Tom Layberger

Conference Call

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Championship Weekend

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A championship weekend starts Friday with the MAC and Pac-12 title games followed by the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and CUSA on Saturday. While the focus is on those six games, there are a couple of key games in conferences that do not have a championship format. Those games are detailed after the rundown of championship games.

MAC (Detroit)
Northern Illinois (9-3, 7-1) vs Ohio (9-3, 6-2)
This will be fun to watch as two very talented quarterbacks oppose each other. NIU’s Chandler Harnish is ranked 15th in pass efficiency and Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton is 16th.  As effective as they have been through the air, it’s another dimension that makes them special players. That is especially the case with Harnish, who leads the nation among quarterbacks with 1,351 yards rushing and is 15th overall with an average of 113 yards per game. Add it up, and the senior is producing 337 yards per contest to rank seventh. Tettleton, who has run for 576 yards, is 19th in total yards with an average of 288. Coach Frank Solich and the Bobcats have a strong defense and the Huskies, who simply outscore their opponents, are a woeful 91st. The difference, though, will be Harnish. The Bobcats may slow him down and even confuse him at times, but I’ll take four quarters with Chandler Harnish.
Pick: Northern Illinois 38-27

UCLA (6-6, 5-4) at No. 9 Oregon (10-2, 8-1)
Imagine losing to your cross-town rival 50-0 in your final regular-season game and then your coach is dismissed a couple of days later.  Then, you have one less day to prepare to play in your conference’s championship game, an inaugural showcase at that. The game is against a team that is averaging 46 points and 510 yards per game. That, my friends, is the story of the past week for the UCLA Bruins and what they are faced with Friday night.  Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas may not have to do much more than hand the ball off to LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. James (1,427 yards) leads the nation with an average of 143 yards per games while Barner and Thomas have combined for nearly another 1,300 yards. The Bruins’ defense ranks 81st against the run and is allowing five yards per attempt.
Pick: Oregon 44-13

No. 24 Southern Miss (10-2, 6-2) at No. 6 Houston (12-0, 8-0)
What more can be said about the season the Case Keenum and the Cougars are enjoying? The QB leads the nation with 4,726 yards and 43 TDs while UH leads the way in scoring with an eyebrow-raising 52.7 points. The Golden Eagles are top 25 in many major offensive and defensive categories and have a nice balance. Austin Davis (3,052 yards 24/10) has been consistently solid all season and is backed a solid running game that boasts a few dependable ball carriers. Still, Houston’s attack can be so overwhelming and boasts such great team speed – they are averaging 5.3 per rush, by the way – that even a Southern Miss team at its best will come up short.
Pick: Houston 37-20

SEC (Atlanta)
No. 1 LSU (12-0, 8-0) vs No. 14 Georgia (10-2, 7-1)
If Georgia cannot get anything going with the running game, this will be over in a hurry. Sure, Aaron Murray has had an exceptional season for the Bulldogs with nearly 2,700 yards and 32 TD passes, but he can’t be asked to put the ball in the air 35-40 times or so against the LSU defense. He needs help and the running game (Isaiah Crowell is expected to play) must provide some contributions. (It would also help if Georgia’s defense and return units make some big plays.)  As for LSU, Jordan Jefferson played the whole game against Arkansas and, frankly, he is hot at the right time. Depth on defense, depth at running back and impressive special teams with weather a non-factor (Georgia Dome) give the Tigers quite and advantage.
Pick: LSU 33-17

ACC (Charlotte)
No. 5 Virginia Tech (11-1, 7-1) vs No. 20 Clemson (9-3, 6-2)
The Hokies’ lone defeat this season? A 23-3 setback at home against the Tigers on Oct. 1. Since then, to say they have found their stride would be an understatement. Tech has scored at least 30 points five times during their seven-game winning streak with QB Logan Thomas (23 total TDs during streak) and RB David Wilson (1,595 yards on the season) leading the way offensively. DC Bud Foster’s unit is allowing only 15.5 points per game on the year to rank fifth nationally and is coming off a shutout of Virginia in what was a de facto Coastal Division title game. Meanwhile, once-explosive Clemson has been hammered by an aggregate 71-26 in losing its last two games to North Carolina State and South Carolina. Since an 8-0 start that had them fifth in the BCS, the Tigers have lost three of four with the lone victory over Wake Forest on the game’s final play. Has their youth caught up to them? It would seem everything is set up for coach Frank Beamer and the Hokies to get back at Clemson.
Pick: Virginia Tech 30-23

