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College Football Previews: Houston, LSU, Michigan St., Oklahoma and More

Thursday night in Tampa one of the 18 BCS bowl eligible teams was eliminated from contention for their conference’s berth – Cincinnati. When West Virginia defeated South Florida 30-27, the Bearcats were automatically ruled out for the Big East berth, but the team is still playing for a share of the conference title. If Cincy defeats UConn on Saturday afternoon, West Virginia would become the Big East’s automatic qualifier by virtue of being the highest (and this year, only) ranked squad. If the Bearcats lose to the Huskies, Louisville will win the berth by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker over West Virginia.

The inaugural Pac-12 Championship game had the expected outcome, but the scoreboard was a little shocking. Oregon defeated UCLA 49-31 as the Ducks won their 23rd of their last 24 games at Autzen Stadium. Oregon will be representing the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl for the second time in three years and will face the winner of Michigan State-Wisconsin.

Conference USA Championship

#24 Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (10-2, 6-2 C-USA) at #6 Houston Cougars (12-0, 8-0 C-USA)

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Saturday, December 3rd 12:00 pm ET – Robertson Stadium, Houston TX

Ordinarily, a Conference USA Championship game doesn’t get this much national media attention, but this year is different. Houston can become an AQ if they beat Southern Miss under BCS Guidelines, which state:

The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, or the Western Athletic Conference will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if either:

A. Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or,
B. Such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.

Southern Miss has had a successful year, posting its first 10-win season since 1988, and capturing the C-USA Eastern Division. Facing an extremely tough task Saturday, the Golden Eagles could not only win the conference for the first time since 2003, but play spoiler for the Cougars’ automatic bid. If they can get past the nation’s most potent offense, Southern Miss will force Houston to become an at-large team as UH would still remain (in all likelihood) in the top 14. Both teams match up evenly in scoring defense, with the Golden Eagles at 20.5 ppg and the Cougars have allowed an average of 20.9 points per game. Where Southern Miss may get into trouble is their pass defense, giving up 221 yards a game, which is fourth-best in C-USA. Offensively, Southern Mississippi scores 36.9 ppg – second to Houston, and leads the conference in rushing yards per game with 207.83.

Houston boasts the nation’s most prolific passing attack, led by QB Case Keenum. Keenum is leading the country in nearly every major passing category: yards per game (393.8), touchdowns (43), and total yards (4726). He is second in completion percentage (73.2%) and third in QB rating (187.35). The sixth-year quarterback’s monster numbers have catapulted him into the national spotlight, garnering serious consideration for the Heisman and O’Brien Awards. The Cougar offense is gaining an astounding 613.3 yards of total offense per game and scoring an average of 52.7 ppg – both national bests. On the defensive side, Houston allows 168.83 rushing yards per game, and could struggle with Southern Miss’ ground attack.

Although Southern Miss may have some success running on the Houston defense, they will not be able to contain Case Keenum and the Cougar’s explosive passing attack.

Southeastern Conference Championship

#14 Georgia Bulldogs (10-2, 7-1 SEC) vs. #1 LSU Tigers (12-0, 8-0 SEC)

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Saturday December 3rd 4:00 pm ET – Georgia Dome, Atlanta GA

The nation’s top-ranked team through most of the season, LSU, looks to win its 11th SEC title and secure a berth in the national championship game with a win over the Bulldogs on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

Georgia has the benefit of playing in front of a “home crowd”, even though they are not the championship game hosts. In the SEC, the East and West Divisions flip-flop each year for the host position. After starting the year with a 35-21 loss to Boise State in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game (played at the Georgia Dome) and a heartbreaking 45-42 defeat by South Carolina, Georgia has won ten straight games to clinch the SEC East. If they can hand the Tigers their first loss of the season, they will be conference champions and will represent the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. If this scenario should occur and LSU stays at number one and an idle Alabama at number two, the SEC will have three BCS bowl game representatives. (Please see above BCS Guideline link) The Bulldogs score an average of 34.0 points per game and rush for 180.58 ypg, both fourth-best in the conference and behind LSU. Georgia has a decided edge in passing offense however, putting up 243.1 ypg to the Tigers’ 171 ypg in the air. The East Division champs also have a slight edge in total offense, gaining 423.7 ypg to LSU’s 386.8 ypg. The Bulldog defense ranks closely (statistically) with LSU’s in conference standings, but the numbers are misleading as the Tigers have one of the most dominating defenses in the country.

