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Friday Morning Quarterback: Stanford states its case

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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OREGON at STANFORD (-5) 8 p.m. ET, ABC.

What's at stake: Most directly, the winner takes sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 North and the inside track to the Rose Bowl. Indirectly, the winner muscles its way into position for a golden ticket to the BCS Championship Game — with the right help. For Stanford, that's simply a loss by the current No. 2 in the BCS standings, Oklahoma State. Oregon's path to New Orleans still has a few more obstacles. But for both sides, a loss means the fast track to the Alamo Bowl.

Oregon wants: Stanford was the most impressive victim by far last year on the Ducks' run to the BCS title game, and the most indicative of just how terrifying Chip Kelly's spread attack can be: After falling into a 21-3 hole in the first quarter, Oregon outscored the Cardinal 49-10 over the last three, rolling up 626 total yards — 98 percent of which came via the arm and legs of quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James, who sprinted to the front of Heisman lists in his best game of the season. This year, even a banged-up version of Kelly's offense is putting up 46 points on well over 500 yards per game — almost 300 on the ground alone — and can still go zero-to-sixty more quickly than any attack in the country.

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After Stanford's opening punch, though, last year's comeback still had a lot to do with the Duck defense holding its ground, forcing three turnovers and eventually making Andrew Luck uncomfortable in the pocket as the Cardinal were forced to abandon the run in catch-up mode. When the entire playbook is open, nobody gets to Luck: He has two future first-round picks up front and takes fewer sacks than almost any other quarterback in the country. But Oregon's pass rush is among the best, too, and has the speed to get Luck on the move again if he loses the threat of play-action.

Stanford wants: All five of Oregon's losses under Kelly have come against teams that had the luxury of remaining patient with a grinding running game: Boise State, Stanford and Ohio State all ran at least 50 times en route to wins over the Ducks in 2009, as did Auburn in January; LSU ran 48 times in its opening night win in September. Just as it did when Toby Gerhart was hurtling into the line two years ago, the Cardinal's basic philosophy still lends itself to a straight-ahead, between-the-tackles attack currently grinding out 225 yards on 40 carries per game.

As for Luck, he does have to replace two of his top targets, receiver Chris Owusu and tight end Zach Ertz. But he still has two other huge, versatile tight ends — Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo, both of whom go upwards of 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, and are as effective as blockers as they are running routes against mismatched linebackers — Stanford can still run essentially the entire playbook with the same personnel on the field. And with Luck, that does mean the entire playbook.

Constants: Both offenses will top 200 yards rushing. … Andrew Luck and Darron Thomas will make both a mistake that gives the defenses a chance at a big play. ... Points, obviously.
Variables: Which pass rush generates more heat? … Are Thomas and LaMichael James 100 percent following October injuries? … Who has the ball last?

The Pick: As impressive as its rise to national relevance has been, the most glaring omission from the Oregon's resumé under Kelly is still a significant road win: The only ranked team they've beaten outside of Autzen Stadium in the last three years is USC last October, and the Trojans eventually finished far from the polls at 8-5. The last time they were in Palo Alto, the Ducks got steamrolled; on their only big road trip this season, against LSU in Dallas, they got steamrolled again.

Stanford does not have LSU's defense. But the Tigers didn't have a future No. 1 draft pick under center, and still ran effectively enough with no serious passing presence to score 40 (with a little help from their friends, of course). Oregon will deliver some fireworks of its own, as always. But if the Cardinal get anything going on the ground, Luck's night is going to be way too easy.

And the rest...

There is a game here, after all, and from a football perspective it's the most unpredictable of the day: Penn State's reaction to having the ground crumble beneath its feet this week could be just about anything, from a depressing collapse to a Herculean display of wounded pride and anything in between. The only thing the Nittany Lions are certain about is that they still have a first-rate defense, and after last week's stunning flop against Northwestern — in Lincoln — that may be one more than Nebraska has.

