Biggest Question Facing Each Top 25 Team Heading into Week 12
We've reached the beginning of the end of the 2013 college football season, and there are some major questions facing ranked teams jockeying for conference and national titles.
All eyes are on Alabama and Florida State as the pair maintain a tight grip on the top two spots of the BCS standings, while several other contenders attempt to prove their worth in upcoming conference showdowns.
Which teams are set to finish strong, and which might drop the ball in the final few weeks?
Let's take a look at the biggest question facing each team in the Top 25.
All stats via ESPN. The order of teams correlates to the current BCS rankings.
25. Georgia Bulldogs
Biggest question: Can the offense put it all together against Auburn?
To state the obvious, Georgia has dealt with a few injuries this season. The team that knocked off South Carolina and LSU is long gone and yet, the talent exists to compete with anybody.
That includes the Auburn Tigers, who are 9-1 on the season and possibly looking forward to a huge game against Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Against Florida on Nov. 2, Aaron Murray and company jumped out to a quick lead before the offense stalled completely. The group that came to play early against the Gators has to be the same one that shows up for four quarters against the Tigers, otherwise the Bulldogs will be staring down a four-loss season.
24. Texas Longhorns
Biggest question: Can Longhorns handle the pressure of the Big 12 driver's seat?
Baylor is probably the team that comes to mind when you think of the most likely Big 12 champion, but Texas also controls its own destiny—a fact that may have sounded loony back in September.
After losses to BYU and Ole Miss, there was more chatter about the future of Mack Brown as head coach than there was about a conference title. Nonetheless, Texas has an opportunity to do something special, although it'll be without the services of stud running back Johnathan Gray.
Up next is a home showdown with Oklahoma State, followed by games against Texas Tech and Baylor. It'll be interesting to see if quarterback Case McCoy can make enough happen on offense to vault the Longhorns into BCS bowl position.
23. Miami Hurricanes
Biggest question: Will 'Canes show any sign of life at Duke?
Scenarios still exist that have Miami in the ACC championship game for what would likely be a rematch against Florida State. But the team that lost by 18 to Virginia Tech on Saturday has zero chance of making it happen.
Even without running back Duke Johnson, you'd expect more out of a team that began the season with seven straight victories. Up next is Duke, which would typically be a welcome sight for a squad in need of some life.
But the Blue Devils are also in position to capture the ACC Coastal Division, and they're sure to come out firing. If quarterback Stephen Morris wants to solidify his reputation as one of the game's best, he'll need to come up with an inspired performance against David Cutcliffe's guys and help the 'Canes bust out of their current mini-slump.
22. Wisconsin Badgers
Biggest question: How can the Badgers stay focused with Big Ten title hopes all but gone?
We've said it before and we'll say it again: With only a controversial loss at Arizona State and a seven-point loss at Ohio State on their record, the Wisconsin Badgers are one of the most underrated teams in recent memory.
Unfortunately, with a BCS ranking of 22 and a home in the Leaders Division behind the Buckeyes, conference title hopes are a far-away dream, as are BCS hopes, in all likelihood.
So in short, the biggest question facing this team is: Can it continue to grow and play well without much at stake?
Can the Badgers' two-headed monster of James White and Melvin Gordon at running back continue to perform and make this as special of a season as possible, or will the team drop a game to an inferior opponent and end the year on a down note?
21. LSU Tigers
Biggest question: What can the defense do to be ready for Texas A&M?
LSU had a chance to shake up the college football world by beating Alabama on Saturday, but the Crimson Tide flexed their muscles and showed why they belong at No. 1.
But life in the SEC always brings more opportunities to impress, and after a bye week, LSU will play host to quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies.
Although BCS glory doesn't lie ahead for the Tigers, they'll still have a chance to post an impressive victory against Kevin Sumlin's squad, which is averaging nearly 50 points per game. With two weeks to prepare, what kind of game plan will the Tigers put together on defense to try to stop the Aggies' lethal attack on offense?
20. Louisville Cardinals
Biggest question: How can coach Charlie Strong keep his team motivated?
Much like Wisconsin, Louisville is currently in a position where its postseason destination is in the hands of UCF, a team it lost to back in October.
With remaining games against Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati, there isn't a lot of national noise to be made, even if quarterback Teddy Bridgewater does his thing and lights up defenses with his NFL arm.
