Source: USA TODAY
The Front Seven breaks down championship weekend, three characters at a time.
1. ACC: Unbeaten and mostly unchallenged, No.1 Florida State is as close as there is to a lock to play for the BCS national championship if it gets past No. 20 Duke in Charlotte. The Blue Devils’ dream season, with double-digit wins for the first time in program history, would become positively legendary if they can upset the Seminoles. Florida State QB Jameis Winston, however, has been in total command of the offense all season. Duke CB Ross Cockrell is a superb cover man, but he’ll give away 5 inches to Winston’s top end-zone finder, WR Kelvin Benjamin. Add TE Nick O’Leary and a deep backfield led by TB Devonta Freeman to the mix, and the ‘Noles are likely headed for another big point total unless Duke DE Kenny Inunike can provide some pressure on Winston. The Blue Devils have a committee approach at several key offensive positions, but the constant all season has been WR Jamison Crowder. Most of his receptions are delivered by QB Anthony Boone, but Brandon Connette can take charge as well. Connette is a strong red-zone finisher, and TBs Jela Duncan and Josh Snead can also get in. Getting near the goal line figures to be a challenge against the Seminoles’ star-studded defense, featuring DT Timmy Jernigan and CB Lamarcus Joyner.
2. B1G: There’s no quieting the debate where college football is concerned, of course. But it’s up to the teams to do their talking on the field. No. 2 Ohio State looks to do just that in Indianapolis for what appears to be its stiffest test of the season against No. 9 Michigan State. The Spartans haven’t lost in the Big Ten themselves, and would be part of the BCS title debate had they found their offensive identity before an early stumble against Notre Dame. The Spartans still can’t count on moving the ball at will, but QB Connor Cook and TB Jeremy Langford don’t commit many miscues. They’re both likely to see a lot of Buckeyes’ LB Ryan Shazier. But the big reason Michigan State’s is here is its defense, anchored by LB Denicos Allen and CB Darqueze Denard. The first job will be containing Buckeyes’ QB Braxton Miller, a two-way threat who has progressed into a 65% passer. TB Carlos Hyde has been a workhorse down the stretch for OSU as well.
3. SEC: It’s difficult to fathom for the most vocal supporters of the conference that has claimed the last seven BCS crowns that its champion this year might need help to play for the title. One thing, however, is certain — the Tigers will win. None of these Tigers were expected to be in Atlanta, but Missouri rose to the top of the East Division with steady improvement, while Auburn claimed the West with some of the season’s most memorable moments. While the tip-drill catch by WR Ricardo Louis and the 100+-yard dash by DB/KR Chris Davis will go down as the season’s signature plays on the plains, the rapid adaptation of QB Nick Marshall to Gus Malzahn’s multi-faceted offense has been the reason for the team’s consistency. Marshall and leading TB Tre Mason will be up against an athletic Mizzou front, paced by DE Michael Sam and DE/LB Markus Golden, who must be sound with their gap responsibilities. Missouri QB James Franklin has been solid since returning from a shoulder injury, but he might need to test the depths a bit more this week with speedy WRs Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington. Franklin could also use help from TB Henry Josey as he tries to steer clear of Auburn DE Dee Ford.
4. PAC-12: The venue will be different for the rematch between No.10 Stanford and No.13 Arizona State, and the Sun Devils are hopeful the outcome will be as well. The Cardinal’s road to Tempe was more like a rollercoaster ride as they grabbed control of the North Division, lost it, then suddenly were handed it back when Oregon stumbled. ASU swept the South and secured home field advantage for this rematch last week by smothering rival Arizona. The news wasn’t all good for the Sun Devils, however, as do-everything TB Marion Grice missed the game with a leg injury and remains doubtful. D.J. Foster filled in nicely in support of QB Taylor Kelly, but real estate will be harder to find against Cardinal LBs Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. Kelly will also need WR Jaelen Strong to keep the Stanford secondary honest. The Cardinal offense is built around TB Tyler Gaffney, but the big-play threat is there as well for QB Kevin Hogan via WR Ty Montgomery. ASU DT Will Sutton and his linemates must clog the line of scrimmage.
5. B12: The Large Dozen-minus-two no longer conducts a championship game, the its round-robin winner will come down to the final day. No. 6 Oklahoma State has the inside track to the Fiesta Bowl with head-to-head victories against Baylor and Texas in hand. One big obstacle remains, ‘Bedlam” rival and 15th-ranked Oklahoma. The Cowboys’ offense has thrived since the keys were handed to QB Clint Chelf. His own ability to take off as well as ample support from TBs Desmond Roland and Jeremy Smith have opening up passing lanes for WRs Josh Stewart and Tracy Moore. They’ll be opposed by an opportunistic Sooners’ defense, whose mainstay is LB Frank Shannon. OU’s QBs have battled injuries and inconsistency, but both Blake Bell and Trevor Knight have had flashes of excellence. It hasn’t hurt that TB Brennan Clay has been a constant breakaway threat. It will be up to Oklahoma State LB Shaun Lewis and S Daytawion Lowe to contain him.
6. B12 II: Lurking in the wings should the Cowboys come up short against the Sooners are the aforementioned Baylor and Texas. Even if help in the form of an Oklahoma win doesn’t arrive, the victor in Waco between the No. 7 Bears and the No.24 Longhorns will finish in at least a tie for first in the overall Big 12 standings. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, their three losses have come against teams with just the sort of offense that Baylor employs, spreading the field and taking advantage of missed tackles up front with a mobile signal caller. Bears’ QB Bryce Petty has missed some of his top weapons of late, with WR Tevin Reese (wrist) out for the year and TB Lache Seastrunk (groin) slowed in some recent outings. But Seastrunk is back, and WR Antwan Goodley is also an excellent target for Petty. The Longhorns’ offense is also something of a patchwork with QB David Ashe (concussion) and TB Johnathan Gray (calf) sidelined. QB Case McCoy will need big numbers from TBs Malcom Brown and Joe Bergeron to give the defense a break.
7. MWC: The BCS is off the table for No. 22 Fresno State. But the Bulldogs must shake off last week’s setback at San Jose State and regroup for the Mountain West title game on their home turf against upstart Utah State. The Aggies overcame a spate of injuries to finish ahead of preseason favorite Boise State in the Mountain Division. The Contest figures to be another shootout that could go well into the night. The Bulldogs can score at any time with QB Derek Carr pulling the trigger. His favorite recipient by far is WR Davante Adams, who has an astounding 1,477 yards and 22 TDs. USU will counter with Darrell Garretson, who has done a remarkable job since the dynamic Chuckie Keeton went down with a season-ending knee injury. Helping out the Aggies’ ground game is TB DeMartino, who’ll be needed to keep the Fresno attack off the field.
Eddie Timanus, a national colleges reporter and the poll editor for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @EddieTimanus.
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