Rivalry week must-wins

Terry Bowden

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It's the week that can make or break a team's season. This year, not only are there the traditional rivalry games that always matter but also there is postseason significance to a lot of other clashes as well.

Fresno State at USC - 10:15 p.m. ET (FSN) Preview * Fresno St.
Fresno St. Bulldogs
1st, WAC
Record: 8-1, 6-0
#16 AP, #17 BCS
at Cardinal
1st, Pac-10
Record: 10-0, 7-0
#1 AP & BCS
Only Fresno State and UCLA stand in the way of USC's chance to make history with a third straight national championship (at least according to the AP poll).

There's been much criticism toward the USC defense this year, but over the last three games the Trojans are allowing 11.2 points per game. That's plenty good enough to win a national championship in my book. Still, they are allowing 77 yards and eight points more per game than last year, leaving some room for improvement.

One area where the Trojans just cannot get much better is on offense. USC may have an offensive group unlike any we've ever seen: a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers and two 1,000-yard receivers (if Steve Smith gets 142 more yards). Even if the defense doesn't meet last year's standard, this offense is primed to carry the load.

First of all the Trojans have to get past Fresno State. After talking to coach Pat Hill, it's clear he wants his team to have a chip on its shoulder for not getting the respect he thinks they deserve. The Bulldogs are fifth in the nation in scoring offense and eighth in scoring defense. Quarterback Paul Pinegar is one of the best.

And Fresno needs one more win to have nine victories for a fifth straight year. I expect the Bulldogs to put up a fight.

Pick: Trojans

Civil War: Oregon State at Oregon - 6:45 p.m. ET (FSN) Preview * Oregon State * Oregon
Oregon St. Beavers
T-5th, Pac-10
Record: 5-5, 3-4
at Ducks
T-2nd, Pac-10
Record: 9-1, 6-1
#10 AP & BCS
• Oregon State: * Beaver Sports Talk
• Oregon: * Ducks Sports Rap

Oregon still has a chance at a share of the Pac-10 crown and more importantly a chance at a BCS berth. Oregon State needs an upset to have a chance at a bowl.

Oregon State has quarterback issues. It looks like will Matt Moore won't play, leaving. sophomore Ryan Gunderson to make his first college start. If Gunderson finds a way to keep his poise, he has receiver Mike Hass, who's closing in on the Pac-10's career and single-season receiving records.

The Oregon quarterback situation also has taken a precarious turn due to Kellen Clemens' injury, but Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf have led the Ducks to two key victories. Add that the Beavers are last in the Pac-10 in pass defense and that the road team hasn't won the Civil War since 1996, and it looks like the perfect recipe for a 10th Duck victory of the season.

Pick: Ducks

Clemson at South Carolina - 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2 alternate) Preview * Clemson * S. Carolina
Clemson Tigers
T-3rd, ACC Atlantic
Record: 6-4, 4-4
at Gamecocks
T-2nd, SEC East
Record: 7-3, 5-3
#19 AP, #23 BCS
South Carolina
• Clemson: * Tiger Calls
• South Carolina: * Steve Spurrier Show

When you talk about a state rivalry with bad blood, you have to talk about this one for the championship of the Palmetto State. You only have to look back to last year, when a game-ending donnybrook prompted both teams to decide not to go to bowls despite being eligible. There will be an across-the-board pregame handshake, but when it gets down to action expect a knockdown, drag-out clash.

Although Tommy Bowden is 5-1 vs USC, that was against Lou Holtz. With Steve Spurrier calling plays this may just be a whole different series. Both coaches are coming off huge victories, with Spurrier beating his former school and Bowden beating Florida State and our old man, Bobby Bowden.

South Carolina ranks 112th in the country in rushing offense and 86th in rushing defense. In fact, the Gamecocks' biggest strength is having Spurrier on the sidelines. Clemson is the team with much more balance on both sides of the ball.

Charlie Whitehurst is trying to become the first Clemson quarterback to go 4-0 against South Carolina. As far as the Spurrier vs. Bowden matchup, Spurrier is trying to even the score He's 5-8-1 against Bobby and 4-2 against me for a 9-10-1 record heading into his first matchup with Tommy.

