NCF Nation: what to watch week 13

What to watch in the Big East, Week 13

November, 24, 2009
11/24/09
4:18
PM ET
1. The Backyard Brawl: It's the oldest and best rivalry in the Big East, and it's as fierce as ever now that Pitt has gotten back on its feet. The Panthers bring a two-game series winning streak into Morgantown and will try to come out of Friday night's game with their Top 10 status alive. West Virginia wants to finish strong to help its bowl standing. It should be intense -- and a lot of fun to watch.

2. Solving Pitt's 'D': The Mountaineers have scored just 24 total points in the past two games against Pitt, as Dave Wannstedt has found the answer to stopping the West Virginia spread (hint: it helps to have really good players). Bill Stewart's offense has sputtered to put many points on the board in the past month anyway and now faces a huge test against a very talented defensive line. Noel Devine may or may not be healthy. What wrinkles have Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen devised for this game?

3. Welcome to the Brawl, kid: Pitt freshman running back Dion Lewis has nearly wrapped up the league's offensive player of the year award with his outstanding season to this point. Can he keep it going in his first exposure to the West Virginia rivalry? Last time out, the Mountaineers allowed Cincinnati tailback Isaiah Pead to run for 175 yards on just 18 carries. How will they stop Lewis from carving them up behind the league's best offensive line?

4. Cincinnati steps out of conference: The No. 5 Bearcats' drive for perfection continues Friday with a rare late November nonleague game against Illinois. Cincinnati needs to not only win, but win big if it wants to impress enough pollsters to possibly move ahead of TCU in the BCS standings. Could getting outside of a conference where teams know Brian Kelly's system well help that cause? It certainly seems like a coaching mismatch between Kelly and the embattled Ron Zook.

5. The return of Tony Pike: Cincinnati's senior quarterback is expected to make his first start since the Oct. 15 win at South Florida. Pike made a cameo in the West Virginia game, throwing two touchdown passes in his four plays from scrimmage. This will be a lot different, as the Illini will undoubtedly try to hit him and see how his twice-repaired left forearm holds up. Kelly has the option of going to Zach Collaros if Pike has any problems, but a healthy, productive Pike could be the difference in the Dec. 5 showdown at Pitt.

6. The Big Four, Part II: Some in South Florida's corner made the claim the Bulls belonged to a new "Big Four" in the Sunshine State after their win at Florida State. Coach Jim Leavitt said that was premature. But USF gets another chance to prove that it belongs with the state's big boys when Miami comes to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. Beating the 17th-ranked Hurricanes would prove even more impressive than the FSU win because of how the Seminoles faltered this season. And it would give South Florida a legitimate case for inclusion among a new Big Four.

7. Pressuring Harris: The Bulls' defensive game plan always starts with getting pressure up front, which was the key to their win at FSU. It will be just as important against Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes, who are averaging 31.7 points per game. Harris can do a lot of damage -- he's thrown for more 3,000 yards already this season -- but he can also be hurried into mistakes as evidenced by his 17 interceptions. South Florida needs to make him more Bad Jacory than Good Jacory.

8. Syracuse's rush defense: The Orange have allowed only one 100-yard rusher this season (Pitt's Dion Lewis) and have the best defense against the run in the Big East. In fact, they rank ninth nationally in that category. Well, here is a meeting of strength vs. strength. Connecticut lives to run behind its huge offensive line and with the terrific tandem of Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon, both of whom went over 100 yards last week against Notre Dame.

9. Rutgers' response: The Scarlet Knights were truly awful in a 31-13 loss at Syracuse last week. Greg Schiano said overconfidence played a role, but the Orange also exposed a lot of weaknesses in his team that Louisville might also try to exploit. If Rutgers wants to salvage anything out of this season, it absolutely cannot lose to both Syracuse and Louisville in back-to-back weeks.

10. Kragthorpe's last game? All indications are that Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe won't have that job after Friday's game. An announcement on his dismissal would likely come no later than early next week. So what does Kragthorpe have to lose against Rutgers? Why not empty the playbook and put everything on the line in the season finale and try to go out on a high note.

What to watch in the Pac-10

November, 24, 2009
11/24/09
4:00
PM ET
It's about rivalries and bowl positions this week.

