WATCH THIS WEEK'S FEARLESS PREDICTIONS
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
No. 2 Alabama (11-1)
Here’s the deal: The 2012 BCS Championship Game will be decided in Atlanta on Saturday night.
After winning six straight BCS championships, the SEC has earned several benefits of the doubt, with the winner of the conference title game to be the projected favorite over the Irish by more than a touchdown.
Alabama overcame a rocky two-game stretch against LSU and Texas A&M to win the West and get up to No. 2 in the BCS rankings, and now the chance is there for a second straight national title and a third in four years under Nick Saban. This might not be the defensive juggernaut of last season – at least in terms of star power and NFL talent – but it’s still No. 1 in the nation in both scoring and total defense helped by two straight shutouts of Western Carolina and Auburn and allowing more than 14 points just twice all year. However, those two games were against the two stars on the schedule, LSU and Texas A&M.
The Tide might get the utmost respect on a national scale because of the coaching staff, the history, and the talent that continues to flow through the program, but there’s still a bit of a prove-it factor with this year’s squad. Beating Michigan to start the season was terrific, and getting by Ole Miss and Mississippi State was solid, but the shaky performances against the Tigers and the Aggies took away the aura of invincibility. The team that Steve Spurrier suggested could beat an NFL team now has to show it can handle itself against the star of the East.
Georgia has been dominant ever since a midseason lull. After getting blown away on defense in a shootout against Tennessee, and looking awful in a 35-7 clunker against South Carolina, the defense flipped the switch in the ugly win over Florida to spark a run to the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs rolled through their final four games in blowout fashion – 162 to 34 – but blowing away Ole Miss and rocking Georgia Tech weren’t enough to prove that this is a be-all-end-all national title season. The team’s second-best win of the year was against Vanderbilt, but there’s no avoiding the big boy from the West anymore.
Last year, the 'Dawgs got to the SEC title game without playing Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, and got walloped by the Tigers 42-10. All that matters now is one win over the Tide, and then Mark Richt will get a shot to win his first national championship and give the school its first title since beating Notre Dame in 1980.
This is the first meeting between the Tide and Dawgs since 2008, a 41-30 Alabama win, and it’s only the third meeting since 2003 and fifth since 1995. The two have never met in the SEC championship, but Nick Saban’s LSU team won the 2003 title over Richt and Georgia 34-13.
Players to watch: Manti Te’o is a lock to win the Butkus Award and be at least a Heisman finalist, but Georgia’s Jarvis Jones might be having the better season. Both are great leaders and both are tremendous playmakers, but Jones has been far, far more disruptive tying for first in the nation in tackles for loss and fourth in sacks. While Te’o is praised for his penchant for coming up with big picks – making seven on the year – Jones has just as many takeaways with one interception and six forced fumbles. Dominant against Florida, he came up with the game of the year in what turned out to be the most important win by anyone this season – keeping the Gators out of the national title picture – with three sacks and two forced fumbles.
The spotlight will be on Alabama rising star Amari Cooper, a dangerous playmaking freshman who exploded for five catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Auburn. While he has only come up with 45 catches for 767 yards and eight scores, he’s averaging 17.5 yards per catch as the home-run hitter who makes the high-efficiency passing game go. With Kenny Bell out for the year with a leg injury, Cooper will have to do even more.
Of course, the game is going to come down to the quarterbacks and which one can handle the pressure. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron has been in several big games and lots of huge moments, but can he avoid making the costly mistakes that were so big in the loss to Texas A&M? He has only thrown two picks on the season, and both were against the Aggies, to go along with 25 touchdown passes and 2,507 yards. The key to his game is to not take any chances and not force any throws, and he’s a master at that. While he’s second in the nation in passing efficiency, Aaron Murray is No. 1 after not throwing a pick over the last four weeks and throwing 13 touchdown passes. After a nightmare of a 2011 SEC championship performance – completing 16-of-40 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown with two picks – this is his chance to make amends.
