It’s down to Alabama and it’s down to Florida State, and unless one or both of those outfits suffers a spectacular November collapse, there’s not a whole lot to do about that.
November, of course, is no stranger to spectacular college football collapses. No matter how far ahead of the rest of the field the Tide and Noles look — and for the record, that’s prettttty far — the other undefeated AQ teams throwing elbows for prime spots within the top five can’t go unstudied.
There’s also the matter of these teams’ season-wrapping rivalry opponents and potential conference championship opponents. No contender’s best shot at a late implosion comes this week, but several future adversaries for Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, and Baylor are facing key games of their own. Which spoilers stand the best chance of ankling a Pasadena hopeful, and how? Week 12 doesn’t offer much, but it might tell us that.
All times Eastern.
On Your Marquee(ish)
• SEC contender watch: no. 1 Alabama at Mississippi State. Anybody remember Alabama’s ground game looking fallible against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff? Or its defense getting lit up in a shootout in College Station two weeks later? That was a different time. Since the season’s opening weeks, the Tide have returned to their old scorched-earth selves, outscoring their last seven opponents by an average score of 41-6 and not giving any indication that this weekend’s scrimmage at Mississippi State will be anything other than a flattening. The Bulldogs are averaging right around four touchdowns per game; the Tide have allowed all of four offensive touchdowns total since the A&M game. Dan Mullen needs to win two of three to earn bowl eligibility for his Bulldogs; this will not be one of them. (7:45 p.m., ESPN)
• SEC challenger watch: no. 25 Georgia at no. 7 Auburn. Bulldogs-Tigers will be the most attentively viewed game at Bama tailgates, and for good reason: Auburn is the only team besides Alabama that still controls its destiny in the SEC West. Should the Tide and Tigers win out between now and November 30, the Iron Bowl will be a de facto division title game — for which Yellowhammer State residents can thank Gus Malzahn, who has turned last year’s 3-9 Auburn squad into a 9-1 demi-juggernaut currently ranked seventh in the nation.
The Tigers would be wise not to overlook this weekend’s opponent, however. Georgia appears to be regaining its footing after an injury-plagued midseason stretch; as Florida found out to its dismay two weeks ago, even a half-strength Todd Gurley has more than enough wheels to leave opponents choking on his dust. We would be remiss not to mention that Auburn’s run game is not to be trifled with, with the Tigers ranking third in the nation with 320 yards per game. But the much-maligned Dawgs defense has bowed up pretty nicely against the run in recent weeks, allowing only 110 rushing yards per game over the last four contests. Really, all you need to know about the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is this: After 116 games, Georgia and Auburn are tied at 54 wins apiece (with eight ties) and separated by only 114 total points. There’s no wacky trophy associated with this rivalry (sadly), but the stakes are generally high enough that it doesn’t matter. (3:30 p.m., CBS)
• ACC contender watch: Syracuse at no. 2 Florida State. Before we get to the football: News surfaced Wednesday that FSU quarterback Jameis Winston is part of an ongoing investigation into a sexual assault claim. Winston’s lawyer denied the allegations, said police have not spoken to his client, and indicated that the nearly year-old investigation was closed in February before resurfacing with the state attorney this week. Florida State said in a statement that Winston’s playing status remains unchanged. We’re not going to get into this any further at this time; those interested in tracking the facts of the case can follow along at the mother ship.
Back to the game: Winston will be on the field when FSU faces Syracuse on Saturday. Call up the mental images evoked by the thought of the mighty Syracuse Orange stalking the sideline at Doak Campbell Stadium, striking fear into the hearts of the Florida State Seminoles. That was the scenario that got the ACC’s blood running hot when it was preparing to invite Syracuse and Pitt to join the conference, right? FSU has already clinched its berth in the ACC title game, and the only thing harder to imagine than the Noles suffering a home upset to Syracuse this week is the Noles suffering a home upset to Idaho next week. (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2)
• ACC challenger watch no. 1: Maryland at Virginia Tech. So please forgive the Seminoles for looking all the way ahead to the conference title game, where their opponent will most likely be either Virginia Tech or Miami.1 Virginia Tech recovered from back-to-back upsets against Duke and Boston College in grand fashion, unloading 42 points on the Hurricanes in Miami last week; if Logan Thomas has indeed gotten his turnover-margin gland back in working order, then that plus the division’s best defense2 equals a team that could sneak up on FSU in Charlotte if the Seminoles aren’t their careful, deadly selves. (12:30 p.m., ESPN3)
Georgia Tech officially sits above both of those teams in the standings with a 5-2 conference record, but the Yellow Jackets wrap league play against Clemson tonight and have already lost to both VT and Miami this season.
Um, and minus a kicker.