1. Will USC rediscover its mojo? The Trojans had a bye week to think about where their season has gone. They had plenty of time to consider a 27-point loss to Oregon and a 34-point defeat at home to Stanford. Will it make them mad and refocus them for UCLA's visit? Or will they shrug their shoulders over a season not up to their standards? Or, are the Trojans just not that good? There's still a lot to play for -- USC can still win 10 games -- and beating the Bruins would certainly bolster spirits, but it's hard to say what team will show up Saturday based on what's happened over the previous month.

2. Arizona tries avoid an Oregon hangover: While it's hard to imagine Arizona not being excited about playing hated rival Arizona State, that double-overtime loss to Oregon was an emotional blow, in large part because it ended Rose Bowl dreams. It was clear that many of the Wildcats felt they blew it against the Ducks. But they can't afford to ponder what-might-have-been too long. Losing to the Sun Devils would make things even worse and would sink a once-promising season.

3. Toby Gerhart vs. Notre Dame's run defense: Gerhart and Stanford rank 13th in the nation in rushing offense. The Cardinal offensive line is extremely physical. And it's probably plenty motivated by a poor performance in the Big Game vs. California. Notre Dame ranks 80th in the nation in run defense. It's not terribly physical on its defensive line. And it may be sagging a bit as another disappointing season wears down. The potential is here for Gerhart to have a big day and loudly state his case as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.

4. Will this be Jake Locker's last game in Husky Stadium? Early in the season, Locker was widely viewed as a first-round NFL draft pick this spring. But his inconsistency in recent weeks might have tamped down those expectations. Of course, there's also his baseball contract with the Los Angeles Angels. It makes a lot of sense for Locker to return next fall and develop his game, but he might not be able to resist the allure of the next level -- in one sport or the other. Just something for Washington fans to think about as they watch Locker try to win his first Apple Cup.

5. UCLA's O-line vs. USC's D-front: UCLA's offensive line has improved this year. USC's front-seven has seemed to get worse. Both units have suffered significant injuries, but the Bruins seem to have been more resilient overcoming them. The Trojans figure to gang up on the run and try to force redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince to beat them. If the Bruins can run anyway, that would bode well for the upset.

6. Szakacsy can establish himself as ASU's QB. Or not: Arizona State's offense has been mostly bad this year. The first order of business in 2010 will be figuring out who the quarterback will be. Samson Szakacsy, a sophomore, was OK in his first start last weekend at UCLA. He made some good plays. He made some bad ones. His speed is a nice thing to have behind a middling offensive line. If he could lead the Sun Devils to a win over Arizona, he could position himself as the frontrunner to win the job heading into spring practices.

7. Weis Watch vs. Big Game hangover: Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is about to be fired. How will his players react on Saturday knowing he's shortly out the door? Will they play hard for him, or will they be flat and unfocused and thinking about their next coach? And what about Stanford? Will it bounce back from the disappointing loss in the Big Game and take out its frustrations on the struggling Fighting Irish? Or will it also be flat and unfocused? Both teams are coming off emotional lows. The winner likely is the one that feels like it's got more to prove.

8. Do the Cougs have another miracle in them? Washington State was hopeless last year -- way worse than this season -- yet it managed to post a surprising comeback overtime victory over Washington in the 2008 Apple Cup. On paper, the Huskies are much better than the Cougars again. And they are playing at home with a new coach they seem to like playing for. Ergo, Washington is a big favorite. But rivalry games sometimes turn out in surprising ways. It may take a miracle for Washington State to win, but sometimes miracles happen.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Eight things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.

1. Moevao at 75 percent or backup Canfield at 100? Oregon State quarterback Lyle Moevao didn't look fully healthy last weekend against California, though he managed the victory fairly well. He hasn't practiced much this week; his strained throwing shoulder is still bothering him. Sean Canfield is not a typical backup. He's more physically talented than Moevao -- he was projected as a future star when he signed in 2005 -- and started nine games last year. He played well during the seven quarters he had to step in for Moevao. But the screws are significantly tighter on the road in front of the rowdy Arizona fans with a Rose Bowl berth just two wins away.

2. California's beleaguered offensive line vs. Stanford's blitz-happy D: Cal quarterbacks have been sacked 19 times in the last five games. For comparison, Stanford quarterbacks have gone down 17 times -- all season. The Cardinal defense also is tied with Oregon for the Pac-10 lead in sacks, averaging three per game. A good running game would slow down the Stanford pass rush, and the Cardinal is not great against the run, ranking seventh in the conference in run defense (141 yards per game). But Cal has struggled to run of late, averaging just 81 yards on the ground in the last three games. Reports are that speedy tailback Jahvid Best is feeling healthy. But will he have space to get fancy?

