Believe it or not, this is already the fourth week of college football. But, in some ways, it's really the first.
Most major conference teams have spent the past three weeks taking on overmatched squads from the Football Championship Subdivision or lesser-known Football Bowl Subdivision conferences. The SEC scheduled some early-season conference games, and there have been some occasional inter-conference battles of interest, but this is the week college football really begins to heat up.
Saturday night's card includes important contests in the ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 -- and we're not even in October yet.
Not only do these games have great implications on the college football landscape, but also for the hopes of players hoping to make football their profession. NFL scouts weigh draft prospects' performances against top competition more heavily than matchups against younger players or less-talented teams.
So take note of the particularly compelling matchups between top prospects on the docket this weekend. You can be certain NFL general managers around the country will do the same.
All games are scheduled for Saturday; all times listed are Eastern.
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LSU at Auburn, 7 p.m., ESPN
This battle of Tigers might not be as competitive as it has been in previous years, as Auburn simply doesn't have a ton of NFL prospects on the current roster. Left guard John Sullen (6-foot-5, 313 pounds) and his linemates will have their hands full with the nation's deepest, most talented defensive line; junior ends Barkevious Mingo (6-5, 240) and Sam Montgomery (6-5, 260) play stronger than their frames indicate and have speed to burn, which they'll need to track down Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb (5-11, 173). Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen's athleticism and strength as a receiver will also be tested by hard-hitting junior safety Eric Reid (6-2, 212) and the rest of LSU's ultra-athletic back seven.
When the Bayou Bengals have the ball, strong-armed junior pocket passer Zach Mettenberger (6-5, 230) will hope his senior tackles, Josh Dworaczyk (6-6, 300) and Alex Hurst (6-6, 331), can show scouts they are athletic enough to stay with Auburn junior defensive ends Corey Lemonier (6-4, 246) and Dee Ford (6-2, 246) on the edge. If the line does its job, head coach Les Miles' stable of young running backs will test the tackling ability of undersized (but quick and tough) senior linebackers Daren Bates (5-11, 215) and Jonathan Evans (5-11, 231).
Michigan at Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC
Denard Robinson, the Wolverines' 6-foot, 197-pound athletic quarterback, hasn't convinced many scouts that he can be a signal-caller at the next level. But Notre Dame allowed him to throw jump balls downfield for 338 yards and four touchdowns, as well as run for 108 yards and another score in last year's 35-31 Michigan win. The Irish defense looks to be stouter this season. The unit is headlined by thumper middle linebacker Manti Te'o (6-2, 255), who played last Saturday despite losing his girlfriend and grandmother during the week. And Notre Dame has received fabulous production from a young front seven starring massive third-year sophomore Louis Nix (6-3, 326) and athletic senior Kapron Lewis-Moore (6-4, 306). Going against this kind of competition, this game provides a chance for underrated right guard Patrick Omameh (6-4, 305) and athletic, tough-as-nails left tackle Taylor Lewan (6-8, 309) to redeem themselves a bit after Michigan's disappointing nationally-televised opener against Alabama.
Notre Dame redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson (6-0, 185) is maturing on national television, thanks in part to the play of junior tight end Tyler Eifert (6-6, 251), who will again try to prove himself a constant mismatch whether using his height to win against cornerbacks like Michigan's J.T. Floyd (6-0, 183) or his strength to fight off hard-working safeties like Jordan Kovacs (6-0, 202).
Clemson at Florida State, 8 p.m., ABC
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This battle of top-10 teams could decide the ACC's Atlantic Division. The Clemson offense has just three senior starters, including fast and elusive running back Andre Ellington (5-10, 195), who is not afraid to take a hit despite his smaller build. His strength will certainly be tested -- as will the mobility and poise of junior quarterback Tajh Boyd (6-1, 225) -- by a Florida State defensive line led by high-motor, German-born junior defensive end Bjoern Werner (6-4, 255), penetrator Everett Dawkins (6-3, 300) and strong-and-long end Cornellius "Tank" Carradine (6-5, 265).
Seminoles quarterback E.J. Manuel (6-5, 238) wants to prove to scouts he can be a playmaker while also efficiently running an offense. He'll be tested by the Tigers' talent-laden secondary, led by senior safety Jonathan Meeks (6-1, 210). Manuel will need his athleticism to avoid this year's draftable defensive end from Clemson (they've had five picked in the last six years) in Malliciah Goodman (6-4, 270). When Manuel has time, he'll look for Rodney Smith (6-6, 219) and the rest of his young, speedy receiving corps.
