Saturday Storylines: Week 9
A No. 1 has lost three straight weeks; will Oregon or Auburn make it four?
If Michigan State survives Iowa, an undefeated season is a real possibility
The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has rarely met less fanfare
The 10 things we're buzzing about as Erin Andrews enjoys a triple espresso hazelnut latte:
One and done?: Say what you will about ESPN's GameDay or SI.com's Andy Staples, but make no mistake: They are harbingers of doom for teams "lucky" enough to carry a No. 1 ranking. So we regret to inform all you Ducks fans that both will be on site for Oregon's date with USC at the Coliseum on Saturday night. Yet despite the fact that a No. 1 team has lost three weeks running, or that the Trojans are coming off a bye, or that beating Oregon is all USC has to play for in the wake of NCAA sanctions -- prepare for Oregon to escape SoCal with its title hopes intact. Yes, Matt Barkley is playing great football and, yes, USC will score points. But Oregon will score more. The Ducks rank first nationally in total offense (569.1 yards per game) and points scored (55.1) and will have no trouble posting points on a Trojans defense surrendering over 400 yards per game (87th nationally). Oregon's defense gives up points because the ridiculously efficient offense always leaves the D on the field; USC's defense gives up points because it's not very good. That simple fact should keep the Ducks safe, harbingers of doom aside.
Sparty's toughest test: Please take a moment to consider Michigan State's remaining schedule. After playing No. 18 Iowa in Iowa City this weekend, the No. 5 Spartans face the terrifying gauntlet of Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State, who are a combined 9-13 on the year. Terrifying, of course, for the other Big Ten contenders. Sparty already beat Wisconsin and does not play Ohio State. Every other Big Ten team has at least one conference loss. If Michigan State handles Iowa, there's a very good chance it'll be playing for the national championship. But will Michigan State handle Iowa? That'll depend on the run game and special teams. First, the former: The Spartans are averaging 194 yards per game on the ground, but will be going up against Adrian Clayborn and an Iowa defense allowing just 92 rush yards per. Now, the latter: Michigan State beat Notre Dame on a fake field goal and turned the momentum against Northwestern on a fake punt; Iowa, meanwhile, got fooled on a fake punt in a one-point loss to Wisconsin last week and lost to Arizona in September due to a series of special teams blunders. The Hawkeyes kept their BCS hopes alive with a miracle win over Michigan State last year; now the Spartans need to return the favor.
Northern exposure: Oklahoma was Missouri's Everest, but here's the thing about climbing a mountain: It's hard. A lot of emotion and energy went into jumping that Sooner-shaped hurdle, and now the question is how much the Tigers have left heading into a division-defining game against Nebraska. Missouri players and coaches have spent the week delivering soundbites on staying focused, and they'll have to put those words into action against a Huskers team that already slipped up against Texas and can't afford another stumble. Missouri's unlikely to replicate last week's 486 yards of offense (a season high) against the Blackshirts, but quarterback Blaine Gabbert will be looking for redemption after last year's meeting, when his two late picks helped turn a 12-0 Missouri lead into a 27-12 Huskers win.
SEC shakeup?: Put Oregon, Michigan State and Missouri together, and what do you get? A No. 1 team looking to stay undefeated and avoid a letdown after a mammoth Week 8 win. AKA, Auburn. The Tigers rose to No. 1 in the BCS standings after riding Cam Newton's legs to a win over then No. 6 LSU, and now they face a stiff test against ... 3-4 Ole Miss? Allow us to explain. Auburn has struggled in its two road games, escaping Mississippi State and Kentucky by three points each, and those road blues are bound to be exacerbated by the grind of having played eight straight weeks. And while Auburn's offense has excelled, its pass defense ranks 101st nationally, which is bad news considering Jeremiah Masoli and the Rebels have finally meshed offensively. But Masoli won't be able to help tackle Newton. The Ole Miss defense held Alabama to 319 yards two weeks ago, but the Rebels regressed against Arkansas last week (464) and rank 10th in the SEC in total D. That's nine spots below the LSU unit that surrendered 440 rushing yards to Newton and Co. last week.
