Why You Should Give A Hoot: If Auburn loses and Alabama beats Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide will clinch the West and the Iron Bowl won’t matter in terms of the SEC championship. If Georgia loses, South Carolina will get the big break it needs and can win the East by winning out and getting one Missouri loss in the final two games. If the Bulldogs win, they’re still alive for in the East race. To make this even more interesting, if Auburn wins, it’s still alive in the BCS championship hunt.
The Tigers might not throw the ball a lick, but they’ve been extremely effective on the ground in a six-game winning streak that turned around the program. After a disastrous 2012, Auburn has matured on both sides of the ball, head coach Gus Malzahn has done a wonderful job of adapting game after game and no matter what happens over the final two games of the regular season, this year has been a tremendous success. Of course, beating the Bulldogs for the program’s second double-digit win season since 2006 would be nice.
Georgia has fought through a slew of injuries and a rough midseason stretch to beat Florida and Appalachian State, and while that might not seem like a big deal, Georgia appears to be back on track and getting a little bit healthier at the right time. With Kentucky and Georgia Tech to close out the regular season, a win over Auburn could be part of a nice run to keep hopes of a 10-win season alive.
Why Georgia Might Win: Run defense, run defense, run defense. For all the problems the Bulldogs have had, run defense hasn’t really been among them. There were problems early on against Clemson and South Carolina, but the defensive front has been good enough to get by as the season has gone on. While Vanderbilt was able to score four times on the ground and the 17 rushing scores allowed are too many, no one has cranked out more than 200 yards since Week 2 when the Gamecocks rumbled.
The secondary might give up yards, but it hasn’t allowed a touchdown pass in the last three games — the safeties are healthier, and it shows. Auburn has thrown the ball 16 times in the last two games, but …
Why Auburn Might Win: It’s not like the Tigers can’t push the ball deep. There have been some nice moments against decent defenses, throwing for 224 yards against LSU and 339 against Mississippi State. Yes, Auburn prefers to travel on the ground, but Malzahn has been great at switching things up on the fly depending on the opponent. The Bulldog secondary might be fine, but it doesn’t make a slew of big plays and will give up the dinks and dunks now and then. As long as Auburn is patient and doesn’t force much, it should be able to move the ball in a variety of ways.
What Will Happen: Georgia’s run defense will keep Marshall and Mason in check just enough to get by. The Tiger secondary has been solid against the weak and the sad, but it’s going to be pushed a little bit by Murray. Gurley will have a huge game.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Auburn 30
No. 12 Oklahoma State at No. 24 Texas
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Why You Should Give A Hoot: This Baylor thing has to slow down at some point, right? It’ll be up to these two to likely give the Bears a big push over the next few weeks. For now, this could turn into a sort of Big 12 elimination game, at least for Oklahoma State. While Baylor is the flashy star that everyone is paying attention to, OSU has quietly laid waste to the Big 12 over the last month.
The hiccup against West Virginia is well in the rearview mirror, and TCU, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Kansas were all blown away as the Cowboys have put themselves in a perfect position to take the Big 12. Now the real work begins, though, with Texas this week and Baylor and Oklahoma to follow.
Texas might be a little shaky, but 6-0 in conference play is 6-0. The Longhorns needed overtime to beat West Virginia in a wild shootout, and they struggled against Iowa State, but they’ve been able to roll through everyone else in the conference. They’re just talented enough to keep the momentum going. There are still tests ahead in Texas Tech and Baylor, but beating Oklahoma State would be a really big deal. It might not seem like it with the Bears still lurking, but a win should and would show that Texas, despite its issues, really is for real.
Why Oklahoma State Might Win: The inconsistent Longhorns have enough problems without worrying about the return game, but everyone could be broken wide open thanks to a big play on special teams. The Cowboys have been terrific in the return game, averaging 25.5 yards per kickoff and a whopping 15.12 yards per punt return, while the coverage teams have been stingy.
That hasn’t been the case for Texas, which is fine on punt returns but has been ripped up at times in punt coverage. Things have improve dramatically since Ole Miss and Kansas State went wild in September, but Oklahoma State has the returners to change things back around. The kickoff coverage team has been worse, allowing a whopping 25.8 yards per try.
