November 7, 2011

Week 11 Watch: West is best

The sun sets in the West. So does the spotlight in college football's 11th week.

Two of the nation's five remaining unbeaten teams reside west of the Rockies, and both face long-anticipated conference clashes that will enhance or eliminate their national championship aspirations.

Stanford, which is fourth in the BCS standings, puts its 17-game winning streak on the line against once-beaten Oregon, the last team to defeat the Cardinal. The winner almost certainly will play host to the Pac-12 championship game as the North Division representative.

Player under the gun

Oregon QB Darron Thomas

One year after leading Oregon to the BCS championship game, Thomas has struggled to match his 2010 success. He sat out a victory over Colorado with an injured left leg and hasn't been particularly effective in the two games since his return. He has minus-2 rushing yards in his past two games and was even pulled from an Oct. 29 victory over Washington State. Now he must try to keep up with Heisman front-runner Andrew Luck of Stanford in a game that almost certainly will determine the Pac-12 North winner. Oregon has been good enough to win even without Thomas at full strength the last few weeks, but the Ducks won't beat Stanford unless their quarterback is healthy and playing the way he did last season.

Meanwhile, 670 miles northeast of Palo Alto, Boise State, which is fifth in the BCS standings, vies with defending league champion TCU in a showdown that figures to determine the Mountain West Conference title. The Broncos face a must-win against the Horned Frogs to maintain their long-shot hopes of reaching the BCS championship game.

The Cardinal and Broncos also will have keen interest in the results in west Texas, where Oklahoma State, now second in the BCS standings, travels to face Texas Tech, a team that dealt Oklahoma its lone loss.

[BCS analysis: Alabama stays in mix despite loss]

As for the other unbeaten teams, LSU meets suddenly respectable Western Kentucky, and Houston heads east on Interstate 10 to face lowly Tulane.

Best game: Oregon at Stanford, 8 p.m., ABC. Last season's Oregon-Stanford game decided a berth in the BCS national title game. This one could, too, though there will be work to be done after this one. Stanford led 21-3 last season in Eugene, but the Cardinal couldn't hang on. This time in Palo Alto, the Cardinal hope for a better outcome in the matchup of the Pac-12's top offense (Ducks) and top defense (Cardinal). It's also an opportunity for Stanford QB Andrew Luck to take command of the Heisman race.

Don't overlook this one: West Virginia at Cincinnati, noon, ABC regional/ESPN GamePlan. A year after being one of the biggest flops of 2010, Cincinnati is one of the biggest success stories of 2011. The Bearcats are 7-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big East, and they have a chance to further solidify their league title hopes with a win over one-time favorite West Virginia. The Mountaineers are reeling after a loss to Louisville at home, but they can throw the ball. Cincinnati's defense is allowing only 19.5 points per game, but the Bearcats have been vulnerable against the pass.

Under-the-radar storyline: Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas State, 3 p.m., no TV. The Sun Belt Conference race features three extremely unlikely candidates: Arkansas State (5-0 in the league), Louisiana-Lafayette (6-1) and Western Kentucky (5-1). Arkansas State and ULL have new coaches, and ULL was picked to finish last in the nine-team league. Western Kentucky is 5-4 overall, a remarkable feat considering the Hilltoppers won a total of four games in the past three seasons. The three schools have one bowl appearance among them - Arkansas State's 2005 New Orleans Bowl loss to Southern Miss. Arkansas State has the top quarterback in the Sun Belt in Ryan Aplin, and the Ragin' Cajuns lead the league in scoring. Alas, on top of being lost in the rest of Saturday's action, this game has an Internet-only broadcast.

On the midweek marquee: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN. After weeks of middling games, such as Florida State-Boston College, Virginia-Miami and UCLA-Arizona, this Thursday night game has two ranked teams. After a two-game swoon, Georgia Tech has found its footing and is back in the race for the ACC championship game. But this is a must-win game for the Yellow Jackets. The game likely will be settled on the ground; the Hokies have the nation's third-leading rusher in David Wilson, and Georgia Tech is the nation's second-ranked rushing team.

Coach under the gun

Penn State's Joe Paterno

Penn State already figured to be in the news this week as it attempted to protect its Big Ten Leaders Division advantage while facing Nebraska in its home finale. Now the program is getting attention for all the wrong reasons instead. Athletic director Tim Curley and school administrator Gary Schultz are facing perjury charges in connection with an investigation into former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who is accused of sexually assaulting eight boys in a 15-year span. Penn State officials announced Sunday that both men were stepping down from their posts. The investigation could impact the legacy of the winningest coach in major-college football history. For now, Paterno faces the delicate balancing act of keeping his players focused on their biggest matchup of the season at a time when off-field concerns make the game trivial.

Best individual matchup of the week: Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden vs. Texas Tech QB Seth Doege. Doege was magnificent in the Red Raiders' stunning upset at Oklahoma on Oct. 22, throwing for 452 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. Any hope at another monumental upset rests on Doege's arm. It seems extremely likely that Weeden torches the Red Raiders' secondary (Oklahoma's Landry Jones threw for 412 yards and five TDs in the Sooners' loss to Texas Tech), and Doege has to at least match, if not surpass, Weeden's TD total if Texas Tech is going to keep this close, much less win it.

Best unit matchup of the week: Stanford receivers vs. Oregon back seven. Stanford doesn't have a true go-to receiver, but QB Andrew Luck makes up for that by spreading the ball around. Seven players have at least 13 receptions and five have at least 20. Stanford makes great use of its tight ends, and TB Stepfan Taylor is an effective receiver out of the backfield. In addition, Luck is lethal when he has the chance to use play-action. Oregon has allowed 11 TD passes and has 10 picks. Arizona's [dv]Nick Foles[/db] carved up the Ducks - but Oregon still won by 25. Oregon's safeties and linebackers will be in the spotlight in this one.

[Huguenin: Breaking down the Big Ten races]

Best coordinator chess match: Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck vs. Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Penn State is eighth in the nation in total defense, and Bradley's group has been especially proficient against the pass. But the Huskers have trouble throwing the ball, and Beck has to find a way for a one-dimensional offense to move the ball consistently against a stout defense. Penn State had issues with stopping the rushing attacks of Alabama, Purdue (!) and Illinois, and Huskers QB Taylor Martinez's mobility is a trait that Beck needs to use against the Nittany Lions. Bradley knows his defense will be in great shape if Martinez is forced to the air.

Spotlight conference: Big Ten. The first season of division play in the Big Ten has made for interesting races. Take Iowa, for example. The Hawkeyes lost to Minnesota but regained control of their fate in the Legends Division with a win over Michigan and Nebraska's shocking loss to Northwestern. The winner of this week's Iowa-Michigan State, at the least, will have a share of the Legends Division lead; the winner would have sole ownership of the division's top spot if Penn State defeats Nebraska in a big game in State College. Elsewhere, Wisconsin will try to retain Paul Bunyan's Axe for the eighth consecutive season when it faces an improving Minnesota team and Michigan travels to Illinois needing a win to stay in the Legends Division race.

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