The eyes of the college football world come to Los Angeles on Saturday night, as we wait to see if Notre Dame can conclude an improbable dream season by beating USC (8 PM ET, ABC) and earn a berth in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami on January 7. USC has spoiled Notre Dame’s seasons before, but the Irish can also point to 1988, a year where an ND team came out here ranked #1, still with its doubters and beat a very good Trojan team en route to their last undisputed national championship.
If we want to pick up the comparison between 2012 and 1988, something Notre Dame fans fervently hope the history books will do, as the school looks to end its 24-year-wait to finish on top of the polls, we can also note that the ’88 Irish brought a quarterback in Tony Rice that most observers were skeptical of. He has his modern counterpart in freshman Everett Golson. Notre Dame has won most games this year in spite of its passing game, not because of it and a big issue hanging out there is whether Golson can take his stronger play of the last couple weeks and bring it to the Coliseum.
That’s really the only issue that’s up in the air for the Irish. The USC defense has been a big disappointment against good teams all year. The nation watched Oregon drop 62 in this same venue earlier in the month, but there’s also bad performances against Arizona, and just last week against UCLA in a loss that snuffed out Trojan Rose Bowl hopes. USC’s defense has beaten on the ground and picked apart through the air and with Matt Barkley sidelined, there’s no realistic hope for them to keep up if the game becomes a shootout—something that is of itself unlikely, given the success the ND defense has had against good passing offenses.
How good will the USC offense with Barkley’s shoulder injury keeping him on the sideline. I wouldn’t be ready to write off the Trojans and backup quarterback Max Witten just yet. This is a program that changes from one quarterback to the next with no discernible dropoff. While it’s a stretch to ask Witten to win a shootout against a good defense in the way you might hope for from Barkley, what if USC can hold the Notre Dame offense in the 21-24 point range? USC has great talent at the skill spots, headlined by Marqise Lee and Robert Woods at receiver, with Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal running the ball, and an effective Witten could win a 27-24 kind of game.
But saying Witten “could” win a game like that is a lot different than actually predicting it. When you look at how well the Notre Dame defense fared at Oklahoma back in October, there’s no reason not to expect a strong showing Saturday night. USC has a path to victory—take away the pass, maybe intercept Golson a couple times and allow Witten to build some confidence in manageable situations. But it’s not a path that has much better than a 30-35 percent chance of working. In the end, this might be closer than the Vegas experts say (Notre Dame is a 6.5 point favorite), but the Irish seal a trip to Miami.
THE SEC-ACC BATTLES
The Saturday after Thanksgiving is traditional rivalry time in three ACC-SEC grudge matches. The SEC, as you might expect, usually gets the best of them. All three games—Georgia Tech-Georgia, Florida-Florida State and South Carolina-Clemson have either national title or BCS bowl implications and they’ll be on TV all day long…
Georgia Tech-Georgia (Noon ET, ESPN): This is a dangerous schedule spot for the Bulldogs. Will they get caught looking ahead to their SEC championship battle with Alabama next week? Normally it wouldn’t matter beyond some local pride, but now is the first of a three-step process for the Dawgs to win their first national title since 1980. And they’re playing an opponent that’s starting to come on strong. Georgia Tech hit a good North Carolina team for 68 points two weeks ago and knocked off bowl-bound Duke. Tevin Washington runs what’s usually an explosive triple-option offense for head coach Paul Johnson.
The flip side to this is that Tech also has a conference championship game ahead next week—Miami’s decision to self-impose a bowl ban removed them from a shot at the ACC title game and that means Georgia Tech is in. Unlike their rivals, the Yellow Jackets have nothing at stake beyond the rivalry this week and they’ll play for an Orange Bowl spot next week. The lookahead is an even bigger issue here.
Then we come to Tech’s defense, which allowed 50 in that same North Carolina game. Georgia can beat you with Aaron Murray throwing the ball, or Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall running it. As well as the Yellow Jackets run the ball and as many big plays as Washington makes off the option, I find it hard to imagine they keep with Georgia in Athens. The Bulldogs offense should be able to hit the 40s without breaking a sweat and win this game.
Florida-Florida State (3:30 PM ET, ABC): Both quarterbacks might be seen limping, as Jeff Driskell for Florida and E.J. Manuel for Florida State both are expected to play with ankle injuries. That’s a bigger deal for Florida, since they rely on Driskell to make plays with feet. As long as FSU can keep Manuel upright in the pocket, he should be fine.
Of bigger concern is that the entire Florida team has been limping since that 44-11 beatdown they put on South Carolina on October 20. The Gators were a mistake-prone mess a week later against Georgia and have had three sluggish wins since. It’s for that reason that the oddsmakers have installed Florida State as a 7.5 point favorite on their homefield.
I don’t buy it though. It’s been a long time since Florida State played well in a big game outside of their league, and there are frankly only a few cases of them doing so inside their league. The conference exchange rate factor significantly favors Florida, and this is still a very good defensive football team. It’s for that reason I absolutely take Florida with the points and lean their direction to win outright.
South Carolina-Clemson (7 PM ET, ESPN): Clemson is playing to make a BCS bowl game as an at-large selection. South Carolina is playing to get to 10 wins and give itself at least a chance at the same, though they’d need both Florida to lose, and have Texas A&M lose to Missouri, and maybe even LSU somehow blow it to Arkansas (the latter game is on Friday and this article is being written in advance of both days).
Working in South Carolina’s favor is a tough defense, the SEC exchange rate factor that has always shown up in these SEC-ACC battles and a gritty quarterback in Connor Shaw. Working in Clemson’s favor is an explosive offense, both on the ground with Andre Ellington and in the air, where Tajh Boyd targets Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. And the Clemson homefield advantage should be in full throttle by Saturday night (“full throttle” is the polite way of saying a lot of fans will be blasted).