Cocktails, anyone? Anyone? Anyone? It's been a long time since Florida and Georgia faced off to such little fanfare, but the fact that the 2010 Cocktail Party isn't a story is what makes the 2010 Cocktail Party a story. The Gators and Dawgs are a combined 8-7, and yet both remain alive in the SEC East. (Which tells you all you need to know about the East this year.) The Gators have won 17 of the last 20 in the series, but they've lost three consecutive games on the season thanks largely to an offense that ranks ninth in the SEC and 89th nationally. The Dawgs are streaking in the opposite direction, having won three straight conference games after a 1-4 start. That disastrous beginning, and the calls for Mark Richt's head that accompanied it, will probably be forgotten if Georgia notches a rare series win. Doing so will depend on how improved Florida's offense is after a bye week -- and the return of Chris Rainey.
Meet Matt McGloin: It's starting to look a lot like 2009 for Michigan. Once again, the Wolverines are 5-2 heading into the Penn State game, and once again, Rich Rodriguez's brief period of solace is in jeopardy. But there are three reasons 2010 might be kinder to Big Blue. 1) Denard Robinson is healthy after a bye week and should compile some serious yardage against the Big Ten's eighth-ranked rushing defense. 2) Evan Royster needs just 31 yards to become Penn State's all-time leading rusher, but has only posted one 100-yard game this year and seems to be stressing over the milestone. 3) Rob Bolden is still dealing with the effects of a concussion, so former walk-on Matt McGloin will start at quarterback for the Nittany Lions. That's just what the doctor ordered for a Michigan defense that ranks last in the Big Ten and 104th nationally.
Attention, draftniks: Forget about Oregon-USC. For the front office members of the Bills, 49ers and other cellar-dweller teams in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Stanford-Washington is the game of the week. Of course, that interest has a lot more to do with big boards than Pac-10 standings. After occupying the top spot of many a mock draft this preseason, Huskies quarterback Jake Locker has largely ceded that position to Cardinal counterpart Andrew Luck. Can Locker narrow the gap in a head-to-head showdown? He's been good in Washington wins (10 TDs, one INT) and bad in Washington losses (four, three), including a dreadful 71-yard effort in a lopsided loss to Nebraska. Luck has been vastly more consistent, notching 19 touchdowns to five picks and ranking seventh nationally with a 165.4 passer rating. So to recap: inconsistent player on inconsistent team hosts consistent player on consistent team. Mr. Goodell, prepare to pose with Mr. Luck.
Southern comfort: The question surrounding Baylor this preseason was exactly the same as the question surrounding Baylor last preseason: Could the Bears end their bowl drought behind the ultra-talented Robert Griffin? Well, asked and answered (at last). After eight games, the Bears are 6-2 and bowl eligible for the first time since 1995. They're also ranked (No. 25 in the AP) for the first time since 1993. And this week, a ranked Baylor team faces an unranked Texas team for the first time since 1986. That's a lot of firsts, but here's another: At 3-1 in league play, the Bears are currently in first in the Big 12 South. Dates with divisional foes Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma still loom, and it's unlikely Baylor will sit atop the league standings when the season concludes. But Griffin and Co. can add another very sizable chapter to their fairytale season by beating the 'Horns in Austin. Art Briles' dream would be Mack Brown's nightmare.
Big Least: Syracuse's Week 8 win over West Virginia was huge for the Orange, but not so good for the rest of the Big East. With the Mountaineers falling out of the polls, the league does not currently boast a single ranked team. 'Cuse is the only team with no more than two losses; every other team has three or four. Pitt's in the three-loss club after suffering nonconference defeats by Utah, Miami and Notre Dame, but its 2-0 conference mark makes it the current leader in the clubhouse. Think Orrin Hatch has already begun crafting the speech he'll present to Congress when a three-loss Big East team makes a BCS bowl and a one-loss Utah (or TCU) does not?
Coping with tragedy: The death of Notre Dame student manager Declan Sullivan has shaken the Irish campus, and the entire college football community. The more details arise, the more questions loom over culpability and accountability. But in the midst of this tragedy, Notre Dame must play a football game. A few days ago, we would have discussed how the Irish will look to rebound from last week's embarrassing loss to Navy against a Tulsa team averaging 38 points per game, but that seems pretty trivial now.