October 17, 2011

Week 8 Watch: A barnburner?

Whether it was Cam Newton tumbling into the end zone with Patrick Peterson on his back, Demetrius Byrd making a last-second touchdown catch or Jamie Howard or Jarrett Lee throwing gut-wrenching pick-sixes, the Auburn-LSU game frequently has been a barnburner.

In fact, it quite literally was in 1996, when LSU prevailed 19-15 at Jordan-Hare Stadium while the Auburn Sports Arena -- known as "The Barn" -- burned to the ground across the street.

[Huguenin: Projecting the BCS bowls]

This rivalry literally made the earth move in '88, when the Death Valley crowd's response to Tom Hodson's winning touchdown pass registered as an earthquake on an on-campus seismograph. The next season, when Auburn coaches and players celebrated a 41-7 victory at Death Valley with cigars while still on the field, well ... Auburn hasn't won in Baton Rouge since. Auburn visits Death Valley this weekend aiming to deal LSU its first loss of the season.

Player under the gun

Georgia Tech QB Tevin Washington

After going 27-of-42 through the air in Georgia Tech's first four games, Washington is 12-of-39 in his past three. It's no coincidence that Tech has averaged just 29 points in those three games after racking up 53.3 points per game through its first four contests. Tech relies heavily on its ground attack, but it runs the ball most effectively when it also has a passing threat to keep opposing defenses honest. Washington continues to run the ball well. Washington rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns Saturday in a 24-21 loss to Virginia, but he also went 2-of-8 with two interceptions. Georgia Tech won't win the ACC Coastal Division unless Washington improves his passing accuracy. Maybe he can break out of his slump this week against a Miami team that ranks 98th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

But Auburn-LSU isn't the biggest matchup on the eighth week of the season. Ten remaining undefeated teams are walking the tightrope of perfection in hopes of reaching the BCS national championship game. At least three of them face treacherous tests this week that could enhance or end their national championship aspirations.

Stanford plays host to once-beaten Washington, which broke into the national rankings after back-to-back blowout victories.

[Week 7's best: Clemson's Watkins grabs top honor]

Meanwhile, Clemson (against North Carolina) and Wisconsin (at Michigan State) face tough opponents that beat them a year ago.

Best game: Wisconsin at Michigan State, 8 p.m., ABC regional/ESPN. Michigan State knocked Michigan from the ranks of the unbeatens Saturday and aims to do the same to Wisconsin -- just as it did last season in Madison. Behind QB Russell Wilson, Wisconsin has scored no fewer than 35 points, and all six of its victories have been by at least a 31-point margin. But Michigan State's defense, led by dominating T Jerel Worthy, has limited five of six opponents to 14 or fewer points.

Don't overlook this one: SMU at Southern Miss, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network. What has happened to the offenses in Conference USA? Only three league teams are ranked in the top 30 nationally in total offense. Two are playing here in a possible C-USA championship game preview. A stunning six-point loss at Marshall in Week 2 is the only blemish on Southern Miss' record. After beating defending C-USA champion UCF by 17 this past weekend, SMU is off to its best start (5-1) since 1986.

[A look back: Week 7 Conference Call]

Under-the-radar storyline: Oklahoma is scoring on 91 percent of its red zone attempts, but the Sooners probably are settling for more field goals than coach Bob Stoops would like. Of the 10 undefeated teams, Oklahoma has the lowest touchdown rate in the red zone at 55.9 percent (Wisconsin has the best at 87.9 percent). Oklahoma is the only undefeated team turning fewer than 60 percent of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This week could be a chance for Oklahoma to fine-tune some things. Texas Tech is 47th in the nation in red zone defense and has allowed 18 touchdowns on 27 red zone opportunities.

On the midweek marquee: West Virginia at Syracuse, Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN. Given the way the Big East has started the season, West Virginia looks like the clear favorite by a comfortable margin. Cincinnati and the Mountaineers are the only league teams that can consistently find the end zone. West Virginia is looking to redeem itself after a 19-14 loss to Syracuse in Morgantown last season; that loss cost the Mountaineers a trip to the BCS. Syracuse, which has had a habit of playing down to its competition, is looking to show it can rise to the occasion. This also is the first week of Tuesday games on ESPN, starting with Florida International at Arkansas State.

Coach under the gun

California's Jeff Tedford

Remember when this guy was one of the hottest coaches in the country? It has been a while. Tedford deserves plenty of credit for making California football relevant, but he hasn't been able to get the Golden Bears to the next level. They're backsliding instead. California went 5-7 last season to end a string of seven consecutive bowl bids. Now the Bears are riding a three-game losing streak into Saturday's game with Utah. California is 6-10 in its past 16 games. This season's team has dynamic receivers in Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones, yet the Bears have scored a total of 24 points in their past two games. California (3-3) ends the season with back-to-back trips to Stanford and Arizona State, so the Bears could have a tough time becoming bowl eligible if they lose to Utah.

Best individual matchup of the week: Stanford QB Andrew Luck vs. Washington QB Keith Price. They obviously won't be on the field at the same time, but Price has to approximate Luck's numbers if Washington is to pull the upset. Price, in his first season as a starter, has played at an extremely high level, passing for 1,466 yards and 21 TDs, with four interceptions. He is completing 69.4 percent of his passes. Luck has done nothing to dispel talk that he was the Heisman front-runner entering the season. He is completing 71.3 percent of his passes, for 1,719 yards, 18 TDs and just three picks.

[A look back: What we learned in Week 7]

Best unit matchup of the week: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Michigan State defensive line. Wisconsin has scored at least 35 points in each of its six games and leads the nation in scoring offense at 50.2 points per game. The Badgers have won each of their games by at least 31 points, too. They are eighth nationally in total offense at 523.2 yards per game, thanks to an incredibly balanced offense that averages 257.5 rushing yards and 265.7 passing yards. All the talk about the offense centers on QB Russell Wilson and a dazzling array of skill-position players. But a beefy, physical line is what makes the Badgers go. That line gets its biggest test of the season Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. The Spartans are No. 2 nationally in total defense (186.2 ypg), No. 3 in rush defense (67.0 ypg) and No. 4 in scoring defense (10.8 ppg). The battle in the interior, especially, will be worth keeping an eye on. Wisconsin C Peter Konz and Gs Kevin Zeitler and Travis Frederick have to neutralize Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy, who's playing as well as interior lineman in the nation. In addition, eight Spartans have at least 1.5 sacks, meaning Ts Ricky Wagner and Josh Oglesby have to be on the lookout for blitzers off the edge.

Best coordinator chess match: Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn vs. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. Yes, Auburn has struggled of late, but Malzahn still is one of the brightest minds in the game. It will be intriguing to see which matchups he tries to get against a rugged and aggressive LSU defense. Chavis is pushing the buttons on perhaps the top defense in the nation. How will he attack an Auburn offense that is struggling, particularly at quarterback?

Spotlight conference: Big 12. Another week, another slate of lackluster matchups nationally. The Big 12 has the best offerings, highlighted by Oklahoma State's visit to Missouri. The Cowboys need to avoid a letdown against a Tigers team that's looking for a spark and a signature win after a sluggish start to the season. Texas Tech's trip to Oklahoma also could be interesting. The Red Raiders' offense gives Texas Tech a puncher's chance. There also is a rivalry game, with Kansas playing host to Kansas State in the "Sunflower Showdown." A Jayhawks upset would take heat off Turner Gill, while the Wildcats look to continue their unexpected unbeaten start.

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