Why You Should Give A Hoot: It’s one of the most important Iron Bowls ever, but it could take some help for this game to be truly special. If Alabama takes care of business, it’s off to the SEC championship with a chance to go to the BCS title game with a win. If Auburn pulls off the upset, it goes to the SEC championship, but it needs Florida State or Ohio State to lose to have a realistic chance of playing for a second national title in four years. Either way, it’s really big.
Auburn is playing with house money in a stunning turnaround campaign under first-year head man Gus Malzahn, but now it’s time to get greedy. Thanks to the miraculous win over Georgia, and with thrilling victories over Washington State, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, this has been enough of a charmed season for the Tigers to start throwing around the Team of Destiny tag.
Beating the No. 1 team in the country — and despised rival — would make for a great year no matter what, but the program has bigger and better things to dream about now. Auburn might not be a perfect team, and it might not even be a consistent team, but it’s resilient, flexible and very, very dangerous. With two weeks to prepare for the Tide following the Jordan Hare Mary, Malzahn and his staff has had time to try to figure out the impenetrable ’Bama defense.
While Auburn has been a fun and exciting must-see every week, watching Alabama has been about as thrilling as sitting through a board meeting. Part of the problem has been a mediocre schedule with few chances for thrills since the SEC-opening classic against Texas A&M. Part of the issue has also been a very focused, very business-like Tide team that shows up, takes care of what it needs to do, and then moves on to the subsequent week.
This might not be the most scintillating Crimson Tide team, but it is a relatively unique one — at least over the last four seasons — in one key area heading into the Auburn game: it’s unbeaten vs. the Tigers.
Winners of four of the last five in the series after Auburn tore off a six-game winning streak, Alabama hasn’t had too many problems with its archrival, but this time around is going to be a bit different. Now, the battle has to live up to the hype.
Why Alabama Might Win: Auburn just doesn’t have the passing attack. The overall Tiger offense has been explosive and effective, cranking out big days from the ground game time and again, but Alabama feasts off of one-dimensional teams. It’s not that Auburn can’t throw the ball; it’s just that the Tigers don’t do it enough to challenge the one key weakness on the Tide D.
Forgetting about the stats for a second — Alabama is second in the SEC and seventh in the nation in pass defense — this is the team’s softest secondary in the last five years, benefitting from playing several really, really bad passing games since the shootout against Texas A&M in College Station.
Auburn showed throughout the season that it could get the air show going when needed, but it can’t win without running effectively, and that doesn’t happen against the Alabama defensive front seven. However…
Why Auburn Might Win: Is it possible in any way for Nick Marshall to summon his inner Johnny Manziel? He threw for 339 yards against Mississippi State and has shown the ability to make things happen when the play breaks down, and he’s going to have to test out the Tide defensive backs early to keep them from cheating up. It’s hard enough to run on the Alabama linebackers, and forget about it if Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins are able to move up a few yards. Manziel had to be magical to keep Texas A&M around in the firefight, and Marshall will need to be just as impressive.
What Will Happen: The Auburn crowd will be insane and the momentum will be all on the home team’s side early on after a few nice plays and maybe a scoring drive or two.
But then Alabama will be Alabama.
The Tide offensive line will take over in the second half, McCarron will methodically lead the way to two scoring drives, and the defense will stuff Marshall and Mason to take control of the game. It’s not like Alabama needs to flex any muscle at this point, but it will.
Why You Should Give A Hoot: America, are you finally ready to accept the concept that Missouri might be a really good football team this year?
The two former Big 12 brothers stepped into a skeptical SEC world last season with no one believing either had the ability to make too much of a dent in the power conference of all power conferences. Missouri was supposed to have the innovative, X factor offense that would give the rest of the league problems, while Texas A&M was the program that couldn’t make any noise in the Big 12 South against the likes of Texas and Oklahoma.
Of course, Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel had other ideas, and the Tigers ended up sputtering and coughing in a disastrous 5-7 campaign.
But the tables have turned a year later, with A&M as the hot team coming into the season and no one expecting anything out of Mizzou. However, Gary Pinkel’s club is knee-deep in the national title hunt.
The Tigers had one really bad quarter against South Carolina suffered a tough overtime loss. That’s was their only blip on the radar, and even if they haven’t beaten a team currently ranked in the top 25, Arkansas State, Toledo, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Ole Miss will all go bowling (and by the way, Florida wasn’t this bad when it visited Columbia over a month ago).
Fifth in the latest BCS standings, Missouri is in the same boat as Auburn, controlling its SEC title destiny and needing a little help to get into the BCS championship. However, with a loss, South Carolina will play the Alabama-Auburn winner for the SEC title, and Missouri’s chance of at least getting into a BCS game would be gone.
Texas A&M looked really, really tired last week in a 34-10 loss to LSU. The high-powered offense sputtered and stumbled, and the struggling defense continued to falter. The Aggies haven’t been bad this year — actually, check that; they’ve been awful on D — but they failed in tight games against Alabama and Auburn and clawed past Ole Miss and Mississippi State. A win over Missouri would up the Aggies’ bowl stock and keep a ten-win season in play.
