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October 11, 2010

Monday with Mike: The unbeaten 13

Alabama's loss to South Carolina on Saturday -- a game in which Stephen Garcia channeled his inner Joe Montana and went 17-of-20 for 201 yards and three TDs -- opens up all sorts of possibilities in the national title race.

Alabama fell from the ranks of the unbeaten and the Tide now need to win out and get some help if they are to get a chance to defend their national title.

There are 13 unbeaten teams left, and they have wildly varying chances to remain unbeaten. Today, we'll take a look at the lucky 13 and give you a rundown of their toughest remaining games and the likelihood that they remain unbeaten.

Some have easier paths than others. No path is easier than Boise State's, and given the remaining opponents for the other unbeatens, it wouldn't be a surprise at all if the Broncos are the lone unbeaten standing when the regular season ends.

This season already has had its share of wild times. Think of the wild times that would ensue if Boise indeed is the only unbeaten when the final BCS standings come out on Dec. 5.

Here's a look at the 13 unbeaten teams.

Games to watch: Oct. 16 vs. Arkansas, Oct. 23 vs. LSU, Nov. 26 at Alabama
Buzz: The next two weekends are going to determine where Auburn finishes the season. The Tigers get a break in that both Arkansas and LSU have to play at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which is going to be quite raucous the next two weeks. Cameron Newton has shown a lot of talent and a lot of moxie, but you still wonder about that Tigers defense. Good news for Auburn, though, is that there also are questions about Arkansas' defense and about LSU's ... well, frankly, a lot of things about LSU. And imagine the scene in Tuscaloosa if Auburn rolls into town unbeaten for that regular-season finale.
Verdict: One loss

Games to watch: Nov. 26 at Nevada
Buzz: The Broncos can put it in cruise control until they meet the Wolf Pack on Thanksgiving weekend. Nevada also is unbeaten (more on the Wolf Pack in a minute), but it has no shot at the BCS title game if it wins out. Boise does.
Verdict: Unbeaten

Games to watch: Oct. 23 at Auburn, Nov. 6 vs. Alabama, Nov. 27 at Arkansas
Buzz: The Tigers have been living on the edge. Seriously -- back-to-back last minute wins featuring an untimed final play because the other team had 13 men on the field and a fake field goal in which the holder had an over-the-shoulder toss that bounced perfectly into the kicker's hands? LSU can play defense and run the ball. Eventually, though, the Tigers will need to make some plays in the passing game, and you wonder if they will be able to. If LSU beats Auburn in that battle of Tigers, Nick Saban's visit to the Bayou on Nov. 6 will be mind-boggling in its intensity.
Verdict: Two losses

Games to watch: Oct. 30 at Iowa
Buzz: The fake field goal to beat Notre Dame was a great call. Coach Mark Dantonio's recovery from a heart attack was a heart-warming story. Suddenly, though, after back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and Michigan, the Spartans no longer are a curiosity but rather a legit national title contender. By no means are they a finished product, though, and it wouldn't be that big a surprise if an underdog stepped up and bit them.
Verdict: Two losses

Games to watch: Oct. 23 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 30 at Nebraska
Buzz: The Tigers are coming off their best performance, a blanking of Colorado, but when your best win is over Colorado, there still are questions. The defense has been lights out, but no opposing offense has been that good. Still, it's a sign of how far Gary Pinkel has brought this program that it looks as if it could win nine or 10 games.
Verdict: Three losses

Games to watch: Oct. 16 vs. Texas, Oct. 23 at Oklahoma State, Oct. 30 vs. Missouri
Buzz: Before the season, this week's game with Texas looked to be the game of the year in the Big 12. But Texas is coming in with a two-game losing streak and suddenly it looks as if the Huskers could get through the regular season unscathed. The defense is nasty and redshirt freshman QB Taylor Martinez has been a revelation running the ball. But, as with LSU, the Huskers eventually will need to make some plays in the air. Can they do it?
Verdict: One loss

