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College Football 2012 — Week 14 Preview

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Sadly, we’ve come to the end: the last week of college football’s regular season. And while many teams are already in the stable waiting to find out their bowl opponents, there is still a lot of action this week with a spot in the national-title game and at least seven conference championships still up in the air.

Here all the highlights from this final week in the top 25:

[All times Eastern.]

#1 NOTRE DAME (12-0), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

Notre Dame punched its ticket into the national-title game with last week’s win over USC. The Irish now await the winner of this week’s SEC championship game to learn who their opponent will be. While many justifiably tout the strength of the SEC, it is worth noting that the Fighting Irish have nine wins this season over bowl-eligible teams, the same as Alabama and Georgia combined.

#2 ALABAMA (11-1) VS. #3 GEORGIA (11-1)

[SEC Championship. Saturday, 4 p.m. on CBS. Game played in Atlanta.]

The BCS playoffs don’t officially start until 2014, but the SEC is giving us a preview with what is essentially a play-in game for the national championship. Alabama’s title hopes seemed dashed after a loss to Texas A&M, but subsequent upsets by Oregon and Kansas State put the Crimson Tide right back in the mix for their third title in four years. Alabama is led by its defense, which tops the nation in both scoring and total defense. But both teams feature potent offenses as well, with each averaging 38-plus points per game. Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Bama’s A.J. McCarron come into the game as the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 rated passers. The Bulldogs and the SEC East race may not have had the visibility of Alabama/LSU, but they are very capable of pulling off this upset. Since an early-October loss to South Carolina, Georgia has won six straight by an average score of 35-11, including a 17-9 victory over then-#2 Florida. Alabama will be without deep-threat receiver Kenny Bell (averaging 25.4 yards per catch) after he suffered a broken leg in last week’s win over Auburn.

#4 OHIO STATE (12-0), SEASON COMPLETE

Because of NCAA probation, the Buckeyes are ineligible to compete in the Big Ten championship or a bowl game. But if you have to end your season early, going out undefeated is the best you can do. Urban Meyer’s squad returns a ton of talent next season, including do-it-all quarterback Braxton Miller, so look for Ohio State to be in the thick of the national-title chase next season.

#5 FLORIDA (11-1), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

Florida came one USC-over-Notre Dame upset away from another all-SEC national-title game. If the SEC champion is in the national-title game, the Sugar Bowl must take another SEC team if ranked in the top four, meaning the Gators are likely headed to New Orleans.

#6 OREGON (11-1), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

Oregon’s loss to Stanford not only knocked the Ducks out of the national-championship hunt, but also out of the Pac-12 title game. Now they can only wonder what might have been and wait for their bowl announcement (most likely an at-large bid to the Fiesta Bowl).

#23 TEXAS (8-3) AT #7 KANSAS STATE (10-1)

[Saturday, 8 p.m. on ABC]

Kansas State’s national-title hopes are gone, but there is still a lot riding on this game as a win would give the Wildcats their first Big 12 title since 2003 and an automatic bid to the Fiesta Bowl. Collin Klein, once the Heisman front-runner, is coming off the worst game of his career in which he threw three interceptions and was held to just 39 rushing yards. However, the Wildcats aren’t the only team in this game looking for improvement at quarterback: Texas’ David Ash, who had three turnovers of his own in last week’s loss to TCU, will miss this game with a rib injury. Backup Case McCoy will get his first start since the season finale last year, in which he led a come-from-behind victory over Texas A&M. The question mark here is can Texas’ defense slow down the Wildcats the way Baylor did? The Longhorns have given up an average of 49.7 points per game to the Big 12’s top offenses (Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma) and are now tasked with slowing down a balanced Kansas State attack that is averaging over 40 points per game. Kansas State is the one Big 12 school that has had consistent success against Texas, taking six of eight games—including the last four—from the Longhorns since the conference was formed in 1996. A win would give the Wildcats just their third conference title in school history.

#17 UCLA (9-3) AT #8 STANFORD (10-2)

[Pac-12 Championship. Friday, 8 p.m. on Fox]

Stanford beat UCLA last weekend, 35-17, to set up a rematch in this week’s conference championship game. Now, however, the stakes are even higher with the Pac-12 title and an automatic Rose Bowl bid on the line. Stanford leads the nation in rushing defense. In the last two weeks, they have shut down Oregon’s potent running attack and held UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin, to just 65 yards. Conversely, Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor rushed for 142 yards and two scores against the Bruins, who have lost four in a row to the Cardinal. Stanford has won eight straight and 19 of its last 20 at home. They have already secured their third consecutive ten-win season, a first in school history. UCLA, meanwhile, is seeking its first ten-win season since 2005 and first Rose Bowl bid since 1999.