So moving forward, will we see the team that was red hot out of the gate, dominating inferior opponents and playing up to the level of the Cardinals squad that knocked off Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl? Or will Louisville play uninspired ball, perhaps dropping a game it has no business losing?
19. Arizona State Sun Devils
Biggest question: Can the Sun Devils avoid the trap game against Oregon State?
A variety of scenarios still exist in the South Division of the Pac-12 for the right to play in the conference championship, but the winner between Arizona State and UCLA will likely come out on top.
But the Sun Devils must get past Oregon State on Saturday to make it to their showdown with the Bruins, meaning the tilt with the Beavers sets up as the perfect trap game. Oregon State boasts a high-flying passing attack led by quarterback Sean Mannion and wide receiver Brandin Cooks, though it has been stymied in recent weeks.
Arizona State is better on both sides of the ball but has been unable to get over the hump in recent years thanks to games like the one it'll play Saturday. We're watching to see if the Sun Devils will play like a future conference champion, or if they'll literally and figuratively drop the ball against an inferior opponent.
18. Oklahoma Sooners
Biggest question: Can the Sooners improve between now and the end of the season?
At Oklahoma, there are teams that compete for championships and there are down years, but there's not much room between the two. With blowout losses to Texas and Baylor, we've established that this is not an elite version of the Sooners.
Still, throwing in the towel with three games left on the schedule would be a terrible mistake, given the youth of the team and the amount it can grow in the final few weeks. Sure, an exciting bowl bid might not be on the horizon, but there's a ton of talent that has a lot to gain in 2013.
The key for Oklahoma, while boring for fans who want immediate results, will be to show improvement between now and the end of the season so it can be ready to dream big in 2014.
17. UCF Knights
Biggest question: Will the Knights maintain focus with BCS bid in sight?
The AAC is generally perceived as the weakest of the six BCS conferences and yet, the winner will still go to a BCS bowl.
UCF is the current leader without a loss in conference play, having already beaten Louisville on the road. The pressure is building for quarterback Blake Bortles and the rest of the team, which hasn't come close to a BCS bid in program history.
Rutgers is the only opponent left on the schedule with a winning record, while the other three teams the Knights play have each won three games or less. Needless to say, the chance to do something very special is not only within reach, it's sitting at the dinner table with a fork in it.
Will the Knights stay focused and turn 2013 into perhaps the best season in school history?
16. Michigan State Spartans
Biggest question: Did the Spartans improve during their bye week?
After Michigan State lost to Notre Dame 17-13 on Sept. 21, it seemed like the offense would never be able to match the defense and turn the season into something promising.
Five wins later, including a 29-6 win over Michigan, that narrative has changed completely. The defense, once thought to be a solid unit, might be the best in the country. The offense, while still unpolished, is doing enough to lead Sparty to victory.
If Mark Dantonio's team is a serious contender to Ohio State in the Big Ten, it'll come out and show as much at Nebraska. BCS teams improve throughout the season, and the bye week gave quarterback Connor Cook and company the chance to do exactly that. So after a two-week hiatus, will Michigan State continue its ascension in the BCS rankings?
15. Northern Illinois Huskies
Biggest question: Can quarterback Jordan Lynch make it to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony?
It might seem foolish to focus a question entirely on an individual goal, but after beating Ball State 48-27 on Wednesday, winning out may be as simple as going through the motions for Northern Illinois.
A game at Toledo will be tricky, but one-win Western Michigan poses very little threat. So after accounting for 468 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in his team's biggest game, will quarterback Jordan Lynch get the recognition he deserves in the Heisman Trophy race?
Last year's Orange Bowl, in which Lynch was outclassed by the Florida State defense, might still be stuck in voters' minds. But he is a game-changer in every way imaginable, so it'll be interesting to see if two more outstanding performances earn him a ticket to the Big Apple.
14. Fresno State Bulldogs
Biggest question: Are style points necessary to reach BCS, and will the Bulldogs oblige?
After watching Northern Illinois dominate Ball State on Wednesday, the Fresno State Bulldogs had to wonder what they would have to do to maintain a lead over the Huskies in the BCS rankings.
While it's never wise to let other teams dictate your performance, the fact remains that one of the two programs has a great chance to capture an at-large BCS bid, so style points will matter.
Last week, quarterback Derek Carr led his team to a 48-10 victory over Wyoming, but New Mexico is next on the docket, and a similar effort may be required to keep up with the Huskies. Both teams have Heisman Trophy-caliber signal-callers, but Northern Illinois is the team fresh in everyone's mind at the moment, so keep an eye on how Fresno State responds against the Lobos.
