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November 15, 2010

Week 12 Watch: Avoiding the big upsets

Whether it's rubbing Howard's Rock at Clemson, the 12th man on the kickoff team at Texas A&M, the "Black Shirts" at Nebraska, rolling Toomer's Corner at Auburn or the carrying the lunch pail at Virginia Tech, tradition is an honored part of college football.

Yet, this season some of the traditional powers have taken -- or may have to take -- a back seat to upstarts and also-rans.

South Carolina has won the SEC East for the first time and will vie for its first SEC championship against Auburn, which unexpectedly won the West.

Oklahoma State never has represented the South in the Big 12 championship game, but leads the division with two games to play.

Player under the gun

Iowa State QB Jerome Tiller

Iowa State didn't merely lose a game in its 34-14 setback at Colorado. The Cyclones (5-6) also lost starting QB Austen Arnaud to a knee injury that will sideline him for their regular-season finale. That means Iowa State's chances of earning a bowl bid rest on whether Tiller can step in for Arnaud and lead the Cyclones to an upset of Missouri. Tiller engineered one of the biggest victories in the program's recent history last season when the Cyclones won 9-7 at Nebraska, though the Huskers helped him quite a bit by committing eight turnovers. The Cyclones are counting on him to come through again.

N.C. State and Maryland are in strong contention in the ACC Atlantic Division, Michigan State is in a three-way tie with Ohio State and Wisconsin for the Big Ten lead, and Syracuse, USF and Connecticut are in the thick of a wide-open Big East race.

Even SMU leads Conference USA's West Division by virtue of its victory over Tulsa.

None of those teams can win conference crowns or division titles in Week 12, but all need victories to keep moving toward championships. In fact, the 12th week of the season is more about avoiding big upsets than posting big wins.

Three of the four remaining unbeaten teams (Auburn, Oregon and TCU) have open dates, and Boise State puts its perfect record up against Fresno State in a non-traditional Friday night matchup.

Best game: Ohio State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m., ABC. The Buckeyes try to keep pace in the tight Big Ten race in one of the week's few games involving ranked opponents. Iowa, coming off a loss to Northwestern that basically ended any Big Ten title hopes, is hoping to avenge last season's 27-24 overtime loss in Columbus. Wisconsin and Michigan State fans will watch closely; the Badgers want Ohio State to win, while the Spartans will be pulling for the Hawkeyes.

Don't overlook this one: Stanford at California, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net. A wild week in the Pac-10 ended with Cal losing 15-13 to Oregon and Stanford needing a fourth-quarter touchdown to beat Arizona State 17-13. The close calls last week adds another layer of intrigue for the "Big Game," as Stanford remains in the BCS mix and Cal still is seeking bowl eligibility. The biggest thing working in Cal's favor is that the game is in Berkeley, where the Bears have outscored opponents 189-34; they have been outscored 158-81 on the road.

On the midweek marquee: Fresno State at Boise State, Friday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2. This is Boise State's second game in a three-game stretch on Friday nights. TCU has faced its toughest conference opponents in the past two weeks (Utah, San Diego State), and Boise State now faces its toughest WAC competition with Fresno State this week and Nevada in Reno next week. Fresno State gave Nevada a scare Saturday night, but the Wolf Pack escaped with a 35-34 win. Bulldogs RB Robbie Rouse has rushed for 503 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in the past two games.

Best coordinator chess match: Stanford offensive coordinator David Shaw vs. California defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast's defense did a phenomenal job against Oregon last week, holding the Ducks to 15 points and 317 yards; it was the first game this season in which Oregon did not score a rushing touchdown. Cal's defensive line won its share of the battles up front, and it must do so again against another one of the nation's best offensive lines. Stanford has a more sophisticated passing attack than Oregon, but the Cardinal don't have as much speed as Oregon. Cal has allowed more than 200 passing yards just three times, and they've held five foes to fewer than 175 passing yards. How often will Shaw have QB Andrew Luck put the ball in the air?

