Saturday Update: We'll be reviewing all the picks as they happen throughout the day. Check back for more updates, each labeled "Final Say." For comprehensive coverage of the weekend in college football, look for The Professor on Sunday.
The SEC’s unconventional scheduling hurts the quality of college football’s November slate (Alabama plays the lowly Western Carolina this week), but plenty is still on the line, with the nation’s four undefeated teams and three title favorites all in action. Oregon tries to stop the bleeding on defense, Notre Dame tries to win convincingly at home and Collin Klein tries to take back his hold on the Heisman race, while ineligible Ohio State searches for attention. The finish line is almost here, and chances are someone else is going to follow in the footsteps of Alabama and slip up in the next three weeks.
(All times Eastern; rankings from the BCS; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
No. 13 Stanford (8-2) at No. 2 Oregon (10-0)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Oregon by 20 ½
Both Notre Dame and Kansas State have one remaining opponent that isn’t above .500, and neither team has to play a conference championship game. Not only does Oregon have three games left, it also needs to win three games against teams currently ranked in the top 20 (Stanford, Oregon State and either UCLA or USC in the Pac-12 title game). There’s little reason to think this will be a problem: The Ducks haven’t been slowed down by anyone, as they’ve scored at least 42 points in every game, and still rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. But what was once a defense falsely assumed to be a liability might now be an actual liability, thanks to a ridiculous number of injuries that could even force tailback De’Anthony Thomas to play some defense. Not only did the Ducks lose safety Avery Patterson for the season because of a knee injury, they also played parts of last week’s 59-17 drubbing of overmatched California without their entire starting defensive line.
While a team can get by with little depth in the defensive front against Cal, Stanford is a different story. The Cardinal has not been as effective offensively without Andrew Luck, of course, and that trickles down to the running game. Still, Stepfan Taylor is a physical back who has grinded out his third straight 1,000-yard season, and Stanford threw a new wrinkle into the mix last week by replacing starting QB Josh Nunes with athletic redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, who debuted by rushing for 49 yards and throwing three TD passes (with two picks) in the win over Oregon State last week. Stanford’s best hope is to somehow grab hold of the tempo, using Taylor between the tackles and Hogan outside to keep the Ducks’ hobbled defense off-guard.
With all that said, does Stanford stand a chance of actually controlling the pace and scoring with Oregon? Probably not. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota -- who now leads the country in pass efficiency, on top of his great running ability -- and Heisman candidate RB Kenjon Barner both overcame minor injuries in last week’s blowout, and, as always, they’re joined by Thomas to form the nation’s most explosive backfield. Stanford actually does boast the nation’s No. 1 run defense, but Oregon poses a unique challenge, spreading out the defense to weaken the Cardinal’s physical front. Oregon has scored at least 50 on Stanford in back-to-back years, and this is Chip Kelly’s best offense yet. Maybe they won’t get 50, but they’ll get more than enough to take some pressure off an uncertain defense.
Prediction: Oregon 48, Stanford 31
FINAL SAY: Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (OT). Hello, chaos. We waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. Oregon’s offense never woke up. The last two seasons, the Ducks started slowly against Stanford, only to turn on the jets and put up 50 points in each game. No such luck this time. Stanford out-rushed Oregon 200 to 198, with Stepfan Taylor’s 33 carries for 161 yards easily besting Kenjon Barner’s 21 carries for 66 yards, as he ran into a brick wall in what came into the weekend as the nation’s top run defense. That physical Stanford defense wasn’t supposed to be able to match up well with Oregon’s outside speed, but the Cardinal played a brilliant game. Combine that with a solid game from freshman QB Kevin Hogan, in his first road start, with the game-tying touchdown pass to Zach Ertz in the final minutes of regulation, and Stanford pulled off one of the biggest wins of the season. Who would have thought we’d see an overtime game in which Oregon scored only 14 points, and failed to score in the extra period?
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No. 1 Kansas State (10-0) at Baylor (4-5)
8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Kansas State by 13
Collin Klein played despite injury concerns last week, and while he wasn’t spectacular and lost some steam in the Heisman race to Johnny Manziel, it doesn’t matter. The Wildcats still moved to No. 1 in the BCS, still controlled the game against a solid TCU team with a good run defense on the road. Klein justifiably is the center of attention in Manhattan, but the defense has been phenomenal, with Arthur Brown roaming the field at linebacker and end Meshak Williams adding another two sacks to his total against the Horned Frogs. Perhaps most important, K-State is duplicating what Oklahoma State did in the Big 12 last year in the turnover department with a turnover margin of plus-20 through 10 games. Combine Klein protecting the football and rushing for 19 touchdowns to lead the nation’s No. 8 scoring offense with Brown and Williams leading the No. 14 scoring defense with that turnover margin and the coaching of Bill Snyder, and it makes perfect sense that the Wildcats are undefeated. They’re doing everything right.
