NCF Nation: what to watch 112112
1. SEC championship matchup: We already know that Georgia is locked into its spot in the SEC championship game, but its opponent hasn't been determined yet. Obviously, the overwhelming favorite is Alabama, which takes on hapless Auburn, but LSU and Texas A&M are still in the mix. Alabama goes to Atlanta with a win or if LSU, which plays Arkansas, and A&M, which plays Missouri, lose. LSU has to win and hope that at least Alabama loses because it owns the tiebreaker with the Aggies. The Aggies needed Alabama and LSU to lose.
2. BCS bound? The BCS is SEC heavy at the top and six teams could all still make a BCS bowl game. Wins by Alabama and Georgia pretty much guarantee that the winner in Atlanta is headed to Miami for the Discover BCS National Championship Game. But the most interesting BCS scenario revolves around Florida. The Gators are fourth in the BCS standings, and with a win over Florida State on Saturday, they probably are headed to a BCS bowl game at 11-1. If Notre Dame loses and Florida wins, the Gators could back right into the national championship. LSU and A&M are still alive as well for a BCS bowl, but both need to win and need Florida to lose. South Carolina is 12th in the BCS, so the Gamecocks have to beat Clemson and need Florida, LSU and A&M to lose in order to get that second BCS slot for the SEC.
3. Making the bowl cut: Two SEC teams are still looking for bowl berths. The SEC won't fill all of its bowl slots, but it's also in real danger of sending only eight teams unless Ole Miss and Missouri win this weekend. The Rebels host archrival Mississippi State at home in an Egg Bowl that has real significance this year. The Tigers have an even tougher task, as they head to College Station to take on red-hot Texas A&M. Ole Miss wasn't even supposed to be in this situation, but now that it is, a loss would be a big disappointment for players. Missouri was expected to compete in the SEC, so not making a bowl would be a major disappointment for a program that had so much confidence coming into its new league.
5. A very strong SEC finish: People keep crowing that the SEC is overrated, but the BCS standings beg to differ. Six teams are ranked in the top 12 of the standings and there's a chance that the conference could end the weekend with three one-loss teams and three two-loss teams. A win by Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs wouldn't just have nine wins but could be back in the Top 25 of the BCS standings as well, giving the conference seven in the Top 25. A Vanderbilt win also could propel the Commodores into the Top 25 with their eight wins. Wins by Florida and South Carolina over top-11 BCS teams will be icing on the cake for the conference.
6. Playing for four quarters: Ole Miss has had to swallow three tough losses in a row because of second-half letdowns. The Rebels were down four to Georgia at halftime a few weeks ago, but were outscored 23-0 in the second half. They were then outscored 45-24 in their losses to Vanderbilt and LSU. If Ole Miss is going to stop its three-game losing streak to Mississippi State, it has to play an entire game Saturday. There can't be a second-half lull like the past three weeks. The Bulldogs don't have the depth issues that Ole Miss has, so they can go deeper into games with more options on the field. The Rebels will have a ton of emotion going into this game, but Hugh Freeze needs his team to finally get back to playing four-quarter football or its shot at a bowl will be lost.
7. Crazy 8s: If Vanderbilt can get past Wake Forest on the road, they'll reach eight wins for the first time since 1982. Talk about a total turnaround by Vanderbilt under the watch of James Franklin. He has made this program really relevant in the SEC and the Commodores are no longer a pushover. They are riding a five-game winning streak and are already bowl eligible. The Commodores are headed to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Vandy's offense is hot right now, and Wake Forest is giving up 433 yards a game and 30 points a contest.
