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October 10, 2011

Week 7 Watch: Halfway home

College football has reached the halfway point. Now, the real stress and angst begins in earnest.

The first BCS standings are released Sunday, so the coaches' poll transforms from an interest-stoking list to a vital pecking order that helps determines what teams will meet in the national championship game.

In most seasons, an undefeated record is needed to secure a place in the title game. Of the 26 teams that have played for the BCS national title, 17 have been undefeated.

Player under the gun

Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy

Worthy, a junior, is the key player on the nation's top-ranked defense. Now he must try to contain one of the nation's most electrifying players when Michigan QB Denard Robinson comes to East Lansing. Worthy and Co. already have shown they know how to slow Robinson down. Robinson rushed for 86 yards and threw three interceptions in a 34-17 loss to Michigan State last season, the Spartans' third consecutive win in the rivalry. Worthy never has experienced a Michigan State loss to Michigan. The Spartans' chances of continuing their recent domination depends in part on whether Worthy controls the line of scrimmage and prevents Robinson from running wild.

There are 13 unbeaten teams remaining this season. Nine of them are on the road this week, and three -- Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Michigan -- will face opponents with only one loss.

[Related: A closer look at the 13 unbeatens]

Overall, the challenge is to avoid slip-ups and keep moving up in the BCS standings.

The first half was fun. But everyone knows wins (and championships) are secured in the second half.

Best game: Michigan at Michigan State, noon, ESPN. Michigan makes the short drive to East Lansing to put its unbeaten record on the line against the Spartans (4-1) in a bitter in-state rivalry. Michigan State has won three in a row in the series. The Spartans have held four of their five opponents to seven or fewer points, but they face a tremendous challenge in trying to contain explosive Wolverines QB Denard Robinson and a Michigan offense that has exceeded 30 points four times.

Don't overlook this one: Virginia Tech at Wake Forest, 6:30 p.m. This one may be easy to overlook because it will not be televised. That's a major oversight, considering the vast majority of games are televised every week. This game likely plays a key role in the ACC race. Wake Forest's upset of Florida State last week put the Demon Deacons in a tie with Clemson (3-0) atop the ACC Coastal Division. And after rallying to beat Miami, Virginia Tech again is a factor in the Coastal Division, though the Hokies trail Georgia Tech and can't afford another loss.

Under-the-radar storyline: USF at Connecticut, 3:30 p.m., Big East syndication/ESPN GamePlan. USF coach Skip Holtz was the last coach at Connecticut to spend his whole tenure in the FCS ranks. He has been credited with laying the groundwork for Connecticut's rise as a Big East team under Randy Edsall. Holtz will make his first appearance at Rentschler Field, either as an opposing coach or UConn coach, when USF visits. Given all the conference realignment drama, the question is if Holtz will return to Connecticut after Saturday.

On the midweek marquee: USC at California, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN. Pac-12 schools have made a more concentrated effort to appear on Thursday nights this season, with Oregon-Cal last week and UCLA-Arizona next week. Cal hopes for a better showing this week after the Bears were overrun in the second half of a 43-15 loss to Oregon. A week after facing the best rushing attack in the Pac-12, Cal will try to slow one of the league's better passing attacks this week.

Coach under the gun

USC's Lane Kiffin

Although USC has won four of its first five games, the Trojans haven't looked particularly impressive. They eked out a 19-17 victory over a terrible Minnesota team in the opener and needed a blocked field goal as time expired to hold off a mediocre Utah squad. Their one loss was a 43-22 whipping at Arizona State. USC now heads into a three-game stretch that could define its season. The Trojans play at California on Thursday, travel to Notre Dame next week and play host to Stanford on Oct. 29. If USC goes 0-3 or 1-2 during this stretch, it would lend credence to the notion that Kiffin wasn't the best pick to replace Pete Carroll.

Best individual matchup of the week: SMU WR Darius Johnson vs. UCF CB Josh Robinson. UCF's contest at SMU is a huge Conference USA game and could be a preview of the league's title game. UCF leads the nation in pass defense and is the only team not to have allowed a TD pass. Robinson, a former four-star recruit from the Fort Lauderdale area, is the Knights' secondary star. He would be a starting corner at every school in Florida and a vast majority nationally. He has good size, is physical, can run and also has good ball skills. He should spend most of his Saturday worried about Johnson, who is SMU's most talented receiver. SMU is 12th nationally in passing, and Johnson has 39 receptions for 550 yards and four TDs. If SMU is able to throw effectively, RB Zach Line is going to have room to run, and that bodes ill for UCF, which has some issues offensively.

[Conference Call: League-by-league look at Week 6]

Best unit matchup of the week: Michigan offensive line vs. Michigan State defensive line. Michigan State leads the nation in total defense and is third nationally in run defense. Michigan's offensive line has done a nice job controlling the line of scrimmage and that has to continue against the Spartans. Wolverines QB Denard Robinson certainly can scramble, but he would much rather run when he wants to rather than when he has to. Michigan's line has allowed a nation's-low two sacks, and TBs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith have been effective runners. The Spartans' front needs to clog up the middle Saturday.

Best coordinator chess match: Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges vs. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. The Spartans have surprised many by playing some of the best defense in the nation under Narduzzi. But Narduzzi will have to have his troops in top form facing Borges' attack, which is led by Denard Robinson. Borges is slowly opening the playbook and expanding the options for Robinson. The winning coordinator's team will have a big leg up in the Big Ten Legends Division race.

Spotlight conference: Big 12. The SEC has a few nice games, but the Big 12 gets the nod with a trio of contests headlined by unbeaten Oklahoma State's visit to Texas. Baylor at Texas A&M could be an offensive explosion. And Kansas State's visit to Texas Tech will show which of these two surprise teams is for real as they jockey for pecking order in this dysfunctional but competitive conference.

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