The biggest game of the weekend is obviously and understandably in Baton Rouge as No. 5 LSU hosts No. 1 Alabama at Death Valley. We’ll get to that matchup in our regular “Where College Gameday Is At” section below, but there’s two other big games with national championship implications on Saturday as well.
Joining the big clash in the SEC are Oregon at USC and Oklahoma State at Kansas State, and unfortunately for television viewers and football fans everywhere, all three games will be competing for eyeballs in roughly the same evening primetime slot.
The showdown in the Pac-12––in perhaps a stroke of genius––kicks off an hour earlier, at 6 p.m. Central time on Fox, as opposed to the night’s other two marquee games that air on CBS (LSU-Alabama) and ABC (Kansas State-Oklahoma State) at 7 p.m.
We’ll take a look at each of the four teams on the undercard to Saturday’s night main event:
Why they can win on Saturday: Ranking third in the nation by averaging 330.63 rushing yards per game (and exceeded only by two military triple option attacks, Army and Air Force), Oregon beats teams into submission on the ground. The phrase “beats teams into submission,” however, makes it seem like the Ducks rely on power when it’s really more the flash and dash of Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas. Barner is the workhorse of the two, averaging over 120 yards per game and scoring 14 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Thomas is the all-purpose threat getting the job done on the ground, through the air and on kick and punt returns, scoring 11 times total.
Senior that will make a living in the NFL: While the offense gets all the attention in Eugene by putting up more than 50 points seemingly every game, the defense has quietly done its job too. Defensive end Dion Jordan is the star of the show and a potential first-round draft choice this upcoming April. At 6-6 and 243 lbs., it’s debatable whether Jordan can play a traditional defensive end role at the next level, but he’ll be looked at in a pass rush role in whatever scheme he’s drafted into.
Why they can win on Saturday: While Oregon can boast of the running back duo of Barner and Thomas, USC can counter with arguably the best pair of wide receivers in the nation in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Woods was the attention-getter a year ago when he had 111 receptions for nearly 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns, but he’s been surpassed this season by Lee who already has 76 catches for over 1,100 yards and 10 scores. Still, it’s not like Woods has been forgotten this year either. They simply pack a one-two punch that’s difficult to cover for any secondary in the nation.
Senior that will make a living in the NFL: The person distributing the ball to Lee and Woods is quarterback Matt Barkley, thought to be one of the top choices in the NFL Draft if not the top choice. The criticism with Barkley is that he does all his damage against poor teams and doesn’t rise to the occasion against the good ones. The Trojans have underachieved this season despite an abundance of talent, and there’s worry that Barkley might be more Matt Leinart than Carson Palmer in the NFL.
The verdict: USC can be Jekkyl and Hyde, but as far as Oregon goes, they’re consistent and consistently good. The Ducks haven’t taken their foot off the gas pedal this season, and they’re not about to when a trip to the national championship is in sight. USC is good enough to make it a game, but Oregon will slash their way win with Barner and Thomas. Oregon wins 40-28.
Why they can win on Saturday: The Cowboys have a balanced offensive attack highlighted by running back Joseph Randle and a passing game that’s operated behind a pair of freshman quarterbacks. Preferred starter Wes Lunt is back in the saddle after missing more than a month with knee and ankle injuries. The fact that the Cowboys have excelled no matter who’s been at quarterback is telling. They convert over 50 percent of their third down chances. If they can continue to do that and keep the ball away from Kansas State, they’ll stand a chance of beating an undefeated opponent.
Senior that will make a living in the NFL: Running back Joseph Randle and cornerback Justin Gilbert are potential high-round draft choices, but they’re only juniors. The senior most likely to make it in the NFL is guard Lane Taylor. He’s part of an offensive line that simply doesn’t give up sacks, ranking second in the nation in sacks allowed, giving up an average of only .43 per game (only Air Force that never passes, allows fewer).
Why they can win on Saturday: Two words: Collin Klein. The K-State quarterback first gained notoriety in 2011 by being the tough guy in the mold of Tim Tebow that could run over linebackers. But Klein has become almost as dangerous with his arm as his legs. He’s completing over 70 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns as opposed to only two interceptions this season. Like Tebow, it’s the threat of Klein as a runner that opposing defenses need to respect, which helps to open things up.
