By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 11
1. It has been a difficult week in Happy Valley. Joe Paterno is out as Penn State’s coach, and the program has been rocked by a scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. With all that has gone on this week, how will the Nittany Lions respond on Saturday against Nebraska? Penn State is the only unbeaten team in the Big Ten and holds a two-game lead in the Leaders Division. This is also an important game for Nebraska in the conference standings, as it needs a win to stay within range of Michigan State. Last week’s loss to Northwestern was a setback for the Cornhuskers’ title hopes, as they now need the Spartans to lose in one of their final three games, while navigating a very difficult schedule – at Penn State, at Michigan and Iowa. Although there are bigger issues to address in Happy Valley, this week’s game is important in the Big Ten race. And there will be a lot of interested observers wanting to see if interim coach Tom Bradley will have the Nittany Lions ready to play.
2. Oklahoma State is in the driver’s seat for a spot in the national title game, but don’t forget about Stanford. The Cardinal can make their case for a place among the top two teams, starting on Saturday against Oregon. The Ducks have been out of the spotlight due to the loss in the opener to LSU. However, Oregon has rallied with eight consecutive victories. This game presents an interesting contrast of styles: Stanford’s physical approach versus Oregon’s speed. The Cardinal rank third nationally in stopping the run, but that will be tested by the Ducks on Saturday night. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck gets all the hype (and rightfully so), but the Cardinal also have a very good rushing attack. Considering Stanford’s defense will likely struggle to stop Oregon’s offense, it’s up to Luck and the rushing attack to control the clock and keep the Ducks on the sideline. Last week’s “Game of the Century” featured very little offense. But don’t expect that to be the case in this game, as both teams will have no trouble moving the ball.
3. Cincinnati is the only team in the Big East without a loss in conference play. The Bearcats have been doing it without much fanfare either, but coach Butch Jones has done a good job of turning things around after a disappointing 2010 season. While Cincinnati is surging in the conference race, West Virginia has been a disappointment – at least for now. The Mountaineers have lost two out of their last three Big East contests, and they desperately need a win over the Bearcats to stay alive in the title race. There should be plenty of points in this one, as both offenses are averaging over 30 points – Cincinnati (39.1) and West Virginia (38.2). If the Bearcats knock off the Mountaineers on Saturday, the road to a Big East title is very manageable: at Rutgers, at Syracuse and home against Connecticut.
4. Considering the history of the Florida State-Miami rivalry, it seems strange that both teams enter this week’s game unranked for the third time in the last five matchups. A three-game losing streak ended any hopes the Seminoles had of competing for a national title, but they have rebounded with four blowout victories. The Hurricanes have been up and down in coach Al Golden’s first year and still need one more win to get bowl eligible. Miami has won the last two matchups in Tallahassee, but the Seminoles destroyed the Hurricanes 45-17 last year. Can Miami continue its winning streak in Tallahassee? If the Hurricanes want to knock off the Seminoles, they need quarterback Jacory Harris to continue his efficient play. The senior has quietly had a good season, throwing for 1,757 yards and 18 touchdowns, while tossing only four picks. Although this game won’t have the glow of previous matchups, Florida State-Miami is usually a can’t-miss rivalry game.
5. Death Valley is home to a de-facto ACC Atlantic title game this Saturday. Clemson sits atop the division with an 8-1 record and can clinch a trip to Charlotte with a win over the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest still has division title aspirations, but needs a victory at Clemson and then must beat Maryland on Nov. 19. The Demon Deacons got off to a 4-1 start, but have lost three out of their last four games. The Tigers are coming off their first loss of the season, suffering a 31-17 defeat to Georgia Tech on Oct. 29. Although its national title hopes are over, Clemson still has plenty to play for. The Tigers still have a chance to finish inside of the top 10 of the BCS and make their first appearance in the Orange Bowl since 1982. Both defenses have been inconsistent, so there should be plenty of points. However, Wake Forest has not won in Death Valley since 1998 and will have a tough time slowing down Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins.
6. How many would have expected Utah-UCLA to be an important Pac-12 game just a couple of weeks ago? Probably not many. After losing 48-12 on the road to Arizona, UCLA was thought to have packed it in for the year and coach Rick Neuheisel was finished. Not so fast. The Bruins surprisingly jumped back into the Pac-12 South title race with back-to-back wins, including last week’s 29-28 victory over Arizona State. The Bruins are locked into a three-way tie atop the South, but own the tiebreaker over the Sun Devils, while getting a shot at Utah on Saturday. Even if UCLA beats the Utes on Saturday, it still must beat Colorado and USC to play for the Pac-12 title. Utah’s first season in the Pac-12 has been a mixed bag of success, but is also still alive for the division crown. The Utes have a very manageable three-game stretch, starting with Saturday’s game against UCLA, followed by Washington State and Colorado. Even if Utah wins out, it will need a loss by Arizona State to win the division.
