A Saturday to shake up the BCS race

Originally Published: November 2, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Offense versus defense.

Pac-12 versus SEC.

East Coast versus West Coast.

Two distinctly different conferences and styles will be on display Saturday night when No. 1 Alabama plays at No. 5 LSU and No. 4 Oregon plays at No. 17 USC in perhaps the biggest Saturday of the college football season.

Which is the better game? That depends on your perspective. Do you like high-octane offenses matching each other touchdown for touchdown? Or do you prefer your football played in the trenches?

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireNick Saban has a different formula for success than, say, Oregon.

It's no secret what side of the fence Alabama head coach Nick Saban is on.

"I think there's a huge advantage in what those people do relative to making it difficult for defensive players to play," Saban said of the teams running hurry-up, spread offenses. "But I also think that when you play that way and you run a lot of plays, you better score a lot of points. If you don't have a really good defense, they're going to play a lot of plays, too. You're not shrinking the game; you're extending the game. Even though you're going to have more opportunities, the other guys are, too."

Saban also chose a basketball analogy to prove his point.

"To me, when you try to outscore people, it's almost like these basketball teams that do nothing but shoot 3s," Saban said. "When they're hitting them, they're going to be hard to beat. But when they're not hitting them, they're going to have a tough time. It does give some teams a great opportunity to be successful. They think that they don't have to get an overpowering offensive line. If they get good skill players and good receivers and a good quarterback, they can spread people out and score a lot of points. I would agree with that theory. But if you can't get the other parts, it's going to be difficult."

Loyola Marymount may be a thrill to watch, but as Saban and the rest of the SEC has proven over the last six years, it's defense that will carry you to a championship.

Here are five things I'll be watching this weekend:

1. Will LSU's poor quarterback play doom the Tigers at Death Valley?

The Crimson Tide and Tigers are built on two of the best defenses in the country. Last season, they combined to score one touchdown in two games: LSU won 9-6 in overtime in their regular-season meeting and Alabama won 21-0 (on one touchdown and five field goals) in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans to win its second national title in three seasons.

LSU brought in juco quarterback Zach Mettenberger to shore up its passing game, after former starters Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson struggled mightily last season. But Mettenberger, who played one season at Georgia before transferring to Butler (Kan.) Community College, has struggled in his first season, completing only 56.6 percent of his attempts with seven touchdowns and four interceptions.

While Mettenberger's struggles have made the Tigers somewhat one-dimensional on offense, you have to remember that LSU still managed to beat the Crimson Tide on the road last season, despite having less-than-stellar quarterback play in that game. The Tigers figure to play much better at home, especially in a night game.

LSU's defensive front should be the first real challenge Alabama's offensive line has encountered this season. How will quarterback AJ McCarron react under pressure?

2. Can Oregon's defense slow down the Trojans' high-powered offense?

The Ducks and Trojans boast two of the country's most prolific offenses. They've combined to score 88.4 points per game this season. In USC's upset of the Ducks in 2011, the teams combined to score 73 points and gain 936 yards. The teams went 16-for-30 on third down and completed 49 passes.

The Trojans' defensive shortcomings were exposed in last week's 39-36 loss at Arizona. It won't be any easier against the Ducks, who rank No. 1 nationally in scoring offense at 53.4 points per game; they scored eight touchdowns in the first half of last week's 70-14 victory over Colorado.

Likewise, Oregon's defense will be tested by USC quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. The Ducks' defense has largely dominated teams in the first half of blowouts this seasons, but they haven't yet faced an offense as explosive as USC's high-octane attack.

3. Will No. 6 Georgia suffer from a post-Florida hangover?

Georgia climbed back into the driver's seat in the SEC East last week with a 17-9 upset of then-No. 2 Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. If the Bulldogs beat Ole Miss at home on Saturday and struggling Auburn on the road next week, they'll meet the SEC West champion (probably the Alabama-LSU winner) in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Ole Miss is playing better than most people expected under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. After losing 16 consecutive SEC games, the Rebels have won two conference games in a row, 41-20 over Auburn at home and 30-27 at Arkansas last week. Ole Miss is one victory away from becoming bowl-eligible and is playing with a lot of confidence.

