Saturday Storylines: Week 11
The Cam Newton saga continues, but Auburn may be in trouble even if he plays
South Carolina and Florida play a winner-takes-all game for the SEC East crown
No. 1 Oregon looks unstoppable heading into a matchup with up-and-down Cal
The 10 things we're buzzing about as Cam Newton smiles for the cameras:
Auburn's other problem: At the time of this publication, Auburn had yet to recant on its prior announcement that Cam Newton would start Saturday against Georgia. It's entirely possible that will have changed by kickoff on Saturday, but keep reading, because Auburn might be in line for a loss either way. Newton has undoubtedly been the most dominant player in college football this season, and he's certainly the type of difference-maker who can single-handedly lead his team to victory. But there's one thing he can't do, and that's play corner. Auburn ranks 54th nationally in total defense, but 95th against the pass. That was all well and good against Chattanooga, but Georgia is a different story. The Dawgs are averaging just over 40 points per contest in the six games since star receiver A.J. Green returned from suspension, and freshman quarterback Aaron Murray has posted a 155.33 passer rating. Here's guessing, however, that Murray is not the quarterback making headlines regardless of the result.
Mississippi mud: The Bulldogs have certainly made headlines in Dan Mullen's second season, but not for the reasons they'd like. Lost amid the tragic death of defensive end Nick Bell and the school's role in the Newton saga is the fact that Mississippi State has actually been winning football games. The Bulldogs enter Saturday's contest with Alabama sporting a 7-2 mark and a No. 17 ranking. Those two losses came in the season's first three weeks -- to top five teams Auburn and LSU. The Bulldogs have been winning behind the nation's ninth-ranked scoring defense (17 points per game allowed) and a grind-it-out offensive attack. Alabama's Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson may be the nation's most talented tailback tandem, but Mississippi State has actually run the ball more effectively, posting 218.7 rush yards per game (to 'Bama's 177.4) behind juco transfer Vick Ballard. With Richardson limited by a knee injury, that edge could hold for one more game. If it does, the Bulldogs will extend their longest winning streak since 1999.
Showdown at the Swamp: For a matchup between 6-3 teams, there sure is a lot to like about South Carolina-Florida. For starters, there are the implications: The winner claims the SEC East crown and earns a spot in the SEC Championship Game. Then there's the Florida factor: The Gators are a game away from playing for a BCS bowl berth, a pretty stunning reality considering the team's three-game midseason losing streak and early offensive woes. And of course there's the Steve Spurrier aspect: The old ball coach won seven division titles at Florida, and now Florida stands between Spurrier and his first SEC East title with South Carolina. Of course, South Carolina is 0-12 all time in Gainesville. And while the Gators are hot, the Gamecocks are slumping. They've lost two of four, barely put away lowly Tennessee and got manhandled by Arkansas last week. Spurrier and Co. better hope they shook off the cobwebs against the Hogs, because it's going to be a long, long time before Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are all down again.
"Let's go beat Ohio State!": No, the SEC is not the only conference playing football this weekend. In fact, there's quite a lot of football going on in the Big Ten, where four teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa) remain alive in the conference hunt. Penn State may not be one of the teams listed in parentheses, but the Nittany Lions will play a pretty big role in determining how this all shakes out. They already lost to Iowa, don't play Wisconsin, face Ohio State this weekend and close against Michigan State. They're heading to the Horseshoe hot, having won three straight, including Joe Paterno's 400th career game. What does JoePa want now? "I'm hoping to get to 401 for crying out loud," he said this week. Well, that may have to wait another week. Penn State has only won once in Columbus since joining the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes are rested and healthy after a bye. (Related note: Iowa may not have to worry about Penn State, but the Hawkeyes must contend with a Northwestern team that has won four of the last five meetings.)
Duck and cover: Oregon can't lose. But Cal can't lose either, at least at home. The Bears have been one of the most bi-polar teams in the country, going 1-4 on the road but 4-0 at home. During those four contests in the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium, the Pac-10's top defense has held opponents to 34 total points and helped the Bears win by no fewer than 28 points. But surely there is no slowing Oregon? Well, the Ducks have yet to beat a Jeff Tedford-coached Cal team in Berkeley (0-3), and they came out flat last week against Washington, failing to score in a quarter for the first time all season. The Bears are allowing a conference-low 177.7 passing yards per game and have recorded a conference-best 28 sacks, but even if they manage to slow Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas, they'll have to contend with LaMichael James, the nation's leading rusher.
