By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 12
1. The pressure is building on Oklahoma State. If the Cowboys can win their final two games, they will play for the national title on Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Although the stakes are getting higher, this team isn’t showing any signs of crumbling. Oklahoma State destroyed Texas Tech 66-6 last Saturday and survived a last-minute drive by Kansas State two weeks ago to remain unbeaten. The Cowboys travel to Ames for a Friday night matchup against Iowa State. This is Oklahoma State’s final opportunity for a tune-up with the much-anticipated game against Oklahoma on Dec. 3. The Cyclones enter this contest with momentum, winning their last two games to get to 5-4 overall. Their pass defense ranks 55th nationally and has not allowed a 300-yard passer this season. Iowa State ranks last in the Big 12 in scoring offense, but quarterback Jared Barnett and running back James White are capable of keeping the Cyclones in this game. There’s always the danger of looking ahead with Oklahoma coming up on Dec. 3. However, this Oklahoma State team should handle its business and return to Stillwater 11-0.
2. Under first-year coach James Franklin, Vanderbilt has made significant progress this season. The Commodores have two blowout wins in SEC play (Kentucky and Ole Miss), while losing close games against Georgia (five), Arkansas (three), Florida (five). Franklin won’t accept moral victories, but it’s clear this is a different team. Vanderbilt needs one win in its final two games (at Tennessee and Wake Forest) to get bowl eligible. Beating the Volunteers has been nearly impossible for the Commodores, as they have only won once in the last 28 meetings. Tennessee limps into this game with a 0-6 SEC record, but received a bit of good news this week. Quarterback Tyler Bray could be close to returning, after missing the last five games with a thumb injury. Even if Bray returns, there’s no guarantee he will be 100 percent. While this is a big game for Vanderbilt’s bowl chances, the Volunteers have to win or they will finish 2011 with a losing record. Success has been difficult for the Commodores in this series, but all signs point to a change in fortune on Saturday.
3. The Big East remains one of the most convoluted conference races entering Week 12. Cincinnati was the clear frontrunner last week, but suffered a 24-21 loss to West Virginia, and quarterback Zach Collaros suffered an ankle injury that will keep him out for the rest of the regular season. Sophomore Munchie Legaux will make his first start at Rutgers this Saturday. The Scarlet Knights are very much in the mix to win the conference title, but have to beat the Bearcats and hope for a West Virginia loss in one of its final two games. Can Legaux keep Cincinnati’s title hopes alive? He performed well in limited action against the Mountaineers, throwing for 144 yards and adding 77 yards and a score on the ground. Moving the ball against Rutgers has been a challenge this season, as it leads the Big East in pass, total and scoring defense. Coach Greg Schiano made the decision to go back to Chas Dodd under center, and he responded with 196 yards and two scores in the win over Army. Rutgers has lost its last five games against Cincinnati and Saturday’s matchup is a must-win to keep conference title hopes alive. If Legaux picks up where he left off against the Mountaineers, Cincinnati will be in good shape. However, winning on the road in your first start is never easy.
4. With a relatively light schedule this week, Oregon-USC should be one of the must-see games on Saturday. Thanks to the 53-30 win over Stanford last week, the Ducks are surging back into the national title picture. USC is also one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning five out of its last six games, with the only defeat coming to Stanford in three overtimes. The Ducks are big favorites, but coming off last week’s big road win, could they have a letdown? The Trojans have the firepower to pull off the upset, but are dealing with some key injuries. Receiver Robert Woods will likely play, but is less than 100 percent. Defensive tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris and left tackle Matt Kalil have also been limited in practice, and their status for Saturday’s game is uncertain. The injuries to Tupou and Harris have to be concerning for USC, as Oregon is averaging 291 yards a game on the ground. Running back LaMichael James gashed the Trojans for 239 yards and three scores last season, and the Trojans cannot allow that to happen again if they want to win in Eugene. With a win over the Trojans, the Ducks will clinch the Pac-12 North title. Oregon has dominated the last two meetings in this series and won three out of the last four. It's really a shame USC is ineligible for the Pac-12 title, as it is the best team in the messy South Division. There’s always the potential of a letdown after a big win, but Chip Kelly should have his team focused with a berth in the national title still a possibility.