Why Texas Might Win: West Virginia was able to run for four scores against the Longhorns last week, but the Texas run defense has been night-and-day better over the last four games. The tackling has been better, the defensive front has been stronger and everyone has been more disruptive. Oklahoma State’s running game has been way too inconsistent, rolling at will on Iowa State and Texas Tech but struggling to find anything that works against just about everyone else. The idea will be to take away the OSU ground attack first and take the chances with a Cowboy passing game.
What Will Happen: Texas is hurting, but it’s finding ways to get the job done. That won’t happen this week. The Oklahoma State defense will be just solid enough, and the offense just effective enough, to pull off the tough win. This time, Texas won’t be on the right side of the close battle.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 40, Texas 34
No. 4 Stanford at USC
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Why You Should Give A Hoot: With three weeks left in the regular season, Stanford is suddenly the team to beat in the Pac-12. For the second year in a row, the Cardinal used its muscle in the trenches to stun Oregon and replace the Ducks as the team to beat in the Rose Bowl chase. No. 4 Stanford pummeled Oregon into the soil on the Farm, holding on after darn near blowing a comfortable lead in the final quarter. However, there’s no time to celebrate last week’s achievement. By virtue of a head-scratching loss to Utah on Oct. 12, the Cardinal has no margin for error in its quest of remaining ahead of the Ducks in the North Division.
Get a load of Troy, which is still in the South Division hunt by virtue of its current three-game winning streak under interim head coach Ed Orgeron. The Trojans have defeated the same Utah team that felled Stanford and had an easier time with Oregon State than the Cardinal did. The program is playing with pride and passion, a far cry from the team that bottomed out at the end of September, resulting in Lane Kiffin’s ouster.
Why Stanford Might Win: Few FBS teams are playing better defense these days than the one from Palo Alto. The Cardinal shut out Oregon for the first 50 minutes of last week’s game. Oregon. No points. More than three quarters. Stanford boasts so much size and talent at every level, from Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov in the front seven to safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards on the last line of defense. The depleted USC attack has had its moments, but it’s also stumbled in the face of decent defenses, such as the ones from Notre Dame and Utah.
Why USC Might Win: No, it’s not at Stanford’s level, but the Trojan D has been exceptional for most of 2013. It’s second in the Pac-12 in total defense and third in points allowed. The Cardinal, with its methodical, blue-collar system, is incapable of running away and hiding from anyone. USC has been very good against the run, a necessity against this opponent, collapsing to the ball with DE Leonard Williams and linebackers Hayes Pullard and Devon Kennard. The Trojans run to the ball very well and don’t figure to be fooled by an opponent that’s rather predictable in its approach.
What Will Happen: Can USC upset Stanford, which might still have a hangover from the Oregon win? You bet. But the Trojans will fall short, spending the night just a step behind the Cardinal. Stanford is a particularly tough opponent for a team facing depth issues. It wears teams down at the line of scrimmage, serving the knockout blow in the second half. The Cardinal will never trail after the first quarter, getting out of the Coliseum with a pivotal and hard-fought win.
Prediction: Stanford 28, USC 20
Texas Tech vs. No. 5 Baylor
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, FOX
Why You Should Give A Hoot: Oh yes, there will be points. In one way or another, there’s almost no way this won’t be fun. If Baylor continues to be Baylor, it’ll put on another fantastic show and the offensive pyrotechnics will be worth the price of admission. If Texas Tech gets its groove back, there’s a chance the offense could be just the thing needed to trip up the Bears’ dream season.
The Oklahoma defense didn’t do it and neither did the Kansas State running game. But that’s about it in terms of decent wins for Baylor. Sure, blasting away on Oklahoma 41-12 was a big moment, but now comes the real work with road games at Oklahoma State and TCU to follow before closing out against Texas.
No. 5 in the BCS standings, that will change if the wins keep coming — there’s no way Stanford stays higher if Baylor pulls off four victories over the next month. But will the Bears get the big break needed with losses from two of the three BCS league unbeaten in Alabama, Florida State or Ohio State? There’s still time.
