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November 30, 2009

Monday with Mike: Season set to finish strong

This has not been the most memorable season.

Alabama, Florida and Texas have been at the top of the polls for the entire season -- and at the top of the BCS standings since they came out -- and the season has been relatively unexciting.

Sure, some teams have underachieved relative to their preseason poll positions -- Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, USC -- and some others have been surprisingly good -- Cincinnati, Iowa, Georgia Tech. All in all, though, the season has played out like many expected.

All that should change this weekend, when the potential exists for numerous memorable games. There are conference title games in the ACC, Big 12, Conference USA, Mid-American and SEC, and there are de facto league championship games in the Big East and Pac-10.

It should make for a great weekend. Let's take a closer look.

ACC
The matchup: Clemson vs. Georgia Tech in Tampa, 8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
The breakdown: The matchup lost a lot of luster when both teams lost Saturday to in-state rivals. But while the game will receive a lot less national attention now, it still should be a highly entertaining game. The teams met on the second Thursday of the season, and Tech pulled out a 30-27 victory on a last-minute field goal. Clemson had rallied from 24 down to take the lead before Tech fought back.
The star power: Clemson running back C.J. Spiller -- who set a major-college record with his seventh career kickoff return Saturday -- is a threat to score from anywhere, at any time. Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt is a great fit for the triple-option offense, and running back Jonathan Dwyer is fantastic between the tackles. While Tech rarely throws, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas -- despite his costly drop late in Saturday's loss to Georgia -- is one of the best in the ACC. Thomas will be going against a superb cornerback duo in Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor.
The watchability quotient: Four stars (out of five).

BIG EAST
The matchup: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, noon Saturday, ABC
The breakdown: This is for the Big East title and the league's BCS bid. Pitt is coming off a loss to West Virginia in the "Backyard Brawl," but that outcome had no affect on the league title chase. Bearcats coach Brian Kelly will be besieged with "Are you staying at Cincinnati?" questions all week, but you can expect his offense -- particularly quarterback Tony Pike -- to be ready to go. Pitt has played solid defense most of the season, but the Panthers were torched by N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson in a September loss, and Cincinnati's offense is much better than N.C. State's. Pitt's hopes rely on its offense. It has been balanced all season, and Cincinnati's defense has shown a lot of holes in the past month.
The star power: Pike was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender until he suffered an arm injury in late October. He appears to be 100 percent healthy again, and he and wide receiver Mardy Gilyard can be a devastating combination. Pitt will want to control the ball and the clock with running back Dion Lewis, who has a chance to win national freshman of the year honors. When Lewis is having success, quarterback Bill Stull can use play-action to his heart's content; he has able targets in wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin and tight end Dorin Dickerson.
The watchability quotient: Four stars.

BIG 12
The matchup: Nebraska vs. Texas in Arlington, Texas, 8 p.m. Saturday, ABC
The breakdown: Texas is playing for a spot in the national championship game, and the Huskers are out to spoil the party. Nebraska is in the conference title game because of its defense; the Huskers' offense is, to be kind, inconsistent. Texas' offense has been steady all season behind quarterback Colt McCoy and wide receiver Jordan Shipley. The defense has great stats, but the unit had all sorts of problems with Texas A&M in the regular-season finale. But Nebraska's offense isn't as explosive as A&M's, and that lack of offense lessens the chances of a Huskers upset.
The star power: McCoy's strong second half of the season has him squarely in the Heisman race, and a big performance against the Huskers' defense would provide a big Heisman boost. Shipley has 99 receptions and also is a dangerous return man. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has been the best lineman in the nation this season. He's an active playmaker in the middle of the line, and it seems doubtful Texas will be able to run effectively up the middle because of his presence.
The watchability quotient: Three-and-a-half stars.

