Here are the key matchups, storylines, and people to watch in Week 12 of the college football schedule:
5. No. 19 Utah at Colorado (1:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)
Utah's still in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 South title, and a road win this weekend would all but wrap things up. Kyle Whittingham's doing it with an efficient, grind-it-out offense. Don't expect many explosive plays now that quarterback Tyler Huntley's out with an injury.
That should keep things close and give Colorado a chance, which is needed because an injury to Laviska Shenault - perhaps the nation's most gifted receiver - has torpedoed the Buffs' offense. At this point, both teams are led by their defenses, and Saturday's game will excite viewers who like tense, hard-hitting, this-play-could-be-the-winner type of matchups.
There's also all the Mike MacIntyre stuff swirling around Colorado, which started the season 5-0 before cratering to 5-5 (2-5 in Pac-12 play). A report earlier this week stated that MacIntyre will be fired at season's end, although AD Rick George denied making a decision.
Colorado would owe MacIntyre $10 million if it lets him go in the offseason - that's a big chunk of change. A win on Saturday might just buy the coach another year. Keep an eye on this one.
4. No. 9 West Virginia at Oklahoma State (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
West Virginia still has a shot to win the Big 12. Heck, it has an outside chance to make the playoff. But a loss to the Cowboys in Stillwater would put an end to that. And oh, how Mike Gundy would love to play party spoiler once again.
It'll be tough. West Virginia's offense is a certified juggernaut, ranking fifth in S&P+. The Dana Holgorsen-Will Grier partnership has mastered the art of being efficient and explosive. Only Oklahoma and Alabama compare, and that’s pretty good company.
The hope for Gundy's crew is that WVU struggles to finish drives. Holgorsen’s red-zone game plan is somewhat predictable. His system's built on explosive plays (11th in gains of 20-plus yards), but once the field shrinks, things get more difficult. There’s a reliance on Grier to simply make plays, rather than beating opponents through scheme designs.
Of course, Grier's been extraordinary this season. Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa have made us numb to brilliant stats, but Grier's figures are mind-boggling. He's completed 69 percent of his passes, averaged 9.9 yards per attempt, and tossed 31 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
He's even more impressive when you see him play. Grier's a marvel inside the pocket and elevates everyone around him. Enjoy it while you can, because he'll be playing on Sundays soon enough.
Oklahoma State's awful defense may not put up much resistance, but at least Gundy's crew can score. The Cowboys rank sixth in the country in plays of 20 yards or more. They posted 47 points against Oklahoma, 38 against Texas, and 44 against Boise State.
And while WVU's defense isn't as bad as usual - ranking in the fifties in both S&P+ and yards allowed per game, which are pretty much '85 Bears numbers for Holgorsen and Co. - the unit only generates pressure when it blitzes. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State shreds the blitz. Something's got to give.
The ingredients for an upset are here. Either way, we'll be treated to a scoring frenzy.
3. No. 24 Cincinnati at No. 11 UCF (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
The Bearcats are good! They may be laborious on offense, but their defense is formidable.
Luke Fickell’s group ranks 19th in defensive S&P+ and top 10 in opponents' yards per play (4.2). Snarling linemen, zooming linebackers, and lockdown corners all move at hyper-speed, shutting down every inch of grass.
It should lead to a very competitive battle when UCF has the ball. On the ground, the Knights' success is built on the principle of "spreading to run." They want to slam the ball into either B-gap, get some movement at the linebacker level, and out-leverage defenders.
Meanwhile, few defenses in the country plug the interior gaps as well as Cincinnati. It's going to be a titanic battle in the trenches.
Cincy's also one of the best blitzing teams in the nation, but UCF simply refuses to move backward on offense. The undefeated Knights are always on schedule - ranking ninth in stuff rate against - and avoiding negative plays has been their recipe for success.
Strength-on-strength matchups are always fun. UCF's strengths are a degree better than Cincy's, but Fickell's also auditioning for an Ohio State job that might open up at season's end.
We should be in for a great one.
2. No. 12 Syracuse vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Yankee Stadium. Ghastly uniforms. What more could you want?
Seriously, who approved those uniforms? I'll confess - I don't hate the pinstripe pants as much as the rest of the internet commentariat. Everything else, though? Yuck.
Fortunately, the uniforms won't affect the football game, which should be a good one. Syracuse is more than Dino Babers' barmy offense. It has the best special teams unit in the country. The defense is … fine.