Games to watch: Oct. 16 at Hawaii, Nov. 26 vs. Boise
Buzz: The Wolf Pack have the same "advantage" as Boise State -- they're in the WAC and the WAC isn't that good. That said, there is a dangerous game this weekend for Nevada because it has to travel to Hawaii. If the game were in Reno, no worries. But because it's in Honolulu, coach Chris Ault has to worry -- a lot. The teams have met five times in Honolulu in conference play, and Hawaii has won all five, by a total of 79 points. If Nevada does win, it sets up potentially the biggest game in WAC history when Boise visits on Nov. 26.
Verdict: One loss

Games to watch: Oct. 16 at Wisconsin, Nov. 20 at Iowa
Buzz: Two road games are all that stands between Ohio State and a berth in the national title game. But those are two tough road games, especially the one in Iowa City. Terrelle Pryor looks to be on the cusp of "elite" status; can he maintain his consistency?
Verdict: One loss

Games to watch: Oct. 23 at Missouri, Nov. 27 at Oklahoma State
Buzz: Except for an evisceration of Florida State -- a 30-point win that wasn't even that close -- the Sooners have been far from dominant. They do a lot of things well but nothing exceptionally -- except force turnovers. They lead the nation with a plus-10 turnover margin, which has masked some defensive deficiencies; OU is surrendering 411.6 yards per game, which makes the Sooners 91st nationally in total defense. You figure that is going to catch up to them at some point.
Verdict: One loss

Games to watch: Oct. 16 at Texas Tech, Oct. 23 vs. Nebraska, Nov. 13 at Texas, Nov. 27 vs. Oklahoma
Buzz: Yes, the Cowboys are unbeaten, but their best win is over a mediocre Texas A&M team. The Cowboys have an explosive offense, but the defense once again isn't that good. They have the look of an eight- or nine-win team, which still would be a nice feat considering all the talent they lost from last season.
Verdict: Four losses

Games to watch: Games to watch: Oct. 30 at USC, Nov. 13 at California, Nov. 26 vs. Arizona, Dec. 4 at Oregon State
Buzz: The Ducks probably have the toughest remaining schedule of the teams on this list; the Pac-10 is incredibly balanced, with everyone except woeful Washington State having a legit shot at a bowl bid, and the Ducks just played Washington State. Oregon might have the most relentless offense in the nation, and with RB LaMichael James, they have perhaps the nation's best game-breaker. There are some defensive issues, though, and it's hard to see the Ducks going 12-0 against this schedule with that defense.
Verdict: One loss

Games to watch: Oct. 23 vs. Air Force, Nov. 6 at Utah
Buzz: TCU once again is stifling foes with a physical, aggressive defense. Air Force shouldn't be able to beat the Horned Frogs, but the Falcons' triple-option attack can be difficult to defend. Still, the season looks as if it will come down to a showdown in Salt Lake City.
Verdict: One loss

Games to watch: Oct. 30 at Air Force, Nov. 6 vs. TCU, Nov. 13 at Notre Dame
Buzz: While all the "BCS-buster" attention has been focused on Boise State and, to a lesser extent, TCU, the Utes quietly are going about their business. "Going about their business" is a nice way of saying "mauling people." They have scored at least 56 points in three consecutive games, capped by the 68 they put up at Iowa State on Saturday. Jordan Wynn is the best quarterback in the Mountain West, there's a nice group of running backs, the defense is solid and the special teams are excellent. You don't think the Utes would love to say "farewell" to the Mountain West with a league title? They have a huge three-week stretch in late October/early November that will define their season. We didn't include their annual blood-letting against BYU on the list of games to watch because, intense rivalry game or not, Utah should manhandle the Cougars this season.
Verdict: One loss

Who is this guy?
Here's what one week in the fickle world of college football can bring about: The "hot" quarterback this week isn't Michigan's Denard Robinson, considered the Heisman frontrunner last week before he was brought back to earth by Michigan State. No, the hot quarterback now is Nebraska redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez.

