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September 13, 2010

Week 3 Watch: Many teams seek validation

The schedule for the upcoming slate of games is listed merely as Week 3. Yet, for some unbeaten -- and largely untested -- teams, it's Validation Week.

Baylor, Texas Tech, Air Force, Arizona State, Clemson, Wake Forest and Maryland are unbeaten. They're also unranked. Skeptics could point to wins over the likes of Sam Houston, Morgan State, Presbyterian and Portland State, and dismiss them as virtually unchallenged, too.

That changes Saturday. They all face opponents ranked among the nation's top 25.

Obviously, any win would be great cause for celebration. It'd be great cause for validation, too.

Player Under the Gun

Washington QB Jake Locker

Although Locker almost certainly will get taken early in the first round of next year's NFL draft, he still hasn't turned Washington into a winner. Locker's Heisman campaign took a hit when Washington dropped its opener to BYU, but he gets another chance to deliver a signature win Saturday against Nebraska. His task won't be easy. Nebraska picked off five passes and recorded seven sacks last week against Idaho. Locker must try to keep the ball away from Thorpe Award candidate Prince Amukamara.

Best game: Iowa at Arizona, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
Iowa travels to Tucson to face Arizona in the week's only matchup involving ranked teams. The Hawkeyes prevailed 27-17 last season in Iowa City, but that was before Nick Foles was named Arizona's starting quarterback. Led by Foles, the Wildcats are averaging more than 46 points per game this season. On the other hand, Iowa's defense, led by All-America E Adrian Clayborn, has surrendered just one touchdown in both of its games.

Don't overlook this one: Air Force at Oklahoma, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net
Both are coming off statement games of sorts, with Oklahoma trouncing Florida State 47-17 and Air Force blasting BYU 35-14. After the build-up to the game against the Seminoles, the Sooners will need to guard against looking past Air Force, particularly on defense. The Falcons have rushed for 400 yards in both games this season and in four of their past five games overall. Air Force also has an opportunistic defense that forces turnovers. If the Falcons have success running the ball and forcing turnovers, Oklahoma is in trouble.

On the midweek marquee: California at Nevada, Friday, 10 p.m., ESPN2
Cal has defeated its first two opponents, UC Davis and Colorado, by a margin of 104-10. Nevada has won in similar fashion, beating Eastern Washington and Colorado State by a margin of 100-30. Cal leads the nation in total defense but hasn't been challenged yet. With QB Colin Kaepnernick and RB Vai Taua, Nevada should provide that challenge. But the Wolf Pack has lost eight consecutive games to major-conference opponents and/or Notre Dame.

Coach most under the gun: Minnesota's Tim Brewster
Conventional wisdom suggested Brewster was under some pressure even before the Gophers fell 41-38 last week to FCS program South Dakota, which was coming off a big loss to UCF. That wasn't the first time Brewster's teams have struggled against FCS programs. Minnesota lost 27-21 to North Dakota State in 2007 and edged South Dakota State 16-13 last season. Brewster couldn't find a way to stop South Dakota's Dante Warren, who threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more scores Saturday. Now he must figure out how to contain USC's Matt Barkley and Ronald Johnson, who visit Minnesota this week.

Best coordinator chess match: Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst vs. Arizona State defensive coordinator Craig Bray
For all the talk about its staid offense, Wisconsin led the Big Ten in scoring and total offense last season. The offense is predicated on the run, but Chryst does a nice job of mixing up his play calls and is especially good about when to utilize play-action passes. Arizona State has struggled the past two seasons, but don't blame Bray's defense. He has an ornery, aggressive group with stars in T Lawrence Guy and LB Vontaze Burfict. Those two will be especially important as the Sun Devils look to slow Badgers RB John Clay. Arizona State is looking to regain some lost respect, and beating the Badgers would help accomplish that.

BCS-buster watch: East Carolina at Virginia Tech
The Hokies can't open with three losses in a row, can they? New ECU coach Ruffin McNeill has his team off to a 2-0 start behind former Boston College quarterback Dominique Davis, who was BC's signal-caller in the 2008 ACC title game loss to Virginia Tech. If the Hokies still are reeling from a stunning loss to FCS member James Madison, their early season slump could continue. ECU has played better than expected, and if the Pirates win this, they again become the team to beat in Conference USA's East Division.

Best individual matchup of the week: Washington WR Jermaine Kearse vs. Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara
Kearse, a junior, is one of the more underrated receivers nationally. He has 14 receptions this season, and four have gone for touchdowns; he has 10 TD receptions in his past six games. Kearse has great size (6 feet 2/205 pounds) and good speed, and is a big-play guy. But Amukamara is the best cornerback he will see this season. Opponents shy away from throwing to his side, but Amukamara still has three pass breakups this season and has five picks and 14 breakups since the beginning of the 2009 season. Washington must get some big plays from Kearse or it has no shot at upsetting the Huskers.

Best unit matchup of the week: Georgia Tech offensive backfield vs. North Carolina linebackers
Both were expected to contend for the ACC Coastal Division title, but both already have losses. The good news is that this is the league opener and neither has lost in league play. Tech QB Joshua Nesbitt isn't a good passer, and he struggled mightily on the ground in last week's loss to Kansas. He must be effective running the ball or Tech's offense bogs down. Tech ran for 317 in last season's victory over UNC, so you can bet star Tar Heels LBs Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant want to make a better showing this season.

Injury report
Houston QB Case Keenum was hurt late in the third quarter of the Cougars' 52-24 victory over UTEP on Friday night. Keenum got injured trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception and displayed symptoms of a mild concussion. Cotton Turner came on and played well. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said Keenum's prognosis for this week is "day to day" as the Cougars prepare to play at UCLA on Saturday. Can Houston be a BCS-buster with Keenum out for an extended period?

Record watch
Redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez became the first Nebraska quarterback to rush for 100 yards in consecutive games since Jammal Lord did it in 2003. The Huskers aren't running the option anymore, but they have an athletic quarterback who can cause problems on the ground. After rushing for 127 against Western Kentucky and 157 against Idaho, he'll face his toughest challenge yet at Washington. The last Nebraska quarterback to rush for 100 yards in three consecutive games? Heisman winner Eric Crouch in the last three games of his career in 2001.

Coaching connection
Alabama is at Duke on Saturday; it's the Tide's first trip to Wallace Wade Stadium, named after the former Alabama coach who actually left the Crimson Tide to coach Duke. Wade went 110-63-7 at Duke from 1931-50. At Alabama, Wade was the first coach to take a Southern team to the Rose Bowl, following the 1925 season. Wade went 61-13-3 with the Tide from 1923-30. The game also is a reunion of sorts for Duke coach David Cutcliffe, an Alabama alum. Cutcliffe never played for the Tide, but he was a graduate assistant under Bear Bryant. Cutcliffe is 10-13-1 in his career against Alabama as an assistant at Tennessee and head coach at Ole Miss.

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