Saturday Update: We'll be reviewing all the picks as they happen throughout the day. Check back for more updates, each labeled "Final Say." For comprehensive coverage of the weekend in college football, look for The Professor on Sunday.
Championship Weekend has arrived, with everyone focused on one game and one game only: Saturday afternoon’s de facto national semifinal between Alabama and Georgia. Without question, the SEC showdown is the highlight of the weekend, but there’s plenty to watch on the undercard in the final week of the college football regular season, from Rose Bowl bids on the line to perhaps the most intriguing MAC title game ever.
(All times Eastern; rankings from the BCS; games ranked in order of value above your potential replacement activities.)
No. 2 Alabama (11-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (11-1)
SEC Championship, Atlanta
4 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Alabama by 8½
Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome is supposed to be yet another coronation for Alabama, a team that fell prey to Johnny Manziel yet still, just a few weeks later, is heavily favored to dispense with Georgia in pursuit of its third national championship in four years. This is as much of a national semifinal as you could ever hope to see under the current system, two one-loss teams from the best conference in America battling it out, with no computers and no polls likely to interfere. Whoever wins advances. Whoever loses likely falls to the Capital One Bowl (the vacant Sugar Bowl spot will go to Florida).
Everyone has the same expectations here: defense, defense, defense. Both of these teams have perfectly capable offenses, each with good quarterbacks (Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Georgia’s Aaron Murray), each with a dangerous pair of running backs (Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and T.J Yeldon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall). But the defenses are two of the best in America. Alabama has given up more than 17 points once all season. While Georgia had some early struggles, it has gone five games without allowing more than 14. Both have stars on each unit, with Georgia led by DT John Jenkins, OLB Jarvis Jones and FS Bacarri Rambo, and Alabama led by NT Jesse Williams, MLB C.J. Mosley and CB Dee Milliner. But while Georgia has the best player in the game in Jarvis Jones, Alabama is deeper and has the biggest advantage of all: its overwhelmingly talented offensive line, anchored by center Barrett Jones. The Crimson Tide is loaded with NFL prospects everywhere, but nowhere more than the O-line, which paves the way for Yeldon and Lacy and helps the offense avoid turnovers.
This is Mark Richt’s big chance. Eternally on the hot seat in the eyes of many, he has Georgia in its second straight SEC title game with a chance to play for the school’s first national championship since Herschel Walker’s freshman season in 1980. Dismissing Georgia’s chances is foolish, even if the Bulldogs were blown out by South Carolina and have only one real win of note, against a great Florida team hindered by its inability to pass. Alabama’s schedule isn’t much better, and LSU and Texas A&M both showed that the Tide can be vulnerable on the back end of its defense – something that Murray and Georgia are equipped to take advantage of. There are plenty of signs pointing to Georgia’s ability to win this game, and even some reasons to believe that Alabama is slightly more vulnerable than in its past championship seasons. Still, I can’t do it. I had Alabama No. 2 in the preseason. The blips on the radar have been minor. Alabama will keep its absurd run of success going.
Prediction: Alabama 21, Georgia 17
FINAL SAY: Alabama 32, Georgia 28. My colleague Tommy Tomlinson is on the scene in Atlanta and will have much more on this one, but I’m comfortable saying that this feels like an all-time classic. You can’t really ask for a better football game, a back-and-forth thriller in which both running games threw punch after punch, wearing down two of the nation’s best defenses. Georgia running back Todd Gurley ran 23 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama’s Eddie Lacy (20 carries for 181 yards and two touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (25 carries for 153 yards and one touchdown) were even better. Punch. Counterpunch. Punch. Counterpunch. All-game long, the two teams ran up the gut and exchanged leads (although Alabama did fall behind 21-10 at one point on a blocked field goal return for a TD by Georgia), until Bama finally got its break through the air, when A.J. McCarron threw a perfect 45-yard strike to Amari Cooper in the end zone for the go-ahead score with 3:15 left. The Bulldogs and Tide exchanged possessions before Georgia got the ball back a final time with 1:08 left. A fortunate break for the Bulldogs overturned an Alabama interception, and Aaron Murray drove them down to the eight-yard line, when a tipped pass was caught by Chris Conley short of the end zone, inbounds, causing time to expire for a heartbreaking defeat for Georgia. College football doesn’t get any better than this. Alabama has punched its ticket back to the BCS National Championship, this time against Notre Dame.
