November is to college football what February is to college basketball, or September to Major League Baseball. Maintaining ones own house is of the utmost importance, but there’s no shortage of scoreboard watching ahead for the championship contenders. Alabama, Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon enter the month as the front runners jockeying for one of two positions in the BCS title game.
And then there’s proverbial Charlie Day via Charlie Strong’s Louisville team:
These five are the only remaining unbeaten teams in college football and face varying paths to Miami. Alabama’s slate is back-loaded, starting with a treacherous trek into Death Valley on Saturday to face LSU. Oregon’s November slate is even more difficult, with Pac-12 North challengers Stanford and Oregon State still to come, and a visit to USC and the Coliseum starting the Ducks’ migration to BCS contention.
For Notre Dame, the scoreboard watching starts in earnest. Boston College is not bowling; Pitt likely isn’t, either. Wake Forest faces an uphill climb to bowl eligibility. That leaves USC as the sole quality opponent for the Fighting Irish, so you can bet that the typical cardinal-and-gold haters in South Bend will be vehement Trojan fans against Oregon.
That’s just one example, but likewise, nearly every game has some kind of BCS implication. College football exists as this butterfly effect reality wherein every action ripples throughout the landscape. A Michigan loss to Nebraska hurts Notre Dame, but a Miami win over Virginia Tech boosts the Irish; Nebraska’s aforementioned victory bolsters UCLA, which plays Arizona, which has an impact on Oregon’s computer score.
Got all that? Good, because that’s just the tip of the mathematical iceberg. Take notes, because there will be a test on this.
TEXAS A&M at MISSISSIPPI STATE
The only prescription to a lopsided loss at Alabama is more cowbell. At least, that’s what Mississippi State hopes when it returns home from its first defeat to take on its second straight ranked opponent.
Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel is living the lifestyle most would embrace as an SEC quarterback, if the Halloween photos that surfaced this week are any indication. (h/t outkickthecoverage.com via TexAgs.com)
But before basking in the glow that is SEC stardom, Johnny Football has a job to do. The Aggies are 6-2, vastly exceeding expectations and jockeying for position in a prominent bowl game. A match-up with Alabama, pitting Kevin Sumlin’s high tempo offense against Nick Saban’s “Old Man Football” looms large, but A&M cannot overlook MSU. Despite its undressing at ‘Bama last week, Mississippi State is a formidable, one-loss opponent still jockeying for the same prestigious bowl opportunities as A&M.
Neither are generating the same level of attention as Manziel, but both LaDarius Perkins and Tyler Russell are having breakout seasons. Perkins is the nation’s No. 35 ranked ball carrier, with Russell has an astounding 15 touchdowns to two interceptions. The seven it could muster against Alabama aside, MSU has been able to put up points this season. Conversely, A&M has exceeded expectations on defense to be, like Manziel, a surprise key to the Aggies’ success. Dan Mullen called it the “most underrated” in the SEC.
“[The defense is] doing a really, really good job of working with the pieces that we’ve got,” Sumlin said in his press conference. “Because of our lack of depth, they’re doing a great job of being able to create some different problems for offenses, particularly with our front seven.”
MSU’s ability (or inability) to contain defensive end Damontre Moore, who is having a 1st Team All-America quality season.
NEBRASKA at MICHIGAN STATE
Nebraska has wins over Northwestern and Michigan in consecutive weeks, thus putting the Cornhuskers in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten Legends division. So do I anticipate Michigan State to muck that up? You bet!
The Big Ten is such a mess, and I expect every contender to stumble on the road to the Indianapolis to such a point that the conference’s Rose Bowl representative could very well have five losses. To wit, Indiana controls its destiny in the Leaders division, yet sits at 3-5. The Legends is decidedly better, but of Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska there isn’t necessarily a clear cut best team. Northwestern also factors into that mix, further muddying the waters.
Taylor Martinez has played well this season — not necessarily well enough to silence his detractors, but certainly at a high enough level to keep the Husker offense humming along despite Rex Burkhead’s many injury issues. Nebraska is scoring 39.3 points per game thanks largely to Martinez’s 16 touchdown passes (to just five interceptions), 66 percent completion rating, and six rushing scores. But offense isn’t the problem.