BCS-buster watch: Houston at Southern Miss, 8 p.m., CBS College Sports. The Cougars (5-5, 4-3 Conference USA) are coming off a tough home loss to Tulsa, while the Golden Eagles (7-3, 4-2) notched a big victory over UCF. Each program is still in the hunt to win its respective division in C-USA, but a loss here would prove fatal to those division hopes. Southern Miss also is dealing with off-field concerns after three players were shot during a fight at a Hattiesburg, Miss., nightclub early Sunday morning. All three were in fair condition.

Coach under the gun

Illinois' Ron Zook

Just when it seemed as if Zook had coached his way off the hot seat, Illinois' 38-34 home loss to Minnesota put him back under the microscope. Zook's job probably is safe if he can get Illinois to a bowl. But Illinois (5-5) needs one more win to become bowl eligible and faces Northwestern (7-3) at Wrigley Field on Saturday before traveling to Fresno State (6-3) in its regular-season finale. Illinois has lost six of its past seven meetings with Northwestern, and the Illini fell to Fresno State at home last season.

Best individual matchup of the week: Ohio State OT Mike Adams vs. Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn has struggled through what is, for him, a mediocre season. He has 42 tackles and 3.5 sacks; last season, those numbers were 70 and 11.5. He needs to come up big Saturday against Adams; actually, he and his linemates need to come up big if the Hawkeyes are to bounce back from last week's loss to Northwestern and beat the Buckeyes. Their work against the run is going to be big; the way to beat Ohio State remains forcing Terrelle Pryor to the air. Ohio State is allowing 2.0 sacks per game but also averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Best unit matchup of the week: Texas A&M wide receivers vs. Nebraska secondary. A&M is third in the Big 12 and eighth in the nation in passing offense, averaging 308.1 yards per game. Jeff Fuller is one of the more underrated receivers nationally; he has 61 catches for 923 yards, and 11 receptions have gone for TDs. Ryan Swope also has 61 catches and is the consummate possession receiver. Uzoma Nwachukwu is an effective No. 3 receiver. Nebraska, though, leads the nation in pass efficiency defense; the Huskers have 16 interceptions and have allowed just 10 TD passes. Prince Amukamara is one of the nation's best cornerbacks, even though he has no interceptions, and the Huskers have solid complementary talent surrounding him. A key to the game will be how often A&M QB Ryan Tannehill has to throw to his backs instead of his wide receivers.

Injury report: Iowa State's bowl hopes may be dashed with the loss of QB Austen Arnaud to a season-ending knee injury. The Cyclones (5-6) have one game left, at home against Missouri. Iowa State must win to go bowling. Northwestern will be without junior QB Dan Persa for the rest of the season after he ruptured an Achilles' tendon after tossing the winning touchdown pass in the closing minutes of the Wildcats' 21-17 victory over Iowa. At 7-3, Northwestern already is bowl eligible. But losing Persa could cost the Wildcats' bowl positioning. With Persa out, NU will turn to redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who will make his first career start vs. Illinois on Saturday at Wrigley Field.

Record watch: For the first time since 1970, Wrigley Field will host a football game when Northwestern and Illinois face each other in Chicago. Illinois and Northwestern last played there when the Illini defeated the Wildcats 29-0 on Oct. 27, 1923. Wrigley isn't the only baseball venue hosting a college football game. Army and Notre Dame return to Yankee Stadium (the new one) for the first time since 1946. The old Yankee Stadium was the home of the "Win one for the Gipper" speech in 1928.

Coaching connection: Bill Curry, who went 26-10 at Alabama from 1987-89, returns to Tuscaloosa as a head coach for the first time in 14 years. Now coach at FCS member Georgia State, Curry last faced Alabama as Kentucky's coach, losing 35-7 in 1996. Georgia State, in its first season of football, is 6-4, including a loss to South Alabama two weeks ago.

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