College Football Week 12: Big Battles Out West
The West is where the action is in college football Week 12, with both sides of the Pac-12 up for grabs in big head-to-head showdowns and even the undercard is alive, with the WAC title on the line. So TheSportsNotebook begins its usual college football Saturday review by starting with the USC-UCLA & Stanford-Oregon games in the Pac-12, and then mixes in the underrated Utah State-Louisiana Tech showdown.
USC-UCLA (3 PM ET, Fox): It’s the biggest game this rivalry has seen since 1988 when Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete were behind center and both the Bruins and Trojans were national title contenders. There’s no national championship on the line in this one, but the winner clinches the South division crown and a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game on December 1.
USC comes in a 3.5 point favorite, even though UCLA is a nominal home team, with the games being played at the Rose Bowl, where the Bruins play their home games, rather than SC’s home of the Los Angeles Coliseum. But USC has done nothing—repeat nothing—to suggest that it was remotely worthy of the hype they get in the preseason (and yes, I was one of the guilty parties in August, tabbing them #1 in the country). The Trojans have lost to Arizona, Stanford and Oregon. USC had to struggle to get past Syracuse, Washington and Cal. The only time Lane Kiffin’s team blew anybody out was when they played the incompetent triumvirate of Hawaii, Colorado and Cal.
Contrast that with UCLA. The Bruins beat Big Ten leader Nebraska. They beat a respectable Conference USA team in Houston. Their offense has ripped off 155 points in consecutive wins over Arizona State, Arizona and Washington State coming in. True, they also struggled past Utah and there’s no explaining away losing 43-17 to Cal. But the Bruins have shown themselves capable of a higher level play than the Trojans.
The biggest reason for UCLA’s rapid growth under first-year coach Jim Mora Jr. is that they can run the ball well behind Jonathan Franklin. UCLA has played more consistent, tougher football than USC, whose running game behind Silas Redd has been off and on. Redd missed last week’s game, though he’s expected to be ready for Saturday. While USC can’t get sucked into playing UCLA’s slug-it-out game, Redd at least has to provide some offensive balance.
If USC can open the game up they’ll have a significant advantage. Matt Barkley might be throwing more interceptions than he did a year ago, but everything is relative and he’s still have a fantastic season, targeting the best receiver in college football in Marqise Lee. UCLA’s freshman QB Brett Hundley has had a good year, but the operative word is “freshman.” Do you want to put a kid, who’s accustomed to relying on the running game into a shootout with Barkley? I didn’t think so.
Whomever controls tempo wins what promises to be the day’s best game. I like physical teams more than flash-and-dash, and consequently I’m taking UCLA. If I were at a betting window, I’d be cautious and just take them with the points, but in a column where there are no actual consequences to being wrong, I’ll go on record with picking an outright win.
Stanford-Oregon (8 PM ET, ABC): Theoretically this is the day’s biggest game, since you have Oregon pushing for a national title and Stanford looking to move into a tie with the Ducks for first place and simultaneously grabbing the tie-breaker edge with a game to go (although Stanford’s remaining game is against UCLA so the North race won’t be over if they pull the shocker on Saturday night). I say “theoretically”, because that requires a belief that Stanford can keep it close. I don’t see it that way and neither does Las Vegas, who has posted Oregon as a nearly three-touchdown favorite at home.
While I just finished saying above that I like slug-it-out over flash-n-dash and a very reasonable observer could conclude that means I like Stanford, my view on the topic does have some nuance. Oregon is just much faster than Stanford, in a way that negates any style preference. While some—including myself—have panned the Ducks’ defense for giving up 51 points to USC, they haven’t given up over 30 to anyone else since an Opening Night 57-34 win over Sun Belt-leading Arkansas State. Both Arkansas State and USC can open the field and push tempo, while Stanford not only can’t, they’ll get buried if they try. And regardless of how well the Cardinal defense plays, they need to drop at least 35 points on the board to win. I don’t see it happening.
