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Previewing every Power 5 conference title game

Nov 28, 2018

  • ESPN

Here’s everything you need to know about this weekend’s Power 5 conference title games.

Pac-12

Washington vs. Utah

8 p.m. ET Friday, Fox

Player to watch for Utah: LB Chase Hansen. How many Defensive Player of the Year candidates are converted quarterbacks? After switching from quarterback to safety early in his career, Hansen made another move this offseason to linebacker. The position change has allowed him to impact the game even more than before. He ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss.

Player to watch for Washington: RB Myles Gaskin. Gaskin is one of just five players in Pac-12 history to rush for more than 5,000 yards in his career and the first to rush for more than 1,000 yards in four straight seasons. Despite the production, Gaskin has managed to go widely underappreciated. In the first game against Utah, he had one of his most important games of the season, rushing for 143 yards on 30 carries.

X factor for Utah: Does Kyle Whittingham’s bowl magic exist in all postseason games? His 11-1 bowl record is a huge source of pride at Utah, so while there isn’t an extended amount of time to prepare for this game, Utes fans will be hopeful that success translates to conference championship games, too.

X factor for Washington: Soon enough, every physical attribute Jake Browning has is going to face intense scrutiny as he tries to extend his career at the next level. As a college player, few have been as important in a program’s rise. Washington had not won 10 games in a season since 2000 but is now a win away from winning at least 10 in three straight seasons. Browning doesn’t always make it look pretty, but he keeps finding ways to help his team win.

Matchup that will decide the game: Utah QB Jason Shelley vs. UW secondary. In three games since coming out of the backup role, Shelly has been good enough, but he hasn’t seen a secondary nearly as good as Washington’s. The Utes’ worst offensive showing of the season came against the Huskies, and if they’re forced to become one-dimensional, it will be especially tough to win against Washington.

They said it

Washington coach Chris Petersen: “They just really haven’t flinched, and that’s what I’m proud of. I don’t know how to handle this expectation thing because expectation can be the kiss of death. I think it adds pressure on those guys. I think they’ve worked hard.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: “It has been an exciting journey. Like I’ve said many times, when we joined the Pac-12, it was like getting a new job. Everything was different. The bar was raised in virtually every area, and coming from a Group of 5 to the Power 5 is a huge undertaking, I think bigger than most people realize. I think we did it the right way.”

— Kyle Bonagura


Big 12

Oklahoma vs. Texas

Noon ET Saturday, ABC

Player to watch for Oklahoma: Kyler Murray. The 5-foot-10 dual-sport star is the biggest reason the Sooners are here. His production is exceptional: He’s No. 1 nationally in Total QBR (96.1), second in touchdowns responsible for (48), second in total offense per game (377.3) and yards per play (10.8), and he has the best completion percentage this season on passes at least 10 yards downfield (61 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Murray is a headache for opposing defensive coordinators with his accuracy, arm strength and foot speed when he takes off. There’s a reason the junior quarterback is in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race.

Player to watch for Texas: Lil’Jordan Humphrey. His numbers won’t necessarily wow you — even though they’re excellent (72 catches, 1,058 yards, eight touchdowns) — but his playmaking ability will. The junior receiver uses his size (6-foot-4, 222 pounds) to his advantage with regularity and is an uber-reliable target for quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Humphrey has come up big in several of the Longhorns’ big games, namely the first Red River Showdown, in which he caught nine passes for 133 yards and a touchdown. He and fellow receiver Collin Johnson give the Longhorns a fantastic one-two punch at the position.

X factor for Oklahoma: Can the Sooners get Murray going in the run game more quickly? In these teams’ first meeting, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Murray really was able to make things happen with his feet (he had 33 rushing yards on nine attempts through three quarters). His 67-yard touchdown in the fourth changed the energy in the game and gave Oklahoma a shot to come back. Last week vs. West Virginia, his first-quarter touchdown run set the tone. The more productive he is on the ground, the more difficult he is to defend.

X factor for Texas: Ehlinger’s shoulder. When these teams first met in October, he was healthy. The week after the Red River Showdown, Ehlinger suffered an AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder that hasn’t been 100 percent since, and he aggravated the injury earlier this month vs. Iowa State. Coach Tom Herman has noted that it isn’t in great shape, but it’s up to Ehlinger’s pain tolerance, which he’s confident about. If the shoulder affects Ehlinger, especially on throws downfield, that could play a key role in the outcome.

