NCF Nation: what-to-watch-120210

What to watch in the SEC: Week 14

December, 2, 2010
Here’s a look at what to watch in Saturday’s SEC championship game between Auburn and South Carolina:

1. Red-hot Newton: The scary part for South Carolina is that Cam Newton just seems to get better every game. The more that’s out there swirling around, the more dynamic he’s been. Well, the NCAA has handed down a ruling now and says he’s eligible. Will he take it to another level? It’s hard to imagine there is another level than the one he’s been playing on the last few weeks. He’s throwing the ball right now as well as he has all season. In his last four games, he’s completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 890 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception. That’s a passer efficiency rating of 208.82.

2. Manning up in the trenches: Nobody needs to remind South Carolina’s defensive players how many rushing yards Auburn piled up on the Gamecocks the last time they met. The Tigers rolled up 334 yards on the ground, and Newton had 176 of those yards and three touchdowns. It’s paramount that the entire South Carolina defense man up this second time around, but particularly the Gamecocks’ defensive front. That’s been the strength of their defense, and those guys are playing better than they were back in September. Tackle Melvin Ingram and end Devin Taylor have combined for 15.5 sacks, and the Gamecocks lead the SEC with 39 sacks. When they get Newton bottled up on Saturday, they have to finish the play. South Carolina has 18 sacks on third down this season, tying LSU for the FBS lead.

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery and Neiko Thorpe
AP Photo/Butch DillAlshon Jeffery caught eight passes for 192 yards and two TDs in the Gamecocks' first matchup with Auburn.
3. Jeffery takes his shot: Auburn’s secondary has faced its share of marquee receivers this season and been torched by those receivers. South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery takes his second shot at the Tigers after catching eight passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the first game. Jeffery is one of four SEC receivers this season to finish with at least 160 receiving yards against the Tigers, joining Alabama’s Julio Jones, Georgia’s A.J. Green and Arkansas’ Greg Childs. Each of those players averaged more than 18 yards per catch against Auburn. And on deep balls (passes that traveled at least 20 yards) in that first game, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia completed 3 of 4 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown to Jeffery.

4. Leaning on Lattimore: South Carolina wants to get freshman running back Marcus Lattimore involved early and keep him involved. In the three games the Gamecocks lost this season, he didn’t carry the ball more than 15 times. In fact, in the loss to Kentucky, he injured his ankle and didn’t play at all in the second half, and the Gamecocks blew an 18-point lead. South Carolina will also utilize Lattimore in the passing game, and even though he’s a first-year player, he can handle all the touches you want to give him. Auburn is ranked 10th nationally in rushing defense and shut Lattimore down in the first game. He was held to 33 yards on 14 carries. The Tigers have been particularly stout when it comes to eliminating big plays in the running game, giving up just one running play of 30 yards or longer all season.

5. Striking quickly: Making Auburn earn its points will be as important as anything for South Carolina. The Tigers strike so quickly that they can turn a close game into a rout in a hurry. Just ask Arkansas. Auburn leads all FBS teams with 23 offensive touchdowns of 30 yards or longer. Yes, that’s more than even Oregon, which has 21. Newton is the Tigers’ obvious big-play artist, but running back Onterio McCalebb and receivers Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery have also struck for their share of big plays. And even when he’s not going the distance for touchdowns, Newton has been better than anybody in the country at gaining yards in chunks. He has 27 runs of 15 yards or longer, which tops all FBS players. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is second with 25.

What to watch in the Big East: Week 14

December, 2, 2010
1. Championship week: The Big East doesn't have a title game, but this week works the same. Connecticut will claim the league's BCS bid with a win at South Florida. If the Huskies lose, West Virginia takes the crown by beating Rutgers. If both teams fall, Pittsburgh can still sneak in the BCS back door with a victory at Cincinnati.