The once feared Nebraska defense is intermittenly a civ that gave up over 200 yards to UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin, and surrendered more than 60 points to Ohio State. But then, it rose to the challenge last week in handing Michigan its first Big Ten loss, holding the Wolverines to just nine points. It didn’t hurt Nebraska’s effort that Denard Robinson suffered an injury, either.
Michigan State has not exactly been an offensive juggernaut, but running back Le’Veon Bell could pose the Huskers problems. Bell has eclipsed 1000 yards rushing and has eight touchdowns, employing a punishing style. Nebraska’s had its greatest struggles against active backs: Montee Ball scored three touchdowns against them, Franklin exceeded 200 yards and Carlos Hyde scored four touchdowns on 140 yards.
TEXAS at TEXAS TECH
The Texas Tech defense has vastly exceeded expectations — 55 points given up to Heisman front runner Collin Klein and K-State notwithstanding. The Texas defense is playing historically badly. Both offenses have explosive potential: they rank Nos. 8 and 12 nationally in points per game. However, each has been stymied at least once this season, proving their schemes are not insurmountable.
Tech’s may be for Texas, though — largely because the Longhorns have been unable to defend much of anyone this season. After shutting out New Mexico and before holding a putrid Kansas offense to 14, Texas surrendered scores of: 31, 36, 48, 63 and 50. Once the It-Assistant in college football, Manny Diaz has spent this season the target of ridicule. How is the Longhorn defense so bad as to rank No. 97 in FBS?
The problem vexing Diaz is the same that plagued Will Muschamp in 2010: the Longhorn front cannot stop the rush. Having to adjust for frequent passing attacks has left Texas susceptible to big gains off the rush, and the result is the nation’s No. 108 ranked rushing defense.
Texas Tech is a pass-first offense, sure. Seth Doege leads the nation with 30 passing touchdowns. But Tech has a surprisingly effective ground game, spreading carries among Kenny Williams, SaDale Foster and Eric Foster. The triumvirate has well over 200 rushes and for over 1100 yards and nine touchdowns. All three are averaging at least five yards per carry. Don’t be surprised to see offensive coordinator Neal Brown set up Doege with a heavy dose off the run early, collapsing the Texas coverage for his quarterback to go aerial.
ADMIRAL ACKBAR’S TRAP OF THE WEEK — A SPECIAL WEEK 10 DOUBLE-SHOT:
MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA / IOWA at INDIANA
As mentioned in assessing Nebraska-Michigan State, the Big Ten is downright screwy this season. No team should take any match-up lightly (except maybe Illinois), but that’s doubly the case for the Admiral Ackbar Trap of the Week double-shot.
Minnesota hosts Michigan with the Little Brown Jug on the line. The Jug, originally the property of Wolverine legend Fielding Yost, has symoblic meaning for Minnesota his season. Winning it in 2012 wouldn’t simply end a Michigan monopolization of the trophy since 2005, or put it in the Gophers’ possession for just the second time since 1987. No, a win of the Little Brown Jug would also mean the Jerry Kill era has arrived in earnest, guaranteeing the Gophers a bowl bid in just the second season of the head coach.
Michigan’s 58-0 undressing of the Gophers last year was the third worst loss in program history, so rectifying that would offer further optimism for a Big Ten member typically lacking in it. Minnesota has had a revolving door at quarterback: freshman Philip Nelson will start on Saturday, making him the third Gopher quarterback to start this season. But Michigan may have the less favorable situation at the position, with Denard Robinson getting the start, but the possibility of losing him again being very real. Robinson suffered a nerve injury against Nebraska that limited his ability to grip the football, and Wolverine reserve Russell Bellomy struggled mightily against the Cornhuskers’ porous defense.
Scoring points has not been an issue for Indiana, which won its first Big Ten game under Kevin Wilson last week. The Hoosiers are just 3-5, but control their own destiny in the lackluster Big Ten Leaders division. An uptempo, spread offense has yielded an impressive 34.7 points per game, made IU competitive with Michigan State and Ohio State, and showcased some of the program’s young talent. Last week, freshman quarterback Nate Sudfeld led IU to victory. This week, he faces an Iowa defense that has been up-and-down.