I officially am gonna take a rain check and not predict a winner. The truth is that I have no idea. This is just too tough to call.

Big Game: California at Stanford - 7 p.m. ET (ABC West Coast) Story * Stanford
California Golden Bears
T-5th, Pac-10
Record: 6-4, 3-4
at Cardinal
4th, Pac-10
Record: 5-4, 4-3
SportStream *Bowden & Larry Beil

While California already is bowl eligible, Stanford needs to win one of two to reach the postseason for the first time since Tyrone Willingham was pacing the sidelines of the Farm.

Not coincidentally, that also was the last time the Cardinal won Big Game. Jeff Tedford is 3-0 against his cross-Bay rivals, but the Golden Bears have had a lot of quarterback uncertainty as they've gone from 5-0 to 6-4. Meanwhile, Walt Harris has done a great job getting the Cardinal to rebound from a home loss to Division I-AA UC Davis.

Tedford has hinted that he will give Steve Levy his first career start and sit struggling quarterback Joe Ayoob. It's hard to say how that will turn out, so I'm going to pick Stanford to regain the Axe.

Pick: Cardinal

ACC: Georgia Tech at Miami (FL) - 7:45 p.m. ET (ESPN) Preview * Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
3rd, ACC Coastal
Record: 6-3, 4-3
at Hurricanes
T-1st, ACC Coastal
Record: 8-1, 5-1
#3 AP & BCS
Miami (FL)
• Georgia Tech: * Chan Gailey Show

Miami must win its season-ending games against Georgia Tech and Virginia if the Hurricanes are going to get a rematch with Florida State in the ACC championship and hang on to a shot at the national championship. Miami is one bad snap away from a perfect season.

The Hurricanes trail the all-time series 6-4, but Miami is clicking. After destroying Virginia Tech two weeks ago, the Hurricanes showed they are all business by blasting Wake Forest. Improving quarterback Kyle Wright tied a school record with five touchdown passes. And the Hurricanes are allowing fewer yards than anyone else in the nation.

As for Georgia Tech, Reggie Ball is the key to its success. He's one of guys who can both run and throw. If he can find a way to get the ball to Calvin Johnson for some big plays, the Yellow Jackets may have a chance.

But like all great teams, Miami is playing its best football at the end of the season.

Pick: Hurricanes

SEC: LSU at Mississippi - 7:45 p.m. ET (ESPN2) Preview * Mississippi
LSU Tigers
3rd, SEC West
Record: 8-1, 5-1
#4 AP, #5 BCS
at Rebels
T-4th, SEC West
Record: 3-6, 1-5
• Mississippi: * RebTalk with Coach Ed Orgeron

Any time you go into the Grove in Oxford at night, anything can happen. If you look back at the history of this rivalry, it's safe to see it's seldom been an easy victory for the Tigers.

With wins over Mississippi and Arkansas, LSU will have earned its way into the SEC championship game. And if the Tigers hadn't blown a 21-point halftime lead to Tennessee, they would be unbeaten.

LSU is fourth in the nation in scoring defense, and quarterback JaMarcus Russell has led the Tigers to four fourth-quarter comeback wins. Given that the last three games between the schools have been decided by a total of seven points, Russell may have to do it again.

Pick: Tigers

Big Ten: Ohio State at Michigan - 1 ET (ABC/ESPN alternate) Preview
Ohio St. Buckeyes
T-1st, Big Ten
Record: 8-2, 6-1
#9 AP, #7 BCS
at Wolverines
3rd, Big Ten
Record: 7-3, 5-2
#17 AP, #15 BCS
SportStream *Bowden & Larry Beil *Cris Carter's memories

As often is the case, The Game in the Big Ten has all kinds of implications. Both teams have the chance to earn a BCS berth – at least until later in the day. Both need a win and Penn State loss at Michigan State.

Both teams come in on a roll. OSU has won five in a row since a 17-10 loss to Penn State. Michigan was .500 before winning its last four and handing PSU its lone loss.

Lloyd Carr is 6-4 against Ohio State but only 1-3 since Jim Tressel took over. Although the game is played in Ann Arbor, I like OSU's balance. The Buckeyes haven't scored less than 35 points in any of the last five games, and the OSU defense leads the Big Ten in every major category.