Martinez is fourth nationally in rushing at 147.4 yards per game, and he leads the country with 12 rushing touchdowns. He is coming off his best performance of the season, a 241-yard, four-TD performance -- on just 15 carries -- in a rout of previously unbeaten Kansas State.

It was his fourth multi-TD game of the season. Strangely, the only team that held him without a TD was one-win FCS member South Dakota State; South Dakota State also has been the only team to hold him under 100 rushing yards.

Martinez has been the focal point of a surprisingly potent rushing attack. The Huskers are second in the nation in rushing at 337.6 yards per game and have three players averaging at least 72.2 yards.

The flipside? The passing attack been non-existent, as the Huskers average 156.8 yards per game. Martinez has completed 60.9 percent of his passes, with three TDs and three picks.

Obviously, one reason for the lackluster passing numbers is that the rushing attack has been so potent. Then again, the Huskers aren't exactly carving up great rushing defenses. Three of their four FBS opponents rank 106th or worse in rush defense. The other is Idaho, which is 63rd but hasn't played anybody who even tries to run the ball except for the Huskers.

At some point, then, you figure Nebraska is going to have to throw the ball to win. Maybe it'll be this week against Texas, which is 19th nationally against the run and sixth in total defense.

This could be considered a statement game for the Huskers, and Martinez has come through with flying colors in the other two. Washington was seen as important because it was considered the Huskers' toughest road trip of the season. Martinez ran for 137 yards and three TDs and also tossed a scoring pass. K-State was seen as important because the Wildcats were unbeaten and it was Nebraska's first Big 12 game of the season. Martinez responded with his virtuoso performance.

While Martinez has been made off-limits to the national media except on game days, it's clear he doesn't lack confidence.

"They were asking me [about nervousness] before the game," Martinez told reporters after the Washington blowout. "I don't get nervous before games, so they should probably stop asking me."

In addition, he has been known to sign off text messages with the phrase "Taylor Magic."

Martinez took a circuitous route to Nebraska, arriving in Lincoln after attending three high schools in the Los Angeles area. He was at Norco High, in Riverside County, as a freshman and a sophomore. He played free safety as a freshman but missed his sophomore season with a hamstring injury. He left after the football season because, he told the Los Angeles Times, "Norco is a running offense and there's no point for me to be a quarterback there because all I'll be doing is handing off the ball and throwing just a couple of times a game."

He moved to Cajon High in San Bernardino -- which is north of Norco, in San Bernardino County -- midway through his sophomore year when his dad was offered a job as an assistant coach. He was the starting quarterback for Cajon as a junior in 2007.

But he moved on again, transferring to Centennial High in Corona -- a few miles south of Norco, back in Riverside County -- after the end of the first semester of his junior year. His father, who had coached the secondary at Cajon, left his job at the same time. The family said complications incurred by Taylor's pregnant mom led to the move.

Because he still lived in Norco's school district, Martinez that spring had to petition to be allowed to play sports at Centennial. Cajon High officials signed off on the petition, but it was disallowed by the state.

Two big things happened that summer. One is that the family moved into the Centennial district, which meant Martinez was eligible to play for Centennial. Another is that Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini was impressed enough by junior-season film that the Huskers offered Martinez -- who would end up being a three-star prospect -- a scholarship. It was Martinez's first offer and he snapped it up.

That season, he threw for more than 3,000 yards in Centennial's no-huddle, spread attack and led the Huskies to a 15-0 season and a state title.

Nebraska's fast start this season means Martinez has a 20-game winning streak as a starter. To get to 21, though, Martinez may need to throw it around some. Huskers offensive coordinator Shawn Watson isn't fazed by that possibility.

"He'll be ready if we have to [pass]," Watson told the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald. "Don't worry about it."

Grid bits
Instead of criticizing Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's decision to go for two up 25 in the fourth quarter -- "I thought it was a very poor decision by a head football coach and he'll have to live with that" -- perhaps Minnesota coach Tim Brewster should be worried about the state of his program. The Golden Gophers are 1-5 and staring at a 1-11 season. This program is stagnant, and Brewster seems likely to pay with his job.

