— On the last college football weekend of October — otherwise known as the last chance to catch our breath before the all-out hype begins for No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 5 — it’s time to start building a case for poll position. If the LSU-Alabama claims one slot in the BCS Championship Game — a premature leap right now, sure — then which team is best positioned to grab the other one? Ah, that’s why we watch. That’s why the pollsters watch, too, as college football’s beauty contest enters its swimsuit competition. Who looks the best? And elsewhere, even for the outsiders in the national-title hunt, there is plenty at stake. Here are five things to watch:
1. Luck vs. Barkley
It’s a delicious matchup in the Pac-12 with Stanford (7-0, 5-0) visiting USC (6-1, 3-1). There are Heisman Trophy-worthy quarterbacks in play with Stanford’s Andrew Luck and USC’s Matt Barkley.
Luck has completed nearly 72 percent of his passes for 1,888 yards, 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Stanford has gone three-and-out on just five of its 79 offensive drives. Those numbers don’t need hyperbole piled on top, but USC coach Lane Kiffin was more than happy to oblige.
Kiffin on Luck:
Meanwhile, Barkley will achieve something very difficult for a golden-boy USC quarterback. He will be second-fiddle. Maybe that’s a good thing for the Trojans. In this Luckapalooza-type season, the Cardinal might do well to notice that Barkley isn’t bad himself (19 touchdown passes, just four interceptions).
Actually, Stanford knows all about Barkley. After all, in last season’s Stanford 37-35 victory, Barkley passed for 390 yards and three touchdowns.
He’s coming off perhaps his best moment as a Trojan, last week’s 31-17 victory at Notre Dame. And he doesn’t have to do it all himself. Stanford must blanket Trojans wide receiver Robert Woods, who caught 12 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns against the Fighting Irish.
First-year Stanford coach David Shaw showed some Kiffin-esque prowess when describing Woods.
“Robert Woods is about the best route-running receiver I’ve seen in college football in, I don’t know, 10 years.’’
And even though Shaw said he’s running out of words to describe Luck, he stepped up again this week.
“He’s like a vitamin. Once a day, he does something that makes you say, ‘Wow!’ And it has been once a day for four years. … There’s just stuff other human beings can’t do. He does them and then just comes back to the huddle and says, ‘What’s the next play?’ ‘’
2. Elimination game in the Big 12
When the Oklahoma Sooners shockingly lost at home against Texas Tech last week, following a nearly two-hour delay due to a monsoon, the sky-is-falling backdrop was predictable.
Yes, Oklahoma surrendered its advantage. But its season – and the accompanying BCS bowl ambitions – hasn’t ended.
The Sooners (6-1, 3-1) now face what could be viewed as a Big 12 elimination game at Kansas State (7-0, 4-0). The Oklahoma State Cowboys have a leg up on everything, checking in at No. 3 in this week’s BCS standings.
In the Bob Stoops era, promising Oklahoma teams have occasionally dropped in a clunker, spoiling the run toward an unbeaten season. One loss, though, hardly ends an opportunity to play in the ultimate game. Remember 2008? Oklahoma was beaten by Texas, but still climbed its way back through the standings and wound up in the BCS Championship Game.
But Kansas State has big-time ambitions, too. Tell that to the oddsmakers. The Wildcats are 14-point underdogs.
Stoops won’t acknowledge that disparity. He has too much respect for Wildcats coach Bill Snyder.
Or should we say Bill Snyder 2.0?
Snyder, 72, returned to Kansas State in 2009, ending his retirement and digging in to re-establish a program he resurrected from the dregs. Stoops was on Snyder’s K-State staff from 1989-95, seeing from the inside the turnaround for woeful to wonderful.
The blueprint is being followed again. The Wildcats have an aggressive, active defense, which will be severely challenged by Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. Meanwhile, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, the team’s leading rusher with 670 yards and 14 touchdowns, will provide a challenge of his own for the Sooner defense.
No one foresaw Kansas State being in this position when it opened with a 10-7 victory against Eastern Kentucky. Plenty of people said the Wildcats were fortunate when they outlasted Miami 28-24 and nipped Baylor 36-35.
But here are the Wildcats, still unbeaten.
The slate gets downright withering from this point — next up: at Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, at Texas — but it begins with an opportunity to topple Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1-ranked team.
3. Nittany Lions under radar
In the Big Ten, fans already seem to be girding for a rematch between Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) and Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1) in the conference’s first championship game. And why not? Who could resist a second edition of Michigan State’s miraculous 37-31 victory?
Note: The Penn State Nittany Lions (7-1, 4-0) are actually pacesetters in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division. The only loss by Joe Paterno’s program was to Alabama, 27-11, in the second week. Elsewhere, Penn State has loaded up on victories, mostly against subpar competition (they have beaten four Big Ten opponents with a combined 12-17 overall record).
How good is Penn State?
We’re about to find out.