8. Coaching finales: The SEC will officially say goodbye to two head coaches Saturday. Kentucky's Joker Phillips will coach his final game for the Wildcats when they take on Tennessee in Knoxville. Arkansas' John L. Smith also will coach his final game with the Hogs against LSU on Friday. Smith held interim status all year after the dismissal of Bobby Petrino and while he has publicly said he's confident about his coaching future, it won't be as Arkansas head coach after Saturday. Kentucky made the announcement about Phillips weeks ago, but he decided to coach through the last two weeks of the season. Tennessee also cut ties with Derek Dooley; offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will coach the Vols Saturday. Things are at a boiling point in Auburn, so this could be Gene Chizik's final game as the Tigers' coach when they take on No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
9. Jeff Driskel's health & Florida's offense: Florida's 10 wins haven't all been pretty, and Saturday doesn't figure to be very pretty for the Gators' offense with the nation's No. 1 defense lining up opposite them. With Driskel hobbled by a bad ankle, no one knows how durable or how effective he'll be this Saturday. He will play, but for how long has yet to be determined. Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease are surely working this week to put him and the offense in the best positions to make plays, considering Driskel won't be 100 percent. Expect a lot more Mike Gillislee and some more Wildcat with Trey Burton. Maybe Jacoby Brissett will take some snaps. The bottom line is that the Gators can't trot out the same offense that has taken the field in recent weeks, or they won't stand a chance Saturday.
10. Stopping Clemson's offense: The Gamecocks are quietly ranked 13th nationally in total defense (310 yards per game) and scoring defense (17.5). What might be the most impressive stat is how this once-young and relatively inexperienced secondary is allowing under 200 yards passing a game. But South Carolina's defense will face its toughest test of the season Saturday when it travels to Clemson. The Tigers are averaging 535 yards a game and scoring 44 points a contest. Clemson can do it through the air with Tajh Boyd and his talented duo of DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins (121 combined catches for 1,842 and 18 TDs), and on the ground with Andre Ellington (959 rushing yards). In order for the Gamecocks to get their fourth straight win over Clemson, the defense has to play its best game of the season.
1. Does Alec Lemon keep it going? The Syracuse wideout has been unstoppable the past five games, hauling in 41 receptions for 727 yards, including his 244-yard output Saturday, when he clinched the final-seconds victory at Missouri with the winning touchdown catch. Not coincidentally, the Orange are 4-1 in their past five games.
2. A family affair on Black Friday: Temple coach Steve Addazio won't get to spend Thanksgiving dinner with his son Louie, an injured Syracuse tight end. Steve joked that the two wouldn't talk much this week. And while not having to devise a game plan for dealing with his son might take away some of the awkwardness, how they interact during Friday's matchup could be fun.
4. Cincinnati's offensive response: Coach Butch Jones said his team's three-point showing in a home loss to Rutgers was unacceptable. Brendon Kay looks like he'll start a third consecutive game under center after hurting his non-throwing elbow, and he'll have a chance to pick apart one of the worst passing defenses in the country.
5. UConn looks to keep it going: The Huskies have had a week to relish their 24-point explosion (by their standards) in a win over Pitt on Nov. 10. The task is considerably harder at Louisville, and this matchup is all the more interesting given the recent bickering over which school is more attractive to potential suitors from other conferences. (Though this contest will have absolutely nothing to do with whatever happens.)
6. What's UL do on the ground? Louisville has had two weeks to recover from its first loss of the season, but we'll find out Saturday if the Cardinals have an answer in the backfield after losing Senorise Perry for the season. Jeremy Wright (680 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) will look to fill the big shoes.
7. Rutgers has a game this weekend: A pretty big one, too. Amidst all the off-the-field news that's accompanied the Scarlet Knights' move to the Big Ten, the team has a chance to clinch at least a share of the Big East title this weekend at Pitt. Remember, the Big East?
8. Does Pitt play up to its opponent? The Panthers stand in the way. They were a few bad breaks away from ruining Notre Dame's perfect season three weeks ago, and now they face the conference's first-place team while needing to win out to extend their season to a bowl game. It will also be interesting to see Ray Graham face his brother Khaseem Greene, as the two are among the conference's best players this season.
