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#Nuggets: The Lane Train returns to Knoxville, a massive game for Sark, and Kentucky takes its turn with Goliath

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Welcome to the most challenging, most consequential week of Steve Sarkisian's career. Because No. 25 Texas couldn't hold a 21-point lead (and an 18-point third quarter lead) over Oklahoma, this week's tilt with No. 12 Oklahoma State (noon ET, Fox) is now a turning point for Sark's tenure at Texas, both for the 2021 season and beyond. Let's discuss on two tracks.

In the immediate term: A win here and Texas still has fair-to-good odds of forcing a presumptive Red River Rematch at AT&T Stadium on the first Saturday in December. The 'Horns would be 3-1 in the Big 12 and own the tiebreaker over Oklahoma State. Determinative games with Baylor and Iowa State still await, but considering neither the Cowboys, Cyclones or Bears have played OU yet, the Longhorns could probably afford one more loss and still reach Arlington. 

But a loss? Texas falls to 2-2, needing to not only win out, but to have one of the Bedlam rivals lose three times down the stretch in order to avoid the program's conference title drought reaching a 12th straight season. Good luck with that. 

(For a historical #Nugget: Since Texas won its first conference championship -- winning something called the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1913 -- the program's longest gap between conference crowns in 11 seasons, from 1931 to 1941... and from 2010 to 2020. So this game, and all that follow, are all that stand between the current UT team and historic program futility.) 

In the long term: Among the recruits expected to be in attendance at DKR on Saturday: the No. 3 player in the 2022 class (WR Evan Stewart), the No. 9 player in the 2022 class (DB Denver Harris), the No. 27 player in the 2022 class (DB Jacoby Matthews), the No. 18 player in the 2023 class (WR Jalen Hale), the No. 19 player in the 2023 class (LB Anthony Hill), the No. 31 player in the 2023 class (RB Rueben Owens), and a certain quarterback with the last name Manning.

The outcome of a single game rarely makes or breaks recruitments, but none of those seven 5-star recruits need reasons not to pick Texas. Basically the entire SEC beckons to each and every one of them. They need reasons to pick Texas, and a 5-2 start, a close loss to OU, and a clear path to the Big 12 Championship gives Sark a tangible proof-of-concept that #AllGasNoBreaks really is working. But at 4-3 with no viable path to a conference title and it's simply more of the same. 

All of that hangs over the head of a team that's emotionally and physically beat up from a heartbreaking rivalry game loss, facing a tough Cowboy team fresh off an open week, with an 11 a.m. kick off. 

In short, Sark has to earn every bit of that $5.7 million salary this week.

One can imagine a conversation similar to this as the Longhorns leave the home locker room late Saturday morning: 

The Lane Train returns to Knoxville. The last time Lane Kiffin stepped foot in Knoxville (as a head coach), it was a hurried foot. From ESPN.com's 2019 retrospective:

"It's one of the damnedest nights I've ever seen," said Blackburn, now a senior associate AD at Middle Tennessee. "We had to get Lane out the back door and down a hallway to that press conference, which was just as crazy."

While everyone was waiting for Kiffin, it was announced the coach would only read a statement and not take questions on camera, which led to a yelling match between some reporters and Tennessee officials.

So did the scene on campus, with students and fans burning mattresses and shouting obscenities directed at Kiffin while he barricaded himself in his office at the complex before he could finally be escorted by police to his home in Knoxville sometime around 4 a.m.

Longtime equipment manager Max Parrott, who remains close with Kiffin, walked around with a fire extinguisher, putting out one mattress fire after another. Parrott later decided he was going to leave campus and get a beer to unwind, but a UT police officer tapped on his window as he was driving out of the parking lot.

"He told me, 'I wouldn't leave right now. They'll think you're trying to sneak Lane out of the building and will bust all of your windows out,'" Parrott recounted. "So I went back inside, waited it out and put out a few more mattresses [that were] on fire."

Eleven years later, Tennessee still hasn't recovered. The Vols are still climbing that hill Kiffin promised he'd crest -- though, to be fair, there have been plenty of stumbles along the way that were Tennessee's own doing.

Kiffin, meanwhile, had many more stumbles of his own, but his reputation has now fully recovered. In fact, the 1-season departure from Tennessee, the tarmac firing at USC, the early pink slip at Alabama, the Oakland Raiders flame out... it's all part of the Kiffin mystique. 

