NCF Nation: what to watch week 14
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are some trends I'm watching for this weekend in Big 12 games:
1. The Big 12 South race -- The tightest Big 12 divisional race in history is playing out as Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma enter the final week of the season tied for first place in the South Division. If all three win, it will send league officials scurrying to the Bowl Championship Series standings to determine who will meet Missouri in the Big 12 Championship Game next week. In case of a two-way tie, Texas Tech holds the tiebreaker over Texas, Texas holds the edge over Oklahoma and the Sooners would advance if tied with Texas Tech. It will make the fine art of earning style points very important in all games this weekend for the three South challengers.
2. The Heisman race heats up -- Texas' Colt McCoy, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell are involved in a similarly tight battle for the Heisman. Most voters are expected to hold onto their votes until after next week's championship game, providing an edge for the quarterback that finishes with the biggest late-season performances. All of them have that chance heading into this week's games.
3. Texas' revitalized strength in the trenches -- Texas players were humiliated after they were whipped inside in embarrassing losses to Texas A&M in the last two seasons. It's given them a chip on their shoulders as they prepare for Thursday's game in Austin. Texas coaches pushed the Longhorns through rougher practices leading up to the A&M game, hoping that the harder work would toughen them for an inexperienced Aggie team that doesn't appear to have the interior strength this season as some of former coach Dennis Franchione's previous squads.
4. Stephen McGee's last hurrah -- McGee earned a place in Aggie lore by directing two dramatic victories over the Longhorns in the last two seasons. He's lost his starting place after injuring his shoulder earlier this season, giving way to record-breaking sophomore Jerrod Johnson. Would A&M coach Mike Sherman consider giving McGee a chance to play in a tight game because of his previous success over the Longhorns? It will be interesting if McGee will get to play in what will be the last game of his college career with the Aggies.
5. Can the Sooners play any better? -- Oklahoma produced one of the most complete games of coach Bob Stoops' tenure with an impressive 65-21 drubbing of Texas Tech that resuscitated the Sooners' national title hopes. The Sooners notched an impressive beatdown over Texas Tech, cruising to a 42-7 halftime advantage in a game that was over early. Can they duplicate that emotion in what should be a tough battle against old foe Oklahoma State on the road? Oklahoma's Big 12 title hopes and chances to play in the Bowl Championship Series title game will be riding on it.
6. Kendall Hunter's gimpy quadriceps muscle -- The Big 12's leading rusher was injured midway through Oklahoma State's victory over Colorado two weeks ago. Coach Mike Gundy expects Hunter to be ready to play Saturday against Oklahoma. If Hunter isn't 100 percent, it will be much more difficult for the Cowboys to spring a home upset. And it would also mean more work for backup Keith Toston and place more demands on other phases of the Cowboys' balanced offensive attack.
7. Any hangover for the Red Raiders? -- Texas Tech's national title hopes were quashed by their humiliating loss, a performance where they allowed more points than in any game in school history. The Red Raiders still have legitimate hopes to rebound and claim their first berth in a Big 12 Championship Game if they can beat Baylor and other variables work in their favor. But they won't have any hopes unless they blot those bad Norman memories very quickly in Harrell's last home game.
8. Art Briles' return to Lubbock -- The Baylor coach is a Texas Tech graduate, was an original member of Mike Leach's staff and still has many friends and family members in the area. Despite that association, Briles would like nothing better than to unleash freshman quarterback Robert Griffin on his old team and hope he ends their Big 12 title game hopes in the process.
9. Not much national buzz at Arrowhead Stadium this time for Missouri-Kansas -- The rest of the country is greeting Kansas-Missouri this season with a collective yawn.
The Tigers have already wrapped up the North Division title. But it won't matter in this blood feud between these two bitter rivals. Chase Daniel will be gunning to make history as he attempts to beat the Jayhawks for the third straight time. Kansas coach Mark Mangino just hopes his defense will show up after being toasted for 209 points in its last five games. Missouri's high-powered offensive attack will provide a huge challenge for the struggling Jayhawks, who are headed for back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in school history.