2. Battle in the trenches in Tampa: The UConn-South Florida game will pit the Huskies' powerful offensive line versus one of the Bulls' main strengths: their defensive line. Nose guard Terrell McClain has quietly had a great season and will try to wreak havoc inside against Moe Petrus and Zach Hurd. Teams can run on the Bulls, though; their last three opponents have all rushed for at least 150 yards, which could mean big things for ...

[+] EnlargeJordan Todman
David Butler II/US PresswireJordan Todman has rushed for 100 yards in all but one game this season.
3. Todman time: Jordan Todman has been the league's MVP and has carried the Huskies during their recent four-game winning streak, averaging 161 rushing yards in that span. You would think the Bulls would stack the box and force one of the nation's least productive passing attacks to beat them, but other teams have had the same idea and still can't stop Todman. If UConn is going to the BCS, Todman shall lead them there.

4. USF's quarterback situation: B.J. Daniels is gimpy on an injured quadriceps muscle. True freshman walk-on Bobby Eveld led the team to victory in the second half and overtime last week at Miami and may start Saturday. Eveld was impressive at times, but he's still wildly inexperienced, and young quarterbacks can have major ups and downs. Daniels may be able to play at least some snaps. UConn's defense has been a ball hawking bunch of late, and this is a dangerous situation for South Florida.

5. Return delivery: The USF-UConn game will feature two of the top kick returners in the country. Nick Williams is leading all returners with a 42-yard average and two touchdowns for the Huskies, while South Florida's Lindsey Lamar also has scored twice and is averaging 29 yards per attempt. If either of them gets loose, that could be a game-changer.

6. West Virginia's defense vs. the indefensible Rutgers O-line: The Mountaineers' defense is just plain scary and is among the nation's leaders in all important categories. It ranks sixth in the FBS in sacks, and this is a match made in hell for the Scarlet Knights' offensive line. Rutgers has given up a nation's worst 55 sacks already, and with guys like Bruce Irvin and J.T. Thomas charging through that line, things could get ugly fast. I fear for quarterback Chas Dodd's well being.

7. A 180 at Nippert: A year ago at this time, Pitt and Cincinnati staged a classic shootout for the Big East title. The Panthers still are mathematically alive for the BCS bid and can earn a share of the Big East title with a win Saturday, but no one will remember that tie after a 7-5 season. They have to beat Cincinnati just to avoid going 6-6, and a crummy bowl destination could await either way. Cincinnati has already been eliminated from the postseason and has nothing to play for but pride. All eyes were on this game last year; not many will be watching 12 months later.

8. Bowl bids: Since the Big East plays its regular-season schedule during other league's title-game week, nothing has been decided yet on bowls. We're reasonably certain Syracuse is going to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, but that's it. This weekend's results will determine not just the BCS bid but which teams get the other six Big East slots.
There's only one Big Ten team in action this weekend, but I have five reasons why you should pay attention. So pay attention!

1. Mikel Leshoure: If you haven't watched the Big Ten's best running back this season, stay up late Friday night and tune into ESPN2 as Leshoure and Illinois visit Fresno State (10:15 p.m. ET kickoff). Leshoure comes off of a team-record 330-yard rushing performance at Wrigley Field and has racked up 664 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in his past three games. The Illini junior, who will weigh his NFL options after the season, needs 311 yards to break the team's single-season rushing record held by Rashard Mendenhall.

[+] EnlargeMikel Leshoure
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMikel Leshoure is coming off a career game against Northwestern: 33 carries for 330 yards and two touchdowns.
2. Games that can impact the BCS standings: The final BCS standings on Sunday night will determine which team earns the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth. Wisconsin pretty much has a trip to the Rose Bowl locked up, but a few games this weekend could impact the standings. Keep an eye on Illinois-Fresno State, Arizona State-Arizona, Oregon-Oregon State and Auburn-South Carolina. Both Ohio State and Michigan State beat Illinois, while Wisconsin didn't play the Illini but beat Arizona State on Sept. 20.

