Alabama takes the spotlight again for its second straight big game against an SEC West opponent when they host a surprisingly good Texas A&M team. Kansas State has to survive its toughest remaining road test in TCU on Saturday night. Oregon and Notre Dame each look safe to continue their unbeaten seasons with manageable road games, and three crucial games in the Big Ten will give us a handle on who’s going to play for the conference championship. We’ll lead into our discussion of college football Week 11 with these games, then go conference-by-conference on the undercard.
Texas A&M-Alabama (3:30 PM ET, CBS): The Aggies bring their versatile quarterback Johnny Manziel to Tuscaloosa in the Tide’s last big test before they go for the SEC & BCS championship game parlay. Manziel is an excellent passer and the team’s leading rusher, but Alabama shut down a similar quarterback in Michigan’s Denard Robinson earlier in the year.
A&M needs to bring something to the table that Michigan lacked, and it’s an ability to keep Alabama’s defense honest with a conventional running game. Ben Malena is closing in on the 1,000 yard mark and while he’s not going to overwhelm a defense like ‘Bama’s running between the tackles, the Tide have to at least respect that, Otherwise, their defense can fan to the perimeter and take away Manziel’s effectiveness.
Both teams have nagging injuries at skill spots, with Alabama running back Eddie Lacy and A&M’s leading receiver in Mike Evans. The latter is the more crucial concern, as Nick Saban can always turn to T.J. Yeldon if Lacy looks ineffective. But Evans, nursing a hamstring injury, has to be able to stretch the field and exploit some of those soft coverage areas that LSU did against the Tide last week.
This game realistically won’t affect who wins the SEC West—Alabama can still clinch with a win over lowly Auburn. But Texas A&M, at 7-2, would be in position to be the second SEC team chosen for a BCS game if they win this game. They’d still need a little help—Alabama would have to take care of business against Georgia in the conference title game and Florida would need to lose to Florida State, dropping both of those teams to 10-2. But if you get a scenario where Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia and Florida are all 10-2 and the Aggies have a November win over Alabama—in Tuscaloosa—who do you think gets the bid? I say A&M and that’s what they’re fighting for on Saturday.
Kansas State-TCU (7 PM ET Fox): Collin Klein’s status has been Topic A in college football this week, as the K-State quarterback and presumed Heisman frontrunner left last week’s win over Oklahoma State with what was reported to be a mild concussion and turned out to be a wrist injury. Klein is listed as probable which is a very good thing, for reasons beyond his own obvious talent.
I think K-State coach Bill Snyder has to be a little concerned over how dependent his offense is becoming on Klein. The Wildcats had been giving him good support with running back John Hubert over the last season and a half, but in recent big games, Hubert has been a non-factor. This TCU defense isn’t the vintage Horned Frogs lockdown unit of recent years so they might not be able to make Kansas State pay for the lack of balance. But the Wildcats need to get Hubert back into the flow if they have any hopes of winning a national title.
TCU has become more a pass-happy team that wins thrilling shootouts this season, with multiple overtime wins over Texas Tech & West Virginia and if they win this game, you’d have to give them a good shot at a Cotton Bowl bid, the Big 12’s top prize after the BCS bids are filled. That presumes Oklahoma would get an at-large spot in one of the big bowls, but that’s a reasonable assumption right now and if Gary Patterson could get this team to Dallas it would be a tremendous accomplishment for a rebuilding team in its first year at the Big 12 level. But at 6-3, they have to pull this upset to make it possible.
Notre Dame-Boston College (8 PM ET, ABC)
Oregon-Cal (10:30 PM ET, ESPN)
There’s really no way either of the Irish or Ducks are losing. With BC, maybe we could make a case that their good passing combination of Chase Rettig to Alex Amidon would force ND to pick up the pace and get them in a situation that’s not comfortable. But Notre Dame has shut down better passing games than this one and the Eagles are in the throes of a miserable 2-7 team. The great Catholic rivalry isn’t the same this year.