10. Bowl hopes in Lincoln -- Surging Nebraska can take a big step to earning a New Year's Day bowl game by beating Colorado. Underrated Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz will be putting the finishing touches on one of the top statistical seasons in school history. He'll be facing an injury-depleted Colorado secondary that likely will be starting freshmen safeties Anthony Perkins and Patrick Mahnke against him. That group needs a big performance as the Buffaloes must win in order to become bowl eligible.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Are we really entering the final weekend of the regular season? This season has flown by. And even though the SEC Championship Game has been set for a while now, this is still a compelling week. It's Rivalry Week in the SEC, headlined by the Iron Bowl. Everybody knows that strange things tend to happen these last few weeks, so sit back and enjoy. Here's a checklist of what to watch in the SEC in Week 14:
1. Bleeding crimson: Alabama's senior class consists of just nine players. Don't let that fool you. This is one of the strongest senior classes the Crimson Tide have had in some time and a big reason they head into Saturday's Iron Bowl matchup with Auburn unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country. The senior leadership on this team is rock-solid, and that goes back to the offseason when they made sure everybody was on the same page. From quarterback John Parker Wilson, to center Antoine Caldwell, to safety Rashad Johnson, to tight ends Travis McCall and Nick Walker, the seniors have set the tone for what's been one of the more memorable seasons at Alabama in the last two decades.
2. Taking charge: Everybody knows how effective Alabama has been this season at jumping on teams early. The Crimson Tide have led after the first quarter in 10 of their 11 games and have outscored teams 120-20 in the first quarter. They run into an Auburn team, though, that has also been tough to dent defensively in the first quarter. The Tigers haven't allowed a first-quarter touchdown all season and have outscored opponents 63-13 in the first quarter. But get this: Auburn has been especially stingy against Alabama over the years in the first quarter. The last time the Tide scored a first-quarter touchdown against the Tigers was 1996.
3. Trouble in Tallahassee? If you're looking for a reason to believe that Florida State could upset Florida, history says the Gators don't fare very well in this game the week before playing in the SEC Championship Game. Florida is just 2-5-1 against Florida State in those years that the Gators have gone on to play in the SEC Championship Game. The only win in Tallahassee came during the 2006 national championship season when the Gators broke a 14-14 tie with a fourth-quarter touchdown to win 21-14. During the 1996 national championship season, Florida lost 24-21 to Florida State in Tallahassee before getting a second shot at the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl and rolling to a 52-20 rout.
4. Turning pro: This could be the final regular-season games for several talented underclassmen in the league. Among those most likely to come out early are Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno, Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, Florida running back/receiver Percy Harvin, Vanderbilt cornerback D.J. Moore, Auburn defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman, South Carolina safety Emanuel Cook, South Carolina tight end Jared Cook, Ole Miss defensive end Greg Hardy, LSU offensive tackle Ciron Black and LSU defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois.
5. Fulmer's farewell: After 30-plus years at his alma mater as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer coaches his final game for the Vols on Saturday against Kentucky. It's a shame that Fulmer didn't get to go out on his terms. Then again, how many coaches do anymore? His legacy will endure at Tennessee, and while the last five or six years haven't been the best, he took Tennessee football to dizzying heights in the 1990s that ultimately contributed to his ouster. When you go 45-5 over a four-year span and win two SEC championships and one national championship, nothing you do is ever going to be good enough again.
6. Tuberville's fate: There won't be a postseason for Auburn unless the Tigers upset No. 1-ranked Alabama on Saturday. That means we should know pretty soon whether Tommy Tuberville is going to be back at Auburn next season. Who could blame Tuberville if he took a walk? They tried to get him in 2003, and something tells me he'd already be gone if he didn't have that $6 million buyout hanging over his head. Assuming Tuberville is back next season, he's almost certainly going to have to make some changes on his staff with some guys who've been with him for a long time. We'll see if Tuberville is willing to do that.
7. Cobb's return: You think Randall Cobb wants to win this game? He's going to say all the right things and is mature beyond his years for a true freshman. But he'd like nothing more than to waltz into Neyland Stadium and be a big part of ending Kentucky's 23-game losing streak to Tennessee. Cobb grew up about 10 minutes from Tennessee's campus in nearby Alcoa, Tenn., and used to sell concessions at Neyland Stadium as a kid. The Vols sort of thumbed their noses upward at Cobb until late in the recruiting process. By that time, he'd already committed to Kentucky and wasn't about to renege on his pledge to the Wildcats.