3. Nebraska in the Big 12 title game: The Cornhuskers play their final Big 12 game, and it's a big one. Nebraska renews one of the great rivalries in college sports as it takes on Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game at JerryWorld. Although Nebraska's performance the rest of the way will be credited to the Big 12, the Big Ten would love to have a reigning league champion and a BCS bowl champion entering its league in 2011. Big Ten fans scouting the Huskers should keep a close eye on the quarterback position, as Taylor Martinez and Cody Green both could play.

4. Illinois defense aims for redemption: The Illini defense reached its low point last fall against Fresno State, which racked up 53 points and 233 rush yards in a win at Memorial Stadium. Vic Koenning's defense performed better against Northwestern at Wrigley Field but is still trying to recapture its midseason form. Fresno State provides a good test Friday with Robbie Rouse, the nation's No. 13 rusher, as well as veteran quarterback Ryan Colburn.

5. The bowl selections: Michigan State this week launched a full-blown campaign to get in the discussion for a BCS at-large berth. Will it work? Probably not, but you never know if there will be a surprise on Selection Sunday. The real drama likely will come with the Outback and Gator Bowls, who have more options than usual, albeit lukewarm ones. Will Penn State, Iowa, Michigan or Illinois head to the Outback? What will the Gator do? It should be very interesting to watch.

Non-AQ What to Watch, Week 14

December, 2, 2010
Come one, come all for your top 5 non-AQ storylines for Week 14:

1. How does Boise State respond? The Broncos lost last week for the first time since Dec. 23, 2008, against TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. So it’s safe to say this team doesn’t have much experience when it comes to playing a game following a loss. Still, Boise State is at home against Utah State with plenty to play for -- it’s Senior Day and the team's home-winning streak is on the line. The Broncos have won 61 straight at home, and have never dropped a WAC game. They could finish 40-0 in league play at home before bolting for the Mountain West next year.

2. How does Nevada respond? The Wolf Pack face the opposite scenario on Saturday -- they have never had a win as big as their victory over Boise State, so you wonder whether there will be any sort of emotional letdown against Louisiana Tech. Coach Chris Ault and quarterback Colin Kaepernick say they have already put the Boise State win behind them. The Bulldogs' offense presents yet another challenge for a defense that is much improved this year. Key No. 1: stopping Lennon Creer.

[+] EnlargeChandler Harnish
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireChandler Harnish has passed for nearly 2,000 yards and has a 17-to-5 TD-INT ratio.
3. Can Northern Illinois make it 10 in a row? The Huskies are one of the hottest teams in the country, having won nine straight en route to the MAC title game Friday night. They are riding their first BCS ranking since 2003, at No. 25, and have been an offensive machine the last three games. Miami (Ohio) needed help to get into this game, but the RedHawks boast MAC Coach of the Year Mike Haywood and the best turnaround in college football. Still, Northern Illinois has two of the best offensive players in the league in Chandler Harnish and Chad Spann, while Miami must play without starting quarterback Zac Dysert.

4. SMU run game vs. UCF run defense. Even though the Mustangs play the run 'n' shoot on offense, they have the best running back in the league in Zach Line, averaging 108 yards a game. He is the only runner averaging over 100 yards a game in Conference USA. But he will face a difficult task in the C-USA title game against a UCF run defense that ranks No. 1 in the league. The Knights have given up a league-low nine rushing touchdowns. For more on this matchup, stay tuned for my preview video later today.

5. Do Louisiana Tech and/or Middle Tennessee go bowling? They are the last two teams with bowl hopes from the non-AQs, and both face difficult tasks against conference leaders. Louisiana Tech (5-6) hosts WAC co-leader Nevada and Middle Tennessee (5-6) plays at Sun Belt champion FIU. The Sun Belt has three bowl tie-ins but only two bowl-eligible teams, so a win here would get the Blue Raiders in. If Louisiana Tech wins, it would need help to find a bowl spot, but something could be worked out if Boise State doesn’t play in a WAC tie-in game.

