What We're Watching - Championship Week
Where did the time go? It seems like three weeks ago that college football was just getting underway, and now we're at the last true college football weekend until Labor Day 2013. With that in mind, let's get right to it.
Louisville at Rutgers (7:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN): Kyle Flood's team has played great defense all season, except when it hasn't. The Scarlet Knights have allowed just under 10 points per game in their nine wins, and given up 31 points per game in their two losses. Rutgers has the best pass efficiency defense in the Big East, with a collective opposing quarterback rating of 111.04. But against the best quarterbacks they've faced - Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, have a composite 142.35 rating with 775 passing yards. Enter Louisville's dynamic quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who enters Thursday on quite a roll. The sophomore has thrown for 1,495 yards and 12 touchdowns over his last four games. But Bridgewater must help Louisville halt its two-game losing streak. The Cardinals have yet to play a full 60 minutes on the road, losing 45-26 at Syracuse in their last road trip and struggling to get by dismal Florida International and Southern Miss.
Northern Illinois vs. Kent State (7 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN2): Friday night's MAC Championship, all things being equal, is this weekend's biggest heavyweight bout as 11-1 overall and 8-0 MAC East champion Kent State squares off with 11-1 overall and 8-0 MAC West champion Northern Illinois with the winner not only claiming the conference crown, but also an outside shot at the Orange Bowl. Kent State will look to do what no one else has this season, slow down the indestructible Jordan Lynch. The Huskies quarterback, whose coach threw his name behind in the Heisman Trophy race, has accounted for 39 touchdowns while throwing for 2,750 yards and rushing for 1,611 more. Kent State runs the ball and stops the run as well as anyone in the MAC, but the only thing it truly excells at, its second-ranked 1.67 turnover margin, comes in handy in games like this.
UCLA at Stanford (8 p.m. ET Friday, FOX): Let's do this again, shall we? After defeating UCLA 35-17 on Saturday, Stanford turns around and hosts the Bruins again six days later. If college football operated in a similar fashion to the NFL, Stanford would be the proverbial "team no one wants to play". The Cardinal, winners of six straight, have the nation's best defensive front and, with the insertion of redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, an efficient, diverse offense. Jim Mora will hope the six day break will be enough to solve a Stanford front that sacked quarterback Brett Hundley seven times and stuffed running back Johnathan Franklin to the tune of 21 carries for 65 yards.
Oklahoma at TCU (12 p.m. ET, ESPN): TCU head coach Gary Patterson has stressed the need for first-year Big 12 member to slay the win dragons Texas and Oklahoma that have dominated the conference for a decade-plus. Part one was checked when the Horned Frogs beat Texas 20-13 in Austin on Thanksgiving night, and part two comes to Fort Worth on Saturday. Patterson is also well aware of his team's struggles at home this season. Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, who became the Big 12's all-time leading passer on Saturday, closes out his conference career against the Big 12's best pass defense. The Horned Frogs lead the conference in interceptions and trail only Oklahoma in pass efficiency defense. That match-up will be key because, oh by the way, at 97.3 yards per game and 3.07 yards per carry, TCU also has the conference's best run defense.
Central Florida at Tulsa (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2): Conference USA has long been an offense-minded league, but its the league's two best defenses that will decide the 2012 title. Saturday's game is a rematch of Tulsa's 23-21 win over the Knights on Nov. 17. The final score indicates an evenly-played game, but in actuality the Golden Hurricane posted 461 yards against UCF's defense while limiting George O'Leary's team to just 235 yards. Tulsa was nearly undone by its two turnovers, including a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown. A clean game should equal a conference title for Bill Blankenship's bunch.
Boise State at Nevada (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Remember Boise State's last trip to Nevada? Chris Petersen certainly does. There isn't as much on the line as the last time the Broncos played in Mackay Stadium, but a win will give them a share of the Mountain West title. Boise Statte, the MWC leaders in five major defensive categories plus turnover margin, will work to keep this a low-scoring game, while Chris Ault will work to get his seventh-ranked rushing offense off to the races.
Alabama vs. Georgia (4 p.m. ET, CBS): Saturday will be Mark Richt's 157th game as the head coach at Georgia, and without a doubt his biggest. Five SEC programs have won the conference's eight national championships in the BCS era, and this game will be the closest Georgia has come to joining that elite club. Meanwhile, all that's on the line for Nick Saban's team is a shot at three national titles in four years, a feat only accomplished by Tom Osborne and Nebraska in college football's ultra-modern era. Georgia's Aaron Murray leads the country with a 177.15 quarterback rating, trailed closely by A.J. McCarron at 176.26. Whichever quarterback can play the closest to that standard will lead his team to victory.
Texas at Kansas State (8 p.m. ET, ABC): With starting quarterback David Ash is sidelined with a rib injury, junior Case McCoy gets his first start of the year. While McCoy has the penchant for the dramatic (see comebacks at Texas A&M in 2011 and Kansas in 2012), over 60 minutes opposing defenses tend to exploit his inability to stretch the filed vertically. On the other sideline is a Kansas State team looking to: a) lock up the Big 12 title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, b) give Collin Klein's closing argument for the Heisman Trophy and c) let out some pent up frustration after losing its chance at a national championship for the first time since the loss to Baylor.
Florida State vs. Georgia Tech (8 p.m. ET, ESPN): With Miami self-imposing its bowl ban on short notice, Georgia Tech walks into a situation where it is quite literally Orange Bowl or bust. A win gives the Yellow Jackets the ACC's BCS berth, and a loss could sent the 6-7 Jackets home for the winter. Meanwhile, Florida State has done a lot of winning under Jimbo Fisher, but the Seminoles have not yet won the ACC. Fisher will have to pull his team off the mat after an emotionally and physically tough loss to Florida. Recently-named Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops will lean on his fourth-ranked run defense (85.1 yards per game, 2.65 yards per carry) to slow down the Georgia Tech's triple option.
Nebraska vs. Wisconsin (8:17 p.m. ET, FOX): A sea of red will descend upon the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, and Saturday's meeting will determine exactly which shade of red will be the Big Ten's representative at the Granddaddy of Them All. At 10-2, Nebraska has quietly put together a very solid season, victimized only by the spread attacks of UCLA and Ohio State. These teams met previously on Sept. 29, a 30-27 Nebraska win in which quarterback Taylor Martinez rallied the Cornhuskers from a 27-10 second-half deficit. The Badgers struggled to contain Nebraska's three-pronged rushing attack of Martinez (107 yards), Rex Burkhead (86 yards) and Ameer Abdullah (70 yards). After missing a month of action, Burkhead returned against Iowa and led Nebraska with 69 rushing yards. Wisconsin, hoping to win the Big Ten for the first time in school history, has lost three of its last four, but none in regulation. The Badgers fell to Michigan State 16-13 in overtime on Oct. 27, beat Indiana 62-14 on Nov. 10, lost to Ohio State 24-21 in overtime on Nov. 17 and then fell to Penn State 24-21 in overtime on Saturday.