The game itself (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) should be pretty good, or at least entertaining. The No. 13 Rebels and Vols represent two of the three SEC teams topping 40 points a game.

But the game itself, at least before kickoff, takes a backseat to the spectacle. (It's not a coincidence this is Tennessee's first home sellout in four years.) Because if there's one thing we've known about Lane, it's that there's always a spectacle.

Historically, this is the time Oklahoma kicks it into high gear. The Sooners return from Dallas 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country, yet they've yet to defeat an FBS opponent by more than a touchdown. (They did outscore Texas 48-20 over the final three quarters last Saturday.) 

Will Saturday night against TCU (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), with Caleb Williams now the presumed starter, allow this Sooner team to follow in its predecessors' footsteps. 

Oklahoma, pre- and post-RRS in the Lincoln Riley era (regular season only)

Through RRSRecord (Points Per Game)After RRS

4-1 (37.0)

2015

7-0 (52.0)

3-2 (40.6)

2016

7-0 (47.6)

5-1 (42.0)

2017

7-0 (47.4)

5-1 (48.0)

2018

7-0 (50.7)

6-0 (50.2)

2019

6-1 (37.3)

2-2 (41.5)

2020

6-0 (42.0)

6-0 (41.7)

2021

???

The most important Arkansas game since... the last one. A September to remember has bled into an October to forget in Fayetteville, and now Sam Pittman must stop the bleeding.

The No. 25 Texas and No. 21 Texas A&M wins have gained value since they occurred, and there's no shame in losing to No. 13 Ole Miss by one point on the road or to No. 1 Georgia by any score. 

But now No. 17 Arkansas finds itself 4-2 overall, 1-2 in SEC play, and three weeks removed since the Razorbacks last tasted victory. 

The Hogs are favored over unranked Auburn (noon ET, CBS), and likely will be favored in every remaining game save for No. 5 Alabama. But the SEC West is so good and so deep this year that victory can't be assumed in any game ahead save for Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and so a win Saturday can be the difference between a 9-3 major-leap-forward season and a 7-5 moderate-step-forward type year.

Kentucky takes its turn with Goliath. The best season in Kentucky history happened in 1950. The Bear Bryant-led Wildcats started 10-0, rose to No. 3 in the AP poll, won their first and only outright SEC championship, and beat No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. 

That 13-7 victory over the No. 1 Sooners is one of three triumphs, in 17 tries, in UK history over the AP's No. 1 team. The most recent came in 2007, over the eventual 2-loss national champion LSU.

Those Tigers spent all season rubbing on a rabbit's foot; these Bulldogs have crushed all who dare cross them. Their last home game, against No. 8 Arkansas in another GameDay game, saw the Bulldogs take a 21-0 first quarter lead en route to a 37-0 stomping. 

No. 11 Kentucky is second to Georgia in the SEC's yards per play defense rankings... and the Wildcats rank a full yard per snap behind UGA. A Kentucky win here would be a bigger upset than unranked Texas A&M over No. 1 Alabama, and an upset like that hadn't happened in 13 years.

Mark Stoops's team should go in between the hedges confident (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), focused, and clear-eyed about the challenge ahead of them, and also comforted in the fact that no one expects them to win, so just let it loose. Because if they pull off the upset, we're officially talking about the best Wildcat outfit since Bear freakin' Bryant called Lexington home. 

We've got a Power 5 division championship game on Saturday. It's not a banner year for the Pac-12 South, to be modest about it, but the division will crown a champion regardless and chances are it'll be the winner of No. 18 Arizona State at Utah (10 p.m. ET, ESPN). 

Arizona State is 3-0 in Pac-12 play, Utah is 2-0. The only other South team with fewer than two conference losses is UCLA. 

Oregon is still the heavy favorite in the Pac-12, but if the Ducks win out they're likely headed to the College Football Playoff -- meaning the victor on Saturday night could be Rose Bowl bound win or lose in the Pac-12 Championship.

Arizona State has played in Rose Bowl twice, winning once. Utah has never been. 

No one's hoisting a trophy or dishing out roses in Salt Lake City, but this is still very much a de facto Pac-12 South championship game. 

Rapid Fire:

-- Clemson at Syracuse (7 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN): Clemson's loss to NC State was its first to a current ACC team (i.e., Notre Dame doesn't count) since... falling at Syracuse on a mid-October Friday night in 2017. 