Arizona at Oregon, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
Expecting a close game when Oregon's prolific offense is involved is probably foolish, but this is the Ducks' first real test, as new Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez has a 3-0 team heading into Autzen Stadium. The primary reason for the Wildcats' resurgence is the play of athletic, strong-armed quarterback Matt Scott (6-3, 196), who slings the ball to senior receivers Dan Buckner (6-4, 215) and Terrence Miller (6-4, 226) with impunity. Oregon has speed on the edge with Mathias Kiwanuka clone Dion Jordan (6-7, 243). If Scott uses his mobility to avoid Jordan, he's prone to forcing throws into tight windows, so the Ducks' young secondary will have chances to make plays.
Oregon's offense is averaging nearly 600 yards a game, and Arizona has just one senior starter on defense (DE Dominique Austin, 6-5, 285) to go with junior playmaking linebacker Marquis Flowers (6-3, 221) and sophomore safety Jared Tavis (5-10, 197). Oregon's offense isn't overly experienced, either, though senior speedster Kenjon Barner (5-11, 192) is averaging more than 100 yards a game after the departure of LaMichael James to the NFL. But redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota (6-4, 211) is running head coach Chip Kelly's scheme like a veteran, while sophomore running back/receiver/returner De'Anthony Thomas (5-9, 176) can score from anywhere on the field.
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Maryland at West Virginia, 12 p.m., FX
In theory, this should be a tougher test for West Virginia's decisive arm talent quarterback Geno Smith (6-3, 220) and his diminutive but speedy receiving duo of Tavon Austin (5-9, 171) and Stedman Bailey (5-10, 195) than they faced in their first two games. But even with Maryland's impactful linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield (6-2, 240) and high-motor defensive linemen Joe Vellano (6-2, 285) and A.J. Francis (6-5, 305), it will be difficult for the Terps' defenses to shut down the Mountaineers.
California at USC, 6 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley (6-2, 230) and his talented receiver duo of sophomore Marqise Lee (6-0, 195) and junior Robert Woods (6-1, 190) can't dwell on the loss to Stanford. Cal brings a pair of physical corners to town in Marc Anthony (6-0, 200) and junior Steve Williams (5-10, 185). The motor of defensive lineman Aaron Tipoti (6-2, 280) will again challenge the struggling USC offensive line. The Bears also have running back Isi Sofele (5-8, 200), whose lack of height belies his toughness, and an elite receiver in Keenan Allen (6-3, 210), so Cal has more than enough talent to pull off the upset if USC doesn't put forth its best effort.
Rutgers at Arkansas, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Arkansas head coach John L. Smith undoubtedly will have a big smile on his face if starting quarterback Tyler Wilson (6-3, 220) returns from the head injury he suffered in the team's loss to Louisiana-Monroe two weeks ago. But Wilson must be accurate with his throws to vertical threat Cobi Hamilton (6-3, 209), or playmaking Rutgers corner Ryan Logan (6-0, 190) will take them the other way. Razorbacks running backs Knile Davis (6-0, 226) and Dennis Johnson (5-9, 213) must have their heads on a swivel if they are to avoid Rutgers' athletic and secure-tackling linebackers Khaseem Greene (6-1, 230) -- the 2011 Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year -- and Steve Beauharnais (6-2, 230).
Kansas State at Oklahoma, 7:50 p.m., FOX
The Wildcats are looking to prove themselves a Big 12 contender this year, just as their leader, Collin Klein (6-5, 226), is trying to convince NFL scouts he can be a pro quarterback. Hitting size/speed receiver prospect and former Oregon Duck Chris Harper (6-1, 234) downfield could help that cause, but Sooners cornerbacks Demonte Hurst (5-10, 183) and Aaron Colvin (6-0, 181) will make plays on late or errant throws. Klein's tough running is his greatest threat, so OU defensive tackles David King (6-5, 286) and Jamarkus McFarland (6-2, 288) must be disciplined up front, while linebacker Tom Wort (6-0, 237) and safety Tony Jefferson (5-11, 212) must keep one eye on Klein at all times. To pull off the upset, the Wildcats' defense must also get through ascending left tackle Lane Johnson (6-7, 303) to attack OU quarterback Landry Jones (6-4, 218) before he unloads to his diverse receiver group, including big-bodied Penn State transfer Justin Brown (6-3, 209) and speedy junior Kenny Stills (6-1, 190).
Louisiana Tech at Illinois, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Bulldogs already went into Houston to win their opener with quarterback Colby Cameron (6-2, 205) and smooth, sure-handed top-100 prospect Quinton Patton (6-2, 195) working the passing game. That means Illinois' lean but long defensive end Michael Buchanan (6-6, 250) must beat Tech's NFL-caliber tackles Oscar Johnson (6-6, 330) and Jordan Mills (6-6, 315) to pressure Cameron. And cornerback Terry Hawthorne (6-0, 190) must prove he can stick with Patton to avoid another disappointing loss for the Big Ten conference.