Pick: Buckeyes

Iron Bowl: Alabama at Auburn - 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS) Preview * Alabama
Alabama Crimson Tide
T-1st, SEC West
Record: 9-1, 6-1
#8 AP & BCS
at Tigers
T-1st, SEC West
Record: 8-2, 6-1
#11 AP, #13 BCS
SportStream *Bowden & Larry Beil

• Alabama: * Hey Coach

The Iron Bowl hasn't been this big in quite a while. With both teams still holding onto a chance to play for the SEC championship, it should become pretty heated on the plains of Auburn.

This game is all about passion, defense and running the football. This year's meeting features the SEC's two most productive running backs, Auburn's Kenny Irons and Alabama's Kenneth Darby.

Although Alabama's defense is the best in the SEC, Auburn is not far off. Touchdowns should be few and far between. But while 'Bama finds it difficult to get in the end zone, Auburn leads the SEC in offense. That's why the Tigers will knock off the Tide one more time in the loveliest village on the plains.

Pick: Tigers

Big Ten: Penn State at Michigan State - 4 p.m. ET (ESPN) Preview
Penn St. Nittany Lions
T-1st, Big Ten
Record: 9-1, 6-1
#5 AP, #4 BCS
at Spartans
T-8th, Big Ten
Record: 5-5, 2-5
Michigan St.
Penn State is another team seconds away from a perfect season. Still, the Nittany Lions would lock up their first Big Ten title since 1994 with a win over the Spartans. The Nittany Lions allow less than 300 yards per game, and Michael Robinson may be more valuable to his team than any quarterback not named Vince Young.

Michigan State is having a disastrous second half of the season. The Spartans' luck turned for the worst on a blocked field goal that Ohio State returned for a touchdown on the last play of the first half. The Buckeyes' comeback victory started a 1-5 skid for MSU.

But Drew Stanton still is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and before you give the Big Ten title to PSU, be wary of this Spartan fact. MSU is 9-1 since 1997 – and 6-0 in East Lansing – against top-10 teams.

If PSU weren't playing with such confidence and swagger, I might have to go with an MSU upset.

Pick: Nittany Lions

ACC: Virginia Tech at Virginia - noon ET (ESPN) Preview * Virginia Tech * Virginia
Virginia Tech Hokies
T-1st, ACC Coastal
Record: 8-1, 5-1
#7 AP, #6 BCS
at Cavaliers
T-4th, ACC Coastal
Record: 6-3, 3-3
#9 AP & BCS

• Va. Tech: * Hokie Hotline
• Virginia: * Cavalier Call-in Show * Al Groh Press Conference

After a week off, Virginia Tech should have had time to get its spirits back after a crushing loss to Miami that took the Hokies out of the national championship picture.

But you have to wonder if it might be time for another late-season collapse for the Hokies. From 2001 to 2003, VT lost 11 times from Nov. 1 though they entered the month with two combined losses. Still, last year VT finished strong before a Sugar Bowl loss to Auburn, and I expect it to finish strong again.

The Cavaliers have won 21 of their last 24 games at Scott Stadium.

If you like to watch scrambling quarterbacks, this is the game for you. You'll see two of the most versatile signal callers in country in Marques Hagans and Marcus Vick.

Pick: Hokies

SEC: Kentucky at Georgia - 12:30 p.m. ET (JP/* Yahoo! Sports) Preview * Kentucky
Kentucky Wildcats
T-4th, SEC East
Record: 3-6, 2-4
at Bulldogs
1st, SEC East
Record: 7-2, 5-2
#14 AP, #16 BCS

• Kentucky: * Rich Brooks Show

I've seen it written that if Georgia were to lose, it would represent the worst late-season collapse in school history (three straight losses that would cost a spot in the SEC championship game). However, you have to be drinking some funny-tasting Kool-Aid to think it's going to happen.

Remember, Georgia was undefeated going into the Florida game, and only lost 14-10 as quarterback D.J. Shockley couldn't play. Last week Shockley was back – and had a fantastic game – and lost to an outstanding Auburn team only due to a fourth-and-10 pass in the closing minutes.

The Bulldogs are as good as in. Knowing that they're in the SEC championship game with a win, I'm looking for a blowout.

Pick: Bulldogs