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Friday Morning Quarterback: LSU reports early for another test of its championship mettle

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK
ARKANSAS at LSU (-11½) 2:30 ET Friday, CBS.

What's at stake: There's more concentrated BCS mojo in Baton Rouge today than in any game this season, including LSU's "Game of the Century" triumph over Alabama earlier this month. In the meantime, Boise State, Oklahoma State and Stanford have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, Oklahoma, Oregon and Clemson have added a second loss and the latest strain of BCS Madness — an SEC-on-SEC rematch in the BCS Championship Game — has been all but assured. There's just no way of telling yet which two survivors it's going to match.

If LSU wins, it will punch its ticket to next week's SEC title game, at least, and possibly to the Big One in New Orleans regardless of what happens there. An Arkansas upset will either a) Cause a three-way collision between Arkansas, Alabama and LSU atop the SEC West, waiting to be untangled by a byzantine interpretation of the new BCS standings on Sunday night, or b) Send the Razorbacks on to Atlanta as the SEC West champ if Auburn upsets Alabama on Saturday… in which case the first ticket to the BCS Championship Game will probably belong to the new No. 2 in the standings: LSU.

In summation, the BCS remains the dumbest possible method for determining a national champion short of a random lottery. But know that the winner here is extremely likely to come up with a winning number.

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Arkansas wants: Arkansas is the only team in the conference that qualifies as "offensively oriented": Not only do the Razorbacks lead the league in total and scoring and offense, but they're also the only SEC outfit that ranks higher nationally in either category than it does in total and scoring defense. Like every team Bobby Petrino has ever coached, this one is designed to move the ball through the air, and has more than enough weapons at its disposal to strike against any defense, LSU's first-rate operation included.

Given a choice, though, Petrino would rather have the luxury of picking his spots offensively than ask quarterback Tyler Wilson to come out guns blazing against a front seven that thrives on pressure and a secondary that feasts on turnovers. To that end, Arkansas may opt for Alabama's Rope-a-Dope approach, keeping things close to the vest in hopes of avoiding mistakes that will put the game out of reach before the fourth quarter.

The Razorbacks' only significant advantage may be at quarterback, but it's going to take patience to chip away at the layers of fail-safe mechanisms LSU has built around Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, who have remained in their comfort zone as within-the-offense managers all season. (The Tigers have attempted fewer passes than any other offense in the SEC, but have been the most efficient when they do throw.) If the defense can hold up long enough to force Jefferson and/or Lee out of their shells for a change, the offense may be able to make its move in the fourth quarter without opening itself up for a knockout.

LSU wants: All of which must sound just fine to the Tigers, who are certainly no strangers to a tightly wrought clinch fest. LSU's blueprint under Les Miles has always called for an early haymaker or two that knocks the opponent on its heels, followed by a steady, patient pounding until there's an opening to go in for the kill. This team just happens to be extraordinarily good at it: With a backfield full of 220-pound workhorses, the offense has been able to consistently establish the run, exploit defenses that overplay the run via deep threats Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. and create big plays on defense when opposing offenses start to get desperate. They've only trailed in one game this season, at Alabama, and only by three points.

Sometimes, that process only takes a quarter or so; sometimes it takes all night. But when you have a defense that's allowed exactly one meaningful touchdown in seven SEC games — a second quarter score by Tennessee that briefly cut LSU's lead to 14-7 on Oct. 15, before the Tigers scored 24 unanswered to finish a 38-7 rout — you can afford to be patient.

Constants: Arkansas will have no success establishing the run. … Both teams will attempt trick plays in the kicking game. … Razorback return ace Joe Adams will break a long punt return.
Variables: How long can Arkansas withstand the LSU running game? … Can the Razorbacks generate pressure on LSU's quarterbacks? … Will the Tigers opt for more zone coverage out of respect for Arkansas' receivers?

The Pick: The only team that's traded blows with LSU for four quarters is Alabama; of the Tigers' other victims, only Mississippi State has remained on its feet after three, and only barely. Arkansas can take some solace from the fact that the only two aggressive, up-tempo offenses in that number — Oregon and West Virginia — managed some success to the tune of 27 and 21 points, respectively, back in September. But the Ducks and Mountaineers also combined for eight turnovers in those games, six of which LSU converted into touchdowns en route to a pair of blowouts.

So far, no other offense has fared any better. Alabama made it as far as overtime because it possesses the only other defense in college football built to bring the same kind of fight to LSU's offense. Arkansas has a pass rush, but it can't trade blows with the Tigers all afternoon without some points from the offense. And even if it gets them, all available evidence suggests it can expect LSU's defense to generate just as many coming the other way.

PENN STATE at WISCONSIN (-14½) 3:30 ET Saturday, ESPN.
After a month of chaos and gradual winnowing, Big Ten Championship Roulette comes to a complete stop in Madison, where the winner takes the Leaders Division title en route to the Big Ten Championship Game and wow is that a big line for the Badgers. Wisconsin's closest call at home this season was a 48-17 shellacking of Nebraska on Oct. 1, true, but seven of the Nittany Lions' nine victims have failed to score more than 14 points, period.

