Source: USA TODAY
The Front Seven knows all rivalries are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
1. Irons: It hardly needed it, but the hype has been building toward No. 1 Alabama’s traditional Iron Bowl clash with No. 5 Auburn for weeks. The Tigers, who host the Iron Bowl this year, can actually take most of the credit for that by finding new and creative ways to pull games out of the fire. They now find themselves with an opportunity that seemed too much to hope for a year ago as a miserable 3-9 campaign was winding down.
But stemming the Crimson Tide will take a near-flawless performance on both sides of the ball. Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense at 9.3 points a game, an average that drops to 6.0 if you take away the 42 managed by Texas A&M in their September shootout. Auburn QB Nick Marshall has the mobility to keep plays alive, but he’ll need to show early he can make things happen downfield to be a true dual-threat. If he can’t, Tide S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be able to step up in support of LB C.J. Mosley to help keep Marshall and TB Tre Mason contained.
Alabama QB A.J. McCarron benefits from superb protection to do anything he wants with the ball, whether it’s handing off to TB T.J. Yeldon or delivering strikes to WR Amari Cooper. DE Dee Ford is Auburn’s best hope to be a disruptive force in the Tide backfield.
2. Newcomers: No. 6 Missouri finds itself paired off during Rivalry Week against the other most recent addition to the SEC, No. 21 Texas A&M. Yet it is this game that will determine who gets to face the Alabama-Auburn winner next week in Atlanta. The host Tigers can earn their own ticket with a win, but a loss to the Aggies clinches the East Division for South Carolina.
While the A&M defense has been an Achilles heel this season, QB Johnny Manziel was largely shut down as well last week at LSU. He’ll try to get big-play WR Mike Evans involved earlier this time to avoid being pursued by Missouri’s excellent DE Michael Sam.
Tigers QB James Franklin had a successful return to action last week at Ole Miss, with TB Henry Josey doing most of the heavy lifting. Franklin figures to test the deep waters a bit more with WR Dorial Green-Beckham. S Howard Matthews is the leading tackler on the Aggies’ defense, but he has way too much work to do from his secondary position.
3. Palmettos: No. 9 South Carolina won’t be able to pay attention to the events in the other Columbia that will determine whether it has a date in Atlanta next week. The Gamecocks will instead be busy hosting their own annual showdown against No. 4 Clemson. There’s little more than Palmetto State bragging rights on the line, though a South Carolina win enhances its case to be the second SEC representative in the BCS if an at-large berth is required.
Clemson figures to get a major bowl invitation either way, but the Tigers would much rather enter the postseason with a top-10 victory. Clemson senior QB Tajh Boyd will be closing out a fine career, and WR Sammy Watkins and TB Roderick will do their best to help him out. He’ll be opposed by Gamecocks DE Jadeveon Clowney, who will likely be NFL-bound after this season, and DT Kelcy Quarles, who has taken advantage of all the attention paid to Clowney to record seven sacks.
South Carolina QB Connor Shaw’s senior season likely turned into the stuff of legend when he hobbled off the bench to stage the fourth-quarter rally at Missouri that might get the team into the SEC finale. Having TB Mike Davis behind him has been most beneficial, and he’ll be needed this week to keep Clemson DE Vic Beasley at bay.
4. Devils: No. 18 Arizona State has a bit more to play for than just the Territorial Cup in its regular-season home finale against archrival Arizona. The Sun Devils already know they’ll be in next week’s Pac-12 title game opposite Stanford. But with a win, ASU will get to host it, while an Arizona win sends the Sun Devils back to Stanford. The Wildcats are riding high after last week’s demolition of Oregon, and they wouldn’t mind crimping the plans of their neighborhood nemesis.
ASU’s first order of business will be bottling up Wildcats’ TB Ka’Deem Carey, a job that will belong primarily to LB Chris Young. Arizona QB D.J. Denker is a capable spread rusher himself, and any aerial yardage he can provide helps keep Carey’s lanes open.
But the Sun Devils have their own powerful TB in Marion Grice, a frequent end-zone finder who is just as effective as a passer catcher for QB Taylor Kelly. WR Jaelen Strong provides an additional deep threat, but he’ll be up against an opportunistic Wildcats’ secondary featuring CB Shaquille Richardson.
5. Angels: No. 22 UCLA and No. 23 Southern California can’t win the Pac-12, but there are still plenty of story lines associated with their encounter at the Coliseum for the unofficial championship in the City of Angels. They’ve arrived at this finale on somewhat different trajectories, with the Trojans on a roll under interim coach Ed Orgeron and the Bruins looking to shake off the loss to Arizona State that eliminated them from the South Division hunt.
The change in direction for USC has been most noticeable in the improvement of QB Cody Kessler, who is also getting better ground support from TB Javorius Allen of late. UCLA will need LB Anthony Barr to assert his presence quickly.
Bruins QB Brett Hundley nearly led a spectacular comeback against the Sun Devils, only to have his final drive sabotaged by a pair of holding penalties. He’ll try to get things moving earlier this week with the assistance of WR Shaquelle Evans and two-way TB Myles Jack, but Trojans’ DE Leonard Williams will be a formidable obstacle.
6. Legends: Ordinarily, Ohio State-Michigan gets a prominent place in the Rivalry Week edition of the Front Seven. But the Buckeyes, in addition to winning on the road, are in need of a top-10 opponent to meet them for the Big Ten title next week. No.11 Michigan State can provide such opposition if it can take care of business against upstart Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers are having a fine season under extraordinary circumstances but got a bit of a reality check a week ago against Wisconsin. The Spartans will take a similar approach as the Badgers and try to establish their power game behind TB Jeremy Langford. QB Connor Cook is also growing more comfortable in the passing game for the Spartans, which could be bad news for LB Damien Wilson and the Minnesota back seven.
The Gophers will need either QB Philip Nelson or Mitch Leidner to make some connections in the passing game, or TB David Cobb will again find his running room limited. Spartans’ CB Darqueze Dennard will be ready to pounce on errant tosses.
7. Triangles: While the Duke-North Carolina rivalry is more celebrated on the hardwood, the football version makes its Front Seven debut this year with the 24th-ranked Blue Devils on the verge of history. With an unprecedented 10th win, Duke would earn a spot opposite No.2 Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference title tilt next week in Charlotte.
But a North Carolina victory would cause all kinds of chaos in the ACC Coastal Division, introducing the very real prospect of a five-way tie. That scenario would most likely favor Virginia Tech, but Duke would like to remove all the uncertainty from the equation and take the Coastal outright. QBs Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have both been effective for Duke, with the latter more of a running threat in the red zone. WR Jamison Crowder is the field stretcher, and TBs Gela Duncan and Josh Snead lending backfield depth.
The Tar Heels had to reinvent themselves on offense when veteran QB Bryn Renner (shoulder) was lost for the season. Marquise Williams has taken over and provided more athleticism from the position while keeping WR Eric Ebron involved as well. Defenders to watch include Blue Devils’ CB Ross Cockrell and Tar Heels’ DE Kareem Martin.
Eddie Timanus, a national colleges reporter and the poll editor for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @EddieTimanus.
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