EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood kind of had to scratch his head.

“I checked myself,” Greatwood joked. “What did I do wrong? Who did I offend? Which one of the gods did I offend?”

It’s not completely ridiculous to believe that someone in Oregon's O-line room might’ve done something to make the football gods mad. After all, the lineman injury chart is starting to look like an Ayn Rand novel at this point.

Case in point:
  • August 11: Tyler Johnstone’s ACL tear is first reported, though he tore it sometime during the previous week. He's out for the season.
  • September 6: Haniteli Lousi misses the Michigan State game after injuring his leg sometime during prep for that game. He returned on Oct. 24 versus Cal.
  • September 6: Andre Yruretagoyena injured his right leg. He returned Nov. 22 versus Colorado.
  • September 13: Jake Fisher injured his left leg. He returned Oct. 11 versus UCLA.
  • October 18: Hamani Stevens left the Washington game with an ankle injury. He returned Oct. 24 versus Cal.
  • November 1: Matt Pierson injured his left knee. He's still out.
  • November 8: Hroniss Grasu injured his left leg. He's still out.
 Silver lining? The plethora of lower body injuries has allowed younger linemen to get more experience and build toward next year, while not losing too much in the run game (though, Marcus Mariota has been sacked more due to the injuries).

For the most part, the Ducks’ patchwork system has worked. Yes, they averaged just 3.5 yards per rush in their loss to Arizona on Oct. 2 (two yards fewer than their season average), but considering multiple position changes and shifts along the line, having only one loss seems pretty impressive.

“We spin the dial and see what comes up,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich jokingly said about his offensive line. “It has been a week to week existence in that position room.”

Until Nov. 8, it seemed as though Grasu was one of the few untouchables among that dial, but the injury bug struck him too, and Stevens stepped into his place. And for the first time in Mariota’s career, he took a game snap from someone other than Grasu on Saturday.

“It was definitely different, but Hamani stepped up and played well,” Mariota said. “He was recruited as a center. So, he just did his thing, did what he does naturally.”

Again, the line was just fine. The Ducks averaged 6.5 yards per rush, scored three rushing touchdowns and allowed two sacks. Greatwood was happy with the performance, but admitted the Ducks did miss some protections and assignments early. However, those problems cleared themselves up as the game went on.

Although Doug Brenner had been the assumed to be the heir to Grasu, Greatwood and Helfrich decided they wanted Stevens -- a redshirt senior -- to bring his leadership and experience to the center position. Brenner played left guard. Yruretagoyena also made his return, and Helfrich was happy to see him “just knocking off that rust.”

If that’s what it takes to get these guys back in the lineup, Greatwood and Helfrich want to see all kinds of rust knocked off in the coming weeks.

Greatwood said he's never dealt with this many offensive line injuries during his coaching career. The key has been keeping the group confident and continuing to push the players, just like he does when there aren't injuries along the line.

“The last thing you do is throw up your hands,” Greatwood said. “No one is going to feel sorry for you. Everybody goes through it. You just have to keep going.”

However, the injuries have changed things a bit for the group. Last week, they didn't have a full one- and two-deep group for practice. That, obviously, affects the tempo of practice because there are guys who are running so many more reps than usual. The hitting has lightened up a bit in practice, but with Oregon still wanting to run full speed, it has been a little more “taxing,” Greatwood said, for members of his offensive line.

But the Ducks have gotten better with the adjustments. Perhaps when Johnstone went down at the beginning of the season, panic may have set in with this group -- the most experienced one of the entire roster -- and they would suffer some kind of setback.

Now, it’s almost surprising to see the offensive line start the same players for two games in a row.

“They don’t blink at it,” Greatwood said of the moves. “It’s like OK this week you’re playing this position. The kids have stepped up and done a great job every time we shuffle the deck.”

The Ducks have three, maybe four, games left in their schedule and chances are the deck will be shuffled once more (though, Greatwood hopes that shuffling only occurs when guys are getting healthy again).

But until then, he’s going to say his Hail Mary’s and do random acts of kindness every day (and maybe put his offensive linemen in bubble wrap) ... just in case.
The story line gets regurgitated the last weekend in November, every single season. At this point, does it really need to be said just how badly the ACC has to beat its SEC rivals come Saturday?

Well, yes. Because the results carry even more significance now that we are in in the College Football Playoff era. Just look at the way the ACC has been dismissed as a conference. Unbeaten Florida State is ranked behind two one-loss teams in the only rankings that matter -- as much an indictment about the Seminoles’ close wins as it is about the perception of the ACC as a whole.

While it has been convenient for many to dismiss what Florida State has accomplished, it has been just as convenient to dismiss the accomplishments of No. 18 Georgia Tech, No. 22 Louisville and No. 24 Clemson. But it may be less difficult to do so if all four teams come through and all win this weekend.

The last time Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson swept their SEC rivals was in 2000. The last time they posted a winning record against them was in 2008, when Georgia Tech and Clemson came out victorious. That also happens to be the last time both teams won their SEC rivalry game.

This might be their best shot at a sweep in years. With Kentucky-Louisville now added into the mix, the Cards, Florida State and Clemson are favored to win. All three are at home; all three are the only teams ranked in the matchup. Georgia Tech is the only underdog, though the Jackets go into their game off a bye, with a four-game winning streak under their belts.

To take it one step further, the FPI game projections show:
  • Florida State with a predicted 73 percent win percentage over Florida.
  • Louisville with a predicted 77 percent win percentage over Kentucky.
  • Clemson with a predicted 62.5 percent win percentage over South Carolina.
  • Georgia with a predicted 80 percent win percentage over Georgia Tech.

“Winning would help the league a lot but it’s going to be how does the media portray it?” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “When I was here in ’08, my first year, we beat Georgia and Clemson beat South Carolina … but nobody said much about it. It was like, ‘Oh.’ Now the next year when they beat us, it was a big deal so would it help the league? Sure. Anytime we can go head to head with the SEC and win a game it helps the league.”

Johnson brings up an excellent point. Will a potential sweep be diminished in value because they are all against SEC East teams? Georgia is the only ranked SEC squad in the group. Florida and South Carolina have been disappointments; Kentucky is not bowl eligible. Georgia is the only school among the four with a winning record in SEC play.

So the East is not even close to its counterparts in the West, creating a no-win situation. If the ACC does well in these games, people may not dish out as much credit as they should. If the ACC winds up with a losing record, get ready for more finger pointing and laughter.

If we are looking a little closer at the matchups, there are two teams that cannot afford to lose: Florida State and Clemson. If Florida pulls the upset, Florida State will be out of the College Football Playoff, the worst result imaginable for a league that only has the Noles in the mix.

The stakes are high for Dabo Swinney and Clemson, too. After beating South Carolina as interim coach in 2008, he has gone 0-5. For the first time since 2009, Clemson will be the only ranked team in the matchup. Clemson has the No. 1 defense in the nation; South Carolina has the No. 87 defense in the nation. While Deshaun Watson’s status remains up in the air, the feeling is that Clemson simply cannot afford to lose this game again, not when it has so many obvious advantages.