• ACC challenger watch no. 2: no. 23 Miami at Duke. Miami is a bit more of an enigma. Not only are the Hurricanes coming off back-to-back losses to the Seminoles and Hokies, but they have an identical record to Duke — Duke! — and are only three-point favorites against the Blue Devils this weekend. The two squads are neck-and-neck defensively on paper, and while the Hurricanes have a slight statistical advantage on offense, they rolled up most of that production before star running back Duke Johnson went down with a broken ankle against FSU. If the Canes can’t pick themselves up out of the gutter before visiting David Cutcliffe’s team, we’ll all of a sudden have not just an interesting game, but a down-to-the-wire division race in the ACC Coastal. And yes, if Duke goes to the conference title game, that instantly becomes the season’s most fascinating game, no matter how many points the Seminoles are favored by. (3:30 p.m., ESPNU)
• Big Ten contender watch: no. 3 Ohio State at Illinois. Stipulated, Buckeyes fans: A team can play only the games the schedule puts in front of it. And a team can’t control how strong or weak the rest of its conference is. But when people talk about the schedule potentially leaving the Buckeyes as the odd squad out of the national-title discussion, games like this are the reason. Ohio State has faced all of two ranked teams this season (only one of which is still ranked as of today), and the Fighting Illini — the hapless, 3-6 Illini, still searching for their first Big Ten win and last seen getting half-a-hundred laid on them by Indiana — aren’t going to bolster anyone’s claim. If Urban Meyer hasn’t relieved both Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton midway through the third quarter of this matchup, it’s safe to say something’s gone awry. (Noon, ESPN)
• Big Ten challenger watch: no. 16 Michigan State at Nebraska. The Big Ten game that may be of more interest in Columbus: Spartans-Huskers, which will basically decide Ohio State’s opponent in the Big Ten championship game.3 Yes, Michigan State was that team we were all chortling at for most of September because its offense could barely outrun continental drift, but it turns out that doesn’t matter when your top-ranked defense can straight-up slaughter opponents. With their lone loss of the season a 17-13 heartbreaker at Notre Dame, the Spartans may be the least heralded 8-1 team in the country, but if they continue to allow only 210 yards and 11.6 points per game, that may change.
OK, not entirely: Michigan State still has to close out the season against the delightfully 8-2 Minnesota Golden Gophers, who theoretically could still swoop into the conference title game if they win out and State loses this weekend.
Nebraska, meanwhile, isn’t really spectacular at anything and has earned the majority of its 2013 headlines due to coach Bo Pelini cussing out his own fan base. But the much-maligned Huskers know they’re still in the running for a division title, and if their formidable rushing attack can find a way to break through the Spartans’ front seven, we’ll all of a sudden have a real game on our hands. Take notes, Buckeyes, because one of these teams will likely be your last best chance to prove to the pollsters that you deserve a shot at the final crystal football. (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2)
• Big 12 contender watch: no. 5 Baylor vs. Texas Tech. Until about a month ago, this looked like the Big 12 matchup of the late-season conference slate. Not terribly surprisingly, Tech hit a skid at the gnarliest stretch of its schedule, losing a close one at Oklahoma and not-close ones to Oklahoma State and Kansas State. The setting of this particular matchup, an ostensible neutral-site tilt but virtual Bears home game in Arlington’s JerryDome, would lend itself beautifully to a marquee game, but the Red Raiders aren’t up to matching Art Briles’s brood stride for stride. Even given the injuries the Bears sustained against Oklahoma, they’re not about to be knocked off here. Baylor needs another big win and will have every opportunity to notch one. (Promises null and void the second November demons show their faces in the Metroplex, naturally.) (7 p.m, Fox)
• Big 12 challenger watch: no. 12 Oklahoma State at no. 24 Texas. Conversely, here’s a Big 12 contest that probably got written off early and has since ratcheted up considerably in potential entertainment and impact value. The Pokes and Longhorns have shaken off weird-ass September losses (OSU at West Virginia and Texas to BYU and Ole Miss) to post convincing wins over ranked opponents (OSU at Texas Tech and Texas against Oklahoma). These combatants also happen to make up Baylor’s two remaining ranked opponents and best chances for marquee wins in the absence of a league championship game. (Thinking hard about skipping the nigh-inevitable Darth Vader neck crunch Bama’s bound to put on whichever SEC East team shows up in Atlanta in favor of the last gridiron game at Floyd Casey Stadium? YOU ARE NOT ALONE.) (3:30 p.m., Fox)
Weeknight Football: Should I Bother?
Can you afford not to? The weeknight slate will be halfway through by the time you read this, but ACC Thursday and Pac-12 Friday games await.
Q&A: MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher
On the afternoon of the biggest MAC showdown of the season, we spoke with conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher about the popularization of #MACtion and the future of postseason play for the Group of Five.
So who exactly is responsible for the genesis of what we now know as #MACtion?
Well, it actually predates me. My predecessor, Rick Chryst, was the one who really got the conference involved on it, and I think it even predated him a little bit. And it was not something that was spread out over the course of a game here or a game here. The difference was, our midweek games concentrated on one month primarily, the month of November. If you schedule it right, you end up playing out your conference race on national TV. And now because of the BCS, there are generally national implications with these games.
What strategies have the member institutions developed to minimize the academic impact of, say, playing back-to-back Tuesday games?