Georgia can't afford a letdown emotionally with so much on the line. After investing so much physically and mentally in last week's upset of the Gators, the Bulldogs have to be focused again this week. Ole Miss' hurry-up offense will test UGA's stamina and depth on defense.

4. Can No. 24 Oklahoma State put a scare into No. 2 Kansas State?

The Cowboys have won three games in a row and might be the Wildcats' biggest remaining hurdle as they seek to go 12-0. In last week's 36-14 victory over TCU, OSU freshman QB Wes Lunt passed for 324 yards with one touchdown in his first start in six weeks after suffering a knee injury.

The Pokes have been playing better on defense, too, forcing five turnovers in victories over Iowa State and TCU.

5. Is Nebraska finally ready to live up the hype?

At this point, the Cornhuskers look like the Big Ten's most complete team and best chance to play in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio. Nebraska boasts the Big Ten's best offense but will be tested by Michigan State's defense in Saturday's game in East Lansing, Mich.

In Michigan State's 16-13 overtime win at Wisconsin last week, the Spartans' defense finally looked like the D everyone thought it would be. MSU held the Badgers to only 19 rushing yards, their lowest rushing total in five seasons. William Gholston and Max Bullough combined for eight tackles for loss against the Badgers, and slowing down Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez will be the key this week.

On to this week's Mailbag:

Barry Langston in Huntsville, Ala., writes: It is an easy choice. Alabama vs. LSU. The difference? Oregon is flashy and gaudy, has no tradition [and] ugly uniforms. USC has a lying [and otherwise unlikable] coach. Defense rules college football and Alabama-LSU has the best. I wouldn't fly to LA to watch that crap if they tossed in extra money.

I think both games are going to be exciting to watch, for entirely different reasons. I think the SEC game is going to be won in -- surprise! -- the trenches. I can't wait to see Alabama's offensive line battle LSU's defensive line.

Conversely, I can't wait to see which defense can come up with at least a few stops at the Coliseum. Both of those offenses are a lot of fun to watch.

Isaac is Oregon writes: The advantage all SEC teams have is the conference is perceived to be so strong [and] they play eight conference games, thus giving them the opportunity to have a better conference record as a whole. If you added that one extra game the Pac-12 and Big 12 have that would give the SEC an automatic seven more losses as a conference. Your thoughts?

[+] EnlargeGiovani Bernard
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesNorth Carolina may not be eligible for the postseason, but the Tar Heels may very well have the ACC Player of the Year in Giovani Bernard.

Unless I'm mistaken, every college football team around the country is still playing a 12-game regular season (and a few are playing 13, if they have a game at Hawaii). Alabama would still have to win nine conference games to play in the BCS Championship Game because it would have to play the SEC East champion in the SEC championship game.

The Big 12 plays a true round-robin league schedule, but doesn't have a conference championship game. The Pac-12 plays nine league games and a conference title game, so maybe it's a little bit more difficult on the West Coast. But at least Oregon and USC get the advantage of playing Colorado this season.

Jeff Williams in Raleigh, N.C. wants to know: Mark, love reading your weekly "On the Mark" article, but, man, have you ever heard of Gio Bernard? You should look him up; you might find one amazing player!

Has Bernard been a tailor-made fit for Larry Fedora's spread offense or what? He leads the Tar Heels in rushing with 930 yards with 10 touchdowns and has caught 32 passes for 319 yards with three touchdowns. Bernard, a sophomore from Davie, Fla., also leads FBS players in punt returns, averaging 20.7 yards on 12 returns. In last week's 43-35 victory over NC State, Bernard returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown with 13 seconds to play.

Jared in California asks: How about a little love for the MAC Conference? Ohio, Toledo, Kent State and Northern Illinois are all 7-1 or 8-1, and no AQ teams want anything to do with any of them right now.

"MACtion" has been fun to watch this season, but let's not get too carried away. MAC teams have been giving Big East and middling FBS teams fits all season. But Kent State, which just upset Rutgers 35-23, also lost to Kentucky 47-14.

Mark Schlabach | email

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