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Four Games to Watch

NO. 9 CALIFORNIA

AT NO. 23 TENNESSEE

* Kickoff: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. PDT.

* TV: ESPN.

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* Line: Tennessee by 1 1/2 .

* California update: The Golden Bears are touting junior running back Marshawn Lynch as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He rushed for 1,246 yards in 10 games last season. Receiver DeSean Jackson adds a deep threat for an offense that averaged 36 points a game. Nate Longshore, who suffered a broken leg in last season’s opener, is the starter at quarterback, but Joe Ayoob, who took most of the snaps last season, is also expected to play.

* Tennessee update: The Volunteers ranked second in the nation in run defense last season and returning tackles Justin Herrell and Turk McBride pose a significant challenge to Lynch. The secondary returns all four starters. On offense, new coordinator David Cutcliffe will try to spark a unit that averaged only 18.6 points a game last season. He’ll feature Arian Foster, who ended last season with five consecutive 100-yard rushing games.

* Story line: The season’s first matchup of top 25 teams is also a matchup of teams with something to prove. Cal is looking to quell any doubts about its highest preseason ranking since 1952; Tennessee is looking to prove it belongs in the ratings after a 5-6 season in 2005, the Vols’ worst record since 1988.

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* The pick: Tennessee. The Vols’ defense is too good for an untested quarterback.

**

NO. 2 NOTRE DAME AT GEORGIA TECH

* Kickoff: Saturday, 5 p.m. PDT.

* TV: Channel 7.

* Line: Notre Dame by 7.

* Notre Dame update: Quarterback Brady Quinn enters the season as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate after setting school season records with 3,919 yards and 32 touchdowns. His supporting cast includes a line that returns four starters, 1,000-yard rusher Darius Walker and receiver Jeff Samardzija, who had 77 catches for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns. The question for Notre Dame: How improved is a defense that gave up an average of 396.9 yards a game?

* Georgia Tech update: Quarterback Reggie Ball isn’t impressive on paper -- he completed only 48% of his passes and 12 of them were intercepted -- but he won games at Auburn and at Miami and has as a target Calvin Johnson, who made 54 receptions for 888 yards and nine touchdowns. Linebackers KaMichael Hall and Philip Wheeler and a solid line must keep the pressure on Quinn to ease the pressure on an inexperienced secondary.

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* Story line: This is a booby-trap game for the Fighting Irish, who could see their national-title hopes go down the drain if they get caught looking past Georgia Tech. They play No. 19 Penn State and No. 14 Michigan in their next two games.

* The pick: Notre Dame. The Irish are deeper all around and should pull away in the fourth quarter.

**

WASHINGTON STATE AT NO. 4 AUBURN

* Kickoff: Saturday, 4:45 p.m. PDT.

* TV: ESPN2.

* Line: Auburn by 14 1/2 .

* Washington State update: The Cougars were 4-7 last season, but five of the losses were by four points or fewer. Quarterback Alex Brink passed for 2,891 yards and 24 touchdowns, ranking second in total offense in the Pacific 10 Conference behind USC’s Matt Leinart. Jason Hill is the first Cougar to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons as a receiver. He is the school’s all-time leader with 25 touchdown receptions.

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* Auburn update: The Tigers had the SEC’s top offense last season and two of the main reasons are back. Running back Kenny Irons led the conference with 1,293 yards rushing, and quarterback Brandon Cox passed for 2,324 yards. “A lot of people that are predicting us to do real good are unfortunately just looking at those two positions,” Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville said. On the flip side, the defense has to replace five of last year’s front seven and two starting linebackers are suspended for this game because of off-season underage drinking incidents.

* Story line: Based on last season, this should be a mismatch, but don’t believe it. Auburn has lost three of its last four openers despite being nationally ranked each time.

* The pick: Auburn. The Tigers won’t take Washington State too lightly.

**

NO. 11 FLORIDA STATE AT NO. 12 MIAMI

* Kickoff: Monday, 5 p.m. PDT.

* TV: ESPN.

* Line: Miami by 3.

* Florida State update: Speed abounds on offense, with running back Lorenzo Booker and receivers Chris Davis, De’Cody Fagg and Greg Carr. Quarterback Drew Weatherford passed for 3,208 yards and led the Seminoles to the Atlantic Coast Conference title as a freshman. Linebacker Buster Davis is among only four returning starters on defense.

* Miami update: Receiver Ryan Moore and running back Tyrone Moss are suspended for disciplinary reasons, which leaves the Hurricanes shallow at the skill positions. Quarterback Kyle Wright had a 2,403-yard sophomore season. His favorite target is tight end Greg Olsen, who is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. The Hurricanes will rely on a defense that returns five starters, including star safety Brandon Merriweather, from a unit that was ranked No. 4 in the country last year.

* Story line: It doesn’t get much bigger than Miami-Florida State and the winner will be poised for a national title run since both have favorable schedules the rest of the way. They could, however, meet again Dec. 2 in the ACC title game.

* The pick: Florida State. A tight game might well be decided by a fourth-quarter drive, and the Seminoles’ offense is better equipped to rally.

--PETER YOON


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