You get into a schedule. I in no way want to suggest anytime you miss class that it’s not important, but of all the sports we have, and in our conference we offer championships in 23 sports, football players miss the least amount of class. We actually have a league policy, implemented by the athletic directors, that the home-team athletes have to attend class the day of the game. It’s part and parcel of what goes along with college athletics, the travel involved, but there really is minimal missed class time. Some of the bigger questions are whether hosting a midweek game causes disruption to the rest of the campus, and can you manage that.
It really does feel like it’s grown from “Because It’s There” TV.
That’s the beauty of it. It really has created this visual image of it, something you can really grab on to. And that’s really neat. It’s why I think we’ve had programs starting to take it and grow with it now and building national brands. I would contend that programs like Northern Illinois and Toledo are national brands now. It’s facilitated some national recruiting in ways we did not have open to us before, and the results are showing themselves on the field.
Speaking of Northern: Do you think last year’s Orange Bowl hurt NIU’s case for inclusion in the big-money games again this year?
No, I don’t think so. Going into the fourth quarter, it was a seven-point game. I think some of the national commentators have been overly critical, particularly when I look around and see some of the other scores — or go back and look at the previous year’s Orange Bowl. Yeah, you want to win the game, but I have no qualms with their performance.
After this season, we’ll have the new Group of Five postseason provisions taking over. What were your principal goals as you and the other conference commissioners were hammering out the new playoff system?
It’s not so big that it devalues the regular season. That’s what I think all of us were focused on — making sure we keep the regular season relevant. That’s what differentiates college football from college basketball right now. For a large portion of the top four or five [basketball] leagues, the regular season has lost a lot of luster. In college football, every game has a significant impact. And every conference, to some extent, has an effect on what’s going on in the rest of the system.
Do you think this is an inevitable first step to an eventual eight-team playoff field?
I don’t know. Let’s try four and see how we like that. Obviously, the conference that I’m an advocate for, I want access. I like the access that we have in the new system. I want to see how this plays out, because one of the things I want us all to keep in mind is that the season is a grind. It’s a physical grind, it’s a mental grind, and as we get into the latter stages of the season, stress on the coaches and on the kids is significant. More significant than people think. So I think we have to be really cautious about how many games we continue to layer on in this system. If you go to an eight-team playoff, you’re going from two [additional] games to three games for a couple teams. That’s an awful lot. I just want to take a step back, see what we’ve put together, see how it works. I like the way it’s going.
What made the league finally decide to trademark #MACtion? Was there any one factor that provoked it?
Yeah, it was me in my office saying, “Why haven’t we trademarked this thing?”
Week 12 Superlatives
• Best midseason Dreaded Vote of Confidence: Florida AD Jeremy Foley, who had the presence of mind to say his pro–Will Muschamp comments were not “the quote-unquote dreaded ‘vote of confidence.'” The Gators travel in Week 12 to no. 10 South Carolina, home to noted former Florida football enthusiast Steve Spurrier. (7 p.m., ESPN2)
• Best rivalry game: With apologies to the Bronze Stalk, which looks like it could do some serious damage to one’s internal organs if pointed the wrong way, we have to give the edge here to the Illibuck. Eleven Warriors has a fabulous rivalry week poster available for download, if you’re of the Illi or Buck persuasion.
• Best nightcap action: Wyoming at Boise State. With one Mountain West Conference loss and the head-to-head advantage over Utah State, the Broncos have the Mountain division’s best shot at the inaugural MWC championship game, which still looks like it’ll involve a rematch with Fresno State. Will the Cowboys fold here as quickly and quietly as they did against the Bulldogs last week? (10:15 p.m., ESPN2)
• So, what the hell do we do with Stanford? Right, so: Stanford’s Week 11 dethroning of Oregon made the Pac-12 the only power conference with no remaining undefeated teams. The Cardinal have recovered from that curious October loss to Utah, but to scratch their way into the title game, they’ll need a remarkable string of misfortune to befall at least a couple of the and-0 squads.
The Pac-12 at large may be putting on the weekend’s most watchable slate of games, however: Washington at no. 13 UCLA in the Friday slot (9 p.m., ESPN2); Utah at no. 6 Oregon and Marcus Mariota’s ailing knee (4 p.m., Fox Sports 1); and no. 4 Stanford at USC, which will pit the defense that took down the Ducks against Marqise Lee (8 p.m., ABC).
Arbitrary Power Rankings: Belk Shelton Songs
1. “Some Belk”
2. “Belts ‘Round Here”
3. “Layaway Low”
4. “Ten Times Khakier”
5. “Ready to Roll in Sensible Separates”
6. “Discountin’ What She Likes”
7. “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking in This Three-Way Mirror”
8. “Kiss My Customer Service”
9. “God Gave Me Store Credit”
Bud Foster didn’t know who VT’s replacement kicker, No. 1, was out there today: “I think we must have picked him up at an aisle at Walmart.”
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) November 14, 2013
Foster apologized for not knowing the kid’s name. “Hey,” he said, drawing some laughs. “I’m pulling for the guy.” #Hokies
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) November 14, 2013