I usually go defense in these spots, with conference affiliation being right behind it, so on that basis, South Carolina looks like a solid play. I am concerned that the absence of Marcus Lattimore means the Gamecocks won’t make enough big plays to win. The Clemson defense is a sieve—they gave up 48 last week to N.C. State and South Carolina’s offense is at least as good as the Wolfpack. Hence, I feel very good about taking South Carolina with the points (+4) and give them a little bit of a lean outright, though given the emotion and stakes I’m a little cautious there.
For the sake of completing the SEC-ACC matchups, we also have Vanderbilt-Wake Forest (3:30 PM ET, ESPNU) and the game is big for the Demon Deacons who need to get to bowl eligibility. But Vandy is playing well right now, Wake is really struggling offensively, so unless the 7-4 Commodores just take the week off, they should get this win and knock Wake out of the bowl picture.
SEC: Alabama has to go through the pro forma routine of burying Auburn (3:30 PM ET, CBS) before we can officially slot the Tide into the SEC Championship Game. There are two big games at night, with Mississippi State-Ole Miss (7 PM ET, ESPNU) and Missouri-Texas A&M (7 PM ET, ESPN2). The Aggies are looking to keep in contention for BCS at-large possibility—and the SEC West title if by some miracle Alabama loses. More pertinent is that both Ole Miss and Missouri need to win for bowl eligibility.
Big 12: We talked about this conference’s bowl scenarios, as well as its championship picture earlier this week. Oklahoma State visits Oklahoma (3:30 PM ET, ESPN) in a game important for the Cowboys, but monstrous for the Sooners, who will have Big 12 title and BCS at-large consideration stakes. Baylor plays for bowl eligibility when they visit fading Texas Tech (2:30 PM ET, Fox).
Pac-12: Stanford took control of the Pac-12 North last week with the big upset of Oregon, but the Cardinal has to finish the job when they play UCLA (6:30 PM ET, Fox). Interesting conundrum for the Bruins, who have clinched the Pac-12 South—do you go all-out and play for homefield advantage, which the Pac-12 awards for its title game, or do you rest up starters and at the very least run a vanilla game plan and then come back strong against this same team next week? Should UCLA win, then Oregon can reclaim the North if they win at Oregon State.
Big East: Louisville needs to beat UConn at home to set up a showdown with Rutgers next Thursday night for the conference title. Rutgers’ visit to Pitt (Noon, ESPN2) means nothing to the Scarlet Knights unless Louisville loses, in which case Rutgers—currently with a one-game lead—could clinch. Pitt is 4-6 and needs a win to keep bowl hopes alive.
ACC: It’s all on the line for Virginia Tech, as this proud program looks to survive a tough year by at least keeping its streak of making a bowl each season since 1993 intact. They host Virginia (Noon ET, ESPNU). Nothing will make this Virginia Tech season in particular a success, but in the grand scheme of things, I think streaks this bowl one are important for a program in showing they can survive bad years. The Miami-Duke game would have been for the Hurricanes to get the ACC Championship Game before they self-imposed a bowl ban, something that extends to league title games. This, by the way, is a joke. If Miami was in national title consideration, or even expected to beat Florida State next week, does anyone think they’d have self-imposed? The NCAA should ignore this transparent attempt to hotwire their way around sanctions.
Big Ten: As mentioned, I am writing this in advance of Friday’s games, so I don’t yet know if Michigan will have anything to play for at Ohio State (Noon ET, ABC) other than rivalry pride. If Nebraska loses to Iowa, the Wolverines can play their way into a Big Ten championship game slot. Wisconsin will be the opponent and the Badgers visit Penn State (3:30 PM ET, ESPN2).
There’s talk here in my native Wisconsin that Bucky should rest starters and get ready for next week. I’ll be furious if that happens—a win gets Wisconsin to 8-4 and is at least a nice season. A loss and 7-5 mean mediocrity and I’ll be embarrassed to go to the conference championship game. Speaking of self-imposed bans, don’ t you think the Big Ten and Ohio State fans are wishing the Buckeyes would have done that last year and skipped the Gator Bowl, rather than wasting the undefeated season that 2012 can be with a win over Michigan?
In the mid-majors…
Mountain West: Fresno State and San Diego State both play to clinch pieces of the conference title. Fresno hosts Air Force (3:30 PM ET, NBC Sports Network). This one could be a good game, but Air Force might have to complete a pass, something they didn’t achieve in last week’s win over Hawaii. The bowl-bound Falcons also have to decide the game is worth fighting for. San Diego State goes to Wyoming, a disappointing team that’s played better of late and sophomore quarterback Brett Smith has the stuff to possibly spring an upset. Boise State is the third arm of this conference race and plays Nevada next week.
WAC: Utah State has the conference wrapped up after its wild 48-41 overtime win over Louisiana Tech last week. Still, Tech’s game against 9-2 San Jose is on TV (10:30 PM ET, ESPN2) and worth watching as LT’s Colby Cameron and San Jose’s David Fales, two very good quarterbacks, battle it out in a league that has to freelance for bowl opportunities after its league champion.
Conference USA: This one’s all set for next week, as it will be Tulsa-East Carolina in the conference championship game.
MAC: Also set for next week, with Northern Illinois-Kent being in the title game.
Sun Belt: Middle Tennessee needs to win a difficult home game against Troy to keep on track for a December 1 battle with Arkansas State, one that would be winner-take-all, if the Blue Raiders defend their home turf on Saturday.
That’s a wrap for Week 13 college football, the last big one of the regular season.