What to watch in the Big 12 Championship

December, 2, 2010
1. Nebraska's quarterback, but not necessarily its starter. Taylor Martinez didn't play last week, suffering through a sprained right ankle and turf toe on his right foot. Cody Green played well against Colorado, which has two of the most talented corners in the Big 12, but there's no doubt Martinez gives Nebraska an offensive edge. Martinez had the Huskers on a record pace earlier in the year. Expect Bo Pelini to ride his hot hand if Martinez is healthy, but there's nothing saying either of the quarterbacks will get hot. In that case, look for lots of Wildcat with Rex Burkhead taking the snaps.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Taylor Martinez
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWill Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez be on the field for the Big 12 title game or watching from the sideline?
2. Turnover margin. You've read about Landry Jones rough night in Lincoln last year, and from time to time, he's been susceptible to turning the ball over this year, too. If Oklahoma's going to win, it can't turn the ball over. This should be a tight, low-scoring game just like last year, and turnovers are never more crucial than in games like that. The same goes for Nebraska and its fumbles. The Huskers have 37 fumbles, more than any team in college football, though they've lost just 12 of them.

3. The postgame scene: If Oklahoma wins, this point is moot (although maybe not). If Nebraska wins, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe will hand the Huskers the Big 12 Championship trophy and Nebraska will wave goodbye on its way to the Big Ten. If Beebe takes the microphone, however briefly, expect boos from the Nebraska fans.

4. The penalty distribution. There's no avoiding this one. If it's slanted, it's going to be a story, for better or worse. To be clear, I don't think any shenanigans are going on, but you can bet you'll be hearing about it for a long time if the gap between Oklahoma's flags and Nebraska's is wide, or key calls late in the game go against the Huskers.

5. Extracurricular activities. Last week, after nearly every Nebraska penalty, cameras flipped to a shot of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. Unlike against Texas A&M, he was on his best behavior, making good on his word that he wouldn't be as animated as he was against the Aggies. Nebraska was firmly in control of that one, but this week against Oklahoma should be noticeably more intense. Warranted or not, cameras will be on Pelini once again this week.

What to watch: ACC title game

December, 2, 2010
On paper, Florida State and Virginia Tech are similar teams -- the Seminoles and Hokies are two of the ACC’s highest scoring offenses and two of the stingiest scoring defenses. They both have veteran quarterbacks and depth at running back. They also both have playmakers on defense. It should be a great matchup in Saturday’s ACC championship game. Here are five more things to watch:

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's Chris Thompson
Daniel Shirey/US PRESWIREFlorida State's Chris Thompson has rushed 100 times for 687 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Run defenses. Virginia Tech has the nation’s No. 17 rushing offense, averaging more than 200 yards per game, and the mobility of quarterback Tyrod Taylor will be tough for FSU to contain. The Hokies’ three tailbacks have combined for 29 touchdowns this year. Virginia Tech’s run defense has been average, though, and the Seminoles have gained major yardage from their running game. Of FSU’s 35 plays of more than 25 yards this season, 17 have been produced by the running game. The Noles’ backs have been banged up, but Chris Thompson, the healthiest of the bunch, leads with 57.2 yards per game.

Quarterback Christian Ponder vs. Virginia Tech’s secondary. The Hokies have the ACC’s No. 2 pass defense and pass defense efficiency. The Hokies lead the ACC with 20 interceptions, and cornerback Jayron Hosley leads the nation with eight. He’s one shy of the school single-season record of nine set by Ron Davidson in 1967. In the past five games, Virginia Tech has had 12 interceptions.

Florida State’s front four vs. FSU quarterback Tyrod Taylor. When these teams played for the ACC title in 2005, Florida State sacked elusive Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick six times and also recorded eight tackles for loss. This time, Taylor must escape a defense that ranks first nationally in total sacks (43), second nationally in sacks per game (3.58), 13th in total tackles for loss (86), and 15th in tackles for loss per game (7.17). The Hokies are No. 63 in the country in sacks allowed with 23.