Texas Tech looked like it would be in a position to make some noise, and then the schedule kicked in and everything changed. The 7-0 start was great, but three straight losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State made the season now about jockeying for a decent bowl game.
Why Texas Tech Might Win: The only way to deal with the Baylor offense might be to try to outgun it. No one has really been able to bomb away with the Bears — Oklahoma was the only team so far with the potential to do that, and it failed time and again early on. Texas Tech can just let it rip with a passing game that has hit the 400-yard mark in every game but three. While the big plays down the field might not be there like they are for Baylor, the short-to-midrange ones could control the game and the clock. On the other side of the ball, Texas Tech hasn’t allowed a 300-yard passing day since the opener against SMU.
Why Baylor Might Win: Mistakes. Let’s say this turns into a shootout with big plays and wild momentum swings. The difference could be the key turnover or penalty. One of Baylor’s few issues has been too many flags, but Texas Tech is almost as guilty, committing 7.7 penalties a game to Baylor’s eight. The difference is in the turnovers, with the Bears giving up just four interceptions this year, with three of them coming against West Virginia.
There have been a few fumbles here and there, but nothing to get into a twist over, while Texas Tech has lost the ball 25 times on the year with three turnovers or more in seven of the last nine games. Texas Tech can’t be minus-2 in turnovers and win.
What Will Happen: Texas Tech will keep up the pace for a while, and then a few key giveaways will change things up. The Bears will be tested, and they’ll pass with Bryce Petty putting up Heisman-worthy numbers after the Red Raiders take away the ground game.
Prediction: Baylor 58, Texas Tech 47
No. 16 Michigan State at Nebraska
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why You Should Give A Hoot: Minnesota is still hanging around and could make things interesting late, but this probably decides the Big Ten Legends title. Michigan State, even more so than Ohio State, is the Big Ten’s “it” team, currently on a five-game winning streak thanks this to its defense. The Spartans have been a brick wall, allowing just nine points over the last three games, taking away Michigan’s manhood two weeks ago and rolling through the rest of the slate, with the only blip a bad offensive day against Notre Dame.
Northwestern and Minnesota still remain, but a win and a Gopher loss next week means a berth in the Big Ten championship for the second time in three seasons.
Nebraska is trying to get back to Indianapolis, and while it’s been a rocky road and took a Hail Mary to get by Northwestern, everything is set up to take the division by winning out. That’s easier said than done for a team that’s struggling with its consistency, but despite the concerns and controversies, the Minnesota loss three weeks ago is the lone mistake in a stretch of five wins in six games. Penn State and Iowa close things out, but this is the big test. If Nebraska can find a way to pull off a win against the loaded MSU defense, it should be able to handle the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes.
Why Michigan State Might Win: Nebraska has to run to win, and no one’s running on Michigan State. The Husker passing game is occasionally effective down field, and it’s not going to be shy about taking a few big shots. But if the offense isn’t running the ball, it’s not working. How good has Michigan State’s run defense been? It hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in the last three weeks and is allowing 1.62 yards per carry on the year.
The Spartans lead the nation giving up 43.4 rushing yards per game, and while they hadn’t faced a slew of top-shelf running games yet, they came up with a Magnum Opus against Michigan, which ran 29 times for minus-48 yards. No one has run for 100 yards on MSU this year.
Why Nebraska Might Win: Of course, keeping Michigan to negative rushing yards isn’t that hard — Nebraska did that, too. The Wolverines were stuffed for minus-21 yards on 36 carries last week. While it might not mean the Huskers are back to norm — they’re two weeks removed from getting run over by Northwestern and having problems with Minnesota the week before — the defense has its moments.
The secondary has been more than good enough to get by, allowing just three touchdown passes in the last six games. As good as the MSU defense might be, Nebraska’s is better at getting into the backfield and is far better at generating consistent pressure on the quarterback. It doesn’t take much to get the MSU offense to sputter.
What Will Happen: Michigan State’s defense will clamp down on Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah. The Spartans will dare Armstrong and Ron Kellogg to throw, and the results won’t be pretty. It won’t be a game for the ages, but it’ll look great for Michigan State as it gets its first win all-time vs. the Huskers.