— On Saturday, the Florida Gators and Texas Longhorns will come dressed as national-title contenders.
Florida, seeking to recover from its recent offensive hangover, faces Georgia in the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.’’ Texas goes to Oklahoma State, facing one of its biggest tests, but confident that it has the right stuff to hang in the race, maybe even leaping to No. 1 with another overwhelming performance.
But the biggest game is Halloween night at Autzen Stadium — USC at Oregon — where the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Pac-10 (or college football’s BCS Cinderella story).
USC (6-1, 3-1) is trying to keep alive its streak of seven consecutive seasons with at least a share of the Pac-10 title. (Won’t it be fascinating to see if Pete Carroll’s crew can summon back their big-game mojo? Or are you thinking more along the lines of watching Carroll raise another trophy — this one from the Holiday Bowl?)
Oregon (6-1, 4-0) has snuck back into the national consciousness after the season-opening 19-8 knockout loss at Boise State. (This could be one of the biggest games Autzen Stadium has ever seen. What uniform combination will Oregon players wear for the occasion?)
And speaking of Boise State, the Broncos are the world’s largest Oregon fans. Boise State (7-0) is hoping for calamity after calamity to hit the contenders — an unlikely prospect, indeed — but its flimsy BCS platform is supported ONLY by Oregon running the table. If the Ducks go down, Boise State’s candidacy slips through the drain.
A month or so ago, USC-Oregon seemed like an afterthought.
The Trojans, after all, had inexplicably fallen at Washington 16-13.
The Ducks were seemingly erased from existence after losing at Boise State.
Now USC-Oregon could be for the Pac-10 title — and perhaps a whole lot more.
The Trojans have moved to No. 5 in the BCS standings, jumping up two spots, and proving that the loss against Washington already has been forgiven. Let’s say USC goes 11-1. With its schedule (visits to Ohio State and Notre Dame, plus a swing through the juiced-up Pac-10), the Trojans will have a case for muscling into the national-title picture.
Oregon is at No. 10 and poised for a springboard leap if it can defeat USC. Let’s say the Ducks finish 11-1 — with 11 straight victories. Tough to call that anything other than impressive.
How did USC and Oregon restore their relevance?
The Trojans haven’t lost in the six games started by freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. The defensive effort has been alternately exhilarating and frustrating, but always enough to get the job done. It’s almost as if USC has been on auto-pilot, knowing when it needs to rev up the engine in key moments, but content to play out the string and let the landscape evolve.
The Ducks, with first-year coach Chip Kelly, a rough opening-night loss at Boise State and the all-time disastrous punctuation mark (LaGarrette Blount’s punch) on those proceedings, seemed ready to be dismissed early from the table and sent to bed.
Who knew that the next two under-the-radar nail-biters — beating Purdue 38-36 and Utah 31-24 — was simply setting the stage for growing confidence and steamrolling momentum? Who knew that this Oregon team was capable of such resilience and camaraderie, which kept it together in the dark moments.
USC-Oregon: The Pac-10 needs this one to be great. The league, which hasn’t produced two BCS bowl teams since 2002, needs the East Coast television viewers, fresh from trick-or-treating, to say, “Wow! Look at that! Best game I’ve seen all year.’’
You can’t go wrong with USC. Everyone knows about the Trojans.
But don’t sell the Ducks short. Maybe this is Oregon’s time to shine in the BCS race. The Ducks were jobbed by the computers in 2001 — it should’ve been Oregon vs. Miami for the national title, let’s be honest — and they seemed headed to a title opportunity in 2007 before Dennis Dixon’s knee crumbled.
No game means more this weekend.
We’ll be watching Florida-Georgia, sure, but the Gators should be in control.
We’ll be following Texas-Oklahoma State, but the Longhorns are simply better than the Dez Bryant-less Cowboys.
No matter which way it breaks, there’s a season’s worth of interesting subplots that could follow.
When is the last time we could really say that about a midseason game in the Pac-10, which has generally been the personal playground of the USC Trojans? For now, USC has its biggest test of the season, the proving-ground game before a rabid crowd in what is predicted to be a rainy, damp evening.
It’s good for USC and Oregon. It’s good for the Pac-10.
And in the bigger picture, it’s great for college football.
Q: So where does Oklahoma go from here now that Sam Bradford is gone? What’s the Sooners’ short-term and long-term future outlook?
— Bob from Saint Joseph, Mo.
A: Oklahoma was an elite program before Sam Bradford’s arrival. It will be an elite program after his departure (which is well under way).
Bradford’s injury was unfortunate. He’s a really talented player who works hard and does the right thing, on and off the field. Those are the people who should be rewarded (and he was last season with the Heisman Trophy and a BCS Championship Game appearance).
For now, the Sooners will make do with Landry Jones at quarterback and he has shown some pluck. The real story at Oklahoma this season, though, is the much-improved play of its defense. It has kept the Sooners in every game.
The Big 12 title may not be in the cards this season — unless there is an unexpected collapse by Texas — but I see the Sooners rolling into a bowl game at 8-4. A potential nine-win season is not a bad outcome for a team that lost is Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
As long as Coach Bob Stoops is in charge, the Sooners will be a consistent winner and a threat to win the national title. Oklahoma might not get a quarterback the caliber of Bradford anytime soon, but the Sooners will never be a program lacking in overall talent.
Q: What’s going on at Nebraska? Just when it looked like the Cornhuskers were on the path back to respectability … ouch!
— Paul Phillips from Mich.
A: Nebraska still has quite a way to go, Paul. And I’m not even saying that in the context of Saturday’s 9-7 loss at Iowa State (that’s still a difficult sentence to type; the Cyclones had not won in Lincoln since 1977).
Nebraska has eight turnovers — including four inside Iowa State’s 6-yard line — so the fault is easy to pinpoint there.
I’d be more alarmed by two previous defeats — the 31-10 home loss against Texas Tech, when the Red Raiders simply took it to the Cornhuskers, and the 16-15 defeat at Virginia Tech, when the Cornhuskers’ defense couldn’t produce at crunch time against resourceful Hokies quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Nebraska’s football tradition was forged on imposing its will upon opponents — whether that was through an unyielding ground game or an aggressive defense. So far, neither element has shown itself with much consistency.
Even if Nebraska had pulled out a victory against Iowa State, I’d still say the same thing. It’s going to take another season or two before the Cornhuskers are ready to reclaim their perch atop the Big 12 Conference.
Q: OK, what exactly is the rule on how you can legally down a punt near the goal line before it’s ruled a touchback? I’ve heard it explained several different ways by announcers. Can the ball cross the goal line in the air? Can the player be touching the end zone?
— Steve Banks from Jackson, Tenn.
A: Here is the explanation, courtesy of the NCAA’s Ty Halpin:
“In NCAA football, the determining factor in this rule is the position of the ball. As long as the ball does not break the plane of the goal line and the ball has either come to rest or the kicking team stops the ball, it is not a touchback. Therefore, a player may be touching the end zone or goal line and still legally down the ball.’’