Moving day in the SEC: Are Texas A&M, Arkansas ready to rise?

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Myles Garrett and the Aggies have made major strides defensively. Can they stifle the comeback-crazy Vols? (Butch Dill/Getty Images)

The SEC takes center stage Saturday, and what else is new? The performance gap is closing on college football’s glamor league — the Big Ten has a lot to do with that — but the SEC still stands at the top of the heap. It’s just true. Deal with it.

No. 9 Tennessee at No. 8 Texas A&M (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) is the only top 10 matchup on the Week 6 docket. The Vols (5-0) have won 11 straight — their longest streak since the 1998 national title team ran the table — but it has taken a high-wire act to keep the fun going. They needed overtime to take care of Appalachian State. They came back from 14 down against Virginia Tech and 18 down against Florida to win, and last week it took a Hail Mary pass on the game’s final play to beat Georgia.

“This is a team that, on paper, if you don’t watch it you’ll say they’ve gotten lucky,” said Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin, whose team is favored by 6½ points. “They haven’t gotten lucky.”

It’s true — Tennessee has top-end talent, starting with quarterback Joshua Dobbs. But A&M (5-0) has big-time players, too, from its own QB, Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight, to its big-play defense. The Aggies, averaging over 500 yards per game offensively, are going for their first 6-0 start in 22 years. They get it done, 34-24.

Far different situation with No. 1 Alabama at No. 16 Arkansas (6 p.m., ESPN). The Crimson Tide (5-0) haven’t lost to the Razorbacks (4-1) during Nick Saban’s time as coach, to which the 14-point spread speaks loud and clear.

Yet the last time the Tide played in Fayetteville, in 2014, they barely escaped with a 14-13 victory. And that was before Hogs coach Bret Bielema had fully beefed up his program physically. Arkansas will try to pound the rock behind a huge offensive line with running backs Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley. Quarterback Austin Allen is strong-armed and tougher than all get-out. This will be a slugfest.

“When you’re going up against a team of their caliber, you really don’t need an extraordinary, out-of-body experience,” Bielema said. “Just do your job.”

This one feels close. Tide by a field goal.

Budda Baker. Psalm Wooching. Sidney Jones. Man, Washington has become loaded on defense. The No. 5 Huskies host Oregon (6:30 p.m., Fox-32) in a game with a huge spread — 9½ points — but have a 12-game Ducks winning streak in the series to contend with.

It’s hard to look at UDub’s eight sacks in last weekend’s 44-6 beatdown of Stanford and not see this as a blowout. The talent edge is — what a change — on the side of the 5-0 Huskies. The Ducks (2-3) will don throwback uniforms from 100 years ago, but they don’t even know who their starting quarterback is. All Huskies here.

It’s sad that we can go this far without mentioning No. 20 Oklahoma vs. Texas (11 a.m., FS1). The annual Red River Rivalry game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas used to mean so much more. Now, with each team off to a 2-2 start, it seems to be all about whether or not Longhorns coach Charlie Strong will keep his job. Strong is a great dude. His team is catching 10½ — watch it cover that number. But win? Too much of a stretch.

Very briefly about No. 23 Florida State at No. 10 Miami (7 p.m., Ch. 7): Why are the 4-0 Hurricanes favored by only a field goal over the 3-2 Seminoles? FSU has gobs of NFL talent, but only Hurricane Matthew can stop Miami from rolling against the biggest underachievers in the country.

My favorite favorite: Michigan State -5½ vs. BYU (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7). The struggling Spartans (2-2) have a reputation to rebuild. The Cougars (2-3) have a defense that isn’t stopping anybody.

My favorite underdog: Navy +17 vs. No. 6 Houston (2 p.m., CBSSN). All the talk around the Cougars is of quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and the team’s high-powered offense, but Houston’s defense is No. 1 in the country against the run. Still, the Middies have won 12 straight at home — and their triple-option offense is an entirely different animal for Houston to contend with. Not an upset, but a close game.

Last week: 6-3 straight-up, 5-4 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 28-14 straight-up; 19-21-2 vs. the spread.


Notre Dame at North Carolina State

The facts: 11 a.m., Ch. 7; 890-AM.

The records: Notre Dame 2-3; NC State 3-1, 1-0 ACC.

The line: Wolfpack by 2.

The story line: If we’ve learned anything about the Irish thus far, it’s that they can lose a game like this one. NC State, with its efficient offense led by quarterback Ryan Finley and running back Matthew Dayes, will bend the heck out of — and perhaps break — Brian Kelly’s flimsy defense. Yet the better offense in this game belongs to the Irish, who, weather permitting, should have a huge day in the passing game. Quarterback DeShone Kizer will be the best player on the field, and that’ll come up big down the stretch.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 41-31.

Purdue at Illinois

The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN; 670-AM.

The records: Purdue 2-2, 0-1 Big Ten; Illinois 1-3, 0-1 Big Ten.

The line: Illini by 10.

The story line: If you’re like us, you’re wondering how on earth Illinois can be a double-digit favorite against anybody, let alone a Big Ten opponent. (Wait, is Purdue still in the Big Ten?) Truth is, the Boilermakers — who lost last week at Maryland by an incredible score of 50-7 — are terrible, so terrible they make the Illini look … almost good. This is a chance for Lovie Smith’s defense to dominate a game. Offensively, though, the Illini always are capable of laying an egg.

Greenberg’s pick: Illinois, 27-14.

Northern Illinois at Western Michigan

The facts: 5:30 p.m., CBSSN; 560-AM.

The records: Northern Illinois 1-4, 1-0 MAC; Western Michigan 5-0, 1-0 MAC.

The line: Broncos by 19½.

The story line: At least we can stop talking about NIU being winless. Unfortunately for the Huskies, this simply is the best opponent they’ll face the rest of the way; the Broncos are first on the AP’s “others receiving votes” list. We’ve gotten a pair of up-close looks at the Broncos, who won at Northwestern and Illinois. They are a driven, well-rounded team — a reflection of outstanding young coach P.J. Fleck, who won’t be around Kalamazoo much longer.

Greenberg’s pick: Western Michigan, 51-20.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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