* * *
No. 21 Northern Illinois (11-1) vs. No. 17 Kent State (11-1)
MAC Championship, Detroit
7 p.m. Friday, ESPN2
Line: Northern Illinois by 6½
Finally, they meet. For much of the season in The Professor column on Sundays, I’ve provided weekly updates on Kent State athlete Dri Archer and Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. Playing in the MAC, the two stars have led their respective teams to 11-1 records, each with only a loss to a bad BCS conference team (Northern Illinois to Iowa, Kent State to Kentucky). Now there’s a MAC title on the line, and possibly even more. BCS rules dictate that the best non-AQ team can automatically earn a BCS bowl bid by finishing in the top 16 if it finishes above the champion of one of the automatic-qualifier conferences. In this case, the winner of this game will surely finish above the Big East champion. With a No. 17 ranking, Kent State has the better chance of bumping up into the top 16, although with a thin resume (a win over Rutgers and not much else, and a blowout loss to an awful Kentucky team) an effort could be made by voters to keep the Golden Flashes out, because this is the kind of thing that happens in college football. The hope is the Orange Bowl against Florida State; reality could still be the GoDaddy.com Bowl against a team from the Sun Belt.
As for our two MAC superstars, here are the basics: Archer does it all. He has 14 rushing TDs, one passing TD, four receiving TDs and three kick return TDs. He does things like this. He averages 9.7 yards per CARRY. Most of his touchdowns are long. Lynch does it all too, only at QB. Lynch is the Johnny Manziel of the MAC, leading the league in rushing (1,611 yards), rushing TDs (16) and passing efficiency (157.3), in addition to throwing 23 TD passes.
Kent State has had a great season as the surprise MAC East upstart, but Northern Illinois is the stronger team overall, with a much better defense, putting it in position to win its second league title in a row.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 42, Kent State 34
FINAL SAY: Northern Illinois 44, Kent State 37 (2OT). The MAC rarely disappoints, does it? Kent State managed to score 37 (with the help of two overtimes) despite struggling on offense much of the night and finishing with 260 total yards. Dri Archer got the Golden Flashes on the scoreboard early, but he was stifled by the Huskies in the run game, managing only 15 yards on 12 carries – although he did lead the team with five catches for 81 yards. Kent State looked finished after it fell behind 27-13 in the third quarter, but the Golden Flashes scored three touchdowns in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter (and Northern Illinois scored one), including a 19-yard TD pass by Spencer Keith with 44 seconds left to force overtime. But Northern Illinois still proved to be too much, and, fittingly, star QB Jordan Lynch scored the winning TD in the second overtime. He finished the game with 212 passing yards and one touchdown and 36 carries for 160 yards and three touchdowns. With the win, Northern Illinois wraps up its second straight MAC title and now needs a lot of help to move up five spots to get into the top 16 of the BCS.
* * *
No. 16 UCLA (9-3) at No. 8 Stanford (10-2)
8 p.m. Friday, Fox
Line: Stanford by 7½
I’d copy and paste last week’s prediction, but, unfortunately, it was wrong. Apologies to those of you (hopefully none of you) who rely on me for 100 percent accuracy. So, yes, here we are, a rematch just six days after Stanford went to the Rose Bowl and rather easily dispatched UCLA, 35-17. Both teams were coming off emotional wins (UCLA over USC, Stanford over Oregon), but Stanford responded much more effectively behind RB Stepfan Taylor and yet another dominant effort by a Cardinal defense that has emerged as one of the best in the country. The Stanford win set up another meeting, this time in Palo Alto, with a trip to the Rose Bowl game against Nebraska or Wisconsin on the line. Stanford has played in the Rose Bowl once since 1972 (in 2000), while UCLA hasn’t played in the bowl game in its home stadium since the Cade McNown era.
There’s not a lot to say about this game, given that we just saw it happen – unless you want to provoke Jim Mora by wondering if the Bruins mailed it in against Stanford in an attempt to avoid playing Oregon this week. Stanford is on a roll, with David Shaw at least putting himself in the national coach of the year discussion. The Cardinal suffered a disappointing loss to Washington, but since then they’ve gone undefeated in regulation and lost only to No. 1 Notre Dame on a controversial call in overtime. The switch to mobile QB Kevin Hogan has paid off with three straight wins over ranked opponents, Taylor keeps producing as the workhorse, and the defense leads the nation against the run. UCLA’s offensive talent certainly matches up with QB Brett Hundley and Johnathan Franklin, but the Cardinal owns a significant advantage on defense. Back home, Stanford finds a way to repeat and get back to the Rose Bowl. Of course, I’ve been wrong about this matchup before.
Prediction: Stanford 31, UCLA 27
FINAL SAY: Stanford 27, UCLA 24. Six days after struggling to pick up much of anything on the ground against Stanford, star UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin rolled past the nation’s No. 1 run defense for 194 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. It still wasn’t enough. After trailing by three at halftime, the Bruins went ahead 24-17 in the third quarter, but the final period belonged to Stanford. Kevin Hogan threw a game-tying TD pass to Drew Terrell, and Jordan Williamson hit a 36-yard field goal to put Stanford ahead with 6:49 left. UCLA drove into Stanford territory in the final minute, but Ka'imi Fairbairn missed a 51-yard field goal attempt with 34 seconds left, giving Stanford its second win over UCLA in a week and its first Rose Bowl bid since the 1999 season.