5. Oklahoma’s loss to Texas Tech looks worse as each week passes. Since winning in Norman, the Red Raiders are 0-3 and have scored only 33 points. Despite the bad loss, don’t count out the Sooners in the national title mix. If Oklahoma wins out, it would throw its hat into the ring with Alabama and Oregon as the best one-loss team in college football. The Sooners don’t have an easy road to winning out, as they play at Baylor this Saturday and at Oklahoma State on Dec. 3. And there’s the injury factor. Receiver Ryan Broyles and running back Dominique Whaley were lost for the year, delivering two huge blows to the offense. The Sooners still have capable fill-ins, but Broyles and Whaley will be missed. Even though Oklahoma is shorthanded, it is still a heavy favorite against Baylor. The Bears have never beaten the Sooners and most of the matchups haven’t been close. Will that change? There’s no question Baylor will score points with quarterback Robert Griffin leading the way. But can the defense get any stops? After all, this group had trouble slowing down Kansas last week. Baylor is unbeaten at home this year, but it’s going to take a flawless effort to knock off the Sooners.
6. What a difference just a couple of months can make. As spring practice finished up and everyone looked ahead to the season, there was a lot of interest in the Penn State-Ohio State matchup. After all, it was supposed to pit Joe Paterno and Jim Tressel in an important game for positioning in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Fast forward to November and it’s almost unbelievable to see what has happened to both programs since spring practice. Tressel and Paterno are both gone and in their place are two interim coaches: Luke Fickell (Ohio State) and Tom Bradley (Penn State). While both teams are still alive for the division title, it seems like a longshot that either will make the trip to Indianapolis to represent the Leaders Division. And looking forward, both programs could look quite a bit different next season. Fickell and Bradley are unlikely to return, which will usher in a new regime for both schools. Regardless of what happens on Saturday between these two teams, both will be in the spotlight throughout the offseason as the search for a new direction and coach begin after the regular season.
7. The ACC title picture is beginning to clear. Clemson clinched the Atlantic Division last week, while Virginia and Virginia Tech are competing for the Coastal. The Cavaliers are quietly putting together a nice season, posting a 7-3 record with wins over Georgia Tech and Miami. If Virginia wants to setup a de-facto Coastal championship game with the Hokies next week, it has to beat Florida State on Saturday. The Seminoles are one of the hottest teams in the conference, winning five games in a row. A key to a Cavaliers’ victory will be the battle in the trenches. Virginia’s rushing attack is averaging 187.6 yards per game, but the Seminoles own the top run defense in the ACC, allowing only 85 yards per contest. The Cavaliers have had a fast rise under coach Mike London and a win in Tallahassee would be another huge victory, while keeping alive their Coastal title hopes.
8. Everything seems to be breaking Wisconsin’s way for a shot to play in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers got a lot of help last week, as Penn State lost to Nebraska and Purdue upset Ohio State. As long as Wisconsin wins out, it will play in the first Big Ten conference championship. The first obstacle to claiming the division is a trip to Illinois this Saturday. After a 6-0 start, the Fighting Illini is headed in the wrong direction with a four-game losing streak. And the rumor mill is already abuzz that coach Ron Zook is already on his way out at the end of the season. Even though Illinois has been on a slide, its defense will give the Badgers all they can handle. Only one opponent in the last five games has scored more than 21 points against the Fighting Illini, while they also rank fifth in the nation in sacks. Wisconsin has steamrolled its last two opponents, gashing Purdue for 62 points and Minnesota for 42. While Illinois might be able to slow down Badgers’ quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball, the four-game losing streak and a struggling offense will make any hopes of an upset very difficult.