Georgia will win if: Murray can get hot early. Zach Mettenberger was able to take advantage of the soft coverage to complete 24-of-35 throws for 298 yards and a score in LSU’s tough loss, and he’s nowhere near the passer that Murray is. Murray has no problems hitting the short-to-midrange throws, and getting the ball out of his hands in a hurry, and while he’s not going to move around like Johnny Manziel, he can make a few plays on the move. Oddly enough, Alabama was able to come up with a strong pass rush against both the Aggies and Tigers, and it didn’t matter. Georgia might not be a rock in pass protection, but Murray doesn’t need a ton of time to make things happen.
Alabama will win if: The defense can quickly take away the Georgia running game. It’s impossible to beat Alabama with a one-dimensional attack, and the Tide‘s No. 2-ranked run defense has the ability to eliminate Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Against the two good defenses on the schedule this season – Florida’s and South Carolina’s – the running game was slowed to a crawl and Murray struggled – he could use all the help and balance he can get. LSU was able to blast away on the Bama front seven, and Texas A&M’s terrific line was able to generate a push, too. Georgia’s offensive line has been hit-or-miss when it comes to opening things up for the talented backs, and there’s not likely going to be much wiggle room up the middle on Jesse Williams.
What will happen: Could there be fireworks? It’s doubtful, but it won’t be the ugly Georgia-Florida slugfest or a bogged- down fight like last year’s Alabama-LSU showdowns.
The two quarterbacks will be on center stage, and while each will get help from his respective running game, McCarron will get more. The stats are extremely skewed with the Dawgs giving up 663 rushing yards over the last two weeks against two option teams – Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech – but South Carolina and Kentucky were able to blast away, too. While Georgia tightened up allowing just 75 yards to Florida to kick off a terrific stretch against the run, the Tide will have some success behind the tremendous offensive line.
Can Jones get into the backfield to stop the Alabama passing game? With the secondary clamping down on Cooper, yes. The Tide offense will sputter and stall a bit too often, while Murray will come up with a sharp, error-free game with a few early scores to make McCarron press. The defense will turn Jones loose, McCarron will struggle a bit, and after allowing a late score to make it interesting, the Bulldogs will be off to Miami after a tough win.
|Georgia 24, Alabama 20|
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BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
No. 12 Nebraska (10-2)
Here’s the deal: It’s an empty Big Ten Championship Game without a 12-0 Ohio State representing the Leaders, but it could be argued – and it would be really, really thin – that attitudes and the general focus would’ve been a bit different for everyone had the division not been wrapped up the second Penn State and the Buckeyes were nailed with their respective NCAA sanctions.
Would Wisconsin have played any differently if it actually needed to try? Probably not – Bret Bielema really wanted to beat Ohio State – but the ticket to Indianapolis was effectively punched by mid-October. What happened when there was even the slightest bit of a threat to winning the division title? The Badgers came up with their strongest and most focused effort of the season setting a school record for rushing yards in a 62-14 win at Indiana.
Nebraska hasn’t exactly been consistent and the Huskers have a slew of major flaws, but they’ve been absolutely brilliant at coming up with the right play at the right moment to pull off improbable victories. From the last-second miracle win over Michigan State, to getting a huge break on a bad call against Penn State, to rallying late to pull a win from out of nowhere against Northwestern, to hanging on in the elements against Iowa, the team has proven itself time and again on the way to the Legends title for a shot at the Big Ten title in just the second year in the league.Players to watch: It has been an interesting and somewhat rocky career for Taylor Martinez, who led the team to the Big 12 Championship Game as a freshman, sputtered and struggled in big moments as a sophomore, and turned into T-Magic again as a junior throwing for close to 2,500 yards with 21 touchdowns and eight picks, while helping to carry the ground attack with 833 yards and eight scores. After spending the off-season working on his passing, he has turned into a more complete weapon with the ability to confidently and efficiently push the ball deep when he needs to. However, he’s at his best when he’s making things happen on the move, running for 205 yards and two scores against Michigan State and tearing off 107 yards and a score in the comeback win over the Badgers.