* * *
No. 18 Texas (8-3) at No. 6 Kansas State (10-1)
8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
Line: Kansas State by 11
Remember Collin Klein’s Heisman campaign? Right. Only a couple weeks ago, he was the sure thing, everyone’s frontrunner as Kansas State headed toward an undefeated season. Then the Wildcats were blown out at Baylor, then they had a bye, and Klein is an afterthought in a race that’s Johnny Manziel’s to lose (although Klein will surely get the invite to New York). Klein has one last chance to make a statement and shake off recent problems, and Kansas State needs a win to clinch the Big 12 title and a Fiesta Bowl bid. The Longhorns have been up and down all year on both sides of the ball, but last week they fell apart on offense at home against TCU on Thanksgiving. QB David Ash hurt his ribs, and Case McCoy will start in Manhattan.
No matter who’s playing QB, don’t expect Texas to do what Baylor did, which was finally break down Kansas State’s defense and score 52 points. The Wildcats have been great all year, and they should return to that this week. On the other side, Texas has playmakers on defense, led by safety Kenny Vaccaro and end Alex Okafor, but the unit as a whole has failed to meet expectations, ranking last in the Big 12 against the run -- which spells trouble against Klein and John Hubert -- and in the middle of the pack in other key categories. Simply put, Texas doesn’t match up well with Kansas State. Expect the Wildcats to bounce back and secure a BCS bid.
Prediction: Kansas State 31, Texas 17
FINAL SAY: Kansas State 42, Texas 24. For a few weeks since getting knocked out of the of the Oklahoma State game, Collin Klein hadn’t looked like himself. That held true through the first half Saturday against Texas, as the Wildcats trailed 10-7 at halftime with the Big 12 title and a Fiesta Bowl bid on the line. But, finally, Kansas State snapped out of its funk, waking up late in the third quarter and scoring four straight touchdowns to put the game well out of reach. Klein threw for only 184 yards with a 55-yard TD pass to Tyler Lockett, but he also ran 23 times for 103 yards and two TDs. Texas QB Case McCoy finished with 314 yards, but Kansas State intercepted him twice and sacked him four times for a loss of 33 yards.
* * *
No. 12 Nebraska (10-2) vs. Wisconsin (7-5)
Big Ten Championship, Indianapolis
8:17 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Line: Nebraska by 3
NCAA sanctions essentially ruined this year’s Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin -- the third-place team in the Leaders Division behind ineligible Ohio State and Penn State -- crawls into Indianapolis for a rematch from late September. In that game, Wisconsin failed to move the ball on the ground, netting 56 yards rushing, although Montee Ball did score three touchdowns. Nebraska, meanwhile, ran for 259 yards, and QB Taylor Martinez accounted for three total TDs in the Cornhuskers’ 30-27 win. It’s not hard to imagine a similar result.
Nebraska has been much better against the pass than against the run, but overall the defense has had plenty of success, aside from a lopsided loss to Ohio State, and has a more complete team than the Badgers. Wisconsin simply doesn’t have the passing capability that it did last year with Russell Wilson, and now the Badgers are on their third starting QB, as Curt Phillips will get the nod this week. Wisconsin’s solid run defense struggled against the Cornhuskers earlier this year and was also worn down by Penn State last week, so Nebraska should be able to run successfully again, especially with Rex Burkhead back in the mix alongside Martinez and Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska has proven itself to be the better team all season, and it’s in good position to make its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1941.
Prediction: Nebraska 28, Wisconsin 20
FINAL SAY: Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31. Uh, yes, you read that correctly. Wisconsin is headed to its three straight Rose Bowl despite finishing third in its own DIVISION. But, even with five losses, the Badgers backed into the Big Ten title game thanks to the ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State, and Nebraska has zero interest in tackling anybody on the Badgers. For the second time in four games, Wisconsin ran for 500 yards as a team, this time totaling 539 yards behind Montee Ball (21 carries, 202 yards, three TDs), Melvin Gordon (nine carries, 216 yards, one TD) and James White (15 carries, 209 yards, four TDs). It was a total embarrassment for Nebraska, which gave up 63 to Ohio State earlier this season. The only positive thing to come out of the game was this absurd 76-yard touchdown run by Taylor Martinez. Wisconsin heads back to Pasadena to face Stanford.
No. 13 Florida State (10-2) vs. Georgia Tech (6-6)
ACC Championship, Charlotte
8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Florida State by 14
If you thought the Big Ten Leaders Division was bad, at least Wisconsin is over .500. Georgia Tech, like Wisconsin, has backed its way into its conference title game. While the Yellow Jackets actually finished in a three-way tie for first in the Coastal with a 5-3 conference record, they got the bid because both North Carolina and Miami are ineligible for the postseason.