1. Can the ACC sweep the SEC? No question this is a huge weekend for the ACC with nonconference games against Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt. Three of those teams are in the top 12. The ACC has taken a major hit perception-wise this season, with only two ranked teams. Keep in mind, the ACC has not posted a winning record against the SEC since 2003, when it went 5-4. Taking down teams from its rival conference would be a huge cherry on top of the weekend.
2. Florida State D vs. Jeff Driskel. OK, seriously you guys, anybody who has watched Florida and Florida State knows the Seminoles have a better offense and a better defense. Yet Florida is ranked six spots higher. That is SEC magic right there. The big matchup in this one is going to be Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel against the suffocating Florida State defensive front. Driskel is expected to play this week after sitting out last week with an ankle injury. As great as the SEC plays defense, Florida has not seen a sack duo as prolific as Tank Carradine and Bjoern Werner this season. The two have combined for 20 sacks.
4. Georgia Tech D vs. Aaron Murray. The Jackets' defense has been inconsistent all season but did a good job of slowing down Sean Renfree in the second half last week. They are going to need an even better performance from that group against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards along with 28 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. In the previous two meetings against the Jackets, Murray has thrown for 523 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception.
5. Going bowling? Wake Forest and Virginia Tech are the last remaining ACC teams with bowl hopes on the line. The Deacs have to beat Vanderbilt, while Virginia Tech has to take down in-state rival Virginia. Wake Forest faces the much tougher task, as Vanderbilt is 7-4 and won the matchup pretty handily last season. Virginia Tech has won 12 of the past 13 meetings and hopes to make a bowl for the 20th straight season.
6. Any distraction for Miami? After Miami announced it was imposing a postseason ban last year, the Hurricanes promptly went out and lost their next game. Will the same happen this year, now that the school has imposed another postseason ban? Miami could have been playing its game at Duke for a shot at the ACC championship. Now, it is just another game.
7. Motivation for Duke. You could ask what motivation Duke has going into the game as well. The Blue Devils already are bowl eligible and are not going to the ACC championship game. But it is senior day, and Duke has a chance to finish with a winning record for the first time since 1994. Plus, the Blue Devils have not beaten Miami since 1976.
8. Tobais Palmer: Unstoppable? What will NC State receiver Tobais Palmer do for an encore this week against Boston College? He had 496 total yards in a loss to Clemson last week -- the second-best day of any player in Football Bowl Subdivision history. This is senior day for him, so he might very well want to go out with another memorable performance.
9. Last time we see Giovani Bernard in a North Carolina uniform? Of everyone set to play Saturday, North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard probably has the highest upside when it comes to declaring early for the NFL draft. He said he would make a decision when the season ends, so his game against Maryland on Saturday very well could be the last time we see him playing for the Tar Heels if he decides to forgo his senior season.
10. Any more offensive records to fall? Two weeks ago, North Carolina and Georgia Tech set an ACC record for points scored in a game. Last week, NC State and Clemson set an ACC record for combined yards of offense in a game (1,351). There is no doubt this has been the year of the offense throughout the ACC, so perhaps another record is ready to fall this weekend.
Here's what I'm keeping an eye on in the Big 12 during its four games this week:
1. They got a new attitude. Last year's Bedlam? Well, it wasn't what either side was used to. Oklahoma State rolled by 34 points to win the Big 12 title. This year, the results could go one of two ways for OSU, which has been completely destroyed in each of its past four trips to Norman. Has Oklahoma State proven it can compete on equal footing with the Sooners, or just angered big brother down South? Even a competitive loss would be evidence of the former.
2. Encore! Encore! Encore! Tavon Austin was absurd in his new role at running back for West Virginia, but he can't run for 344 yards every week ... can he? Look for a whole lot more for Austin there, but what's he got in store for Iowa State?
4. Keep 'em away from the urn. TCU has one of the best pass rushes and defensive lines in the Big 12. Devonte Fields and Stansly Maponga are beasts and the Frogs are second in the Big 12 with 23 sacks. Can Texas protect David Ash? The Longhorns have given up only seven sacks this year, fewest in the Big 12 and fourth nationally. Should be a matchup of two high-quality lines.