13. UCLA Bruins
Biggest question: Will LB Myles Jack continue to play a major role on offense?
On Saturday against Arizona, linebacker Myles Jack showcased his versatility by switching to running back and carrying the ball six times for 120 yards and a touchdown, which included a 66-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Moving forward, the biggest question seems to surround Jack and whether the move was one we'll see again or if it'll be used sparingly. Jack is an excellent linebacker as well, and playing him on both sides of the ball throughout the game might be too much for the freshman.
If the UCLA offense finds itself struggling once again, the call to Jack should be an easy one for offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. But will it really take that long, or will the Washington defense get a shot of Jack early and often on Friday evening?
12. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Biggest question: Are the Cowboys ready for their season-defining stretch?
The next few weeks will determine who emerges from the muddled Big 12 Conference, and the Oklahoma State Cowboys are in the thick of it all.
Their journey begins with a trip to Texas followed by home games against Baylor and Oklahoma. After losing to West Virginia early on, Mike Gundy's team has responded with five straight victories.
But none of the wins were against quality opponents like the Cowboys will see between now and the end of the schedule. In fact, all three remaining teams are in the top four of the Big 12 standings along with Oklahoma State. Is quarterback Clint Chelf ready to lead his offense into the most important stretch of the season?
11. Texas A&M Aggies
Biggest question: Can the defense keep the Aggies in their final two games?
Much of the focus has been on quarterback Johnny Manziel in Aggieland, and that won't change anytime soon. He'll need to have big games against both LSU and Missouri if his team is to come up with a pair of victories.
More important, however, will be the effort of the defense, which has given up more than 30 points per game, including 41 to Mississippi State and 33 to Arkansas.
At this point in his career, Manziel can pretty much be counted on to excel against any defense thrown his way. But Texas A&M won't emerge victorious from games against either set of Tigers unless it can ramp up the defensive effort.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks
Biggest question: Can running back Mike Davis lead the charge against Florida?
The only conceivable way the Florida Gators can hang with South Carolina is by turning the game into a defensive battle. The offense is averaging a paltry 20.6 points per game, but the defense is allowing just 19.
While South Carolina has seen some inconsistent play at quarterback, the real bread and butter of the offense is the running game, led by talented sophomore Mike Davis.
Against Florida, the Gamecocks will look to establish the run early and leave no doubt. If Davis can break off a few big runs and help his team put points on the board in the first half, this game will be all but over. But if he comes up with a poor effort and the offense is left to pray for big plays from the quarterback position, Will Muschamp's squad may just hang around.
9. Missouri Tigers
Biggest question: How will bye week affect Tigers' rhythm?
Missouri is in an unfamiliar position, as it currently has control of its SEC East destiny.
After a pair of dominating wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, the Tigers entered into a bye week to prepare physically and mentally for one of the most important two-game stretches in program history.
The Tigers have exceeded expectations throughout the season, and fans are finally starting to get comfortable with the fact that this is an elite team capable of winning the SEC East. Will the off week help Gary Pinkel's guys get ready for Ole Miss and Texas A&M, or will it produce rust, ultimately leading to a disappointing loss?
8. Clemson Tigers
Biggest question: Will the Tigers remind the nation how good they are against Georgia Tech?
Ever since losing 51-14 at home to Florida State, the Clemson Tigers have been the good-looking guest in the corner that somehow seems to be ignored by everyone else at the party.
But against Georgia Tech on Thursday night, the nation will get a chance to remember how good the Tigers really are. Of course, the national stage could backfire and reinforce the idea that talented Clemson teams are unable to produce when it matters the most.
But quarterback Tajh Boyd is still as talented as he was in September, and you know wide receiver Sammy Watkins is itching to turn heads. Will Clemson come up with a Top 10 effort and prove that it's not the same team that got beat badly by the 'Noles?
7. Auburn Tigers
Biggest question: Can the Tigers take care of business one last time before Iron Bowl showdown?
That smell that has tickled your nose for a month now is drawing closer and closer as the nation gears up for an Iron Bowl showdown between undefeated Alabama and one-loss Auburn.
However, Georgia stands in the Tigers' way of making that happen, and a loss now would deal a crippling blow to any hopes Gus Malzahn's team has of winning the SEC West.
