Saturday Storylines: Bright lights, big mouths
Plot threads to track in Week 12:
• No. 18 USC @ No. 4 Oregon: I'm not trying to reduce the Trojans to one guy, but if Robert Woods ends up having to sit out this game, it's going to lose its appeal in a big damn hurry. Limited in practice with shoulder and ankle injuries this week, Woods is traveling with the team to Eugene, but he has yet to be officially cleared or ruled out for action. This game has so much potential to be good television, but a lot of that depends on watching Woods and Matt Barkley play pitch-and-catch. These things happen, particularly this late in the year, but what a shame if we don't end up getting to see these two squads meet at full strength.
The factors that remain: First and foremost, LaMichael James having the Trojans' number. They've never been particularly adept at stopping him, despite playing the Ducks at a point in the season when it's obvious James needs bodies thrown in his way. He appears to be back in fine form after missing two games with a dislocated elbow, recording more than 300 yards over the past two weeks against Washington and Stanford. This year's USC ground defense is statistically stingier than the 2009 or '10 squads, so maybe the Trojans will make a game of it. They'd better, down their star receiver.
This isn't to say USC lacks other offensive weapons. It is, after all, USC. Wee tailback Curtis McNeal is coming off a personal-best game against Washington, and wide receiver Marqise Lee, though not quite as gaudy a threat in the return department, is on pace to record more receiving yards as a freshman than Woods did last year.
Other Necessary Events
• No. 17 Nebraska @ No. 20 Michigan: Might this be the most competitive matchup of ranked teams in Week 12? It certainly looks that way. Stewart Mandel likes the Wolverines' astonishingly improved efforts on defense, and I think Michigan just might hold an advantage on the other side of the ball as well, given the Huskers' generosity toward Big Ten rushing opponents like Montee Ball in losses, and Carlos Hyde and Stephfon Green in close wins. Look for more coverage from Ann Arbor Saturday, as Andy Staples wraps an arduous week of travel with an afternoon in the Big House, after which he will presumably fall asleep face-down in a Zingerman's sandwich. The [checks notes] Legends Division is still very much up for grabs!
• No. 5 Oklahoma @ No. 25 Baylor: How good is Oklahoma, as a complete football team? Down star receiver Ryan Broyles and leading rusher Dominique Whaley thanks to season-ending injuries, the Sooners are still a two-touchdown favorite to knock off a ranked conference rival that boasts the nation's second-ranked offense. Don't expect OU to notch any more losses before rolling into Bedlam, but Baylor has a way of surprising onlookers. Which surprise is in store in Week 12, though? "Surprise, we beat TCU in a cray-cray shootout in primetime!" or "Surprise, we needed overtime to knock off Kansas?" We love watching Robert Griffin operate, but all logic says the Sooner D will make the difference.
• No. 21 Penn State @ Ohio State: In the SI.com midseason Crystal Ball, I had the Nittany Lions pegged to plummet sharply in the second half of the season. This was well before the Sandusky case broke nationally and had nothing to do with off-field factors; what I was worried about was PSU's bitter lack of scoring offense against the defenses of Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have largely the same problem, with a stand-up D and scoreboard anemia, but their superior ground attack should give them an edge.
• SMU @ No. 11 Houston: I was thrilled to my toes to learn that ESPN is sending the GameDay crew to its first-ever Conference USA contest on a college football Saturday. That thrill lasted until the final whistle of last week's Mustangs-Midshipmen game, when SMU finished losing to a three-win Navy team. Still and all, the attention to non-AQ teams by high-profile tastemakers will be beneficial, and the Worldwide Leader is to be commended for this selection. And please take note: This doesn't mean the Mustangs aren't a dangerous opponent. Houston can't put a toe wrong if it hopes to secure an at-large bid to a BCS bowl.
Intrigue In The Undercards
• No. 15 Wisconsin @ Illinois: The Illini are fielding a solid defense. It's one that might give the Badgers some real pause. But Wisconsin's defense is even better than Wisconsin's offense, and Illinois has been laughable lately at protecting the quarterback. The Illini also are just not scoring lately (no more than two touchdowns since October 8 against Indiana), and it's hard not to think the Badgers will manage to put more points up than that.
• Kentucky @ No. 13 Georgia: Two years ago in Athens, the Wildcats handed the Bulldogs a nasty surprise home loss. These are not those Cats, nor those Dawgs. A trip to Atlanta is at stake for Mark Richt's boys, and he should have no trouble getting them prepared against one of the worst teams in the conference.
• Virginia @ No. 23 Florida State: With three losses overall and two in conference, the Cavaliers still have a shot at winning their division thanks to a head-to-head matchup with one-loss Virginia Tech next week. But they'll have to enter that game without any more movement in the L column to take the Coastal, and that's a tall order for this Saturday with the Seminoles fielding a healthy EJ Manuel. The Cavaliers' pass defense is one of this team's strong points, but this will be their fiercest challenge.
• No. 1 LSU @ Ole Miss: If you can, tune in for a few minutes to the action in Oxford, where the two weirdest coaches in the SEC will grimace across opposite sidelines for the last time.
Not For Human Consumption
Which would you rather watch less? Florida Atlantic flailing for its first win of the season against a two-win Troy outfit, or Florida proper scrabbling to get above .5oo against Furman, and trying to enjoy it?
The Big Game gets a late start, with Cal and Stanford kicking off at 10:15 p.m. ET. Accompanying them in the night-owl flight: Arizona-Arizona State, New Mexico State-BYU and Fresno State-Hawaii.