We can add that Stanford‘s speed deficiencies were exposed in this matchup last year, when Oregon beat them 53-30. That game was in Palo Alto, with Andrew Luck at quarterback for the Cardinal. What happens in Eugene with Kevin Hogan behind center?
Now that I’ve made my own view clear, it’s time to play devil’s advocate. If you’re partial to Stanford you point out that Oregon’s been hit with some injuries on defense this week, both on the interior of the line and at safety. This can aid Stanford’s outstanding running back, Stephan Taylor, in running between the tackles and if you have an inexperienced safety you might have some success throwing deep off play-action. And while Hogan might not be Luck, nor is he Josh Nunes, the Stanford quarterbacks who struggled mightily much of the year and reduced the team to a one-dimensional attack. Hogan rallied this team last week against Oregon State and at least makes the passing game a viable threat. If you control the line of scrimmage, control the clock, hit a few big plays down the field, you can turn up the pressure on Oregon. And once a favorite starts feeling the pressure anything can happen.
Is that upset scenario reasonable? Sure. Reasonable enough that I wouldn’t actually lay three TDs with Oregon. But as far as actually producing an upset, I can’t rate its percentages much higher than 1-in-10.
Utah State-Louisiana Tech (4 PM ET, no TV): A Utah State win clinches the WAC, while a Louisiana Tech win gives them control, though it does leave San Jose State in the picture for a possible three-way tie pending next week. Louisiana Tech is ranked 20th in the BCS and has a shot at a major bowl game—they need to climb four spots to #16 and also be ranked ahead of a major conference champion . The latter is up in the air, but a win on Saturday would go a long way to moving them up those key four spots.
As a result, I’m surprised to see Louisiana Tech getting three on their home field. Let’s not forget, this is a team that only lost by two points to Texas A&M on this field a few weeks ago. Let’s not forget that Colby Cameron is a prolific quarterback, with a balanced offense, showcasing 1,000 rusher Kenneth Dixon and 1,000-yard receiver Quinton Patton. And then mix in Myles White as a secondary target. Tech can score points and you have to wonder why they would be an underdog on their home field.
This isn’t to knock Utah State though. The Aggies beat Utah, came within a shanked field goal of beating Wisconsin, have blown out San Jose State and outperformed Louisiana Tech against common conference foes in UT-San Antonio and Texas State. They run the ball well with Kerwynn Williams and Chuckie Keeton is a nice two-threat option at quarterback.
Once again, this is a game where tempo will be key. Keeton has already been sacked 14 times, a high number for a mobile quarterback in a rush-oriented offense whose team usually plays with a lead. If Utah State is forced to keep up in the air, Louisiana Tech’s defensive line should have opportunities to make some plays. If they can run it with Williams and turn into a more defensive-oriented game, give Utah State an edge.
I think these teams are pretty even, and based purely on the homefield I’ll take Louisiana Tech. And on a completely off-the-wall note, this is also known as the Karl Malone Rivalry Game (at least by me) since the former NBA star played his college ball at La Tech and his pro career in Utah.
The OTHER TWO UNBEATENS
Beyond Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame have manageable games. Kansas State puts its undefeated record on the line against Baylor (8 PM ET, ESPN). The Bears’ defense is atrocious, so it’s hard to take upset chances seriously. I will be curious to see how the K-State defense performs against an offense that is legitimate.
Notre Dame takes on Wake Forest, a 5-5 team looking to get bowl eligible. Since ND was nearly beaten by Pitt and was ho-hum last week in Boston College, I won’t say this is going to be rout, especially with the possibility of a look-ahead to USC. But the Irish defense fares well against teams that have to throw the ball and Demon Deacon quarterback Tanner Price would need a big day for a shocker to happen. Can’t see it happening.
BIG EAST BATTLE AHEAD
The Big East race is coming to a head, as Rutgers is undefeated in league play, with Cincinnati and Louisville a game back. The Scarlet Knights have to play both teams and it starts on Saturday. The Bearcats made a quarterback change last week, in going away from versatile, but mistake-prone Munchie Legaux, to Brendon Kay. I understand why Legaux’s play could drive his coaches a little nuts, but I also think he would give Cincy the best chance to win against a team that plays defense like Rutgers.