This week the K-State defense collides with an Art Briles-led Baylor offense that ranks No. 2 in passing despite the loss of Robert Griffin III. Briles’ scheme is brilliant as always, with Nick Florence putting up big numbers throwing to WR Terrance Williams (77 catches for 1,431 yards and 10 TDs). The problems, though, are obvious. On offense, Florence has thrown 11 picks. On defense the Bears can't stop anyone. Baylor ranks 120th in total yards allowed and gives up 39.4 points per game. That TCU team that scored 10 points, all in the fourth quarter against Kansas State? It scored 49 in a win against Baylor. The Wildcats edged the Bears by one last year even with Griffin playing, but while the passing numbers are there, this is certainly not last year’s Baylor. K-State can overwhelm Florence, force turnovers and run the ball all over the place.
Prediction: Kansas State 40, Baylor 24
FINAL SAY: Baylor 52, Kansas State 24. I bought into Kansas State. I really had, despite several earlier attempts at predicting losses. Then this happened. There was never really much doubt, except for a brief K-State surge at the end of the second quarter. Baylor controlled the game most of the way, simply obliterating the Wildcats’ run defense with 185 yards from Lache Seastrunk and 113 yards from Glasco Martin. Everything Kansas State had done right all year totally fell apart in Waco. The Wildcats averaged 2.5 yards per rush against one of the worst defenses in America. They lost the turnover battle, 3-2. They were penalized seven times. It all fell apart, and for the second year in a row on the third Saturday in November, the field was swarmed in Waco.
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No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) at Wake Forest (5-5)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Notre Dame by 24
Is this the week Notre Dame’s overall bend-but-don’t-break football philosophy comes back to haunt it? Is this the week an inferior team, this time Wake Forest, not Purdue or BYU or Pitt, actually pulls off the upset in South Bend and ruins Notre Dame’s run to glory?
No, Notre Dame is just better. Perhaps this game looks like a trap, given how the rest of the Irish’s season has gone, but the Demon Deacons are 5-5, fresh off a blowout loss to N.C. State. They’ve been blown out by Clemson and Florida State, they lost to Duke and beat Liberty by only three to open the season. They can’t run, pass or score particularly well, ranking near the bottom of the ACC in all three categories, which spells trouble against the Irish’s No. 1 defense that allows 11.1 points per game. Only Pitt has scored more than 17 against Notre Dame, and it took three overtimes for the Panthers to hit 26. Maybe this will be the game that the Irish turn the ball over and the opposition doesn’t, that Wake Forest hits a big play or two, that Notre Dame gets in its own way too much and can’t turn the corner in the fourth quarter. Maybe. Notre Dame may not be an all-time great undefeated team, but it wouldn’t be 10-0 if it wasn’t very, very good. The Irish have gotten some breaks, but let’s not discredit just how good the defensive front has been. There’s very little that actually points to Wake Forest being capable of pulling an upset.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Wake Forest 13
FINAL SAY: Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0. Finally, never a doubt. For the first time all season, the Fighting Irish won with ease on their home field, where they hadn’t won by more than a touchdown in 2012. This time, they were up 31-0 by halftime. The Demon Deacons never stood a chance against Notre Dame’s defense, which gave up 209 yards, while the Notre Dame offense got terrific games from QB Everett Golson (346 yards, three TDs) and RB Cierre Wood (11 carries, 150 yards, one touchdown). A trip to USC is all that stands between Notre Dame and an undefeated regular season.
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No. 18 USC (7-3) at No. 17 UCLA (8-2)
3:05 p.m. Saturday, FOX
Line: USC by 3
People had reservations ranking USC No. 1 in the preseason, but nobody saw this coming. With three weeks left in the season, UCLA and USC are playing for the Pac-12 South title, with the Bruins holding the better overall record and slightly better ranking. Jim Mora has quickly done what Rick Neuheisel couldn’t do, leveling the playing field in Los Angeles, with UCLA set for its first season with fewer than six losses since it went 10-2 in 2005.
Mora’s offense has struck a healthy balance, running and passing well thanks to the stellar play of senior running back Johnathan Franklin (1,270 yards) and freshman quarterback Brett Hundley (30 total touchdowns), and the Bruins will challenge what’s been a mediocre USC defense all season, especially on the back end. Of course, the same is true on the other side, where USC’s talented group of skill players – with WR Marqise Lee now headlining over QB Matt Barkley – should be able to do whatever they want against a Bruins team that ranks 103rd against the pass and gave up 43 points in a bad loss at California Oct. 6. Much has changed for UCLA since it was shut out 50-0 by USC at the Coliseum last year, and this should be the most intriguing battle for the Victory Bell in years. UCLA is on the rise, and Lane Kiffin doesn’t exactly bring stability to USC. But let’s not declare all things equal quite yet. The city still belongs to the Trojans, who get another Heisman statement from Marqise Lee.