“The last five years, we’ve had 15 turnovers and they’ve had three,” Swinney said. “That affects everything. That affects your plays per game, it affects your time of possession, it affects the way things are called, field position, on and on and on and on. That’s definitely something we have to get changed for us to have a chance to win the game. There’s no doubt about it.”

Georgia Tech also has lost five straight to Georgia, and 12 of the last 13. Last season, the Jackets blew an early 20-0 lead and lost 41-34 in double overtime. Todd Gurley scored both overtime touchdowns for the Bulldogs. He won't play Saturday.

While Georgia Tech has a Top 25 ranking and spot in the ACC championship game, a win over Georgia would only add to an already stellar season.

“The atmosphere is different about this week because it’s a must-win game,” Georgia Tech safety Jamal Golden said. “You don’t want to give them bragging rights for the next 365 days. You just have to hear it over and over again that you can’t beat them. It’s one of those games you look forward to playing.”

It’s one of those games that has to fall in the ACC win column this year.

QB will be key if LSU rebounds again

November, 24, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Even in Les Miles' worst season at LSU, he hasn't been in this position before.

The Tigers' coach has had disappointing years in Baton Rouge -- an 8-5 campaign in 2008 stands out -- but even in Miles' worst fall, when the Tigers posted their only losing record in SEC play under his leadership, they still finished third in the Western Division. If Arkansas beats Missouri this week and LSU loses to Texas A&M, Miles' Tigers will essentially finish last in the West at 3-5 in the division.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsCoach Les Miles may be forced to examine whether recruiting a more dynamic, playmaking quarterback is what it will take to stay atop the SEC West.
It would also mark LSU's first three-game losing streak since Miles arrived in 2005 -- a stretch of futility that seemed unthinkable for most of his decade at the school. But that is the harsh reality that LSU faces these days, the product of a roster that was far too young to contend in arguably college football's toughest division.

Let's not chalk up the Thanksgiving night visit to A&M as an automatic loss, however. The Aggies are in no better shape than the Tigers with an identical 7-4 overall record and 3-4 mark in SEC play. In fact, LSU opened as a narrow favorite to win Thursday's game.

Win or lose, LSU will still be at a crossroads as it nears the conclusion of the 2014 season. Winning in College Station would be a nice way to conclude the regular season, and it would prevent the Tigers from posting a losing conference record and plummeting into the division cellar, but Miles and his staff still have plenty to sort out between now and next season's opener against McNeese State.

For starters, is what they're attempting to accomplish on offense sustainable? Is relying almost exclusively on the running game and asking from their quarterbacks only that they not commit turnovers still a strategy that can win championships? Or was this just a one-year regression to past habits based on LSU's inexperience at quarterback, with more aggressive tactics returning once Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris establishes that he can be a reliable playmaker in the SEC?

This offensive quandary feels much like the 2008 season, as well. That year, the Tigers got inconsistent play from a number of young quarterbacks -- particularly Jarrett Lee, who seemingly developed a complex over the number of his interceptions that defenders returned for touchdowns -- and eventually settled on true freshman Jordan Jefferson as the starter. For most of the ensuing six seasons, LSU has employed a run-heavy, quarterback-light offensive philosophy that frequently frustrates Tigers fans.

It's difficult to argue with the overall results, however. By 2010, an emerging defense had helped LSU climb back toward the top of the heap, and the Tigers enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history the following season. Jefferson and Lee were the starters throughout that period and neither of them played like an all-conference quarterback. Perhaps next year either Jennings or Harris will follow their lead, teaming with what should be another strong John Chavis defense to launch LSU on a similar ascent.

But what if they don't? LSU might be facing a near-total rebuild on its offensive line, and that's hardly an encouraging sign if the Tigers intend to hammer the run 70 percent of the time again next fall. And depending on which underclassmen jump to the NFL, LSU could have other gaping holes to fill -- much like it has in each of the past few years, when the Tigers failed to create the same magic as the 2011 SEC championship club.

It all boils down to the quarterback position. It's difficult to imagine LSU opening up its offense if its coaches aren't confident leaning on the quarterback, and it's apparent that Jennings and Harris don't have their full trust, yet. That makes this an enormous offseason for the position.

If Jennings or Harris or even a mystery third option fails to seize the starting job between now and next August, expect to see more of the same from the Tigers' offense next season. That isn't necessarily a death sentence in the SEC West, particularly since LSU's defense should be tough, but this won't be the West of 2011, either.

Texas A&M's pass-heavy offense is in the division now. Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are all more aggressive on offense. Heck, even Alabama has opened things up under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Becoming a consistent winner in the division these days almost requires more aggression on offense than once was necessary in the West.

That will be the test for Miles and his staff next season. They felt that grinding it out on offense was the best strategy because of their experience on the offensive line and their lack thereof everywhere else. It kept them in most games, but the Tigers' record indicates this strategy wasn't effective enough.

LSU rebounded from similar circumstances after 2008 without overhauling their offensive philosophy, and Miles doesn't seem like the type to completely change course now. Developing the young skill talent at running back and receiver is important -- and there is plenty of reason to believe that youngsters such as Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn will be even better next season -- but developing a quarterback has to be the top priority.

Miles' tenure proves LSU doesn't need an all-star quarterback to win, but he can't continue to be a liability, either.
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and count down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

Matt Kalil, No. 73 in 2008 class

Kalil came out of uber talented Servite High in Anaheim, California, in 2008 as a lock for USC with his older brother, Ryan Kalil, having played for the Trojans and had a very successful college career. The youngest of two brothers, Kalil, chose the Trojans over Notre Dame, and was a member of a USC class that included Tyron Smith, Nick Perry, Jurrell Casey, Khaled Holmes, Malik Jackson and Wes Horton. Kalil's father, Frank Kalil, played college football at Arkansas and Arizona.

Kalil redshirted as a freshman in 2008 due in part to sprained knee. He spent his redshirt freshman season as a backup tackle with one start.

It was the 2010 season in which Kalil became a full-time starter, logging 13 starts at left tackle earning All-Pac 12 mention.

His fifth and final season in Los Angeles was a First-team All-American performance at left tackle. In addition to being selected to All-American teams, he also took home the 2011 Morris Trophy, which is awarded to the best lineman on the West Coast. He was the third straight USC player to win the award following Charles Brown in 2009 and Tyron Smith in 2010.

Kalil was selected fourth overall by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 NFL draft. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and has started every game for the Vikings since being drafted.

Honorable mention: Devonte Fields, No. 73 in the 2012 class. Fields was on his way to All-American status before off the field issues led to suspensions. As a freshman, the Arlington Martin High product started all 13 games that ended with Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors by the coaches after recording 53 tackles, 18,5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Fields selected the hometown Horned Frogs over Texas A&M and Oklahoma.
John ChavisDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJohn Chavis' defense has stymied the Aggies for the past two seasons.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Since joining the SEC, Texas A&M enjoyed victory against every team in the SEC West -- except one.

