Thursday, December 4, 2014

Championship Weekend

It's hard to believe that this season of college football is almost over. There have been some serious surprises with the rise and fall of teams, Heisman contenders, and coaches. It is actually also really interesting to see how the polls look in comparison to the preseason. Out of the top ten teams from the AP Poll at the start of the season, six of them are currently still in the top ten with much of the very top looking the same. But most of these teams must face one final test in their bid to gain entry into the first college playoff. Here is a preview of those games and what to expect this weekend.

No. 4 Florida State Seminoles vs. No. 11 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
8:00 PM on ABC

The Seminoles have to be feeling the pressure by this point. For the second time in as many weeks, the playoff selection committee dropped them down another spot, putting them right on the fringe of the top four. This means that despite their spotless mark on the season, the committee has not been impressed by their wins and barely views them as one of the best teams in the country. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech has all the momentum in the world after defeating rival Georgia in overtime last week on a wild finish. Their offense will provide an interesting test for Florida State as they are one of the few teams that runs the triple option in college football, and also run it to great effectiveness. This is dangerous because Florida State has had trouble stopping the run all year. They have terrific talent and athleticism on their defensive line, but they haven't played with consistency to shut down running lanes. The bigger problem has been their lack of experience at linebacker. Despite the athleticism there, they don't always follow their gap assignments which leads to big plays between the tackles. That is not a weakness that can be easily masked when going up against a triple option offense. Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas has commanded this offense very well this year knowing when and who to hand the ball to. He is also their most effective runner when he decides to keep the ball. The Seminole defense is going to have to make crucial stops on first and second down to get Georgia Tech into obvious passing situations. Although Thomas is a good runner, he has only completed 50% of his passes on the season. However, 16 of his 81 passes have gone for touchdowns. He is going to have to throw the ball here and there in order to keep Florida State honest and not stacking the box on every play. The Seminoles secondary hasn't been quite as effective this year, but there are tremendous athletes who can make a quarterback pay for an errant throw. 

This could end up being a shoot out if Florida State's offense can play up to their potential. I don't have to tell you that it all starts with Jameis Winston, who had the worst game of his college career last week against the Gators when he threw four picks, three in the first quarter. He has struggled to see the field clearly and his ball placement has been really bad at times. A lot of it comes from his terrible offensive line which just continues to allow ungodly amounts of pressure every week. That will be difficult going up against a Georgia Tech front that has garnered 20 sacks on the season. He should expect to see a lot of blitzes in this game and will have to be on his mark or else the ball hawking secondary, which has 17 picks, will make him pay. If he is able to get into his rhythm early, Winston should have a good day. He has three young receivers who are still adjusting to the game and aren't always running good routes which hurts Winston since he likes to anticipate routes and make throws before breaks. I think he is going to have to take advantage of one on one matchups with his tight end Nick O'Leary early to open up his receivers a bit. O'Leary was the deciding factor against Florida last week and is as good a safety valve as a quarterback could ask for. Jimbo also needs to get the running game going early on. You cannot ask Jameis to do it all, even though he probably can and has for most games this season. But again, a lot of that comes from an offensive line that has just looked like a high school squad out there. They don't get much of a push and force the running backs to bounce it outside where linebackers are already swarming to the ball. Georgia Tech's defense has been allowing almost 170 yards on the ground at 5.1 yards per carry. The Seminoles need to give the ball to freshman Dalvin Cook and allow him to make plays as he is a much better back than Karlos Williams.

