NCF Nation: what to watch week 15
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
The first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in SEC history (according to the Associated Press poll) is upon us. Alabama and Florida have met five previous times in the SEC championship game, but the stakes have never been this high for both teams. The winner earns a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Back in August, a lot of people were picking the Gators to be here. Nobody expected the Crimson Tide to be here. At least, nobody outside of the 205 area code. Both teams are still relatively young. Alabama only has nine scholarship seniors on its entire team, the fewest in the nation. Florida, meanwhile, is the only team in the SEC without a senior starter on defense. They've gotten here with contrasting styles -- the Gators with speed and the Crimson Tide with power. It ought to be a classic. Here are a few things to watch:
1. How's Percy? Through Thursday's practice, Florida running back/receiver Percy Harvin hadn't done anything on the field this week with rest of the team. He spent Thursday in the pool rehabilitating his sprained right ankle, but Florida coach Urban Meyer remains hopeful that Harvin will be able to play some in the game. How much remains to be seen. Meyer said he should know more Friday. Harvin is no stranger to playing through injuries. It seems like he's had something plaguing him from the time he arrived at Florida. But even when he's not 100 percent, Harvin is one of those guys that can turn a quick toss or a missed tackle into a touchdown. There's a reason he's scored a touchdown in 14 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the nation.
2. Scoring in different ways: Florida has scored seven non-offensive touchdowns this season -- five interception returns and two punt returns. There are only three teams nationally who've scored more, and one of those is Alabama. The Crimson Tide have eight non-offensive touchdowns this season, tying Kansas State and Boston College for the most among FBS schools. Alabama has four interception returns for touchdowns, two punt returns, one fumble return and one blocked punt. Both defenses are so good that a non-offensive touchdown could easily be the difference in this game. Both teams have big-time weapons in the return game, too. Between them, Alabama's Javier Arenas (five) and Florida's Brandon James (four) have returned nine career punts for touchdowns.
3. Rushing to success: There's an age-old adage in football that says if you can run the ball and stop the run, you're going to win a lot more games than you lose. That adage has been the cornerstone of Alabama's success this season. The Crimson Tide are second in the SEC in rushing offense (Florida is first), but they're also second nationally when it comes to stopping the run. They're allowing just 73.6 yards per game on the ground and have given up only three rushing touchdowns all season, the fewest in the country. The Tide's rushing defense will really be tested by the Gators, who've run for a staggering 1,612 more yards than their opponents this season. Ultimately, it's probably going to get down to whether Alabama can keep the ball away from Florida by running the ball and putting together long drives. Being able to get 4 and 5 yards consistently on first down will be especially important for the Tide.
4. Tebow time: One of the reasons Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has been so efficient this season is that he hasn't had to do as much as a year ago. The emergence of Chris Rainey and Jeffery Demps in the backfield has helped to take a lot of the pressure off of Tebow. Spreading the wealth around also means that it's a much healthier Tebow than it was at this time a year ago. He hasn't taken the pounding he did last season, which means he's going to be more willing than ever to lower his shoulder and try to pick up the tough yards. Having that dimension in the red zone and in short-yardage situations is invaluable. It's also a nice bonus for the Gators should Harvin not be as effective on his gimpy ankle. Tebow carried it a season-high 16 times last week against Florida State. He'll have at least that many carries in him Saturday if need be.
5. Spikes vs. Coffee: As good as Florida middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has been this season, he's been known to wander out of position at times. It's more a product of being too aggressive than anything else. He's a dynamic player capable of making game-turning plays. See his four interceptions against Top 25 teams. Still, look for Alabama to try and use some of that aggressiveness against him and do its best to get him out of the play. Alabama junior running back Glen Coffee hits the hole as hard as anyone, and he's the kind of runner who delivers the blow. His 1,235 rushing yards are the second most in the SEC behind only Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, who has 1,338. Coffee led all SEC rushers with a minimum of 100 attempts by averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He also showed the ability to break the long one. So look for Spikes and Coffee to come face-to-face more than a few times Saturday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Rematch is the wrong word for this game, considering it's a different season and Virginia Tech and Boston College are completely different teams than they were a year ago. Here are a few things to keep an eye on in Saturday's ACC championship game:
1. Special teams and non-offensive touchdowns. Virginia Tech's last three touchdowns against the Eagles have all come from interception returns, and the Hokies have blocked seven kicks during their series with Boston College. The Eagles have scored eight non-offensive touchdowns this season, including receiver Rich Gunnell's punt return for a touchdown in the Eagles' 28-23 regular-season win on Oct. 18.
2. Virginia Tech's young receivers. Boston College defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani said the Hokies look different from the team they played on Oct. 18 and that's because he said they're not as one-dimensional. The Hokies can thank their rookie receivers for that. Danny Coale caught a career-best five passes last weekend against Virginia and Jarrett Boykin had six. They'll go against a defense that leads the nation in interceptions with 25.
