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Friday Morning Quarterback: Finally, Stanford steps out of its comfort zone

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK
STANFORD (-7½) at USC 8 p.m. ET, ABC.

What's at stake: For Stanford, obviously, there is no margin of error in its pursuit of a perfect season and a ticket to the BCS title game: Every game from here forward is an obstacle that could potentially ruin the only realistic shot the Cardinal have had at a national championship (or may have again) in more than half a century, and the Trojans are easily the tallest hurdle to date. USC has no such ambitions, thanks to ongoing NCAA sanctions that put a conference championship or bowl game out of reach. But at 6-1, off the biggest win of Lane Kiffin's tenure at Notre Dame, an upset over an emerging power could reaffirm the Trojans' status in the Pac-12 after two years of steady, sobering decline.

Stanford wants: For all the hype over All-Galaxy quarterback Andrew Luck, the offense's first priority is establishing an old-school, between-the-tackles power game that Vince Lombardi would appreciate as much as Luck does: Thanks to his first-rate offensive line and the respect the running game commands on play-action, the most valuable QB in the country has been sacked twice all year, fewest in the nation. Three different backs went for more than 90 yards on the ground last week in a 65-21 stampede over Washington, en route to a school-record 446 yards rushing for the game on more than 10 per carry.

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USC has fared much better against the run than Washington had before last week, but Stanford doesn't exactly lend itself to precedent. Because they regularly play with two or three huge, versatile tight ends — Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, all of whom go upwards of 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, and are as effective as blockers as they are running routes against mismatched linebackers — the Cardinal can run essentially the entire playbook with the same personnel. And with Luck, that does mean the entire playbook.

USC wants: The Trojans rekindled a little optimism for its own dwindling running game last week in South Bend, where they went over 200 yards on the ground for the first time this season — more than half of it from diminutive tailback Curtis McNeal, who suddenly looks like the full-time starter. Opposite the best rushing defense in the Pac-12, though, they know where their bread is buttered: If there's any quarterback in the country that can compare to Luck as a deep-slinging NFL prototype, it's Matt Barkley. And if there's any matchup that clearly favors USC, it's the Trojans' gifted young receivers against a Stanford secondary that's yielded at least 200 yards through the air in every game.

Last year's game in Palo Alto was a bona fide shootout that came down to the last snap, a Stanford field goal for the win. If USC can't stop Luck, it does have good reason to believe it can fight fire with fire.

Constants: Both quarterbacks will connect for multiple big plays. … Stanford will have more success establishing the run. … USC will gamble with multiple trick plays to keep the ball out of Luck's hands.
Variables: How well can USC protect Barkley against the Pac-12's best pass rush? … How long can the Trojan running game remain viable? … Can the USC pass rush do anything to disrupt Luck in the pocket?

The Pick: The records are similar, but given where they were just a couple of years ago — and where the recruiting rankings say they still should be — there's an astonishing gap between these two teams. After surviving surprising squeakers against Minnesota, Utah and Arizona, just winning comfortably against Cal and Notre Dame the last two weeks suddenly counts as a significant step forward for USC. Meanwhile, Stanford is carrying the nation's longest winning streak at 15 games, the last ten of them coming by at least 26 points apiece. Even adjusted for the competition, the Cardinal have been dominant.

That's not just Andrew Luck: The defense is No. 1 Pac-12 in both yards and points allowed, and there are future draft picks all over the field. At worst, Saturday night will be the first time Stanford really needs its headliner to look like the coveted golden boy that he is after seven games on cruise control. But when the biggest question mark is whether your biggest star will even have to break a sweat, you know you've got something special in the works.

MICHIGAN STATE at NEBRASKA (-4) Noon ET, ESPN.
I know home field counts for a lot in this equation, but I'm with Chris Brown on the point spread here: What have the Cornhuskers done to deserve to be favored over Michigan State? In their only games against competent competition, the 'Huskers were blown out at Wisconsin and then had to rally to put away a physically and psychologically wounded Ohio State outfit after falling behind 27-6 in the third quarter. Big Red fans may want to include a 51-point effort against Washington in that list, but that's the same U-Dub outfit that was just bludgeoned for 65 by Stanford — and the Huskies hung 38 on Nebraska's surprisingly mediocre defense, too.

