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November 8, 2010

Week 11 Watch: The fourth quarter is here

The fourth quarter is most important. That's when glory is attained or disappointment sets in.

In most cases, the 11th week represents the beginning of the fourth quarter of the season. The final three (in some instances four) regular-season games will determine so much.

Four teams -- Auburn, Oregon, TCU and Boise State -- remain undefeated and at the forefront of the national championship race.

Nine other teams with just one loss cling to hopes that they can somehow reach the BCS national championship game. Some (Wisconsin, Ohio State, LSU) have outside chances, some (Stanford, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Michigan State) are long shots and others (Utah, Nevada) really have no shot.

There also is a long list of teams still hoping to become bowl eligible, which surprisingly includes Georgia, Texas, Clemson and Notre Dame.

What teams win or play for conference championships? What teams will reach the postseason? Which ones will stumble to disappointing finishes that may cost coaches their jobs?

That will be determined in the fourth quarter.

Player under the gun

Texas QB Garrett Gilbert

His gutsy performance in the BCS championship game created speculation that Gilbert would have little trouble replacing Colt McCoy as Texas' starting quarterback. It hasn't worked out that way. Gilbert has thrown twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdown passes (seven) He was picked off five times Saturday in a 39-14 loss to Kansas State that marked Texas' fifth defeat in its past six games. Gilbert isn't entirely to blame. Texas' lack of a consistent rushing attack has put too much pressure on the first-year starting quarterback. But the Longhorns won't have a chance against Oklahoma State this week unless Gilbert performs much better.

Best game: Penn State at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., ABC regional/ESPN. The Buckeyes still can win a share of the Big Ten title, go to a BCS bowl and -- if everything falls exactly right, which is a stretch -- reach the national championship game. But the Buckeyes must hold off resurgent Penn State, which has won three in a row and is trying to get in the mix for a New Year's Day bowl.

Don't overlook this one: Iowa at Northwestern, noon, ESPN. The toughest Big Ten opponents visit Iowa City this season (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State), but the Hawkeyes have been challenged on the road. Iowa lost at Arizona and had its worst offensive game of the season last week in an 18-13 win at Indiana. Northwestern is 6-3 and fresh off allowing 35 consecutive to Penn State in a 35-21 loss. Both teams are competing for bowl positioning, with Iowa still in the mix for the Rose Bowl.

On the midweek marquee: Pittsburgh at Connecticut, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, ESPN. This could have "trap game" written all over it for Pittsburgh. The Panthers are outscoring Big East opponents by more than three touchdowns a game, while UConn is one of four teams 1-2 in the league. But the Huskies are 4-0 at home, including a win over West Virginia. The game could mark the return of Pitt star DE Greg Romeus from back surgery. And keep an eye on Toledo at Northern Illinois on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN2), which should decide the MAC West title. Both are 5-0 in the league.

Best coordinator chess match: Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen vs. Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Holgorsen is in his first season with the Cowboys since moving over from Houston, and his unit is putting up huge numbers. Oklahoma State is third nationally in pass offense, total offense and scoring offense, and sophomore WR Justin Blackmon is the most productive player at his position in the nation. The Cowboys also are 25th in rush offense. As poorly as Texas has been playing, the Longhorns still are fifth nationally in total defense and second in pass defense. But they have struggled at times against the run and are 52nd in scoring defense, mainly because they are minus-12 in turnover margin. It will be interesting to see if Holgorsen attacks mainly on the ground or through the air.

BCS-buster watch: It's a big weekend in Conference USA. First, Southern Miss is at UCF in a key East Division game. The Knights have separated themselves from the pack and basically lock up the East title with a win. There also is a key West Division contest, with Tulsa playing at Houston; those two are in a three-way tie with SMU for the division lead, and a win by Houston essentially ends Tulsa's title hopes.

Coach under the gun

South Carolina's Steve Spurrier

This represents Spurrier's best chance to get South Carolina into the SEC championship game. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee aren't playing as well as usual. Spurrier has a legitimate freshman phenom (Marcus Lattimore) in his backfield and an All-America candidate (Alshon Jeffery) at wide receiver. Spurrier arguably has the better team in Saturday's showdown with Florida for the SEC East Division title. If Spurrier is unable to get South Carolina to the Georgia Dome this season, you have to wonder if he's ever going to get it done.

Best individual matchup of the week: Alabama RB Mark Ingram vs. Mississippi State LB Chris White. When talk turns to big-time linebackers, White too often is overlooked. But he is having a great season for the Bulldogs, with 85 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and five sacks. He comes in having made double-digit tackles in four consecutive games. Ingram had back-to-back 100-yard games in his first two games upon returning from arthroscopic knee surgery, but he comes in on a streak of five consecutive games without 100 yards. Mississippi State is 7-2 and defense has led the way; this game is tougher than it looks for the Tide.

Best unit matchup of the week: Florida State offensive line vs. Clemson defensive line. FSU had four consecutive games of at least 200 rushing yards -- including three with at least 256 -- but the Seminoles have been stymied of late. They are averaging 142.7 in their pasty three games and coming off a season-low 110 in last week's loss to North Carolina. Clemson, on the other hand, has clamped down against the run, allowing 121.8 yards per game in its past five; that includes a 242-yard effort by Georgia Tech. In addition, Clemson has allowed just two rushing TDs in those five games and has allowed just four rushing TDs this season, the third-fewest in the nation. Clemson also has a top-notch pass rush led by Da'Quan Bowers, who is playing at an All-America level with a nation's-leading 12.5 sacks.

Injury report: Georgia Tech may be hard-pressed to earn a bowl bid after QB Joshua Nesbitt broke his right forearm in last week's loss to Virginia Tech; he will miss the rest of the season. He was hurt trying to make a tackle following an interception. Without the ACC's most prolific rushing quarterback, the Jackets (5-4) will turn to sophomore Tevin Washington to run the attack. Georgia Tech needs to win one of its last three games to become bowl eligible: Miami, Duke and at Georgia. Last season, the Yellow Jackets won the ACC.

Record watch: Army (5-4) has its best chance to clinch bowl eligibility when it visits Kent State (4-5). The Black Knights have not gone to a bowl since the 1996 Independence Bowl. If Army defeats Kent State, it would mark the first time all three service academies have gone to a bowl in the same season. If Army loses, it must defeat Notre Dame to go to the postseason. Army must seal its trip to the postseason before facing Navy on Dec. 11.

Coaching connection: Nebraska will give Turner Gill a warm welcome when he brings his Kansas team to Lincoln, Neb. -- partly because his Jayhawks team might not present a real threat to the Huskers' Big 12 title game hopes. In addition, the fans will welcome back a man with a long record of success with Nebraska. Gill was a Heisman finalist as a player, and was quarterback coach for Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch and during three national titles.

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