Wednesday, December 2, 2009

There's a Lot on the Line in the Top 25

It's conference championship week — plus a couple of coaching vacancies at a couple of prominent schools, Notre Dame and Florida State.

Time was, the Irish and the Seminoles seemed to be permanent members of college football's elite. They may return to that status, but it will be under different coaches.

This weekend, the focus is on conference title games and the final regular–season contests in conferences that don't play championship games. We'll find out who will play for the national title next month, and we'll find out where the rest of the bowl eligible teams will go during the holidays. We might also get a handle on how the Heisman race is shaping up.

There's a lot on the line in college football in the next several days.

Eleven ranked teams are off this weekend. Fourth–ranked TCU, #7 Ohio State, #9 Penn State, #10 Iowa, #11 Virginia Tech, #13 BYU, #14 LSU, #17 Miami (Florida), #21 Oklahoma State, #24 Stanford and #25 Utah are idle.

  • SEC Championship: #3 Alabama vs. #1 Florida, 3 p.m. (Central) on CBS — This isn't quite a #1 vs. #2 showdown, but it's clearly the game of the week. The winner will be 13–0 and headed for the national championship game, probably against Texas. It's a rematch of last year's SEC title game, which was won by Florida, 31–20. Alabama doesn't have a great record against Florida in the conference championship game, losing in 1996, 1994 and 1993. But the Crimson Tide won the first SEC title game against Florida, exactly 17 years earlier on Dec. 5, 1992, and went on to win the national title with a victory over Miami (Florida) in the Sugar Bowl. I give a narrow edge to Florida on offense, even though Alabama has the leading Heisman candidate this time, and I give a narrow edge to Alabama on defense. Bottom line: I pick Florida by a field goal.

  • Big 12 Championship: #20 Nebraska vs. #2 Texas, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC — It's been a long time since Nebraska played Texas for the Big 12 championship. The last time was Dec. 4, 1999. But that should be a memorable day in Cornhusker football history because it is the only time Nebraska has beaten Texas since the Longhorns have been a part of the conference. They've played each other seven other times, all Texas victories (including the first Big 12 championship game in 1996). On many occasions, the score has been close. But "close" simply hasn't been good enough for longtime Nebraska fans. Denying Texas a conference crown, a perfect record and, possibly, a berth in the national championship game might be in the ballpark for 'Husker fans, and college football fans who despise the BCS (like me) would be pleased to see a lesser school, like TCU or Cincinnati or Boise State, extended an invitation to play either Florida or Alabama for the national title. But I don't think it will happen. Quarterback Colt McCoy and receiver Jordan Shipley have propelled a potent Texas offense that is averaging 43 points per game, and, even though Nebraska has only allowed one foe (Texas Tech) to exceed 30 points this season, I don't see how Nebraska can stop Texas' offense — short of injuring the Longhorns' star players. That's always a possibility in a football game, but it's something that hasn't happened yet. Assuming that it won't happen on Saturday, I pick Texas to win.

  • #5 Cincinnati at #15 Pittsburgh, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC — Until last year, Pittsburgh had won each time the schools had faced each other since becoming conference rivals. This won't be an actual conference championship game, like the ones being played in the SEC and the Big 12. It just sort of worked out that way. And I'll give the advantage to Cincinnati. The defenses look about even, but Cincy has a decided edge on offense, even though Pitt QB Bill Stull is rated the league's best and Cincinnati's Tony Pike is rated second (presumably because he missed some playing time during the season).

  • New Mexico State at #6 Boise State — I really don't think New Mexico State, with its 3–9 record, presents much of a hurdle for 12–0 Boise State, especially since Boise has the WAC's top–rated QB (Kellen Moore), the third– and fourth–rated receivers (Titus Young and Austin Pettis) and the fifth–rated rusher (Jeremy Avery). This will be the 10th time they have met since 1996 (all Boise victories), and Boise State has hung shutouts on NMSU in the last two games (49–0 last year, 58–0 the year before). I don't know if this year's game will be another shutout, but I pick Boise to win by double digits.

  • #16 Oregon State at #8 Oregon, Thursday at 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN — This has been a pretty competitive series over the years and, this year, the winner will be headed for Pasadena to face Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. It's been a long time since either school went to the Rose Bowl — Oregon's last appearance was on Jan. 2, 1995, and Oregon State hasn't played in the Rose Bowl since Jan. 1, 1965. Oregon State boasts the Pac–10's top passer (Sean Canfield) and top receiver (James Rodgers), and both teams have running backs (OSU's Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon's LaMichael James) who are averaging 119 yards a game. From 1997–2006, the trend was for the home team to win, but the visiting team has won the last two encounters. I'm going to predict that the home team will be back on top this year — and Oregon will advance to the showdown with Ohio State.

  • ACC Championship: Clemson vs. #12 Georgia Tech, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN — This has been a pretty even series, with Georgia Tech holding an 11–9 advantage in the last 20 years. Neither team has won an ACC Championship game, which was played for the first time following the 2005 season. In fact, this is Clemson's first appearance in it — although the Tigers aren't strangers to ACC titles. They won five of them in the 1980s, then tapered off considerably with one league title in the 1990s. Tech lost the only time it played for the conference crown (in 2006), and the Yellow Jackets won or shared only two ACC titles prior to that. Recent history has been on Tech's side; the Yellow Jackets have won four of the last five meetings. I'll go with Tech.

  • Conference USA Championship: East Carolina vs. #18 Houston, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2 — East Carolina is 5–4 against Houston since the Cougars began playing in the conference in 1996. Both schools have played for and won the conference title in recent years. UH topped Southern Mississippi in 2006, while the Pirates are the defending champs, having beaten Tulsa last year. I think Houston will win by six points.

  • Arizona at #19 USC, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC — Nothing is really on the line in this game. Well, there's that seven–game winning streak USC has going. Both teams are headed for a bowl game, but neither has a shot at the Rose Bowl. Arizona has had a better offense this year. USC has had the stronger defense. With the defensive and homefield advantages, I will pick USC to improve to 9–3 while Arizona will finish 7–5.

  • #22 California at Washington, 5:30 p.m. (Central) on CSNCAL — Washington has only beaten Cal once in their last seven meetings, but that victory came at home, which may help the Huskies. Cal, however, has been better on offense and defense and hopes to be 9–3 when the game is over. Washington, meanwhile, has no hope of being bowl eligible and is probably eager to simply get the season over with. I'll pick Cal.

  • #23 West Virginia at Rutgers, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN — West Virginia has beaten Rutgers for 14 straight years. The Mountaineers have won whether Rutgers was having a good season or not. They've had some close calls and some lopsided wins. But this year, Rutgers has scored more points than West Virginia, and its defense has allowed fewer points. Their quarterbacks are about even, but Rutgers has the league's leading receiver (Tim Brown) and West Virginia has the Big East's second–leading rusher (Noel Devine). Who will prevail? I'll give a slight edge to the home team.
Last week: 15–4.

Season: 198–47.

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