Front Seven: Previewing Saturday’s top college football games – USA TODAY
The Front Seven tries to bridge the gap.
1. Sorting: With two weeks left in the regular season, about all we know about the Pac-12 South is that Colorado won’t win it. Saturday’s games will go a long way toward sorting things out, headlined by the L.A. rivalry of No. 24 Southern California at No. 12 UCLA. For the Trojans, who finish against their traditional non-conference rival Notre Dame, this is the Pac-12 finale.
A win would put USC in the clubhouse at 6-2, but even that wouldn’t guarantee the division crown by itself. It would, however, eliminate Utah as well as the Bruins, each of whom would then have three losses. It is UCLA, which owns a head-to-head tiebreaker vs. both Arizona schools, that controls its destiny. The Bruins will earn the shot at Oregon in the conference title game if they can get past the Trojans and Stanford next week. UCLA QB Brett Hundley has been as good as advertised as a dual threat despite some early protection issues. He has accounted for 24 TDs, including seven by land. TB Paul Perkins has been a big help in the running game, and he’ll be needed again as Hundley tries to steer clear of USC DE Leonard Williams. Trojans’ QB Cody Kessler does not like to take off as much, but he has 29 TD tosses and gets plenty of ground support from TBs Javorius Allen and Justin Davis. LBs Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack will try to keep them bottled up.
2. Shuffling: Elsewhere in the crazy Pac-12 South, No. 13 Arizona heads to No. 21 Utah in what is in effect an elimination game for the Utes. The Wildcats wouldn’t be completely out of hope with a loss, as there would exist a scenario in which all five contenders could finish tied. Utah fans must get a win from their Utes, then root hard for UCLA later in the day. The stars of this game might be on the defensive side. Arizona LB Scooby Wright does a little of everything, leading the squad in total tackles and sacks. His primary focus this time will be Utah TB Devontae Booker, who has been a steady producer all season but will need some aerial cover from QB Travis Wilson. The Utes’ mainstay is DE Nate Orchard, who has the strength to shift inside to cause even more problems for opposing blockers. His target who wants to avoid him is Wildcats’ QB Anu Solomon, who has excellent deep weapons in WRs Cayleb Jones and Austin Hill if they have time to get downfield.
3. Dealing: Given the scary events on the Florida State campus this week, the football game for the No.1-ranked Seminoles against Boston College will be a needed diversion. From a conference perspective the game is of little consequence, as the Seminoles already have claimed the ACC Atlantic title. But a loss would severely damage, if not outright end, their national championship aspirations. It’s a fair bet that FSU will trail at some point in the first half, possibly by multiple scores. Having QB Jameis Winston there to bring them back is indeed a luxury, but the team’s second-half resilience owes just as much to the defense’s ability to adjust on the fly. The MVP on that side of the ball for most of the season has been S Jalen Ramsey, who will be challenged this week by the Eagles’ do-everything QB Tyler Murphy. Should BC find itself playing from ahead, LB Steven Daniels and S Justin Simmons will try to do what no one else has managed yet — maintain the lead against Winston and his growing list of trusted ball handlers. WR Rashad Greene remains the most dangerous, but freshman TB Dalvin Cook has been a key playmaker in recent outings.
4. Bidding: Matters in the SEC East are quite simple. No. 20 Missouri will wrap it up by winning its last two games. But a loss in either would give Georgia the spot in the league title tilt. The Tigers bid for their first of those two at Tennessee. The Vols are a win away from bowl eligibility, and plenty of Bulldogs followers will be sending them positive vibes hoping they get to six wins sooner rather than later. Tennessee’s fortunes have turned for the better since Joshua Dobbs, the QB of the future, became the QB of the present when Justin Worley was injured. The more mobile Dobbs is a better fit for coach Butch Jones’ spread attack, helping TB Jalen Hurd find running lanes as well. But the Tigers’ defense sees a similar system in practice every day, so LBs Michael Scherer and Kentrell Brothers should be ready. Mizzou QB Maty Mauk has been hot of late, though he can still go cold if TB Russell Hansbrough struggles to find room to roam. If Mauk has to air it out, he must beware of Vols’ CB Justin Coleman.
5. Declaring: The SEC West remains a bit more in flux with bowls of Iron and Egg yet to be played. Of the foursome from the states of Mississippi and Alabama in action this weekend preparing for their hugely important rivalry games, No. 8 Ole Miss has the most difficult assignment. The Rebels must hit the road to meet Arkansas, which is riding high after getting into the SEC win column against LSU and also needing another victory to go bowling. The Razorbacks’ defense has been stout all year, nearly outperforming that of Alabama in a one-point heartbreaker in October. The unit’s linchpin is LB Martrell Spaight, who will try to make life difficult for Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace. He’s had to compensate for the loss of WR Laquon Treadwell to a season-ending leg injury, but WR Vince Sanders and TE Evan Engram have been handy. Points have been hard to come by at times for Arkansas, however, and that figures to be the case once again with S Cody Prewitt patrolling the Ole Miss secondary. QB Brandon Allen will have to get TB Jonathan Williams involved quickly.
6. Defending: Another division with work yet to be done is the Big Ten West. No. 15 Wisconsin took charge with authority by conquering Nebraska, but the Badgers must defend first place on the road at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes can be tough to beat. Badgers TB Melvin Gordon isn’t going to sneak up on anyone, so the fact that he had his record day just last week is all the more impressive. Even so he’s going to need some completions from rotating QBs Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy to keep Iowa S John Lowdermilk from crowding the box. The Hawkeyes’ offensive identity has been illusory in stretches this season, but QB Jake Rudock is usually secure with the ball. Wisconsin LBs Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert want to see to it he doesn’t get much help from his backfield.
7. Scoring: No. 19 Nebraska, meanwhile, needs to bounce back from the barrage of points Wisconsin put up in a hurry. They host Minnesota, still in the mix itself and coming off an impressive showing in a narrow loss to Ohio State. The Cornhuskers, on the heels of Melvin Gordon’s 408-yard day, must now contend with Golden Gophers TB David Cobb, who has 1,350 yards and is averaging 5.31 yards per carry. QB Mitch Leidner has been throwing more effectively as well, but his protectors must account for Nebraska DE Randy Gregory. Cornhuskers’ TB Ameer Abdullah was outshone last week but remains a breakaway threat at any time. His opposition will be led this week by Minnesota LB Damien Wilson, who must also keep an eye on slippery Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong. When Armstrong stays home, his most frequent target is WR Jordan Westerkamp.
Slam Bonus: The Front Seven generally is devoted to previewing the most relevant games in college football’s top division. But events like the upcoming contest in Yankee Stadium warrant an exception, since nothing like it has ever happened before. Northeast Pennsylvania rivals Lehigh and Lafayette have the most played continuous series in the sport, and they square off for the unprecedented 150th time in the Bronx (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Net). In the modern era, these schools compete at the FCS level in the academically strong Patriot League. Neither of them will win the conference this year, but that hardly matters to the loyal supporters of the programs who bought every ticket for this milestone event at the neutral venue. Serving as honorary captains for the opening coin toss will be Joe Weis for Lehigh and George Hossenlopp for Lafayette, high school teammates who participated in the 100th meeting 50 years ago. That game ended in a 6-6 tie, but no worries — they’ll go ahead and play no matter who wins the flip.
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