Last year, the stars of the Big Ten show were Russell Wilson and Montee Ball, with Ball running for 137 yards and three scores to go along with a receiving touchdown. The 2011 Heisman finalist won’t get to New York this year, but he’ll have to settle for owning the NCAA’s all-time touchdown mark after adding to his gaudy total with 18 rushing scores and 1,528 yards. He hasn’t been the receiver he was last year, and he hasn’t been as effective behind an offensive line that’s struggling a bit too much against the better run defenses, but he has kicked it into high gear over the second half of the season running for 100 yards or more in six of the last seven games after being held to 93 yards on 31 carries in the first game against the Huskers.
Two of the key weapons are cleared to play. Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead has had a nightmare of a time staying healthy this season, but he was able to come back for the Iowa game and turned into a difference-maker in the windy and raw conditions, cranking out 69 yards with the team’s lone touchdown on 16 carries. He appeared to have life in his legs after missing most of the second half of the year with a quick burst and good cutting ability. With only 63 carries on the season, there’s plenty of tread on the tires. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is catching a huge break with top target Jared Abbrederis returning from a concussion. Cleared this week, he’s the team’s only field-stretcher and the only semblance of balance. Without him, the Huskers would’ve been able to cheat up and sell out to stop Ball and the running game.
Nebraska will win if: It can stop the run. Duh. This isn’t that hard. The Huskers know exactly what’s coming, but can it stop it? The Badgers aren’t going to suddenly turn quarterback Curt Phillips loose and turn into the New Orleans Saints bombing the ball; they HAVE to run efficiently, they HAVE to control the clock and they HAVE to keep the defense on the sideline as much as possible. In the first matchup, the Wisconsin ground game took advantage of early mistakes and a sleepy start from the Huskers defensive line for a 20-3 lead, but it was a whole different animal in the second half as the offense couldn’t move the chains, couldn’t slow things down, and couldn’t get Martinez and the Huskers off the field as they rolled to 20 unanswered points and the win.
Wisconsin will win if: It can take advantage of all the Nebraska mistakes. Granted, it didn’t necessarily work so hot the first time around when the Badgers won the turnover battle, but they have to hope once again for the Huskers to keep screwing up and they have to produce whenever they get the opportunity. Wisconsin doesn’t generally make the big mistake, with no games this year with more than six penalties and with a mere 11 turnovers. It’s not like the offense takes a slew of big shots down the field, but the O only gave up one pick in the last five games and one lost fumble in the last six. Meanwhile, penalties have occasionally been an issue for the Huskers while turnovers have been a big, BIG problem turning it over at least twice in every game except the opener against Southern Miss and the win over Michigan State.
What will happen: It’s so hard to win a rematch. Michigan State beat Wisconsin in heartbreaking fashion in the regular season last year, and the Badgers returned the favor in the Big Ten championship. Nebraska has been playing with fire all season long, and Wisconsin hasn’t found a way to get on the right side of the breaks over the last several weeks, but now the tables will turn. It’s almost as if the Badgers have been in a holding pattern for the last few months. It’s not like they’re not trying to win, and it’s not like they don’t appear to be coming up with the maximum effort, but there hasn’t been the sense of urgency needed to come up with a stellar year. All the close losses were followed up by some sort of a comment about how all of the team’s goals were still in place, and this is it. Now the team is at the goal, and now is when the focused, effective effort will come.
|Wisconsin 27, Nebraska 23|
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NO. 18 TEXAS AT NO. 6 KANSAS STATE
Here’s the deal: Kansas State will know exactly what it needs to do by the time the ball is kicked off. If Oklahoma beats TCU, then the Wildcats will have to beat Texas or else they’ll end up having to roll the dice and hope to get an at-large BCS bowl bid. However, if TCU beats the Sooners, then this game won’t matter and K-State will have won the Big 12 title and will be off to the Fiesta Bowl.