The spread may have something to do with ongoing doubts about Penn State's focus and confidence, etc., in the wake of the scandal that's already cost the Lions the face of the program. But that wasn't in evidence in last week's upset win at Ohio State, and even when it was in evidence against Nebraska two weeks ago, the defense held its ground long enough to give the offense a shot at a fourth quarter rally. It may have more to do with ongoing doubts about Matt McGloin as a starting quarterback, which are even more glaring relative to Badger QB Russell Wilson, who's closing on the most efficient season as a passer in Division I history. Penn State's defense may be his tallest hurdle on the way to that mark, and even if Wilson keeps the pace, I think the Lions have enough in the tank to keep it within single digits.{YSP:MORE}

ALABAMA (-21) at AUBURN 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS.
Only the BCS could come up with a way to effectively reward a team for losing its biggest game of the season — an Alabama win combined with an LSU win will virtually guarantee the Crimson Tide a slot in the BCS title game, while LSU still has a pesky conference championship to play for — but the fact remains that 'Bama is well on its way, and the only remaining hurdle is a team that hasn't topped 17 points against anyone that isn't Ole Miss or Samford since September. In its last three tries against ranked competition, Auburn has been pounded by Arkansas, LSU and Georgia by a combined 97 points.

Those games were all on the road, and the last time Alabama came into Jordan-Hare with visions of a BCS title dancing in its head, it fell behind immediately and had to rally for the game-winning, season-saving touchdown in the final two minutes. But you have to be able to score a touchdown yourself before you can force the other team to do it, and the way Auburn's offense has looked over the last six weeks — relative to the way Alabama's defense has looked pretty much ever since Nick Saban arrived — that would be a minor miracle.

OHIO STATE at MICHIGAN (-7½) Noon ET Saturday, ABC.
If there's a sure thing in any rivalry, it's Ohio State over Michigan after seven straight OSU wins, two deposed head coaches who couldn't beat the Buckeyes, etc. But if you can find anything Ohio State has done better than Michigan through 11 games — anything good, I mean — you're digging well past the point of diminishing returns. The Buckeyes haven't run the ball as well, haven't passed the ball as well and by their usual standards have been nougatey soft on defense: Five of the last six opponents have scored at least 20 points, including Indiana, Purdue and Penn State (see above) in consecutive weeks.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, have rocketed from the bottom of the Big Ten last year into the top 15 nationally in both total and scoring defense to go with the league's second-highest-scoring offense, which all seems just a little too good to be true, frankly. The psychological state of ownage will reach a new, previously undiscovered level if Ohio State somehow extends the streak to eight straight, in Ann Arbor. How it plans to do that with a true freshman quarterback who hasn't played well on the road and the start of a new era looming just beyond the closing gun, though, it is the mystery.

VIRGINIA TECH (-4) at VIRGINIA 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC/ESPN2.
Virginia's right on the edge of the divide between "I refuse to believe this team is actually good" and "Maybe these guys are onto something," with the scales clearly beginning to tip toward the latter on the heels of another narrow escape at Florida State — the Cavs' first ever win in Tallahassee, fourth in a row overall and fifth in the last six games, a span that began with a 1-point overtime triumph over Idaho and has now victimized FSU, Georgia Tech and Miami. If Mike London breaks a seven-year losing streak to UVA's biggest rival with this bunch, and clinches a spot in the ACC Championship Game in the process, he should win every Coach of the Year award in existence.

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On the other hand, Frank Beamer was doing the "Winning Ugly" thing before you even got into the Barber Brothers, son, so a little respect for the maestro. Virginia Tech still has a conference title in its sights, too, which means you're about to get a master class in ugly football.

CLEMSON at SOUTH CAROLINA (-4) 7:45 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN.
These two teams are in almost polar opposite positions from anyone would have guessed at the start of the season. Clemson is playing for its division title next week; South Carolina is not. Clemson has one of the most exciting, prolific receivers in the nation; South Carolina, to date, still does not. Clemson is enjoying what may be a breakthrough season after 20 years on the outside looking in; South Carolina is not.

After back-to-back losses in the series, though, Clemson still has to deal with the Gamecock defense, which has been a bigger issue the last two years than bottling up Carolina's offensive stars and is better this year than it was on either of those occasions. Clemson's offense is better, too, but after losses at N.C. State and Georgia Tech and a close call at Maryland, the Tigers have lost the benefit of the doubt on the road.

GEORGIA (-5½) at GEORGIA TECH Noon ET (Saturday), ESPN.
The Yellow Jackets are No. 2 in the nation in rushing offense, the Bulldogs are No. 2 in the nation in rushing defense and there's not much precedent to break the tie on paper: Georgia hasn't seen anything resembling Tech's triple-option attack, and the closest the Jackets have come to facing an upper-crust SEC defense was in a good-not-great effort against an unusually banged-up version of Virginia Tech. UGA's athletic, frequently dominant front seven may prove overpowering against Tech's undersized, cut-blocking offensive line, or it may leave with its proverbial head spinning.

