There’s only one place to start this week’s column…
Where College Gameday Is At
The ESPN College Gameday crew will be in Atlanta, site of the SEC championship game. In other words, the BCS championship semifinal game. Either Georgia or Alabama, the winner of Saturday’s game, will meet Notre Dame in the BCS national title game.
From all appearances, it should be a competitive game. Players will rise to the occasion, which will make this appointment viewing even more exciting.
Detractors will point to Georgia’s relatively easy schedule. Besides the win over Florida in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Bulldogs’ next-best win comes over Vanderbilt.
On the flip side, despite residing in the rough and tumble SEC West, Alabama doesn’t exactly boast a terribly strong resume either. Outside of a win over LSU, a game in which they looked extremely vulnerable, the next highest-rated opponent they beat was Michigan in the season opener.
Saturday’s game boasts a pair of quarterbacks who are ranked No. 1 and 2 nationally in passer rating. Georgia’s Aaron Murray (177.2) barely edges Alabama’s A.J. McCarron (176.3). They key on Saturday might be which quarterback cracks under the pressure.
For the most part, both quarterbacks have been models of consistency this season. Neither is flashy like Johnny Manziel, but both are good leaders and know how to effectively operate an offense.
In each of their team’s lone loss this season, the quarterbacks were big reasons the Bulldogs and Tide faltered. Murray threw three interceptions against South Carolina while McCarron threw two versus Texas A&M, his only two of the entire season.
The challenge will be for each defense to put pressure on the opposing quarterback and forcing him into mistakes. In that department, Georgia might have the upper edge as it’ll rely upon freakishly athletic linebacker Jarvis Jones. Manti Te’o gets a lot of credit for Notre Dame’s resurgence, but Jones is arguably the better player, a guy who is sixth in the nation in tackles for a loss (19.5) and tied for 14th in sacks (10.5).
Alabama will counter with the more dangerous running game. Backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon are dangerous in their own right, but the real stars are the offensive line who do a better job opening holes than arguably any other line in the country.
Prediction: Alabama might not be quite as good as its 2011 version, but it’s hard to pick against Nick Saban. He’ll have his players ready to make a run at their third national title at ‘Bama in the Saban era. 24-21, Roll Tide. Game time is at 3:00 p.m. CT on CBS.
The Wisconsin Connection
It’s a shame Wisconsin even gets to play in the Big Ten championship game, and that’s coming from a UW alum.
I can get behind postseason ineligibility at Penn State whose transgressions were absolutely egregious, but as for Ohio State, the Buckeyes deserve to be in the title tilt. The NCAA needs to take away more scholarships as a penalty instead of making teams ineligible for the postseason. Seeing a 7-5 Wisconsin team in a championship game isn’t doing the sport or its fans any favors.
Regardless, a berth in the Rose Bowl is on the line, and the Badgers have a legitimate chance of winning. Back in September, Wisconsin was edged by Nebraska by slim 30-27 margin and actually led 20-3 at halftime, on the road.
The Badgers have lost three of their past four games, all in overtime, creating an identity that they can’t close games. They’ll be getting a boost from players returning from injury, especially linebacker Chris Borland who’s missed the past two games with a hamstring pull. As a player who has 19.5 tackles for a loss last season and 8.5 before being hurt this season, Borland’s presence can’t be overstated.
The opposite situation is happening at Nebraska where players are getting less healthy. Senior defensive lineman Baker Steinkuhler and center Jason Jackson both suffered season-ending injuries in the last regular-season game at Iowa.
The Huskers will count on their offensive backfield to carry the team. Not only has quarterback Taylor Martinez improved by leaps and bounds this season, but the running back duo of Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah will look to take pressure off Martinez on the ground.
Prediction: Wisconsin can win this game but won’t. Nebraska will figure out how to contain Montee Ball and the Badgers’ running game, and once the Huskers do that, Bucky won’t have an effective enough passing game to counter. Nebraska win 31-21. Welcome to Pasadena. Game time is at 7:00 p.m. on Fox.
This week’s exclusive player interview is with West Virginia center Joe Madsen who was a former first-team All-Big East player and made multiple midseason All-American teams this year. West Virginia wraps up their regular season this Saturday against Kansas, a game televised on FSN at 1:30 p.m.
Last week you had a hard-fought victory over Iowa State that made West Virginia bowl eligible. How important was that to the program?
It was one of the most-important things, not only for the program, but for the seniors, to go out with a good thing, going out with a bowl game and being able to travel one last time with us. For the whole team, just have a good atmosphere, not leave with that fail kind of thing.
Do you have any sort of hopes about which bowl game you’ll play in?
