By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 13
1. Rivalry week has to be one of the best parts of any college football season. 10 of Athlon’s top 25 rivalries will be played this Saturday, including Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn and Florida-Florida State. But there are a few others that will be headlines this weekend. Conference realignment has threatened the future of West Virginia-Pittsburgh, Texas-Texas A&M and Missouri-Kansas. The Jayhawks have expressed no desire to schedule the Tigers out of conference, while the Longhorns have told the Aggies no thanks (at least until 2018) for a non-conference matchup. West Virginia and Pittsburgh appear committed to continuing the Backyard Brawl, but it may be a couple of seasons before the rivalry picks back up due to the change in conferences. With some rivalry series in jeopardy, let's enjoy the games this weekend and hope some of the thinking at schools change to get these matchups started again in the future.
2. Michigan State clinched the Leaders Division and a spot in the Big Ten title game last week. Now it’s up to Penn State and Wisconsin to settle the Legends Division this Saturday. The Nittany Lions have been surrounded by off-the-field issues for the last two weeks, but managed to knock off Ohio State 20-14 last week. Wisconsin suffered back-to-back losses in late October, but has rallied with three consecutive victories by a combined score of 132-47. This game features the Big Ten’s best offense (Badgers) against the Big Ten’s best defense (Nittany Lions). With Wisconsin center Peter Konz likely sidelined due to an ankle injury, Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still could be in for a big game. If Penn State has any hope of winning this matchup, Still and the defensive line has to find a way to slow down running back Montee Ball, along with getting pressure on quarterback Russell Wilson. It’s unlikely Penn State can win a shootout, so it’s up to the defense and a ball-control attack on offense to carry the Nittany Lions to a division title and a spot in the Big Ten title game.
3. Friday’s Houston-Tulsa matchup isn’t getting much national attention, but it could have a big impact on how the BCS bowls shape up on Dec. 4. The Cougars are in position to automatically qualify for a spot in the BCS, provided they beat Tulsa and likely Southern Miss in the Conference USA title game. However, the Golden Hurricane has quietly put together an impressive resume this season. Under the direction of first-year coach Bill Blankenship, Tulsa has won seven games in a row and its only losses this season came against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State – a combined 27-4 in 2011. Houston quarterback Case Keenum needs a big game to bolster his Heisman resume and considering the firepower on the Tulsa sideline, this one should be a shootout. The winner of this game will claim the West Division championship. But for Houston, the stakes are just a bit higher, as a spot in the BCS will evaporate with a loss to Tulsa.
4. Columbus, Ohio has been buzzing this week and surprisingly not about the Ohio State-Michigan game. Instead, much of the news has been about the Buckeyes’ coaching search for 2012 – mostly centered on former Florida coach Urban Meyer. While the Buckeyes’ disappointing record has dampened some of the interest in this matchup, this is still one of the top rivalries in college football. And there’s plenty of incentive for Michigan, especially for first-year coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines have lost the last seven matchups to Ohio State – their longest streak in this series. In addition to snapping the losing streak to the Buckeyes, Michigan is still in the mix for a BCS bowl and will likely play in one with a victory on Saturday. Despite the distractions this week, Ohio State still has plenty of pride and won’t go away easy. However, the Wolverines have not allowed an opponent to score more than 17 points in three out of their last four games. And a struggling Buckeyes’ offense figures to have trouble moving the ball on Saturday afternoon.
5. Two victories are all that separates LSU from a spot in the national title game on Jan. 9 in New Orleans. But the next two opponents aren’t exactly going to roll over for the Tigers. Arkansas visits Baton Rouge on Friday, looking to extend its winning streak to eight games. While the Razorbacks haven’t played an incredibly challenging schedule, they are a dangerous opponent for LSU. Arkansas’ quarterback Tyler Wilson leads the SEC in total offense with 291.9 yards per game, but faces a secondary giving up only 158.3 yards per game. The Razorbacks have struggled to protect Wilson this year, which figures to be a challenge against an active LSU defensive line that averages 2.5 sacks a game. Arkansas has controlled the recent series, winning three out of the last four matchups, including a memorable 50-48 overtime victory in 2007. If the Razorbacks give Wilson time to throw, they will have a chance to pull the upset. However, if LSU gets its rushing attack going and controls the clock, Arkansas’ upset bid will fall short.
6. The Commonwealth Cup has been a one-sided affair in recent years. Is that about to change? Virginia Tech has claimed 12 out of the last 13 matchups against Virginia, but Saturday’s game could be a turning point in the series. The Cavaliers are riding a four-game winning streak, including a 14-13 upset win over Florida State last Saturday. Coach Mike London has done a great job in just two seasons in Charlottesville, with a chance to earn a marquee win against the Hokies. The winner of Saturday’s game will play Clemson for the ACC Championship next week in Charlotte, N.C. The Hokies have climbed to No. 5 in the BCS standings, but only won by three against North Carolina last week and by four against Duke on Oct. 29. The Cavaliers aren’t a standout team statistically, but rank third in the ACC in total defense. And quarterback Michael Rocco has provided some stability for the offense, tossing only one interception in his last five games. With a trip to the ACC title game on the line between in-state rivals, this matchup figures to be a heated 60-minute battle in Charlottesville.