Still, the top matchup will be Babers' offense versus Clark Lea's defense. If you haven’t watched Notre Dame this season (where have you been?), focus on how much the Irish move pre-snap. It's not to bluff looks, either, like a safety starting in one spot and then rotating to another. Instead, linebackers just go for walks. So do pass-rushers. Safeties, too.
It's funky. It confuses box-reading offenses, which are looking to count how many defenders are guarding the line of scrimmage before picking between one of two plays.
And Babers so happens to run a box-reading offense, which should have a tough time moving the ball on Lea's unit. Notre Dame yields only 4.4 yards per play, the ninth-best mark in the country.
Syracuse's fast tempo might stagnate Lea's movement some, but folks have tried that all season, and it hasn’t worked - yet.
1. No. 16 Iowa State at No. 15 Texas (8 p.m. ET, Longhorn Network)
Which Texas side will turn up? That's the all-important question. Tom Herman's team is 2-5 against the spread as a favorite in 2018, and 2-0-1 as an underdog. It's gone from a cute stat to a real thing.
This week, the favored Longhorns will need to be at their best from the opening kickoff because Iowa State is really, really good.
Matt Campbell’s side is a defense-first team. The Cyclones rank 26th in defensive S&P+, an impressive figure given they, you know, play in the Big 12. In fact, Texas and ISU play near-identical systems. They base out of quarters-match coverage - dropping four deep defenders, running matchup zones, and looking to compress the field.
Up front, the defenses stay as light as possible, running "Tite" fronts to cover the interior gaps along the line of scrimmage. The whole goal is to limit explosive plays on the ground and through the air.
Keep an eye on ISU freshman linebacker Mike Rose. He's often the "overhang" defender in Jon Heacock's system, meaning he's free to roam the second level and fly to the ball. He already has 11 run-stuffs and seven tackles for loss this season.
On the other side, Todd Orlando's received a bunch of praise for evolving Texas' defensive scheme since he arrived. He's done an admirable job, to be sure, but without superior athletes at his disposal, the Longhorns still rank 69th in defensive S&P+.
Orlando's defense will have its hands full with Brock Purdy, the best freshman quarterback in the country. His 13 touchdowns to two interceptions isn't a mind-blowing stat, but he's played the position with maturity, he understands the nuances of the game, and he can flat-out make plays.
Purdymania is real. Buy your stock now before the bandwagon's full.
On Saturday, ISU will look to run the ball and shorten the game before unleashing Purdy to create some magic on third downs. His favorite target is Hakeem Butler, a 6-foot-6 giant who patrols the perimeter and bullies all before him. Does Texas have anyone who can match up with him?
Orlando's vacillated between experienced corners who don’t have the typical "Texas Talent" and youthful, more athletically gifted DBs. He's yet to find a happy medium, so expect the Longhorns to keep chucking different guys at Butler in hopes of disrupting his timing.
Clay Helton, USC
We have our first repeat coach in this section. Welcome back, Clay!
Helton can't afford a loss this weekend to crosstown rival UCLA. The pressure's certainly increased on USC’s coach in recent weeks, as the team is now behind both Arizona schools in the Pac-12. The Trojans are 5-5 overall, and 4-4 in conference play.
Again, the excuse that Helton's needed to integrate a bunch of young pups into his team doesn't quite wash. Remember - all those stars you’re seeing in Alabama's offense are sophomores. Sure, that's an almost unattainable standard, but it's the standard by which USC judges itself.
And three years into the Helton tenure, USC is trending downward. It’s easy to be passive after an 11-win season last year and a Rose Bowl win the year before that. But USC needs to look at the bigger picture and where it fits into the college football landscape.
Now's the time to make a move if USC wants to quickly vault itself back to the top of the conference. Chip Kelly's still getting his feet under his desk at UCLA. Both Arizona schools have undergone recent coaching changes. Washington isn't a year-in, year-out juggernaut ... yet.
Within that context, Helton should have taken advantage. But he hasn't, as USC's just 24-9 in Pac-12 play during his tenure.
And it's simply too good of a job for the school to stand pat with an average-to-decent coach. There are plenty of others already employed at high-level schools who'd flee in an instant if the Trojans came calling.
That should be athletic director Lynn Swann's next move. Look outside the country club. The Pete Carroll is era is over. The school tried clinging to the branches by hiring Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and Helton. None of them restored the halcyon days.
Instead, USC needs fresh ideas, and again, now's a great time to strike. There aren't many premier jobs expected to open up this coaching cycle, and the Trojans should get out in front of the other big schools - many of which could be in the market for a new coach at the end of next season.
It's time to move on from Helton.