With the three teams atop the BCS standings facing tough challenges this weekend, viewers are on upset alert. Call it a code red as the nation’s top teams visit or revisit shades of angst.
• Red stick — The headliner might be in Baton Rouge, La., where Nick Saban takes top-ranked Alabama (9-0) into Death Valley to face No. 15 LSU (6-2) and 93,000 fans who would rather eat canned gumbo than lose to the coach who left them.
“This game is not about me,” said Saban, who led LSU to the 2003 national title and then exited a year later to lead the NFL’s Miami Dolphins … before returning to the SEC last season to coach Alabama. “It was very special what we were able to do [at LSU]. We have great memories and great friends there, but my heart is with this team.”
The Crimson Tide have dispatched all comers with outstanding line play, a powerful running game and disciplined, mistake-free football. But Saturday’s game marks the first time Alabama will be outmanned along both lines - and in a stadium where the Tigers are 42-5 since 2002.
The LSU offense features tailback Charles Scott (6.7 yards a carry) running behind a seasoned offensive line boasting an SEC-best 136 combined starts. Alabama is expecting mammoth defensive tackle Terrence Cody to return to the lineup after missing two starts with a sprained knee, but Cody (6-foot-5, 375 pounds) and the Tide should get all they can handle from the SEC’s second-best offense.
The Tigers have been an enigma defensively. LSU returned every member of its two-deep on the defensive line - except Glenn Dorsey - from last season’s national championship team but has struggled with consistency. In the past month, the Tigers surrendered more than 50 points in losses to Florida and Georgia, but the return of senior linebacker Darry Beckwith and BCS title game MVP Ricky Jean-Francois should help.
One key could be Alabama’s relative imbalance. LSU’s weakness is a secondary ranked 39th against the pass, but the Crimson Tide might not be able to take advantage with a passing offense that ranks 102nd in the nation.
• Seeing red — No. 2 Texas Tech (9-0) tries to back up last week’s upset of Texas with a Lubbock redux against No. 8 Oklahoma State (8-1), but there’s little chance the game will live up to last season’s matchup.
Last year in Stillwater, Okla., the Cowboys edged the Red Raiders 49-45 in a game that featured a last-minute drop in the end zone by Texas Tech uber-wideout Michael Crabtree and sparked perhaps the two best postgame coaching rants of the season.
“I’m 47 and I still haven’t made ‘man,’” said Texas Tech coach Mike Leach this week, referencing Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s infamous “I’m a man!” tirade after last season’s game.
While the game’s highest-profile players are Crabtree (70 receptions for 921 yards and 15 touchdowns) and Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell (3,621 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and just five interceptions), watch out for the weekend’s upset trend favoring versatility over imbalance. Oklahoma State features the country’s most dynamic 1-2-3 offensive punch in quarterback Zac Robinson (rated No. 2 in the nation in passing efficiency), running back Kendall Hunter (135.6 yards a game) and receiver Dez Bryant (No. 2 in the nation in receiving yards a game at 117.1).
• In the pink — No. 3 Penn State (9-0) makes its final road trip of the season, traveling to Iowa (5-4) to visit the erratic Hawkeyes and their famed pink visiting locker room.
The Hawkeyes have lost their four games by a combined 12 points and are far more daunting in Kinnick Stadium, where they are 41-9 since 2001. An excellent defensive team (seventh in points allowed), the Hawkeyes lean heavily on junior tailback Shonn Greene. A 5-11, 235-pound bruiser, Greene ranks third in the country in yards per game (139.7) despite running behind an average offensive line.
“Good defense always starts with trying to make your opponent play left-handed,” he said. “So I’m sure [Penn State] is not going to make it easy for us to run the ball.”