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A half-dozen games matching Top 20 teams this weekend will go a long way toward separating the title contenders from the pretenders

ONLY MOMENTSafter sixth-ranked LSU had finished a 45--3 pounding of overmatched Arizonalast Saturday, quarterback JaMarcus Russell was asked how soon the Tigers wouldbegin thinking about their trip to face No. 3 Auburn this weekend. He issued aone-word answer: "Now."

Russell was eagerto prepare for the big game, but if he was also in a hurry to put Saturday inhis rearview mirror and look ahead seven days, he wasn't the only one. With thenotable exception of the Ohio State--Texas game, last weekend was mostly ayawner, littered with 14 I-A versus I-AA meetings and assorted othermismatches. But this Saturday holds far more promise, with no fewer than sixgames between highly ranked opponents that will significantly strengthen somenational championship aspirations and perhaps end others. In fact, Week 3 maybe remembered as the point at which the season began to take shape.

LSU's trip toAuburn pits against each other two sets of Tigers that have been equallyimpressive and equally untested. Auburn handled Washington State (40--14) andMississippi State (34--0) with ease, and LSU's win over Arizona was the Tigers'second straight 45--3 laugher. (They beat Louisiana-Lafayette in their opener.)Both teams recognize the high stakes--the winner has represented the WestDivision in the SEC championship game in each of the last three years.

Despite its losson Saturday, Mississippi State limited Kenny Irons, Auburn's tailback anddark-horse Heisman candidate, to 69 yards on 21 carries. LSU may want to borrowthe Bulldogs' defensive game plan, because Irons ripped the Tigers for 218yards in Baton Rouge last season. Although LSU won, 20--17 in overtime, theBayou Bengals probably won't pull off a road victory if their defense allowsIrons to have another big game.

In the SEC East,seventh-ranked Florida visits No. 13 Tennessee in a game that should confirmwhich of the Volunteers' first two games was an aberration--their 35--18demolition of then ninth-ranked California, or the 31--30 victory over AirForce on Saturday in which Tennessee had to stop a late two-point conversion topreserve the win. "Consistency is one of the things we're looking for,"said Vols coach Phillip Fulmer. "Obviously we haven't quite found ityet."

Something has togive when defense-minded Miami travels to explosive Louisville. The nationaltitle hopes of the No. 17 Hurricanes will be all but gone if they lose to theCardinals, and if his team does so with the kind of anemic offense it showed ina 13--10 loss to Florida State on Sept. 4 (two yards rushing and eight firstdowns), coach Larry Coker will be feeling a different kind of heat in SouthFlorida.

Louisville,meanwhile, is still recovering from a loss of another kind--the season-endingbroken leg that star running back Michael Bush suffered in the opener. WithoutBush, the offense will depend heavily on quarterback Brian Brohm and Bush's twotalented replacements, Kolby Smith and George Stripling. That's more thanenough firepower to overwhelm most defenses, but the Hurricanes, who limitedFlorida State to 176 total yards, aren't most defenses. If the No. 12 Cardinalssurvive Miami, their chances for an undefeated season will increasedramatically. A Nov. 2 home game against No. 5 West Virginia would be the onlymajor obstacle remaining on Louisville's schedule.

Second-rankedNotre Dame and No. 11 Michigan have tougher schedules awaiting them, whichmakes their matchup in South Bend all the more important. After startingsluggishly with a 14--10 win over Georgia Tech, the Fighting Irish played morelike a title contender last Saturday, beating Penn State 41--17. Notre Damewill be by far the biggest challenge to date for the Wolverines, who havehandled Vanderbilt and Central Michigan easily. Michigan will have a decentchance for an upset if its ground game, which has averaged 249 yards in thefirst two games led by running back Mike Hart, can control the ball and keepNotre Dame's dangerous offense off the field. "I think we're a goodteam," Hart said, "but come to Notre Dame and you're going to find outhow good you really are. They have a better idea of how good they are than wedo." The Wolverines will find out fast how good they are: Wisconsin awaitsin two weeks, Penn State and Iowa are on the October schedule, and they closewith a road game against Ohio State.

Number 19Nebraska is in the same position as Michigan. After romps at home overLouisiana Tech and Division I-AA Nicholls State, the Cornhuskers hit the roadto face No. 4 USC. And in another matchup between undefeated Pac-10 and Big 12teams, 18th-ranked Oregon plays host to No. 15 Oklahoma. Nonconference winsagainst quality opponents are crucial for Oregon and USC (the Trojans and theIrish meet on Nov. 25 in L.A.), since the woeful bottom half of the Pac-10won't do much for either team's strength of schedule.

"Everyoneknows how good USC is," Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said after theCornhuskers thumped a Nicholls State team that attempted only three passes in a56--7 loss. "The key for our kids was not to look ahead to [USC] untilafter we had handled the first two games. Now they can look ahead all theywant." So, thankfully, can the rest of us.



READY OR NOT? A question mark when the season began, Notre Dame's emerging defense will get a stern test from the Michigan ground game.