The biggest question for Auburn is: Can it come up with another stellar effort on both sides of the ball and take care of business against a dangerous Georgia team? Because while the Bulldogs have struggled recently, they still own plenty of firepower on offense, and if Auburn is looking ahead even a little bit, things could get scary for quarterback Nick Marshall and company.
6. Oregon Ducks
Biggest question: How will the Ducks respond to first loss in Helfrich era?
Losing doesn't happen very often to the team from Eugene, Ore. In fact, Thursday's 26-20 loss at Stanford was just the fourth regular-season defeat since the start of the 2010 season, and it was the first true road defeat since 2009.
On each occasion, the team has bounced back with a victory, but needless to say, these guys aren't used to losing. And they've never lost a game under first-year coach Mark Helfrich, who now has to find a way to motivate a squad that one week ago was staring at a possible national championship berth.
Should the Ducks string together three straight victories to end the season, they'll end up in their fifth straight BCS bowl, so a lot can still be accomplished. But all eyes will be on Oregon as it looks to bounce back against a feisty Utah squad that knocked off Stanford earlier in the season.
5. Baylor Bears
Biggest question: Can the Bears keep up with high expectations?
It was easy to dismiss the Bears before their 41-12 victory over Oklahoma as a team that hadn't proved anything, because they hadn't played anybody.
Now, with an impressive victory in tow, the nation is starting to notice just how good Baylor really is. But there's a downside to the newfound attention: the highest expectations in the history of the program.
Quarterback Bryce Petty will be in the spotlight as he attempts to move up the Heisman ladder, and the team will be expected to look like a Top Five squad from here on out. The Bears will host Texas Tech before playing Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas. Now that we know how good Petty and company really are, they'll have to continue to play like a team with its sight set on Pasadena.
4. Stanford Cardinal
Biggest question: Can the Cardinal muster another strong defensive effort against USC?
The Stanford team that beat Oregon 26-20 was not the same one that lost at Utah or squeaked by Washington. How else do you explain the close call with the Huskies when the Ducks beat them a week later by 21 in Seattle?
The key for the Cardinal moving forward will be to bring that big-game intensity every week, not just against Top Five opponents. Up next is a much-improved USC team that still has hopes of winning the South Division in the Pac-12.
It'll be interesting to see if Stanford can come up with a similar defensive effort and lock down the Trojans or if relaxed play will allow Ed Orgeron's team to keep it close into the latter stages of the game.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Biggest question: Will Buckeyes remain sharp after bye week?
After a string of sluggish performances throughout September and into October, the Ohio State Buckeyes didn't appear to be ready for a spot in the Top Five. Then came two dominating wins over Penn State and Purdue, which reminded the nation of the kind of talent on Urban Meyer's team.
Those efforts also shed light on why this version of the Buckeyes may be ready to compete for a national title, but now that we know how good they can play, we're expecting it every week.
Quarterback Braxton Miller takes his talents to Illinois on Saturday, against a team that hasn't won a game in the conference. Will the Buckeyes continue to play like one of the best teams in the country, or will they revert back to their early-season ways of letting teams hang around longer than expected?
2. Florida State Seminoles
Biggest question: Will quarterback Jameis Winston make any more Heisman statements?
With games against Syracuse, Idaho and Florida remaining on the schedule, it's easy to predict a trio of victories for Florida State to end the season.
But against Wake Forest on Saturday, quarterback Jameis Winston didn't light the world on fire as he's been doing for two months now. To be fair, he didn't need to in his team's 59-3 win, but the Heisman Trophy is all about playing your best in the month of November and putting up eye-popping stats.
Even if Winston is pulled in the first half of upcoming games, he'll still need to play mistake-free football against teams that frankly aren't very good. What will the fantastic freshman have in store as the season comes to a close?
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Biggest question: Can the Crimson Tide maintain high level of intensity?
Against LSU on Saturday, Alabama brought a stellar defensive effort to the stadium coupled with a physically dominating ground game, and it resulted in a 38-17 win over the Tigers.
Upcoming games against Mississippi State and Chattanooga aren't going to pose much of a challenge, but the Tide will need to maintain a high level of intensity in order to arrive at the Iron Bowl prepared for a much-improved Auburn team.
Can Alabama play like it's the national championship against the Bulldogs? Probably not, because despite what coaches preach about bringing the same effort to every game, kids are kids and they recognize an inferior opponent when they see one. But Alabama has really started to flex its muscles in recent weeks, so it'll be interesting to see if it can continue to do so in games it would win even if it played poorly.