Prediction: USC 41, UCLA 31
FINAL SAY: UCLA 38, USC 28. And suddenly the Los Angeles college football scene looks very different. The Bruins got off to a brilliant start, jumping out to a 24-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter, with QB Brett Hundley and RB Johnathan Franklin both dismantling what looked like a disinterested USC back seven. Eventually, the Trojans woke up on offense, scoring three straight TDs to cut the lead to 24-20, but the Bruins held on and got a Franklin TD and a blocked field goal late in the fourth quarter. Franklin was the star of the game, rushing 29 times for 171 yards and two touchdowns, while Hundley scored two TDs on the ground (he was held to 10 yards on 16 carries) and threw for 234 yards and a TD. For USC, Curtis McNeal paced the offense with 161 rushing yards, while Matt Barkley threw for 301 yards and three TDs but was also picked off twice. With the win, UCLA clinches the Pac-12 South and a trip back to what should be a more competitive conference title game, while the pressure on Lane Kiffin becomes even greater as the preseason No. 1 Trojans pick up their fourth loss of the season.
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Ohio State (10-0) at Wisconsin (7-3)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN2
Line: Wisconsin by 2 ½
It’s still bizarre to see so little attention paid to a 10-0 Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State going on the road to face a Wisconsin team that’s gone to back-to-back Rose Bowls, but here we are. The Buckeyes remain unbeaten but relatively unappreciated because of their status in the NCAA doghouse. Still, it’s remarkable how much of a success Urban Meyer’s first season has been at Ohio State. It’s a place where 10-0 starts are expected, but to do this so fast and see so much improvement out of QB Braxton Miller has to make the rest of the Big Ten terrified about what comes next.
For all of Wisconsin’s problems in 2012, the Badgers are still pretty good, still a team that has lost three games, each by three points, to Oregon State, Nebraska and Michigan State. The Badgers’ running game is back up to 17th nationally after Montee Ball and James White led the Badgers to 564 yards in an embarrassment of Indiana, and in the past they’ve proven capable of doing that to just about anyone. They just don’t match up particularly well here. Ohio State has had some issues in pass coverage, but the defensive front has played very well against the run, led by Johnathan Hankins and John Simon on the line and Ryan Shazier at linebacker. Even with Russell Wilson last year, the Badgers suffered a heartbreaking loss, and their continued QB problems could prevent them from moving the ball enough against a team that has Braxton Miller.
Prediction: Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 20
FINAL SAY: Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 14 (OT). You will surely see this game described in many places as old-school Big Ten football. The Buckeyes held off a Badgers rally and won despite gaining only 236 yards. Wisconsin held Braxton Miller in check, but the Buckeyes jumped out to a 14-0 lead anyway thanks to a 68-yard punt return by Philly Brown and a 15-yard TD run by Carlos Hyde. Badgers RB Montee Ball was able to tie the NCAA’s all-time TD record in the second quarter, but -- in an attempt to break the record and tie the game -- he fumbled on a fourth-and-goal leap in the fourth quarter. Despite the missed opportunity, Wisconsin still tied the game on a five-yard Jacob Pedersen TD catch with just eight seconds left. Hyde scored for Ohio State to open overtime, and the Badgers failed to convert on fourth down, putting the Buckeyes at 11-0 with their season-ending showdown with Michigan remaining.
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No. 12 Oklahoma (7-2) at West Virginia (5-4)
7 p.m. Saturday, FOX
Line: Oklahoma by 11
At the start of the season, this really looked like it might have a big-game feel to it, a de facto Big 12 championship game between the assumed conference favorites and the explosive newcomers from the Big East. Not quite. Oklahoma is still quite good, a team with a better-than-expected defense, an offense that scores 40 points per game and only two losses to undefeated teams (Kansas State and Notre Dame). West Virginia? Well …
The Mountaineers’ complete collapse has been rather amazing. Nobody expected their defense to be good, but it’s somehow worse, and nobody expected the offense to continue producing the way it did in September, but the team has gone off the rails. West Virginia has lost four games in a row, including a one-point double-overtime loss to TCU and losses to Texas Tech, Kansas State and Oklahoma State by an average margin of 32 points. Geno Smith has plummeted out of the Heisman race despite throwing 31 TDs and only three interceptions, and the Mountaineers’ fast start has been long forgotten. They’ll likely win their last two games against Iowa State and Kansas, but they need to put up a fight this week to salvage whatever’s left of this disappointing season. They can score with anyone, but the offense has sputtered at times lately, and there’s no reason to think Oklahoma won’t put points on the board with ease behind Landry Jones against this WVU defense.