3. Out of the misery, will a star -- for at least an afternoon -- rise out of the Apple Cup? Both Washington and Washington State rank among the nation's worst on defense. On the other hand, they also rank among the nation's worst in offense. Neither team boasts a statistically impressive player who will receive All-Conference consideration. That's how it is when two teams combine for a 1-20 record. Yet one will win this game. And rivalry games often feature a special individual performance that fans remember for years to come. So who among the Cougars and Huskies rises to the occasion?

4. Arizona LBs vs. Jacquizz Rodgers: Everyone knows that Rodgers is coming, but no one has stopped him yet (see seven 100-yard games). He hides behind a wall of blockers then shoots through the hole, and it seems like it takes a defense time to figure out his tendencies. The Wildcats' linebackers, particularly leading tackler Sterling Lewis and Ronnie Palmer (8.5 tackles for a loss), will have their hands full. And the Beavers may lean on Rodgers even more than usual, considering the questions at quarterback.

5. Riley will need to rally: In his past two games, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley has completed 15 of 41 passes with two interceptions and a touchdown. He's seemed skittish at times since he was knocked out of the Oregon game with a concussion. While Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard can lean on a power running game, it's likely the Bears will need to throw well to consistently move the ball and keep the Cardinal defense honest. Playing at home should help, and Stanford's weakness is pass defense. That means Riley shouldn't complete less than 50 percent of his passes.

6. Beavers must ground Gronkowski: Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski has 34 receptions and eight touchdowns, which means he hits pay dirt once every 4.3 receptions. If he catches nine passes against Oregon State, that could be the difference. And the Wildcats will try to get him nine balls. Gronkowski is too athletic for most linebackers, so Beavers safeties Al Afalava and Greg Laybourn need to make Gronkowski work for every catch and, most important, get him down on first contact instead of letting him rev up his 260 pounds in space.

7. Cal LBs vs. Stanford power running: Cal's 3-4 defense has been mostly a success this season. It ranks third in the conference in scoring (21.9 points per game) and fourth in rushing (124.3 ypg). It has, however, sometimes struggled against the run, see 144 yards from Jacquizz Rodgers and 149 from Arizona's Keola Antolin. But both of them were smaller, slashing, scatback types. Stanford runs right at a defense with 230-pound Toby Gerhart and 210-pound Anthony Kimble. That power attack has worked against just about every defense, see 200 yards rushing vs. USC. How will Cal's four outstanding linebackers match up?

8. How can the loser of the Apple Cup possibly get motivated for another game? One team will walk away from the Apple Cup with something warm and reassuring to cling to -- a victory. Of course, the other will see its season-long misery only increase with the knowledge that it will be widely viewed as the nation's worst BCS conference team. Yet both have another game to play. Washington visits California, while Washington State heads to Hawaii. Neither figures to win. But it's hard to imagine the loser will be able to muster much intensity and focus for a 12th and final embarrassment.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 13

November, 21, 2008
11/21/08
10:13
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Heading into this weekend, nine teams still remain in contention to play in the ACC championship game and everyone, I repeat everyone, can still become bowl eligible if they're not already. No other conference can say that.

1. The scenarios. Miami's loss to Georgia Tech opened things up for almost everyone in the Coastal. Everyone but Duke has three losses in that division. The Terps can clinch a berth in the ACC championship game if they beat FSU and Wake Forest beats Boston College.

2. Florida State's changes in the secondary. The Noles will definitely be without starting safety Darius McClure (torn cartilage in his left knee), and could be without starting safety Myron Rolle, who could be late-arriving because of his interview in Alabama for the Rhodes Scholarship. Defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews hasn't revealed much during the week about his rotation.

3. Maryland's second half defensive adjustments. The Terps have been at their best late in the game, giving up an average of 140 yards and 23 total points in the final 30 minutes of their six ACC games. Last week, the Terps halted six second-half UNC drives. Defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said he has relied heavily this season on his veteran players contributing to the sideline discussions about what works and what doesn't.

4. The quarterbacks in the I-40 rivalry. Will Butch Davis go with Cam Sexton or his original starter, T.J. Yates? Will either one of them be able to outperform the Pack's Russell Wilson, who has thrown 12 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past six starts? NC State has lost 11 of its past 15 games to UNC, but five of the past six losses have been by eight points or less.