And Cal has me hiding under a rock after I picked them to win the Pac-12 North this year. Tonight should have been the big showdown in Berkley and after a good early showing at Ohio State and a blowout win over South-leading UCLA, it looked the Golden Bears would at least compete. But they’ve lost three in a row in the league, quarterback Zac Maynard was first interception-prone and is now injured, and Cal is 3-7 and probably ready to call an end to Jeff Tedford’s otherwise nice run as head coach here. Oregon’s giving more than four touchdowns and the Over/Under on the game is 68. Look for the Ducks to cover the spread by halftime and get 90 percent of that total themselves.
Wisconsin-Indiana (Noon ET, ESPN2)
Northwestern-Michigan (Noon ET, ESPN)
Penn State-Nebraska (3:30 PM ET, ABC/ESPN2)
You had Wisconsin-Indiana circled as your game of the year in the Leaders Division right? Well, that’s what it boils down to. A Badger win clinches the division. A Hoosier win puts them in the driver’s seat with two games to play. Indiana is playing well offensively, with Cameron Coffman having proved an able substitute after Tre Roberson was lost for the season.
Indiana’s last two wins over Illinois and Iowa might not look like anything special, but the Hoosiers have also had close losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Navy. Wisconsin has big quarterback problems, with a decision made to start senior Curt Phillips, a kid whose knee injury derailed him four years ago and with the Badger offensive line having all kinds of problems, they have to hope Phillips has regained the mobility he was renowned for on coming to campus.
I’m a Wisconsin fan and I’m pessimistic beyond all belief in this game, but I’ll also admit that if I were objective I’d still give the Badgers an edge. They’ve played well defensively this year and can probably contain Coffman. For as much as Monte Ball has ran below expectations (due more to the offensive line than to him), he still has over 1,000 yards. And Wisconsin has experience in these types of games.
Nebraska has to hold off Michigan in the Legends Division (the two teams are tied, with the Cornhuskers holding the head-to-head win), and both teams have tough tests on Saturday. Michigan gets Denard Robinson back after he missed last week’s win over Minnesota. Given that NU struggled defensively against Penn State and Nebraska, I think Robinson can get the field spread out and make some big plays. If NU can turn it into a little more of a grind-it-out game, they can win behind 1,000-yard rusher Venric Mark. But playing in Ann Arbor, I’m just not confident of the Wildcat defense and their ability to close.
Then we find out how good Penn State really is. They’ve got the nice home win over Northwestern, but the other wins have been over Illinois, Iowa and Purdue, and their loss to Ohio State at home was decisive. Meanwhile, Nebraska has had no favors done for them in the conference schedule—their opposite division draw has included Wisconsin & Ohio State, in addition to Saturday’s game with the Lions.
I believe Nebraska’s got too many weapons offensively. Taylor Martinez is playing well, both running and throwing. Wide receiver Kenny Bell can stretch the field and Ameer Abdullah can control the line of scrimmage. Penn State’s Matt McGloin is having a good year throwing the ball, but his team lacks the kind of overall balance you need to win on the road. Nebraska gets the win that all but secures the Legends title, as they have Minnesota and Iowa coming up, while Michigan still has to deal with Ohio State.
THE REST OF THE BCS
SEC: LSU can keep its BCS at-large hopes alive with a home game against Mississippi State, (7 PM ET, ESPN)while the Bulldogs have a shot at the Cotton Bowl slot that goes to the SEC West alongside the Big 12 runner-up. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss are each pushing for bowl eligibility and meet at 7 PM ET on ESPNU. Vandy in particular has been playing well of late, quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers’ brother James.
And as sick as this sounds, Arkansas is 4-5 and could still get into a bowl. They play South Carolina (Noon ET, CBS) and I suppose I should include the Gamecocks as a team with BCS at-large hopes, though I think it’s kind of a longshot. Right now South Carolina is the first of the teams remaining on Arkansas’ schedule that are duty-bound to ensure we don’t have John L. Smith’s train wreck inflicted upon us during bowl season.