Matchup that will decide the game: Oklahoma secondary vs. Texas receivers. The Sooners gave up a whopping 539 passing yards in their win over West Virginia, and among those were times when receivers had free releases and ran virtually untouched. The Sooners are also depleted at safety injury-wise, a key position where Riley said the team struggled last week. Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson are a talented, productive receiving duo who have made countless big plays this season — including in these teams’ first meeting — and how that battle plays out will be crucial to the outcome.

They said it

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley: “We’re 6-0 since [changing defensive coordinators], and that’s the [stat] that matters the most to me. There’s obviously been some games where we’ve played really well. We’ve had some games where we haven’t played well. At times, we’ve made enough big plays, especially the other night, to get it done. … I think we’re progressing in a lot of ways, but we’ve got to put it all together. … We feel like in our building we’re close to doing that.”

Texas coach Tom Herman: “No, I’m not comfortable [being in a track meet], but again, we’ll do whatever it takes. We showed that in October. … Our offense is capable of doing that. We’re always going to go into a game believing that we’re going to play really good defense. Are we going to shut these guys out? No. It’s not going to be a 9-3 ballgame. We all know that.”

— Sam Khan Jr.


SEC

Alabama vs. Georgia

4 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS

Player to watch for Bama: By now you know about the Tide’s trio of sophomore receivers: Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith. Chances are you probably know tight end Irv Smith Jr. by now, too, seeing as he has scored seven touchdowns and appears to have become one of the best NFL draft prospects at his position. But if you’re looking for a somewhat under-the-radar threat to take the top off of Georgia’s defense, pay attention to freshman Jaylen Waddle. On an offense full of explosive players, he stands out as a potential difference-maker who can take advantage of the defense when it shades toward those more heralded sophomores. Waddle is second on the team in receiving yards (690) and third in receptions (37). He’s also a threat to score on special teams as the lead punt returner. He’s averaging 13.57 yards per return and seems due to build on his one touchdown return this season.

Player to watch for UGA: No one is advocating against a balanced game plan and taking care of the football when it’s the time to do so, but Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has to take risks and challenge the Alabama defense, in particular its secondary. Remember, this is a unit full of first-time starters. There are freshmen to pick on. So do it, and do it with Riley Ridley. The brother of former Alabama wideout Calvin Ridley has the speed and the ability to stretch the field vertically. He has shown that he can come down with 50-50 balls, even though he has lacked some consistency. And if it works once out of five tries, that’s fine. You’ve got to keep the defense honest, take pressure off the running game and give yourself an opportunity to make explosive plays. As Nick Saban said, “I think one of the goals you always have on defense is trying to eliminate explosive plays. I think one of the goals you always have on offense is try to make explosive plays.” Come out on the right side of that battle, and you very well might win the game.

X factor for Bama: For as good as Alabama has been on offense and defense, it has been average to below average on special teams, especially in the area of kicking. If this ends up being a close game, don’t discount that often overlooked part of the game. The battle for field position could come down to the leg of punter Mike Bernier, who has been solid but not spectacular since replacing the starter and former No. 6 kicker in the 2018 class, Skyler DeLong. But Bernier isn’t the only new starter plugging a hole. Transfer kicker Austin Jones hasn’t attempted a field goal since going 1-for-2 and missing three extra points to start the season. He has since been replaced by Joseph Bulovas, who has been something less than reliable, missing four of his 16 field goal attempts and five extra points. It’s to the point that before playing Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Saban called for improvement in all areas, from the snap to the hold to the actual kick. “It’s not really acceptable,” he said.

X factor for UGA: Might Georgia coach Kirby Smart try to duplicate Alabama’s halftime decision during last season’s national title game? Would he dare make a quarterback change now? It’s not likely to go as far as a change in the starting lineup, especially given Jake Fromm’s recent success. After a bad game against LSU — Georgia’s only loss of the season — in which he threw two interceptions, Fromm has bounced back in a big way, throwing 11 touchdowns with just one interception. But his understudy is lurking in the background. Justin Fields, the former No. 1 overall recruit in the 2018 class, brings a dimension of athleticism that Fromm just doesn’t possess and that could come in handy against Alabama’s swarming defense. Fields has played sparingly this season, appearing in almost every game but attempting only 38 passes, but with an SEC championship and a spot in the playoff on the line, don’t be surprised if Smart and his staff look to pull out all the stops.