Why Texas A&M Might Win: There’s plenty of talent in the Missouri secondary, but it’s giving up lots and lots of yards, allowing an SEC-worst 272 yards per game. Granted, teams have been throwing to try to keep up the pace, but everyone except Florida has feasted off the Tiger defensive backs. On the plus side for the Tigers, South Carolina is the only team to throw a touchdown pass on the UM secondary in the last five games. Mr. Manziel might change all of that. The offense has the right mix of explosion and control to match up with the Tigers score for score, and the Missouri defense is going to be stretched deep time and again.
Why Missouri Might Win: How do you slow down Manziel? Make him a pure pocket passer and take your chances. At his Heisman-worthy best when he’s on the move making things happen, Manziel could have a long day against all-star caliber Tiger defensive ends Michael Sam and Kona Ealy, who have the ability and speed to get around the edge on a regular basis and at least keep No. 2 contained.
On the other side of the ball, the Missouri offense should roll at will on an Aggie defense that’s getting hammered on all sides. The pass defense failed for the entire year, and then Mississippi State and LSU decided to pound away over on it the last few games. While Auburn ripped up the Aggies with the spread and speed, LSU simply blasted its way to 324 yards last week. The chances will be there for big runs, meaning …
What Will Happen: Texas A&M will put up big numbers and Manziel will be brilliant, but Missouri is too balanced, too talented and too good on both sides of the ball. A&M might score a ton of points and crank up a bazillion yards, but Mizzou will score a ton of points and crank up a ton of yards as well, plus a few more, on the way to the conference championship game.
Why You Should Give A Hoot: QB Tajh Boyd has had an amazing run at Clemson. His legacy, however, will be tarnished if he goes winless against the Gamecocks during his otherwise brilliant career.
The Tigers have lost four straight in the cantankerous Palmetto State Showdown, a reality that gnaws at the players, fans and staff of Clemson’s program. Boyd has been the starter in the last three meetings, going a miserable 32 of 71 for 339 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He needs this game and so does head coach Dabo Swinney. This battle at Williams-Brice Stadium might also become an at-large BCS bowl qualifier, with both schools hoping to earn January marquee invitations.
While the Gamecocks will be focused on Clemson, an occasional glance at the scoreboard can’t be ruled out. South Carolina will win the SEC East if Mizzou loses to Texas A&M a little later on in the evening.
The ‘Cocks have rallied from an inexcusable loss to Tennessee on Oct. 19, winning four straight games. With a victory on Saturday night, South Carolina will become the first school in the 111-game history of the rivalry to win five in a row in the series.
Why Clemson Might Win: Weapons, lots of weapons. The Tigers’ calling card continues to be its offense, with Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins stretching opposing defenses, allowing RB Roderick McDowell more room to operate. Sure, Boyd has struggled in the series, but he’s also slayed a couple of SEC dragons since the last meeting with the Gamecocks, beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Georgia in the opener. If Clemson can get out of neutral, South Carolina won’t have the offensive firepower to keep pace in a high-scoring game.
Why South Carolina Might Win: The Gamecocks have a mental advantage. South Carolina has Clemson’s number, and Clemson knows it. The Gamecocks have been able to consistently derail coordinator Chad Morris’ system by collapsing the pocket and limiting big plays. This year’s USC defense is particularly stingy, allowing just 20 points per game.
The Tigers must contend with not only DE Jadeveon Clowney up front, but also DT Kelcy Quarles and DE Chaz Sutton. Oh, and the pass defense has improved around big corners Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree, allowing just three touchdown passes over the last six games.
What Will Happen: Spurrier and South Carolina own the secret blueprint for beating Clemson, and they’ll unveil that plan once again in front of an electrified crowd in Columbia.
The Tigers have come a long way under Swinney, but they still don’t have an answer for the Gamecocks. Clowney will play with something to prove, and the backfield combination of Shaw and Davis will flourish once more for South Carolina. Boyd will fall short yet again in his quest to win this game, creating the lone asterisk on his otherwise brilliant resume as a Tiger.
Why You Should Give A Hoot: Ed Orgeron’s protracted job audition continues in the 83rd edition of a storied crosstown rivalry. Orgeron is a candidate for the full-time USC job that opened up when Lane Kiffin was fired on Sept. 28. Will he get an offer from AD Pat Haden? Well, he can certainly enhance his case by beating rival UCLA in front of a national audience on Saturday night. Orgeron has reenergized the Trojans, winning five straight and six of the last seven since taking the reins. Reaching 10 wins this weekend, Troy can make a statement to undecided local recruits.
The Bruins have been a minor disappointment this season. Since starting fast and rising deep into the Top 25, they’ve split their last six games, unable to elevate their performance against ranked opponents. UCLA suffered its biggest hit last Saturday, losing at home to Arizona State and falling out of contention for the Pac-12 South. Jim Mora’s kids really need to win this game in the Coliseum in order to avoid a hollow feeling entering the postseason.