Prediction: Oklahoma 48, West Virginia 31
FINAL SAY: Oklahoma 50, West Virginia 49. Only West Virginia can do this. Only West Virginia. Some numbers: West Virginia had 778 yards on offense. WIDE RECEIVER Tavon Austin rushed for 21 times for 344 yards and two touchdowns, caught four passes for 82 yards and had 146 yards on eight kick returns. Stedman Bailey caught 13 passes for 205 yards and four touchdowns. WEST VIRGINIA LOST THIS GAME. Nobody was really paying attention because of the BCS chaos elsewhere, but the Mountaineers just can’t catch a break. They finally got their offense going, and did it against what has been a good Oklahoma defense, but it still wasn’t enough. The Sooners had 662 yards of their own, with QB Landry Jones throwing for 554 yards and six touchdowns and capping a game-winning drive with a five-yard TD pass to Kenny Stills on fourth down. If you like offense, once again, the place to be was Morgantown. Apologies if you’re a West Virginia fan, though. The Mountaineers have lost five straight.
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No. 22 Rutgers (8-1) at Cincinnati (7-2)
Noon Saturday, Big East Network/ESPN3.com
Line: Cincinnati by 6
Rutgers remains undefeated in the Big East, and its one loss to Kent State doesn’t look terrible, given how well the Golden Flashes are playing, but an 8-1 record certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. The Scarlet Knights have some great pieces, especially on defense, where they give up 13.4 points per game and are getting an All-America season from LB Khaseem Greene. But despite a promising running back in Jawan Jamison and a pretty good WR in Brandon Coleman, the offense has been painfully conservative and sluggish for much of the year – including last week, when the Knights were tied 7-7 with Army after three quarters before winning 28-7. The defense gives Rutgers a shot to win any game, but with a very weak schedule (Arkansas’ struggles didn’t help), this may be Rutgers’ toughest challenge to date. The Bearcats got some life again last week by replacing Munchie Legaux at QB with Brendon Kay, who rewarded the choice by throwing three TD passes and rushing for 71 yards in a lopsided win against Temple. Cincinnati doesn’t have any great wins either (Virginia Tech’s struggles don’t help), but the Bearcats are more than capable of throwing off Rutgers’ Big East title plans.
Prediction: Cincinnati 19, Rutgers 17
FINAL SAY: Rutgers 10, Cincinnati 3. The Big East championship will almost surely come down to Rutgers vs. Louisville on Thursday, Nov. 29. It wasn’t pretty, but this is how Rutgers can win football games: by playing suffocating defense. The Scarlet Knights got a 71-yard TD pass from Gary Nova to Mark Harrison in the second quarter, and that’s all they needed, as they played great defense and controlled the clock on offense. With starting RB Jawan Jamison (ankle) not 100 percent, Savon Huggins stepped in and took 41 carries for 179 yards to allow Rutgers to win the time-of-possession battle 37:02 to 22:47.
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Wild Card: Tennessee (4-6) at Vanderbilt (6-4)
7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2
Line: Vanderbilt by 3 ½
We’re looking at a rarity, folks. Dating back to 1902, Tennessee holds a 73-24-4 edge in its in-state rivalry with Vanderbilt, with 18 of those 24 Vandy wins coming before 1950. For the most part, it’s been one of the most lopsided rivalries in college football. The Commodores finally broke through in 2005 when they won 28-24 in Knoxville, but they still haven’t won a home game against the Vols since Nov. 27, 1982, which also happened to be Vandy’s last bowl season until 2008. It feels like every Saturday has pounded another nail into the coffin of Derek Dooley’s head coaching career at Tennessee. The defense hasn’t given up fewer than 41 points since September, and a Tennessee loss would mean two things: a rare loss to Vandy, and a second straight season without a bowl. Both are unacceptable, but both are on the verge of becoming reality.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 38, Tennessee 35
FINAL SAY: Vanderbilt 41, Tennessee 18. It feels like Derek Dooley has been fired every week for the last month, and Saturday only further secured his fate, if it wasn’t clear already. No loss is more inexcusable for Tennessee than getting blown out by Vanderbilt. But that’s exactly what happened, as the Commodores beat the Vols at home for the first time since 1982. Vandy simply played a good all-around game, totaling 442 yards on offense and containing Tennessee’s offensive playmakers. Vols QB Tyler Bray completed only 11/29 passes for 103 yards with a TD and two picks, and Tennessee is now out of the bowl picture with only a depressing game against Kentucky, which already fired Joker Phillips, remaining.