5. The battle of the backs in Charlottesville. Since recovering from his Oct. 9 pulled hamstring, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller has 589 all-purpose yards over the past three weeks, an average of 196.3 yards per game. Virginia tailback Cedric Peerman hasn't quite been himself since he fumbled against Miami, but the Cavaliers are 11-1 when he gets 15 or more rushing attempts. The lone loss? Miami.

6. Wake Forest kicker Sam Swank. The Demon Deacons' top scorer is expected to return for the first time since injuring his quadriceps in early October. Is he still up to game-winner form?

7. Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper. It's time to pay attention to this guy again. Since having surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder on Oct. 19, Harper has thrown for at least 240 yards in each game. His improvement over the past three weeks boosted him from fifth to first in the ACC in passing efficiency.

8. Maryland quarterback Chris Turner. He has quietly developed into one of the league's better quarterbacks this season. Turner has just one interception in his last 188 pass attempts, dating back to the fourth quarter of the Sept. 20 win over Eastern Michigan. Will the offensive line protect him from FSU's aggressive pass rush?

9. The defensive struggle in Winston-Salem. Boston College leads the nation in interceptions with 21, and the defense or special teams has scored a touchdown in six games this season, including five straight. Wake Forest, though, is No. 4 in the nation in turnover margin, having gained 29 and lost 15.

10. Virginia Tech kicker Dustin Keys. Odds are he won't be kicking any game-winners against Duke, but Keys is just four field goals away from setting the school season record. Another note on the Hokies: If you're wondering about the stickers on their helmets this weekend, they say "JD" and are in remembrance of Joseph "JD" Burroughs, a student manager for the football team who was killed in a car accident this past summer.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 13

November, 21, 2008
11/21/08
10:13
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It's a quiet week in the SEC, as only seven teams are playing. The LSU-Ole Miss contest (aka the Magnolia Bowl) is the marquee matchup. The winner will move to the top of the list for a Cotton Bowl bid. If Vanderbilt can beat Tennessee, the Commodores will solidify only their second winning season in SEC play in the last 48 years. Alabama is off and has Auburn at home on Nov. 29. Think there's any chance Nick Saban might take a peek at some Florida tape this weekend? The Gators might as well be off. They face The Citadel at home. Here's a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 13:

1. Peria Jerry: When the season began, the defensive tackles around the league getting most of the ink were LSU's Ricky Jean-Francois and Auburn's Sen'Derrick Marks. Turn on the tape from the last several games, though, and find a better tackle in the SEC right now than Ole Miss' Peria Jerry. You can't. He's been dominant, and it's obvious that he's healthy after undergoing surgery in the preseason to repair meniscus damage in his knee. The 6-foot-2, 290-pound Jerry is second among all SEC defensive tackles with 10.5 tackles for loss and will be a huge key if Ole Miss is going to end its six-game losing streak Saturday against LSU.

2. LSU's O-line vs. Ole Miss' D-line: This has to be one of the best matchups of the season. LSU has had its problems this season, but they haven't been on the offensive line. The Tigers have at least two future pros in tackle Ciron Black and guard Herman Johnson. One of the keys, though, will be senior center Brett Helms, who's not 100 percent and trying to gut it out. The Rebels also have two or three future pros in their defensive line and are finally healthy. Even enigmatic defensive endGreg Hardy looked like his old self last week. Ole Miss won't hold anything back, which is why the Rebels have an SEC-leading 80 tackles for loss this season.

3. Showcase for Snead: His numbers suggest he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, maybe the best. But to really make this a season to remember, Ole Miss sophomore quarterback Jevan Snead needs to lead his team to a big win on the road. Here's his chance against storied rival LSU. Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin has done a nice job of bringing Snead along at just the right pace. But like all first-year quarterbacks in this league, Snead has blown hot and cold at times. He seems to be hitting his stride now and will no doubt take his shots against an LSU secondary that has given up its share of big plays this season.

4. Hold on tightly: The surest way for Ole Miss to go into Tiger Stadium on Saturday and lose the football game is to turn it over a bunch of times. The Rebels know that drill well. They turned it over 15 times in their four losses this season, but have lost just one turnover during their three-game winning streak. Forcing turnovers hasn't been LSU's forte, either. The Tigers have forced just 14 turnovers this season, which is tied for next to last in the league along with Georgia. That's in direct contrast to LSU's ball-hawking defense from a year ago. The Tigers forced 36 turnovers on their way to the BCS national championship in 2007.