Why UCLA Might Win: The Bruins have the edge at quarterback, and they’ll need to leverage it on Saturday night. UCLA’s Brett Hundley and USC’s Cody Kessler are both sophomores, but while the latter is a caretaker, the former is a genuine playmaker. Kessler is improved, but he hasn’t been asked to do too much. Hundley, on the other hand, is capable of carrying his team if needed.
Sure, he’s struggled at times, but he’s also the kind of dual-threat athlete who demands constant attention from the opposition. Hundley is surrounded by a talented supporting cast that’s gotten a boost from the addition of RB Myles Jack. Only twice this season have the Bruins been held below 31 points.
Why USC Might Win: UCLA has struggled mightily when faced with aggressive defenses, and Trojan defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has taken notice. The Bruins got whipped at the point of attack by Arizona State a week ago, allowing nine sacks. Troy can have a similar impact on opponents, dominating the line of scrimmage with an aggressive front seven that includes ends Leonard Williams and George Uko and outside linebackers Devon Kennard and J.R. Tavai.
Hundley is outstanding, but he won’t be able to put his full array of skills on display if the Trojans are constantly busting through the gates and flushing him from the pocket.
What Will Happen: The South Division is no longer a goal, but it’ll be no less electric inside the Coliseum on Saturday night. Orgeron, Jack. Trojans, Bruins. This year’s battle for the Victory Bell is flush with juicy storylines. While USC is peaking, UCLA could be sulking after last week’s crippling loss to Arizona State.
The Trojans have a special run going under Orgeron, and an incomplete Bruin squad won’t put a stop to it. Troy will harass Hundley into mistakes while taking a conservative approach on offense; RB Javorius Allen will score twice, leading the Trojans to an exciting win over their crosstown rival.
Why You Should Give A Hoot: Can it really be a rivalry if one side has won nine of the last ten games in mostly dominant fashion? Ohio State might be on a roll in (arguably) the greatest rivalry in all of sports, but Michigan occasionally has a way of pulling something special out of its Schembechler just when Ohio State needs a win the most.
How do you say Biakabutuka?
The Buckeyes were 11-0 in 1996 and on the way to the national title before the mediocre Wolverines came up with a 13-9 shocker. The year before, the Buckeyes were also 11-0, but gagged in another loss to an okay, but not great Michigan team. 1993 Ohio State was 9-0-1 before getting shut out by a Michigan team that finished with four losses. The 1986 Buckeyes had the Rose Bowl all set to go, but lost 26-24.
There’s a pattern developing here ... 1980, 1977, 1976, 1969 ... it’s happened before. With three losses in the last four weeks and with an offense that’s struggling to find its footing, Brady Hoke could really, really use something special from the Maize and Blue this time around, too.
The Sugar Bowl-winning 2011 season seems like a million miles away, especially with nine losses in the last 24 games since the controversial win over Virginia Tech in New Orleans. But it’s even worse when the guy in charge on the opposite sideline hasn’t lost a game in two years.
But it’s just that sort of big game moment that Michigan seems to live for. If Urban Meyer’s Ohio State winning streak is going to come to an end, it’s not going to happen against a team like Indiana. On the flip side, if Michigan is going to make a statement that it’s on the right track, this is the game to do it.
The Buckeyes have done everything right since starting out the season ranked No. 2, but it has to keep fighting, keep pushing, and keep looking the part in the beauty contest with Florida State. Ohio State doesn’t have a 51-14 win over Clemson in Death Valley, but whacking around a fired up Michigan and then looking impressive against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship will help the Buckeyes’ chances of heading to Pasadena for more than a game on the first of January.
Why Ohio State Might Win: The Wolverine offensive line has been an issue over the second half of the season, and now the Buckeyes should be able to tee off wherever needed. Michigan is 7-0 this season when it has scored a rushing touchdown, and 0-4 when it doesn’t. How many times has Ohio State allowed a rushing score? Four in 11 games. Linebacker Ryan Shazier and the Buckeye defensive front seven are giving up fewer than 100 rushing yards per game this season, and Michigan’s ground attack is struggling— to put it kindly.
No one has allowed more tackles for losses than the Wolverines, and Ohio State’s defense has been camping out in opposing backfields. If the Wolverines are going to win, they have to get the passing game going in high gear, but it’s been wildly inconsistent. However…
Why Michigan Might Win: QB Devin Gardner has to keep pressing. The running attack isn’t going to fly when he’s not taking off. He has the moxie and experience to take the shots down the field needed to press an okay, but banged up, Buckeye secondary. Northwestern was on fire against OSU, completing over 80 percent of passes for 343 yards. In fact, only Purdue and Florida A&M have not been able to connect on touchdown passes vs. the Buckeyes.
On the other side, to beat the Buckeyes, Michigan has to hold up against the run and deal with OSU’s power. That won’t be a problem: While the Wolverines have allowed nine rushing scores in the last six games, they’ve allowed just 3.23 rushing yards per play.
What Will Happen: Ohio State will close strong. Michigan’s offense will find signs of life and won’t get stopped cold, but the power of the Buckeye offensive front and the running of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde will be enough to overcome a shaky day from the secondary.