Prediction: 34-28 Florida State Seminoles

No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers
8:17 PM on FOX

Ohio State might have the worst luck in the world. They are now down to their THIRD string quarterback after losing B1G record setting quarterback JT Barrett to an ankle injury last week. Now enters Cardale "We ain't come to play school" Jones who has a week to prepare against one of the staunchest defenses in the country.  They have only allowed a opponents to post 260 yards per game and are very strong against the run and the pass. One of the only things going for Ohio State right now is that they have better athletes at the playmaking positions and Jones is a complete unknown. He has come in for relief of Barrett in blowouts, but has primarily run the ball on read options. He seems to have a good understanding of the system that Tom Hermans has implemented and is a surprisingly agile runner for checking in at 6'5, 250. He isn't going to blow past anyone, but he is big and powerful enough to pick up extra yards after contact and can convert third/fourth and shorts with ease. The offensive line is going to be key in this game. They are going to have to give him time to throw and open up lanes for Ezekiel Elliot. Elliot has become the feature back this year and is making the most of his opportunities, but will have a real challenge against a front seven that allows just over 100 yards a game on the ground at three yards a carry. Ohio State has better athletes at receiver and in the backfield than Wisconsin does in their secondary, but that doesn't mean that Cardale will air it out with ease in this one. Wisconsin has only six picks on the year but has a whopping 37 sacks on the year. Consistent pressure is a bigger reason why opponents have completed less than half of their passes against the Badgers. Ohio State's receivers are going to have to get open and not commit stupid, drive killing drops. With the receivers' speed and Cardale's big arm, I expect a lot of shots down field.

For Wisconsin, you know that the offensive strategy in this game will begin and end with Melvin Gordon. The best running back in the country, he is a threat to take the ball to the house anytime it is in his hands. He has averaged eight yards a carry this season to go along with 26 rushing touchdowns. He has everything you want in a running back: vision, patience, strength, and most of all, acceleration. His attributes are greatly enhanced by his offensive line which continues its tradition of mauling defenses at the point of attack. This does not bode well for an Ohio State defense that has been gashed by some of the better running backs that they have faced this year. They have given up a lot of yards to Jeremy Langford, Tevin Coleman, and David Cobb, none of which are as good as Gordon. Ohio State doesn't always get the best push in the run game from their defensive line, and the linebackers can be streaky at times. Their weakness isn't so much athleticism as it is learning a slightly new defense under Kerry Coombs which causes breakdowns in gap control. I don't expect Wisconsin to throw that much considering their duo of Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave has been anywhere between average to terrible. For as bad as Ohio State's rush defense can be, their pass rush is fantastic. One of those quarterbacks would have to constantly worry about Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett on every pass. They also have a very athletic secondary that has been generating turn overs and playing much better since the beginning of the season. They should be able to convert some passing plays for first downs, but they will be out of their comfort zone if they aren't in third and short. Still, I think that MG3 is good enough to carry an offense against a team without a very deep defensive rotation.

Prediction: 31-20, Wisconsin Badgers

BIG 12
Iowa State Cyclones @ No. 3 Texas Christian Horned Frogs (12:00 PM on ABC)
No. 9 Kansas State Wildcats @ No. 6 Baylor Bears (7:45 PM on ESPN)

These two teams playing at home don't have a title game to look forward to like normal conferences, but this is basically a de facto game for each team. If they both win, then Baylor is the winner by having only one conference loss this year. However, the playoff committee has spoken by placing TCU ahead of Baylor AND undefeated Florida State. Baylor has to be praying to every conceivable god out there Iowa State pulls a miracle victory at TCU. Baylor ultimately has the tougher challenge against a sneaky good Kansas State team. It sucks for Baylor, but they should have played a better out of conference schedule to appease the committee.

Prediction: 45-13, TCU Horned Frogs
                    35-27, Baylor Bears

PAC 12
No. 7 Arizona Wildcats vs. No. 2 Oregon Ducks (9:00 PM on FOX on Friday Night)

Championship weekend gets started early in a good way with probably the best game. Arizona is the only team that has handed Oregon a loss this year. However, this time the game will not be at Eugene since they are playing in the new 49er's stadium. In rematches, the upper hand tends to go to the initial loser, but Arizona definitely has the ability to pull the upset. Remember, Arizona also torched Oregon last season to end their title hopes. Rich Rodriguez has this team firing on all cylinders offensively as they average 480 yards and close to six touchdowns a game. Quarterback Anu Solomon is a pass first quarterback with just enough athleticism to make him an effective scrambler. He has passed for over 3400 yards and has 27 touchdowns to only seven interceptions with most going to receiver Cayleb Jones. Jones will likely see at lot of Oregon defensive back Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a smaller but very agile and athletic back who can cover almost any receiver despite his height. But similar to the previous matchup, you can expect Arizona to run a lot in order to keep Oregon's offense off of the field. They ran it over fifty times last game with a mix of keepers from Solomon and Nick Wilson, who has almost 1300 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. He carried it 13 times for 92 yards and two touchdowns and is going to have to be the workhorse to power Arizona. But with them having nothing to lose and everything to gain, I can see them giving Solomon opportunities to make a lot of throws and keep the defense off balance. 

