The 10 storylines to watch while Alabama and Florida play flag football against Chattanooga and Florida International.
• How will the Pac-10 race look at week's end? Dust off your muskets, folks, because we could be heading for an epic Civil War. Well rested after coming off open weeks, the Ducks and Beavers will meet on Dec. 3 to fight for in-state bragging rights, the Pac-10 crown and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Provided, of course, Oregon beats Arizona in Tucson and Oregon State topples Washington State in Pullman this week. Considering the latter is the closest thing to a guarantee this season, let's focus on the former. Arizona also remains alive in the Rose Bowl hunt, but fell out of the Top 25 after allowing a season-worst 159 rushing yards to Jahvid Best-less Cal in Week 11. The 'Cats better hope that leaky D was an anomaly, because Oregon boasts the nation's sixth-best rushing attack led by tailback LaMichael James and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
• Does The Game still matter? Misery loves company. Unfortunately for Big Blue Nation, Ohio State's trip to the Big House will likely only bring more sorrow. Michigan (5-6, 1-6) can still earn a bowl berth, but by the program's standards, the season is over (insert "if only..." comment from cynical Michigan fan here). Ohio State, meanwhile, has already locked up an invitation to the Rose Bowl, but is still motivated to win the Big Ten outright and best its hated rival. Jim Tressel's maddeningly conservative brand of offensive was on display again last week against Iowa, but the Buckeyes don't need a flashy approach to make headway against Michigan's paltry D, which has given up 39 points on average during a four-game losing streak. Here's guessing Michigan's Brandon Graham, one of the nation's premier defensive ends, spends his holiday thanking the holy turkey the NFL draft is only a few months away.
• Can Kansas get it together against Texas? Kansas-Texas no longer packs the punch we thought it would, but there's plenty at stake. On the line for Texas: the all-time NCAA wins record for Colt McCoy, the Big 12 South title and thus -- barring an unlikely loss in the conference title game -- a spot in the BCS title game. For Kansas: allowing the masses to focus solely on the Evolving Mark Mangino saga instead of the EMMS and a six-game losing streak. Teams often rally around coaches under siege, but if even a fraction of the accounts about Mangino's behavior toward his players is true, it's unlikely that will happen here. Jayhawks quarterback Todd Reesing doesn't want to discuss the drama ("It has nothing to do with playing Texas, so I don't really see the relevancy for me talking about that."), but positive talking points are at a premium for this Kansas squad. Reesing has thrown just five touchdowns during KU's five-game losing streak (compared to 13 during its 5-0 start), and won't have an easy time connecting with Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe against the nation's top defense.
• Will the Big Game be a Big Beatdown? First Stanford hung 51 on Oregon. Then the Cardinal put up 55 on USC. Somewhere in between, the Stanford band clowned USC alum Joe Francis (yes, he of Girls Gone Wild fame) during its halftime show at the Coliseum. So it's perfectly reasonable to wonder what the red-hot Cardinal will do to Cal -- which, by the way, managed just a field goal against both the Ducks and Trojans (for the mathematically challenged out there, that's 100 less than Stanford's 106). Pac-10 teams have developed a nasty habit of stumbling just when they become the talk of the town, but it's hard to imagine the Big Game being anything less than a big disaster for the Bears with star tailback Best out and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Toby Gerhart dominating with ease.
• Who will win the Big 12 North? Saturday, the Lincoln faithful gather to watch Kansas State and Nebraska battle for the right to lose to Texas in the Big 12 title game. The Wildcats struggled to score against Missouri in a Week 11 loss, which is good news for the Cornhuskers, who have struggled to score against everyone. Not surprisingly, this should be a defensive battle. Kansas State (19th nationally in turnover margin) must capitalize on any Nebraska cough-ups, because a suffocating Ndamukong Suh-led defense should frustrate K-State's ball-control offense. Bill Snyder really will need to work a second Manhattan Miracle this week; while the Wildcats play for the conference crown with a win, they'll fail to make a bowl with a loss. Tells you all you need to know about the Big 12 in 2009.
