- Mark Schlabach, College Football Reporter
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ATLANTA -- Georgia hasn't won an SEC championship since 2005 and last played for one in 2011.
Alabama hasn't won an SEC title since 2009, but the Crimson Tide won their second BCS national championship in three seasons without even winning the SEC West last season. After losing to LSU 9-6 in overtime in the regular season, Alabama won the rematch 21-0 at the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans.
In Saturday's SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome, No. 2 Alabama will play No. 3 Georgia for another chance to play for a BCS national title. The winner advances to play No. 1 Notre Dame in the Jan. 7 Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
"We're very confident," Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "We play the game just like they do. We put on our pads and shoes just like they do. There's definitely respect for them, and I guess they respect us, too. But we're definitely going to Atlanta to win."
Georgia took a 10-0 lead over No. 1 LSU in last season's SEC championship game, before getting routed 35-0 in the second half.
"All that matters is this game," Bulldogs linebacker Christian Robinson said. "This is what you play the game for. Last year, I think it was a little different. I think we were just happy to be there."
Here are eight things I'll be watching this weekend:
1. Will Georgia's offensive line adequately protect quarterback Aaron Murray?
If the Bulldogs are going to upset the Crimson Tide, they have to run the football well enough to open up the play-action passing game. Murray was criticized for his performance in UGA's 35-7 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 6 -- he completed only 11 of 31 passes for 109 yards with one interception -- but few quarterbacks would have performed well under so much pressure. Georgia's offensive line must hold up against Alabama's aggressive, 3-4 defense to give Murray enough time to make some plays in the passing game.
Alabama leads the country in scoring defense and total defense and its scheme is predicated on affecting the quarterback. Linebackers C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard have combined for nine sacks, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart loves to bring pressure from all angles. Murray has performed better against blitzes this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Murray is completing 66.3 percent of his passes when opponents send five or more pass rushers on a play this season, up 10.1 points from 2011.
Don't be surprised if Georgia tries to quicken its pace on offense, like Texas A&M did in its 29-24 upset of the Tide on Nov. 10. The Bulldogs might snap the ball more quickly and do less checking at the line, in hopes of preventing the Crimson Tide from changing personnel and checking into different looks.
Alabama's secondary isn't as good as it was a year ago. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Alabama has allowed opponents to complete 59.3 percent of their third-down passes thrown at or past the first-down marker, with 16 first downs, over its last four games against FBS foes. The Tide gave up just six such completions in their first seven games of the season, including three games with none.
2. What's Alabama's biggest advantage?
Other than coach Nick Saban's experience and successful track record in big games, the Crimson Tide have one of the country's most dominant offensive lines. Center Barrett Jones, who will probably leave school as a three-time All-American, must handle Georgia's pair of mammoth nose guards, John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, to prevent linebacker Alec Ogletree from clogging up the running game.
Since returning from a four-game suspension, Ogletree has 87 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss, two sacks and five quarterback pressures in eight games. UGA allowed FCS foe Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech to each run for more than 300 yards, but it allowed fewer than 75 rushing yards in each of its last three games against conventional offenses (Florida, Ole Miss and Auburn). Alabama ranks No. 22 nationally in rushing with 214.17 yards per game, and Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon are both averaging more than six yards per carry. The game figures to be won in the trenches, where Alabama has a clear advantage on offense.
3. Can UCLA figure out Stanford in only six days?
The No. 8 Cardinal walloped the No. 16 Bruins 35-17 at the Rose Bowl last week, and now they'll meet again Friday night in the Pac-12 championship game at the Farm. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first time since the NCAA started classification in 1937 that two teams are playing consecutive games against the same opponents.
UCLA has to find a way to run the football better to take pressure off freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, who was sacked seven times last week. Tailback Johnathan Franklin was limited to only 65 yards in 21 carries, leaving Hundley to make most of the plays himself. UCLA's defense also has to do a better job of slowing down Stanford's running game; tailback Stepfan Taylor ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns last week.
The winner advances to meet the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio. The Bruins haven't played in the Rose Bowl since 1999; the Cardinal haven't been there since 2000.