FSU on third and fourth downs. The Seminoles lead the ACC in third-down conversions and are No. 17 in the country in third-down conversion percentage, having been successful 48.43 percent of the time (77 of 159). Virginia Tech, though, has one of the best third-down defenses, as the Hokies are No. 14 in the country, holding opponents to 33.91 percent on their third-down conversions. FSU is also a perfect 6-for-6 on fourth downs this year.

Red zone efficiency. Virginia Tech and Florida State are two of the country’s best inside the 20-yard line. Virginia Tech is No. 11 in red-zone efficiency defense and No. 13 in red zone offense. FSU is No. 17 in red-zone efficiency defense and No. 27 in red-zone offense.

What to watch in the Pac-10: Week 14

December, 2, 2010
Issues to consider heading into the 14th -- and final -- week of regular-season games.

[+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBrock Osweiler responded well coming off the bench last week against UCLA.
Brock Osweiler vs. the Zona Zoo: Arizona State backup QB Brock Osweiler was fantastic last week coming off the bench for an injured Steven Threet, throwing for 380 yards and four touchdowns and running for another score in the Sun Devils' win over UCLA. But starting is a whole different thing. For one, you have to think about starting all week, so there's a different sort of pressure. Then there's starting on the road; it's much more difficult for an offense when it can't communicate. Finally, there's starting on the road in a rivalry game. It's loud and the whole state is watching. Osweiler's only previous start was in 2009 -- he was a true freshman -- at Oregon. He completed just 5 of 10 passes for 14 yards with an interception before being knocked out of the game. Osweiler looks like a different quarterback today. How different might determine if the Sun Devils get the upset.

Beavers must win third down: Oregon coach Chip Kelly often says he doesn't care about time of possession. That's true. But he cares about possession. If Oregon State is going to record the upset, it needs to win possession, which means converting on third down when it has the ball and stopping the Ducks on third down. And fourth down; the Ducks have gone for it 28 times this year. The problem for the Beavers is they have been bad on third down this year, particularly on defense, where they rate last in the Pac-10. And the Ducks are good on third down on both sides of the ball. The Beavers need to figure out ways to limit the Ducks' possessions. That means playing keep-away on offense and stepping up on conversion plays. What might that mean on defense? It means being fairly conservative on first and second down -- don't give up the big play, the Ducks' staple -- and then attacking on third (and fourth) down.

Can the Cougars stop Chris Polk? Washington RB Chris Polk needs 46 yards rushing in the Apple Cup to reach the 1,000-yard benchmark for the season. He figures to get that and more against a Washington State run defense that surrenders 211 yards on the ground per game, which ranks 115th in the nation. But the question is how much more? The Cougars held Oregon State to just 97 yards rushing in their only Pac-10 victory. Of course, ganging up on the run doesn't always yield positive results. The Cougars held Arizona State to 118 yards on the ground, but 375 yards passing helped the Sun Devils coast to a 42-0 win. But at least slowing down Polk would force Jake Locker and his broken rib to throw the ball on what figures to be a cold and perhaps snowy day in Pullman.

Brehaut through the air: Just who is UCLA QB Richard Brehaut? Is he a guy who can throw for 321 yards, as he did in the Bruins' loss last week at Arizona State? Or is he the guy who seemed unable to establish a consistent rhythm in the passing game, as he did in most of his other starts since taking over for Kevin Prince? We don't yet know. What we do know is USC has surrendered a lot of passing yards this year -- the most in the Pac-10, in fact. And the Trojans rank eighth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. While many of the questions heading into the USC-UCLA game are about the health of Trojans QB Matt Barkley (ankle), the bigger question in the game is whether the Bruins will be able to muster offensive balance and challenge a suspect pass defense.

Going bowling? Will the Pac-10 add a bowl team over the weekend? If Washington beats Washington State, the conference gets a fourth bowl-eligible team. If Oregon State upsets No. 2 Oregon, it could get another. And Arizona State continues to hope that if it upsets Arizona, it will get a waiver for the NCAA that allows it to play in a bowl game at 6-6, despite two of the wins coming against FCS teams. We shall see.