Oregon obviously played their worst game of the year against Arizona, but they are much a better team now that they are fully healthy again. Their offensive line had multiple injuries which created havoc for Mariota since he really didn't have a lot of time to throw. Despite his line being healthy now, he is going to have his hands full with Arizona's dangerous pass rush. Mariota has been almost flawless all season however and is the leading Heisman candidate due to his absolutely incredible season. He has accounted for 48 total touchdowns and 4000 yards on the year at 69% completion. Despite injuries to a lot of his players and no one with any real experience at receiver coming into the season, Mariota has performed above expectations all year long. He doesn't really have any favorite receiver, but this team has been a running team all year long. Freshman running back Royce Freeman accounted for 1300 yards and 17 touchdowns, stealing the spotlight from upperclassmen on the team. With a healthy offensive line, he should be able to continue his season average of six yards a touch. To win this, one of their receivers is going to have to step up. Overall, they are the better team but it is by a slimmer margin than you'd think. They are going to have to score a lot of points to keep up with Arizona but they are definitely capable of it. If Mariota does have time to throw, they should be able to sustain yards and generate big plays on keeps. What he can't do is have a fumble on the last drive in the fourth quarter. He has been great when throwing, but he has a tendency to fumble which has cost them or put them in bad positions late. If he avoids critical turnovers, the Ducks will have a great shot as always.

Prediction: 38-34, Oregon Ducks

No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 17 Missouri Tigers (4:00 PM on CBS)

Alabama comes into championship weekend number one in the country by the committee's rankings. Their game against Auburn wasn't their greatest display defensively, but their offense has really been clicking with the emergence of Amari Cooper. Cooper is easily the best receiver in the country and can completely dominate a game as he has demonstrated multiple times this year. He already has 103 receptions for just under 1600 yards and 14 touchdowns. Kiffin dials up his number almost every other play and challenges him to beat one on one or double coverage. Missouri has a pretty good pass defense because of their edge rushers, Markus Golden and Shane Ray. Both are lightening quick and powerful and have generated pressure all season. Pass protection has been solid for Blake Sims all season, but it helps that he has good mobility to pick up yards with his feet. Sims has been up and down all year, but when he is on he can be very difficult to stop. He had a rough game against Auburn by throwing three picks, but he was able to make up for it with four touchdown passes. Outside of Sims and Cooper, the biggest offensive weapons on this team are in the backfield. Derrick Henry and TJ Yeldon have combined for a lot of yards and touchdowns this season. The offensive line has overcome inexperience to provide a lot of running lanes for both backs. Both average over 5.5 yards per carry and have eight touchdowns while combining for over 1600 yards. With the threat of Ray and Golden, I think that they will be called upon to really carry the team. Cooper is almost always open, so Sims is going to air it out at times. But I would be surprised if Henry and Yeldon didn't combine for 40 carries in this game.

I'm not sure I see how Missouri can stay in this game against a team that really outmatches them at most levels. Quarterback Maty Mauk has been wildly inconsistent all year, ranging from dual threat to just dismal. It doesn't help that he lost one of the best receivers in the country, Dorial Green-Beckham, to a dismissal from the team. Bud Sasser leads to the team with the most receptions and touchdown catches, but he hasn't gone up against defensive backs of Alabama's caliber. Quarterbacks have barely completed over half of their passes against Alabama, thanks also in part to a ferocious pass rush that provides pressure on every snap. Against the best defense Mauk saw all year against Georgia, he had a terrible day throwing four picks against only nine completions for less than 100 yards. As usual, Missouri will probably also struggle to run the ball against a staunch front seven that has held opposing rushers to 2.9 yards per carry. I really just don't see how this team is able to muster the fire power to keep up with Alabama. Auburn did and nearly came out on top except that a terrible defense cost them the game. Mizzou is not at the same level offensively and it will show in this game.

Prediction: 42-20, Alabama Crimson Tide

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