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November 29, 2010

Week 14 Watch: More than league titles at stake

Championship week follows rivalry week, but more than conference crowns are at stake as the regular season comes to a close.

Auburn and Oregon appear destined to clash for the BCS national championship in January, but first they must overcome one more obstacle. TCU, Wisconsin and perhaps Ohio State will be lurking in the weeds in hopes that either -- or both -- will stumble, thus allowing them a chance to book a trip to Glendale, Ariz., for the title game.

Player under the gun

South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia

Although Garcia threw three touchdown passes in a 35-27 regular-season loss to Auburn, he also committed two fourth-quarter fumbles and eventually was benched in favor of Connor Shaw. Garcia has played much better the past few weeks while helping South Carolina win the SEC East, and he must continue avoiding mistakes Saturday. South Carolina gave Auburn everything it could handle back in September before killing itself with turnovers. The Gamecocks are good enough to pull the upset, but only if Garcia's playing efficiently.

Unbeaten Auburn faces South Carolina for the SEC championship in a rematch of a Sept. 25 game in which the Tigers held off the Gamecocks 35-27. Meanwhile, unbeaten Oregon has to defeat archrival Oregon State in the annual "Civil War" to punch its ticket to Arizona.

The Ducks already have clinched the championship of the Pac-10, which is one of four conference titles that already has been settled. TCU has won the Mountain West, Florida International has won the Sun Belt and Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State shared the Big Ten title, with the highest-placed team in the final BCS standings getting the league's automatic BCS berth.

Four of the remaining conferences titles will be settled in playoff games, while the Big East and WAC could be a little more confusing.

Long-time rivals in the old Big Eight, Oklahoma and Nebraska vie for the Big 12 championship for only the second time in the league's 15-year history.

Virginia Tech and Florida State clash for the ACC title, Miami of Ohio and Northern Illinois meet for the MAC crown, and SMU, which just two years ago endured its second straight 1-11 finish, plays at UCF for the Conference USA crown.

Connecticut, West Virginia and Pittsburgh are 4-2 in the Big East, but the Huskies beat the Mountaineers and Panthers and thus can clinch the status as the league's BCS representative with a victory at USF.

But if the Huskies stumble, West Virginia can make the trip -- likely to the Fiesta Bowl -- by defeating Rutgers. And if both should lose, Pitt would win the conference championship by beating Cincinnati.

Nevada figures to share the WAC championship with Boise State and Hawaii, but still needs to close out with a victory at Louisiana Tech. Boise State has to win a home game against Utah State, while Hawaii has already completed its conference schedule.

Best game: Auburn vs. South Carolina in the SEC championship game in Atlanta, 4 p.m., CBS. Auburn held off South Carolina 35-27 at home in September in a game in which the Gamecocks committed four fourth-quarter turnovers. Now, the Tigers and Gamecocks collide in the SEC championship game with enormous prizes at stake. Auburn aims to clinch a berth in the BCS national championship game, while South Carolina seeks its first conference title and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl.

Don't overlook this one: Washington at Washington State, 7 p.m., Versus. Shocking, but the Apple Cup actually has bowl implications. Washington is seeking bowl eligibility for the first time since 2002. Washington State, which is more competitive this season despite its 2-9 record, will try to ensure the Cougars aren't the only miserable team in the state. This could be Huskies QB Jake Locker's final college game.

On the midweek marquee: Miami of Ohio vs. Northern Illinois in the MAC title game in Detroit, Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN2. Central Michigan has won three of the past four titles, but the Chippewas slipped a long way this season. Northern Illinois (10-2) was the beneficiary in the MAC West. Miami was 1-11 last season but rebounded strongly this season, coach Mike Haywood's second. The RedHawks (8-4) have one league loss, to Ohio, but when the Bobcats were upset by Kent State on Friday, Miami won the MAC East crown. NIU is in the title game for the first time since 2005. Miami is in the game for the first time since 2007 and trying to win its first title since Ben Roethlisberger led the way in 2003.