•Can Clemson keep motoring? Clemson typically enters the season pegged to win the conference, but blunders its way to a mediocre finish. Now, in a season that began with uncharacteristically muted expectations, the Tigers sit one win from an ACC title-game berth. Figures. After Clemson lost three of its first five games, those preseason concerns -- a freshman quarterback, an equally green coach, a heavily depleted receiving corps, etc. -- seemed well-founded. But two of those losses came against teams now in line for BCS berths (Georgia Tech and TCU), and the Tigers have hit their stride since. While Heisman contender C.J. Spiller deserves much of the credit, some must go to Kyle Parker, the aforementioned frosh QB, who has thrown 10 touchdowns to two picks in the team's last four wins over FBS competition. The Tigers have been playing shutdown defense, too, allowing just 299.3 yards per game and leading the nation with 20 interceptions. The ball-hawk secondary won't prove as useful against the run-first Yellow Jackets in the title game, but should wreak havoc this week against an overmatched Virginia squad.
•Who will prevail, the Wild Rebel or the LSU D? Last week, Ole Miss WR/RB Dexter McCluster exploded for 282 rush yards and four touchdowns against Tennessee. Last year, McCluster managed just 33 yards against LSU. If anything, the Tigers have improved defensively since then and have not allowed a rushing touchdown in their last six games. Something, as they say, has to give. With McCluster's counterpart, LSU tailback Charles Scott, out for the season with a broken collarbone and quarterback Jordan Jefferson returning after missing a game with a bum ankle, it's hard to imagine LSU fairing well in time of possession, and harder still to imagine tired defenders roping in a speedster averaging more than 260 all-purpose yards in his last three SEC games.
•Who can challenge Ingram? With two of the top five players on SI.com's Heisman Watch on byes (Pitt back Dion Lewis in actuality, Alabama back Mark Ingram for all intents and purposes), it's as good a time as any for some of the other sexy Heisman names to deliver big games. Pac-10 backs Gerhart, James and Jacquizz Rodgers all have a chance to make some noise, as does the ACC's Spiller. In the non-RB department, keep an eye on Nebraska DT Suh, currently the only defender well-enough inserted in the voter consciousness to earn some votes in December, and Notre Dame WR Golden Tate, who's putting up eye-popping stats and giving the beleaguered Golden Domers some reason to cheer.
•Can Rutgers reach the 10-win mark? You could argue the Cincinnati-Pitt showdown on Dec. 5 rates as the only meaningful game left on the Big East slate, and unless you're really invested in Greg Paulus' final interception tally, you would not necessarily be wrong. That said, let's not ignore Rutgers' steady march toward a possible 10-2 finish. Most wrote off the Scarlet Knights after their embarrassing 47-15 opening-week loss to Cincinnati, but Greg Schiano's crew has righted the ship. That turnaround has come against the second weakest schedule among FBS teams, but 10 wins would still mean something, especially behind a freshman quarterback. Next up on the road to 10: Syracuse. This may seem like a gimme, but the implications here are bigger than just one game. Rutgers gained major recruiting ground during Greg Robinson's disastrous Syracuse tenure, and first-year Orange coach Doug Marrone (finally, someone not named Greg) has made no secret of his desire to gain back the Empire edge.
•Question: Which came first, the 12th game or the Week 12 cupcake-fest? Answer: A circle has no beginning (credit JKR, via Luna Lovegood, with the assist). There's no way around it -- it's disappointing that, with conference championships just two weeks away, we face a weekend entirely devoid of matchups between ranked teams. But instead of wallowing in our sorrow, let's focus on the positives. Yeah, the Tim Tebows of the world will ride the pine to avoid injury, but that means we'll get a peak at the John Brantleys out there. Every cloud, right? Right?
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