The big one
• No. 2 Alabama @ Auburn. The party’s in east Alabama this weekend, and if you don’t understand just how badly the Tigers want to take the Tide down a peg or six, this is not the blog for you. And yet, as the defending national champions – thanks to a monstrous 2010 Iron Bowl comeback, the War Damn Eagle faithful get to roll in with a swagger utterly unsuited to a 7-4 team. There will be mutual peg-dropping! It’s a powderkeg on the Plains, Paaaowl! (Note: Please, no actual powderkegs in Jordan-Hare, if it’s not too much trouble. Enough bad blood between these bros as is.)
Both squads should be relatively fresh, rolling in off veritable bye weeks against Samford and Georgia Southern. Trent Richardson was held to 24 yards on one good leg in last year’s game, but has fallen short of the century mark in just three games this season. Of more worrisome concern for Auburn: Michael Dyer versus a Bama defense eager to repay indignities inflicted in last year’s comeback collapse.
• No. 20 Penn State @ No. 15 Wisconsin. Big Ten detractors will have to zip it for a week if the Nittany Lions manage to reach the conference title game without a trace of detectable offensive prowess. Scoring chances will be hard to come by against this edition of the Badgers, and this Penn State team can’t seem to light it up even against bad defenses; the real game would seem to be between UW’s offense and the PSU defense. And for all the talk of the looming LSU-Bama rematch in January, don’t you kind of want to see Wisconsin and Michigan State try their game again?
• No. 18 Clemson @ No. 14 South Carolina. What’s a good recipe for a top-10 team that’s had two offensive meltdowns in three weeks? Not facing the No. 5 defense in the country, by any chance? Sammy Watkins is back for the Tigers from that troublesome shoulder injury, and against the Gamecocks’ elite pass defense, they’re really, really going to need him. Clemson’s defense, meanwhile, isn’t great, but might not have to be to stop these score-averse ‘Cocks from lighting up the board too frequently. If the likes of Auburn and Mississippi State managed to keep Carolina from cracking 20 points …
• No. 22 Notre Dame @ No. 4 Stanford. It’s a mark of how the 2011 season has played out that the Cardinal could miss out on winning their own division and still play for the national title game. Stanford partisans, cheer hardest for Auburn and Oklahoma these next couple weeks.
• No. 13 Georgia @ No. 25 Georgia Tech. Tech’s offense is more balanced than in years past, but their stats and early-season hype were inflated early on by a weak September schedule. After some eye-popping passing stats from QB Tevin Washington in those early-season layups, they’ve reverted to business as usual since hitting their ACC slate, though Georgia has yet to prove adept at stopping their triple option under Todd Grantham. For their part, the Dawgs need Isaiah Crowell and Carlton Thomas to put in meaningful snaps this week to stave off a repeat of a miserable offensive outing against Kentucky.
• No. 6 Virginia Tech @ No. 24 Virginia. The Hokies are favored, but upset impresario Joe Tessitore’s calling this game. Be very, very afraid.
In the undercards
• Ohio State @ No. 17 Michigan. A statement win for the first-year Hoke regime is here for the taking. Ohio State is playing through a tangled web of distractions and half-truths, but also has a winning streak over the Wolverines dating back to 2003. Safe to say the Buckeyes’ top-20 defense will be gunning for Denard Robinson early and often, but what will they make of Fitzgerald Toussaint? Michigan’s defense has been lauded in recent weeks; can they contain Boom Herron, Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller?
• Oregon State @ No. 9 Oregon. No national title for this year’s Ducks, but they’re still in the running for the Roses, and given the state of this year’s Oregon State team (3-5 in the Pac-12), the Ducks are a virtual lock to represent the Pac-12 North in the conference championship game. Expect LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner to have quite the field day; the Beavers rank 83rd nationally in run defense.
• Iowa State @ No. 12 Oklahoma. The Cyclones are on a hot streak and the former national title favorites are fuming down with the two-loss teams. But a conference championship is still possible for OU, and that usually-fearsome defense seems inclined to have a better outing against freshman QB Jared Barnett than they had against Robert Griffin III.
• Texas Tech @ No. 21 Baylor. The resurgent Bears could keep the Red Raiders out of bowl contention with another big day from Griffin. Tech boasts one of the most miserable defenses in the FBS, and the Bears’ is only better by the slimmest possible margin. Whoever scores last wins?
• UCLA @ No. 10 USC. We repeat: It’s actually possible for UCLA to play in the conference title game even amid discussions of Rick Neuheisel’s suitability for his job. Possible, but not probable: the Bruins’ aerial defenses might best be described as “middling,” and better units than theirs have found no answers for Matt Barkey, Robert Woods, and Marqise Lee.
• No. 11 Michigan State @ Northwestern. The Spartans have the division locked up, and now await only news of which Leaders Division team they’ll face in Indianapolis for a Rose Bowl berth.
• Wyoming @ No. 7 Boise State. A BCS bowl outing in Kellen Moore’s swan-song season is still possible, but for all the talk of Boise’s weak schedule, this slate of Mountain West opponents plus their non-conference opponents is more formidable a gauntlet than anything the Broncos powered through in the WAC. Don’t underestimate the hatchling hotshot Cowboys, bowl-eligible for the second season in Dave Christensen’s three-year tenure.