LSU.

The Tigers were the thorn in the Aggies' side the last two seasons and Les Miles' bunch is the one team that one could say truly has Texas A&M's number so far. The Aggies' next opportunity to flip the script comes Thanksgiving night when they host LSU at Kyle Field.

The reasons LSU ruled the Aggies are numerous, but it starts with the Tigers' defense. LSU had answers for whatever the Aggies threw at them, including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. In 2012, LSU held Texas A&M to its second-fewest offensive yards in a game (410) that season. Only Florida, who squared off against the Aggies' in Manziel's college debut, were better. But the Tigers had three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and sacked Manziel three times in a 24-19 victory.

In 2013, a physically beat-up Manziel led the Aggies into Death Valley and the offense sputtered, posting a season-low 299 yards and only 10 points in a 24-point loss.

"We talked about that a little bit," Texas A&M center Ben Compton said. "It's been bugging us the past couple years that they've gotten the best of us the last two years. They played hard and kicked our butt the last two years. We hope to be able to change some of that."

Texas A&M featured one of the nation's top offenses the last two seasons and the Aggies led the SEC in scoring offense and yards per game both seasons. So what did LSU do to quiet the A&M attack? Look no further than the talent on the roster and its utilization by "The Chief," LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis.

"I think it's just our talent and the 'Mustang' package that Chief has come with over at LSU," Tigers' defensive back Jalen Mills said. "It's been run ever since, and that helps a lot."

LSU's Mustang package is basically a dime formation with three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. The Tigers use the defense against teams that spread it out like Texas A&M and given LSU's defensive talent and speed, Chavis' bunch has experienced much success with it.

This season, LSU leads the SEC in pass-efficiency defense (97.57) and passing yards allowed (164). They're second nationally in the former category, sixth in the latter. That bodes well against a Texas A&M team that is 10th in passing yards per game (first in the SEC) and is 13th nationally in pass attempts (452).

"They've been very effective," Sumlin said of the LSU defense. "They've been athletic, had some different people on the field, they've done a nice job. [Chavis] has done a nice job this year too.

"John Chavis' record stands for itself defensively and he's as good as there is in the country."

The challenge will be different this year for LSU. The Tigers were charged with corralling Manziel, but since he's gone, the Aggies now have a true freshman behind center: Kyle Allen. The four-star recruit will make his fourth career start on Thursday and the Tigers know to expect a more patient pocket passer than the player they faced the last two years.

"He's not Johnny Manziel with all the scrambling," Mills said. "He's a dual-threat guy, but he's not doing as much running around as Johnny did. You really see him sitting in there and trying to fling it, so with that, you have to play a little more coverage and just play all the routes down the field."

The Tigers aren't underestimating Allen, though.

"You say a true freshman, when we talked about Johnny Manziel, he was considered a freshman and he came in and won the Heisman," Mills said. "So you can't go in a game thinking a guy, 'Oh he's a freshman' and you have to try to wait on his mistakes. You have to go in and play your football."

In order to win, the Aggies will have to solve Chavis, the Mustang package and perform better offensively than they did the last two seasons. They're aware of it.

"Great defense," Texas A&M senior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "I've watched them play a few times and I know they have one of the top passing defenses and they have a great secondary. All those guys are pretty athletic, pretty physical... . We know we're going to have a task. They have a good front and we're going to have to run fast routes, do what we do as an offense, tempo-style."
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- A split second after the last catch he will ever make at Memorial Stadium, Kenny Bell cut back and sprinted past the big red "N" at midfield on the third play of Nebraska’s opening possession Saturday against Minnesota.

Eyes on the end zone, the receiver crashed to the turf 4 yards from the goal line, caught from behind by cornerback Eric Murray.

Much like Bell’s career in Lincoln, it was a thing of beauty and triumph. With an unfortunate twist.

The third-down reception covered 73 yards, one short of his career long. But his helmet hit the ground hard, and Bell struggled to his feet, with help from teammates. Seconds later, he was down again, and with assistance from trainers, Bell staggered to the locker room, knocked out with a head injury on Senior Day.

Before his final home game, kids in No. 80 jerseys -- a few with iterations of the Afro that places Bell among the most recognizable players in college football -- walked the concrete outside Memorial Stadium. Inside, Bell grew misty-eyed when he was introduced to the crowd, and then he weaved across the end zone, arms extended like an airplane, enjoying the moment as always.

As Nebraska (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) approaches its season finale Friday at Iowa (noon ET, ABC), Bell prepares to depart the school, a beloved figure and one of the unique Huskers of his era.

This season, he shattered the Nebraska receiving-yardage record of Johnny Rodgers, which had been untouched for 42 years. He also passed Rodgers, the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner, in receptions and sits atop that chart, too.

Bell is flamboyant and outspoken, yet self-aware like few athletes at the age of 22, and full of perspective toward the game. The son of former Denver Broncos running back and return specialist Ken Bell, Kenny is a beacon of positivity amid an unsettling period in Nebraska history.

The Huskers, after back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin, have gone 15 years without a conference title (including in the Big 12 before moving to the Big Ten in 2011). Despite the presence of Bell and record-setting I-back Ameer Abdullah, inconsistency and a lack of identity on offense have continued to plague Nebraska.

It played for a Big Ten title only once, losing by 39 points to Wisconsin in 2012.

Negativity abounds.

It used to bother Bell, but not anymore. He has largely ignored the armchair critics this season, he said, though he remains active on his popular Twitter account, @AFRO_THUNDERBIRD80.

"I’ve gotten away from trying to make everybody happy," Bell said last week in a wide-ranging interview. "It makes me that much happier.

"I just wanted to be liked so much. You want everyone to love you, and it’s impossible."

Bell said he learned perspective from his mother, Tami Campbell. In August 2003, at age 11, he served as the best man to Dan Campbell in their wedding, and Kenny grew up happy in Boulder, Colorado.

"When Kenny wakes up, he’s happy," Bell’s stepfather said. "He has a happy personality. He enjoys life, and he’s done it forever. It’s his spirit. That’s who he is."

Last month, after a 63-yard touchdown catch against Illinois, Bell hugged back judge Mike Brown. When he caught a first-quarter touchdown at Wisconsin that broke Rodgers’ yardage record, Bell bowed to the pocket of Nebraska fans at Camp Randall Stadium.

"That he allows his personality to come out," Dan Campbell said, "Tami and I are very proud of the way that he represents himself and represents his family. He’s very genuine and authentic to who he is."

That much is clear. Bell has never tried to disguise anything.

"You can control what kind of day you’re having," he said. "You can always have a better attitude about things. Does it suck that we lost? Yeah, nobody likes to lose when you invest the kind of time we put into it. But is the world over? Do we wrap it up and throw it in?

"That’s just absurd. You would think the sky was falling."

Bell said he wants to be remembered at Nebraska for treating people the right way.

"What I’ll remember is coming out here with these guys and having the time of my life," he said. "If I were to be put on my deathbed this week and you asked me [about] the most important thing to me, it would be the relationships I have in my life. That’s what matters to me. Stats and the game of football are not."