5. A brotherly thing: Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino won't make a final call on his starting quarterback for the Mississippi State game until later in the day on Friday. It sounds like he's leaning toward making a change and going with the younger of the Dick brothers, redshirt freshman Nathan. Casey, a senior, has started 28 consecutive games, but left the South Carolina game two weeks ago with a concussion after throwing three interceptions. Petrino said there's a chance that both of the brothers could play in the game and that they've been energized by the competition this week in practice. For Nathan, it's a chance to generate some momentum going into the offseason. He'll need to play well if he's going to beat out Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett for the job next season.

6. Malcolm who?: The offensive linemen who've gone against Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard this season know who he is. Still, the 6-foot-3, 277-pound junior is one of the more underrated defenders in the league. He's tied for second in the SEC with 11.5 tackles for loss and leads all defensive tackles in that category. He also has 5.5 sacks, which is an SEC-high for defensive tackles. Sheppard, one of the Arkansas team captains, has helped to keep a defense together that went through a brutal three-game stretch in which it gave up 139 points to Alabama, Texas and Florida. The Hogs have played more respectably on defense ever since, and Sheppard has been a big reason why.

7. Croom's future: The fans at Mississippi State are growing increasingly more restless each week, and many of them are calling for Sylvester Croom to hit the road. Yep, the same Sylvester Croom that won SEC Coach of the Year honors last season and led the Bulldogs to eight wins and a Liberty Bowl victory. Mississippi State (3-7, 1-5 SEC) needs to show some improvement these last two weeks, especially on offense. Croom may shake it up some Saturday against Arkansas. He wants to get both redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Relf and redshirt freshman running back Wade Bonner on the field, while J.C. Brignone will return to center and Michael Gates will move to left guard.

8. Tennessee defensive pride: It's been a horrible season for the Vols. There's no way to sugarcoat it. But through the agony of it all, John Chavis' defense has continued to play with pride and deserves far better than how this thing is going to end up. Tennessee enters Saturday's game at Vanderbilt ranked No. 7 nationally in total defense, which is remarkable when you consider how little help the defense has received from an offense that has been held to single digits in its last three games. Chavis has had better defenses at Tennessee, but few have played with more resolve than this group.

9. Less orange in Vanderbilt Stadium: This may actually be an honest-to-goodness home game for Vanderbilt, which hasn't beaten Tennessee in Nashville since 1982. Traditionally, the orange in the Vanderbilt Stadium stands when these two teams meet is as prevalent as the black and gold. There have been years when it almost sounded like a home game for the Vols. But not this year. Tennessee is putting the wraps on one of the worst seasons in school history, while Vanderbilt is headed to a bowl game for the first time in 26 years. "I hope we have a huge black and gold advantage in our stadium," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said.

10. 50, 60 and counting: How many points will Florida score on The Citadel, and how long will Urban Meyer play his starters? It's really one of those games that the Gators get very little out of, particularly this late in the season. In fact, you know Meyer and his staff will be holding their breath the entire time hoping somebody doesn't get rolled up and injured. It's no time to play scared, but you can bet that Meyer will be smart about how long he leaves guys like Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes in the game. Florida hasn't lost to a current non-FBS school since losing to Villanova in 1946.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time for our final regular-season Saturday primer. Rivalry week brings no shortage of story lines.

To review the title scenarios for the umpteenth time, Penn State will clinch a share of the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth with a win against Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Ohio State can clinch a share of the league title by beating Michigan (ABC, noon ET) and would go to the Rose Bowl with a Penn State loss to Michigan State. The Spartans can clinch a share of the league title with a win at Penn State, but they also need an Ohio State loss to Michigan to reach the Rose Bowl.

1. State College in the spotlight -- It takes a lot for any Big Ten regular-season game to trump the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, but the Penn State-Michigan State game qualifies. Penn State dominated the league for the first two months but has struggled a bit as of late, particularly early in games. Michigan State is the consummate team and could pull the upset against a more talented Nittany Lions squad by playing disciplined, physical football and limiting mistakes. The Spartans haven't won in State College since 1965 -- the season before Joe Paterno took over as Lions coach. Penn State aims for its second Big Ten title in four seasons.