But even if the strength vs. strength angle is a push, Georgia Tech's defense hasn't demonstrated much capacity to stop the run itself, which will be a problem is Georgia tailback Isaiah Crowell is able to go on a bum ankle. Soon-to-be All-SEC quarterback Aaron Murray is going to problem for the Yellow Jackets either way.

NOTRE DAME at STANFORD (-7) 8 p.m. ET (Saturday), ABC.
America's apparently insatiable appetite for Heisman-related drama will keep the focus on quarterback Andrew Luck, but Stanford remains a physical, run-first outfit at heart, and has had a lot of success shoving Notre Dame around the last two years. The Fighting Irish haven't been any better against the run in 2011, and Luck will get his stat line — almost certainly his last before Heisman voting wraps, barring a stunning upset by Oregon State at Oregon — by making them pay for whatever adjustments they make in that direction this time.

IOWA at NEBRASKA (-9½) Noon ET Friday, ABC.
It has no bearing on the Big Ten championship, and for two teams that have met just twice in any current player's lifetime, it's not even a real rivalry. (Not yet, anyway.) It's jockeying for the inside track to the Insight Bowl, is what it is. But as largely superfluous season finales go, the first "Heroes Game" should be something of a spectacle in Lincoln, and given the Hawkeyes' track record on the road — they've already lost to Iowa State and Minnesota away from home, as well as Penn State — Nebraska should be wrapping up its fourth consecutive season with at least nine wins under Bo Pelini.

HOUSTON (-3) at TULSA Noon ET Friday, FSN.
Yes, Houston is the feted, top-10 frontrunner here with everything to lose re: a BCS bowl bid and the first undefeated season in school history. But let's be honest. Tulsa would almost certainly be undefeated against Houston's sad-sack schedule, too, and in fact is undefeated against most of it: Since a brutal September stretch against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State, the Golden Hurricane have ripped off seven straight wins and also stand to clinch the Conference USA west crown with a perfect conference record.

The Cougars, meanwhile, have looked very ordinary against quasi-legit competition. If they're worth their lofty ranking, today is the to prove it, but until further notice, I'm going with the side that's actually been on the field with the real thing.

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FLORIDA STATE (-1½) at FLORIDA 7 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN2.
No buzz in Gainesville for what used to be an annual blockbuster, and it's hard to argue either side deserves it with nine losses between them. The Gators are out to fend off their first non-winning season since 1987, and for no reason particular I'll call for them to get it. Florida 23, Florida State 21.

UCLA at USC (-14) 10 p.m. ET Saturday, FSN.
The Bruins are playing for the Pac-12 South and maybe Rick Neuheisel's job, but USC is playing to open at or near the top of the 2012 polls — but only if Matt Barkley is back for his senior year. USC 35, UCLA 17.

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PITTSBURGH at WEST VIRGINIA (-7) 7 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN.
The Big East standings remain foreboding and inscrutable, but it's safe to assume the loser of the Backyard Brawl is officially out of the running. By next year, the Panthers and Mountaineers will both be out of the conference. West Virginia 29, Pittsburgh 24.

OLE MISS at MISSISSIPPI STATE (-17) 7 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPNU.
The joke going around the Magnolia State this week? Urban Meyer isn't going to Ohio State. He's going to Ole Miss, because he wants to get as far away from college football as possible. Mississippi State 31, Ole Miss 17.

WASHINGTON STATE at WASHINGTON (-9) 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, Versus.
Cougar quarterback Connor Halliday was admitted to intensive care last weekend after suffering a lacerated liver in a freezing overtime loss to Utah, which somehow didn't take him out of the game. If he was on the field Saturday, I'd take Wazzu for that alone. Alas, logic forces me to defer to Chris Polk on the home field. Washington 33, Washington State 27.

KANSAS vs. MISSOURI (-24) 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, FSN.
This rivalry has its roots in the Civil War, and may be coming to a similarly bloody end with one of the worst Kansas teams ever fielded serving as Missouri's going-away piñata. Missouri 45, Kansas 18.

OREGON STATE at OREGON (-27½) 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC/ESPN2.
The Beavers are the only obstacle standing between Oregon and the inaugural Pac-12 title game. Over/under on how long the Ducks notice they're there. Oregon 47, Oregon State 17.

TENNESSEE (-7) at KENTUCKY 12:20 p.m. ET Saturday, Regional.
Kentucky hasn't beaten Tennessee since 1984, which I assume will play a significant role this week in Derek Dooley's Orwell-related pregame speech: If the Vols don't secure a bowl bid, America will collapse into a totalitarian dystopia ruled by Ashley Judd. Tennessee 37, Kentucky 16 .

DUKE at NORTH CAROLINA (-13) 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, FSN.
Yeah, it's still football season. Calm down. North Carolina 30, Duke 21.

PURDUE (-7½) at INDIANA 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, BTN.
Purdue is one win away from bowl eligibility; Indiana is one loss away from finishing 0-11 against I-A/FBS competition, its worst season since 1984. I think we all know how this is going to end. Indiana 21, Purdue 20.

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

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