CONFERENCE USA
The matchup: Houston at East Carolina, noon Saturday, ESPN2
The breakdown: This is the title-game matchup most everyone expected. Houston has a high-powered offense but a middling defense. ECU is one of the few C-USA teams built around its defense. Still, given Houston's defensive issues, ECU should be able to move the ball offensively. There should be a nice game-within-a-game between Houston offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen and ECU defensive coordinator Greg Hudson.
The star power: Houston QB Case Keenum has a great chance to be an All-America this season. He has thrown for 4,922 yards and 38 touchdowns. He has a deep and talented receiving corps; three Cougars have at least 74 catches, and James Cleveland might be the best. ECU counters with a solid defense led by end C.J. Wilson, tackle Linval Joseph and free safety Van Eskridge. Offensively, the Pirates need some big plays from wide receiver Dwayne Harris.
The watchability quotient: Three stars

MID-AMERICAN
The matchup: Central Michigan vs. Ohio University, 8 p.m. Friday, ESPN2
The breakdown: Everyone expected Central Michigan to win the West. But Ohio, coached by Frank Solich, was somewhat of a surprise out of the East Division. The Bobcats come in having won seven of their past eight. Their offense is so-so, but the defense has been stout -- especially against the pass. Central Michigan has a plethora of playmakers, headed by senior quarterback Dan LeFevour, who has thrown 25 touchdown passes and has 14 scoring runs. While the Chippewas are known for their offense, they are No. 1 in the MAC in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense.
The star power: LeFevour is one of the nation's best quarterbacks. He hurts foes with his arm and his legs. He also has great weapons on the outside in Antonio Brown -- who also is one of the best return men in the nation -- and Bryan Anderson. Junior linebacker Nick Bellore has made more than 100 tackles in each of his three seasons. Ohio has some solid linebackers, too, in Noah Keller and Lee Renfro. Quarterback Theo Scott has played well down the stretch. While he doesn't necessarily have to outduel LeFevour, Scott needs to put up good numbers.
The watchability quotient: Three stars

PAC-10
The matchup: Oregon State at Oregon, 9 p.m. Thursday, ESPN
The breakdown: Rarely has "The Civil War" been so important -- well, important nationally, that is. The stakes are enormous: The winner goes to the Rose Bowl.
The star power: There's a lot of it, especially on offense. Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers has rushed for 1,313 yards and 19 touchdowns, and he also has 67 receptions -- the most in the nation by a running back. His brother James, a wide receiver, has 77 receptions and also is a running threat on sweeps. Senior quarterback Sean Canfield quietly has put together a solid season, with 2,797 yards and 19 touchdowns. The Beavers don't have much of a pass rush, but there is a solid back seven headed by linebacker Keaton Kristick. Oregon is led by quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, a powerful runner who has the speed to go the distance. Masoli isn't the greatest passer, but he almost always seems to rise to the occasion when he has to throw. Redshirt freshman running back LaMichael James -- like the Rodgers brothers, a Texan -- has been a revelation. He has run for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, and is extremely quick through the hole. Wide receiver Jeff Maehl and Ed Dickson don't have eye-popping stats, but that's more a result of an offense that prefers to run. Dickson, especially, is a big-time talent.
The watchability quotient: Four-and-a-half stars.

SEC
The matchup: Alabama vs. Florida in Atlanta, 4 p.m. Saturday, CBS
The breakdown: The game everyone who cares about SEC football has been waiting for since the start of spring practice. The winner goes to the BCS championship game and will be favored to win the SEC's fourth consecutive national title. These are two of the best defenses in the nation, and those defenses will be going against offenses that lacked consistency this season. Florida used a fourth-quarter rally to beat Alabama in last season's SEC title game.
The star power: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Alabama running back Mark Ingram are in the running for the Heisman. Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones has a ton of talent, but is underutilized a bit in the Tide's offense. Linebackers Brandon Spikes of Florida and Rolando McClain of Alabama are two of the best in the nation. Florida cornerback Joe Haden might be the nation's best at his position. Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez is a big-time weapon. So is Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas, who is one of the best return men in SEC history. There's also the coaching matchup: Florida's Urban Meyer, who has two national titles, against Alabama's Nick Saban, who has one.
The watchability quotient: Come on -- it's five stars.

The new guys
There were 22 coaching changes in the offseason, and more than a third of them -- eight -- will be leading their teams to bowls this season.

The most successful first-year coach, from a victory standpoint at least, is Oregon's Chip Kelly. The Ducks are 9-2 and one win away from the Rose Bowl.

Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Boston College's Frank Spaziani each has guided his team to eight victories. Clemson has a chance to make it nine in the ACC championship game next Saturday against Georgia Tech.

