College Football Week 9: Big 12 & SEC Battles Mark Saturday

The eyes of the nation are going to be in Big 12 country on Saturday night. And I don’t deny that Notre Dame’s visit to Oklahoma (8 PM ET, ABC) is a big deal with major implications on the race for the national title. But the nation might want to make it a doubleheader day in the Big 12, because there’s a game whose implications are potentially even bigger. Kansas State hosts Texas Tech in a game that doesn’t have the marquee sizzle, but on substance, this game at 3:30 PM ET on Fox has some landscape-reshaping potential.

It was just last week that Kansas State went into West Virginia and demolished the Mountaineers, likely eliminating them from the Big 12 race and at the very least re-setting the Heisman Trophy campaign to square one after it appeared WVA quarterback Geno Smith was running away with things. But though the game against Texas Tech is at home, it’s likely to be tougher.

Let’s not forget that Texas Tech dominated West Virginia the same way K-State did, winning 49-14. The Red Raiders have a quarterback who deserves to be in the Heisman conversation—perhaps even leading it—in Seth Doege. And Texas Tech only has one loss, meaning a win on Saturday puts them right in the middle of the Big 12 title race and at the very least positions them for a possible at-large invitation to a BCS bowl game.

What Kansas State has going for it is the same thing they brought to the table last Saturday night in Morgantown. They are a more complete football team than Texas Tech. K-State’s Collin Klein should have played his way into the group of Heisman frontrunners by now, and it’s not too much to say that perhaps the Klein-Doege winner on Saturday moves undecided voters into their corner as we get set to flip the calendar to November.

The Wildcats also have a demonstrated ability to run the ball in the traditional way, with running back John Hubert, along with Klein. They play good defense, and they’ve proven their mettle against the conference’s best, winning at Oklahoma. By way of comparison, Tech’s one loss came to OU and it was a decisive 41-20 thrashing.

If it were just about who’s better, there’s no question the answer is Kansas State, and they’re playing at home. Bookmakers have installed them as 7.5 point favorites. But will we get a max effort out of Bill Snyder’s team, coming off the emotional road win of Saturday. It would be ironic if K-State could win in Norman and Morgantown, but ended up losing at home to Texas Tech, but the race for the national title has seen stranger twists of fate than that.

I’m not ready to pick against Kansas State—and given that points are likely to flow pretty easily, I’d even say they probably cover that 7.5 number—but this is a game that Texas Tech probably plays over its head and keeps competitive to late in the fourth quarter. And if they win, the race for the national title, BCS at-large spots, the Big 12 and the Heisman, all need to be re-thought. That would be the definition of a big game.


Notre Dame-Oklahoma (8 PM ET, ABC): Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish have been a great story for this season, but this game is a big step up in class from what they’ve been used to. Notre Dame has played well against good teams from the Big Ten (Michigan) and ACC (Miami) and escaped a good Pac-12 team (Stanford), but now they have to match up against a team with national championship-level talent. In spite of ND’s nationwide popularity at the betting windows, OU is still giving 11.5 points at home in this one.

I agree with that assessment and consider the game a talent mismatch because ND simply can’t move the ball well enough to keep up with a really good team on the road. The Irish play good defense and for that reason, they can probably hang with the Sooners for a while, but if they don’t get better work offensively, eventually the floodgates will crash. OU is a well-balanced offense, getting solid work on the ground from Damien Williams, something that’s taken the pressure of f Landry Jones and the team has looked extremely impressive in blasting Texas Tech and Texas in recent weeks.

The scenario for a Notre Dame upset is this—the defense stops Williams and the secondary, which has been solid this year, forces Jones into some mistakes, thereby creating a game where the Notre Dame offense can focus on running the ball and controlling tempo. The longer this goes on, Jones’ tendency to come up small in big situations gets magnified and the Irish pull a shocker.

As upset scenarios go, this isn’t out of left field. But unless Kelly pulls freshman Everett Golson from the quarterback spot (and there’s no evidence he’s going to), goes with Tommy Rees and takes some chances, I just don’t like the odds. You’ve got a better chance of an Irish cover than an outright win.

Florida-Georgia (3:30 PM ET, CBS): Georgia has one loss—a decisive one to the same South Carolina team that Florida demolished last week—but if UGA wins this one on a neutral field in Jacksonville, they would move into a tie with the Gators in the SEC East and control the tiebreaker, and know that a one-loss team that wins the SEC probably plays for a national championship. So sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs have a lot on the line.

But unless Florida is hung over from celebrating—and, figuratively speaking of course, that’s not an unreasonable guess—there’s no question who the better football team is. Georgia does not play consistent defense, especially on the ground. Florida can muscle people on the ground. The Bulldogs have big-play capability on offense, but we’ve seen in general that teams that are fast and sound defensively can slow these kinds of offenses down and then dominate the line of scrimmage to win.

That’s the path South Carolina used to hammer Georgia three weeks ago and it’s the path Florida can use here. I want to be a little cautious about dismissing the Dawgs, just because it’s tough to imagine Florida being at peak level two straight weeks, but there’s a considerable cushion for Wil Muschamp’s team even if they don’t play their best.

Mississippi State-Alabama (8:30, ESPN): The Bulldogs are undefeated and if they pulled the shocker in Tuscaloosa it would shake the college football world to its foundations. The fact they’re a 24-point underdog tells you the opinion of Las Vegas regarding their chances to do that.

I see no reason to think MSU could get a road win or even turn it into a nail-biter, but that line is excessive. Mississippi State is fundamentally sound, has a legitimate running game with Lardarius Perkins—something Michigan did not have when they played ‘Bama early in the year, still the Tide’s toughest test to date, and the Bulldogs have a decent junior quarterback in Tyler Russell.

