College Football 2011: Long Live the Big 12

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Reports of the Big 12's death have been greatly exaggerated.

I think I'm last person on the planet who hasn't ripped off that Mark Twain line (or some variation of it) in some form of writing. But if there was any occasion to use it, it's now.

Big 12 news of late has focused on four distinct story lines.

(1) Who's leaving (sayonara Texas A&M), (2) Who's still thinking of leaving (your next Mizzou), (3) Who's coming (howdy TCU), and who caused it all (we're looking at you, Texas)?

These story lines have since morphed into other narratives concerning the Big 12's very fabric and the tensions boiling under the surface. Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey probably had the line of the year when asked whether Baylor should continue its rivalry against Texas A&M.

"My feeling is this," Mulkey said, according to The Associated Press. "If a man wants to divorce me and says our relationship has no value to him, and then he asks me if he can sleep with me, the answer is, 'No!' "

In fact, so much attention has been placed on third-tier cable network deals and television demo markets and the billions at stake, it's easy to forget that there is actual football being played.

But after the BCS rankings were released for the first time this week, we can add another story line -- the Big 12 has five teams ranked in the top 25, and two (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) are ranked in the top four.

How can this be?

Because despite all the off-field machinations, the schools didn't stop playing football the way they've always played it. Wide-open spread attacks on offense combined with stellar quarterback play make for whack-a-mole style games you won't find in the Big Ten or the SEC.

Here's a fun fact. Through the first half of the season, the Big 12 has five quarterbacks clocking in among the nation's top 15 in passing yards per game: Oklahoma's Landry Jones (3), Texas Tech's Seth Doege (4), Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (6), Baylor's Robert Griffin (7), and A&M's Ryan Tannehill (14).

Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin

Here's some additional fun facts. No. 1 on that same list is Case Keenum at Houston, whose head coach Kevin Sumlin was an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma for a number of years. No. 2 is Nick Foles at Arizona, whose offensive coordinator is Seth Littrell, a former Oklahoma team captain who played under Mike Leach when Leach was a coordinator at OU. Littrell later became an assistant under Leach at Texas Tech. And No. 5 is West Virginia's Geno Smith, whose head coach Dana Holgerson piloted offenses at Texas Tech and, later, Oklahoma State.

So, there you have it. The top seven passers in the nation are either in Big 12 programs or have the seeds of the Big 12 planted in them.

So before we get riled up at all the off-field stuff, let's remember one thing -- the Big 12 is continuing to highlight the best quarterback play in the country, which will continue to make it a big destination for eyeballs for years to come. Oh, and with TCU in the fold, the future is looking that much brighter.

But despite my Big 12 lecture, let's not forget the key games this weekend. Wisconsin travels to Michigan State for a Big Ten Leaders-Legends donnybrook; USC will be in South Bend for its yearly rumble with Notre Dame, and we'll give you our take on defending champ Auburn's clash with No. 1 LSU. So sit back, relax and stay a while.

Michigan State's defense celebrates a sack. Max Bullough (40) leads the Spartans in tackles.

No. 6 Wisconsin (6-0) at No. 16 Michigan State (5-1), 8 p.m. ET (ESPN): This one promises to bring a lot of nastiness, not only because Michigan State upset the Badgers last season, but because the Spartans' defeat of Michigan last week established them as a Big Ten contender with a defensive unit that really gets after it, some would argue a bit too much.

Sophomore defensive end William Gholston was suspended by the Big Ten on Thursday for this game for punching a Michigan offensive lineman.

"This is a physical and emotional game," Michigan State coach Mark D'Antonio said in response to the suspension. "During the course of a contest, there are individual confrontations that sometimes escalate. The stakes -- as well as the emotions -- are always a little higher in a rivalry game. We will continue to stress the importance of maintaining one's composure during the heat of competition."

ESPN's College Football Game Day will be there to raise the intensity level.

The key to this game will be whether Wisconsin can do enough offensively to overcome Michigan State's smothering defense. Wisconsin is leading the nation in scoring, racking up just over 50 points a game. Quarterback Russell Wilson has completed 74% of his passes and thrown for 14 TDs. Also note that Wisconsin has the third-ranked defense in the nation.

