hold back the Heels' athletic defensive ends.
Putting up 128 points against Elon and Idaho has helped the Heels' offensive statistics, but junior quarterback Bryn Renner (6-3, 215) must consistently find receiver Erik Highsmith (6-3, 190) to move the ball against the Hokies. Tech's next aggressive zone corner, junior Kyle Fuller (6-0, 193), will challenge every throw in his area. Middle linebacker Bruce Taylor (6-2, 244), junior defensive end James Gayle (6-4, 269) and the rest of the Bud Foster's defense also have their focus on UNC redshirt sophomore runner Giovani Bernard (5-10, 205), an electric back with some power and a nice burst whose banged-up knee looked healthy during his 68-yard touchdown run against Idaho last weekend.
LSU (5-0) at Florida (4-0), 3:30 p.m., CBS
There will be plenty of future pros playing in this battle of undefeated squads in The Swamp, but let's focus on the battles in the trenches. One player needing a big effort is Florida left tackle Xavier Nixon (6-6, 314), as he'll need to stay balanced and keep his motor constantly running against LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery (6-5, 260). Another senior Gators lineman, James Wilson (6-4, 323), must help his younger interior linemates against that talent-laden Tigers defensive line rotation that includes junior Bennie Logan (6-3, 295). If Florida's O-line struggles, then senior running back Mike Gillislee (5-11, 209) and sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel (6-4, 237) won't find any running room, and Driskell won't have time to find junior tight end Jordan Reed (6-3, 243).
LSU's inconsistent offense has caused a bit of a fall in the polls recently. Former guard Josh Dworaczyk (6-6, 300) toughs it out on the left side, and big Alex Hurst (6-6, 331) can move bodies at right tackle, but will they be able to handle the athleticism of junior 3-4 ends Dominique Easley (6-2, 280) and Sharrif Floyd (6-3, 303)? And when first-year starter Lerentee McCray (6-3, 249) uses his strength and length to close down the pocket, will Tigers junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger (6-5, 230) be able to avoid him to hit sophomore vertical talent Odell Beckham Jr. (6-0, 187) for the big play? If not, an upset might be brewing.
Georgia (5-0) at South Carolina (5-0), 7 p.m., ESPN
Any southeast scouts not in Gainesville will probably take a trip to Columbia to watch two other SEC teams with unblemished records. Offensively, the fifth-ranked Bulldogs are led by junior quarterback Aaron Murray (6-1, 215), who ranks third in the country in pass efficiency. But Murray lost his most reliable receiver in sophomore Michael Bennett (6-3, 204) to a torn ACL this week, so seniors Marlon Brown (6-5, 216) and Tavarres King (6-1, 200) and sophomore Malcolm Mitchell (6-1, 192) must pick up that slack. The Gamecocks have one of the longest, strongest defensive end duos in the country, though; senior Devin Taylor (6-8, 267) and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney (6-6, 256) will be chasing Murray all day long.
Though South Carolina will rely on its defense to keep this game close to the end, hard-charging junior running back Marcus Lattimore is just getting back in a groove (120 yards, two TD against Kentucky last week) after missing the second half of 2011 with a knee injury. He'll have to avoid wide nose tackle John Jenkins (6-3, 358) and stout defensive ends Abry Jones (6-3, 308) and Cornelius Washington (6-4, 268), as well as the Bulldogs' underrated junior linebacker Alec Ogletree (6-3, 232). South Carolina junior quarterback Connor Shaw (6-1, 207) will need every shred of grit and athleticism just to avoid Bulldogs sack master Jarvis Jones (6-3, 241), much less make plays through the air against a loaded secondary led by safeties Shawn Williams (6-1, 217) and Bacarri Rambo (6-0, 210).
WORTH A QUICK LOOK
Arkansas (1-4) at Auburn (1-3), Noon, ESPN2
Both teams are looking to get their first SEC win after 0-2 conference starts. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson (6-3, 220) is also looking for his most consistent effort of the season. Wilson will lean heavily on Cobi Hamilton (6-3, 209), who has become the big-bodied but agile pass catcher NFL scouts thought he might, and H-back Chris Gragg (6-2, 236). But to succeed, Wilson must stand in the pocket against two excellent junior pass-rush ends in long and strong Corey Lemonier (6-4, 246) and super-active Dee Ford (6-2, 246). Also look for Tigers linebacker Daren Bates (5-11, 215) to chase backs Knile Davis (6-0, 226) and Dennis Johnson (5-9, 213) if Arkansas tries to slow the Tigers' pass rush with a run game.
Florida State (5-0) at North Carolina State (3-2), 8 p.m., ESPN2
Another quarterback making strides as a senior is E.J. Manuel (6-5, 238), who hasn't been as prolific as Geno Smith, but is making plays (380 yards passing, 102 rushing against Clemson) without making a lot of mistakes (one interception all season). His receivers are playing more consistently, as well, particularly Rodney Smith (6-6, 219). The Wolfpack's junior cornerback, David Amerson, has had a tough start to the season, so look for Manuel to test him regularly. N.C. State senior safety Earl Wolff (6-0, 201) has been a factor against the run and pass, though, so he'll need to track Manuel while also keeping an eye out for speedy RB Chris Thompson (5-8, 187) and pounder RB James Wilder Jr. (6-2, 226), the son of a former NFL back.
Washington (3-1) at Oregon (5-0), 10:30 p.m., ESPN
The Huskies pulled off an upset win at home over Stanford last week. Can they follow that up with a stunner in Eugene on Saturday night? Everyone knows about the speed of Oregon RB Kenjon Barner (5-11, 192) and explosive rusher/receiver/returner De'Anthony Thomas (5-9, 176), but coach Chip Kelly has defensive stars in wiry strong and agile OLB/DE Dion Jordan (6-7, 243), up-and-coming junior five-technique Taylor Hart (6-6, 292) and tackling missile Michael Clay (5-11, 222). So while Washington junior quarterback Keith Price (6-1, 202) flashes playmaking ability with his strong arm and mobility and has his own sophomore playmakers in receiver Kasen Williams (6-2, 216) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-6, 266), it probably won't be enough to keep up with the Ducks. Scouts will also be watching Huskies senior cornerback Desmond Trufant (6-0, 186) -- younger brother of pro corners Marcus (Seattle Seahawks) and Isaiah (New York Jets) -- to see if he can have two straight excellent performances (interception, two pass breakups against the Cardinal).
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter.