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October 24, 2011

Week 9 Watch: Lessons learned

From the Atlantic (Coast Conference) to the Pacific (12), the goal within hallowed halls of academia always has been to educate.

And to win national championships, of course.

Accomplishing either often has required that one learn from one's mistakes. But in the BCS race, it's much easier -- and a lot less painful -- to learn from someone else's mistakes.

That will be the mission for five of the nation's eight remaining undefeated teams as the season moves into its ninth week.

Learn from Wisconsin, which found that the road is treacherous, an early 14-point lead is meaningless and a perfect season can vanish as fast as a replay official can see a football cross the goal line.

Player under the gun

Kansas State QB Collin Klein

Although he has led Kansas State to a 7-0 start, Klein hasn't needed to pass all that much. Klein, a junior, has run for 793 yards and 14 touchdowns, but his 195 passing yards Saturday in a 59-21 blowout of Kansas represented a career high. The unbeaten Wildcats likely will need Klein to provide more balance in the next two weeks, when they face Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. K-State has emerged as one of the nation's biggest surprises by relying on its defense and running game. The Wildcats' chances of emerging as a legitimate national title contender could depend on whether Klein can offer a passing threat as well.

Learn from Oklahoma, which found not even a colossal home-field advantage guarantees security against an explosive offense with a hot quarterback.

Those two teams haven't necessarily fallen out of the national championship picture, though they have been pushed into the background.

[BCS analysis: Upsets shake up Top 10]

Kansas State, Clemson, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Houston must learn from them.

Clemson and Stanford are on the road this week against opponents (Georgia Tech and USC, respectively) that in the past have given them trouble.

Oklahoma State and Kansas State face opponents with explosive offenses and hot quarterbacks (Baylor's Robert Griffin III and OU's Landry Jones, respectively).

Meanwhile, Houston aims to avenge last season's loss to crosstown rival Rice.

Philosopher George Santayana once said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Recent history counts. Other teams' history does, too.

Best game: Stanford at USC, 8 p.m., ABC regional/ESPN GamePlan. The Cardinal and Trojans are a combined 13-1. Stanford QB Andrew Luck and USC QB Matt Barkley both direct offenses capable of posting impressive scores. Stanford defeated the Trojans on a last-play field goal a year ago. USC wrecked Notre Dame's BCS hopes last week; now the Trojans are out to wreck Stanford's national title hopes.

Don't overlook this one: Illinois at Penn State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2. Thanks to Wisconsin's loss to Michigan State, Penn State now is atop the Big Ten Leaders Division. The Nittany Lions look to finally be developing a capable offense with Matt McGloin taking the reins at quarterback -- and handing off to Silas Redd. Penn State's 57 points in the past two games are a season best in back-to-back games. On the other sideline, Illinois' offense is continuing to backslide, and the Illini have lost two in a row after a 6-0 start.

Under-the-radar storyline: Michigan State at Nebraska, noon, ESPN. At one point, Nebraska could have had Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick and Jerel Worthy at defensive tackle. Only three major-conference schools offered Worthy a scholarship out of Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne -- Cincinnati, Michigan State and Nebraska. Worthy, a three-star prospect, liked Nebraska but ended up at Michigan State, where he anchors the Big Ten's top defense. Of those three defensive tackles, only Worthy will be on the field Saturday. Suh, of course, already is in the NFL, and Crick is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

[Rivals.com experts: What we learned during Week 8]

On the midweek marquee: Get ready for games every night from Tuesday to Friday. Troy at Florida International (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2) was expected to be a sort of de facto Sun Belt title game, but both teams have disappointed. Still, FIU WR T.Y. Hilton should make the game worth watching. Connecticut at Pittsburgh (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN) is a meeting of mediocre teams that are 1-1 in Big East play, but both realistically can contend for a BCS bid. Miami has won three of its past four games, with the only loss coming by a field goal to Virginia Tech. The resurgent Hurricanes play host to Virginia on Thursday (8 p.m., ESPN). And BYU, riding a five-game winning streak, plays on a Friday night for the third time this season; this week, the Cougars face former Mountain West Conference rival TCU (8 p.m., ESPN) in Arlington, Texas.

Coach under the gun

Illinois' Ron Zook

Illinois' season has reflected Zook's roller-coaster career as a head coach. When Illinois won its first six games, Zook earned raves for his ability to withstand the loss of his three best players from last season. But the Illini have since dropped two in a row, including a 21-14 upset loss at Purdue in which they spotted the Boilers 21 points and couldn't come all the way back. The slump might not end anytime soon. Illinois travels to Penn State on Saturday and plays host to Michigan and Wisconsin after that. Zook must find a way to upgrade an offense that has totaled 21 points in its two-game skid. If the offense doesn't get better, an Illinois team that was smelling roses a couple of weeks ago could be stuck spending the holidays in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl instead.

Best individual matchup of the week: Wisconsin C Peter Konz and Gs Travis Frederick and Kevin Zeitler vs. Ohio State DT John Simon. Wisconsin got a good push up front last week and rushed for 220 yards against a Michigan State defense that had been allowing just 67.0 rushing yards per game. Last week, the Badgers' interior linemen had to deal with Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy; this week's tough opponent is Simon, who is undersized (6 feet 2/270 pounds) but extremely quick and blessed with good instincts. Simons has 26 tackles, three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss, and he heads a defense that has allowed just four rushing touchdowns.

Best unit matchup of the week: Stanford offensive line vs. USC defensive line. The Cardinal's offensive line, led by G David DeCastro and T Jonathan Martin, once again has been mashing people; they also are again proficient in protecting QB Andrew Luck. Stanford rushed for 446 yards and five TDs in mauling Washington last week. USC is No. 11 nationally in rush defense, allowing just 91.1 yards per game. USC's pass rush isn't overpowering, so it's important for the Trojans to slow down Stanford's rushing attack; if they don't, Luck will play-action them to death.

[Y! Sports Shop: Buy college football gear]

Best coordinator chess match: Florida's Charlie Weis vs. Georgia's Todd Grantham. Weis' cause would be helped if starting QB John Brantley is healthy and can play. Florida's offense has gone into the tank without Brantley, and Weis has had to use true freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. Given Florida's CIA-like secrecy when it comes to injuries, don't expect any kind of full report on Brantley, which means Grantham's defense will have to get ready for a variety of looks. One thing in Florida's favor: Its offense was stuck in the mud last season when the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party rolled around, but the Gators still managed to put up 450 yards and 34 points on the Bulldogs. This Georgia team has been much better against the run, though, and if Grantham's guys can stifle the run Saturday, Florida is in big trouble, whether Brantley plays or not.

Spotlight conference: Big Ten. Talk of national championships may subside for a while, but there still are several games that are key in the division races this week. Michigan State travels to face Nebraska in a clash of top contenders in the Legends Division. Having already beaten Michigan, the Spartans could take command of the division race with a victory. Penn State could take control of the Leaders Division when it faces Illinois, while Wisconsin, hoping to bounce back from Saturday's gut-wrenching loss to Michigan State, must travel to Ohio State. Purdue and Michigan meet in an interdivisional clash with both aiming to remain relevant in their division races. Purdue is trying to win consecutive games for the first time all season.

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