7. Saturday’s matchup in Manhattan features one of the nation’s most surprising teams (Kansas State), against one of the biggest disappointments (Texas A&M). The Aggies were billed as a preseason top-10 team, while the Wildcats were expected to finish near the bottom of the Big 12. Although Kansas State has dropped back-to-back games, there’s really no shame in losing to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Texas A&M is also trying to snap a two-game losing streak, but second-half collapses early in the year against Arkansas and Texas Tech have this team sitting at a disappointing 5-4. The Aggies’ offense suffered a blow in last week’s loss to Oklahoma, as running back Christine Michael was lost for the year due to a torn ACL. There’s no question the edge in talent has to go in favor of Texas A&M. However, don’t count out Kansas State from finding a way to win this one.
8. Michigan State’s Big Ten title hopes seemed to be hanging by a thread after losing 24-3 to Nebraska on Oct. 29. However, the Spartans caught a break last week, as Northwestern upset the Cornhuskers, shifting control of the Legends Division back to East Lansing. Although Michigan State holds the edge, don’t overlook Iowa. The Hawkeyes control their own destiny in the division, especially after last week’s win over Michigan. Iowa has dominated the recent series between these two teams, which includes a 37-6 victory last season. The Big Ten is one of the tightest conference title races. Will we have any clarity after this weekend?
9. The Stanford-Oregon matchup is going to dominate the headlines in the Pac-12 this week, but don’t overlook USC-Washington. This game is a battle of former Pete Carroll assistants (Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian), and two of college football’s top young coaches. Sarkisian has the Huskies headed back into Pac-12 contention, while Kiffin is trying to navigate USC through a very difficult time with NCAA sanctions. Both offenses are dynamic, but whichever defense can make stops will be the difference. The Huskies have been searching for the right answers on that side of the ball all year, ranking 113th nationally in pass defense and allowing 33.4 points a game. The Trojans have improved in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin, but still rank 104th nationally in pass defense. While this game means little on the Pac-12 title race, it should be one of the weekend’s most entertaining. The Huskies have won the last two in this series, but USC is at home and playing with a lot of confidence after its overtime loss to Stanford.
10. No matter what you think of the overall competition level in the Mountain West and the WAC, it’s still very impressive Boise State has lost only five games in its last six seasons. The Broncos stumbled late last year against Nevada, and if there’s a potential upset waiting on the schedule, it has to be this week. TCU will be making its first trip to Boise this Saturday, hoping to knock off the Broncos and claim control of the Mountain West’s top spot. Although the Horned Frogs are a solid team, this is nowhere near the squad that beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. TCU’s offense is averaging 41.6 points a game, but the defense has taken a step back this year. The Horned Frogs rank 61st nationally in pass defense, which is bad news against Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore and a solid group of receivers. Playing for a national title is probably out of reach, but if it wins out, Boise State will qualify for an at-large spot in a BCS bowl.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 11 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Georgia 27, Auburn 20
Nebraska 24, Penn State 17
Clemson 38, Wake Forest 24
West Virginia 38, Cincinnati 34
Florida 24, South Carolina 20
Kansas State 38, Texas A&M 34
UCLA 23, Utah 20
Oregon 38, Stanford 34
USC 34, Washington 30
Boise State 40, TCU 24
Michigan State 27, Iowa 24
Texas 34, Missouri 31
Michigan 28, Illinois 24
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
South Florida (-3.5) at Syracuse
South Florida is desperate after losing four straight, but the Orange are also hungry for a win after last week’s loss to Connecticut.
Texas A&M (-3) at Kansas State
Can the Aggies find a way to slow down Wildcats’ quarterback Collin Klein?
Texas (-1.5) at Missouri
Tigers are running out of time to get bowl eligible, and expect quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey to give the Longhorns all they can handle.
Michigan State (-3) at Iowa
After beating Michigan last week, Iowa will give the Spartans all they can handle. Especially since the Hawkeyes control their destiny in the Legends Division.
UCLA at Utah (-7.5)
Believe it or not, this game will have an impact on the Pac-12 South title race. The Bruins have some momentum after beating Arizona State last Saturday.
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 11
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Maryland coach Randy Edsall thinks his team is getting better. The players? Not sure they agree with Edsall's assessment.
Texas Tech will be without two defenders - including one starting cornerback - for the rest of 2011.
Michigan State has a key Big Ten game against Iowa this Saturday, and is expected to get a couple of key contributors back from injury.
Recruiting failures were a big part of why Houston Nutt was unable to succeed at Ole Miss.
Washington State coach Paul Wulff has made steady progress, but will it be enough to keep his job at the end of the year?
Clemson running back Andre Ellington missed the Georgia Tech game due to an ankle injury, but is expected back in the lineup for Saturday's game against Wake Forest.
Missouri's offense has made some key changes to its passing attack this year.
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Nebraska is battling more injuries along its defensive line.
Will Alabama and LSU rematch in the national title game? The Tigers aren't exactly looking forward to that possibility...
However, Alabama definitely wants another shot at the Tigers.
Why has Colorado struggled under Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree? Here's a great look at why the Buffaloes are 1-9.
What is going wrong for West Virginia this season?
Florida quarterback John Brantley was banged up in last week's victory over Vanderbilt. However, he is expected to start against South Carolina.