3. Spaziani vs. Bud Foster. This will be a defensive struggle from the start. The Eagles will do their best to try and contain shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor and stop the run, and the Hokies will look to rattle rookie quarterback Dominique Davis, who will be making his second career start. Foster's name was in the news more this season because he interviewed for the head job at Clemson, but Spaziani has been equally invaluable on the Eagles' sideline.
4. Attendance. There are various reasons why Raymond James Stadium is unlikely to be filled on Saturday, starting with the troubled economy, but regardless of why there might be empty seats, it will be hard not to notice. ACC officials went to great lengths to make sure Tampa provided a better atmosphere than Jacksonville did, but only kickoff will tell if their efforts paid off.
5. The battles up front. With an offensive line that averages 6-foot-5, the Eagles are unusually tall up front -- the tallest in the ACC -- while the Hokies have been rather inconsistent. BC defensive tackles Ron Brace and B.J. Raji have combined for 54 tackles. Raji leads the team with 11 tackles for a loss of 62 yards and seven sacks. Virginia Tech has been dependent upon the run, while the Eagles have held each of their past five opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
1. Oklahoma's hopes for a three-peat: Sure, they haven't lit the world up in BCS games in recent seasons. But Oklahoma and Bob Stoops are in their element in Big 12 championship games. The Sooners will be aiming for history Saturday night as they try for a record-breaking third straight conference title with a victory over Missouri. The Sooners' back-to-back title run in 2006 and '07 was a league first. Stoops is 5-1 in Big 12 championships games. No other league coach in history has won more than one Big 12 championship.
2. Sam Bradford finishes his Heisman bid: Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford will have the closing argument of the Heisman contenders as he plays in the final major game of the regular season before balloting ends next week. A big outing could put him over the top in a still too-close-to-call race with several other worthy challengers. Bradford should have an easier task against a leaky Missouri secondary in his bid to become the first quarterback in Big 12 history to win two conference championships.
3. Ex-construction worker Mike Balogun's first start: Oklahoma middle linebacker Mike Balogun's trek to the Big 12 title game sounds like a corny movie script. He skipped high school football to support his family by working and then bounced to junior college after winning his chance through a combine. Balogun ended up with the Sooners only because of some unexpected departures after last season. He's played only 20 snaps in his career, but will be forced into the starting lineup after Austin Box sustained a sprained knee last week against Oklahoma State. Oklahoma coaches like Balogun's hitting ability and instincts, but admit that he is raw in pass coverages. That could be an open invitation for heavy challenges from Missouri tight end Chase Coffman, the most prolific pass-catching tight end in FBS history.
4. Can Missouri turn around its Oklahoma jinx? The Sooners have dominated the series, winning 18 of the last 19 games between the two teams, including twice in the last 14 months. Stoops has never lost to the Tigers in six previous games and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is 0-5 against the Sooners. Chase Daniel could cement his legacy as the greatest player in Missouri football history by summoning up an upset, leading the Tigers to their first Big 12 championship. But it won't be easy, particularly if the Tigers get caught up in the past.
5. Missouri's struggling secondary: The Tigers have labored all season in pass defense, ranking last in the conference and 116th nationally. And it won't be any easier for them against Oklahoma without starting cornerback Castine Bridges, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last week against Kansas. The departure of Bridges means that undersized senior Tru Vaughns will be making his first start against a smoldering Oklahoma offensive attack. Oklahoma will be looking to make history by becoming the first team in NCAA history to score 60 points in five straight games -- with a passing attack that leads the nation with 47 touchdown passes.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Five things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.
Jahvid goes for the rushing title: There are a couple of reasons California shouldn't be yawning before facing Washington. For one, the Bears were humiliated by the Huskies last year, 37-23, in Seattle, surrendering an eye-popping 334 yards rushing. Second, tailback Jahvid Best needs 171 yards rushing to win the Pac-10 rushing title, meaning the Best player on the field should get plenty of touches. That also won't bode well for the Huskies -- will they even show up? -- keeping things reasonably close.
Any chance Craft can create art? UCLA's only chance against USC is a near-perfect day. The distance, however, between "perfect" and what the Bruins have been doing on offense this season -- particularly embattled quarterback Kevin Craft -- is a Grand Canyon-like chasm. Craft has thrown 12 interceptions in his last four games. Touchdowns? Zero. Three of his picks were returned for scores in the 34-9 loss to Arizona State, and his fumble led to a fourth touchdown. And yet ... what if the Craft from the fourth quarter of the Tennessee or Stanford games shows up against the Trojans? Two years ago, expectations were low for sophomore Patrick Cowan, but he pulled a rabbit out of his helmet and led the Bruins to a 13-9 victory that knocked the Trojans out of the national title game.