With that said, the Yellow Jackets were blown out by Georgia and have given up 40 points six times, including in a 21-point home loss to Middle Tennessee. Florida State’s offense is nothing special, especially with RB Chris Thompson out, but E.J. Manuel should be able to bounce back after a tough game against Florida. Even if the Seminoles struggle on offense, there’s little reason to think the ACC’s best defense won’t be able to handle Georgia Tech’s option attack. The Seminoles fly around the ball, led by a pair of productive ends in Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine, and Florida State may duplicate Georgia’s dominant performance last week. And if you decide you’d like to attend this game in person, you can probably scrape together enough money from between your couch cushions.
Prediction: Florida State 31, Georgia Tech 16
FINAL SAY: Florida State 21, Georgia Tech 15. Yikes. Visions of Florida State’s October loss to N.C. State in which it failed to score in the second half and gave the ball back to the opponent for a final drive with a six-point lead. Against N.C. State, Florida State failed, losing its only ACC game of the season. Against Georgia Tech, the Seminoles hung on thanks to a Karlos Williams interception with a minute left. Florida State built a 21-3 lead in the first half, only to slowly let it slip away with a lackluster night from QB E.J. Manuel, who threw for 134 yards with no TDs and an interception. The Orange Bowl breathes a sigh of relief, as it welcomes Florida State instead of 7-6 Georgia Tech.
No. 11 Oklahoma (9-2) at TCU (7-4)
Noon Saturday, ESPN
Line: Oklahoma by 6½
Oklahoma is in a weird BCS position. Ordinarily, the Sooners would be a lock for an at-large bid (likely to the Sugar Bowl) if they win, but Kent State could knock OU out if the Golden Flashes move into the top 16 and get in automatically. However, Oklahoma could also win the Big 12 title by beating TCU and hoping Texas somehow wins at Kansas State.
Either way, getting to a BCS game likely requires winning at TCU, a strong defensive team that pulled off a road upset of Texas on Thanksgiving. The Horned Frogs haven’t won back-to-back games since they lost starting QB Casey Pachall, and while Trevone Boykin has been solid as a fill-in, he’s had some problems with turnovers and is clearly not being counted on after attempting only nine passes in the win over Texas. Oklahoma’s defense has slipped in recent weeks, giving up 49 and 48 in wins over West Virginia and Oklahoma State, but TCU will struggle to keep up with Landry Jones and a fairly deep receiving corps.
Prediction: Oklahoma 34, TCU 24
FINAL SAY: Oklahoma 24, TCU 17. Amazingly, TCU finished its first Big 12 season 0-4 at home and 1-4 on the road. The Horned Frogs didn’t get much going on offense aside from a few big plays, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Carter, and they turned the ball over on downs at the Oklahoma 15-yard line with less than a minute to play. Overall, TCU did a decent job defending Landry Jones, who threw for 244 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, but RB Damien Williams had a 66-yard TD run and an 11-yard TD catch. With the win, Oklahoma clinched a share of the Big 12 title but needs a Kansas State loss to Texas to win the league outright and go to the Fiesta Bowl.
* * *
Wild Card: UCF (9-3) at Tulsa (9-3)
Conference USA Championship
Noon Saturday, ESPN2
Line: Tulsa by 2
It’s been a bad week for Tulsa. First, the Golden Hurricane blew an undefeated conference season by losing to SMU. Then athletic director Ross Parmley was placed on paid leave because of a gambling investigation. The Pick ‘Em has mostly ignored Conference USA this season, because the league has stayed off the radar except for recent realignment stories (no idea what C-USA will do without Tulane). But both of these teams are pretty solid, although this is UCF’s second visit to Tulsa in three weeks -- Tulsa won 23-21 on Nov. 17, thanks to three TD catches by Keyarris Garrett. The Golden Hurricane has actually morphed into a run-first offense from their old pass-heavy ways, leading the league with a deep attack featuring Ja’Terian Douglas, Trey Watts and Alex Singleton. Call this one a toss-up, but despite the problems of the last few days, Tulsa can get the job done at home.
Prediction: Tulsa 33, UCF 30
FINAL SAY: Tulsa 33, UCF 27 (OT). I’m not sure how I correctly predicted Tulsa to score exactly 33 points, but here we are. The Golden Hurricane needed overtime to do it, overcoming a 27-21 third-quarter deficit thanks to a 54-yard punt return TD by Trey Watts with 5:06 left (the extra point was blocked). In overtime, UCF missed a 38-yard field goal, setting up Tulsa for the win with a one-yard Alex Singleton touchdown run and its first Conference USA championship since 2005.