- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Can No. 1 Alabama's defense slow down Johnny Football?
Will No. 2 Kansas State have quarterback Collin Klein available at TCU?
Which Pac-12 North contender takes a big step toward playing in the Rose Bowl?
We tackle those subjects and more in this week's On the Mark Mailbag:
1. Can Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel run the ball against Alabama's defense?
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and Manziel might be the top two candidates for SEC Player of the Year honors. Manziel leads the No. 15 Aggies in passing and rushing -- he has thrown for 2,527 passing yards with 16 touchdowns, while running for 922 yards with 15 scores -- and has guided them to a 7-2 record in their first season in the league.
But can Manziel run against the Tide's defense on the road Saturday, which the Aggies will probably need him to do to pull off one of the biggest upsets in school history? According to ESPN Stats and Information, most of Manziel's damage on the ground has come as a result of scrambles rather than designed quarterback runs. In fact, he has gained 634 of his SEC-leading 922 rushing yards on scrambles.
Manziel's scrambling total is 182 yards more than Michigan's Denard Robinson, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Klein have combined to gain on non-designed quarterback runs. Also, Manziel has scrambled for 28 first downs this season, 18 of which came on third down.
"He doesn't remind me of [Cam Newton or Tim Tebow], who were bigger, more physical, very athletic guys," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "This guy really doesn't run a lot of quarterback runs. He runs quarterback draws, and he runs when it's a pass and everybody gets all spread out and [he] scrambles. The other guys were certainly capable of doing that, [but] this is a unique guy in terms of his playmaking ability, his size, quickness and speed and ability to make people miss in space."
But Manziel wasn't nearly as effective against the two highest-rated defenses the Aggies played this season. He ran the ball well in the first half of a 20-17 loss to Florida on Sept. 8, but didn't do much of anything in the second half. Then, in a 24-19 loss to LSU on Oct. 20, the Tigers forced five turnovers and limited him to only 27 rushing yards on 17 attempts.
2. Will Klein be ready to go at TCU?
Klein's health might be the biggest factor in whether the No. 2 Wildcats can win their last three games to remain in the BCS national championship race. Klein, who is probably the Heisman Trophy front-runner at this point, missed much of the second half in last week's 44-30 victory over Oklahoma State because of an apparent concussion. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has only said he hopes Klein can play in Saturday's game at TCU and has been tight-lipped about the injury.
Klein's absence was notable in last week's win over the Pokes. When he left the game in the third quarter, Klein had 309 total yards of offense with one touchdown. Backup Daniel Sams completed five of six passes after Klein left, but he ran seven times for only 20 yards. The Wildcats managed only two field goals in their final five possessions, including two that started inside OSU's 40-yard line.
They play TCU on Saturday, and Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson always seems to have his teams ready for the big stage. They've won their last three games against BCS top-five opponents, including a 36-35 upset of No. 5 Boise State last season.
3. Will Stanford or Oregon State emerge as Oregon's biggest challenger in the Pac-12 North?
The No. 3 Ducks have now scored 42 points or more in 12 consecutive games, the longest streak in FBS history, and there's no reason to believe they won't do the same at reeling California on Saturday night.
The No. 14 Cardinal and No. 11 Beavers, who play each other Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif., might have the best chance at slowing down Oregon's high-powered offense. The Stanford-Oregon State winner will remain in the hunt to play in the Rose Bowl and will stay in contention to win the Pac-12 North.
Both Stanford and Oregon State will start quarterbacks who began the season as backups. Cardinal freshman Kevin Hogan took over for struggling senior Josh Nunes in last week's 48-0 victory at Colorado and completed 18 of 23 passes for 184 yards with two touchdowns. Beavers junior Cody Vaz took over for Sean Mannion last week and threw for three touchdowns in a 36-26 victory over Arizona State.
4. Can No. 7 LSU bounce back from its deflating loss to Alabama?
Even though the Tigers are probably still stinging from their 21-17 loss to the Crimson Tide at Tiger Stadium, they still have much to play for with three games to go in the regular season. If LSU can win its last three games, starting with Saturday night's home game against No. 21 Mississippi State, they'll have a decent shot at playing in the Sugar Bowl as a BCS at-large selection.
LSU coach Les Miles' teams are 18-1 following a loss and haven't lost consecutive games during his tenure since falling to Ole Miss and Arkansas in 2008. The Tigers also have to be more confident in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 298 yards with one touchdown in the loss to Alabama.