5. Fix for a flat? Oklahoma's defense was the Big 12's best this year, but West Virginia poked all kinds of holes in the Sooners' D last week. How much of that was Sooners shortcomings and how much of it was amazing skill position talent from the Mountaineers? Oklahoma State may provide an answer and another difficult test.
6. He thinks he can, he thinks he can. Mike Gundy didn't wait long to give Clint Chelf another chance to take his train to the next station in Norman. He announced after Saturday's win over West Virginia that Chelf would start Bedlam. Still, this environment will be the most difficult Chelf has ever encountered, and it will be his first-ever road start. Can the junior keep it rolling against a tough secondary in a big spot?
7. Dominance up front. Texas loves to run the ball and it's finally starting to come together. Texas has topped 200 yards rushing in three of the past four games and has 12 rushing touchdowns over that stretch. As we mentioned earlier, TCU's defensive line is serious business. It's the only Big 12 defense that has given up fewer than 100 yards a game and has given up less than double-digit rushing touchdowns (8). Whoever wins this battle wins the Thanksgiving night game.
8. Time for a tuneup. Texas Tech's defense gave up 400 yards once in its first six games. All of its past five opponents have topped 400 yards, including 500 yards by TCU in a loss. Can Texas Tech shore up what was one of the Big 12's best defenses early in the season? The Red Raiders are still second in the Big 12 in the stat, but sit fourth in the Big 12 in conference play.
9. Vindication, finally? Last year's Bedlam was a nightmare for Landry Jones for all kinds of reasons. Worst of all was a fumble over his head that led to an Oklahoma State defensive touchdown. He's had a tumultuous career, but in his final home start, does he have one special performance left? It'll keep Oklahoma on track for the BCS.
10. Crowd at Cowboys Stadium. Texas Tech and Baylor playing in Cowboys Stadium in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex is good for recruiting, but is it worth another poor crowd? They won't sell out, but last year's game in Cowboys Stadium had just over 51,000, and the year before in the Cotton Bowl was only 48,000. Not a good look for nationally televised games.
(1) Manti Te'o: Rarely does a Heisman Trophy contender become the sidebar in his team's regular-season finale, but when his team is playing for a spot in the national title game, that's the case. And a welcome one. A lot will depend on how others perform this week, but if Te'o forces a big turnover, in prime time, to deliver the Irish to Miami? Well, it's not a stretch to say we could be looking at the first defense-only Heisman.
(2) Marqise Lee: Speaking of Heisman, don't overlook USC's talented wideout. He's probably the best skill-position player in the country, one who is stuck on a four-loss team. Still, he has given opposing coaches nightmares with the ball in his hands, be it after a catch or on special teams, and how the Irish defend him can go a long way toward determining what kind of night this will be.
(3) Quarterback play: We'll save the obvious for last here. Rarely will Everett Golson be looked at as a veteran, but that's the case here, as he faces another redshirt freshman, this one making his first career start. Golson has been better on the road all season, although the circumstances are amped up just a bit here. Max Wittek? We'll see, although he certainly hasn't lacked for bravado so far this week.
1. All eyes on the North, via the South: Stanford and Oregon both have a shot to still win the North Division, though it's Stanford that is in the advantageous position of controlling its own destiny. The Cardinal can lock up the division with a win or an Oregon loss. Stanford will host the Pac-12 championship game against the Bruins if they win. Oregon will win the division and host the championship game if they win and Stanford loses. UCLA will host Stanford if it wins and Oregon loses.
2. Civil War: Plenty at stake in this game -- including Oregon's chances of playing for a national championship. The Ducks need some help to get back into one of two spots that could get them in the BCS Championship Game. But winning is a priority. The same can be said for the Beavers, who aren't out of the hunt for an at-large berth in a BCS game. If they are able to beat the Ducks, then they'd be in the top 14 and would be BCS eligible -- should a BCS game find them attractive. No promises, but it's better to be in the conversation than on the outside looking in.