But in the end, this game starts a two-week sequence that defines Alabama’s regular season, with the road trip to LSU up next and I don’t see them overlooking Dan Mullen’s bulldogs.

Michigan-Nebraska (8 PM ET, ESPN2): The winner of this game holds the inside track to Indianapolis and presumably a date with Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Both the Wolverines and Huskers rallied for late wins, against division rivals Michigan State and Northwestern, giving Saturday’s night battle in Lincoln some extra juice in the conference race.

Both teams bring versatile quarterbacks to the table in Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez. Nebraska’s much better balanced offensively, being able to run the ball with Ameer Abdullah, who’s been better than last year’s featured back, Rex Burkhead, who has battled injuries all year. Michigan hasn’t gotten the same kind of support for Denard.

Defensively though, Nebraska has been a train wreck, getting picked apart by Ohio State, not playing well against Northwestern and looking so-so against Wisconsin. Robinson has had a field day against bad defenses, and there’s no reason to think he can’t have a good night in Lincoln.

Thus, does Michigan’s defensive edge cancel out Nebraska’s superior running game and homefield? They’re only a 2.5 point underdog on the road, indicating oddsmakers think UM is narrowly better on a neutral site.  But of course they aren’t on a neutral site and the Cornhuskers also have a revenge factor, after losing in Ann Arbor last year. Score this one a narrow win for Nebraska.


We’ll run briefly through the other major conferences to see what’s on tap on the Saturday undercard…

SEC: South Carolina has to pick up the pieces of its shattered dreams—an SEC title is out of the question, barring total collapse, but if they win out and get to 10-2, they’d at least have a chance at a BCS at-large spot and at the very least a Capital One Bowl berth on New Year’s Day. They play Tennessee at home (Noon ET, ESPN).

Pac-12: A key game in the Pac-12 South is UCLA-Arizona State (3 PM ET, FX), as the Bruins try and reclaim some of their early season mojo with Jonathan Franklin and the running game, while the Sun Devils will have had some extra prep time after getting smoked by Oregon last Thursday. The winner is set up as the pre-eminent challenger to USC in this division, and both teams still play the Trojans. Speaking of USC, they got to Arizona (3:30 PM ET, either ABC or ESPN2). They’ll need to be focused defensively against Rich Rodriguez’s team, but this is also a good spot for Matt Barkley to uncork a big game and get a late-season Heisman push going.

Big 12: After the big games, all that’s left is TCU-Oklahoma State, jousting in the middle of the pack. Texas plays Kansas, but let’s wait until basketball season before we hype a game between these schools.

Big East: Friday night is the action time in this conference, as Louisville hosts Cincinnati. TheSportsNotebook broke down the impending race between these two teams and Rutgers for conference honors. Rutgers plays outside the league in a home game against a good MAC team in Kent.

Big Ten: Iowa can still challenge the winner of Michigan-Nebraska for the Legends Division title, but they need to win at Northwestern, and we’ve seen nothing from the Hawkeyes to suggest this will happen. Wisconsin hosts Michigan State, a rematch of last year’s two epic battles, one in East Lansing and another in the B10 Championship Game. But Sparty’s troubles and probations ensuring UW has the Leaders Division all but locked have diminished the impact. I live in the area and I’m still going to the game, but not with the same level of anticipation. And the Beauty Contest Game of the Year goes in Happy Valley, as Ohio State meets Penn State (5:30 PM ET, ESPN) in a battle between what could be the league’s two best teams, even if they’re on probation.

ACC: Duke-Florida State (3:30 PM ET, ESPNU) is actually a pretty big game, as the Blue Devils are right in the mix for the Coastal Division title and FSU must win to keep pace with Clemson in the Atlantic, as the Tigers blew out Wake Forest on Thursday. But the biggest battle is N.C. State-North Carolina. The Wolfpack actually control their destiny in the Atlantic Division, but that changes if they get dumped in this tough road test, and I think they will.


Mountain West: Boise is not going to be tested at Wyoming (3:30 PM ET, CBS Sports Network), but runner-up Fresno might get a challenge from New Mexico. Bob Davie has the Lobos playing competitively and running the ball and they’re at home with a chance for a statement win. Fresno has lost to Boise, so their league title hopes are realistically shot, but they don’t want to blow bowl position. Not a bad game in the desert.

WAC: Utah State and Louisiana Tech are pointing to a November battle for the conference title and nothing on the card Saturday suggests that is likely to change.

Conference USA:  The early division front-runners are either idle (Tulsa) or playing non-conference (East Carolina hosts Navy). Marshall is also in the mix in the East, with its dynamic quarterback Rakeem Cato and they host Central Florida in a game you can catch on TV (8 PM ET, CBS Sports Network) if you’re inclined to vault that game over Notre Dame-OU, Michigan-Nebraska, Mississippi State-Alabama and Game 3 of the World Series. Never mind, forget I brought it up.

MAC: Northern Illinois and Ohio are having good seasons—Ohio remains unbeaten, while NIU is only a one-point loss against Iowa from being the same. Both have road tests that could trip them up. Western Michigan has been disappointing and lost quarterback Alex Carder, but they’re  threat on their homefield against Northern Illinois. And Ohio visits Miami-OH and its own exciting quarterback in Zac Dysert.

Sun Belt: We had the game of the year at the top of the league last week. You may have missed UL-Monroe’s thrilling win over Western Kentucky because no one—not even ESPNU or CBS Sports Network—saw fit to put the league’s two best teams on TV. It’s a quieter week this time around, though this league does get multiple bowl bids and the winner of North Texas-Middle Tennessee will have a shot.