NCF Nation: Transform-113012

SEC: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
A conference title and a trip to the national championship are both on the line Saturday.

For Alabama, one of its top receiving weapons is down. Facing the SEC's No. 2 pass defense, this isn't exactly what coach Nick Saban or his team needed in what is now the biggest game of the season.

But that doesn't mean the Crimson Tide is void of talent at that position. For starters, freshman Amari Cooper has been fantastic this season, catching a team-high 47 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns.

However, Georgia knows what Cooper can do and will stop at nothing to neutralize him Saturday. That means someone has to step up with Kenny Bell, arguably Alabama's best deep threat, out. Someone has to take the pressure off Cooper and provide some help for quarterback AJ McCarron.

That person will be junior Kevin Norwood, who has quietly compiled 26 receptions for 395 yards and four touchdowns. He isn't exactly the deep threat that Bell was, but a solid outing from him should help Alabama's offense be the balanced unit it wants to be against Georgia's top-flight defense.

The Tide could get by on running the ball a little more. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon have more than proved that they are capable of having the offense run through them. But with a defense like Georgia's, which is playing its best and has allowed an average of 59.3 rushing yards and just 1.9 yards per carry in its past three SEC games, the Tide needs balance.

It needs to be able to go over the top, and it needs Norwood to step up. This offense operates at its best when it can keep the defense guessing with the run and play-action. According to ESPN Stats & Information, McCarron is completing 73.3 percent of his passes off play-action this season. He's thrown 10 touchdown passes off play-action -- twice as many as last season -- and seven of those have come on passes thrown 20 yards or longer.

So if Alabama is going to walk out of the Georgia Dome with a victory, Norwood has to play at a different level, and he will. Cooper will help take some pressure away from him, but Norwood has good speed on the outside, which will help him beat Georgia on a couple of big plays Saturday. He's also tough enough to extend plays and drives when he's draped by defenders.

Norwood has battled a leg injury for most of the season, but he says he's better than ever, which makes him that much more of a problem for Georgia's defense. A healthier Norwood will pierce the defense with critical conversions to keep Alabama moving.

Norwood has been solid to this point, but there's more on his plate this weekend. When his number is repeatedly called, he'll repeatedly step up to get Alabama closer and closer to its second straight trip to the national title game.

Big 12: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
It's been quite a ride for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. It was true when he first took over the program, it's been true in his second term as the head Wildcat, and it's been true this season.

He built the Wildcats from the worst program in college football into Big 12 champions, winning the division three times ahead of national power Nebraska and finally getting the first Big 12 title in school history in 2003. The program slowed after that win against Oklahoma, and Snyder rode off into the sunset.

He couldn't stay away for long.

Two of Kansas State's three seasons without Snyder featured losing records, and he returned. He's done it again.

Saturday, his return will culminate in yet another title. The Wildcats will transform into the Big 12 champion for the first time since 2003 and receive the league's automatic bid, heading to the Fiesta Bowl for the first time since 2003. It will be the school's third bowl game since that season.

In fitting fashion (more on that later today), it'll come against Texas, which Kansas State will have beaten seven times in nine meetings since the Big 12 began play in 1996.

This isn't the season Kansas State imagined just a few weeks ago, when the Wildcats were on track to play for the national title. But, like Oklahoma State losing its chance to play for the national title last season, time will allow perspective. In the moment, there's pain, but a Big 12 title will feel better and better as the calendar turns.

It was a special season in Manhattan, even if it promised so much more. The memories of the Baylor loss will fade with time, but the crystal Big 12 trophy won't be going anywhere. Reaching the BCS No. 1, even if it was only for a week, was an accomplishment in itself.

This team will be remembered forever, and its final home game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium will be a great one. Here's hoping the fans recognize Saturday's game for what will have been accomplished, and not what was lost.

ACC: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
My player to watch in the Dr Pepper ACC championship game is Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel.

Manuel has been here before, and last time it didn’t turn out so well. Filling in for an injured Christian Ponder in the 2010 ACC championship game against Virginia Tech, Manuel threw two interceptions in a 44-33 loss to the Hokies, including one that was returned for a touchdown.

"In the future, we'll learn from it," Manuel said that day. "Just remember how to get back in this position and win."

He’s back, and there’s no question he’s better.

Manuel enters Saturday’s title game against Georgia Tech as one of the most efficient passers in the country. His career pass-efficiency rating of 151.54 would be the best in ACC history if maintained, surpassing the mark of 151.15 set by former FSU Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke during the 1997 to '99 seasons. Manuel has led Florida State to a 23-6 record as a starter, including consecutive bowl wins against West Virginia, South Carolina and Notre Dame. This season, he has thrown for 2,967 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Surprisingly, a third of those picks came last weekend.

Manuel is coming off an uncharacteristically poor performance in a loss to rival Florida during which he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble that eventually led to a touchdown. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said one of the biggest differences between Manuel now and the last time he played for the ACC title is his maturity in tough situations.