Coach under the gun

UCLA's Rick Neuheisel

Instead of taking a step forward in Neuheisel's third season, UCLA (4-7) has gone backward. Neuheisel can at least carry some momentum into the offseason if the Bruins beat USC. Neuheisel's arrival at UCLA was accompanied by advertisements stating that the football monopoly in Los Angeles was over. USC has done its part by sliding into relative mediocrity, but the Trojans still have managed to beat UCLA 28-7 in each of the past two seasons. Neuheisel needs to make this series a rivalry again.

Best coordinator chess match: Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn vs. South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. This will be the second meeting of the season between the teams, so there should be no mystery to either coordinator about what he is going to see from the other. The best way to beat Auburn is to stymie Tigers QB Cameron Newton in the running game. Well, Alabama did that last week (Newton ran for just 39 yards) but still lost. Auburn ran for 334 yards against the Gamecocks in their September meeting, one of six 300-yard rushing games Auburn had against SEC opponents. That number has to decrease by at least 80 if the Gamecocks are to have a legit chance for the upset.

BCS-buster watch: SMU at UCF in C-USA championship game, noon, ESPN. June Jones continues his fabulous makeover after leading SMU to its first bowl since 1984 last season. This will be the Mustangs' first trip to the C-USA championship game. George O'Leary has made the Knights into one of the league's premier programs. UCF has a C-USA-best 9-3 overall record and is 7-1 in league action. The quarterback battle between SMU sophomore Kyle Padron and UCF true freshman Jeffrey Godfrey will be worth watching.

Best individual matchup of the week: Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles vs. Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara. This is a matchup of two potential first-team All-Americas and could be the deciding factor in the game. Broyles has had a phenomenal season, with 115 catches for 1,391 yards and 13 TDs. He had at least eight receptions in every game but one (against Texas) and has had nine 100-yard games and three multiple-TD games. Amukamara is physical, fast and sure-handed -- in short, everything you want in a shutdown corner. He has no picks but does have 13 pass breakups, and opponents generally have shied away from throwing his way. It will be interesting to see if Huskers coaches have him follow Broyles all over the field.

Best unit matchup of the week: Virginia Tech offensive line vs. Florida State defensive front seven. As well as Hokies QB Tyrod Taylor has thrown the ball this season, FSU still would love for Taylor to have to win the ACC title game with his arm. The Hokies are No. 2 in the ACC and 17th nationally in rush offense, at 211.4 yards per game. FSU has been surprisingly strong against the run, ranking third in the league and 23rd nationally in rush defense (123.7 ypg, just nine rushing TDs). One thing that has to bother FSU coaches, though, is that while the Seminoles ripped Florida last week, the Gators still rushed for 212 yards, with most of the yardage coming on runs right up the middle. FSU's linebackers need to be active and they need to especially make sure Taylor doesn't make any big plays with his legs.

Injury report: USC QB Matt Barkley didn't play in the Trojans' 20-16 loss to Notre Dame because of a sprained ankle he suffered in a loss at Oregon State two weeks ago. Barkley was missed, and he says he will play this week against UCLA. The Trojans (7-5) have lost two in a row and three of their past five. But how healthy will Barkley be in this matchup between sinking programs?

Record watch: Bowl directors breathed a sigh of relief over the weekend when the number of bowl-eligible teams reached 70, the minimum needed to fill the 35 bowls. The bloated bowl system could have more available teams to choose from after this week. Washington, Oregon State, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee can become bowl eligible if they win this week. Arizona State will be 6-6, too, if it beats rival Arizona, but the Sun Devils would need a waiver to go to a bowl because they have two wins over FCS teams this season and only one counts toward bowl eligibility.

Coaching connection: TVs in Lincoln and Norman will be tuned in to the Big 12 championship game, but so will TVs in Youngstown, Ohio. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Nebraska's Bo Pelini are graduates of Youngstown's Cardinal Mooney High School. Stoops, Pelini and others with Youngstown roots continue to keep close ties to their hometown and raise money for local children to attend Cardinal Mooney and other private schools.

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