Thursday, December 5, 2013

Cram Session - Week 15

Thursday, December 5

Houston (2-10) at Jacksonville (3-9), Houston favored by 3

The NFL Network can't even try to pretend like this is a game anyone will want to watch. I won't be going out of my way to watch it, but I am realistic and I know that since it is NFL football, if I am home, I will check in on it. The never ending positive vibes of Jags coach Gus Bradley are starting to pay off with victories. Jacksonville has won three of four games, and the players are showing how much they enjoy playing for Bradley. The Texans are desperate to end a 10-game losing streak and maybe even score a touchdown this time against Jacksonville. I have come to grips with the fact that the Texans are my most embarrassing Super Bowl pick ever, but can't believe they are going to win their first two games and then lose their final fourteen. Jacksonville has yet to win a home game this season, so that is why I will predict that the Texans will finally break their losing streak.

Prediction: Houston 21, Jacksonville 17

Top 10

ACC Championship: #20 Duke (10-2, 6-2) vs. #1 Florida State (12-0, 8-0) in Charlotte, North Carolina

Cheering for Duke typically feels dirty, but I expect that most of America will be rooting for the heavy underdog Blue Devils in Saturday's ACC Championship game. I honestly never thought I would write about Duke in this column. Maybe as some other Top 10 team's opponent, make a Duke sucks at football joke, and that would be it. But now, the Blue Devils are a win away from a BCS bowl. The odds are definitely against them, facing a Seminoles team that is a victory away from playing for a national title. Florida State hasn't won a game this season by less than double digits. The closest any team has come to beating them this season was Boston College, and they lost 48-34.

The Blue Devils best player is easily WR Jamison Crowder. Crowder comes into this game with 88 catches, 1,131 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns. Four of his touchdowns came in Duke's last two games, including 2 in their Coastal Division clinching win at North Carolina. For Duke to have a shot, Crowder will have to make his presence felt early and often. Duke usually splits time at quarterback between Bradon Connette and Anthony Boone. Boone takes most of the snaps, and has been liable to force some throws. However, Boone hasn't thrown a pick in his past 3 games, after throwing 7 in his previous two. Duke splits the running back duties between Jela Duncan and Josh Snead. Combined they went over 1,000 yards but going up against Florida State's stout defense I don't expect Duke to be able to run the ball very well.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston is still awaiting word on whether or not he will be charged with sexual assault. Despite that, he and his teammates have played flawlessly, which is quite amazing. Winston's favorite targets on the team are Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw. A new weapon has emerged out of his receiving corps, Kelvin Benjamin, who just had a monster game in the Seminoles win over Florida. Add to those weapons the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Karlos Williams and it is easy to see why the Seminoles are second in the nation with 54 points per game.

I think Duke might be able to keep this game close for the first quarter, but beyond that, I don't see how they can compete with Florida State. The Seminoles are on a whole other level talent wise and as long as they have Winston running team, I don't think anyone in the country can beat them. The Seminoles will be back in the national title game for the first time over a decade.

Prediction: Florida State 41, Duke 14

Big Ten Championship: #2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) vs. #10 Michigan State (11-1, 8-0) in Indianapolis, Indiana

This will be a good old fashioned offense versus defense battle. Ohio State has a high powered offense, and plays little defense. Michigan State has one of the best defenses in the nation and plays offense because they have to. We will really find out in this game if the old adage of defense wins championships is true or not. The Michigan State defensive game plan will center around containing Braxton Miller. No one has really stopped Miller this season but if a defense is capable of doing it, then the Spartans would be the ones. Miller is more concerning to defenses as a runner than a passer. That isn't because he can't pass, it is because if given any daylight Miller can turn anything into a touchdown run. Buckeyes RB Carlos Hyde also has to be dealt with. Despite being suspended for the first three games of the season, Hyde still has 14 rushing touchdowns and 1,290 yards rushing. He is coming off his best performance of the season, gouging the Wolverines for 226 yards on the ground.

Spartans QB Connor Cook isn't flashy like his counterpart Miller, but he is dependable. Cook has thrown just 4 interceptions on the season, and stabilized the Spartans offense. That stabilization is what has allowed their defense to shine even greater. Like the Buckeyes, the Spartans have a big time running back, Jeremy Langford, who led the team with 16 rushing touchdowns and has a rushing touchdown in his last 5 games. The Spartans will look to get Langford touches often, as he averages over 20 carries per game. Against a leaky Ohio State defense, Langford should clear the 100 yard mark relatively easily.

While the Spartans defense is spectacular, I don't think they have faced an offense the caliber of Ohio State's, or a quarterback nearly as talented as Miller. The Spartans defense will keep them in the game, and the offense of the Spartans will make plays, but ultimately, the talent advantage of the Buckeyes will win out and propel Ohio State to the national title game.