Coach Bo Pelini said Bell has "really grown up a lot" in four years. Teammates appreciate his genuine nature.

Cornerback Josh Mitchell, a fellow senior, said Bell brought "excitement and joy" to the Huskers.

"He’s someone who loves the game," Mitchell said, "a player that his teammates love, the fans love and a guy that’s always going to put a smile on your face."

Bell’s status for Friday's game is unknown. He might not return until Nebraska’s bowl game.

Count on Bell, though, for a memorable finish. His career, amid distractions on the periphery, never lacked for interesting moments.

"The game of football is just that," Bell said. "It’s a game, meant to be played for fun. People forget that. I know for dang sure people at this place have forgotten it. You want to win every single one, but when you don’t, you can’t crawl in a corner and hide. You can’t be sad forever. You lick your wounds and you get better.

"Enjoying these last few weeks with my teammates -- and winning -- that’s really the only thing that’s on my mind."
Kentucky versus Louisville is better known as a basketball rivalry. The two schools have only met 26 times on the football field, far less than any of the other ACC-SEC rivalry games on tap for this weekend, but the Governor’s Cup dates all the way back to 1912. Bragging rights will still be on the line when the Cardinals and Wildcats play Saturday.

This year’s game is unique, too. It’s the first time in history the two schools will finish the regular season against each other. Kentucky holds a 14-12 edge in the all-time series.

ACC reporter Andrea Adelson and SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf break down the ACC-SEC showdown below:

Key to victory for Kentucky: Quarterback Patrick Towles threw for at least 200 yards and a touchdown in six of Kentucky’s first eight games. The Wildcats were 5-3 during that stretch. In his last three games -- all losses -- Towles has failed to surpass 200 yards, and he’s thrown more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two). Now, with Kentucky’s bowl hopes on the line, it’s up to Towles and this offense to play better than they have in recent weeks. But just because Louisville isn’t in the SEC doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a great defense. The Cardinals have forced 26 turnovers and are among the nation’s leaders in Total QBR allowed.

Key to victory for Louisville: Establish the run. Louisville is most effective offensively when its ground game and pass game are working in concert. In two of their three losses this season, the Cards failed to gain 100 yards rushing. Just this past weekend in a big win over Notre Dame, Louisville had 229 yards on the ground and another stellar performance from Brandon Radcliff. Whether he or Michael Dyer is carrying the ball for Louisville, it will need another big effort to help out quarterback Reggie Bonnafon and the play-action passing that is so integral to getting DeVante Parker and company free.

X-factor for Kentucky: As important as Towles is to the offense, Alvin "Bud" Dupree is maybe more important to the defense. The 6-foot-4, 264-pound defensive end is one of the top pass rushers in the SEC, and he’s remained consistent despite Kentucky’s recent struggles. In the team’s latest loss to Tennessee, Dupree finished with 14 tackles and a sack. He leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks on the season. The senior, who will likely be playing on Sundays next year, doesn’t want this to be his final game with the Wildcats. He still wants to play in a bowl game, something he’s never done at Kentucky.

X-factor for Louisville: As noted above, Louisville has done a terrific job all season of forcing turnovers. Gerod Holliman is a big reason why, with 13 interceptions -- one shy of tying the NCAA single-season mark. But he is not the only one forcing turnovers. Louisville has 19 total interceptions on the season. So with an aggressive, opportunistic group in the defensive backfield, you can bet Louisville will do whatever it can to make sure Towles continues his recent slump. Holliman may have something to say about that.

Ostendorf’s favorite moment from the rivalry: The Governor’s Cup is no Iron Bowl. It doesn’t have a history of legendary finishes. But the 2007 game and the game-winning touchdown pass from Andre Woodson to Steve Johnson was about as good as it gets in this rivalry, especially for Kentucky fans. With less than a minute left, Johnson somehow got behind the defense along his sideline and Woodson threw a perfect pass, hitting him in stride for a 57-yard touchdown. Commonwealth Stadium erupted. Louisville was ranked No. 9 at the time, and it was the first time Kentucky had beaten its in-state rival in five years.

Adelson’s favorite moment from the rivalry: I started covering Louisville in the Big East in 2011, so my history with the rivalry is not as extensive as hard-core Cards fans. But I will never forget watching Teddy Bridgewater enter the Kentucky game as a true freshman that season, and truly realizing a star would be born. He was calm under pressure, made good decisions and was a big reason why the Cards broke a four-game losing streak in the series. Bridgewater ended up 10-of-18 for 106 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and he started every other game the rest of his Louisville career.
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A great mystery has been lost amid the jocularity surrounding celebrity journalist and sixth-grader Charlie Papé's quizzing Oregon coach Mark Helfrich about the future of Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. While we can all appreciate that top topics of conversation at Papé's O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene are "Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota," what has been over looked is Papé mentioned four topics of interest but never provided that final topic.

While Papé's life story is certain to shortly be developed into a movie -- think one part "Network," one part "Frozen" and one part "Wonder Years" -- we feel certain that elusive No. 4 concerns who will be the Pac-12's South Division champion, for that is a potential and worrisome foil for his troika of topics. It is against whom Oregon fans -- girls and boys, of course -- could see their prayers answered (or not) and against whom Mariota could secure the Ducks' first Heisman Trophy (or not).

After all, there has to be a villain menacing Papé's sixth-grade trinity, right?

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIIf Jim Mora's Bruins beat Stanford on Friday, UCLA will meet the Ducks in a conference title game that is setting up to have major national significance.
A lot became clear in college football this weekend, and not just that Helfrich clearly enjoys sixth-graders more than adult reporters. For one, the Heisman race is now down to two outstanding athletes: Mariota and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who is posting a historically good season. The only problem with Gordon's candidacy is not a person in the world would select him over Mariota in a football draft, and that includes all those Badgers jumping around in Madison. With Mariota, Wisconsin would be unbeaten.

Second, the once-muddled South picture will be resolved with finality on Friday before nightfall.

If UCLA beats Stanford at home, the Bruins will not only play Mariota and the Ducks for the conference title on Dec. 5 in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, they also will be well positioned to play themselves into the College Football Playoff. Their case for the CFP could be decisively made, in fact, with the opportunity to erase one of their two losses by beating the No. 1 or No. 2 team on the final day of the season.

Ah, but down in the desert of Tucson they will be rooting hard for the Cardinal while simultaneously renewing the love fest that is the Territorial Cup. If the Bruins fall, the winner between Arizona and Arizona State captures the South title. Both teams figure to be ranked near the top-10 when the selection committee announces its rankings on Tuesday. The Wildcats and Sun Devils haven't met as ranked teams since 1986. Further, with both sitting at 9-2, this is the first meeting in which both will have at least nine wins since 1975. So, yeah, this is a big Territorial Cup.

And guess what? If the Territorial Cup winner paired that quality victory with a win over Oregon, it also would have a good case for the CFP, though it's likely a couple of dominoes would have to fall ahead of the Wildcats and Sun Devils in the rankings.

