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College Football Weekend Preview: The Year of the Linebacking Corps

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College Football Weekend Preview: The Year of the Linebacking Corps

In a year that offenses are putting up big-time yards and points, it appears defenses are behind the curve, victims of the up-tempo spread attacks and their point-a-minute production.

But even though defenses nationwide are finding it difficult to stop these spread schemes and offensive playmakers, there's several schools putting together elite linebacking corps.

In this week's column, we highlight arguably six of the best linebacking groups in America. Among the six, you'll notice that the combined record of those teams is 54-5.

Whether it takes an collection of top-notch linebackers, both inside and outside, to stop today's top spread offenses is up for debate, but teams putting the best linebackers on the field are the ones getting the job done in the win column.

Alabama

The star: C.J. Mosley

Bruce Feldman of CBSSports.com ranks Mosley as one of the 10 best defenders of 2013. He currently leads the Crimson Tide in tackles with 81, almost twice as many as the next closest player (44). NFLDraftScout.com has him ranked as the third-ranked outside linebacker in the senior class and projects him as a first round draft choice next spring.

Supporting cast: Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson

DePriest (ILB), Hubbard (OLB) and Dickson (OLB) are all ranked among the top six players at their respective positions in the 2015 draft class by NFLDraftScout.com, and that's if they don't declare early. They're a big reason Alabama has the No. 1 ranked scoring defense in the country, allowing only 10.2 points per game.

UCLA

The stars: Anthony Barr, Myles Jack

Rated as the No. 1 outside linebacker in the senior class by NFLDraftScout.com, Barr is all but guaranteed to be a first round draft choice next spring. His 14.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks are impressive, but even more so might be his five forced fumbles this season. Just a freshman, Jack made his mark becoming a starter at linebacker, making a respectable 68 tackles and breaking up 10 passes. But he's gotten increased attention lately in becoming a two-way player after injuries struck the running back position. The past two games, he's averaging over nine yards per carry and has scored five touchdowns, including four in the win over Washington.

Supporting cast: Eric Kendricks, Jordan Zumwalt

Kendricks is rated as the fifth-best inside linebacker in the 2015 draft class by NFLDraftScout.com, while Zumwalt is predicted as a potential late round draft choice this upcoming May, not bad for a player who might be the relative weak link in the group.

Stanford

The stars: Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy

Skov and Murphy are a big reason Stanford has been able to slow down the Oregon offense in each of the past two seasons, pretty much the only team to do so. For his effort in the win over the Ducks on Nov. 7, Skov was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his team-leading nine tackles, two for a loss and two forced fumbles, one of which he recovered. In the 2011 win over Oregon, Murphy came of with two tackles for loss. He had 18 TFLs on the entire year and has already matched that number this season with two more games and the postseason still to go.

Supporting cast: A.J. Tarpley, James Vaughters

Overshadowed by Skov and Murphy, Tarpley and Vaughters are both potential NFL draft choices in 2015 and both have made five tackles for a loss this season.

Michigan State

The stars: Denicos Allen, Max Bullough

Allen and Bullough were both named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week at some point during the 2013 season. Allen earned the honor in the win against rival Michigan, in which he had three tackles for a loss, two sacks and helped to stuff the Wolverines for negative 48 rushing yards on the day. Bullough got recognition for his play in the shutout against Purdue when he had two tackles for loss, a sack and forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Allen.

Supporting cast: Taiwan Jones

Jones becomes the elder statesman next season after Allen and Bullough take their game to the NFL as he looks to build upon his season that has seen him make 43 tackles, five for a loss so far this season.

Florida State

The stars: Christian Jones, Telvin Smith

Jones is rated as the No. 1 rated inside linebacker in this year's senior class by NFLDraftScout.com and predicted to be a first round draft choice come May. Meanwhile, Smith's stock is rising in a year he's helped the Seminoles to an undefeated record and has 7.5 tackles for a loss on the season. He had arguably his best game of the year for the best opponent, No. 7 Clemson, when Smith made a season-high 11 tackles.

The supporting cast: Dan Hicks, Terrance Smith

Hicks isn't a highly rated prospect, but things are looking up for him after making a switch from the offensive side of the football and missing all of last season with a knee injury. Smith is just getting his feet wet as a sophomore and has bigger things yet to come.