Indiana can, and should produce points against the Hawkeyes, which have given up 66 points in their last two outings. Stopping Iowa is another matter. The Hoosier defense has largely struggled, though in Iowa draws an inconsistent opponent. The loss of numerous running backs throughout the off-season mounted, and the workload is now piled almost exclusviely on Mark Weisman — and he’s likely sitting out Saturday.
A win for Indiana sends these two on very different trajectories. Typically 100 percent invested in basketball by November, Bloomington would have something to cheer on the gridiron as the Hoosiers pursue a bowl bid. Lingering consternation in Iowa over Kirk Ferentz would leave the Hawkeye fan base wringing its collective hands raw.
ARIZONA at UCLA
So either Arizona or UCLA could play in the Pac-12 championship game. How’s that for irony? Sure, in the preseason the cliche is that everyone is undefeated and anyone has a shot at achieving their goals. But realistically, status quo survives. That’s not so in the Pac-12 South, where first year head coaches Rich Rodriguez and Jim Mora still cling to that same summertime ambition in November.
“I saw that [resilience] early in the spring that these guys do want to get better and they’re trying to take to the coaching and system,” Rodriguez said in his weekly press conference. “I saw that in the spring and see that now in the fall. You don’t truly know what your guys are going to do until you start playing the game.”
Arizona’s far surpassed what most anticipated from Rodriguez’s debut campaign, whereas UCLA has been about at the level expected. Mora inherited a favorable situation: Rick Neuheisel’s recruiting classes ranked near the top of the Pac-10/12 every year. There was talent in Westwood/Pasadena, it just need cultivation. That’s starting to come together, manifested in resilient wins over Nebraska, Utah and Arizona State.
There have been hiccups along the way for UCLA, reminiscient of the Neuheisel era’s struggles: the blowout loss at Cal was like watching the 2011 Bruins. Developing a championship caliber program takes time, but UCLA will be well ahead of schedule if it can avoid another hiccup against Arizona. Playing the Wildcats has not been fun for UCLA in recent seasons, though. UCLA last defeated UA in 2006, and has the dubious distinction of being its last win in 2010, and first FBS win of 2011.
These offenses are similar in that they feature two of the conference’s best running backs in Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) and Ka’Deem Carey (Arizona). Both teams have dual threat quarterbacks unafraid to air out the pass in Matt Scott and Brett Hundley. Expect a shootout on this LA Night.
OREGON at USC
The aforementioned Arizona-UCLA tilt doesn’t have the same implications to it without USC slipping from preseason expectations. The issues that some prognasticators overlooked, like the Trojans’ lack of depth, have haunted this team’s BCS aspirations. Still, a win over Oregon, the program that took up the mantle as Pac-10/12 front runner in USC’s stead, would go a long way to salvaging the campaign.
USC obviously has a road map to detour Oregon — much of the preseason faith vested in the Trojans stemmed from their win at Autzen Stadium last November. However, that game was the classic if this was 60 seconds longer, the outcome would be different scenario. The Ducks were driving on their final possession, but forced to attempt a field goal due to time constraints. A touchdown would have sealed it for UO, likely propelling it, instead of Alabama, into a rematch with LSU. And UO had scored four of them in the second half.
Indeed, the USC road map to beating Oregon is not easily replicate: come out firing on all cylinders early, build a sizable advantage, then hold on for dear life. There’s no question USC has the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with any defense, including the deceptively good Duck unit. However, can the defense create turnovers and limit scoring opportunities from Oregon’s quick strike offensive attack? Running back Kenjon Barner is quietly crafting a Heisman-worthy season and serves as the engine of the UO offense. But focusing the front seven on Barner leaves opportunities for Marcus Mariota.
Arizona gashed USC’s defense with designed runs for Matt Scott, and the Wildcats don’t do the spread nearly as effectively as Oregon. It could be a long evening in downtown Los Angeles for this Trojan defense, as Oregon begins the essential stretch of its slate.
SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: Mission St. Brown Ale
October is passed, so it’s time to put away the pumpkin ales and Octoberfest marzens, while making way for winter brews. California-based Steinhaus Brewing Co. prodcues Mission St. brown ale, which is an excellent transition into a new season. It’s available at Trader Joe’s, where I happened to pick some up to sample ahead of game day. The maltiness is strong but not overpowering, and the toffee taste is warming — perfecet for the cooling temperatures outside.