7. Considering the other rivalry matchups on Saturday, it might be easy to overlook this game. However, Clemson-South Carolina is one of the more intriguing contests on Saturday. The Tigers have lost two out of their last three games, including a 37-13 thumping at the hands of NC State last Saturday. With a victory over Clemson, the Gamecocks would have 10 wins and their first double-digit win season since 1984. This matchup to watch will be the Clemson offense against the South Carolina defense. Receiver Sammy Watkins missed last week’s game due to a shoulder injury, but his return should help spark the Tigers’ passing attack. The Gamecocks rank second nationally in pass defense and are allowing only 19.4 points a game. A shootout would be a nightmare for South Carolina, especially since its offense has struggled since losing running back Marcus Lattimore in the Oct. 15 victory over Mississippi State. The Gamecocks have won the last two in this series, but Saturday’s outcome could rest with whichever team can impose its offensive will.
8. Last season’s Iron Bowl ended up as an instant classic, with Auburn rallying from a 24-0 deficit to beat Alabama 28-27. Don’t expect a repeat this Saturday. With losses by Oklahoma, Oregon and Oklahoma State last week, the Crimson Tide is back in the national title mix. And a win over the Tigers could all but assure Alabama a likely rematch against LSU in New Orleans on Jan. 9. With a lot of turnover on the depth chart, 2011 figured to be a struggle for Auburn. And there have been plenty of problems, including quarterback play and a defense that remains one of the worst in the SEC. Outside of a fluke performance against Georgia Southern, the Crimson Tide has not allowed more than 14 points in a game this year. Although the Tigers will have plenty of motivation to beat their rival, the stats and roster heavily favor Alabama. With so much on the line for Nick Saban and Co., expect a highly-motivated Crimson Tide team at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
9. The annual battle between Florida and Florida State is usually one of November’s most-anticipated games. Not this season. The two teams have combined for a disappointing 13-9 record and neither will be playing in a BCS bowl. The Seminoles began the year as national title contenders, but got off to a slow 2-3 start. The Gators dropped all four of their games in October and got a surprising challenge from Furman last Saturday. Coaches Jimbo Fisher (Florida State) and Will Muschamp (Florida) are good friends, but for 60 minutes, bragging rights and potential victories in the recruiting war are on the line. Youth is to blame for both teams struggling at times this year, and this figures to be a small bump in the road, before rebounding in 2012. Fisher made a statement in his first game in this rivalry last season, leading the Seminoles to a 31-7 blowout victory over the Gators in Tallahassee. However, Florida State has not won in Gainesville since 2003. While it has been a disappointing season for both teams, a victory would help salvage some pride and momentum in the annual battle for control in the Sunshine State.
10. The Pac-12 South race is officially a mess. Well, it was before going into Week 13, but after 11 games, it’s anybody’s guess what happens this weekend. USC is clearly the best team in this division, but is ineligible to play in the conference title game. With the Trojans out of the picture, the race is down to Utah, UCLA and Arizona State. The Sun Devils appeared to be in full control of the South, but have lost three straight. The Bruins hold the edge in the division, but have to beat USC on Saturday to play in the conference championship. Utah needs the most help, but is probably playing the best out of the three teams vying for the South crown. In order for the Utes to win the division, they need losses by Arizona State and UCLA. Considering how the Bruins and Sun Devils have played this year, it would not be a surprise to see either team lose this weekend.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 13 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Nebraska 27, Iowa 20
Houston 45, Tulsa 38
West Virginia 31, Pittsburgh 24
Louisville 24, South Florida 20
LSU 27, Arkansas 20
Clemson 31, South Carolina 27
Georgia 34, Georgia Tech 28
Virginia Tech 24, Virginia 20
Florida State 24, Florida 17
Michigan 27, Ohio State 13
Wisconsin 31, Penn State 20
Alabama 31, Auburn 13
Stanford 31, Notre Dame 27
USC 34, UCLA 20
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Louisville at South Florida (-3)
The Cardinals need a win to remain alive in the Big East title race. Quarterback B.J. Daniels is a game-time decision for the Bulls.
Houston (-3) at Tulsa
The Cougars have cruised to an 11-0 start. However, the Golden Hurricane has won seven in a row and can win Conference USA’s West Division with a victory.
California at Arizona State (-4.5)
Have the Sun Devils packed it in for the year?
Michigan State (-7) at Northwestern
The Spartans have clinched the Legends Division, so this one is all about finishing the regular season on a high note. One reason to like the upset? It’s senior day at Northwestern – think Dan Persa will be motivated for a big game?
Notre Dame at Stanford (-7.5)
The Irish figure to give the Cardinal all they can handle, especially with a defense that is allowing just 20.3 points a game. Can Notre Dame’s offense avoid the turnover problems?
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