"When I was a defensive coordinator, the one thing you could do is you can mentally or physically challenge a quarterback," says Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema. "And that's exactly what they're (the Spartans) obviously doing on film, and some even kind of say it in the papers. So it's awareness. It's out there.

"One of the good advantages of Russell Wilson is he doesn't really get overly rattled by anything that I've seen thrown at him, and obviously, Michigan State is a very aggressive defense. They bring pressure from everywhere, all over the field. And I do know this. I think our guys up front, our running backs, our tight ends, anybody that's called into action to protect Russell is going to probably do it to their highest capabilities this coming Saturday, because they know how important it is."

Can someone get through the Big Ten season undefeated? The temptation is to pick Sparty in East Lansing, particularly with that defense led by linebacker Max Bullough, the team's leading tackler. But Wisconsin has so much offensively, such as backs Montee Ball and James White and wide receiver Nick Toon; it's doubtful they could be contained all night. Corner's choice: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 24 -- William Hennelly

Brandon Taylor is LSU's leading tacker.

No. 20 Auburn (5-2) at No. 1 Louisiana State (7-0), 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS): Louisiana State will have to dip into its depth chart on Saturday against Auburn as the Tigers suspended three players this week, including standout cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and running back Spencer Ware.

The loss of its two stars and cornerback Tharold Simon will force head coach Les Miles to reconfigure his secondary and give the ball more to running back Michael Ford. Though the news is likely disconcerting to players and coaches who've already seen enough preseason drama with the suspension of former starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson (who has since returned), it shouldn't affect the nation's No. 1 team.

Auburn has a solid but young squad. Head coach Gene Chizik trotted out quarterback Clint Moseley to start the second half last week against the Florida Gators, and the sophomore will start vs. LSU.

Moseley will make his first career start against one of the best LSU teams in a generation.

LSU is virtually unstoppable at home in "Death Valley," and playing well won't be good enough against a defense that allows only 11.7 points and an offense that can easily score 40 a game. Expect to see quarterback Jarrett Lee air it out early and often, and don't be surprised if Jefferson take a few snaps on wildcat formations and other trickeries.

The key to keeping this game close will be for Auburn to play efficient defense. The Tigers are fortunate that they only have one work-horse running back (Ford) to target, which will likely drain Ford quicker than Auburn's defensive line.

LSU probably isn't worried, as talent at every position is easily three deep.

If LSU jumps out to an early two-touchdown lead, Auburn will have a tough time coming from behind and relying on a raw quarterback. But if Auburn's defense locks down and forces a couple of mistakes, an upset wouldn't be out of the question -- especially considering Miles' track record of wild in-game coaching decisions. Corner's choice: LSU 35, Auburn 17 -- Joe Deaux

Chase Thomas (sans helmet) leads Stanford in tackles.

No. 25 Washington (5-1) at No. 8 Stanford (6-0), 8 p.m. ET (ABC): Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck brings his Heisman hopes into the Cardinal's first top-25 event against a scrappy Huskies team that has gotten better each week.

"They've Stanford dedicated themselves to being a physical football team. I think we have as well," Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday. "We'll find out how far away we are on Saturday."

Luck, who is the favorite to be No. 1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft, has y thrown for 1,719 yards and 18 TDs, and some think that he should have done better by this point. Luck can thank running back Stepfan Taylor for taking defensive pressure off the pass as Taylor has rushed for 559 yards and five scores. It should also be noted that the Cardinal defense, led by Chase Thomas, a 6-4, 239-pound senior linebacker, has allowed only 11.2 points a game -- fifth lowest in the nation.

"We can't turn the ball over," Cardinal coach David Shaw told Stanford Football Weekly. "We can't put the ball on the ground twice, like we did on a punt return and a run against Washington State."

Huskies running back Chris Polk will be the team's first option to capitalize on any turnovers. Polk has rushed for 728 yards and has missed the century mark in only one game, a loss against Nebraska on Sept. 17.

Washington quarterback Keith Price has quickly risen to the upper tier in the Pac-12, as the sophomore has thrown for 1,466 yards and 21 TDs and only four interceptions. Since the loss at Nebraska, Price has completed more than 70% of his passes with only one interception.