The Tigers are one of two undefeated teams remaining in the FBS, defeating seven ranked teams including three that were either #2 or #3 at the time of the game. The Bayou Bengals have participated in several high-profile games this season, including a 40-27 victory over Oregon at Cowboys Stadium to open the season and a highly anticipated showdown with Alabama on November 5th that was a TV ratings juggernaut. LSU proved exactly why they are considered the most feared team in college when they took on the SEC’s most prolific offense Arkansas last week. Down 14-0 with five minutes remaining in the first half, Kenny Hilliard ran in a score to cap off a 77 yard Tiger drive. Momentum changed completely when on the next Razorback possession, they were forced to punt; Bednarik finalist Tyrann Mathieu returned the punt 82 yards to tie it up. It was all Tigers after that as they went on to defeat then-number three Arkansas 41-17.

At this point, many think LSU goes to New Orleans even if they lose to Georgia in the SEC Championship on Saturday. The biggest question will be, who will they play?

Big Ten Championship

#15 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 6-2 B1G) vs. #13 Michigan State Spartans (10-2, 7-1 B1G)

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Saturday December 3rd 8:00 pm ET – Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis IN

The inaugural Big Ten Championship game will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and will feature #13 Michigan State from the Legends Division facing off against #15 Wisconsin, representing the -Leaders Division. This game is a re-match from an October 22nd contest that saw the Spartans beat the Badgers 37-31 on a Hail Mary pass as time expired. In all likelihood, because of where both schools stand in the BCS, the loser will be out of at-large contention.

Wisconsin began the season on a six- game winning streak, before falling to Michigan State and to Ohio State the following week in a very similar manner. Since the back-to-back stunning losses, the Badgers went on to roll over their final four opponents. Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson leads the nation in rating at 192.89 and has the ability to eclipse Colt Brennan’s single-season passer rating of 186.0 he set in 2006. Montee Ball leads all running backs with 29 rushing touchdowns and with 34 overall, is five shy from the NCAA record held by Barry Sanders (1988 Oklahoma State). Wisconsin’s top ten scoring and rushing offense isn’t the only thing going for them. Since the loss to the Buckeyes, the Badgers haven’t allowed an opponent to score over 17 points.

Michigan State forced two of Wilson’s three interceptions in the first matchup, and will look to put pressure on him once again. The Spartan defense allows a second-best 15.4 ppg (behind Wisconsin), hold opponents to a conference-best 266.7 yards per game and 102.50 rushing ypg. Ball ran for 115 yards and one touchdown against the Spartans in October, but this time he’ll contend with DE William Gholston, who was suspended in the first meeting. Ball also sat out part of the game due to concussion-like symptoms, but did return in the third quarter.

Pass protection, mental mistakes by the secondary, failure to secure the edges, and less-than-stellar special teams play were weaknesses for Wisconsin in the first contest, and despite marked improvement in some areas, many feel they will still be prevalent on Saturday. However, the Badgers have held opponents to an average of 15.2 ppg (.2 fewer points than the Spartans) while Michigan State’s offense scores an average of 30.2 ppg.  The best unit on the field Saturday will be the Badger offense, which puts up the fourth-most points in the country at 44.8 ppg, has been running like a well-oiled machine the past few weeks. They may be able to run themselves into their second Big Ten title in as many seasons.

Atlantic Coast Conference Championship

#20 Clemson Tigers (9-3, 6-2 ACC) vs. #5 Virginia Tech Hokies (11-1, 7-1 ACC)

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Saturday December 3rd 8:00 pm ET – Bank Of America Stadium, Charlotte NC

An invitation to the Orange Bowl is on the line in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte Saturday as the Virginia Tech Hokies from the Coastal Division host the Clemson Tigers of the Atlantic. Clemson has already defeated Va Tech once this year, by a score of 23-2 in Blacksburg on October 1st.

