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October 25, 2010

Week 9 Watch: No kings of the road

If home is where the heart is, the road is where the heartbreak is.

That's been proved in the past three weeks of the season as three No. 1 teams have lost games on the road: Alabama fell at South Carolina, Ohio State fell at Wisconsin and Oklahoma, which was No. 1 in the BCS standings, lost at Missouri.

Seven teams remain unbeaten, and six of them hit the road in the ninth week.

Auburn, riding high after last week's win over LSU, has to avoid an emotional letdown at Ole Miss. Michigan State travels to Iowa in what shapes up as the Spartans' greatest remaining challenge. Oregon must go to Los Angeles to face USC, which is two last-play field goals away from being undefeated. Missouri, coming off that upset win over Oklahoma, heads to Nebraska for a game that figures to determine the North Division representative in the Big 12 championship game. TCU has allowed just one touchdown over the last four games and aims to continue that stinginess against UNLV. Mountain West Conference rival Utah has scored more than 50 points in four of its past five games and aims to keep flying high at Air Force.

Several other significant teams face big road games, too. Baylor, which shockingly leads the Big 12 South, goes 100 miles south on I-35 to face reeling Texas, a team the Bears haven't beaten since 1997. Two-time defending Conference USA champion East Carolina visits UCF in a clash that likely will determine the C-USA East Division winner. And Georgia and Florida travel to Jacksonville for their annual grudge match in what basically amounts to an elimination game in the SEC East race.

Player under the gun

Washington QB Jake Locker

Locker is playing at less than full strength in an attempt to keep the Huskies in bowl contention. Locker withstood sore ribs and a thigh injury to play Saturday in a 44-14 loss at Arizona. Next up is a duel with Stanford's Andrew Luck in a matchup between two of the nation's top NFL quarterback prospects. Washington (3-4) proved against USC it can beat quality teams when Locker is playing well, but is he healthy enough to deliver a similar performance against Stanford? Washington's bowl hopes could depend on it.

Best game: Oregon at USC, 8 p.m., ABC regional/ESPN GamePlan. No one has come close to slowing down RB LaMichael James, QB Darron Thomas and the rest of the explosive Oregon offense. But USC's defense is improving, and its offense can challenge the Ducks in a high-scoring game. Behind QB Matt Barkley, the Trojans average more than 37 points per game.

Don't overlook this one: Louisville at Pittsburgh, noon, Big East syndication/SportsNet New York/Mid-Atlantic Sports Network/ESPN GamePlan. Results in the past two weeks have made the Big East much more competitive than it once appeared. West Virginia lost at home to Syracuse, and Pittsburgh has won its two Big East games this season by a combined 86-35. The Panthers discovered their passing game in those wins, and they'll find out if their defense is good enough against Louisville, which features RB Bilal Powell and the most productive rushing attack in the conference.

On the midweek marquee: Florida State at N.C. State, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN. FSU's 47-17 loss to Oklahoma is a distant memory as the Seminoles have won five in a row since, including a 4-0 start in ACC play. The Seminoles face their toughest challenger in the ACC Atlantic this week. Florida State leads the nation in sacks, so Wolfpack QB Russell Wilson's ability to avoid pressure and mistakes will be the key to the game. Wilson has thrown nine picks in his past four games.

Best coordinator chess match: Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson vs. Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. Nebraska is coming off an impressive 51-point outing at Oklahoma State. But the Cowboys' are sieve-like on defense, and it's the preceding game -- the one the Huskers lost to Texas -- that has to worry Watson. Missouri's defense is much closer to Texas' than to Oklahoma State's. Steckel, who doubles as Mizzou's linebacker coach, has gotten high-level play from a unit that lacks star power. Mizzou's linebackers, headed by Andrew Gachkar, have to stand up to the Huskers' option-based attack. Huskers QB Taylor Martinez is coming off a passing performance that saw him throw five TD passes, so will Watson be willing to air it out early?

BCS-buster watch: Tulsa at Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m., NBC. Who would have thought a visit from Tulsa would be a must-win affair for the Irish? Defense is optional in this one, as neither team figures to offer much resistance. But the 4-4 Fighting Irish must win coming off a dispiriting 35-17 beatdown by Navy, which ran for 367 yards and gained 438 overall. Brian Kelly can't afford another loss to a non-Big Six team. The Irish may need to score 35 points to beat the Golden Hurricane, who have had two weeks to prepare for the game. And they should be able to do it against a Tulsa team that ranks No. 108 in total defense (443.3 ypg).

Coach under the gun

Arizona State's Dennis Erickson

Arizona State won the first eight games of Erickson's tenure, but the Sun Devils have gone 14-22 in the 36 games since. California's 50-17 blowout of Arizona State last week gave the Sun Devils four losses in their past five games. The Sun Devils (3-4) must beat Washington State (1-7) this week to have any realistic hope of earning a bowl bid. This game may be closer than you'd think. Washington State was competitive against Stanford last week, and Arizona State QB Steven Threet's status is uncertain after he sustained a concussion against Cal.

Best individual matchup of the week: Stanford QB Andrew Luck vs. Washington QB Jake Locker. Any time two of the nation's premier quarterbacks are on the field at the same time, it's a matchup worth watching. Locker has all the physical tools the NFL craves, but this season's inconsistency is a microcosm of his college career. Luck, too, has all the physical tools, and he is surrounded by better talent, which means the Cardinal don't rely on him as heavily as the Huskies rely on Locker. The NFL scouts will be out in force for this one.

Best unit matchup of the week: Oregon offensive line vs. USC defensive line. The Ducks returned all five starters on the line, and they are just mashing people this season. Oregon is third nationally in rush offense at 308.4 yards per game, and that kind of production isn't just an offshoot of having LaMichael James in the backfield. C Jordan Holmes is the ringleader for the Ducks up front, and they'll be going against a talented albeit mildly underachieving front four. DT Jurrell Casey has played well, with 35 tackles and two sacks. But the ends haven't been as productive as expected. At any rate, standing up against the run is going to be vital if the Trojans are to beat the Ducks on Saturday night. USC's offense should do fine; it's the defense -- which was shredded for 391 rushing yards by the Ducks last season -- that needs to step up.

Injury report: The status of Penn State QB Robert Bolden is unknown for this week's game against Michigan after he left the Nittany Lions' 33-21 victory at Minnesota with an apparent head injury in the middle of the second quarter. Junior Matt McGloin took over for Bolden and tossed two touchdown passes. Sophomore Kevin Newsome also saw some action. Both are capable of running the attack for Penn State (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten), but they lack Bolden's arm and playmaking ability.

Record watch: This season is a dream for Baylor and a nightmare for Texas. How far can the role reversal go? The Longhorns play host to the Bears on Saturday. Baylor has a 12-game losing streak against Texas and a nine-game losing streak in Austin. Meanwhile, Texas is looking to avoid three consecutive home losses for the first time since 1988-89, when the Longhorns lost four in a row in Austin over the course of two seasons (Arkansas, Houston and Texas A&M in '88 and Penn State in '89). A fourth loss also would end any possibility of a 10th consecutive 10-win season for the Longhorns.

Coaching connection: Tommy Tuberville was Texas A&M's defensive coordinator for one season (1994) before taking his first head-coaching job, at Ole Miss. Given the amount of speculation about Tuberville any time the Aggies have had a job opening, it would seem as if he spent a decade in College Station because of all the talk about "his ties to A&M." The Aggies play host to Tuberville's Texas Tech Red Raiders on Saturday, and the teams are sitting at the bottom of the Big 12 South. The loser has to be concerned about its bowl chances, particularly A&M.

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