Senior that will make a living in the NFL: Linebacker Arthur Brown is always around the football and is an early-round draft prospect. Through the season’s first eight games, Brown has 60 tackles, two interceptions (one for a touchdown), six tackles for a loss, one sack and three passes broken up. He’ll either be a 4-3 outside linebacker or 3-4 inside linebacker in the NFL, although he’s a little light for the next level at 228 lbs.
The verdict: While the Oklahoma State defense is performing better now than it was earlier in the season, it will have trouble with Klein and running back John Hubert. The Cowboys, however, will put some points on the board and push the Wildcast to the limit, but it will be Bill Snyder’s club that comes out on top at home. Kansas state wins 35-30.
Where College Gameday Is At
ESPN’s College Gameday crew will be in the Bayou for Saturday’s rematch of last year’s national championship game.
Not only did LSU and Alabama meet in last year’s much debated national championship with two teams from the same conference, they also met in the regular season in a game billed as the “Game of the Century.”
Last year, LSU was able to go into Alabama and come away with the victory despite losing in the neutral site national championship, but this year the tables are turned.
The Tide comes into the game as a heavy favorite because of a suffocating defense, an offense led by one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation, and they pass the smell test because they’ve dispatched every team on the schedule with ease so far this season.
Last year, one of the reasons LSU was able to go into Bryant-Denny Stadium and come away with a “W” is because they got passable quarterback play from Jordan Jefferson, which is more than they’re getting from Zach Mettenberger this season, particularly since the cupcake non-conference part of the schedule is over and SEC play has begun.
In four SEC games, Mettenberger has completed less than 50 percent of his passes for one touchdown and two interceptions. The sledding figures to only get tougher when he faces a Nick Saban coached defense.
His counterpart on the other sidelines has been terrific this season, and might pull neck and neck with Collin Klein if the Tide continues to roll (pun intended). Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron leads all of FBS with a 182.41 passer rating (Klein is second at 175.73) and, amazingly, has yet to throw an interception this season. Obviously the degree of difficulty gets much tougher when facing LSU’s defense.
Prediction: Playing LSU in Death Valley is no small matter. Behind a fired up nighttime crowd, the Tigers will be up to the challenge, but they’re not as good on either side of the football as Alabama, and the gap is particularly wide when comparing offenses. We won’t discount special teams either after last year’s field goal fest, but Alabama won’t miss four attempts again. Bama wins 24-14.
The Wisconsin Connection
Wisconsin has their bye this week, but the news of the week is that redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave has been lost for the season with a broken collarbone, not unlike Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
Woodson is hopeful to return before the end of the season for the Packers, but because the college season is over earlier than the NFL, the best-case scenario is that Stave might possibly return in time for a bowl game, but even that isn’t a given.
In last week’s loss to Michigan State, the difference in the game was the loss of Phillips who hasn’t been flashy for the Badgers but hasn’t turned the ball over and has done an adequate job in converting first downs. Once Stave went down, Danny O’Brien couldn’t move the chains and even the coach’s lack of trust in him was evident when they went to Wildcat formation in the red zone.
Stave’s replacement will come down to a decision between O’Brien and Curt Phillips.
O’Brien, of course, was the Badgers’ starter early in the season before being benched and replaced by Stave. Phillips is a senior whose career has been marked by three ACL injuries.
Whoever the Badgers choose, head coach Bret Bielema needs to stand by his decision and give the starter an opportunity to prove himself without looking over his shoulder. Mistakes will be made, and neither option will probably be as good as Stave, but neither deserves a quick hook.
The prediction here is that Wisconsin goes with O’Brien who has displayed the ability to make throws downfield in the past, albeit inconsistently. If he gets the chance to be the undisputed starter in Stave’s absence, maybe that consistency will come.
What Happened Before Saturday
After a Thursday night 30-12 victory over Virginia Tech, Miami has the inside track to winning the ACC Coastal Division and a berth in the conference championship game.
Not unlike Wisconsin, Miami is benefitting from North Carolina being ineligible for the postseason, one less competitor for the division crown. To be sure, Miami still has the opportunity to earn the division title outright, and increased the odds of doing so after effectively eliminating the Hokies from contention on Thursday.
Things haven’t been perfect in Miami this season, and they haven’t for some time, but considering the situation head coach Al Golden inherited in the wake of the Nevin Shapiro scandal, he at least has the Hurricane moving in the right direction.
Miami controls its own destiny in reaching the ACC title game, and it might come down to a regular season finale against Duke. Who would have guessed that particular game would have such implications?
Brian Carriveau is the author of “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and an editor at Cheesehead TV. To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.