8. Any more fake punts? Houston Nutt and the Rebels are 2-for-2 this year with fake punts in their two biggest wins. They ran one for 15 yards to keep a scoring drive alive in the 31-30 win at Florida when Lionel Breaux scooted around the corner on a reverse. That play set up the fake punt last week against LSU. Jason Cook, the upback on the play, took the snap and faked a handoff to Breaux. Cook then threw a 33-yard pass to a wide-open Kendrick Lewis, who ran to the LSU 5. The Rebels scored to go ahead 14-3 and never looked back in winning 31-13.
9. D.J. Time: With Arkansas headed for a losing season and not going anywhere for the postseason, one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the country has sort of flown under the radar. So if you haven't seen sophomore D.J. Williams play, do yourself a favor and watch him Friday against LSU. He leads the team with 53 catches for 672 yards and ranks sixth in the nation among tight ends in catches per game (4.82) and receiving yards per game (61.1). He's caught at least four passes in nine of 11 games this season, knows how to get open and is a treat to watch after the catch.
10. Defending their pride: South Carolina's defense has had two weeks to fume and stew over the 56 points Florida put up against the Gamecocks on Nov. 15 in the Swamp. But before anybody suggests that Ellis Johnson's bunch got a dose of a reality after going into that game ranked third nationally in total defense, they might want to consider that Florida's first 21 points came courtesy of offensive or special teams blunders by the Gamecocks. This is easily the best defense Steve Spurrier has had at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks get another chance to prove that Saturday at Clemson.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Eight things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.
1. Who's Oregon State's quarterback and what will that mean? Oregon State coach Mike Riley said he'd announce a starting quarterback on Wednesday, which likely would happen after practice. Guess here is that he's decided Lyle Moevao needs to be 100 percent to retain his job because backup Sean Canfield has played so well while going 3-0. Then the issue becomes how long will Riley stick with one guy? If Canfield/Moevao start slowly, would there be a temptation to have a quick hook and put in the other because, as Riley said, he has "two starting quarterbacks." Another guess: This situation surely has inspired some spirited discussion among the coaching staff because there is no clear right answer. At least until around 8 p.m. PT on Saturday.
2. Notre Dame will play inspired football at USC: Notre Dame made itself a national punchline last week by losing at home to woeful Syracuse, which had already fired coach Greg Robinson. Since starting 4-1, the Irish have gone 2-4, and one of those wins was against beleaguered Washington, so it doesn't even count. Still, the players surely recall last year's 38-zip beatdown the Trojans supplied at Notre Dame. And this is a rivalry game. It would be fairly shocking if USC doesn't get the Irish's best shot. Doesn't mean USC is going to lose. But this won't be a four-quarter walkover.
3. Craft can't give the ball away, but he also needs to make plays: It's a redundant point, but UCLA needs more out of quarterback Kevin Craft. Yes, he doesn't have much help. Yes, he's led some nice comebacks. Yes, the coaches still believe he and not any other quarterback on the roster gives the Bruins their best chance to win. Yes, a few of his 16 interceptions weren't his fault. Nonetheless, the Bruins slim bowl hopes depend on him not making poor decisions against Arizona State. The Sun Devils solid defense is going to gang up on the run and force the ball into Craft's hands. He will have to make plays for the Bruins to have a chance to win.
4. A competitive fight at Hawaii might suggest a corner turning for Washington State: It's probably too much to ask that the Cougars put their Apple Cup euphoria behind them and focus on Hawaii. But if they do challenge the Warriors -- 30-point favorites -- for four quarters, that would bode well for the future, making it reasonable to assume coach Paul Wulff and his staff's message is getting through.
5. Despite a strategic disadvantage, USC's defense should be OK against the Irish: Despite having a weak schedule, Notre Dame is ranked 91st in the nation in rushing (119 yards per game). That means the Irish and sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen have been forced to throw against just about everyone. That is just not a good thing, even if your coach is an offensive genius who can make mincemeat out of most college defensive coordinators with his magical play calling. Notre Dame can't abandon the run and allow the Trojans to pin their ears back and hit Clausen.