Prediction: Ohio State 34, Michigan State 27

SEC Championship: #5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1) vs. #3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1) in Atlanta, Georgia

Raise your hand if you had this as your SEC Championship matchup back in August? Both of these schools have recovered from dismal seasons last year, and if things bounce their way in other games, might be playing for the national title with a win in this game. Of course, unless you were out of the planet the last week, you have seen or heard about Auburn's miraculous win over Alabama last Saturday. Sadly, I was stuck in traffic and didn't get to see the play live, but I did hear it on the radio and it was still pretty incredible. That play has been all anyone has wanted to talk about, and I think the Tigers may suffer from a case of premature celebration. The Iron Bowl is such a huge game and then to win it in the fashion they did, a let down seems unavoidable for this game. Obviously, I am not saying Auburn doesn't have plenty of motivation for this game, but I just imagine it will be hard to turn their focus right around on Missouri.

Missouri has a balanced offensive attack, while Auburn's offense is more predicated on running the ball. Missouri QB James Franklin can be a threat running the ball, but he is at his best in the pocket finding his receivers such as Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington. Henry Josey is Missouri's leading rusher, and is spelled by Russell Hansbrough. Both backs average over 6 yards per carry and their success is a large reason that freshman Maty Mauk was able to come in for an injured Franklin and play so well. They take a lot of pressure off of the passing game.

As mentioned above Auburn is all about running and it starts at the quarterback position with Nick Marshall. Marshall has had many games where he has run the ball more than he has passed it. Auburn's leading rusher is Tre Mason, who has 237 carries on the season and is coming off shredding Alabama's vaunted defense to the tune of 164 yards rushing.

Even with all of the offensive talent, I still expect the defenses to lead the way in this game. I think Marshall will find it hard to run on the speedy Missouri defensive front and linebackers, and I expect the Auburn corners to make life difficult for Franklin, Green-Beckham and Washington. I can't shake the feeling that Auburn will start slow in this game, due to the hangover effect of the Bama game. I think Missouri will jump out to a lead and then hold off Auburn late.

Prediction: Missouri 23, Auburn 20

#17 Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2) at #6 Oklahoma State (10-1, 7-1)

The Big 12 no longer has an official championship game but to the Cowboys this is their championship game. If they knock off the rival Sooners, then Oklahoma State will win the Big 12 and be headed to a BCS bowl. Some Sooners players seemed to scoff at the notion that they are underdogs in this game, but based on their performance at Baylor it seems like they need a reality check. The passing game has been a struggle for OU all season but they have turned the reigns over to Trevor Knight at quarterback. They are going to have to score a lot on offense to keep up with the Cowboys high octane attack. Oklahoma State averaged more than 10 points per game than the Sooners did, and Oklahoma hasn't shown an ability to play stout enough defense against good offenses, especially on the road. The tide seems to be turning in this rivalry, and I expect the Cowboys to put an exclamation mark on that Saturday.

Prediction: Oklahoma State 45, Oklahoma 31

Pac-12 Championship: #7 Stanford (10-2, 7-2) at #11 Arizona State (10-2, 8-1)

The Pac-12 will be decided in Phoenix, in a rematch from way back in September. Back then, these teams met at Stanford and the Cardinal dominated that game before a late rally from the Sun Devils made it respectable. Arizona State is unbeaten at home this year, while Stanford has dropped two road games, so the Sun Devils are seen as some as the favorites in this matchup. A win would put Arizona State in their first Rose Bowl since Jake Plummer led them there in 1997.

These teams have very different philosophies when it comes to offense while defensively Stanford probably has the edge, but the Sun Devils have some talent on that side of the ball as well. Stanford loves to run the ball and pound it down the opponents throat. When they are at their best, like when they played Oregon, then Stanford becomes unbeatable. If quarterback Kevin Hogan has to do take on a major load of the offense, that is when Stanford has gotten into trouble. The Sun Devils love to pass the ball, and quarterback Taylor Kelly had just 2 games this season without a passing touchdown. Sun Devils WR Jaelen Strong had a monster game against Stanford in the first matchup and he might be the difference in this game.

Arizona State will definitely stack the box and dare Stanford to try to beat them with the pass. Cardinal RB Tyler Gaffney hasn't been slowed much this year, but Arizona State did keep him under 100 yards in their first meeting. These teams are very evenly matched and this is the type of game where homefield will make a huge difference. The Sun Devils have been dominant at home against Pac-12 opponents this season, and that will serve them well in the championship. They won't dominate Stanford, but they will knock them off.

Prediction: Arizona State 34, Stanford 27

#25 Texas (8-3, 7-1) at #9 Baylor (10-1, 7-1)

Since this game begins after the Sooners/Cowboys game these teams will know whether or not their game is the de facto Big 12 championship. If Oklahoma can pull off the upset then the winner of this game will win the Big 12. Record wise there isn't a ton of difference between the Longhorns and the Bears, but if you dig into the stats a bit, this seems like it could be a pretty sizable mismatch. Injuries have started to catch up to Baylor the last few weeks, as they just barely beat a bad TCU team last weekend and have seen their offensive production dip the past few weeks. But if you needed a tonic to bad offense, the Texas defense has typically been the solution. The Longhorns need good Case McCoy to show up to have any chance in this game. Throw in the fact that Bears quarterback Bryce Petty is far superior to Case and Baylor will be on their homefield in a big game and I expect this to turn into a laugher.

Prediction: Baylor 48, Texas 27

Last Week: 6-2
Overall: 110-22

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