Though we should make no assumptions of any kind for Saturday, which includes what the Ducks do at Oregon State in the Civil War, Friday should be a great fun, a joyous conflagration of rivalry and national relevance.

Last year was a breakthrough for the Pac-12. Six teams finished ranked and nine played in bowl games. Five teams posted double-digit wins. There were no naysayers -- at least credible naysayers -- to the conference's overall depth and strength.

Yet there was a chink in the 2013 armor: Just one team, No. 9 Oregon, was ranked in the final AP top 10. The conference was highly respected and completely out of the national picture, though obviously Stanford, ranked No. 5 after winning the Pac-12 title, could have made some noise if it had beaten Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

That is the step forward the conference can take as we hit the home stretch of 2014, with winning the conference's first national title since 2004 being the biggest and most elusive prize. The Pac-12 title game is setting up to have major national significance, so fans from all corners of the country as well as many in flyover and frozen states will tune in. Some folks out West will be agitating for the Pac-12 title game to become a de facto CFP play-in game, even with a two-loss champion, and fans from other regions need to watch in order to make themselves into educated trolls so they can best fight against this position on Twitter afterward.

Oregon, as a 12-1 Pac-12 champ, by the way, would have the strongest case for the No. 1 overall seed.

This past week, a reader and Arizona fan questioned the idea of Pac-12 collectivism -- the idea that a fan of a Pac-12 team should also root hard for the conference in general. He made a fair and not uncommon point, one that aligns with the big-city vibe of the Pac-12 and its pro sports towns.

But college football isn't set up like pro sports, even with this new playoff. It's still a beauty contest and whom you hang out with matters. You can't just root for one team and wish ill on all others. Six teams ranked in the top-20 and more than one perceived national title contender bolsters Colorado just like it bolsters Oregon. It also pays better when they distribute cash from the new playoff/bowl model.

Further, it's fun to know that a prominent TV in a Jackson, Mississippi, sports bar will be tuned to the Pac-12 on Friday, or that a crew of Ohio State students will be marinating in a Columbus apartment checking out the Territorial Cup, or that a dad in Dallas will shush his children so he can better counter the arguments stacked against his TCU/Baylor team by these darned, overrated Pac-12 squads.

Now what we really need is for Papé to contact a friend at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and get him to tell Nick Saban about the gospel of Jesus, girls, Marcus Mariota and the Pac-12 South.
Chris DavisJohn David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama players haven't forgotten how last year's Iron Bowl ended.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Is it Iron Bowl week yet?

That’s what the coaches, players and fans alike had to be asking themselves when Alabama and Auburn both fell behind in the first half against a pair of FCS programs Saturday. No offense to Western Carolina and Samford, both of whom have winning records, but there’s no reason the two SEC powerhouses shouldn’t have been up at least three scores by the end of the first quarter.

Instead, the Catamounts took the opening kickoff, went 75 yards and scored first on the Crimson Tide in their place. They became the first team all season to score multiple offensive touchdowns in the first half against Alabama’s defense.

“We were as flat as a pancake when we went out there today, so I didn’t do a very good job,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game. “I really thought our guys practiced pretty well all week and didn’t look at this game as if ... they really tried to keep focus. They tried to keep the momentum of what we’ve been doing.

“But when we went out there for pregame warm-ups [Saturday], I was really surprised that we didn’t have a little more energy and a little more juice than we did. We had to play our way into it.”

It was worse at Auburn where the Tigers had just 23 yards of total offense in the first quarter. Quarterback Nick Marshall, a Heisman Trophy candidate at one time, was sacked twice and threw an interception in those first 15 minutes. The first score didn’t come until midway through the second quarter, and it was Samford who reached the end zone.

“We just weren’t really playing at the beginning of the game,” Marshall told reporters afterwards. “But as the game got going, we got to playing football. It was early; it was an emotional game for the seniors, but we found a way to overcome it.”

Both Alabama and Auburn found a way to overcome their sluggish starts as each won by at least three touchdowns. Now, the attention can finally turn to each other.

It’s officially Iron Bowl week, the week fans look forward to all season and the week that couldn’t come fast enough for Alabama players who were a part of last year’s game. How often do they think about the famous field goal return for a touchdown in the final second?

“Three hundred sixty-five,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “The whole year, ever since after that game, it’s been in the back of our minds. And we know we’ve got to come out and fight them. They’re a good ballclub, no doubt about it, so we have to come out and do the things that we’ve got to do to beat them.”

“We’re still reliving it,” added safety Landon Collins. “It shows up on the TV every now and again, and it just breaks our heart every time. That one second took our whole chance away of winning anything. It’s going to be in my head constantly throughout this week when we’re getting prepared to play them.”

The play is remembered in a positive light at Auburn. It made Chris Davis, who returned the missed field goal 109 yards, a legend on the Plains. It won an ESPY over the summer for “Best Play.” And now it’s shown before every home game to pump up the crowd.

But the Auburn coaches and players aren’t dwelling on what happened last year. They’re focused this year’s game.

“We're not going to bring it up or talk about it because it can't help us this year," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday night. "It’s one of those things you've got to deal with. Both sides have to deal with it because it's kind of what comes with the week, just normal distractions and things that are out there.

“I don't think it will bother our guys. That was last year. This year is completely different and we're going to have to play even better this year."

The rest of us should anticipate seeing the “kick-six” a time or two this week in preparation of Saturday’s game. That’s good news for Auburn fans, who will have no problem reliving the play. Alabama fans, meanwhile, might want to wait until Saturday to turn on their TVs.

But the Iron Bowl is finally here, and everybody can agree that that's a good thing.
Melvin Gordon Zach Bolinger/Icon SportswireWisconsin star Melvin Gordon is one of seven 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten this season.
Melvin Gordon can be mesmerizing. He's such a dynamic runner, seemingly always on the verge of another huge play, that it's hard to ever turn away.

The Wisconsin junior is having a Heisman Trophy-caliber season even if he doesn't win the award next month. Although Gordon's FBS single-game rushing record of 408 yards lasted a single week, as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine eclipsed it Saturday, Gordon still became the fastest player in FBS history to reach 2,000 yards in a season (241 carries). He leads the nation with 2,109 yards. According to Wisconsin, his rushing total from the first three quarters alone (1,915 yards) still would lead the nation.

But there are other standout running backs in the Big Ten -- great ones and really good ones. As the season concludes this week for a handful of teams, it's important to acknowledge all of them. Because we might never a group of Big Ten backs like this one in the same season.

"There's a lot of guys in this league that are going to be playing on Sundays from that specific position," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman has been a bright spot for Indiana, setting the school's single-season rushing mark.
Think about what Tevin Coleman felt like the day Gordon went for 408. Playing Rutgers at the same time Gordon gashed Nebraska, Coleman went for 307 yards, the second-highest total in Indiana history (behind Anthony Thompson's 377, the Big Ten record that Gordon smashed). Coleman had déjà vu Saturday against Ohio State, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the IU single-season rushing record but being overshadowed because he plays on a losing team.