9. After last week’s thrilling 53-50 four-overtime victory over Texas A&M, what can Kansas State do for an encore? The Wildcats hit the road for a matchup against Texas, a team they have beaten the last three times they have played. The Longhorns are dealing with a rash of injuries on offense, and running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron may miss their second straight game. If Texas is shorthanded at running back again, it could be a long day for the offense. The Longhorns managed only 247 total yards in last week’s loss to Missouri, and faces a Kansas State rush defense allowing only 117.1 yards per game. With concerns about the offense, the Longhorns’ defense has to come through with one of their best efforts of the year. And priority No. 1 is stopping K-State quarterback Collin Klein. The junior has totaled at least 200 yards of offense in all but two games this year, while posting 34 overall touchdowns. This game has significant implications on the Big 12 bowl pecking order. With a win, Kansas State will keep its BCS bowl hopes alive. The Longhorns won’t reach the BCS, but could earn a Cotton Bowl berth with a 9-3 record at the end of the year.
10. Michigan State owns a one-game lead over Michigan and Nebraska in the Legends Division. The Spartans should be able to win their final two games (Indiana and at Northwestern), but the Wolverines and Cornhuskers have to keep winning to keep the pressure on and stay alive for an at-large spot in the BCS. Even though these two teams have met only six times on the gridiron, they are almost mirror images of each other. Both offenses are led by running quarterbacks, while playing hard-nosed defense. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was banged up in the win over Illinois, but is expected to play on Saturday. Robinson may be less than 100 percent, but the emergence of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint should help relieve some of the pressure on offense. With both defenses playing well, it’s going to be up to whichever offense can make enough plays. Nebraska can lean on running back Rex Burkhead, but quarterback Taylor Martinez has to hit a few passes downfield to prevent the Wolverines from ganging up against the run. The loser of this game will see its hopes of playing for a Big Ten title end, which only adds to the intrigue of the first meeting between Nebraska and Michigan as conference rivals.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 12 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Ohio State 20, Penn State 17
Miami 27, South Florida 24
Vanderbilt 24, Tennessee 17
Florida State 31, Virginia 20
Nebraska 24, Michigan 20
Cincinnati 27, Rutgers 24
Oklahoma 48, Baylor 31
Wisconsin 34, Illinois 17
Kansas State 30, Texas 27
Arkansas 34, Mississippi State 20
Stanford 38, California 20
Oregon 44, USC 34
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Vanderbilt (-1) at Tennessee
The Volunteers have dominated this series. Can they deliver again or will the Commodores win in Knoxville and get bowl eligible?
Nebraska at Michigan (-2.5)
With these two teams almost a mirror image of each other, this game has coin flip written all over it.
Cincinnati (-3) at Rutgers
With Zach Collaros out, can sophomore Munchie Legaux lead the Bearcats to a Big East title?
Kansas State at Texas (-7)
If the Longhorns are shorthanded at running back once again, you have to like Kansas State’s chances of winning on Saturday.
Clemson (-7.5) at NC State
With the Atlantic Division wrapped up, could the Tigers be in for a letdown on Saturday?
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 12
With Zach Collaros out for the rest of the year with an ankle injury, Cincinnati's Big East title hopes rest with sophomore Munchie Legaux.
Remember receiver DeVier Posey? After serving a 10-game suspension, he will return for Ohio State this week against Penn State.
After his surprise performance against Arizona State (494 passing yards, four touchdowns), Connor Halliday will start this Saturday at quarterback for Washington State.
Missouri running back Henry Josey suffered a devastating knee injury in the 17-5 win over Texas last Saturday. Josey may not be able to return in time for the start of the 2012 year.
All signs point to Georgia coach Mark Richt getting a contract extension at the end of the season. Remember that hot seat talk?
Will quarterback Danny O'Brien return to Maryland next season?
Illinois linebacker Trulon Henry was shot in the hand while trying to breakup a fight at a party. He is out for the rest of the year.
Why has Texas A&M struggled this season? Here are five reasons why the Aggies will fail to live up to preseason expectations.
Is this Mohamed Sanu's final home game at Rutgers?
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray is expected to return to the lineup this week against Vanderbilt. Bray suffered a broken thumb against Georgia and has missed Tennessee's last five games.
Is it time for Illinois to make a coaching change? All signs point to Ron Zook not returning as the Fighting Illini coach in 2012.
Syracuse starting safety Phillip Thomas has been suspended indefinitely.