This game could likely be closer than expected as Washington has already played one major road game; additionally, Stanford hasn't seen an offense as productive as the Huskies'. This one could come down to which team's quarterback manages a better game. Corner's choice: Stanford 42, Washington 28 -- Joe Deaux

Ronnell Lewis (56) leads Oklahoma in tackles.

Texas Tech (4-2) at No. 3 Oklahoma (6-0), 8 p.m. ET (ABC): As multiple media reports were quick to point out this week, Oklahoma hasn't lost a home game since 2005. The Sooners are going for a nice, clean, even 40-in-a-row on Saturday, and the next victim, er, opponent is Texas Tech.

Let's put this into context. The last time the Sooners lost at home, George W. Bush was president. Barack Obama, a then-rising star in the Democratic Party, was still getting used to his new digs in the Senate. The words subprime mortgage, surge and Nicolas Sarkozy hadn't yet entered into every-day vocabulary. And the minimum wage was only $5.15 an hour.

In that amount of time, Owen Field has become the final resting place for more than a few storied programs over the years -- Florida State, Miami and Washington to name a few.

When Oklahoma met Texas Tech last year in Norman, OU trampled the Red Raiders, 45-7. In the process, Sooners wideout Ryan Broyles went for 119 yards and shattered several team receiving records. This season is just more of the same, as Broyles is coming off a performance against Kansas in which he set the NCAA record for career receptions.

But the offense, as prolific as it is, isn't the reason OU is the heavy favorite this weekend. It's the "D." The Sooners rank first in nearly every major statistical defensive category in the conference.

And if that weren't enough, the Sooners continue to play with an emotional lift on that side of the ball after defensive standout Austin Box's death in the off-season. Different defensive players have taken turns wearing his No. 12 jersey in honor of him. According to ESPN's Big 12 blog, this weekend's honoree will be Ronnell Lewis, who's having an effective season from the defensive end spot after running into eligibility issues before the start of the season. But when partnered with fellow end Frank Alexander, who's having a defensive player of the year-caliber season, the two have combined for 10 sacks.

In fact, Oklahoma has at times relied on its entire deep bench of defensive ends to play all four line positions at once, as noted by The Norman Transcript creating a speed-heavy pass rush that gave Texas fits in their loss weeks ago.

Which is good, because OU's ability to win big will depend on itsr knack for pressuring quarterbacks. The next one up is Tech signal-caller Seth Doege, who's racking up over 360 yards per game. Unfortunately, that's not going to be enough to break the streak. Corner's choice: Oklahoma 55, Texas Tech 24 -- David Moss

Manti Te'o (top right) leads the Notre Dame defense.

USC (5-1) at Notre Dame (4-2), 7:30 p.m. ET (NBC): The Irish are quietly putting together a decent season after two deflating losses to start and have dreams of a BCS berth if they go 10-2, which means they need to win the rest of their games.

"We want to get into a BCS game," Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said at his weekly news conference. "We know what we have to do, and that is we've got to win each and every game we play. So every game for us since going 0-2 has been that way. It's been the same focus for us.

"It's a huge game for us against USC. There is no question about the tradition and the rivalry. But if we beat USC and don't beat Navy, it doesn't mean much. So that is the perspective we take."

Notre Dame being Notre Dame (and the BCS being the BCS) is guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl if it finishes in the top eight in the final BCS rankings. USC is on probation for recruiting violations and is not eligible for a bowl game, nor the Pac-12 championship game this season.

The Irish have a knack for the dramatic uniforms in big games (although the shamrock helmets brought no luck of the Irish in that collapse to Michigan). Notre Dame will wear a bright gold helmet that bears a close resemblance to the famed patina of the Golden Dome on the South Bend campus. This storied series started in 1926, with the Irish leading, 43-34-5. (Did you know that John Wayne once played for USC?) Notre Dame broke an eight-game losing streak with a 20-16 victory in Los Angeles last season.

Veteran quarterback Matt Barkley, who missed last year's game with an ankle injury, can move USC on offense and has thrown for 16 TD passes this season. He'll need to be wary of linebacker Manti Te'o, who has 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks this season. The Irish look more balanced in this one and have a lot more to play for. Corner's choice: Notre Dame 30, USC 20 --William Hennelly

The Corner went 2-4 on picks last weekend, putting the season mark at 22-10.

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