Source: USA TODAY
The Front Seven will borrow any title.
1. Bear Necessities: No. 4 Baylor can’t quite lock up the Large Dozen-minus-Two at No. 9 Oklahoma State. But a Bears victory would hand the Cowboys their second Big 12 loss, effectively eliminating everybody from the championship picture except Texas, Baylor’s final opponent on Dec. 7.
Oklahoma State, however, still has its own designs on the league title after taking down Texas last week. The Cowboys will look to protect their home turf for another signature win. Baylor QB Bryce Petty has continued to put up huge points despite losing some of his top weapons to injury. WR Tevin Reese (wrist) is out for the year and TB Lache Seastrunk (groin) remains questionable. But Shock Linwood has filled in well for Seastrunk, and WR Antwan Goodley also has reliable hands for Petty. WR/RS Levi Norwood is another Bears’ speedster who will be a concern for the Cowboys’ defense, but OSU CB Justin Gilbert is a proven takeaway threat.
Cowboys QB Clint Chelf has boosted the offensive output since regaining the starting job last month, and his mobility has helped TBs Desmond Roland and Jeremy Smith find room to roam. Baylor LB Eddie Lackey will try to keep the running lanes clogged.
2. Fowl Play: No. 5 Oregon can’t quite finish off the Pac-12 North since “Civil War” rival Oregon State remains on the slate. But the Ducks can move a step closer with a road triumph at Arizona. The Wildcats are bowl eligible, but as far as the league championship hunt is concerned they can only play spoiler for Oregon and next week against archrival Arizona State.
Ducks QB Marcus Mariota hasn’t been running as much since sustaining a slight knee injury. But there’s nothing wrong with his passing accuracy, and he has still not thrown a pick in 2013. Having do-everything RB De’Anthony Thomas back near full speed has helped, and TB Byron Marshall can also amass ground yards in chunks.
Wildcats S Tra’Mayne Bondurant is a solid tackler who can at least limit Oregon’s big-play ability, but his teammates up front might have a hard time containing everybody. The Wildcats’ best option to stay in striking distance figures to be feeding TB Ka’Deem Carey often on lengthy drives. Arizona QB B.J. Denker is a threat to run himself, but he’ll want to avoid frequent encounters with Ducks’ DE Tony Washington.
3. California Sun: Which brings us to the aforementioned Sun Devils of No. 22 Arizona State, who can clinch the Pac-12 South and make the date with Arizona a mere exhibition. All they have to do is win at No. 14 UCLA. The Bruins, of course, have a shot at the division themselves if they can close by sweeping the Sun Devils and nemesis Southern California.
The buzz around the UCLA team in recent weeks has focused on two-way freshman Myles Jack. He was already a solid complement to LB Anthony Barr on the defensive side, and his recent production at TB has given QB Brett Hundley a powerful option in the backfield. He’ll be needed against a terrific ASU front, featuring DT Will Sutton and LB Carl Bradford.
Sun Devils QB Taylor Kelly’s favorite weapon is TB Marion Grice, a TD machine by land and air. But if the Bruins’ LB unit can keep Grice contained, Kelly will need to test the deep waters with WR Jaelen Strong.
4. Rebel Rouser: No. 8 Missouri could end the SEC East race this week — but only by losing. The Tigers still control their own fate in the division, needing to win their final two games starting Saturday night at Mississippi. But a Mizzou loss in Oxford or at home next week against Texas A&M hands the division to South Carolina, which is in the clubhouse with two conference losses and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Tigers.
Mizzou QB Maty Mauk has been tremendous for the most part since being pressed into service. But he’ll likely give way this week to senior opening-day starter James Franklin, who is expected back from an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. WRs Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington can stretch the field, but Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche, also healthy again, will try to prevent Franklin from finding them.
Rebels QB Bo Wallace has enjoyed a fine season himself, but he is also going to face heat this week from Tigers’ DE Michael Sam. Wallace will have to make his decisions quickly, but WRs Laquon Treadwell and Donte Moncrief should be able to help.
5. Johnny B. Good: The Front Seven continues way down in “Lousiana” — not so close to New Orleans, actually — where No. 10 Texas A&M and reigning Heisman holder Johnny Manziel visit No. 19 LSU. The game rates high in entertainment potential, but the participants are playing primarily to improve their postseason destinations
Manziel has done more of his magic by air this season, thanks in large measure to the exploits of WR Mike Evans. Make no mistake — Johnny can still tuck it and go if necessary, and LB Lamin Barrow will be keeping an eye on him for the Bayou Bengals.
The Aggies’ problem this season in its losses — and in some of its wins, for that matter — has been a leaky defense. That figures to be good news for LSU QB Zach Mettenberger and his own standout WR Odell Beckham Jr. Tigers’ TB Jeremy Hill could have a big day as well.
6. Axe me another: Significantly farther up the Mississippi River, No. 17 Wisconsin pays a visit to No. 23 Minnesota in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Though mathematically neither team has been eliminated from Big Ten title contention, both are more likely competing to represent the league on or after New Year’s Day.
Though the Badgers have a new man at the helm this season in Gary Andersen, the team’s M.O. hasn’t changed much with a punishing ground attack and enough of an aerial threat to keep the box clear. TBs Melvin Gordon and James White will be up against a swarming Gophers defense that has held up well despite forcing few turnovers. The group’s centerpiece is LB Damien Wilson, who must also be mindful of Wisconsin QB Joel Stave.
Minnesota relies heavily on the running game as well, though it’s geared more toward misdirection. TB David Cobb is the top producer, and he’ll likely take hand-offs from both QBs Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson during the game. They’ll be opposed by an honors candidate in Badgers’ LB Chris Borland
7. Apples to Apples: Setbacks against Texas and Baylor have dashed No. 18 Oklahoma’s Big 12 title aspirations. Now aiming for a double-digit win campaign, the Sooners’ closing stretch next takes them to the “Little Apple” for a clash with Kansas State.
The Wildcats, whose season began with a loss to FCS power North Dakota State, have rebounded to achieve bowl eligibility in what might well go down as one of the best coaching jobs of Bill Snyder’s distinguished career in Manhattan. The Sooners were perhaps still in a post-Baylor hangover before recovering from an early deficit to dominate Iowa State last week, doing most of the damage on the ground. But they’ll be without TB Damien Williams due to suspension this week, so it will be up to Brennan Clay to be the workhorse against LB Blake Slaughter and the Wildcats’ stiff front.
K-State is another team having success with a QB platoon this year, with Jake Waters and Daniel Sams giving the unit different looks. TB John Hubert and WR Tyler Lockett are the biggest threats in open space, which LB Frank Shannon and the OU pursuers will look to limit.
Eddie Timanus, a national colleges reporter and the poll editor for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @EddieTimanus.
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