6. Strength-on-strength and nothing Civil about it: Talk about a defense figuring things out. Oregon State surrendered 210 and 239 yards rushing in its first two games against Stanford and Penn State. Since then? No opponent has exceeded 139 yards and six teams have been held under 100, including USC and California. First two games: six rushing touchdowns. Next nine? Six rushing touchdowns. And folks wonder why I am president of the Mark Banker Fan Club. Oh, but here come the Ducks, who rank sixth in the nation with 268 yards rushing per game. They've run on everyone other than USC. And the Ducks ran fairly well in 2007's Civil War. This is the fundamental showdown of this game.
7. Rudy, Rudy, Rudy: Hard to believe, but this is the final home game of Rudy Carpenter's career. The Arizona State quarterback has had some great times during 41 consecutive starts. And not so great. He's one of eight Pac-10 quarterbacks to pass for more than 10,000 career yards and his 80 touchdown passes rank third on the conference's all-time list. He's been feisty and mouthy with opponents and reporters, which has bothered some but amused others, but the tough son of a gun always showed up for work with grit and determination. And his skills and savvy give the Sun Devils a huge advantage against UCLA, and also give them a puncher's chance of winning two in a row and becoming bowl eligible.
8. Can the Beavers run without Jacquizz? Short answer: yes. In the 2007 Civil War, Oregon State didn't have injured running back Yvenson Bernard, the team's heart-and-soul leader. Yet they prevailed 38-31 in double overtime, and a guy named Matt Sieverson rushed for 141 yards on 27 carries, including a 38-yard touchdown run to open the scoring. So likely having to play without freshman phenom running back Jacquizz Rodgers is not a catastrophic blow for OSU. And the running back depth is solid. Recall: Many were touting 240-pound Ryan McCants as a budding star in the preseason. Moreover, the Ducks figure to get a steady dose of scatback/receiver James Rodgers on his fly sweeps. Question is, will it be enough?
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
It's the final week of the regular season, and there's no lack of things to keep an eye on, starting with the most important: Who's going to Tampa?
1. The Atlantic and Coastal Division crowns. If Boston College wins, it's in. Same with Virginia Tech. Both of those teams have home-field advantage. If they lose, Georgia Tech and Florida State will win their respective divisions.
2. Bowl eligibility. Last call for anyone still interested in extending their season. NC State, Virginia and Clemson all have that opportunity. If any one of them succeeds, it will be the first time in league history the ACC has had nine teams qualify for a bowl game.
3. SEC vs. ACC. Here it is, the ACC's chance to go 3-0 against the SEC (quit laughing) with wins over Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt. There's a decent chance the league represents at 2-1, with its best win being over Georgia. In order for that to happen, though ...
4. Watch how the Bulldogs defend the triple option. They had a bye week to prepare for it, and will have home-field advantage, but will they have the discipline? Georgia has the No. 10 scoring defense in the SEC but is holding opponents to 104.5 rushing yards per game.
5. FSU defensive end Everette Brown vs. Tim Tebow. Brown has been a man on a mission this season, and three times this year has had at least three sacks in a game. Will he be able to get to the Heisman Trophy winner?
7. Miami's defense. Can the Hurricanes regroup from their embarrassing performance against Georgia Tech in time to stop a surging NC State offense, led by quarterback Russell Wilson?
8. UNC linebacker Chase Rice. He'll take over for injured linebacker Mark Paschal, the Tar Heels' leading tackler whose season ended with a spine injury in the 41-10 loss to NC State.
9. Duke's offense. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is expected to return, so the Blue Devils should be more productive than they were last week at Virginia Tech.
10. How Clemson fares without injured bandit end Ricky Sapp. The Tigers' pass rush struggled to begin with, and it is likely to struggle even more without Sapp.