I think as long as we go to any bowl game you get selected for, I’m excited for whichever one we get to go to. I’m ready to play Kansas and get another win to maybe get to a better bowl, but I’m ready to go anywhere.
This week you take on Kansas. Can you give a little scouting report on the Jayhawks and what makes them dangerous?
They play the same defense we’ve been seeing for the past like three weeks, that four-down front. They have a lot of good defensive linemen. Their linebacking corps is pretty good. They don’t show a lot of blitz, but when they do, they hide it pretty well. They’re definitely fighters as well, so it’s going to be a good game.
There’s always a lot of attention on the skill position players at West Virginia, but what amount of credit does the offensive line deserve for such an explosive passing attack?
We take pride in ourselves. We know people take a look at the flashy guys with the ball in their hand, but we know we get the job done, and we have a good time doing it. We get the satisfaction of our teammates knowing we do a good job.
What is your personal best quality, the best thing you offer your team?
I think for me, just being that guy that goes out and goes hard every single play. There’s not a play I want to take off, and I try not to slow down. I try to show those guys, the younger guys coming up, to play every play to your fullest, because next week it’s going to be my last week. I want to go out with no regrets, and I want to show them that playing hard every down really makes a difference.
If I’m correct, you’ll make your 50th start on Saturday. What’s been the key to your reliability and starting 50 games in your career?
I think again, just going hard every play. I think it’s the guys that relax on a play or take off a play who get those real serious injuries where they’re not paying attention and they stop for a play, and they get rolled up on. I think just me getting out and just moving my feet and keep moving at all times keeps me resistant to the pain. I’ve got a really high pain tolerance, so nothing really hurts.
Quick Championship Game Previews
ACC Title Game, 7:00 p.m. on ESPN
The skinny: Just like Wisconsin, Georgia Tech shouldn’t be in the ACC title game either. But they are, and if things go according to form, Florida State will blow out the Yellow Jackets. The Seminoles are second in the nation in total defense and shouldn’t have a problem stuffing Tech’s option attack.
Senior to watch: Florida State defensive end Tank Carradine. He knows how to get into the backfield with 13 tackles for a loss on the season. Opportunities to get sacks will be limited against Georgia Tech, but how he plays against a hard-charging offensive line and the option look will be of utmost importance.
Conference USA Title Game, 11:00 a.m. on ESPN2
The skinny: The two teams in the CUSA championship met just two weeks ago, a 23-21 win at home by Tulsa over UCF. Even though Tulsa fell to SMU last week, the lost shouldn’t come as alarming. Tulsa had already wrapped up the division and home-field advantage in the championship game. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to get by UCF once again with a berth in the Liberty Bowl at stake.
Senior to watch: Tulsa safety Dexter McCoil. With 51 tackles and four interceptions on the season, McCoil is a productive defender for the best unit in Conference USA. At 6-3 and 222 lbs., he also has next-level size, but does he have the speed?
Sun Belt Pseudo Title Game, 2 p.m. on ESPN3
The skinny: It’s not really a championship game, but the schedule makers in the Sun Belt had the perfect foresight to match up Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State in the final game of the regular season. Each takes a 6-1 conference record into the game in which the champ will emerge. Arkansas State is led by former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn who is soon likely off to greener pastures.
Senior to watch: Arksansas State safety Don Jones. There’s currently two Red Wolves safeties in the NFL, and the Green Bay Packers have one of them in M.D. Jennings (the Dolphins’ Kelcie McCray is the other). Jones might be the next to join the professional ranks, and a good showing on Saturday can’t hurt his chances.
What Happened Before Saturday
Louisville likely punched its ticket to a BCS bowl game on Thursday night with a win against Rutgers, and Stanford earned a spot in the Rose Bowl with a victory over UCLA in the Pac-12 championship on Friday night.
But the real question is whether Northern Illinois can jump up to No. 16 in the BCS standings to earn a spot in a BCS bowl with a win over Kent State in the MAC championship on Friday night as well.
The game went into double overtime, but the Huskies more than doubled the total yardage of the Golden Flashes 524 to 260. Kent State won the turnover battle 3-2, including a 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown by a Zack Hitchens in the fourth quarter, which closed the gap.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of the evening was how the Northern Illinois defense held Kent running back Dri Archer to 15 yards rushing on 12 carries. Archer came into the game fifth in the nation in all-purpose yardage.
The Huskies received a favor from Stanford beating UCLA to push the Bruins lower in the BCS standings. They’ll also be cheering for Texas and Boise State to lose as well on Saturday.
Worth watching is how voters influence the final standings. Coaches of mid-major teams might vote for Northern Illinois higher than usual in sign of solidarity. At the same time, their votes could be cancelled out by others who don’t believe the Huskies are deserving of playing in a BCS game.