TCU heads into the sunset: Two weeks ago, TCU passed Boise State in the polls. Last week, the Horned Frogs widened the gap after annihilating top five foe Utah. Two weeks from now, though, TCU will quietly wrap its season against one-win New Mexico a day after Boise plays fellow Top 25 team Nevada in a highly anticipated matchup. Which is to say: The Horned Frogs shouldn't get too comfortable at No. 3. There's no minimizing what Gary Patterson's team has done this season, but college football is a 'what have you done for me lately?' sport, especially during the home stretch. For better or worse, TCU and Boise are competing with each other for the right to be a part of the title-game discussion, and the Horned Frogs will fade into the background while the Broncos keep playing. Boise State had its way with Idaho on Friday night, but TCU has a chance to make a statement against a 7-2 San Diego State team that came within seconds of beating Missouri earlier this season. Because games against New Mexico are equivalent to games against the local jayvee team, this is the last chance for Andy Dalton and Co. to plant a seed in the minds of the voters -- and the mainframes of the computers.
Ready to wreck: If you're wondering how you could have been so wrong about Oklahoma State, rest assured, you need not feel bad. As SI.com's George Schroeder found out, the Cowboys didn't think they'd be good, either. But they are good, a reality that has them sporting an 8-1 record and sitting atop their division. They are not, however, the only Big 12 South team that's been impressive of late. After last week's 33-19 win over then No. 11 Oklahoma, Texas A&M is back in the polls and looking for its fourth straight conference win. The Aggies' turnaround coincided with the switch to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, and the converted wideout is expected to make his third start Saturday against Baylor. But the real credit goes to A&M's revamped defense, which is giving up 21.2 points per game after surrendering 33.5 on average in 2009. Yes, there are murmurs that the Wrecking Crew is back -- murmurs that will turn to shouts if the Aggies hold Robert Griffin and the Bears in check.
Utah's South Bend bound: Plenty of people had this contest circled heading into the season. Few do now, but it's still a big game for both teams. Utah is looking to bounce back from a humiliating 47-7 loss to TCU that cost it a chance at a perfect season and a place in the BCS conversation. Notre Dame is looking to right the ship after a 4-5 start that, frankly, merits a spot in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. No surprise, but the numbers (and the rosters) favor Utah: Kyle Whittingham's team hasn't lost consecutive games since 2007, while Notre Dame has lost 11 straight to ranked opponents. The Irish are putting their faith in freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who will be making his first start in place of the injured Dayne Crist. The Utes will be putting theirs in a pass defense holding opponents to 189 yards per game.
Atlantic monthly: Two months after losing to James Madison, Virginia Tech can clinch the ACC Coastal with a win over North Carolina and a Miami loss. The ACC Atlantic picture is far more complicated. No Atlantic team can clinch this weekend, and only Maryland and NC State control their own destinies. Florida State is still alive, but the Seminoles need to win out and get an NC State loss. The first road block for the Seminoles: a Clemson team that is itself back in the hunt after a hard-fought 14-13 victory over the Wolfpack last week. It's been an up and down season for the Tigers, but most of the ups have come recently. (Though let's not forget, Clemson beats mighty Auburn in Week 3 if not for a missed field goal.) Clemson has won three of four, and the ACC's top scoring defense has allowed just one touchdown in each of those four contests. That defense may or may not be going up against Florida State's Christian Ponder, who is questionable with a swollen elbow, but it may or may not matter.
Does anyone want to win the Big East? Or qualify for a bowl, for that matter? Apparently not Pitt, which could have waltzed to the conference title, but instead surrendered 222 rush yards to Jordan Todman in a Thursday night loss to Connecticut. The Big East is literally anyone's to win; first place Pitt is 3-1 in conference play, last place Cincy is 1-2. West Virginia, South Florida, Louisville and Syracuse can become bowl eligible this weekend, and at least one will, because the Bulls and Cardinals play each other. It's only fitting that one of the league's first-year head coaches will lock up a bowl berth before Dave Wannstedt, no?