#9 LOUISIANA STATE (10-2), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

LSU wrapped up the regular season with a 20-13 win over Arkansas. With Florida and the SEC champion likely locked into the BCS, the Tigers will probably be headed to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

#10 TEXAS A&M (10-2), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

Freshman phenom quarterback Johnny Manziel cemented his spot as the Heisman front-runner after his 439-yard effort to close out the season against Missouri. The Aggies must now wait to find out to which bowl game they’ll be headed.

#11 SOUTH CAROLINA (10-2), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

The Gamecocks wrapped up their regular season by knocking off archrival Clemson, 27-17. Now the Gamecocks will wait for their bowl assignment, most likely the Outback Bowl.

#12 OKLAHOMA (9-2) AT TEXAS CHRISTIAN (7-4)

[Saturday, 12 p.m. on ESPN]

A win this week would give Oklahoma a share of the Big 12 title. But a win combined with a Kansas State loss to Texas would give the Sooners the outright crown and an automatic Fiesta Bowl bid. In the last two weeks, Sooners quarterback Landry Jones has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, leading last-minute touchdown drives in each game. In last week’s win over Oklahoma State, he became the Big 12’s all-time passing leader. He also became the first FBS quarterback in history to throw for at least 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in four seasons. He’ll need another strong showing against a TCU defense that has been able to shut down opposing running games (seventh nationally in rush defense, holding their last three opponents to an average of 93 yards per game). However, before holding Texas to just 13 points last week, the Horned Frogs had been giving up an average of 38 points per game in their previous four.

#13 FLORIDA STATE (10-2) VS. GEORGIA TECH (6-6)

[ACC Championship. Saturday, 8 p.m. on ESPN. Game played in Charlotte, N.C.]

Both teams come into this game on the heels of big losses to their in-state rivals. Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel threw a season-high three interceptions in the loss to Florida, but he and a Seminoles offense that ranks eighth nationally in scoring should be able to return to form against a Yellow Jackets defense that ranks 80th against the pass and 85th in scoring defense. They have given up 40+ points six times this season. On the other side of the ball, Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack ranks third nationally in rushing offense and 23rd in scoring. However, they’ll need to do a better job of scoring as six drives of ten plays or more against Georgia resulted in just three points. Florida State ranks fourth nationally in rush defense, but was gashed for a season-worst 244 yards on the ground by the Gators last week. With North Carolina on probation and Miami self-imposing a postseason ban, Georgia Tech backed into the title game despite finishing third in the Coastal Division.

#14 NEBRASKA (10-2) VS. WISCONSIN (7-5)

[Big Ten Championship. Saturday, 8:15 p.m. on Fox. Game played in Indianapolis.]

Nebraska needed the second-biggest comeback in school history to knock off the Badgers in late September. Now, the Cornhuskers are hoping they won’t need any similar luck as they look to win their first-ever Big Ten title. After struggling in early season losses to UCLA and Ohio State, Nebraska’s defense has greatly improved down the stretch, allowing an average of just 269.7 yards and 17.5 yards per game during their current six-game winning streak. They now lead the nation in pass defense and are 15th in total defense. However, defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler suffered a knee injury in last week’s win over Iowa, meaning the Cornhuskers will be going with an undersized defensive line against a Wisconsin rushing attack that features Heisman finalist Montee Ball and an offensive line that averages over 325 pounds per man. But Nebraska’s own running game should be bolstered by the return of Rex Burkhead, who rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown (all in the second half) last week. At 4-4 in conference, Wisconsin actually finished third in the Leaders Division, but got the nod due to Ohio State and Penn State both being ineligible for postseason play. This is Nebraska’s third conference championship game under coach Bo Pelini, but Pelini is still looking for his first win and the Cornhuskers’ first conference title since winning the Big 12 in 1999.

#15 CLEMSON (10-2), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

After averaging 44.6 points per game, the Tigers high-powered offense was held to just 17 in last week’s loss to archrival South Carolina. Clemson is now left on the outside of the ACC title race and awaiting their bowl destination.