In fact, given the familiarity of the remaining coaching staff and the fact that Joe Paterno spent most of his time this season watching from the press box, anyway, the sideline dynamic may feel like the closest the Lions have come this week to normalcy.{YSP:MORE}

AUBURN at GEORGIA (-12½) 3:30 pm ET, CBS.
Auburn's defense has slowly dragged itself out of the SEC cellar after a dreadful September, but not by much, and not when facing a competent quarterback on the other side. Aaron Murray may be the most competent QB in the conference right now: He leads the league in pass efficiency, and in touchdown passes by far. His counterpart, Clint Moseley, was a minor revelation last week with four touchdown passes against Ole Miss, but against a top-10 defense from Georgia, in Georgia, the final result is likely to look a lot closer to his first start at LSU than his second — and to send the Bulldogs on to play (most likely) LSU in December as the SEC East champs for the first time since 2005.

No one in the Big Ten is anywhere near clinching anything, but the winner here is in control of its own destiny in the Legends Division, and the fact that that team could be Iowa just two weeks after the Hawkeyes blew a fourth quarter lead to lame duck Minnesota is frankly pretty hilarious. I still like the Spartan defense a little too much to go there, prediction-wise, but note that MSU struggled against the Gophers last week itself and hasn't played a decent game outside of East Lansing yet. Meanwhile, last week's win over Michigan pushed Iowa to 6-0 in Iowa City. If that holds, someone needs to up this conference's meds.

On paper, Florida State looks like arguably the best team in the ACC, which isn't as hard as it sounds on the heels of a four-game winning streak at the expense of Duke, Maryland, N.C. State and Boston College. In fact, Miami has already beaten three teams — Ohio State, North Carolina and Georgia Tech — better than anyone FSU has beaten, and came within a half-yard of a fourth. Then again, the Hurricanes have also lost to Maryland and Virginia, and get the 'Noles as healthy as they've been since the opener.

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As with other games this week, if there's anywhere to hang your hat here, it's on Florida State's defense. Being as this as Florida State, you might still want to be prepared for it to go up in flames at any moment.

TCU at BOISE STATE (-15½) 3:30 pm ET, Versus.
TCU has snuck back into relevancy with four straight wins, all by double digits — its two losses have come by a combined nine points, seven of them in overtime — putting the Horned Frogs neck-and-neck with Boise where the Mountain West title is concerned. But the Broncos still have much bigger targets in their sights, and its been clear enough since opening night that the vaunted TCU defense isn't nearly what it was — if Robert Griffin and J.J. McDermott are ripping up the Frog secondary nowadays, Kellen Moore shouldn't have any trouble en route to win No. 36 in a row on the blue turf.

Say what you will about the Gamecocks, who have been (mostly) successfully staving off collapse for more than a month: They still have a defense. Will Muschamp complained last week that his own secondary "couldn't cover a water bucket" in the fourth quarter of the Gators' win over Vanderbilt, and while Alshon Jeffery remains marginally better than either Vanderbilt receivers or a water bucket, the most obvious arrow in Carolina's favor is its top-10 D against a Florida offense still fighting through injuries and all-purpose malaise. Here's a hint, guys: Forcing a single turnover in the span of the last five games will always make you feel that way.

WASHINGTON at USC (-11½) 3:45 pm ET, FX.
Steve Sarkisian is 2-0 against his old team, both courtesy of last-second field goals. But in three games against ranked opponents, the Husky defense has been thrashed, for 51 points by Nebraska, 65 by Stanford and 34 last by Oregon, which more or less shut it down in the fourth quarter. All three of those teams made a living on the ground, but Washington also ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in pass defense — remember, this is a conference that includes Colorado and Arizona — which is kind of a problem against a future first-rounder at the helm of the league's best big-play passing game.

MICHIGAN at ILLINOIS (Pick 'em) 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN.
The Illini have dropped three straight; Michigan two of the last three. In those five losses, they've averaged just over 11 points. For one of them, the bottom is about to fall out.

The reason I think it will be the Wolverines has nothing to do with the back-to-back November collapses in 2009-10 (well, maybe just a little) and everything to do with their ongoing identity crisis on offense: In three games against respectable defenses — Notre Dame, Michigan State and Iowa — they've mucked around for the first three quarters of all three, fell behind by two scores, and turned to Denard Robinson's arm to get back in the game in the fourth. Illinois has been better than competent defensively, ranking among the top 20 nationally in every major category. If Michigan doesn't crack the elusive eight-win barrier here, Nebraska and Ohio State aren't going to make it any easier.

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

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