4. Will a five-loss Big Ten team make the Rose Bowl?
Wisconsin is playing in Saturday's Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis because Ohio State and Penn State, which finished ahead of the Badgers in the Leaders Division, are ineligible to play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.
That doesn't mean the Badgers are going to roll over against Nebraska. Wisconsin and Nebraska played one of the Big Ten's most exciting regular-season games on Sept. 29, when the Cornhuskers rallied from a 17-point deficit in the second half to win 30-27. The Badgers dropped three of their last four games, but each defeat was decided in overtime. If Montee Ball can run the ball against Nebraska's "Black Shirts" defense, the Badgers might go to the Rose Bowl for the third season in a row.
5. Can Georgia Tech slow down FSU's offense enough to win an ACC championship?
The Yellow Jackets and No. 13 Seminoles both enter Saturday's ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., coming off embarrassing losses to their instate rivals. FSU committed five turnovers and allowed 244 rushing yards in a 37-26 loss to No. 4 Florida; Georgia Tech lost to Georgia 42-10, its 11th loss in 12 years to its instate rival.
FSU will have to slow down Georgia Tech's triple-option spread offense, which produced 306 rushing yards in the loss at Georgia. The Seminoles learned earlier this week that they're losing defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who was named Kentucky's new coach, and starting defensive end Cornellius "Tank" Carradine suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Georgia Tech, which fired defensive coordinator Al Groh after six games, won the ACC's Coastal Division because Miami self-imposed a postseason ban. The winner earns a trip to the Discover Orange Bowl. If the Yellow Jackets lose, they might miss a bowl game with a 6-7 record. The NCAA has approved Georgia Tech's bowl waiver, allowing the Yellow Jackets to play in a bowl game if they finish with a losing record.
6. Will the MAC championship game really have an impact on the BCS bowl games?
There's a chance the winner of Friday night's MAC championship game between No. 17 Kent State and No. 21 Northern Illinois at Ford Field in Detroit might receive an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game.
If the MAC winner finishes in the top 16 of the final BCS standings Sunday, and is ranked ahead of a champion from one of the six AQ conferences (there currently isn't a Big East team rated in the top 25), it will receive an automatic BCS bid. The Golden Flashes, who have won 10 games in a row since losing at Kentucky by 33 points, have the better chance because they're ranked higher. But there's also a chance the Huskies might finish in the top 16 if they win. They've won 11 games in a row since opening the season with an 18-17 loss to Iowa.
Either MAC team might get some help if No. 16 UCLA loses at Stanford and No. 18 Texas loses at Kansas State. If a MAC team finishes in the top 16, the Big 12 runner-up (either Kansas State or Oklahoma) figures to be left out.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch is one of the country's most underrated players and was named MAC MVP earlier this week. He has passed for 2,750 yards with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions, while running for 1,611 yards with 16 scores. He ranks third among FBS players in total offense, fifth in rushing and 12th in passing efficiency.
7. Do the Longhorns have a chance to knock off Kansas State?
The No. 6 Wildcats have had two weeks to stew over their stunning 52-24 loss at Baylor on Nov. 17, which knocked them out of the BCS national championship race and probably cost quarterback Collin Klein the Heisman Trophy.
It's hard to imagine a Bill Snyder-coached team letting Baylor beat them twice. The Wildcats still have a lot to play for with a Big 12 championship and BCS berth (probably to the Fiesta Bowl) on the line when they play Texas at home on Saturday night. Kansas State's high-powered offense, which averages 40.5 points per game, figures to be a difficult test for the UT defense, which ranks No. 65 nationally in scoring defense (28.3 points per game).
Kansas State has won its last four games against Texas.
8. Can Connecticut or Pittsburgh become bowl eligible?
Football fans at Western Kentucky, Central Michigan and Ohio sure hope not. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, there are 70 bowl-eligible teams for 70 postseason spots. But UConn and Pittsburgh can both finish 6-6 with wins this weekend. The Panthers play at 3-8 South Florida on Saturday; the Huskies host 8-3 Cincinnati.
If one or both Big East teams win to become bowl eligible, a MAC or Sun Belt team might be left out of the postseason as a result.
No. 2 Alabama will play No. 3 Georgia for another chance to play for a BCS national title. That game tops Mark Schlabach's list of eight things he'll be watching this weekend.