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November 22, 2010

Week 13 Watch: Beating rival can salvage season

It's Rivalry Week, which is many ways also is redemption week.

Coaches often claim that all games are equally important, but in truth the rivalry games mean more. Teams that are having disappointing years -- such as Texas, Florida and Clemson -- can salvage their seasons by beating state rivals Texas A&M, Florida State and South Carolina.

By the same token, a loss to an arch-enemy can tarnish an otherwise spectacular season. Don't believe it? Ask ex-Ohio State coach John Cooper, who may be the leading authority on that subject.

Of course, Michigan-Ohio State is one of the top games of Rivalry Week. So are Alabama-Auburn, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Notre Dame-USC and Pittsburgh-West Virginia, to name a few.

Some of those games offer an opportunity to finish first. Some are a second chance. All of them have year-long bragging rights at stake.

Player under the gun

Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick

One of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks gets a final national showcase Friday when he tries to shatter Boise State's BCS dreams. Boise State's offense should put up plenty of points against Nevada's defense, so the Wolf Pack's upset hopes depend on whether Kaepernick has a big game. Kaepernick showed he could deliver against quality defenses in September when he accounted for five touchdowns in a 52-31 rout of California, but Boise State's a much tougher challenge. Boise State leads the nation in run defense and is second in total defense and scoring defense.

Best game: Auburn at Alabama, Friday, 2:30 p.m., CBS. The Iron Bowl always is intense. This season's clash will be more so than usual. Alabama cannot win the national championship, but the Tide could knock Auburn out of contention. Alabama's defense is among the best in the nation, but can it slow Auburn QB Cameron Newton? The controversy surrounding Newton's recruitment adds another layer of intrigue.

Don't overlook this one: West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Friday, noon, ABC. No one in the Big East is playing all that well, but this matches two of the teams in the title mix. Pitt leads the league, but a loss would drop the Panthers into a tie with the Mountaineers and Connecticut, with the Huskies owning the tiebreaker over the other two. Just as Pitt RB Dion Lewis is heating up, he runs into West Virginia's stifling run defense. WVU is the only team in the nation that hasn't allowed at least 21 points in a game this season.

On the midweek marquee: Texas A&M at Texas, Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN. In recent games between these teams, it hasn't been uncommon for one team to be boosting its postseason resume while the other is looking to salvage the season or at least bowl eligibility. Rarely has it been Texas doing the latter, but that's the case this season. Although the Aggies' season started in shaky fashion (3-3), they've won five in a row and would love to cause Texas fans even more misery by knocking the Longhorns out of bowl contention. Thursday's NFL schedule isn't filled with must-see games, and this might be the best matchup of the day.

Best coordinator chess match: Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn vs. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Alabama is going to have success against Auburn's mediocre defense, on the ground and through the air. But can the Tide slow Auburn's offense? The Tigers have had at least 424 yards of offense in every game but one, against Mississippi State in Week 2. Auburn has had at least 463 yards in eight consecutive games. Malzahn has the ultimate offensive chess piece in QB Cameron Newton. Will Smart have a player "spy" Newton -- and if so, which player? How often will Malzahn call Newton's number early in the game on the ground? Will Auburn look to throw early? There's a lot at stake for Auburn, so expect a wrinkle or two you haven't seen from the Tigers this season.

BCS-buster watch: Boise State at Nevada, Friday, 10:15 p.m., ESPN. This is the Broncos' last hurdle between perfection, a likely BCS bid and perhaps -- perhaps -- a spot in the BCS title game. Boise State needs to beat a good Nevada team, pass TCU in the BCS standings and hope Oregon or Auburn loses down the stretch. This trip to Reno to face the Wolf Pack's "Pistol" attack may end up being Boise State's most difficult game of the season. It will be fun to watch the quarterback battle between the Broncos' Kellen Moore and the Wolf Pack's Colin Kaepernick.

Coach under the gun

Georgia's Mark Richt

Richt has such a solid overall track record at Georgia that he shouldn't have trouble keeping his job as long as the Bulldogs beat Georgia Tech to become bowl eligible. But if the Bulldogs lose to their in-state rival, Georgia officials might decide to turn the page. Georgia has faced problems on the field (a combined 13-11 record) and off the field (an embarrassing series of player arrests) over the past two years. Richt's early success at Georgia bought him plenty of capital, but he might not be able to survive a 5-7 season that includes losses to the Bulldogs' three biggest rivals: Auburn, Florida and Georgia Tech.

Best individual matchup of the week: Arkansas WRs Joe Adams and Jarius Wright vs. LSU CB Patrick Peterson. Arkansas lost Greg Childs, its best wide receiver, to a season-ending injury after the eighth game. But the Hogs have a deep receiving corps, and while Childs was the most-talented receiver, he certainly is not the only one who can make plays. Adams is a burner, and Wright isn't exactly slow. WR Cobi Hamilton and TE D.J. Williams also are productive. Look for LSU to deploy Peterson -- who might be the nation's most talented corner -- on different receivers at different times, depending on the situation. In addition, look for Hogs QB Ryan Mallett to make sure he knows where Peterson is on every play and generally try to throw away from him.

Best unit matchup of the week: Nevada offensive line vs. Boise State defensive front seven. As with Alabama-Auburn, Nevada knows Boise State is going to move the ball on its defense. That means QB Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the offense need to be extremely productive, putting the onus on the guys up front to control the line of scrimmage. That's going to be tough. Nevada is fourth nationally in rushing offense at 304.4 yards per game, and the Wolf Pack have rushed for 214 yards in every game but one -- a loss to Hawaii. Boise State leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 72.3 yards per game. The Broncos have allowed just seven rushing TDs -- two of those came in the opener against Virginia Tech -- and are giving up just 2.2 yards per carry. Six teams have rushed for 78 or fewer yards. Boise's No. 2 and 3 tacklers are safeties George Iloka and Jeron Johnson, who frequently play in the box as Boise presses its speed advantage. If Nevada can't run for at least 200, it has no shot at the huge upset.

Injury report: Ever since injuring his right ankle in the first half of a win over Missouri on Oct. 30, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez hasn't been the same. And neither has the Huskers' offense. He hurt the ankle again in the first quarter of Saturday's 9-6 loss at Texas A&M, left the game and returned in the third quarter. But the offense never got on track. Martinez has started the past two games, but Nebraska has scored a combined 26 points. If Nebraska loses to a hot Colorado team and Missouri beats Kansas, the Huskers won't win the Big 12 North.

Record watch: "The Bedlam Game" is one of the most unbalanced in-state rivalry games in the country, as Oklahoma State has lost seven in row to Oklahoma. The Sooners aren't the only team looking to maintain dominance over their end-of-the year rival. USC has won eight in a row over Notre Dame, and three more teams have six-game winning streaks over their top rivals: Ohio State over Michigan, Florida over Florida State and Virginia Tech over Virginia.

Coaching connection: Few rivalries have a coach as tied to the other program as Utah. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham is a 1984 BYU graduate and landed his first coaching job, as a graduate assistant, with the Cougars under LaVell Edwards. By now, though, Whittingham has spent far more time at Utah than he did at BYU. He has been an assistant or a head coach in Salt Lake City since 1994. Utah is 9-7 against BYU with Whittingham on campus and 2-3 with Whittingham as head coach. This is the final "Holy War" that counts in the Mountain West standings; Utah is moving to the Pac-10 and BYU is becoming a football independent.

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