Will the top three teams in the BCS standings survive this weekend with their national championship hopes intact?
We tackle those subjects and more in this week's On the Mark Mailbag:
1. Can No. 13 Stanford slow down No. 2 Oregon's offense?
The Cardinal lead FBS teams in run defense (58.6 yards), sacks (4.2 per game) and tackles for loss (9.1 per game) and have the best overall defense in the Pac-12. But Stanford's defense was built on size and strength, which hasn't worked particularly well against Oregon's fast-paced attack the previous couple of seasons. As good as Stanford was with quarterback Andrew Luck under center, it was walloped by Oregon in each of the previous two seasons, losing by a combined 44 points. Oregon's speed eventually wore down the Cardinal, which was outscored 59-14 after halftime in those games.
Here's a great stat from ESPN Stats & Information: Stanford is the only FBS team that hasn't allowed a touchdown drive of three or fewer plays this season (the Cardinal are also one of only five teams that haven't surrendered a touchdown in less than a minute). Oregon leads the FBS in touchdown drives that last one minute or less.
"We've got to play our style of defense and make sure we are sound and have the edges taken care of," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We have to make sure we keep them contained in an area. They want space and one-on-one opportunities, and we're going to try our best to limit that as much as possible."
2. Is No. 1 Kansas State in any kind of danger at Baylor?
The Bears have dropped five of their previous six games and will have to win two of their last three contests (they also host No. 23 Texas Tech and No. 24 Oklahoma State) to qualify for a bowl game. Not having former quarterback Robert Griffin III hasn't been the problem; quarterback Nick Florence leads the Big 12 in passing and total offense, and wide receiver Terrance Williams has 77 catches for 1,431 yards. Baylor's defense has been as bad as advertised, though; it ranks 115th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 39.4 points per game.
However, BCS history shows the Wildcats can't take beating Baylor for granted. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Big 12 teams haven't fared well after moving to the No. 1 spot in the BCS standings. This is the eighth time since the final BCS standings in 2003 that a Big 12 team has been No. 1. The previous seven Big 12 teams went 2-5 in their next games, and only one maintained the top spot the next week (Texas in 2008).
But Kansas State coach Bill Snyder knows how to beat teams from Texas. After last week's victory over TCU, the Wildcats have won nine games in a row against teams from the Lone Star State.
3. What does No. 3 Notre Dame need to do against Wake Forest?
Although Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told The Associated Press on Thursday that the Irish don't need polls and computer rankings to validate their undefeated season, it's still hard to imagine a 12-0 Irish team being left out of the Jan. 7 Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami. In fact, it seems almost un-American. But as it stands, according to the BCS gurus who crunch the numbers every week, the Irish probably won't jump No. 1 Kansas State or No. 2 Oregon if all three teams win out.
Of course, the Irish still have to beat Wake Forest at home on Saturday and USC on the road next week to have an argument.
More than anything, Notre Dame doesn't need another close call such as the one versus Pittsburgh when it plays the overmatched Demon Deacons on Saturday. Although "a win is a win" this time of year, the Irish can't afford to struggle against a team that was walloped by just about every decent ACC team it played this season (lost 52-0 to Florida State, 42-13 to Clemson and, this past week, 37-6 to NC State).
Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson needs to continue to improve after throwing for 200 yards with two touchdowns on 16-for-24 passing in last week's 21-6 win at Boston College.
4. Can West Virginia put it back together against Oklahoma?
Remember when we thought Saturday's game in Morgantown, W. Va., might decide the Big 12 championship? It was only five weeks ago that the Mountaineers were 5-0 after winning 48-45 at Texas and quarterback Geno Smith seemed ready to run away with the Heisman Trophy in the biggest landslide ever.
But then West Virginia lost 49-14 at Texas Tech the next week, the first of four straight defeats. The Mountaineers aren't just getting beaten by Big 12 opponents; they're getting walloped, losing to Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma State by an average of 24.5 points. They're giving up 41.4 points, fourth most among FBS teams, and struggling to run the ball.
West Virginia has to win one of its last three games to avoid missing a bowl game for the first time since finishing 3-8 in 2001. The Mountaineers play at Iowa State on Nov. 23 and host Kansas on Dec. 1.
5. Who wins the Battle of Los Angeles?
For the first time in seven years, USC and UCLA will both be ranked when they play at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, with the winner earning a trip to the Pac-12 championship game.
USC has owned the series against its crosstown rivals, winning 13 of the past 14 meetings. Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley completed 35 of 42 passes for 423 yards with six touchdowns in last season's 50-0 rout over the Bruins, the most lopsided outcome in the series since 1930. In the past five meetings, USC has outscored UCLA 158-35 and has won each time.