In the meantime, the Spartans have dispatched Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin — again, that's the same Wisconsin that crushed the Cornhuskers less than a month ago — and come out the other side with the No. 2 total defense in the nation. Nebraska is more exciting offensively, and is probably better than the flop in Madison demonstrated. But all indication to date are that Michigan State is a better team.{YSP:MORE}

FLORIDA vs. GEORGIA (-2½) 3:30 pm ET, CBS.
I'm with Mark Richt, too, in thinking that the trajectories of these two teams would be entirely different coming into the Cocktail Party if it was Florida who'd had a month of winnable games on the heels of an 0-2 start and Georgia who'd just faced Alabama, LSU and Auburn in a row with its starting quarterback's foot in a boot, instead of vice versa. With John Brantley back in the lineup for Florida and both teams coming off bye weeks, I don't think "momentum" means much.

I'm not convinced, though, that the Gators' offensive ineptitude during their three-game losing streak boils down strictly to the competition and Brantley's absence; they've also done nothing to establish the run and struggled to protect his true freshman replacements. Brantley improves the offense to an extent, but not by enough against the nation's No. 6 total defense to erase them.

WISCONSIN (-7) at OHIO STATE 8 pm ET, ESPN.
After a month and a half of blowing the doors off everybody, Wisconsin looked very human last week at Michigan State, its first trip into hostile territory and first encounter with a real defense up to the task of withstanding the irresistible force of Russell Wilson. Of course, one loss doesn't qualify as a pattern, especially one that ends on a Hail Mary. But for all its struggles, Ohio State still has a defense, still cuts an intimidating figure in Columbus and (most importantly) still has a dog in the Big Ten race.

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I'm not about to take a team quarterbacked by fledgling Braxton Miller over one quarterbacked by Wilson, even if they were playing in the backyard of Miller's childhood home. But I'm not going to leave the Buckeyes for dead as long as the defense is showing a pulse, either.

OKLAHOMA (-14) at KANSAS STATE 3:30 pm ET, ESPN.
I know this seems unfair: Plucky Kansas State has already won four games as an underdog, all of which I thought it would lose, and the Wildcats are 13-3 in Manhattan since Bill Snyder's return as head coach, and these kids just find ways to win, dangit. But their upsets to date have all been of the milder variety, over Miami, Baylor, Missouri and Texas Tech. Oklahoma is another animal altogether, and coming off one major letdown, the Sooners will be out for purple blood.

BAYLOR at OKLAHOMA STATE (-14) 3:30 pm ET, ABC or ESPN2.
Obligatory Upset Alert, Part One: The defense remains just sketchy enough to keep the Cowboys on a vague "upset watch" for the rest of the regular season against the likes of Baylor and Texas Tech, which honestly has less to do with the defense than with the fact that people haven't quite adjusted to the idea of Oklahoma State as the kind of team that can actually run the table — I mean, they have to lose sometime, right? But the way the offense is playing right now, until the regular season finale against Oklahoma, that's a sucker's bet.

CLEMSON (-3) at GEORGIA TECH 8 pm ET, ABC.
Obligatory Upset Alert, Part Two: The defense remains just sketchy enough to keep the Tigers on a vague "upset watch" for the rest of the regular season against the likes of Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, which honestly has less to do with the defense than with the fact that people haven't quite adjusted to the idea of Clemson as the kind of team that can actually run the table — I mean, they have to lose sometime, right? But the way the offense is playing right now, until the regular season finale against South Carolina, that's a sucker's bet.

ILLINOIS at PENN STATE (-5) 3:30 pm ET, ABC or ESPN2.
The script officially flipped on Illinois in last week's loss at Purdue, where the tentative optimism of a 6-0 start met the impending doom of their second consecutive loss as a favorite. No breathers at Penn State, which still has no idea who its starting quarterback is but brings more than enough defense to extend its winning streak to seven games going into November. I know, I found that hard to believe, too, but you can look it up.

MISSOURI at TEXAS A&M (-10) Noon ET, FX.
Yes, this game still counts in the Big 12 standings, where Mizzou is sinking fast: The Tigers have dropped three of four in conference play, and I suspect this will be the last weekend we hear that they're "better than their record." Texas A&M may be better than its 5-2 record, too, and shouldn't have much trouble confirming their future conference mate's descent into the bottom half of their present league.

WEST VIRGINIA (-7) at RUTGERS 3:30 pm ET, ABC.
Preseason expectations are hard to kill, which is how a two-loss team coming off a wipeout at the hands of Syracuse winds up as a touchdown underdog to a two-loss team that's beaten Syracuse and Pittsburgh, leads the Big East in scoring defense and leads the nation in takeaways. Rutgers also leads the Big East in sacks, a legitimate concern for West Virginia after Syracuse spent four quarters in quarterback Geno Smith's grill. Eric LeGrand will be leading his former team onto the field, but you don't have to be sentimental to lean toward the Knights at home.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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