Matchup that will decide the game: Georgia’s offensive line has steadily improved under coach Kirby Smart, but the interior of the front, including center Lamont Gaillard and guards Trey Hill and Solomon Kindley, will have its hands full on Saturday against Alabama nose guard Quinnen Williams. It’s going to take all three of them to stop Williams, who has been arguably the best defensive player in the country this season. The redshirt sophomore is big enough to clog up the middle, stuffing the running game of D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield, and he’s quick and powerful enough to get into the backfield and ruin quarterback Jake Fromm’s day. If Williams is able to do any of those things, it could paralyze the Georgia offense, which will need to put up points to keep up with Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama.

They said it

Alabama coach Nick Saban: “I hate comparison questions, but they haven’t really, like, dramatically changed. I think they’ve made a lot of improvement. I think their efficiency on offense has been very good all year long. I think the quarterback is more experienced and actually playing even better than he did a year ago, which was really, really good. They have new backs, but those backs are very, very productive. I think they have outstanding skill guys that have all improved over a year ago. Defensively, their scheme has not changed a lot, but some of their players have. They still have really, really good players, and they play well together. They’re well-coached. Nothing easy against them.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart: “Our guys have got to go cover what is one of the most elite group of skill players I’ve seen assembled in college football. When you look at the wideouts they’ve got, they’ve got a bunch of them, and they’re really good. Then they’ve got some toys they can do things with. Then they’ve got tight end, and they’ve got really good backs. With all those things, we’ve got to play a really good football game, and our kids are excited for the opportunity.”

— Alex Scarborough


Big Ten

Ohio State vs. Northwestern

8 p.m. ET Saturday, Fox

Player to watch for Ohio State: The accomplishments of quarterback Dwayne Haskins have been relatively underappreciated during his record-breaking first year as a starter in Columbus. Haskins set Big Ten highs for touchdown passes in a season (his 42 TD throws are more than that of anyone else in the nation this year) and passing yards (4,081, including nearly 400 against the nation’s No. 1 pass defense a week ago). The redshirt sophomore has arguably the best arm of any player Urban Meyer has ever coached, and he has recently become enough of a threat with his legs to keep opposing defenses honest. The bevy of fast, talented receivers around him certainly helps, but all eyes should be on Haskins this weekend in Indianapolis.

Player to watch for Northwestern: Freshman running back Isaiah Bowser had two carries for a total of 2 yards in the Wildcats’ first six games. His emergence as a steady, reliable part of Northwestern’s offense helped land the Wildcats in the school’s first Big Ten championship game. Bowser has reached the 100-yard mark in four of his past six games while becoming the featured back in the offense. Although he doesn’t have the blinding speed of some other backs, he has proven capable of providing a big play when needed. He provided a 34-yard touchdown run to break open a win against Iowa that sealed the West Division title. As a native of Sidney, Ohio, about 90 minutes down the road from Columbus, he should be fired up to take on the Buckeyes on Saturday night.

X factor for Ohio State: Let’s assume for now that Northwestern’s pace of play does to Ohio State what it has done to Michigan, Wisconsin and pretty much every other Big Ten team this season. The Wildcats are built to limit possessions and limit points, so field position matters against them. Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman has proven to be as good a weapon as any in the field-position battle. More than half of Chrisman’s 49 punts this season have pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line, and 10 of them have traveled at least 50 yards. If Chrisman is busy this weekend, he could wind up being a difference-maker. And if he isn’t, that’s even better news for Buckeyes.

X factor for Northwestern: How healthy is a Northwestern secondary that will be put to its stiffest test of the season on Saturday? The Wildcats have a couple All-Big Ten-caliber players in the back end of their defense, but three starters have missed at least parts of the past couple games while nursing injuries. Cornerbacks Montre Hartage and Trae Williams are both expected to play in Indianapolis. Safety Jared McGee is reportedly back to 100 percent. All three will need to play their best to keep up with the likes of Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Johnnie Dixon and whoever else Ohio State can roll out from its deep receiver corps.