2. Rich Rodriguez gets his first taste of The Game -- It has been a rough year for Michigan's new coach, who didn't help himself this week by telling a portion of college football fans to "get a life." Rodriguez's statement was blown out of proportion, but he would have been wise to steer clear of anything remotely controversial. He now tries to become the seventh straight Michigan coach to win his debut against Ohio State. But the Wolverines are three-touchdown underdogs and need a complete performance to avoid their ninth loss of the season.

3. Joe Tiller's send-off -- Purdue bids farewell to its all-time winningest coach as Tiller takes the field for the final time against Indiana (ESPN2, noon ET). This season hasn't reflected many of the good things Tiller did at Purdue, especially on the offensive side. But the crowd at Ross-Ade Stadium likely will show their appreciation for a man who revolutionized offense in the Big Ten and helped the Boilers reach the 2001 Rose Bowl.

4. Shonn Greene continues Heisman campaign -- Greene needs 107 yards to set Iowa's single-season rushing record, and another huge performance could earn him an invitation to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Iowa junior has been overlooked nationally this season, and he must continue to produce at a high rate to stay on the radar. Greene can become the first running back to eclipse 100 rushing yards in all eight Big Ten games since Penn State's Curtis Enis in 1997.

5. Terrelle Pryor reunites with Rodriguez -- The perfect quarterback for Rodriguez's spread offense will take snaps for Ohio State on Saturday. Pryor hasn't spoken to Rodriguez since hours before committing to Ohio State, and he can fuel the what-might-have-been argument with a big day against Michigan. The Buckeyes' freshman has blossomed in recent weeks, accounting for five touchdowns (4 pass, 1 rush) the past two games.

6. Juice Williams fights for bowl eligibility -- After a blistering start that included setting single-game total offense records in two different stadiums, Williams has struggled lately, committing nine turnovers (8 interceptions, 1 fumble) in Illinois' last four games. He was even replaced last week against Ohio State. The Illini must beat Northwestern to get bowl eligible a year after going to Pasadena, and they'll need a big game from Williams.

7. Joe Paterno's postgame news conference -- His team is a win away from its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1995, but the 81-year-old Paterno once again will be in the spotlight. He insists he hasn't thought about retirement, but he'll spend his seventh consecutive game in the press box with an ailing right leg/hip. Paterno could announce after the game when he'll undergo hip-replacement surgery and what the outlook will be for recovery and a return for a bowl game.

8. Minnesota closes out the Hump Dome -- Most Big Ten fans won't be sorry to see the Minnesota Golden Gophers leave the Metrodome, especially when they get a glimpse of TCF Bank Stadium. But the Gophers would like to end their residency in the dome with a victory against rival Iowa. Minnesota has dropped three straight after a 7-1 start and could slide down the bowl pecking order with a fourth consecutive loss.

9. Javon Ringer vs. Evan Royster -- Ringer has undoubtedly been one of the league's most valuable players, and Michigan State will need a huge performance from its senior running back to knock off Penn State. Royster would love to get some of Ringer's carries, and if given the chance, Penn State's dynamic sophomore running back could do big things against a stingy Spartans defense.

10. Northwestern's seniors chase history -- They're only the second class to have taken part in victories against all 10 Big Ten opponents. Now the Wildcats' seniors can lead the team to nine wins or more for just the fifth time in school history. Northwestern's range of potential bowls stretches from Outback to Insight, so a win against a talented Illinois team can move the Wildcats up the pecking order.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

1. LeSean McCoy vs. the Cincinnati defense: The Bearcats have been strong against the run of late, holding West Virginia to under 100 yards as a team and limiting Louisville to 3.2 yards per carry. But Donald Brown gashed them for 150 yards last month, and Pitt had two 100-yard rushers in a win over Cincinnati last year. Pittsburgh proved against Louisville that it could win without a huge day from McCoy, but one of his vintage performances sure would help the cause.

2. Cincinnati's passing game vs. the Pitt secondary:
The Panthers' defensive backfield has upgraded its play since the disastrous showing against Rutgers, but it's still vulnerable to big plays. Cincinnati has the most productive pass-catching duo in the conference with Dominick Goodman and Mardy Gilyard. You'd better believe Tony Pike is going to test Pitt deep early and often.

3. Jonathan Baldwin vs. Mike Mickens: The league's most electric young receiver will certainly find himself matched up at times with one of the best senior cornerbacks in the nation. Pitt's ability to throw deep off play-action will force Mickens and his teammates to react quickly. At 6-foot-5, Baldwin can erase mistakes by quarterback Bill Stull and can jump over the 6-foot Mickens. "Our corners are going to be challenged," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. "DeAngelo Smith and Mike Mickens have to play their best football."