It seems like three months since Kansas State clunked in a brutal loss to Baylor to end the national title dream and ruin Collin Klein’s Heisman hopes. It was as bad as it gets, losing to a team that came into the game with the nation’s worst defense and getting obliterated, 52-24. Was that an aberration or did it expose the team as merely average?
Meanwhile, Texas is trying to right the ship after a horrible performance against TCU to end a resurgent run that looked like would lead to a showdown with the Wildcats with a piece of the Big 12 title on the line. Instead, the flaky team has continued to underachieve considering it has as much talent as anyone in the conference.
First the defense couldn’t stop anyone, and now the offense can’t seem to find itself with shaky quarterback play and not enough points flowing. The O is getting worse instead of better, but with one win over Kansas State, the Longhorns will be 9-3 with a 10-win season still in play.
Why Texas might win: In a lot of ways, Texas does what Kansas State needs to do, only better. The key to the KSU success is mistakes – the team doesn’t make them. Texas, for all its faults, doesn’t usually make the big errors. The four turnovers against TCU last week were hardly typical with just seven of the 12 turnovers on the season coming in just two games. The Longhorns don’t commit penalties – getting flagged more than five times just twice all year – and they’re great in terms of time of possession and third-down conversions.
UT’s biggest positive is the talent gap. The team might not always play up to the level it should, and it’s been extremely underwhelming at times, but in terms of NFL skills, speed and athleticism, Texas has the ability and the potential to rise up and rock the Wildcats. Baylor might have explosion and the right scheme, but Texas has the talent and the ability to put up points in bunches if the Wildcats aren’t sharp.
Why Kansas State might win: What has Texas done so far this season to suggest that it can rise to the occasion? It came up with a strong performance against Iowa State, and it was terrific offensively against Ole Miss and Oklahoma State, but there hasn’t been a solid total team effort against a strong team so far. The talent is undeniable and the speed and athleticism are breathtaking, but the Longhorns haven’t been able to prove they can come together like Kansas State has.
Arguably Texas’ biggest issues has been the run defense, which is getting rumbled on by anyone trying to pound away. It wasn’t hard to slow Wyoming or Texas Tech, but TCU rumbled for 217 yards and two scores last week to keep control of the game, making it four games in the last six the Longhorns defense has allowed 200 yards or more. The defensive tackles aren’t holding up well, and while getting into the backfield isn’t a problem, there have been major problems dealing with power. Kansas State is going to pound away.
What to watch out for: Is it possible for Klein to make one final push for the Heisman? It seems like it’s a foregone conclusion Johnny Manziel is going to take the Heisman and Manti Te’o will finish second, but Klein is the one who gets the last say. If Oklahoma can beat TCU, then enough of a spotlight will be on this game to see what CK can do to add to the impressive stats. The K-State sports info department has done a nice job of pumping up the talking points: Klein is the only BCS conference quarterback to run for 20 scores and throw for 10 touchdowns in multiple seasons, and against ranked teams he’s 5-0, throwing 15 touchdown passes with no picks. However, he was shut down in last year’s win over Longhorns, finishing with just 4 rushing yards and throwing for just 83 yards and a score.
What will happen: Case McCoy isn’t going to shine as a starter, and David Ash will play a big role – it won’t matter. Kansas State will come back roaring from its poor performance against Baylor with an air-tight game from Klein and an inspired day from the defense.
|Kansas State 34, Texas 17|
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ACC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
No. 13 Florida St. (10-2)
Here’s the deal: Florida State is heavily favored to win an ACC Championship Game for the first time in seven years. Yet, no one is ready to pop the champagne in Tallahassee. The Seminoles was installed as a preseason sleeper to compete for a national championship, but an Oct. 6 loss to NC State lowered the bar considerably. And then just as Florida State was about to flex its muscles and answer its critics, such as the various computer models that comprise the BCS rankings, it fizzled out late in a 37-26 loss to rival Florida.