After Clemson defeated Va Tech in that meeting, the Tigers had a record of 5-0 and went on to win three more before finally being defeated by Georgia Tech 31-17 on October 29th. Since then, the Tigers have lost two of their last three, including a 34-13 rout by in-state rival South Carolina last week. Head coach Dabo Swinney found himself in the middle of a one-sided war of words with Gamecock skipper Steve Spurrier after the Ole Ball Coach had a quote misattributed to him at the end of the game. Thursday, Swinney retaliated when asked about the “Spurrier quote” with a six minute rant. The Tigers were outscored 102-43 combined in the three losses, with QB Tajh Boyd throwing only two touchdowns in the span.

The Hokies’ only blemish on their record is the loss on October 1st game and played their most impressive game last week against Virginia. In the 38-0 victory against the Cavaliers, QB Logan Thomas went 13-of-21 for 187 yards and two touchdowns while adding 27 yards and a score on the ground. Va Tech gained a total of 410 yards on Virginia, while allowing only 30 rushing yards (241 total). The Hokie defense had two fumble recoveries and intercepted QB Michael Rocco twice while sacking him four times. Virginia Tech will be going to the ACC Championship for the fourth time in five years (fifth in seven) and will have a chance to avenge their only loss of the 2011 campaign.

Thomas may be the difference maker Saturday, as he threw for just 125 yards against the Tigers in October while favoring an injured shoulder. Twice before the Hokies have had a rematch against a team they lost to during the regular season, and won -Boston College in 2007 and 2008.

Big 12 Champion determined by Bedlam Game

#10 Oklahoma Sooners (9-2, 6-2 Big 12) at #3 Oklahoma State Cowboys (10-1, 7-1 Big 12)

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Saturday, December 3rd 8:00 pm ET – Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, OK

Since losing Nebraska and Colorado, the Big 12 doesn’t have a championship game anymore, but this year’s champion will be determined by the winner of the #10 Oklahoma- #3 Oklahoma State (or Bedlam) game. If the Cowboys win, it is possible (although extremely unlikely due to BCS standings and averages) they jump ahead of Alabama into the #2 slot and head to the National Championship Game in New Orleans. In this instance, Oklahoma would probably fall out of the top 14, since they are at #10 in BCS standings heading into Bedlam. If OU wins, Oklahoma State will remain in the top 14 and would become an at-large bid, and the Sooners would take the Fiesta Bowl berth.

The Cowboys look to avoid a ninth consecutive loss to Oklahoma, and will use their air attack to make sure the streak stops at eight. Oklahoma State is second in the FBS in scoring (49.8 ppg) and passing yards per game (401.6), and third in total offense (562.6 ypg). QB Brandon Weeden is having a terrific year with 4111 yards with a 73% completion percentage and has 34 TDs and 12 INTs. Two weeks ago, Oklahoma State suffered their first loss, a 37-31 OT defeat at Iowa State. In the content, Weeden threw three interceptions and RB Joseph Randle fumbled twice, turning the ball over both times. They Pokes have had extra time to regroup and prepare for Bedlam, having last week off. The defense is the weakness of Oklahoma State, allowing 27.3 ppg (62nd in the FBS), 453.6 of total offense per game (107th), and 267 yards passing per game (103rd).

Oklahoma lost two offensive weapons for the season due to injury, RB Dominique Whaley suffered a fractured ankle against Kansas State October 29th and WR Ryan Broyles tore his ACL against Texas A & M on November 5th, but the Sooners are still second in the country in scoring offense, averaging 49.8 points per game. However, QB Landry Jones has not thrown a TD pass in the last two contests, after recording at least one in 24 straight games. Although Jones did not throw for a touchdown, Oklahoma defeated Iowa State 26-6 while allowing only 253 yards of offense. The RB duo of Roy Finch and Brandon Williams combined for 163 yards on 26 carries and QB Blake Bell added 27 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.  Altogether, the Sooner ground attack ran for a season-high 253 yards against the Cyclones. OU’s defense is slightly better than their in-state rivals, allowing 20.8 ppg (27th), 373.0 yards of total offense (52nd), and 246 passing yards per game (87th).

The Sooners have rushed for at least 120 yards in each of the last nine games versus Oklahoma State and will try to make a return trip to Glendale for the Fiesta Bowl.

Dory LeBlanc, covers Gator sports for Gators First and Not just a college sports enthusiast, Dory is also a fan of NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB. Born outside Philly, she moved to Tampa, and now resides in Illinois, giving her a broad perspective on the sporting world. You can follow Dory on twitter @DoryLeBlanc


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