3. About them Bruins: They are riding a five-game winning streak and are 3-0 against Top 25 teams. The offense continues to improve behind the play of quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin -- recently named a Doak Walker Award finalist for the nation's top running back. Interestingly enough, this will be the second straight week Stanford has faced a Doak finalist, after going head-to-head with Oregon's Kenjon Barner last week. When asked about his first impressions of Stanford's defensive front, UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said: "The '81 Bears. Or the '85 Bears. Whichever Bears team was really, really good."
4. About them Bruins II: I get what fans are saying about UCLA maybe playing conservative against Stanford -- not trying to lose -- but maybe keeping it closer to the vest anticipating a rematch with the Cardinal rather than having to face the Ducks in the conference title game. Even Ted made a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge at the idea in his prediction this morning. I'll say this -- it's bollocks. (I'd prefer to use stronger language, but decorum prohibits me. And yes, that was a nod to "Animal House.") Jim Mora won't coach his team to play less than 100 percent. He won't even hint at it. Anyone who has spent five minutes with the man (and I can assure you I've spent more than that) will tell you that's not how he operates. I think he wants to play Oregon. I think he wants to go through Autzen to win the conference championship and the Rose Bowl and cast an icy stare at everyone who questioned his hiring. I think he wants to tell recruits on the fence between Oregon, USC and UCLA that he stomped the Trojans and went into Autzen and took away the conference title from the Ducks. That's not to say UCLA can or will, but I expect the Bruins to come out with guns blazing in trying to win this game. Anything less would be cowardice. And you don't get to 9-2 and win your division by being cowardly. Any UCLA fan hoping for less than their team's total effort Saturday should be embarrassed.
5. Conference rivalries: The Cups, Apple and Territorial, have two very different feels this year. In Pullman, Wash., the Huskies, trending up and looking to end the regular season with eight wins, are in a much better place than the host Cougars. Washington State is still looking for its first conference win under new coach Mike Leach. In the desert, two new head coaches are getting their first tastes of the rivalry, and both already have their teams headed to the postseason in their first years. There are obviously bragging rights and recruiting implications that go along with this game. They have matching conference records (4-4), while Arizona is 7-4 overall to ASU's 6-5. You can nit-pick about who got the better hire. But I'd like to think we can agree on the fact that both teams got the best coaches for their schools and both have so far turned out to be great hires.
6. Nonconference: Say this for Max Wittek, the kid has got confidence. Nothing wrong with a little moxie before your first start. USC head coach Lane Kiffin said he expects quarterback Matt Barkley to return in time for a bowl game. Until then, it will be Wittek leading the Trojans against No. 1 Notre Dame. Six times the Trojans have knocked off an undefeated Notre Dame team -- twice when they were ranked No. 1. So there is a precedent. Oregon fans, now might be a good time to learn the words to "Fight On."
7. Budding rivalry? During the Pac-12 media day back in August -- which seemed like a lifetime ago -- media types were asking Utah and Colorado players about their rivalry. The players all sort of shrugged. One game, a rivalry does not make. It takes years of passion, glorious victories and gut-wrenching defeats. Ask the Utes how good that win over BYU felt this year. That doesn't mean one can't develop between these two teams over time. Colorado fired the first shot in the battle of conference newcomers last season. Neither team is headed to a bowl game, but a win in the finale would ease some of the pain -- even slightly -- of what has been a bummer of a season for both squads.
8. Post-Tedford, Day 1: California athletic director Sandy Barbour said the school has hired a search firm to help with selecting a new coach. She added that they have already received a great deal of interest since the news broke Monday morning. She also said they received a great deal of interest before Jeff Tedford was officially fired -- which she said they did not entertain. Obviously, making the right hire is critical. With the improved facilities (courtesy of the departed Tedford) Cal is a fairly attractive spot in one of the best conferences in college football. They'll get a jump on the hiring with the Bears' season already over, so I wouldn't expect a long, drawn-out search process.