Missouri first needs to get by Auburn in the SEC Championship if they want to qualify for the big game in Pasadena, but I predict they will in our championship week preview edition of the “CFWP.”
SEC Championship: Auburn vs. Missouri
Quick Preview: After the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” and the “Kick Six” Iron Bowl victory over Alabama, it’s difficult not to buy into this whole “Team of Destiny” thing Auburn’s got going on. But if there’s one team that matches up well with the Tigers, well, it’s the Tigers. Auburn’s run game is the straw that stirs the drink, but it will face one of the best defensive lines in the nation at Missouri. While talented, the Mizzou defensive line is better known for the pass rush than its run defense. How well it does stopping Auburn’s read-option attack will be key to the game.
NFL draft prospect to watch: There’s plenty of good Missouri defenders to look at, including ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and cornerback E.J. Gaines (all of whom will be drafted in the spring), but Auburn fullback Jay Prosch is worth special attention. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban gushed (as much as Saban can gush) over Prosch, saying he “can’t say enough” about the fullback’s ability to block and carry out assignments. He’s the No. 1 ranked fullback in the 2014 class by NFLDraftScout.com.
Prediction: Missouri’s big receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington will take advantage of an Auburn pass defense than ranks 13th in the SEC, allowing an average of 256 yards per game. Mizzou will beat an Auburn team drained from consecutive big wins that won’t be nearly as intimidating on a neutral field in Atlanta. The SEC East Tigers win 35-31 and qualify for the national championship if either Ohio State or Florida State loses. Kickoff is at 3:00 p.m. CT on CBS.
Big Ten Championship: Ohio State vs. Michigan State
Preview: The best unit on the field on Indianapolis will be the Michigan State defense, stocked with next-level talent. They’ll be tasked with stopping the lethal combination of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. But the game may come down to how the underachieving Ohio State defense does against a merely average Spartans offense. Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford have been improving ever since their loss to Notre Dame earlier in the season.
NFL draft prospect to watch: If there’s one position the Packers seem set, it’s running back after drafting both Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin this past April. But if there’s ever a Mike McCarthy type of back, it’s Hyde, a powerful, one-cut runner, who proved himself as the conference’s best over the course of the season. Averaging 7.8 yards per carry for a power back is a remarkable achievement.
Prediction: Miller will be the same, game-changing player he’s been all season long. He’ll hit on one long play, either with the run or the pass, that will be the difference in a low-scoring game. Buckeyes win 24-17 to punch their ticket to Pasadena for the BCS championship. Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. CT on Fox.
ACC Championship: Florida State vs. Duke
Preview: This game might have been made interesting if the nation’s best player, quarterback Jameis Winston, had been charged with a crime and forcing him into a suspension (not that I was wishing that upon him). With Winston, however, Duke has no chance. The Blue Devils have been a terrific story under the leadership of head coach David Cutcliffe and deserve all the credit in the world for what they’ve been able to achieve. But Florida State, with the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (11.0 ppg) and No. 2 scoring offense (53.7 ppg) will be too hot too handle.
NFL draft prospect to watch: Evan Dietrich-Smith is a free agent at season’s end, and even if he does sign a contract extension, the Packers could use a backup plan. Enter Florida State’s Bryan Stork, the third-ranked center in the 2014 class by NFLDraftScout.com and a potential Day 2 draft choice.
Prediction: The Duke defense might be good enough to force a handful of punts by Florida State, but definitely won’t be able to stop the Seminoles with any sort of consistency. Seminoles dominate, 45-14. Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. CT on ABC.
Pac-12 Championship: Stanford vs. Arizona State
Preview: The Pac-12 Championship lost a lot of luster by qualifying a pair of teams with a pair of losses. As late as early November, it looked like Stanford might be one of the nation’s best teams after beating Oregon. But losses to Utah and USC proved otherwise. Stanford then backed into the conference title game when Oregon unexpectedly lost to Arizona. Meanwhile, Arizona State comes in on a seven-game winning streak, but they’ll be without the services of Marion Grice, one of the best all-around running backs in America that could do damage both in the running and passing game. Grice has a leg injury.
NFL draft prospect to watch: The Packers need help at safety, and they might be hoping that Stanford safety Ed Reynolds declares for the draft after his junior season. Whereas some safeties are known as either better in coverage or big hitters, Reynolds might be the best combination of both. At 6-2 and over 200 lbs., he has the length to get good range and the size to pack a wallop.
Prediction: Very similar to Missouri, Arizona State has a terrific front seven, but it’s better at rushing the passer than stuffing the run. They’ll find it difficult to stop running back Tyler Gaffney behind the blocking of dominating guard David Yankey. Stanford wins 28-27. Kickoff is at 6:45 p.m. CT on ESPN.