How high would Coleman's stock be if he played for a contender?

At least Coleman's name is known around the Big Ten and, to a degree, around the country. No one is talking about Jeremy Langford. Not even in the Big Ten. OK, maybe in East Lansing. But nowhere else.

Here's what Langford did this past Saturday: rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan State stomped Rutgers. It marked his 15th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against a Big Ten opponent. Think about that. He has the longest active streak of 100-yard rushing performances against conference opponents since at least 1996.

Langford has 1,242 rush yards and 17 touchdowns, and he's barely a blip on the Big Ten radar. It's a tribute to the league's incredible depth at running back. Langford is quietly having another productive season a year after quietly rushing for 1,422 yards on a team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. But it's time he gets his due as one of the more consistent runners in the country the past two seasons.

"He's one of the reasons we won 13 games last year and won nine this year," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday night. "Remember, he had 23 yards rushing coming into his junior year. He's put together a string of 14 100-yard games in [regular-season] conference play.

"He's been a tremendous performer for us."

Minnesota's David Cobb has a slightly higher profile than Langford, but he also gets overlooked in a league loaded with star running backs. Cobb is one of the nation's most physical and prolific backs, yet his steak evidently doesn't match Gordon's or Coleman's sizzle. Despite 1,350 rush yards entering play Saturday, Cobb amazingly didn't make the cut for Doak Walker Award semifinalists.

Cobb left Saturday's win against Nebraska with a hamstring injury. He's questionable for this week's showdown against Wisconsin, although he tweeted that he'll be ready to go. If so, the game at Camp Randall Stadium will feature the longest uninterrupted rivalry in the FBS, the Big Ten West Division title at stake, a giant axe and two of the nation's best running backs. Sign me up.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford has been the mark of consistency with 15 straight 100-yard rushing games in Big Ten play.
Did you know that two more Big Ten backs joined the 1,000-yard club Saturday? Don't feel bad if you were too busy watching Mesmerizing Melvin rack up 207 rush yards and two touchdowns against Iowa.

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Northwestern's Justin Jackson both eclipsed 1,o00 yards. Elliott recorded his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in Big Ten play and fifth of the season against Indiana. Jackson, a true freshman, boasts five 100-yard rushing performances in the past seven games and consistently produces for a Northwestern offense that has struggled most of the season.

The Big Ten now has seven 1,000-yard rushers with a week to go in the regular season. No other league has more than five. The Big Ten has four players -- Gordon, Coleman, Cobb and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah -- with more than 1,400 rush yards. No other league has more than two.

The surge has taken place without star rushers from Michigan or Penn State, two traditionally elite running programs, and despite the season-ending injury to Rutgers standout Paul James. Dantonio, who has spent much of his career in the Big Ten, recalls the running back depth in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the league had stars like Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Ohio State's Eddie George, Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka and Penn State's Curtis Enis.

"It seemed like everybody had a guy," Dantonio said. "It's very similar to that [now]. You've got four or five guys who really deserve to be first-team all-conference players. Somebody's going to get left out in the cold a little bit."

That's life in the league of running backs, but this group, not just Gordon, should not soon be forgotten.
ACC gameday operations centerAndrea Adelson/ESPNIn the ACC Gameday Operations center, league officials monitor action on nine flat-screen TVs.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Down a short, nondescript hallway on the second floor inside ACC headquarters, sits a room far different from the offices that surround it.

Nine flat-screen televisions are mounted along a wall. Computer monitors and hard drives are arranged around the front of the room. In the back of the room, a long table sits on a raised step. Remote controls are carefully set one next to the other at one end.

At the other, commissioner John Swofford sits in a black swivel chair, quietly watching nine league schools play on the second-to-last Saturday of the season. Swofford has company in the ACC Gameday Operations center.

Michael Strickland, senior associate commissioner for football operations, is there. So is an ACC video coordinator and an ACC replay official, whose job is to help monitor calls made in the various games.

Each game is recorded, and interns log video and data for each penalty and replay review so coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads can go through and produce a training video for all officials and coaches by 6 p.m. Monday.

There would be one non-call in particular Saturday that would become the talk of the day, and prompt an automatic review Sunday.

But before that play happens, four 3:30 p.m. games kick off while Wake Forest and Virginia Tech play into overtime. Swofford monitors them all, and jokes you need "agile eyes" to pay attention to all the screens -- four smaller televisions flank a big screen on both sides.

He comes into the operations center four to five times during the football season when his schedule allows, because it is the perfect spot to watch multiple games.

It is all business inside the room, mostly quiet save for the television announcers and interns yelling out scores from the games they are monitoring. When the Boston College-Florida State game kicks off, it goes up on the big screen.

The league needs Florida State to keep winning to keep its College Football Playoff chances alive, but nobody is rooting on the Seminoles -- Boston College is an ACC team, too. So everybody watches the tight first half in near silence.

Swofford has not spoken much publicly about unbeaten Florida State and the way the selection committee has chosen to rank the Seminoles No. 3, behind two one-loss teams. At halftime, he moves to a different room to give his thoughts, carefully choosing his words to avoid saying too much.

"What matters is at the end, and what it looks like at that point in time," he said. "I’m totally biased, and the committee is supposed to not be. I would put them first, but with the chair that I sit in, that’s a biased opinion. But you are talking about the defending national champion that’s won, at this point, 26 games in a row, and ultimately what matters is do you win or not? I think that’s extraordinarily important in all of this."

Is Florida State being judged more harshly than teams from other conferences?

"I’m not going to answer that right now," he said. "I’m not one to judge processes in the middle of the process. Let’s see how the season plays out, let’s see where things are at the end and listen to the explanations as to why, and get the first year under our belt. It’s a committee with enormous football experience and a lot of responsibility with only four teams to make good judgments, and I tend to want to see the end result based on the entire season and see what that looks like, because there will be things that happen on the field that we don’t anticipate. That happens almost every year late in the season."

The way the committee has publicly released its rankings each week has also drawn recent scrutiny. Swofford, who sits on the management committee, said that is a topic that should be revisited in the offseason.

"There was a lot of discussion and different opinions about when to start the rankings and how often to release them. Once it’s all done and we move past that first championship game, the management committee as well as the selection committee will have some conversations and take a look at what worked, and is the process what we want? Was it effective? And if not, how do we need to change it?"

Swofford pushed hard for a playoff, though he probably never guessed an unbeaten team from his league would be so devalued during the process. He does not answer that question directly, reiterating he wants to see how the rankings play out. "We all want what we feel like is best for our particular team," he said.

While Swofford talks, the third quarter resumes in Tallahassee. In that quarter, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston attempts to shove an official out of the way so his team can go hurry-up, a move that draws widespread national interest. Winston was not flagged for making contact with an official, and play continues.

Swofford retreats back to the operations center. A few phone calls come in asking for clarification on what happened. The ACC replay official is noncommittal when asked if a flag should have been thrown. Later Sunday, Rhoads issued a statement saying the game official believed the contact to be "incidental."

