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September 28, 2011

Viewer's guide: Big week in SEC, again

Stop us if you've heard this before: This is a big week in the SEC.

Once league play begins, every week is big for every conference, but three games involving current (and one future) SEC teams highlight the week. Alabama will make its first conference road trip to Florida since 2006. In another East-West matchup, Auburn and South Carolina have been unpredictable but never boring this season. And a week after crushing losses, Arkansas and Texas A&M try to regain momentum in Arlington, Texas.

While it's a big week in the SEC, the most important game might be in Madison, Wis., where Nebraska will play its first league game as a Big Ten member in a possible preview of the first Big Ten title game.

Before the season began, we knew Nebraska-Wisconsin would be a key game, but what about Clemson-Virginia Tech? After defeating Auburn and Florida State in back-to-back weeks, the Tigers look like ACC contenders. But they have yet to play on the road, and that changes with a visit to Blacksburg.

Here's a look at the key televised matchups in Week 5.

All times Eastern.

WEEK 5 VIEWER'S GUIDE
THURSDAY

USF AT PITTSBURGH
When: 8 p.m., ESPN
Broadcasters: Rece Davis play-by-play, Craig James and Jesse Palmer analysts
The line: USF by 3
Why you should watch: USF entered the national picture with its opening-week 23-20 win over Notre Dame aided by five Irish turnovers. Since then, the Bulls have demolished Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP with an offense that ranks 10th nationally in scoring and yards per game. Thursday, USF will learn if its gaudy offensive numbers were the result of weak competition or genuine improvement. Coach Skip Holtz consistently has praised QB B.J. Daniels's improvement since the end of last season. After throwing 13 interceptions last season, he has thrown just one in 124 attempts this season. He's also been more active as a runner. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is in a dire situation, thanks to fourth-quarter collapses. The Panthers led both Iowa and Notre Dame after three quarters, but they were outscored 29-3 in the fourth quarter en route to losing both games. A win in this one would cement USF as the top challenger to West Virginia in the Big East, if the Bulls aren't already.

SATURDAY

ARKANSAS VS. TEXAS A&M (in Arlington, Texas)
When: Noon, ESPN
Broadcasters: Dave Pasch play-by-play, Chris Spielman and Urban Meyer analysts
The line: Texas A&M by 3
Why you should watch: See if you can keep this straight. Texas A&M's first game since being officially admitted to the SEC is against Arkansas, which used to be a Southwest Conference rival of the Aggies. Regardless, Arkansas and A&M are looking to recover from their first losses of the season, both to conference rivals under difficult circumstances. Arkansas was routed 38-14 on the road by Alabama, and Texas A&M blew a 17-point halftime lead to lose 30-29 to Oklahoma State at home. The Razorbacks and Aggies still have aspirations of reaching major bowls, and this game is a chance to see which one will remain in that discussion. Arkansas is looking to find balance in its offense after rushing for just 17 yards against Alabama. Meanwhile, Texas A&M is looking for some consistency after it committed four turnovers and 10 penalties against Oklahoma State.

AUBURN AT SOUTH CAROLINA
When: 3:30 p.m., CBS
Broadcasters: Spero Dedes play-by-play, Steve Beuerlein analyst
The line: South Carolina by 10.5
Why you should watch: No team is out of a game with Auburn, thanks to the Tigers' leaky defense. Even FAU, a team Florida held to a field goal and Michigan State shut out, managed to score 14 points and fain 307 yards on Auburn last week. And no team is out of game against South Carolina, thanks to QB Stephen Garcia. He threw three first-half interceptions against Vanderbilt last week. South Carolina has been able to overcome turnover problems with five defensive and special teams touchdowns (including DL Melvin Ingram's touchdown run against Georgia on a fake punt) and a heavy dose of RB Marcus Lattimore, who has rushed for eight touchdowns. Auburn beat the Gamecocks twice last season -- during the regular season and again in the SEC championship game.

CLEMSON AT VIRGINIA TECH
When: 6 p.m., ESPN
Broadcasters: Mark Jones play-by-play, Ed Cunningham analyst
The line: Virginia Tech by 7
Why you should watch: Two weeks ago, Clemson looked as if it was in for a long season as it struggled to put away Troy and Wofford. Now, the Tigers could wrap up the toughest portion of their schedule 5-0 after beating defending national champion Auburn and preseason ACC favorite Florida State in the past two weeks. A major reason for the success has been the development of sophomore QB Tajh Boyd and true freshman WR Sammy Watkins. Boyd already has thrown 13 touchdown passes this season, including six to Watkins. Clemson, playing its first road game, will try to run its up-tempo spread against Virginia Tech, which ranks in the top six or better in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and pass efficiency defense. The winner of this game could carry the banner of "ACC favorite" for the rest of the season.

ALABAMA AT FLORIDA
When: 8 p.m., CBS
Broadcasters: Verne Lundquist play-by-play, Gary Danielson analyst
The line: Alabama by 4.5
Why you should watch: Florida's greatest barrier to the SEC championship game might not be its Nov. 12 road trip to South Carolina. Instead, it could be Alabama and LSU. Florida and Tennessee are the only teams in the East to play both; South Carolina plays neither. Florida has looked the part of one of the SEC's best, but facing Alabama can be a powerful reality check. Both have prolific tailback duos (Alabama with Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, Florida with Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps), a stifling defense and a potential liability at quarterback. That makes sense since Florida coach Will Muschamp is a Nick Saban disciple. Alabama, though, is a more veteran and physical team, especially along the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.

NEBRASKA AT WISCONSIN
When: 8 p.m., ABC
Broadcasters: Brent Musburger play-by-play, Kirk Herbstreit analyst
The line: Wisconsin by 10
Why you should watch: Nebraska plays its first league game as a Big Ten program, and it's a tough one. Meanwhile, Wisconsin enters conference play as the league favorite. Nebraska hasn't been sharp, especially on defense, despite its 4-0 start. That said, the Huskers haven't been at full strength on defense this season. Star CB Alfonzo Dennard missed the first three games with a leg injury, and DT Jared Crick did not play against Wyoming last Saturday. Along with LB Lavonte David, those are Nebraska's top three defensive players. The Huskers will need all three against Wisconsin. As usual, the Badgers can run the ball, with TBs Montee Balland James White combining for 663 yards and 12 touchdowns in the first four games. The difference for the Badgers this season is QB Russell Wilson, who also is a running threat. Wisconsin never has had a 3,000-yard passer, but Wilson is on pace to throw for 3,408 yards and 33 TDs (the school single-season record is 21). He has had a great start to his season, but facing a healthy Nebraska defense isn't the same as facing UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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