Plot threads to track in Week 11:
• No. 6 Oregon @ No. 3 Stanford: Night games in the Pac-12 are a fine affair, particularly in such a lovely setting as Stanford. Ducks versus Cardinal is the unassailable contest of the week, and the tropes are hanging low and ripe. Andrew Luck throws a lot! LaMichael James can run real fast! Red versus green! Big versus fast! Nike versus … some more Nike! You’ll be sick to death of hearing all the reasons why by this time tomorrow night, but there’s just so much to love about this matchup.
The joy of Stanford and Oregon lies in watching two systems loaded with the proper personnel operating week after week like they’re supposed to. (If this seems overly simplistic, ask Norm Chow what he’d do for a Time-Turner in Salt Lake City right about now.) Statistically, these squads are so evenly matched that we have to turn aside to find potential game-breaking factors. Two of natural note: injuries and defense.
Chief concerns for Stanford are the absence of star receiver Chris Owusu, who’s out for concussion-related precautions, and the well-being of those big blocky tight ends the Cardinal are so fond of. Levine Toilolo should be back in the lineup after being knocked out against Oregon State, but Zach Ertz is a likely scratch thanks to a knee injury sustained against USC. Safety Delano Howell, who’s been sidelined with a hand injury, may return.
For the Ducks, Darron Thomas and James are back at full strength from injured knees and a dislocated elbow, respectively, but Thomas didn’t put on his best performances against either of the Washingtons last week and the week before. And as evenly gifted offensively as these teams are on paper, Stanford holds the edge on defense, allowing an average of 17 points to Oregon’s 21. “Not the best” might be all the room the Cardinal need.
• No. 19 Nebraska @ No. 12 Penn State: Setting aside the obvious distraction factor, Penn State is facing a football problem: Alabama’s the only ranked opponent the Nittany Lions have played this season, and to wrap up 2011 they’ve got Nebraska at home and two back-to-back road dates at Ohio State and No. 16 Wisconsin. I picked PSU as my second-half flop team in our midseason prediction roundtable, and this nasty November schedule is the reason why. If Week 11 goes poorly for PSU on the field, remember that it hasn’t really been tested by a sterling team since mid-September. Then again, Nebraska just lost to Northwestern, so its mileage may vary.
• No. 24 Auburn @ No. 14 Georgia: The last and least-regarded of our ranked-on-ranked matchups is the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, in which Georgia will attempt to hang onto the right to lose to a superior SEC West team in the Georgia Dome this December. Expect some after-whistle nonsense after last year’s tilt on the Plains turned ugly.
• No. 2 Oklahoma State @ Texas Tech: The ‘Pokes have quite the high-wire act to execute these last few weeks as they gun for a shot at the title game, and the Red Raiders were the team that upset Oklahoma. But they’re also the team riding a two-game losing streak in which they’ve been outscored 93-27, so expect great things out of Weeden, Blackmon, Randle and friends.
• TCU @ No. 5 Boise State: This one looked a lot better in August, and has plummeted sharply in value thanks to dedicated defensive underachieving on the part of the Horned Frogs. Stakes remain, however: TCU has no conference losses, and could still conceivably win the Mountain West. The Broncos, of course, will be looking to put on a fireworks show in honor of their last best hope for a favorable BCS bowl selection; from here, their schedule plummets sharply in value with San Diego State, Wyoming and New Mexico to finish out the year.
Intrigue In The Undercards
• West Virginia @ No. 23 Cincinnati: Look, let’s level here. We all know the prospect of Cincinnati in a BCS bowl is a disaster of monumental proportions in the making. Some Big East team is going to have to stand up to Clemson or whomever in the Orange Bowl. Right now, based on defensive statistics, the teams least likely to embarrass themselves in January look like conference leaders Louisville on defense and West Virginia on offense. Somebody’s gonna have to start making Cincy lose, fast, to avoid a wholesale humiliation against a superior ACC opponent, but the Cards already lost to the Bearcats. ‘Eers, you’re up. Rutgers, Syracuse, UConn, stand ready, for the good of the sport and the human race. History can ill afford another Whatever Last Year’s Fiesta Bowl Was.
• Louisiana @ Arkansas State: If you’ve never been interested in who’ll win the Sun Belt, you can’t really be blamed, but this year really would be a good time to start, and particularly this week.
• UCLA @ Utah: It’s the Norm Chow Raspberry Classic! Featuring the nation’s 111th-ranked offense versus FBS’ 95th-ranked defense — hold up, this maybe ought to get filed under “Not For Human Consumption.”
Not For Human Consumption
Bret Bielema’s never one for easing off the pedal when it comes to appallingly overmatched opponents, so keep the pregnant women and nursing mothers in your life away from Wisconsin-Minnesota. UAB and Memphis have three wins between them and will be renewing a rivalry this Saturday that in no way lives up to the bronzed rack of ribs trophy the winning team gets to take home. And have you seen what Maryland and Notre Dame will be wearing? Avoid, avoid, avoid.
Our sommelier recommends skipping Idaho-BYU at 9:15 and UNLV-New Mexico at 10:00 in favor of Hawaii-Nevada at 10:15 and Arizona State-Washington State at 10:30.
SI.com in the Wild
Focusing on the three remaining Week 11 contests between two ranked teams, we’ve got Stewart Mandel in Stanford this Saturday, Andy Staples in State College and me in Athens. Say hidee.