For the second week in a row, USC gave up a last-minute drive and lost on a last-play field goal. Last week, Jake Locker and Washington drove 62 yards in the final 2:34 to win it on a 34-yard field goal by Erik Folk. This week, it was Andrew Luck and Stanford applying the dagger. The Cardinal moved 61 yards in the final 1:02 to set up a 30-yard field goal by Nate Whitaker. USC's defense has allowed 69 points and forced just two punts in those two games.

N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien finally got his first win against his former employer, as his Wolfpack trounced Boston College 44-17. O'Brien had been 0-3 against BC and been outscored by 59 points in the process. N.C. State plays host to Florida State on Oct. 28, a Thursday night, in what suddenly has become a huge ACC showdown.

Baylor rolled up 507 yards of offense and scored 38 points, but it wasn't enough as the Bears dropped their 15th in a row to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders prevailed 45-38, and they finished with 635 yards. The teams combined for 83 points, 1,142 yards of offense, 47 first downs and 889 passing yards, yet still found the time to punt a total of nine times. Baylor led 21-14 early in the second quarter, but Tech scored 21 consecutive points to take control.

A week after losing 24-20 to Georgia Tech on a touchdown pass with 15 seconds left, Wake Forest suffered another excruciating loss, falling 28-27 to Navy when the Midshipmen scored on 6-yard pass with 42 seconds left. "I think the deal is for every young football team -- there comes a point when they get tired of watching the other team celebrate after the game, and when that point comes, we'll start winning games," Wake coach Jim Grobe told reporters afterward. "Right now, we haven't done that." Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo felt bad for Wake: "They've had two heartbreakers in a row. I feel for those guys."

TCU has won its past three over Wyoming by a combined 127 points after Saturdays' 45-0 shellacking of the Cowboys. Wyoming was 0-of-10 on third-down conversions and 0-of-1 on fourth down.

In Week 3, Nevada ran wild against California, rolling up 497 yards in a 52-31 win. Cal had all sorts of problems with Nevada's "pistol" offense that Friday night. Meanwhile, UCLA had done well with its version of the "pistol," averaging 262.4 rushing yards per game to rank 10th in the nation in that category. So what happened Saturday? Cal held the Bruins to 26 rushing yards and romped 35-7. Cal rushed for 304 yards.

SMU edged Tulsa 21-18 and now looks like the team to beat in the West Division of Conference USA in coach June Jones' third season. SMU moved to 3-0 in league play; it's the first time the Mustangs have started conference play 3-0 since 1986, when they were in the Southwest Conference. SMU was hit by the NCAA's "death penalty" after that season.

Last week, Indiana QB Ben Chappell threw for 480 yards and three TDs, with one pick, in a 42-35 loss to Michigan. This week, Chappell threw for 106 yards, with no TDs and two picks, in a 38-10 loss to Ohio State.

East Carolina's defense again was shredded, but it didn't matter as the Pirates edged Southern Miss 44-43 in a key Conference USA East Division showdown. Southern Miss built a 20-0 first-quarter lead, then fell apart. The Golden Eagles were called for four personal fouls in the second quarter alone, and star LB Korey Williams was ejected for throwing a punch during the period. ECU was outgained 404-338, committed four turnovers and forced none, and had the ball for 15 minutes less than Southern Miss -- and still won. The C-USA East race looks as if it will be decided when ECU plays at UCF on Oct. 30.

Army won 41-23 at Tulane for its third road victory of the season. Big deal, right? Actually, it's the first time Army has won three road games in a season since 1967.

Colorado State had run for a total of 281 yards in its first five games and was last in the nation in rushing at 56.2 yards per game going into Saturday's game at Air Force, which happened to lead the nation in rushing. So what happens? The Rams exceeded their season total on the ground and actually outrushed the Falcons 285-248. But Air Force threw three TD passes and won 49-27.

The first BCS standings of the season come out next Sunday.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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