“I think how he deals with things from day to day and the ups and downs, and he understands there are ups and downs,” Fisher said. “There's going to be tough moments like [the loss to Florida] for him, and how he responds back and bounces back. I just think he's a much [more] mature player, and he has great knowledge of what we're doing.”

Manuel followed his own advice and got the Noles back to Charlotte. Now he's got to finish the job and help them win.
Who has a chance to transform tomorrow with an impact performance in the final week of the regular season?

Let's go with Pitt running back Ray Graham.

First and foremost, Graham deserves an inordinate amount of credit for coming back from a torn ACL last season and being as productive as he has been. Graham has 948 yards rushing this season, on the verge of the first 1,000-yard season of his career. His opponent Saturday is USF.

I was at the game between these two schools last season and saw Graham bust up the Bulls defense to the tune of 226 yards -- an average of 8.7 yards per carry. It was one of the finest rushing performances I had seen in quite some time.

Headed into this game, Graham has 100 yards in three of his past four contests. That includes his best performance of the season, a 172-yard rushing day against Notre Dame. That is the best rushing performance on the Irish defense all season.

Graham will finish his career as one of the most productive running backs in school history, currently ranking second in all-purpose yards (4,849), third in rushing (3,177) and eighth in scoring (204 points).

"Each guy has a story, and Ray’s story this year is not just what he’s done, but where he’s come from with a significant injury last year," coach Paul Chryst said this week. "In a team sport, anything individual is as much an acknowledgement of the team as the individual. Granted, guys do it and he’s run for so many yards and you appreciate that, but no one does it on their own, and that’s the neat thing. The teams I’ve been around and groups I’ve been around, they’ve got that. I think Ray would also admit that. I’ve seen a lineman be more proud of a 1,000-yard rusher than the back. That’s the great thing when you have a good team -- the feeling is that this is our reward. All the good teams and all the good players I’ve been around there’s been that sense. Certainly it’s still a significant milestone. He hasn’t done it yet, and we’ve got a lot certainly as a team to play for and some of these individual things that come are byproducts. The thing I love about it is you’ve got to go do it.”

Pac-12: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
Fourteen weeks ago, the UCLA offensive line was young. Fourteen weeks ago, it was inexperienced. But it's time to grow up. And if the Bruins want to return to their home field for a BCS bowl game with the Pac-12 title in tow, they are going to have to play better tonight against Stanford than they did six days ago.

And not just physically, but mentally. The UCLA offensive line accounted for five of the 12 penalties and 45 of the 135 yards.

Of course, we'll first give credit where credit is due. Stanford's front seven -- even without nose tackle Terrence Stephens for the second consecutive week -- is filthy good.

Last week the Cardinal held UCLA to 73 rushing yards on 33 attempts and had seven sacks. Per the ESPN Stats & Information folks, the last time UCLA had been sacked more than six times in a game was in October 2008 (also against Stanford).

In last Saturday's 35-17 loss, the Cardinal forced Johnathan Franklin inside the tackles on 17 of his 21 attempts; they held him to just 48 yards (2.8 average) with no touchdowns or runs for more than 10 yards on those carries.

Further, Stanford did most of its damage with just its base defense, sending four or fewer rushers 84.8 percent of the time. And when they did blitz, the Cardinal were highly effective. Seven times the Cardinal blitzed Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley when he dropped back; he was just 1 of 7 against the blitz. The one happened to be his touchdown pass to Joseph Fauria.

Yes, this has turned into a post about just how good Stanford's defense is. And it illustrates how the UCLA offensive line will have to transform from last week to this week to give the Bruins a shot at the Pac-12 title.

Big Ten: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
Each Friday during the season, we'll be taking a look at a Big Ten player to watch when the games kick off Saturday.

This week's selection: Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin

Saturday assignment: vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox

Athletic pass-rushers don't usually have fun playing the Badgers, who like to use their mammoth offensive line to pound the ball on the ground. And when Wisconsin does throw the ball, it often does so off play-action, paralyzing the defense with indecision.

Still, Martin has a chance to have a large say in which team goes to the Rose Bowl if he continues his recent level of play. He was absolutely dominant at Iowa last week, repeatedly getting into the face of quarterback James Vandenberg and disrupting everything the Hawkeyes tried to do. He finished tied for second in the league with 8.5 sacks.

"He's an impactful guy," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He's hard to block on the edge. He's not your prototype defensive end size-wise, but he's a powerful guy. He's quick, he's explosive and he plays with tremendous energy."

Martin likely will be matched up against Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner at times, meaning we'll have two first-team All-Big Ten performers going head to head (Martin was voted first team by the media; Wagner was selected by the coaches and media). The 250-pound Martin will be giving up nearly 70 pounds, but will have a definite speed advantage.

For the Badgers to win, they're going to have to make plays in the passing game behind Curt Phillips. They'd also better be ready to keep Martin out of their backfield.