NICHOLLS STATE (1-9) AT #16 OREGON STATE (8-3)

[Saturday, 2:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Network]

Oregon State turned the ball over six times in last week’s loss to archrival Oregon. However, they should be able to end the season on a positive note against a woeful Nicholls State squad that is giving up almost 35 points per game in the FCS and whose only win came against Evangel University, an NAIA school. Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion has thrown for 636 yards and five touchdowns in his last two games, but has also tossed five interceptions in that time. This game was supposed to have been played as the Beavers’ season-opener on September 3, but the game had to be postponed when the Nicholls State campus was evacuated during Hurricane Isaac.

#19 NORTHERN ILLINOIS (11-1) VS. #18 KENT STATE (11-1)

[MAC Championship. Friday, 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Game played in Detroit.]

While they might not yet be household names, this game features two of the most exciting players in college football. Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch is fifth in the nation in rushing with over 1,600 yards and 16 touchdowns this year. Oh, and did I mention he’s a quarterback who has also thrown for almost 2,800 yards to go with 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions? Lynch is behind just Baylor’s passing machine Nick Florence and Texas A&M phenom Johnny Manziel in total offense at 363.4 yards per game. On the other side is Kent State’s junior speedster Dri Archer, who has rushed for 14 touchdowns and over 1,300 yards while averaging 9.7 yards per carry. And don’t look now, but this actually could be a BCS play-in game. If UCLA loses the Pac-12 title game, there is an outside shot that the winner of this game could move into the Top 16 of the BCS, which would guarantee it a BCS bid.

#20 UTAH STATE (10-2), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

Utah State routed Idaho, 45-9, last week to secure the Aggies’ first outright WAC title since 1936. Running back Kerwynn Williams needs just 39 more yards to set the conference record for career all-purpose yards, which he should be able to get in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

#21 MICHIGAN (8-4), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

Michigan saw its hopes of a Big Ten title shot disappear when Nebraska beat Iowa last Friday, and then suffered another disappointment on Saturday with a 26-21 loss to archrival Ohio State. In the second half of that loss, the Wolverines’ offense managed just 60 total yards and did not run a play in Buckeye territory. Coach Brady Hoke had better get the offense turned around fast, as Michigan will likely play the loser of the SEC title game in the Capital One Bowl.

#22 NORTHWESTERN (9-3), REGULAR SEASON COMPLETE

Northwestern closed the regular season by winning three of its final four, but is left wondering what might have been after blown leads to Nebraska and Michigan in the final seconds of their games cost the Wildcats a shot at their first Big Ten title since 2000. Northwestern must now wait for their bowl assignment, likely the Outback Bowl.

#24 OKLAHOMA STATE (7-4) AT BAYLOR (6-5)

[Saturday, 12 p.m. on FX]

They might need some extra lights in the scoreboard to accommodate two of the most explosive offenses in college football. Both teams are in the top five nationally in both scoring and total offense. Baylor quarterback Nick Florence leads the nation in passing and total offense while receiver Terrance Williams leads the country in receiving yards. Due to injury, the Cowboys have actually used three different quarterbacks this year and Clint Chelf, who began the year as the third-stringer, will be under center after throwing for 774 yards and eight touchdowns in his three previous starts. He’ll go against a Baylor defense that ranks in the bottom seven in total defense (giving up 509.7 yards per game), passing defense and scoring. However, the Cowboys aren’t a great deal better, ranked 116th in pass defense. OSU lost an overtime heartbreaker, 51-48, to Oklahoma last week. This one could be another shootout that goes down to the final gun.

#25 BOISE STATE (9-2) AT NEVADA (7-4)

[Saturday, 3:30 p.m. on ABC]

Two years ago, Nevada upset the Broncos to end then-#3 Boise State’s hopes of going to another BCS bowl game. This year, while the stakes aren’t quite as high, there is still a good deal on the line, as a win would give Boise a share of its first Mountain West title since joining the conference last year. While the Broncos’ offense isn’t as prolific as it was in recent years, the defense ranks eighth nationally in total defense and fifth in scoring. They’ll be tested this week by Wolf Pack running back Stefphon Jefferson, who is sixth in the nation in rushing. Jefferson needs 148 yards to break the conference single-season rushing record. Nevada, which is coming on off a bye, won at New Mexico two weeks ago to end a three-game losing streak in which they gave up an average of 46.3 points per game.

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