4. Pat White on the loose in Louisville: Last year against the Cardinals, White ran for 147 yards and passed for 181. Two years ago against them, he had 125 yards rushing and 222 yards passing. The West Virginia quarterback is usually at his best in this game, and given Louisville's inexperienced linebackers and dearth of speed on the defensive line, he could be in for another monster performance.

5. Louisville's spirits: The Cardinals have lost three straight, are surrounded by negativity and can't even get fans buzzing about a game against West Virginia. But it is Senior Day, and some terrific players like Eric Wood, George Bussey, Earl Heyman and Hunter Cantwell won't want to leave without a fight. Can they get something going early against the usually slow-starting Mountaineers and build some confidence?

6. Matt Grothe: The South Florida quarterback clearly isn't healthy right now. He hurt his left ankle against Rutgers and wore a boot for a few days afterward. He's a tough guy who will probably still play Sunday against UConn, but if his mobility is limited, that takes away one of his greatest strengths. And Grothe has thrown eight interceptions in his past three games even when healthy.

7. Donald Brown: The nation's leading rusher will go against a struggling Bulls defense. While South Florida's real weakness is in its defensive backfield, teams have been able to run up the middle against them, which is something Brown can do with the best of backs.

8. Air raid on Army: Rutgers has been flying high through the air during its four-game winning streak, and Army is going to have a tough time slowing down the Mike Teel-to-Kenny Britt connection. Certainly Army doesn't practice much against a passing offense; the Black Knights average just 50 yards passing per game and had a game this year where they didn't even attempt a throw.

9. Chip Bowden's well-being: Bowden is Army's quarterback, which places him in the crosshairs this weekend. Five of the last six quarterbacks have not been able to finish the game against the hard-hitting Rutgers defense, which made Grothe its latest victim last Saturday. Bowden is the team's second-leading rusher, so he'll be exposed to several hits.

10. Syracuse's motivation: How will the Orange react to the firing of Greg Robinson when they go to Notre Dame this weekend? Will they play with fire in an effort to show support for their well-liked coach? Or will they fold under the first sign of adversity?

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

1. Houston, we have no problems: The Cougars control their own destiny for the C-USA West title, but will there be a hangover from the 70-30 win over Tulsa last week? UTEP will give Houston all it can handle as it fights for bowl eligibility.

2. Out on a high note: Joe Glenn might be coaching in his final game at Wyoming, so it would be fitting for him to go out with a win over his rival. UNLV would appreciate it, too.

3. Thumbs up: Memphis quarterback Arkelon Hall will play in his first game since breaking his thumb against East Carolina. Look for UCF to bring pressure to test his grip on the ball.

4. Forget Baton Rouge: Honestly, the loss to LSU doesn't matter in terms of Troy's goals. But if the Trojans can't regroup against Louisiana-Lafayette, they might lose the Sun Belt title.

5. Handling pressure: BYU quarterback Max Hall hasn't worked well under pressure and Utah is going to bring all he can handle on Saturday. Hall must have a better showing against this defense than he did against TCU.

6. ND trying to make it respectable: The Fighting Irish are bidding for their seventh win against a Syracuse team that's playing for nothing but pride. A win shouldn't be a problem for Notre Dame and a Gator Bowl berth could be on the horizon.

7. Take the East, please! No one wants to step up and claim the C-USA East, but eventually one of these teams has to grab it. East Carolina is the front-runner, but Memphis is closing in and Marshall would need a miracle.

8. Making history: Buffalo is a win over Bowling Green away from securing its first MAC East title, the school's second bowl berth and likely its first bowl appearance.

9. Whose revenge? Nevada is still miffed about its four-overtime loss to Boise State last season, but a Boise State team that prides itself on defense isn't exactly thrilled about allowing the Wolf Pack 67 points. Both sides will be looking for a measure of revenge.

10. Still looking for a bowl: Boise State has a bowl all locked up, but four other WAC teams are bowl eligible and Hawaii is a win away. With just four bowls guaranteed to the conference, things could get chippy over the next couple weeks.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

There are only two games in the Big 12 on Saturday, the lightest scheduling day of the season. But there's still plenty to watch for, highlighted by this week's "Game of the Century" involving Texas Tech and Oklahoma.