The Bulldogs are reeling after a 7-0 start, falling to Alabama 38-7 and Texas A&M 38-13 in their last two games.
5. Did No. 4 Notre Dame learn its lesson last week?
The Irish probably won't get caught looking ahead (or behind) when they play at struggling Boston College on Saturday night. The Irish were very fortunate to escape last weekend with a 29-26 victory in three overtimes over Pittsburgh. While the game again revealed Notre Dame's problems on offense, the Irish also won another close game, which is really all that matters at this time of year.
Notre Dame has won five games decided by seven points or fewer this season, which is the most since the 1939 team won six games by a touchdown or less. The Eagles have a history of knocking off Notre Dame when it hurts the most, but the Irish have won three games in a row in the series. Boston College has defeated only one FBS opponent (Maryland) and has dropped five of six ACC games this season.
On to this week's Mailbag:
Chris in South Bend, Ind., asks: OK, seriously, I don't think anyone could be surprised about Southern Cal trying to cheat against Oregon by deflating game balls. But can we talk about SC cheating against the Buffs? I mean, does Lane Kiffin really have that little confidence in his team that he feels the need to switch out players' jerseys during a game against what may be the worst team in the FBS, or is it just an addiction to cheating? If I'm the NCAA, I'm pretty unhappy that this is how post-ban USC is playing the game.
There's no question this has been, well, a deflating season at USC. The No. 19 Trojans were a popular choice for No. 1 in the preseason (I was naïve enough to pick them to win the BCS national championship), and they've already suffered three losses and dealt with a plethora of embarrassing off-field incidents.
In a 50-6 win over Colorado on Oct. 20, the Trojans switched backup quarterback Cody Kessler's number from 6 to 35, which is usually worn by punter Kyle Negrete. While wearing No. 35, Kessler was used on a two-point conversion in the first half. He changed his jersey back to No. 6 in the second half.
In the case of the deflated footballs against Oregon, USC officials insist the fired student manager acted on his own in deflating balls before and during last week's 62-51 loss to the Ducks. But I find it hard to believe that a student manager would do that on his own accord. A student manager's biggest fear is upsetting the head coach. The Pac-12 reprimanded USC and fined the school $25,000, so I'm guessing the league office also had a difficult time believing someone else wasn't involved in the antics.
Kiffin told reporters on Thursday that he and his coaching staff are innocent.
"For all the conspiracy [theorists] that'll think that we were behind this, I don't think if we were trying to deflate balls we would direct a student manager on the Oregon sideline, right in front of them, to be deflating balls and be playing with some deflated balls and some non-deflating balls," Kiffin said. "I'm sure if we knew that, our kickers wouldn't be very happy with that, either, because no kicker's ever gonna want a deflated ball."
Kiffin also told reporters he realizes he probably won't get the benefit of the doubt from fans around the country.
"Yeah, I can totally see that," Kiffin said. "That's exactly what I said to our compliance department, too. That's why it was just very frustrating for a distraction like this with none of the players or coaches being involved in it."
Even after last week's ugly defensive performance, the Trojans still have a lot left to play for. They can still win the Pac-12 South, which might give them a rematch against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. They can also spoil Notre Dame's season in the Coliseum on Nov. 24.
It's up to Kiffin to pump his team up for the stretch run.
Donnie in Oklahoma asks: This is a first for me because I usually only stay on the Big XII blog, but I would like your opinion on Mack Brown's statements on the "Horns Down" hand sign and his player getting the flag. I heard that there was an NCAA rule about doing "gun" hand signs, and that is why he got the flag. Now, if that's true he should have been flagged. But if Texas Tech players are doing it on the field, they should be flagged as well (I'm an OU fan, so I have no dog in that fight, but I can't remember seeing any Texas Tech players doing it ever). The "Horns Down" is a tradition, and I would much rather see fans and players doing that than to do the middle finger (although there is plenty of that also), but I would hate to see that go away. Could I get your opinions on both the "Horns Down" and the flagging for making a "gun" hand sign?
I'm all for individualism and creativity and not a big fan of the excessive celebration penalty, because there doesn't seem to be much consistency in enforcing it.
If Texas Tech players are allowed to use the "guns up" hand signal in celebration, then I think it's only fair Texas players can use the "guns down" hand signal. The referees in Lubbock last Saturday apparently disagreed with me, penalizing Longhorns receiver Mike Davis for using the "guns down" gesture after his 75-yard touchdown catch in UT's 31-22 win.
Then again, I'd prefer players from both teams to act like they've been in the end zone before and just hand the football to the closest official.
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