I suppose we should also note that Georgia goes to clinch the SEC East. Officially that’s the biggest story, since if they lose at Auburn (7 PM ET, ESPN2), the division goes to Florida. But the phrase “if they lose to Auburn” should leave everyone convulsing in laughter. Forget I mentioned it. Just book Georgia for the conference championship game.
Pac-12: Earlier this week, TheSportsNotebook broke down the Pac-12 teams beyond Oregon, fighting for both the conference championship game and a possible Rose Bowl replacement bid if the Ducks play for the national title. A couple big games go Saturday. Oregon State-Stanford (3 PM ET, Fox) determines which North Division team will have a chance to upend the Ducks. And Arizona State-USC is must-win for both teams as they chase UCLA in the South.
Big 12: Iowa State-Texas presents a contrast in styles, as the Cyclones more ground-oriented, fundamentally sound approach takes on a Texas team that’s more talented and more explosive offensively than David Ash. The game’s in Austin, so UT probably wins, but I’m honestly just so disgusted with their defense right now that nothing would shock me. And West Virginia-Oklahoma State (3:30 PM ET, ABC/ESPN2) gives us another chance for a Geno Smith sighting. The WVA quarterback that was the Heisman frontrunner through September has fallen completely off the map since.
Big East: Louisville is still undefeated, though there’s no form of chaos so thorough that will give voters enough reason to put them in a national championship game. The Cards have more immediate concerns though, and it’s a road trip to Syracuse. The Orange have been mediocre, but they’ve played better of late and have a quarterback in Ryan Nassib that can make things interesting in this Noon ET kickoff on ABC. Cincinnati still has a shot at a share of the Big East title if some breaks fall their way, but they have to take care of business at Temple.
ACC: Florida State beat Virginia Tech last night with a stirring last-minute drive that came after the Seminoles coughed up a 20-10 lead. The win realistically set up FSU to win the Atlantic, but Clemson is still playing for an at-large BCS bid. I believe they control their own destiny in a home date with Maryland (3:30 PM ET, ESPNU). Miami has the inside track on the Coastal Division title, but has a road date with Virginia, who suddenly re-appeared in using a devastating ground game to bury N.C. State last week.
Big Ten: Beyond the three games above, Minnesota is 5-4 and aiming for bowl eligibility in a game at hapless Illinois. This would be a nice feather in the cap of Jerry Kill and the Minny program.
IN THE MIDMAJORS
Mountain West: The now-wild five-team race for the conference title has two key games, both on the NBC Sports Network. It’s Air Force-San Diego State at 3:30 PM ET, and then Fresno-Nevada in the late show at 10:30. Boise is in a good bounceback spot after last Saturday’s loss to San Diego State, paying a visit to lowly Hawaii.
WAC: Louisiana Tech has a puncher’s chance to be the midmajor that crashes the BCS. At #20 in the current standings, they need to rise four spots and pass one BCS conference champ (either the Big Ten champ or hope for an upset in the ACC, e.g. Duke). As a result, style points will matter in their trip to Texas State who has been respectable in their first year at the FBS level.
Conference USA: UTEP’s been a big disappointment in league play, after near-misses at Oklahoma and Wisconsin gave some September hope. The Miners can make up for some of those ills if they win at home against Eastern Division-leading Central Florida. In the West, Tulsa holds the edge, but Houston can crawl back into the race with a head-to-head win.
MAC: Favorites fell in this conference’s midweek games. Toledo, who had been tied with Northern Illinois in the West, lost to Ball State. Over in the East, Ohio fell to Bowling Green. It’s Kent who still leads the pack in the East, but has a tough game at Miami-Ohio on Saturday. NIU is off.
Sun Belt: Arkansas State has slowly built steam under new coach Gus Malzahn and they knocked off UL-Monroe in a midweek game to get control of the race. I’m not sure what’ s more impressive for Malzahn, the way he’s winning here or the way the Auburn offense has collapsed without him as coordinator. Western Kentucky can still keep pace with a home win over a lousy Florida Atlantic team on Saturday.