Matchup that will decide the game: Ohio State’s offensive line played perhaps its best game of the season Saturday against Michigan. If it is as successful against Northwestern’s front seven this week, the Wildcats won’t stand a chance. Junior Joe Gaziano and sophomore Earnest Brown IV will have to find ways to keep Haskins from comfortably distributing the ball to his many weapons. That’s a tall task for a Northwestern team that has managed only 17 sacks so far this season. Nevertheless, if Pat Fitzgerald’s team is going to drag the high-flying Buckeyes into the type of slogfest they’ve created in their other big wins this season, they will need to keep Haskins and the passing game from establishing a rhythm.

They said it

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald: “I don’t think anyone outside these doors would pick us to win this game. My mom and dad, I guess, would. I’m not even sure if my sisters would. But I don’t need them. I just need the 74 guys who will put on the purple and white Saturday.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “That’s a huge advantage. It is. I mean, I can assure you we weren’t watching anything other than our rival.”

— Dan Murphy


ACC

Pitt vs. Clemson

8 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC

Player to watch for Clemson: Quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The true freshman passed every test thrown at him during the regular season with ease, going on the road against a rival (Florida State) and a fired-up prime-time crowd (Boston College), and beating in-state rival South Carolina not only with his accuracy but also with a pretty epic staredown at the Gamecocks’ sideline. Clemson is a 26-point favorite for a reason, and Lawrence happens to be a main component of that. Lawrence has proven why Dabo Swinney made the right call to go with him as the full-time starter back in September.

Player to watch for Pitt: RB Qadree Ollison. When Pitt plays well, it is getting maximum production out of its running game, and that means all eyes will be on Ollison and Darrin Hall, one of the best running back duos in the ACC. The task will be formidable against one of the best defensive lines in the nation, and other teams have had more success throwing the ball on the Clemson secondary. But Pitt is a run-first team, and if the Panthers are able to find some holes early to set up play-action, then they will have a better chance to stay in the game.

X factor for Clemson: OT Mitch Hyatt. When his career is over, Hyatt will go down as one of the greatest offensive linemen to play for Clemson. He just won the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy for the second straight year, and he does an excellent job week in and week out not only protecting Lawrence but also helping Clemson open huge holes for its extremely talented running backs. Incredibly, this will be the fourth straight ACC championship game he starts for the Tigers.

X factor for Pitt: FB George Aston. The last time Pitt played Clemson, the Panthers came away with a 43-42 upset in 2016. A big reason is the way they used their fullbacks and tight ends, befuddling the Clemson defense throughout the game. Aston had a career-high two receiving touchdowns, marking the last time he had a game with multiple touchdown catches. Although he hasn’t been as productive the past month, he is the team’s top receiver out of the backfield and could be a key to success on Saturday.

Matchup that will decide the game: Pitt offensive line vs. Clemson defensive line. Pitt had a difficult time a week ago against the Miami defensive front, which is right there with Clemson among the elite units in the nation. What made the task more difficult was playing without starting center Jimmy Morrissey, out for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury. If the Pitt offensive line cannot hold off Christian Wilkins & Co., it is not only going to be difficult to run the ball (the way Boston College found out recently), but it will also be hard to get the passing game going. What happened in a 24-3 loss to Miami could repeat itself.

They said it

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: “It is a playoff game. It’s got huge implications. To play 15 games in college football is really difficult. When you get down the stretch, every game is a playoff game. When you’re one of those eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 teams that really have a shot down the stretch, every game is a playoff game. This is just another round of the playoffs. It really, truly is. But it’s great to be able to settle the conference championship on the field, to battle it out.”

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi: “What we did two years ago really won’t have a factor. That was two years ago. We got different players, different coaches. Really, what it’s going to come down to is what we do this week. I think our kids will know they’re the underdog. I don’t think I have to tell them. If you turn any TV station on, turn on ESPN, they’ll find out by the time we get to probably Wednesday that they’re the underdog. I won’t really have to play that role up. I think they’ll have figured that out.”

— Andrea Adelson

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