The College Football Notebook

December 4, 2010 7:23 AM

Championship Saturday Previews

SECChampionship.jpgChampionship Saturday is here! Five conference championships will be settled today, along with berths in the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta Bowls, plus both spots in the national title game. Yesterday's post looked at games going on in the early window. Today let's look at the three prime showdowns in the SEC, ACC and Big 12...

Auburn-South Carolina (4 EST, CBS): Auburn looks to complete their run to the BCS National Championship game and win their first conference championship since 2004. Its South Carolina's first time in Atlanta, although the Head Ball Coach knows his way around the city. Steve Spurrier owned this town when he was at Florida, where he won it five times. The key to this game is at quarterback--but I don't mean Auburn's quarterback. It's much more about South Carolina's Stephen Garcia. The Gamecocks lost at Auburn in September because Garcia was too mistake-prone. He's playing much better lately and he and Alshon Jeffrey are a potent combination. The Tiger secondary is very vulnerable, the one facet of their team that is nowhere near championship-caliber. Auburn's run defense, on the other hand, is good--witness how they completely shut down Alabama last week. While South Carolina's super frosh running back Marcus Lattimore can play with anyone, I don't know the Gamecocks are going to get the points they need by going run-first. If I were Spurrier I'd come out on the attack and get the box loosened up for Lattimore. The Gamecocks have the personnel to do it and I expect them to score enough to keep this a game.

Cam Newton is worthy of every accolade he gets, but don't overlook the fact Auburn can also run the ball conventionally, with both Michael Dyer and Ontario McCalebb. It was Dyer who had 100 yards in the September win over South Carolina, a game where the Auburn offensive front completely took the game over in the second half. It's that which weighs on my mind here. Because on the other side of the trenches, Auburn's defensive line completely took over the game at Alabama in the second half. Doing that kind of work at the line of scrimmage is what championship teams do, and it's why I think Auburn finishes its business here, although it's a close one, 34-27.

Florida State-Virginia Tech (7:45 EST, ESPN): The Hokies are looking to complete an excellent turnaround from an 0-2 start that included a loss to James Madison. They haven't lost since the second week of September. Jimbo Fischer is looking to complete his own vindication over critics who didn't care for the way he was moved into the head coaching job over Bobby Bowden. For the record, I'm one of those critics, although I suspect that isn't costing Jimbo any sleep. Florida State is out to win its first ACC title since 2005--a year in which they upset Virginia Tech.

Both defenses have been vulnerable to the running game and both offenses have the kind of ground attack that can take advantage. Virginia Tech's is led by Ryan Williams, with Darren Evans in a supporting role. Florida State has Chris Thompson, with Jermaine Thomas right behind him. Both teams have relied on forcing turnovers, especially Tech, which collected six per game in November wins over Miami and North Carolina that sealed their place in this game. Hence, a key question is going to be whether that's luck, a sign of an opponent's ineptitude, or if the Hokies have the ability to force mistakes against most anybody. I'm prepared to dismiss the first option, and say the answer is a mix of the other two.

At quarterback, Tyred Taylor is a dual threat, running and passing, while Christian Ponder is more a straight dropback passer. They are fairly close, although Taylor is more explosive and has more ways he can beat you. On balance, this is a game very hard to find clear edges for anyone. Florida State has to take care of the ball, and even keeping in the 2-3 turnover range will likely be sufficient. Taylor has to have a big game for the Hokies. Both teams' scenarios are realistic and the game will be worthy of the stakes. I lean Virginia Tech by the narrowest of margins, 24-21.

Nebraska-Oklahoma (8 ET, ABC): It's Nebraska's final game as a member of the Big 12 and extraneous issues are flying around this game. The first is who will play quarterback for the Cornhuskers. Bo Pellini isn't tipping his hand on whether Taylor Martinez will be healthy enough to play or if Cody Green is going to get the call. Martinez is one the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, right up there with Taylor and Denard Robinson in the group that would rank behind Newton, so from a prognostication standpoint we're lacking the one piece of information most needed to pick this game. There's also conspiracy theories going around--will the Big 12 officials go out of their way to make sure Nebraska doesn't win a championship on their way out the door to the Big Ten? You know, I generally reject these theories out of hand, but it wouldn't shock me if some shaky calls go against the Huskers down the stretch tonight.

Defense is a problem for both of these teams. Yes, I know Nebraska has played better in November, but games against Kansas and Colorado don't prove a lot. They did a great job defensively in their loss at Texas A&M, due to the ability to keep the passing game underneath. But the Aggies were throwing the ball to the backs. Oklahoma is going to spread it out and stretch the field and the Cornhuskers have fared poorly in a similar test against Oklahoma State when they had to win a 51-41 shootout. And OU quarterback Landry Jones is in rhythm, putting up big numbers and his 468 yards last week against Okie State certainly has to catch everyone's attention. His top receiver is Ryan Broyles, one of the best in the nation, but what really impressed me last week was Jones' ability to spread the wealth, bringing Cameron Kenney and James Hanna into the passing game, whereas it had previously been a little too dependent on Jones.

Oklahoma's defense is a problem area for them too, particularly against the run. Nebraska's running game has been inconsistent--they've had incredible moments like Roy Helu's 307-yard game against Missouri, but also done disappearing acts. Rex Burkhead had a good game last week against Colorado. When Martinez is in the game, the Huskers can run, but they've been way too dependent on him to provide their rushing yards. In doing my bowl projections lately, I've had Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, mainly as deference to my preseason pick. If Martinez is healthy and can play, the Cornhuskers win a wild one, 42-37. If he's not, Nebraska still plays competitively for three quarters, but OU pulls away to a 10-14 point win.

There have been a lot of great Nebraska-Oklahoma games over the years, a lot of them recounted in my book The Last New Year's, that you can learn about by clicking here. When the Big Eight expanded to the Big 12 and the teams went in separate divisions, the rivalry dimmed, but this is an appropriate game for the Nebraska's swan song. Here are five of the most memorable games from the matchup the entire college football world used to wait for at the end of November...

1971: On Thanksgiving weekend, Nebraska's Johnny Rogers puts on an electrifying show, securing the Heisman Trophy and leading his team to a 35-31 win in a 1 vs. 2 battle.

1978: The Year of The Rematch. Oklahoma was #2 in the nation, but seven fumbles resulted in a 17-14 loss in Lincoln. Nebraska was stunned by Missouri one week later resulting in a co-championship. Orange Bowl officials invited OU to a rematch on January 1, which the Sooners, led by Heisman winner Billy Sims, won handily.

1983: It was one of Nebraska's best teams looking to wrap up an undefeated season. They got the job done, but it was a dogfight to the end. Mike Rozier delivered a long touchdown run late to secure the road win for his team and the Heisman Trophy for himself.

1985: Nebraska was #2 in the country, looking to secure an Orange Bowl berth against top-ranked Penn State. They went to Norman and were embarrassed 27-7. Oklahoma got the Orange Bowl nod, beat Penn State and won the national championship. This was an OU team that started the season with a sophomore named Troy Aikman at quarterback, who broke his ankle, forcing the Sooners to go to the wishbone. Aikman transferred to UCLA and started a Hall of Fame career. OU got a national title. Sounds like a win-win situation.

1987: Another 1 vs. 2 battle. Oklahoma had to turn to backup quarterback Charles Thompson in Lincoln. The Sooner defense came up big and they dominated the game in the second half of a 17-7 win.

Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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