Can Arizona win a close one? Arizona has won six games this year. Smallest margin of victory? 15 points (vs. California). The Wildcats have lost five. Largest margin of defeat? Ten points (Oregon). When Arizona wins, it rolls. But when the screws tighten, it goes belly up. In fact, the Wildcats are 5-16 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the past four seasons under Mike Stoops. Two of those defeats are included in their three-game losing streak vs. rival Arizona State. The home-standing Wildcats are favored by 10 1/2, so there's the potential for this not to be close. But, if things stay tight, will there be worried looks or set jaws on the home sideline?
Will Sarkisian's dance with Washington be a distraction? While the Trojans defense has been reliably dominant in every game save one this season, the offense has been decidedly inconsistent. Some fans, in fact, have been impatient with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, even though the Trojans rank second in the conference in both scoring (38.4 points per game) and total offense (451 yards per game). News broke Thursday evening that Sarkisian is the next Washington head coach. Two potential negatives for the Trojans: 1. Has Sark been able to focus on game planning against a good UCLA defense; 2. Will his imminent departure distract his players, particularly quarterback Mark Sanchez?
Rudy vs. Willie, take four: Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter hasn't had the season most imagined for him. Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama hasn't put up huge numbers like many thought he would. But Tuitama has been more consistent and statistically impressive than Carpenter. Ah, but Carpenter is 3-0 vs. Tuitama in Territorial Cups. No ASU quarterback has gone 4-0 against UA. After the 5-6 Sun Devils' desperation to earn bowl eligibility, this is the lead item of this year's game. Carpenter has outplayed Tuitama in the series -- see his 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio compared to 4:3 for Tuitama. Will their finale be different or more of the same?
1. Pat White's curtain call: White has been magical during his four years in a West Virginia uniform. What does he have left up his sleeve for his final home game, especially against a defense that has shut his team down two straight years? This will be worth watching if only to see the lovefest between the Mountaineers fans and perhaps the greatest player in school history.
2. Matt Grothe's decision-making: The South Florida quarterback -- who will soon break White's Big East career yardage record -- has thrown two interceptions in each of his last two games against West Virginia. The Bulls still managed to win those games, but with a less-imposing defense, they may not be able to overcome turnover problems this time around. Or at least that's been the trend this season. Grothe has thrown four interceptions in his team's seven wins this year, while he has nine picks in the four losses.
3. Donald Brown and LeSean McCoy: Two of the finest running backs in the nation -- and possibly two early 2009 Heisman Trophy candidates -- will go head-to-head Saturday as UConn plays host to Pittsburgh. The Huskies and Panthers have almost identical run defenses statistically -- UConn allows 119.6 yards per game on the ground, while Pitt gives up an even 119 -- so the playing field looks balanced. And for those who think Brown got snubbed for the Doak Walker, here's one stat to keep in mind: Iowa's Shonn Greene had 147 yards on 23 carries against Pittsburgh earlier this year.
4. Will Cincinnati be keyed up or lei-ed back? The Bearcats must travel 4,500 miles and adjust to a five-hour time change, all to play a meaningless game against Hawaii a week after celebrating their Big East title. That's perhaps the biggest recipe for a letdown ever cooked up. But if Cincinnati stays focused and has its legs, this should be a favorable matchup. Hawaii's best four opponents this season -- Florida, Oregon State, Fresno State and Boise State -- averaged 445 total yards and 39 points. This could turn into a nice working vacation for Tony Pike, Dominick Goodman and Mardy Gilyard.
5. The bowl shakeout: We'll all know who's going where by 8 p.m. Sunday, when the BCS selection show airs. But it will be fascinating to follow the various scenarios for the Big East bowls this weekend, starting with the ripple effects from Thursday night's Rutgers-Louisville bowl. Will West Virginia or Pittsburgh get the Sun Bowl invite? Can UConn improve its lot? Who and where will Cincinnati play its BCS game? After a season full of questions, it's almost time for the answers.
1. Quarterback duel: Two of the best quarterbacks in the Mid-American Conference will square off tonight in the MAC championship, but don't think this will be the last time you see these guys duel. Ball State's Nate Davis is considered a potentially high NFL draft pick and Buffalo's Drew Willy is projected as a mid-round sleeper.
2. Living the dream: Tulsa has played in the Conference USA championship two other times and both games have resulted in losses, both to Central Florida. Can the team turn it around? Not if East Carolina's defense has something to say about it.
3. A tradition of tradition: The Army-Navy game isn't what it used to be (unless you're a Navy fan), but the pageantry of the annual Army-Navy game is something that can't be missed. Whether you're a football fan or not, knowing that these young men will be protecting our country makes one appreciate the game more.
4. Waiting game: Louisiana-Lafayette will be waiting to see if Arkansas State can beat Troy and force a three-way tie for the Sun Belt title. For the Ragin' Cajuns, an ASU win does not guarantee a bowl game. If the Red Wolves win that game, they play in the New Orleans Bowl.
5. Last go-round? Buffalo coach Turner Gill and Ball State coach Brady Hoke could be playing in their last MAC games this week as rumors continue to swirl that both are candidates for some of the coaching vacancies in the BCS. Neither coach has confirmed contact with other schools.