By Brad Carroll
Of all the marquee conferences and programs around the country that could take center stage this week, it's the American Athletic Conference that owns the spotlight Saturday night. Two of its teams, No. 18 Houston and No. 21 Temple, have the opportunity to prove not only how good they each are as programs on the rise, but to make a statement of just how good the conference has become. Memphis, now ranked No. 16, came through when given the chance earlier this season, beating Ole Miss at home. Now, the other two undefeated teams get their shot.
The opponents are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, as Houston plays Vanderbilt, an SEC bottom-dweller, but still a major conference team, and Temple hosts one of the most popular and recognizable programs in history in Notre Dame. Win both and the AAC will grab a lot of headlines and even more respect heading into the final month of the season. Lose, and everyone who says lesser conferences can't compete will say I told you so.
Let's see how the big four matchups in primetime Saturday night shake out, as we analyze and our college football experts pick each game against the spread. Check out our analysis and picks from the early Saturday games here. Follow us on Twitter here.
Vanderbilt at No. 18 Houston, 7 p.m., ESPN2
The Spread: Vanderbilt +12; Houston -12
Analysis: Houston has raced to a 7-0 record, averaging 47.6 points on offense and allowing just 19.7 points on defense. But the Cougars play in the AAC, so all of those impressive numbers come with question marks, as nobody knows what they would do in a bigger conference. It's the reality of playing in a non-Power 5 conference, whether fair or not. Houston does get to play an SEC team on national television in primetime Saturday, but Vanderbilt isn't exactly a standard bearer of its conference. Houston will get a chance to play No. 15 Memphis later this year, the only time it will face a ranked opponent. The Houston offense is all Greg Ward Jr., who has passed for 1,734 yards and 10 touchdowns and has rushed for another 677 yards with 15 touchdowns. Vanderbilt is 3-4 this season and averages just 18 points per game, which is nearly impossible in major college football. Vandy did beat Missouri last week, 10-3. Houston should be plenty motivated to put a hurting on an SEC team, even if it's lowly Vanderbilt.
Brad's Score: Houston 42, Vanderbilt 20
Craig's Score: Houston 31, Vanderbilt 17
Glenn's Score: Houston 35, Vanderbilt 24
Matt's Score: Houston 31, Vanderbilt 24
No. 15 Michigan at Minnesota, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Spread: Michigan -14; Minnesota +14
Analysis: Michigan has had a long time to think about the last moment they were on a football field for real. It was two weeks ago when the Wolverines were about to put away Michigan State and take a giant step forward in becoming College Football Playoff contenders. But we all know what happened next. Michigan botched the football on a punt attempt and Michigan State took it back the other way for a shocking touchdown and victory. In one play, the Wolverines were eliminated from championship contention in the worst way possible. Now, Michigan has to find the will to win again, this time against unranked Minnesota on the road. It won't be easy, as not only was the last loss difficult to take, but the Golden Gophers won't inspire big-time performances. But Jim Harbaugh was brought it as the head coach for Michigan for these moments, and how the Wolverines respond to a winnable game will say a lot about the program moving forward. Minnesota was on the verge of becoming a solid program under coach Jerry Kill, but just Wednesday he decided to retire because of health concerns, a stunning blow to a team that played well under his guidance. Minnesota was struggling coming into this game, though, getting shut out by Northwestern, beating Purdue and losing to Nebraska big two weeks ago. The Little Brown Jug will be Michigan's.
Brad's Score: Michigan 35, Minnesota 14
Craig's Score: Michigan 34, Minnesota 14
Glenn's Score: Michigan 35, Minnesota 13
Matt's Score: Michigan 28, Minnesota 21
No. 9 Notre Dame at No. 21 Temple, 8 p.m., ABC
The Spread: Notre Dame -10; Temple +10
Analysis: Who would have ever thought Temple would be playing in the ABC primetime game on a Saturday night? Who would have ever though ESPN would hold its GameDay show in Philadelphia before the Owls would play football? The correct answer is nobody, never, ever. It wasn't that long ago where Temple was booted out of the Big East, as it couldn't win games and couldn't get anyone to watch the team play. But this season has completely flipped the script for the Owls, as they are undefeated, at 7-0, and ranked in the top 25. Temple also plays the biggest game in the history of the program at home Saturday night, welcoming Notre Dame into Lincoln Financial Field. Temple is averaging 32.3 points per game on offense, while letting up 14.6 points on defense. Jahad Thomas has 822 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns to lead the offense. The Owls get two chances this season to prove their worth against ranked teams, Saturday night against Notre Dame and later against No. 16 Memphis. Sweep those games and Temple may be playing in a huge bowl game at the end of the year, which would be truly amazing. Notre Dame is 6-1, losing by two on the road against now-No. 3 Clemson for the lone defeat. Unlike in year's past, the Fighting Irish have an offense that can run with anyone, as they average a tick under 400 yards of offense a game. CJ Prosise has 922 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns and wide receiver Will Fuller has 702 yards and eight scores to lead the offense. Notre Dame may be a double-digit favorite, but Temple will be ready for the biggest game these players have ever been a part of together, making for what should be a close game. And in a close game, the underdog will pull out the stunning upset.
Brad's Score: Temple 27, Notre Dame 24 (upset pick)
Craig's Score: Notre Dame 28, Temple 17
Glenn's Score: Notre Dame 38, Temple 13
Matt's Score: Notre Dame 35, Temple 20
No. 8 Stanford at Washington State, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
The Spread: Stanford -12; Washington State +12
Analysis: Stanford has won six straight games since its stunning loss in the season opener to Northwestern, a game the Cardinal would love to have as a do-over. Nobody has even been able to slow down Stanford since that loss, with the Cardinal putting together easy wins over Southern Cal, Arizona and UCLA, two of which were ranked at the time. Now, the Cardinal have just one ranked team left on the schedule, against Notre Dame in the regular season finale, before a likely matchup with Utah in the Pac-12 championship game, where Stanford would be favored. Win out, and Stanford will give the College Football Playoff a resume that might be too good to pass up in making the final four. The biggest reason Stanford is playing so well has everything to do with the play of quarterback Kevin Hogan. The longtime starter has always been up and down, with the latter being the more accurate description of him. But Hogan has thrown for 1,576 yards with 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Christian McCaffrey has 953 rushing yards and six scores as well. Washington State does have upset capabilities, especially at home. The Cougars put up 36.4 points and 506.1 yards per game on offense, huge numbers. But they also let up 31 points and 426.3 yards per game on defense. Washington State has won three games in a row after losing to California, beating Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona. Stanford is better than all those teams, however, and will roll over the Cougars.
Brad's Score: Stanford 42, Washington State 24
Craig's Score: Stanford 41, Washington State 20
Glenn's Score: Stanford 35, Washington State 17
Matt's Score: Stanford 42, Washington State 21