FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 25
Iowa (7-4, 4-3) at #23 Nebraska (8-3, 4-3) (12pm ET, ABC)
There's nothing but pride and a budding rivalry on the line here; before the season kicked off both teams hoped that this game might be for the right to play in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game next week, but losses to Minnesota (for Iowa) and Northwestern (for Nebraska), among others, killed that idea. Michigan State locked up the Legends division crown last week. Despite not being in the same conference for the past century, Iowa and Nebraska have played each other quite a bit -- 41 times.
But all but six of those games were pre-1947; in modern times, these two programs, border rivals from farming-centric states have been utter strangers to one another. They've played only twice since 1982, a pair of Nebraska blowouts in 1999 and 2000. Of course back then Nebraska was still basking in the afterglow of a recent national championship (and on the verge of playing for another), while Iowa was trying to climb out of the crater that was the end of Hayden Fry's legendary tenure. The two teams meet today on as close to equal terms as we've seen in almost a half-century. So who wins?
Nebraska has been strong at home, minus the Northwestern debacle, while Iowa has been poor on the road this year, minus last week's win over Purdue. The winner could be whichever team is able to jump out to a quick lead: Nebraska struggles when Taylor Martinez is forced to pass, while a Nebraska lead could easily snowball into a disaster for an Iowa team that's been creaky on the road. My heart says Iowa, my head says Nebraska. What good has my head ever done for me?
THE PICK: Iowa 27, Nebraska 24
#3 Arkansas (10-1, 6-1) at #1 LSU (11-0, 7-0) (2:30pm ET, CBS)
The SEC West title is on the line here, but that seems almost beside the point given the national title implications also present here. If LSU-Alabama was a battle of like-minded teams (brutal defense vs. brutal defense), LSU-Arkansas is a more classic battle of opposites: LSU's suffocating defense and cro-magnon running offense versus Arkansas's speed and prolific passing attack.
Of course, that's not totally true -- LSU has plenty of speed in their own right and Arkansas's defense is solid (though not, obviously, on par with LSU or 'Bama). LSU's been battle-tested time and time again this season, from the opener against Oregon to the epic struggle with Alabama a few weeks ago. Arkansas got spanked by Alabama and needed an epic meltdown from Texas A&M to win that game. Their best win might be over South Carolina. They're a good team, for sure. They're just not as good as LSU.
THE PICK: LSU 27, Arkansas 13
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 26
#4 Virginia Tech (10-1, 6-1) at #22 Virginia (8-3, 5-2) (3:30pm ET, ABC/ESPN2)
An unexpected title decider in the ACC's Coastal division, but Mike London's team has come on strong in the second half of the season, winning four in a row since a slightly-puzzling loss to North Carolina State. Virginia's lived on the razor's edge all season -- five of their eight wins have been by 7 points or less (which includes eyebrow-raising non-conference wins over Indiana and Idaho) -- while Virginia Tech has been closer to their typical ACC-dominating self (minus a rout at the hands of Clemson) this season. Virginia has homefield advantage and a slight "team of destiny" vibe to them, but Logan Thomas and David Wilson seem like too much to contain.
THE PICK: Virginia Tech 27, Virginia 17
#18 Penn State (9-2, 6-1) at #7 Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2) (3:30pm ET, ESPN)
And here we have another division-deciding showdown between one team people expected to be in this position (Wisconsin) and one team that people didn't expect to be in this position (Penn State). Penn State's ridden a stout defense and an offense that's been able to cobble together "just enough" to get to this point, while Wisconsin's season has been undone by a pair of last-minute defensive breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State. They've also been a different team at home, going 7-0 and only once scoring fewer than 48 points in Camp Randall.
On the other hand, they've also struggled (relatively speaking) against good defenses -- Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois all held Wisconsin to around 30 points, which is a solid accomplishment this season. Ultimately, it's hard to see Penn State's offense being able to hold up their end of the bargain, though. It's probably going to take 30+ points to topple Wisconsin at home and they've only scored 30+ three times this season (and just one in Big Ten play). They'll put up a game effort, but the Badger offense will be too much to contain for an entire game.
THE PICK: Wisconsin 31, Penn State 17
#20 Clemson (9-2, 6-2) at #19 South Carolina (9-2, 6-2) (7:45pm ET, ESPN)
Last week, Clemson managed to Clemson themselves in epic fashion 37-13 to NC State in a game in which they were barely competitive. They'd already locked up the ACC Atlantic division title, but it was exactly the sort of listless performance that makes it so hard to have faith in Clemson. Add in the fact that they might have one eye on the ACC Championship Game next week and it's tough to have faith in the Tigers here, even against their hated in-state rivals.
But can we really have much faith in South Carolina? Since losing Marcus Lattimore (and Stephen Garcia), the Gamecocks' offense has been in a righteous funk. Outside of a 41-point outburst against The Citadel last week, they've only topped 20 points once (a 44-28 loss to Arkansas) since losing their offensive stars. The defense is potent and plenty capable of scoring on their own (something they've done quite often this year), but can they hold down Clemson's offensive firepower? Against my better judgment, I'm going to say no. Clemson just has too many weapons on offense and will be too motivated -- to erase the taste of last week's pratfall and to beat a big rival -- to stumble again. Don't prove me wrong, Tigers.
THE PICK: Clemson 34, South Carolina 21
#24 Notre Dame (8-3) at #6 Stanford (10-1) (8:00pm ET, ABC)
Notre Dame's hopes of returning to glory in 2011 were damaged by opening 0-2 against South Florida and Michigan and effectively killed by getting routed at home by USC last month. There will be no return trip to the BCS for the Irish this year, just another trip to a ho-hum bowl like the Champs Sports Bowl. But beating a top ten-ranked Stanford team that's won two in a row over the Irish would be a nice feather in their caps.
Can they do it? Tough to say.
They're 1-2 against quality teams this year (giving away a loss to Michigan, getting smashed by USC, and smothering Michigan State for their only win), but they've also had weirdly close win over suspect teams like Pitt (15-12) and Boston College (16-14). Stanford's beat up on a legion of patsies this year, but they traded punches effectively with USC and held their own with Oregon for a while, before the Ducks' speed wore them down. Here's guessing Andrew Luck has one last bit of regular season magic in him.
THE PICK: Stanford 38, Notre Dame 24