1. Pat White vs. the Pittsburgh defense: West Virginia didn't go to the BCS title game last year because White had only 41 yards rushing and the offense managed only 183 total yards in the 13-9 loss to Pitt. White has been turning it on lately, running for 200 yards against Louisville last week. Pittsburgh has a different defensive coordinator this season but has speed on the edge with ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard and linebackers Greg Williams and Austin Ransom. And Scott McKillop is a tackling machine in the middle. It should be a fascinating matchup and the ultimate key to the Backyard Brawl.
2. LeSean McCoy: The super sophomore has been held below his standards the past two games. McCoy had only 39 yards versus Louisville and 82 at Cincinnati last week (though he did score two touchdowns vs. the Bearcats). West Virginia's defense doesn't yield much and held the Big East's top rusher, Donald Brown, to 82 yards. Now that McCoy has said he's coming back for his junior season, maybe he can relax and have a breakout game. Pitt will need it in order to win.
3. "Backyard Brawl" booters: If the game comes down to field goals, there could be an interesting story line. West Virginia's Pat McAfee missed a pair of field goals in last year's 13-9 loss to Pitt and received death threats from his own fans. Wouldn't it be something if he were the hero this time? The Panthers have one of the most accurate kickers in the country in Conor Lee, so they'd feel comfortable going toe-to-toe, so to speak.
4. Eyes on the prize: The Big East trophy will be in attendance at Nippert Stadium on Saturday. Can Cincinnati maintain its focus on the Syracuse Orange and not start dreaming of the Orange Bowl. If West Virginia loses on Friday, it won't matter what the Bearcats do in their game. But they don't want to win the league like that, and it would be embarrassing for the Big East if its champion got upset at home in its final conference game.
5. Tony Pike: The Cincinnati quarterback put on a dazzling performance against Pittsburgh, going 26-for-32 for 309 yards and three touchdowns. The junior and first-year starter seems to be getting better with every game. What can he do for an encore?
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
1. Weis' demise: There's some debate as to whether Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is on the chopping block. He's likely not, but if the Irish get blown out by USC this weekend, the natives will get even more restless than they are now.
2. Large and at-large: By my count there are 10 teams going into this week with five wins and there are a few other teams with 7-5 records that won't have a conference tie-in. That's a lot of teams for what's shaping up to be four guaranteed openings and five maybes.
3. The Bayou Bucket: This will be the first Bayou Bucket where both Houston and Rice are fighting for the C-USA West title. If Houston wins, the Cougars are in the C-USA title game, if Rice wins, it needs Tulsa to lose for a share of the divisional title.
4. Beware the Red Wolves: Somehow Arkansas State has put itself in a position to share the Sun Belt title with Troy this season should it beat the Trojans in two weeks. But they'll have to get by North Texas for their sixth win first.
5. Wac-ed out: Boise State could clinch its second unbeaten regular season in the past three with a win over Fresno State this weekend. And what's the Broncos reward? It could be a trip to the Humanitarian Bowl against the No. 8 ACC team, which is currently 6-5 Wake Forest.
6. The Mountain West: I'm just kidding. There's nothing to watch here. The Mountain West teams are done for the regular season and sitting at home eating their Thanksgiving dinners. I guess I'm having withdrawal.
7. The firing process: Three more head coaches and two assistants were let go this week (and it's only Wednesday) and I'm betting there are a few more on the way. What's weird is that every conference except C-USA has let someone go so far this year. Mark Snyder better hope for a win.
8. The hiring process: There have been many, many rumors about coaches interested in various jobs around the non-BCS and there also have been rumors about people interviewing. But that's not what to watch. Watch coaches such as Kyle Whittingham, Gary Patterson, Skip Holtz and Turner Gill get bombarded with attention over the next couple weeks leading up to bowls.
9. To bowl or not to bowl: Nevada coach Chris Ault said earlier this week that bowls are not for mediocre teams. So if his team loses to Louisiana Tech this weekend and finishes 6-6, Ault said the Wolf Pack wouldn't go to a bowl. That's good news for the Sun Belt.
10. The BCS debate: Utah is in the BCS, guaranteed, but what about Boise State and possibly Ball State? The Broncos have the best shot of making it to the BCS, but it would need a lot of teams to lose to make that happen. An Oregon State loss would help.