You can credibly argue that Legaux also gives Cincy the best chance to get blown out with turnovers and I couldn’t disagree. But a game that’s focused on running the ball, defense and game-managing quarterbacks is going to swing Rutgers’ way and it’s why I like them to win as a 6.5 point road underdog.
SEC: It’s mostly non-conference games against bad teams this week, with matchups like Western Carolina-Alabama dotting the schedule. But Ole Miss-LSU (3:30 PM ET, CBS) is a big one. The Tigers, at 8-2, still have a shot at a BCS at-large spot and certainly are playing to get into the Cotton Bowl at minimum. Ole Miss needs one win to make a bowl and with this game, plus Mississippi State, their path is narrow.
Big 12:.Oklahoma continues to push for a BCS at-large and possible share of the conference title if K-State should stumble when they go to West Virginia (7 PM ET, Fox).
Pac-12: Beyond the big ones noted above. Arizona State pushes for bowl eligibility when they host turmoil-ridden Washington State. And Arizona plays for positioning on the bowl ladder in a late-night visit to Utah (10:30 PM ET, ESPN).
ACC: Clemson has a big home game against N.C. State (3:30 PM ET, ABC/ESPN2). By the time the Tigers take the field they’ll know if they have a shot at the Atlantic Division title or if Florida State took care of business at Maryland in a noon ET kick. Either way, the Tigers need to win this game, then beat South Carolina to get an at-large BCS slot at 11-1.
Big Ten: Ohio State goes to Wisconsin (3:30 PM ET, ABC/ESPN2) and now’s the time the Buckeyes look to finish their message-sending season under Urban Meyer. A victory here sends the clear signal that they’re the best team in the Leaders Division, even if Wisconsin is going to the conference championship game because of probation. Then Ohio State would look to seal an undefeated season against Michigan. If they do that, they can give thanks for their probation, since it spared them, and the Big Ten, the sight of another humiliation at the hands of a legitimate conference in a bowl game. There’s no malice in those words—I’m a Badger fan and am going to the game tomorrow—but we are what we are.
In the mid-majors…
Mountain West: Fresno State and San Diego State are off, so there’s only Boise State in action among the three contenders. The Broncos have a cakewalk game against Colorado State on the blue turf (3:30 PM ET, NBC Sports Network)
WAC: San Jose State is 8-2 and has a non-conference game with BYU. The Spartans need Louisiana Tech to win the showdown game above, which gives them a chance to play a tri-championship against the Bulldogs next week.
Conference USA: Tulsa can clinch the West, but let’s hold the champagne. The Golden Hurricane hosts Central Florida, with both teams undefeated in league play. UCF is on probation, so this amounts to their bowl game, or conference championship game, or whatever motivational play you want to assign. And if Tulsa loses, while SMU takes take care of business against Rice, it sets up a Tulsa-SMU battle next week for the division title.
MAC: Northern Illinois wrapped up the West on Wednesday night with its 31-24 win over Toledo and my love affair with Jordan Lynch continues, the all-everything quarterback, who made the world forget Chandler Harnish (to the extent anyone outside me and Harnish’s family remembered him to begin with). Kent State can do the same in the East, as the Golden Flashes put their undefeated league record on the line against Bowling Green. A win by the Falcons gives them the tiebreaker edge with a game to go.
Sun Belt: Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee are tied in the loss column, and pointing to a December 1 battle with each other. But Troy, who beat Navy last week, gets a shot at Arkansas State this time around. Middle Tennessee should be okay for one week, against lowly South Alabama. I’m still blown away by how badly UL-Monroe and Western Kentucky have faded since playing what seemed to be a championship-deciding overtime game on October 20. Although Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning missed most of the two losses that ruined their title push, so the Warhawks have an excuse.