Here are some items I'll be watching tomorrow.

1. The performance of Oklahoma's banged-up defense: The Sooners will be playing without top pass-rusher Auston English (sprained knee), starting middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds (season-ending torn ACL) and defensive end Alan Davis (sprained knee.) The Sooners have struggled with those personnel losses, allowing at least 28 points in the last five games for the first time in the 114-season history of the program. And they should be supremely challenged by Tech's explosive offense, which leads the nation in passing.

Even with those dire circumstances, the Sooners have been effective in other ways since the Texas loss. Oklahoma has forced 15 turnovers over the last four games which is the most in the nation over that span, even including a bye week. And in their last game, the Sooners caused four turnovers as they shackled Texas A&M, limiting the Aggies to 278 yards.

2. Oklahoma's much-maligned special teams: The Sooners have struggled covering kicks all season, ranking 108th among teams in kickoff coverage and allowing three touchdowns. Bob Stoops has worked on improving his unit during the team's week off and believes it will be ready. But can the unit come up with enough big plays that will keep the Red Raiders bottled up in poor field position?

3. Michael Crabtree's health: Tech's top receiver has been hobbled with a sprained ankle during the last several weeks and has been noticeably slowed since he was hurt returning a kickoff against Texas A&M. He's told reporters this week that the extra week of rest has rejuvenated him and he'll be ready to go at kickoff. He blistered the Sooners for 12 catches and 154 yards last season. The Red Raiders will need another big game from him on Saturday.

4. Sam Bradford's shot at retribution: Last year's loss to Tech is a blur for Bradford, who sustained a concussion and missed most of the game after throwing only three passes. His departure paved the way for Tech's 34-27 victory, which ended the Sooners' BCS title game hopes. That disappointment has sparked Bradford to a huge sophomore season, as he's leading the nation with 38 touchdown passes coming into Saturday's game. Those struggles last season have left him with extra determination to play well in Saturday's game.

5. Huge stakes for the Red Raiders: The Red Raiders are the nation's hottest team with a nation-best 12-game winning streak and are 10-0 for the first time since 1938. But most importantly, they can wrap up their first Big 12 title-game appearance and a chance to meet Missouri in the conference championship game with a victory over the Sooners on Saturday.

6. Heisman ramifications: Ballots were sent out to 926 voters earlier this week. Bradford, Crabtree and Tech quarterback Graham Harrell all are among the favorites. Whoever has the biggest game Saturday night in the nationally televised game will go a long way toward perhaps hoisting the trophy when it's presented in New York City on Dec. 13.

7. Senior night for Oklahoma's seniors: Saturday will be the final game for Oklahoma's senior class, which lost its first game back in 2005 and hasn't lost at home since -- a nation-best winning streak of 23 games that is the longest among all FBS teams. The Sooners haven't lost a home conference game since falling in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma State on Nov. 24, 2001. Bob Stoops is 59-2 at home in his coaching tenure with the Sooners.

8. Mike Leach squares off with his mentor: Leach worked with Bob Stoops during the 1999 season -- Stoops' first coaching the Sooners -- before assuming the Tech job the following season. Since then, he's never won at Owen, going 0-4 in those games. But he has turned the rivalry around a little, winning two of the last three games in the series. Tech is 1-6 in previous games at Owen Field, notching its only win there in 1996. And Stoops needs a big win to regain some of his luster. "Big Game Bob" started his career with an 8-1 record against top 10 opponents, but is only 3-7 against top 10 foes since then.

9. Ron Prince's finale: Kansas State's coach finishes his career with the Wildcats against Iowa State. A victory would keep Kansas State out of a tie for the Big 12 North Division cellar with the Cyclones. Something has to give in Saturday's game between two teams already eliminated from bowl eligibility. The Wildcats have lost five-straight games -- longest since Bill Snyder's final season in 2005 -- and Iowa State enters the game with a 16-game road losing streak that is the longest in the nation after UAB's win at Tulane last week.

10. Austen Arnaud's strong finish: The sophomore Iowa State quarterback is coming off a big game after passing for 326 yards and setting the school's single-game record with 36 completions last week against Missouri. He'll be playing against a struggling Kansas State defense that ranks 114th in total defense, has been singed for at least 30 points in eight of its last nine games and has allowed an average of 51.8 points in its last four games. A big effort could provide Arnaud with confidence heading into next season.

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