Mountain West Championship: Fresno State vs. Utah State
Preview: The hopes of an undefeated season and a spot in a BCS bowl game are over for Fresno State after a loss in the regular-season finale to San Jose State, but there’s still a chance to win the inaugural Mountain West Championship game. They’ll take on a Utah State team led by head coach Matt Wells, who’s kept up the string of success started under now Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. It’s a matchup of Fresno State’s No. 1 scoring offense in the Mountain West (47.3 ppg) against the conference’s No. 1 scoring defense at Utah State (16.8 ppg).
NFL draft prospect to watch: Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr is a potential first round draft pick after putting together a terrific senior season that saw him complete over 70 percent of his passes along with a 45-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’ll hope to have a better professional career than his brother, David Carr, the former No. 1 overall draft choice back in 2002.
Prediction: Carr will connect with star wide receiver Davante Adams on at least two touchdown passes, and Utah State won’t be able to counter without their own start quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who was lost to a season-ending knee injury. Bulldogs win 38-29 to qualify for the Las Vegas Bowl. Kickoff is at 9:00 p.m. CT on CBS.
Conference USA Championship: Marshall vs. Rice
Preview: Marshall and Rice both needed wins in their regular season finales and both got them to advance to the CUSA championship. The Thundering Herd were able to get by a very good East Carolina team behind the strength of the conference’s No. 1 scoring offense, putting up 44.6 points per game. Rice’s calling card is its running game, and back David Ross, who’s rushed for over 1,100 yards and has 12 touchdowns on the season.
NFL draft prospect to watch: He won’t be highly drafted because he’s only 6-2, but because he has a knack for finding the end zone, H-back Gator Hoskins will get an opportunity somewhere in the NFL. He leads Marshall with 13 receiving touchdowns and is reminiscent of former Packers tight end/H-back D.J. Williams because of his size.
Prediction: Rice has a good pass defense, limiting opponents to just 190 yards per game. But they’ll be exposed against Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, who’s thrown 34 touchdown passes this season and will throw a few more on Saturday. The Herd qualifies for the Liberty Bowl by winning 35-23. Kickoff is at 11:00 a.m. CT on ESPN2.
The Wisconsin Connection
First things first, congratulations to Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland on winning both the Big Ten’s Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year Award and the Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Many have lamented and made a very compelling argument for Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier to win both awards. Let’s just say I’m glad I don’t have to vote. It was a tough choice and both players are very deserving.
In the aftermath of what was named the conference’s “Inexplicable Result of the Year” by Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports, the time is appropriate to give the Wisconsin coaching staff some well-deserved criticism.
Don’t get me wrong, Gary Andersen and company have done a terrific job in Madison all year long, and they have my full support, but they’re not above reproach for at least one week.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda earned some much-deserved flak for his failure to get his unit ready for Penn State’s no-huddle offense, late playcalls onto the field and his late defensive substitutions. With just nine players on the field at one point, it’s simply unacceptable.
I think the mainstream media did a good job outlining Aranda’s shortcomings against Penn State, so instead, I wanted to chip in a critique of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and something that I think hasn’t gotten much press because of a very good 9-3 record this season.
In the game against Penn State in particular, the Badgers called too many deep play-action passes, especially in the first half before Penn State took a commanding 17-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Granted, they had to pass in the fourth quarter to play catch-up, but Stave attempted 53 passes on an evening when the Badgers ground game was working just fine.
No, the Badgers weren’t breaking off any home runs like they’ve done all season long, but Melvin Gordon and James White averaged an effective enough 5.7 yards per carry, and the Badgers should have just stuck with the running attack.
Furthermore, the under-utilization of Gordon in 2013 was very uncalled for. This is a player who was eighth in the nation averaging 8.1 yards per carry (second in the nation for player with more than 100 carries).
Yet Gordon also ranked just 62nd in the nation with 15.1 rushing attempts for game.
By all appearances, White is a great guy and a very good player in his own right. By my estimation, he’s going to be a mid-round draft choice in the NFL.
And there’s certainly nothing wrong by honoring the senior, making him the starter at running back all year long, but Gordon should have been getting the bulk of the work.
Certainly, part of the reason White got so much playing time was because they don’t trust Gordon as a receiver or in pass protection as much as White, and that’s fine too. But it’s no secret Wisconsin is going to run the ball just about more than any non-option team in America.
I’m not accusing the Wisconsin coaching staff for doing so, but if they tried to get Gordon to come back for next season instead of declaring for the NFL draft by intentionally holding him back, then shame on them. And shame on them for not feeding him the ball more often even if that wasn’t their modus operandi.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.