The Nittany Lions host Illinois (6-2, 2-2) on Saturday, jump-starting a finishing kick that also includes Nebraska, then road dates at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Penn State has been allergic to earning style points this season, squeaking past Temple (14-10) and Indiana (16-10), results that must have sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard for Lions fans.
But last week, when many people picked Northwestern to upset Penn State, the Nittany Lions eased to a 34-24 victory. The outcome enabled Paterno to tie Eddie Robinson for the Division I wins lead at 408.
If Penn State reaches the first Big Ten championship game — and it might come down to the regular-season finale on Nov. 26 at Wisconsin — it would be one of the more notable accomplishments of Paterno’s career. And it would be the culmination of what we have witnessed already. Penn State, predicted as championship caliber by no one, has improved on a weekly basis.
The defense, especially, has displayed excellent potential. Who cares about marquee value when you have 21 sacks and 18 takeaways? Linebacker Gerald Hodges and defensive tackle Devon Still are big-time playmakers. This defense has staying power because of its depth.
Even with a sometimes baffling quarterback rotation — they are now alternating starts each game — Matt McGloin looks like the better option over Rob Bolden. Penn State’s receivers have really picked it up, even during an injury to Derek Moye. Sophomore running back Silas Redd has emerged as one of the nation’s more underrated ground-gainers.
Illinois has dropped two straight games, but the Illini still will provide some resistance. And if Penn State continues to improve, it will look more impressive with each victory. Ignore the Nittany Lions are your own peril.
4. Dawg days
Mark Richt’s hot seat has cooled somewhat at Georgia, where the Bulldogs (5-2, 4-1 SEC) have won five straight games and are in prime position to take the SEC East title, should South Carolina slip up again.
But that’s looking ahead.
The Bulldogs have plenty to contend with on Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla., as the Florida Gators (4-3, 2-3) are set to renew one of the nation’s great neutral-site rivalry games. Richt might be 101-36 in his Georgia career, but he hasn’t been able to solve the Gators (2-8 mark in 10 seasons).
Overall, coinciding with the beginning of Steve Spurrier’s Florida era in 1990, the Gators have won 18 of the past 21 meetings against Georgia. It is a wild turnaround from the previous era, when the Bulldogs took 15 of 19 games, often in dramatic fashion, sometimes with teams that were far less talented on paper.
The Gators are sliding with three straight losses under first-year coach Will Muschamp (a former hard-hitting Georgia safety, by the way). Senior quarterback John Brantley is scheduled to see his first action since suffering a high ankle sprain on Oct. 1 – and that’s a good thing. Florida’s offense has been adrift. Meanwhile, Florida’s defense has been brutal at stopping the run.
To summarize the thinking of Georgia fans: If Richt can’t beat the Gators this time …
Well, no need to finish that thought.
It’s a big one for Georgia in the SEC standings. It’s a big one for the Bulldogs’ psyche.
Georgia’s season hopes were summarily dismissed after opening defeats against Boise State and South Carolina, although the Bulldogs basically gave away the game to the Gamecocks. The ship has been steadied. Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray is maturing into an excellent leader. The Georgia defense has shown its feistiness.
But now there’s Florida.
Even though it’s not the Florida of old, that blue jersey has become a horrifying season-altering sight for Bulldog fans.
Georgia has rarely been in a celebratory mood during the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.’’ That needs to change. Or else the heat will be turned up again on Richt.
5. ACC still hanging around
The ACC has been justifiably battered in recent seasons for its inability to be involved in the national-title race.
Don’t look now, but the ACC could begin November with a team realistically in the national-title hunt for the first time since 2007. That’s when Matt Ryan and Boston College rolled to an 8-0 start and the nation’s No. 2 ranking (only to lose three of its last five games).
Now we’re looking at you, Clemson.
The Tigers (8-0, 5-0) might be facing their biggest challenge to date with a trip to suddenly fading Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2).
One month ago, Clemson was viewed as a cut above in a mediocre ACC. Now the Tigers must be viewed as championship contenders. They are one of the nation’s fastest teams and they can score in a hurry. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and freshman wide receiver Sammy Watkins form a lethal pitch-and-catch duo. Boyd has 24 touchdown passes, tying Boise State’s Kellen Moore for the national lead in that category.
Clemson is coming off wild victories against Maryland (56-45) and North Carolina (59-38), making it the first ACC team to score 56 or more points in consecutive games since 1992. It could be another high-scoring game because Georgia Tech’s option offense is difficult to contain.
If the Tigers defeat Georgia Tech, it will pull closer to an ACC Atlantic Division title. Logically, the potential ACC Championship Game opponent would be one-loss Virginia Tech, which fell at home against Clemson, 23-3.
The interminable wait for a Florida State-Miami title game will probably continue into 2012. For now, the ACC’s best hopes rest with Clemson, which is slowly making believers out of us all.