Two games go down to the wire: BC-FSU and Louisville-Notre Dame. The games alternate on the big screen. When Roberto Aguayo sails his field goal through the uprights to give Florida State its 27th straight victory, nobody reacts outwardly. Swofford leaves a short time later, bidding everyone farewell.

Though nobody will say it, there has to be relief Florida State did not bid its own playoff spot farewell.
video
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen couldn't duck the question. From Sunday to Friday, he was asked over and over by media and fans alike, "How are you going to respond? How is our team going to respond?"

And every time he'd tell them the truth. He'd say, "We had a great week of practice."

It wasn't satisfying, of course, and he knew that. It wasn't coach speak, though. It was reality, he said. Even he needed to see how his team would respond on game day.

"It was going to be interesting," he said.

By the end of Saturday night, Mullen was all smiles. His Mississippi State Bulldogs didn't go in the dumps after last weekend's loss at Alabama. Instead, they took it to Vanderbilt, winning 51-0 on Senior Night. It was the program's largest margin of victory in an SEC game since 1936.

"I couldn't be happier with how our guys responded; offense, defense, kicking game, guys flying around, making plays, playing with that chip on their shoulder and really believing we have an awful lot still to play for," Mullen said. "You saw that on the field with how our guys played."

You saw it in any number of ways, really.

Even Mullen himself was feisty. At one point he grabbed his punter's facemask and gave him an earful. A few moments later he became irate over a pass interference call and ripped into a referee, drawing another flag.

Davis-Wade Stadium had life again.

The defense was aggressive and the offensive line was dominant. It was the best rhythm quarterback Dak Prescott & Co. had shown in more than a month.

On one play, linebacker Christian Holmes stripped the football, recovered the fumble and ran 51 yards for a touchdown. It was the play of the night. When Holmes got to the sideline, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins told him, "Turtle, we needed that."

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Rogelio V. Solis/AP PhotoDak Prescott and the Bulldogs shut out Vanderbilt on Saturday in a much-needed win for Mississippi State prior to its game at Ole Miss.
"After that, Tolando [Cleveland] caught the interception, and then there was one more turnover we had," Holmes said. "It was kind of a domino effect.

"Hopefully next week we can do the same thing."

A win against Ole Miss on Saturday would keep Mississippi State's dream of reaching the College Football Playoff alive. If Alabama loses to Auburn, it would also mean a trip to Atlanta to compete in the SEC championship game.

But this past weekend's game against Vanderbilt was about setting the table.

It was about making a statement, players said.

"We just wanted to come back and respond," said linebacker Matt Wells. "It was a tough loss last week, so we wanted to come back and redeem ourselves."

Ben Beckwith called it "a huge, big momentum swing."

"We were kind of in a lull," the offensive lineman said. "I wouldn't say we were playing bad, we weren't playing with a lot of juice, a lot of action. We were playing timid with that No. 1 beside us. We got the loss last week in a tough game and we played well in the second half, and I think that carried over into today."

He later added, "It was an awesome win, a dominant win, a statement win that says, 'Hey, we lost a game, but we came back stronger. We're going to keep doing our thing. We're still one of the best team in the country.'"

It came against 3-8 Vanderbilt, granted, but Mississippi State can't help its schedule. Judged in a vacuum, the outcome was impressive.

It was just what the doctor ordered.

"That's exactly what we wanted to do, to come out and show how hungry we were after that loss," said Prescott, who fired off three touchdowns and no interceptions. "We just had to respond, and we did exactly that on offense and defense. Just a good, complete game from the whole team.

"We got back to that team we were earlier in the year."

Back to the team that rose to No. 1 in a hurry.

Some other team took its place in the weeks that followed.

Now No. 4 in the polls with a razor-thin margin for error, the question becomes which team shows up for Saturday's must-win game in Oxford.

"What we want is still ahead of us," said receiver Joe Morrow. "We still have to get there. We just have to work, work, work, and then hopefully we'll be in the final four."

Power rankings: Big 12 now at No. 2

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Tim Heitman/USA TodayTrevone Boykin and TCU are contending for a College Football Playoff spot out of the Big 12.
The Conference Power Rankings are back! We decided to take a few weeks off to let conference games play themselves out but have decided to bring the rankings back before Rivalry Week.

As a quick refresher, the Conference Power Rankings are a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the Associated Press poll and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to determine the best and worst conferences in the country. The AP Poll is designed to capture the strength at the top of the conference, while FPI is intended to capture conference depth.

After several weeks off, the order of the conference power rankings has not changed. The SEC remains the No. 1 conference, but the gap between the SEC and every other conference has narrowed. The SEC’s rankings in the Football Power Index have not changed significantly; the SEC has nine teams ranked in the top 25 of FPI, which is as many as the Big 12 (four), Big Ten (three) and ACC (two) have combined.

In the AP poll, however, the SEC has six teams in the Top 25, including three in the Top 10. The SEC had a stretch of four weeks with five AP Top 10 teams before Auburn and Ole Miss started to fall. Nonetheless, the SEC leads the Big 12 in the Conference Power Rankings, largely because of its FBS-best 48-3 record (5-2 vs Power 5) in non-conference games.

None from No. 2 among top four
The Big 12 is second in the Conference Power Rankings but currently does not have a team in the Top 4 of the College Football Playoff rankings. Could the second-best conference in the FBS be left out of the playoff?

The Big 12’s strength lies at the top of the conference. Baylor and TCU are fifth and sixth, respectively, in the AP poll. Overall, the conference has as many AP Top 25 teams (four) as the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 despite having at least two fewer conference members than those leagues.

The Pac-12 is not far behind the Big 12, and the top three conferences have almost a 20-point lead over the Big Ten and ACC. If UCLA were to make the Pac-12 Championship Game and win, the Bruins would have an argument for inclusion in the playoff based on the Pac-12’s strength and the Bruins’ non-conference schedule (second in the FBS).

Florida State is undefeated but has played arguably the easiest conference schedule of the contenders. The ACC is the weakest of the Power 5 conferences, so if Florida State were to suffer its first loss, the relative strength of an ACC schedule would be examined as the Seminoles make a push for the playoff.

The perception of the ACC can change drastically this week. All four ACC teams in the Top 25 of the AP poll – Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Louisville – face SEC opponents. Three of those teams have greater than a 60 percent chance of winning, according to FPI. If the ACC can pull off the sweep of these games, it could start to change the perception of the ACC’s conference strength.

WACO, Texas -- Art Briles walked back to the benches and saw five beat-up, rain-soaked, worn-out Baylor offensive linemen.

"They were just gasping," Briles said. "I thought, 'What's the deal?'"

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
AP Photo/LM OteroA hard-earned win over Oklahoma State might be just what Art Briles and Baylor needed.
So the head coach asked his assistants on the headset: How many plays had they just run?

Nineteen. Now Briles was gasping.

"Wow."