Big Ten (Indianapolis)
No. 15 Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) vs No. 13 Michigan State (10-2, 7-1)
The Spartans’ successful Hail Mary on the final play Oct. 22 is what separates the Badgers from national title contention and playing for a Rose Bowl berth. While that initial encounter of 2011 between these teams will be tough to top, this should be another dandy. Stopping Montee Ball, who is second nationally with 1,622 yards rushing, will be the first priority for the Spartans’ defense, a unit that is allowing only 103 yards per game on ground to rank 11th in the country. In the first meeting, Ball ran for 115 yards on only 18 carries against what is truly an outstanding rush defense. However, that defense was missing star DE William Gholston, who was suspended for that first meeting. Sure Russell Wilson, the nation’s leader in pass efficiency, can hurt MSU, but failure to contain Ball would be disastrous. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins had some time to deliver against Wisconsin, and deliver he did to the tune of 22-of-31 for 290 yards and 3/0. That’s one-third of the total TD passes the Badgers, who are allowing only 146 yards per game through the air, have yielded this season. The chance of repeat performance by Cousins would seem slim, which is why RBs Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker need to establish themselves early and provide some balance.
Pick: Wisconsin 33-23

Other games of note....

Big 12

No. 10 Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2 Big 12) at No. 3 Oklahoma State (10-1, 7-1 Big 12
) -- Saturday
The Big 12 title is on the line and, perhaps much more for the Cowboys as playing for the national title is still a possibility. In order for that to happen, they would have to beat the Sooners for the first time since 2002 – and likely decisively – and get some help. With a win, OU would claim its eighth Big 12 title. Behind Brandon Weeden, who is second nationally with an average of 374 yards passing per game, the Pokes are third in total yards with 563 per contest. The Sooners are fourth with 548. Something to keep in mind is that since losing Ryan Broyles (ACL) for the season, Landry Jones has gone two games without throwing a touchdown pass and has been picked three times.
Pick: Oklahoma State 37-27

No. 22 Texas (7-4, 4-4 Big 12) at No. 13 Baylor (8-3, 5-3 Big 12) -- Saturday
After taking a blow to the head in last week’s demolition of Texas Tech, Baylor QB Robert Griffin should be good to go and resume his Heisman campaign. The Longhorns’ defense will serve up quite a challenge, though. They are tops in the Big 12 and ninth nationally in total defense. So, if Griffin has a big day against that unit, it would only elevate his chances of taking home the coveted trophy on Dec. 10. The Bears will be looking to top Texas for the second straight year, something that has not happened since 1991-92. UT leads the all-time series 73-23-4
Pick: Baylor 30-16

Big East

No. 23 West Virginia (8-3, 4-2 Big East) at USF (5-6, 1-5 Big East) -- Thursday
Louisville’s season is over and the Cardinals (7-5, 5-2) currently sit atop the Big East. West Virginia has an outside shot at spoiling the party, but nothing can happen unless the Mountaineers take care of business in Tampa. If they win, Dana Holgorsen’s team will need Cincinnati (also 8-3, 4-2) to also win at home against UConn on Saturday to forge a three-way tie. In the event of a three-way tie, the head-to-head matchups go out the window in favor of the team with the higher BCS ranking come Sunday. That team would be the conference champ. The Mountaineers are currently No. 23 and neither Cincy nor Louisville is ranked. (A Cincy loss to Connecticut would give Louisville the BCS berth regardless of Thursday’s outcome in Tampa. That’s because West Virginia lost to the Cardinals, 38-35, on Nov. 5.)

As for the game, West Virginia should indeed take care of business. The Bulls may again be without quarterback B.J. Daniels (shoulder) and Skip Holtz’s team is otherwise reeling after a 4-0 start. WVU will attempt to get the running game working early and not have to rely on Geno Smith for four quarters.
Pick: West Virginia 30-16

UConn (5-6, 3-3 Big East) at Cincinnati (8-3, 4-2 Big East) -- Saturday
The Bearcats need a combination of a West Virginia loss and a win over the Huskies in order to be on their way to a BCS bowl. That scenario would give Cincinnati a 5-2 conference mark and tie them with Louisville, whom they defeated, 25-16, on Oct. 15. Connecticut spoiled Rutgers’ chances of at least a share of the conference title last week, but Cincy has something the Scarlet Knights do not: a running back (Isaiah Pead) that can hammer away all day.
Pick: Cincinnati 27-13

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