UCLA, which has won its past four games under first-year coach Jim Mora, is as balanced as any offense the Trojans' much-maligned defense has faced this season. UCLA averages 285.9 passing yards and 210.9 rushing yards.
On to this week's Mailbag:
John in West Palm Beach, Fla., writes: Why is it that Notre Dame is being punished for playing a schedule that [other] programs would never sign up for? Oregon gave up 34 points to Arkansas State and has also played Tennessee Tech, Washington State and Colorado. That's not exactly a rigorous schedule. Also the Irish have allowed more than 20 points only once all year and haven't given up an offensive touchdown in five of their games. It just doesn't make any sense.
I wrote earlier this week that Notre Dame's schedule hasn't been as arduous as advertised. Michigan and Michigan State haven't been nearly as good as expected, and USC has already lost three games after entering the season as a popular choice to play for a BCS national title.
But that doesn't mean Notre Dame's schedule has been any easier than Kansas State's or Oregon's. In fact, at this point, Notre Dame's 10 FBS opponents have the best combined record (54-45) among the three BCS title contenders. The Irish have beaten five teams that currently have winning records, three with losing records and two with .500 records.
Oregon's nine FBS opponents (the Ducks also played FCS foe Tennessee Tech) have a combined record of 45-47. The Ducks have defeated five teams with winning records, three with losing records and one with a .500 record. Kansas State's nine FBS opponents (the Wildcats played FCS foe Missouri State) are 46-41; it has beaten five teams with winning records, two with losing records and two with .500 records.
Oregon is going to get the biggest push over the last three weeks with remaining games against Stanford and Oregon State, then UCLA or USC in the Pac-12 championship game (if it beats the Cardinal on Saturday). Of course, there's a chance Notre Dame will have already beaten two of those teams -- Stanford and USC (if the Irish win out).
Michael Mitchell in Portland, Maine, asks: Hey, Mark, love your work, but I have to write to counter your statements regarding the top three unbeaten [teams] and whose résumé stacks up best. You state that K-State's best win was a five-point win at Oklahoma, and Oregon's best win being against Arizona in Eugene. You then contend that Notre Dame will be on the outside looking in if all three win out. How can you make that argument when Notre Dame beat Oklahoma in Norman by a much greater margin than did K-State and Oregon's best win is against a team that was only ranked No. 22 at the time and is not even currently ranked? And, further, ND has more wins against top-10 teams and tied with K-State with four wins against top-25 teams. One more thing that goes in ND's column: while they may have struggled against Pitt and Purdue, keep in mind that they did not play any patsies [no FCS teams] and not even any mid-level [FBS] schools, all teams from BCS conferences. I am sorry, but if you compare all three résumés it is clear that ND is at least in the top two, if not No. 1. Just sayin'.
See above. I don't think Notre Dame is being penalized for its schedule. In fact, the Irish rank No. 1 in most of the computers used in the BCS ratings. I think the Irish are being hurt by the fact they aren't as flashy as Oregon on offense (although they're obviously much better on defense).
Ron in Oregon asks: Don't you agree that the SEC gets unmerited preseason rankings that throw off the system the rest of the year? When they are put in top-25 positions by the grove they get extra credit when beating "ranked" teams over and over and keep getting richer. The SEC isn't much, if any, better than Big 12 and Pac-12, but with higher rankings from the get-go they keep their head above water no matter how many so-so teams they actually have. Other than national championships they don't stand out, and with so many falsely positioned teams in the polls, they are set up with higher odds to land a team into the national championship game year after year. It's a rigged system and needs change, especially with the early polls. Let the SEC teams show their worth against non-patsies at the start before anointing them as the best of the best en masse.
Even if an SEC team gets left out of the BCS Championship Game for the first time in seven years, I think it's still going to be difficult to argue the SEC isn't the best league in the country. The SEC has six of the top nine teams in the BCS standings. I think if Kansas State, Notre Dame or Oregon had played South Carolina's three-game stretch in November -- home against No. 5 Georgia, at No. 9 LSU and at No. 2 LSU -- it wouldn't still be undefeated.
Neil in Endicott, N.Y., writes that it's not exactly over for the SEC: Mark, seriously. Oregon has to play Stanford, Oregon State and in the Pac-12 championship game. K-State might get outscored by Baylor this weekend and has to play Texas. Notorious Dame will lose to USC. Bama will play Georgia in the SEC title game, and it might jump over someone in the top three. It's over? Wake up, man. Waaaaay too much football left to play.
You are correct, Neil, there is a lot of football left to be played. Remember 2007? LSU was No. 7 going into the final weekend of the regular season. The Tigers beat Tennessee to win the SEC championship. Missouri lost to Oklahoma. West Virginia was stunned by Pittsburgh. LSU climbed to No. 2 in the final BCS standings and defeated No. 1 Ohio State 38-24 to win a national championship.