Baylor's longest offensive drive in two years will not go down as being overly memorable. The possession that reset the tone in the Bears' 49-28 win over Oklahoma State won't make any season highlight reels. It's a line scribbled on a College Football Playoff committee member's notepad and probably nothing more.

By the Bears' high-speed standards, a drive like this is calling winning "ugly." They shouldn't have to apologize. Possessions like these tell you something about a team's toughness.

In 19 plays, Baylor's offense burned through half of the first-quarter clock. They stayed on the field for 10 uninterrupted minutes, working through problem after problem with patience.

Fifteen rushes. Four pass attempts. Four penalties. Four second-and-longs. Four third downs. A fourth-down conversion.

"That was, uh ... um, tiring," Baylor left tackle Spencer Drango said.

Just ask his running back. Devin Chafin logged seven of his 21 carries on that drive and finished it with a 2-yard score. By the end of the night, his arms were covered top to bottom with red scars, scuffs and cuts.

"Just playing football," Chafin said.

His Bears have scored in three plays or fewer 18 times this season, including twice in that same first quarter. This time, to go ahead 21-3 on the Cowboys, they had to earn one.

Thanks to the penalties, the Bears had to travel 94 yards on their 79-yard drive. They did so by asking Bryce Petty, Chafin and two more backs to trust that the run game could grind out those gains. Ten of their 15 rushes gained less than 4 yards. Still, they kept the sticks and the clock moving.

They kept going after that drive, too. Briles was content to run on 33 of Baylor's 40 second-half snaps and maintain a double-digit lead the rest of the way.

Shock Linwood loved every minute of it. When the running back played football video games as a kid, he said he'd always turn on the rain before kickoff. Chafin was all for a little nasty weather, too.

"As running backs," he said, "we favor the rainy, muddy, grimy games rather than the sunny days."

After drying off, the last thing on those backs' minds late Saturday night was whether they'd done enough to impress the playoff committee. A 21-point win in rough weather over the team that spoiled Baylor's national title hopes a year ago? Yeah, they'll take that.

But they should know by now that, as Baylor embarks on its final stretch against Texas Tech and Kansas State with everything on the line, this offense and this team will continue to be held to almost unreasonable standards.

For Baylor to reach the playoff, it will have to outperform TCU, Ohio State, Mississippi State and, in a way, itself. "Be the standard" is the program's mantra. The bar was set incredibly high in 2013. This team hasn't had such an easy time reaching it.

The public expects America's Top Offense (as Baylor's own PR people call it) to keep cranking out long-bomb scores and instant blowouts. That's not getting easier. When an opponent tries Tampa 2 coverages and offers up beneficial rushing opportunities in return, as Oklahoma State did, Baylor sticks to taking what's easiest.

"That Tampa 2 just messed everything up," receiver Jay Lee said. "We had to go the ground game and pound 'em like that. If they're going to back [the safety] out, we're going to run it at them."

And what's wrong with that? The Bears, as well-equipped to chase style points as any team in this playoff hunt, didn't pile on against OSU. Briles didn't do much politicking Saturday. Maybe he shouldn't have to.

The easy wins on sunny days are more fun, no question. But these hard-earned ones might be better for Baylor.

"I just think our team's record speaks for itself," Briles said, "and I think good teams find ways to win."

SEC has been entertaining in 2014

November, 24, 2014
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Whether you love the SEC or not, it's hard to argue against its entertainment value in 2014. The cannibalization of the SEC West and the mostly miserable play of the SEC East provided followers with two hotly contested divisional races that are coming down to the final weekend.

We saw the state of Mississippi take over the state of Alabama in one weekend. We saw the rise of Bulldogs and the fall of Gators. The West was wild and the East was,well, there.

There's SEC bias everywhere and still a chance for two SEC teams to make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFor Dak Prescott and Mississippi State, plenty will be on the line in the Egg Bowl on Saturday.
 Offense was supposed to be down with so many seasoned quarterbacks gone, but 13 teams are scoring more than 27 points per game and eight are averaging more than 421 yards per game.

The SEC had two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, who both still have at least another weekend to impress everyone.

The league started the season with seven teams ranked in the AP Poll. Six are ranked in the AP Poll now, and Alabama and Mississippi State are ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff Rankings. Both are also still in the running for the SEC West title.

From top to bottom, this league has been way more competitive than usual. Just think about this for a second: The West will be decided by the Iron Bowl and the Egg Bowl. The Iron Bowl made plenty of sense at the beginning of the year because you had the defending SEC champs in Auburn returning just about everyone, while Alabama was Alabama.

But the Egg Bowl? Mississippi State and Ole Miss? Sure, these two teams had the personnel to compete in the West, but to have the Egg Bowl actually mean something when you think of Atlanta is great for the league. Both serious playoff aspirations, and now Ole Miss is set up to play major spoiler for the Bulldogs.

Arkansas is relevant again. Bret Bielema's Hogs are rejuvenated and dangerous. After losing 17 straight SEC games, Arkansas has now won two straight by a combined 47-0. Those wins came against LSU and Ole Miss, both ranked. And Ole Miss was still in line for a spot in Atlanta and maybe a trip to the playoff, but the Hogs saw to it that Ole Miss' special run ended in a 30-0 romp.

Texas A&M fooled us with that commanding opening victory, but then it suffered three straight SEC losses before beating Auburn, who at the time was playing like one of the nation's best teams. LSU has a slew of young talent and beat Ole Miss before taking Alabama to overtime. Just wait until next year ...

The East hasn't exactly wowed anyone all year, but with things so even, the race to Atlanta has been a fun one to follow. Georgia -- clearly the most talented team on that side of the division -- might not even make it to the title game because of losses to South Carolina and Florida, who have combined to lose nine SEC games. Those pesky Missouri Tigers are now a win away from back-to-back Atlanta trips. The team that barely had an offensive pulse for most of the SEC season just doesn't know how to lose anymore. Remember when it was embarrassed by a bad Indiana team at home and then got trounced 34-0 at home to Georgia? Well, Missouri is 5-0 since.

Mizzou isn't as good as it was last year, but that doesn't matter one bit. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, allowing just 302.6 yards and 19.9 points per game in seven league games. With the defense being so good, Maty Mauk's inconsistent play at quarterback gets considerably overshadowed. The defense turned it up 10 notches, thanks in large part by ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have combined for 22 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.

Mizzou ain't pretty, but it's winning. Deal with it.

South Carolina was supposed to win the East, but owns the division's worst defense and loved blowing fourth-quarter leads. Then, the Gamecocks somehow beat a slightly surging Florida team in comeback fashion that cost Will Muschamp his job.

Kentucky's offense had bite during a 5-1 start, but after five straight losses, it's pumpkin time for the Wildcats. Tennessee has been so up-and-down, but the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs at least makes the offense watchable. Florida had a rain out, a couple of bad blowouts, two quarterbacks, nearly three overtime games, plenty of heartache and blew out Georgia.

Go figure.

The SEC has been a blast. It hasn't always been great, and there's no dominant team, but there's been plenty of fun drama along the way ... and two weekends still remain.

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