Georgia Tech got an early Christmas gift —a ticket to the ACC title game that it frankly didn’t deserve . The Yellow Jackets are 2011 UCLA, a middling 6-6 team that has no business being a win away from a berth in a huge-payday postseason game.
Players to watch: With its base run out of the triple-option, Georgia Tech naturally wants to establish the ground game this weekend.
It runs the ball an average of almost 60 times a game, and is No. 3 nationally in rushing. Still, there are no stars in the stable, which has been a part of the problem this year. Tevin Washington has been fine, but has left the door open for redshirt freshman Vad Lee to create a quarterback controversy. And who is the feature guy? Big-play Orwin Smith sat out last week with an ankle injury, and no back has rushed for more than 673 yards. The Yellow Jackets will get their yards, but they’ll need someone to erupt in order to put a deep dent in a Florida State D that ranks No. 4 nationally against the run, and yields just 2.6 yards per carry.
That nasty Florida State defense did take a hit in the Florida game, losing tenacious DE Cornellius Carradine to a season-ending ACL tear.
It was a tough blow since the senior had a team-high 80 tackles, and was one of its top run defenders. The Seminoles still have one of the game’s best ends, Bjoern Werner, and some talented youngsters just itching to get on the field. FSU fans will get an unexpected glimpse into the future, with freshmen Mario Edwards Jr. and Giorgio Newberry being asked to pick up some of Carradine’s slack. More will also be asked of linebackers Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Vince Williams, as they look to fill running lanes and accurately follow the ball from the quarterback’s hands. FSU QB EJ Manuel wants to rebound from a week ago -- he has a good opponent with which to get it done.
Georgia Tech fired defensive coordinator Al Groh at midseason, and made some nominal strides, yet still wound up No. 10 in ACC scoring and pass efficiency defense. The Yellow Jackets have some nice players in the back seven, such as LB Jeremiah Attaochu and S Jemea Thomas, but none who’ll keep the Seminoles up late at night in the film room. Manuel figures to employ a two-pronged, pounding Tech on the inside with backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., while getting his receivers and tight ends out into space. WR Rashad Greene possesses the wheels to get behind the secondary, and sure-handed TE Nick O’Leary will work underneath it. Wilder deserves more touches, despite getting just 15 carries over the last three games.
Georgia Tech will win if: It can start fast and maintain beyond halftime. The Yellow Jackets have had to hear all week how they don’t belong in this game. If they go down early, forget about the possibility of the upset. They’re liable to get trucked, much the way they did last week Between the Hedges. Tech has got to keep this game to no more than a single-digit deficit, because the offense is not built to survive in comeback mode. It has also been a bad second-half squad, which won’t cut it in Charlotte. In their six losses, the Yellow Jackets were outscored by an average margin of 20-9 over the final 30 minutes, an indictment of the staff’s locker room adjustments.
Florida State will win if: The backs make Georgia Tech a little green with envy. Even without injured star Chris Thompson, the Seminoles feature plenty of talent in the backfield. Freeman and Wilder don’t necessarily need to be prolific, but if they pick up chunks of yards on first down, Manuel becomes markedly more efficient through the air. It’s no secret that Fisher wants to achieve offensive balance, which didn’t happen in Raleigh on Oct. 6 or last week when Florida descended upon Doak Campbell Stadium. The Yellow Jackets are already wobbly in the knees on defense. If Freeman and Wilder are able to work the body early, Tech will be getting a standing eight-count before the break.
What will happen: As consolation prizes go, a coveted ACC title and a trip to the Orange Bowl aren’t so bad after all. Florida State will locate its offensive mojo at the expense of the Yellow Jackets, balancing out more than 400 yards for the first time in a month. The defense will take care of the rest, bending at times against the run, but snapping infrequently.
|Florida State 38, Georgia Tech 13|
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