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November 6, 2009

Keep an eye on ... conference races

Each week, Rivals.com's college football experts give fans some things to keep an eye on over the course of the weekend.

The Big 12 North race. I'm intrigued by Kansas State, which has appeared terrible (66-14 loss to Texas Tech) and terrific (62-14 victory over Texas A&M). The Wildcats are leading the division and can take an enormous step toward winning it if they can defeat rival Kansas, which is mired in a three-game losing streak. Although Kansas State is coming off a loss to Oklahoma, the Wildcats actually gained respect by scoring 30 points on the Sooners. In September, Kansas State looked like one of the worst teams in a Big Six conference. Now, they've got a great shot at winning the North. Maybe that qualifies as another miraculous turnaround under Bill Snyder.


Can Ohio State notch a big win? The Buckeyes are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten. Still, there's not a satisfying feeling in Columbus. If you're looking for a quality win, keep looking. The 31-13 triumph over Wisconsin in October is Ohio State's signature victory - and that's not saying much. The season thus far has been noted more for failure, losing at home to USC (18-15) and getting stunned at Purdue (26-18). Ohio State's problems are well-documented, beginning with a sputtering offense. But the game at Penn State this Saturday offers the Buckeyes a chance to score a huge win and put Ohio State in position to possibly win the Big Ten for a fifth season in a row. A triumph in State College also would give the Buckeyes momentum for a visit from Iowa on Nov. 14 in what could be a de facto Big Ten championship game.


Cincinnati's quarterback issues. A year ago, Cincinnati lost its only Big East game of the season to Connecticut when quarterback injuries played a major role. What do you know: This week, Connecticut visits Cincinnati while Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike is hoping to return from an arm injury. Pike returned from a broken arm against UConn last season, but re-injured himself late in the first half. Chazz Anderson came in and struggled mightily with two interceptions in a 40-16 loss. Connecticut's four losses have come in the fourth quarter this year, so the Huskies are capable of giving Cincinnati trouble. I want to see if Pike will return to play UConn, if he will be effective and if he can finish the game. If Pike isn't at full strength, will Zach Collaros be ready in relief?


The Pac-10. While the Big Ten (Ohio State at Penn State) and SEC (LSU at Alabama) have marquee games, the Pac-10 has more games of interest than any league this weekend. First, there's Oregon at Stanford. Is this a trap game for the Ducks, who dominated USC last weekend? Stanford's offense is a good one, and if RB Toby Gerhart runs for 100-plus, the Cardinal easily can win. There's also USC at Arizona State. The Trojans are used to playing for national titles; now, they're not even playing for a Pac-10 title. What will be the mind-set of USC's players? How into the game will they be? Arizona State's offense has struggled, but the Sun Devils' defense is a good unit. There's Washington at UCLA, with Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel again going against his former employer. Both teams are 3-5, but both still have faint bowl hopes. The loser's bowl hopes are gone. Finally, there's Oregon State at California. The Beavers have won in their past four trips to Berkeley. Neither is going to win the Pac-10 title, but this is big in the league's bowl pecking order. Plus, it's two of the best running backs in the nation in Cal's Jahvid Best and Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers.


Can LSU derail Alabama's national title hopes? The assumption among most analysts is that Alabama and Florida will meet in the SEC championship game, with the winner advancing to the BCS title game. That scenario could be altered if No. 9 LSU hands the third-ranked Crimson Tide their first loss this weekend. It certainly wouldn't be a mammoth upset - especially considering Alabama's recent offensive struggles. Nick Saban's squad is averaging just 18 points in its past three games and now faces arguably the best defense it will see during the regular season. If the Tigers can find a way to get in the end zone a time or two, they may be the ones who end up in the SEC championship game instead of their foes from Tuscaloosa.


Is Oregon due for a letdown? Oregon's remarkable transformation since that season-opening loss to Boise State shows the Ducks know how to bounce back from adversity. Now we must find out how well they handle prosperity. Oregon established itself as the Pac-10 front-runner with its stunningly one-sided victory over USC last week, but the Ducks can't expect to breeze their way to Pasadena. Each of Oregon's last four opponents (Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and Oregon State) has a record of .500 or better. That stretch kicks off Saturday at Stanford. Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 189 yards and four touchdowns against Stanford this season, so Oregon also should be able to run wild. But if Stanford's Toby Gerhart runs well enough to keep Oregon's high-powered offense on the sideline, the Cardinal just might make the Pac-10 race wide open once again.


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