-- No. 24 San Diego State at San Jose State (10:30 p.m. ET Friday, CBS Sports Network): SJSU hasn't defeated SDSU in San Jose since 2008.

-- Cal at No. 9 Oregon (10:30 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN): Cal head coach Justin Wilcox was born in Eugene, grew up as the son of Duck legend Dave Wilcox, was a Duck ball boy as a young kid before become a Duck player as a young adult. Sooo.... yeah. Saturday marks Wilcox's 14th game against Oregon in his near 20-year coaching career, and 2020 brought his first victory as a head coach, but he's 0-2 as the head man in Eugene.

-- UCF at No. 3 Cincinnati (noon ET, ABC): The torch officially passed from UCF to Cincinnati back on Oct. 4, 2019, when the Bearcats halted the Knights' 19-game conference winning streak, but it's always a spotlight game when these two get together. This spotlight is a particularly big one -- Saturday afternoon, network TV -- and it's all on the Bearcats.

-- No. 20 Florida at LSU (noon ET, ESPN): Oddly enough, it was a day-game loss to Florida that helped the LSU brass convince him he was the right man for the job. Five years later, Orgeron is using a day game against Florida as a rallying point to save his season, and thus his job.

"(I)t could (change everything). It could. Playing Florida, we just lost two big games in a row. Playing Florida is obviously a rivalry game for LSU. We're playing at home. They're a very good football team and it's going to be a tremendous challenge, but yes, I think that can put a little feel good back in the program."

-- Yale at UConn (noon ET, CBS Sports Network): Two streaks of note here. UConn has dropped 11 straight after snapping UMass' 16-game losing streak last week. Yale is on a 1-game winning streak against FBS foes; its 2014 win over Army was its first over a Bowl Subdivision team since 1981.

-- Purdue at No. 2 Iowa (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Iowa's No. 2 AP ranking is the program's highest since 1985. In fact, since 1960 the Hawkeyes have now spent all of seven weeks among the AP's top two.

-- No. 19 BYU at Baylor (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): It's the Grimes Bowl. Jeff Grimes' outstanding work as BYU's offensive coordinator got him the Baylor job, where he'll now try to beat BYU. The Bears have jumped, leaped and bounded from 123rd nationally in rushing (90.3 yards per game, 2.73 per carry) to 16th so far this season (228.5 per game, 6.04 a carry).

-- Miami at North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network): Last year, these two battled in the regular season finale for an Orange Bowl berth. This time around, it's a meeting of 3-loss disappointments looking to point at the other and say, "Well, at least we're not as bad off as them."

-- Pitt at Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): While Miami and UNC fight to lock the other down in the ACC Coastal cellar with Duke, Pitt and Virginia Tech will wrestle over the penthouse in the division. The winner here will essentially have a 2-game lead in the race for Charlotte.

-- Arizona at Colorado (3:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network): If Jedd Fisch is going to win a game in his first season in Tucson, 1-4 Colorado is likely his last, best opportunity.

-- Rice at UTSA (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+): Five of the seven C-USA West teams carry unbeaten conference records into this weekend, and four play each other. UTSA is officially enjoying the best start in school history; Rice hasn't won its first two conference games since 2013. The Roadrunners have taken five straight in this I-10 rivalry.

-- No. 5 Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN): Alabama hasn't dropped back-to-back games since the Iron and Sugar bowls to close the 2013 season, and the Tide haven't lost games played in consecutive weeks since a 4-game skid to close Nick Saban's first regular season way back in 2007. So, good luck, State.

-- Iowa State at Kansas State (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): Farmaggedon! Iowa State won the last edition of college football's most spectacularly named rivalry, as well as two of out of three. Prior to that, uh, K-State was 24-4.

-- Army at Wisconsin (8 p.m. ET, BTN): Wisconsin launched football in 1889, Army a year later. This is their first meeting.

-- UCLA at Washington (8:30 p.m. ET, Fox): Chip Kelly went 4-0 against Washington as Oregon's head coach, winning by scores of 43-19, 53-16, 34-17 and 52-21. This isn't his first meeting with U-Dub since returning to the Pac-12 (Washington won 31-24 in Pasadena in 2018) but you better believe Husky fans are licking their lips to take a bite out of their old nemesis here.

-- Louisiana Tech at UTEP (9 p.m. ET, ESPN+): The other game pitting C-USA West unbeatens. UTEP is 5-1 for the first time since 2005; the Miners haven't won six games in a season since 2014. 

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