At the other end of the spectrum is Eastern Michigan's Ron English, who presided over a 0-12 season. It wasn't much better for Miami University's Mike Haywood (1-11), New Mexico's Mike Locksley (1-11) and Ball State's Stan Parrish (2-10).

Here's a look. Asterisks denote a team expected to get a bowl bid; Army still can earn one with a win over Navy. New Mexico State, Oregon and Washington also have regular-season games remaining.

The new guys
TeamNew coachRecordLast season
ArmyRich Ellerson5-63-9
AuburnGene Chizik 7-5*5-7
Ball StateStan Parrish2-10 12-2
Boston CollegeFrank Spaziani8-4*9-5
Bowling GreenDave Clawson7-5*6-6
ClemsonDabo Swinney8-5* 7-6
Eastern MichiganRon English0-123-9
Iowa StatePaul Rhoads 6-6*2-10
Kansas State Bill Snyder 6-65-7
Miami UniversityMike Haywood1-112-10
Mississippi StateDan Mullen5-74-8
New MexicoMike Locksley1-114-8
New Mexico StateDeWayne Walker3-93-9
OregonChip Kelly9-2*10-3
PurdueDanny Hope5-7 4-8
San Diego StateBrady Hoke4-82-10
SyracuseDoug Marrone4-83-9
TennesseeLane Kiffin7-5*5-7
ToledoTim Beckman5-73-9
Utah StateGary Andersen4-83-9
WashingtonSteve Sarkisian4-70-12
WyomingDave Christensen6-6*4-8

Grid bits
UAB quarterback Joe Webb threw for 322 yards in the Blazers' loss to UCF; that makes him just the sixth major-college quarterback in history to rush for 1,000 yards and throw for 2,000 yards in the same season. Webb has rushed for 1,427 yards and has thrown for 2,299 this season. Nevada's Colin Kaepernick (1,160 rushing, 1,875 passing), Middle Tennessee's Dwight Dasher (953 and 2,627), Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt (888 and 1,553) and Florida's Tim Tebow (796 and 2,166) are the other quarterbacks with at least a shot at reaching that plateau this season. The five previous members of the 1,000/2,000 club: Clemson's Woodrow Dantzler (2001), Kaepernick (2008), Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour (2007), Missouri's Brad Smith (2002 and 2005) and Texas' Vince Young (2005).

Nice job by Auburn coach Gene Chizik, channeling his inner Les Miles on Friday. Trailing Alabama 26-21, Auburn gets the ball at its 25 with 1:24 left and one timeout remaining. The Tigers used that timeout with 10 seconds left -- after having moved all of 21 yards. The Tigers had had four plays in the interim, with two of them being runs; another was a pass in the middle of the field. Is clock management really that difficult?

The ACC championship game took a hit when the participants lost to in-state rivals on Saturday. Both were favored, too. Clemson fell 34-17 to South Carolina, and Georgia Tech lost 30-24 to Georgia, which ran all over the Yellow Jackets. Georgia and South Carolina each came in 6-5, but strengthened their bowl opportunities with the upset victories. Georgia Tech's loss was especially damaging to the ACC, because the Jackets were No. 7 in the BCS standings. There's now a good chance that no ACC team finishes in the top 10 in the BCS.

Arkansas' Ryan Mallett threw for just 227 yards in the Hogs' overtime loss to LSU. It was his third-lowest yardage total of the season, and his struggles once again were magnified. He has to be sharp if the Hogs are to overcome their own porous defense, and he struggled mightily in four of the Hogs' five losses. Mallett completed 57.2 percent of his passes this season, with 29 TDs and seven picks. But in games against Alabama, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss, he completed just 40.4 percent of his passes -- with just four TDs.

All but one of the favored teams won in the first round of the FCS playoffs. The one upset: New Hampshire beat McNeese State, the equivalent of the No. 10 seed beating the No. 7 seed in the 16-team playoff. Top-seeded Montana fell behind 48-21 to South Dakota State with 9:20 left in the third quarter, but scored the final 40 points to win 61-48. Meanwhile, in the Division II playoffs, all four regional No. 1 seeds lost to the No. 2 regional seeds. One of the No. 1s that lost was Terry Bowden-coached North Alabama, whose home field is the host site for the national title game. Advancing to the national semifinals were California (Pa.), Carson-Newman (Tenn.), Grand Valley State (Mich.) and Northwest Missouri State.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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