Week 11 storylines: What to watch for in college football's biggest matchups

Can Alabama survive a tough test against Mississippi State? Will Baylor handle Oklahoma in a massive Big 12 matchup? Sizing up the top storylines to watch in Week 11.
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Two Minute Drill: Baylor vs. Oklahoma previewJust three weeks remain until championship Saturday, and a season that began so chaotically has finally started to come into focus. Week 10 saw Clemson and Alabama take big steps toward earning College Football Playoff spots and TCU likely fall out of the national picture after its blowout loss to Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, because the Cowboys play Oklahoma and Baylor at home, the Big 12 title, as well as a likely playoff bid, now run through Stillwater—something few could have imagined at the beginning of the season. Elsewhere, Stanford remains the Pac-12’s best hope, and Ohio State is in strong position if it can finish unbeaten.

The number of undefeated teams dropped from 11 to six after last Saturday, and the ranks could dwindle further in Week 11 if several favorites can’t hold serve in tricky matchups. Here are five storylines to watch on Saturday:

1. Oklahoma-Baylor will provide Big 12, playoff clarity

We all assumed before the season that the Big 12’s playoff hopes rested on TCU and Baylor. But Oklahoma State’s surprising victory last week likely eliminated the Horned Frogs, and the Sooners have a chance to do the same to the Bears on Saturday. Oklahoma fell out of the national picture somewhat when it lost to Texas, but it has quietly played some of the best football in the country since, and the Sooners are far more balanced than their fellow conference contenders, currently rating fifth nationally in both offensive and defensive yards per play. True, their schedule’s been pretty weak, but where their compatriots at the top of the Big 12 have struggled against Kansas State and Texas Tech, Oklahoma blew out both.

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On the Bears’ side, true freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham played about as well as one could hope in his starting debut against Kansas State, but it remains a question how he’ll perform against a better opponent on a bigger stage. Baylor’s defense also remains a significant question. Saturday’s outcome will determine how we view the conference in the final two weeks: a Baylor win will keep it the favorite in the Big 12 race, while a Sooners victory would shift the focus to the two Oklahoma teams.

2. Alabama faces toughest remaining regular-season test

By beating LSU last week, Alabama, ranked No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings, took control of the SEC West and cleared its path for a spot in the final field of four. The Crimson Tide’s toughest challenge, at least until they meet Florida in the conference title game, comes this weekend against an improved Mississippi State team. The finale at Auburn won’t be easy—the Iron Bowl rarely is—but the Bulldogs are a solid team, and quarterback Dak Prescott can be a difference-maker.

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Mississippi State can’t win any titles itself but it can certainly play spoiler. And Prescott, who last week became just the 10th player in SEC history to tally 10,000 total yards in his career, has a chance to add to his already lofty legacy. Leading the Bulldogs past Alabama for the first time since 2007 would give the quarterback a marquee win as his career comes to a close. But with Alabama highly motivated and playing better than just about every team in the country, Prescott and Mississippi State face a tall task. Win this, and the Tide will have cleared their most significant remaining regular season hurdle.

3. Stanford looks to keep rolling against improving Oregon

Stanford has been on a roll since falling at Northwestern in Week 1—a loss that looks more and more forgivable as the Wildcats continue to turn in a solid season. Christian McCaffrey has become a bona fide Heisman candidate, and Kevin Hogan, who just passed Andrew Luck to become the school’s winningest quarterback, is playing as well as he has in his career. It’s important the Cardinal keep playing this well, too: Depending on how other conferences shake out, the eye test could be a key factor in comparing résumés for the final playoff spot.

Earlier this season, this game looked like merely another opportunity for Stanford to rack up style points, but Oregon has started to figure things out. With quarterback Vernon Adams healthy, the offense is resembling the explosive units that that we’re used to seeing Oregon trot out, and it could take advantage against a non-vintage Stanford D. The Cardinals are currently 40th in yards per play against, which would be their worst finish since 2011. Oregon’s problem is its defense remains abysmal, rating 105th in yards per play. If the Ducks have any hopes of pulling the upset, they’ll have to turn it into a shootout—which is still problematic, because Stanford’s offense is plenty potent itself.

4. Oklahoma State faces major trap game at Iowa State

The Cowboys are riding high after last week’s huge win over TCU. Despite struggling against inferior conference competition earlier this year, they now might be the Big 12’s best hope for a playoff bid—what with Baylor’s defensive problems and quarterback questions, Oklahoma already having a loss and the fact Oklahoma State gets both those teams at home in Weeks 12 and 13. That’s why OSU is in such a dangerous spot this weekend. It could be due for a letdown after beating the Horned Frogs, and it could easily be caught looking ahead to its mammoth final two matchups.

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Iowa State isn’t good at all, but it’ll be senior day in Ames, and going on the road in conference play, especially late in the season, can be tricky. It was four years ago this month that an OSU team ranked No. 2 and headed for the national title game was stunned by a 5-4 Cyclones team that had no business pulling the upset. A repeat this weekend is unlikely, but the bad vibes from that earlier loss, combined with where this game falls on the schedule, make this a much more precarious spot for the Cowboys than it’d be otherwise.

5. An intriguing matchup between AAC West contenders

This was setting up to be a much bigger game just one week ago. But then Ole Miss and Memphis each lost, ending the Tigers’ dreams of crashing the playoff by sneaking in past a two-loss, SEC-winning Rebels team. It also ended the playoff hopes of the AAC at large. Houston’s now the league’s lone unbeaten, and it just doesn’t have the résumé to stand up to Power 5 candidates. But while there are no longer any playoff implications associated with this matchup, there’s still plenty on the line, since whoever wins the AAC is essentially a lock to earn the Group of Five’s slot in a New Year’s Six bowl.

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Because the Tigers sit a game behind Houston and Navy in the AAC West and have already lost to the Midshipmen, they have to win Saturday to keep their hopes of winning the division alive. Conversely, Houston won’t be out of it with a loss, but it still controls its destiny as an undefeated team, and winning out is the only way to guarantee there won’t a three-team tie atop the West, which would complicate the Cougars’ chances at winning the division. Finishing undefeated would also ensure Houston hosts the AAC title game instead of having to travel to projected AAC East champion Temple