Baylor

The supporting cast: Bryce Hager, Eddie Lackey, Sam Holl

There is no star among this group, but they're playing as good team defense as any group in the nation. While the Baylor offense gets the bulk of the attention for putting up over 60 points per game, the defense is allowing opponents to only 4.2 yards per play, which ranks fifth in the nation. Lackey and Holl are the playmakers, each with at least 7.5 tackles for a loss this season, but Hager is the highest-rated prospect of the crew, the sixth-ranked inside linebacker in next year's draft class per NFLDraftScout.com.

Where College GameDay Is At

Bryce Hager, Eddie Lackey and Sam Holl have as big a game as Baylor has had in quite some time as they travel to Stillwater, Okla. to take on Oklahoma State, site of ESPN's pregame show.

Baylor (9-0) is still alive for the national championship, depending on what happens to Alabama and Florida State the last few weeks of the season. Although the game isn't meaningless to Oklahoma State (9-1), not by a long shot.

While not technically a Big XII championship game, the winner of this game has the inside track to a BCS berth, although the Bears must get by upcoming games against TCU and Texas while the Cowboys still have their Bedlam game against Oklahoma.

Key for Baylor will be how they can respond to being without left tackle Spencer Drango and wide receiver Tevin Reese due to injuries. And it will definitely help if running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin after missing the last game against Texas Tech.

If the Bears are vulnerable anywhere, it's probably the pass defense, which has played against very few decent quarterbacks this season. But it's unlikely that Cowboys quarterback Clint Chelf is going to move the chains with any consistency with his arm.

The Oklahoma State defense, while able to grab a conference-leading 19 interceptions this season, gets beat by the pass more than they should, allowing an average of 239.5 yards per game through the air. It's fair to say that the Cowboys haven't seen a passing attack like Baylor's yet this season and it would be a miraculous achievement if they could hold Baylor below their season average for passing yards allowed.

Prediction: Oklahoma State is good enough to beat up on some very average Big XII conference foes, but they have yet to meet a team as good as Baylor this season, both on offense and defense. Bears win, 50-28. Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. CT on ABC.

 

The Wisconsin Connection

Wisconsin and Minnesota meet for the 123rd time on Saturday, the most-played rivalry in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The winner of the game gets Paul Bunyan's Axe, one of college football's best trophy games. Wisconsin is looking for their 10th consecutive win over Minnesota, with the Gophers last winning in 2003.

Things are looking up for Minnesota recently, coming into to this week ranked for the first time this season, checking in at No. 25 with an identical 8-2 as Wisconsin.

It's expected to be a cold day on Saturday with a high of just 21 degrees for the game, according to the Weather Channel, that starts at 2:30 p.m. CT and will be televised on ESPN.

Last week, Wisconsin held an Indiana team that scored at least 28 points in ten straight games to just three.

For this Badgers team that's ranked fifth in the nation, holding opponents to 14.0 points per game, they shouldn't have much trouble stopping a Gophers offense that ranks last in the Big Ten in passing with 149.4 yards per game.

It's incumbent upon Minnesota running back David Cobb to get something going on the ground or the Gophers will have no shot. Cobb is just 58 yards shy of 1,000 on the year.

To its credit, however, Minnesota has been a good defensive team behind the leadership of coordinator Tracy Claeys, who's filling in for head coach Jerry Kill on an interim basis as Kill deals with episodes of epileptic seizures.

Defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman was a midseason first-team All-Big Ten selection by Phil Steele, but he'll find it difficult to stop a Badgers rushing attack that ran for a whopping 554 yards last week.

Prediction: Just as they've done all season, Melvin Gordon and James White will rumble for at least 100 yards apiece as the Badgers roll 35-14. On Wisconsin.

 

What Happened Before Saturday

Quick takes from weekday action in college football this week:

  • Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack sets the NCAA career record with 16 forced fumbles, including three alone on Tuesday, in Buffalo's 44-7 win over Miami Ohio on Tuesday. Mack is a sure-fire first round draft choice.
  • Northern Illinois secured a spot in the MAC championship game with a 35-17 win over Toledo on Wednesday. With the way quarterback Jordan Lynch is playing, it's going to be difficult for any team to stop NIU on their way to an undefeated regular season.
  • Central Florida remained alive for a BCS bowl berth after obliterating Rutgers 41-17 on Thursday evening. All they have to do is take care of business against average to below average teams the rest of this season in games against South Florida and SMU.
  • Congratulations to UNLV and coach Bobby Hauck for getting the Rebels bowl eligible for the first time since 2000 with a 41-21 victory over Air Force Thursday night. It's been a long time since UNLV has played respectable football, and they're finally getting it four years into Hauck's tenure.

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 carriveau@uwalumni.com.

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