North Carolina at #7 Clemson: 12:30 p.m.
Last year, North Carolina won a close game against the Tigers, in Chapel Hill, 21-16. This year, things look to be much different. North Carolina has been solid for a team that lost their coach just several weeks before the season started. The Tarheels who enter Saturdays contest at 4-2, have been competitive in all of their contests, with both losses being decided by a touchdown or less. On the other side of the field, are the undefeated Clemson Tigers. Ranked seventh in the nation, the Tigers have had a special season so far, led by their incredibly balanced offense. Still, Clemson has been in this position before, and always manages to choke. So will history repeat itself for Clemson on Saturday, or is this the year the Tigers finally put everything together?
For the Heels, success on offense has come from a surprisingly strong running game and a young quarterback with the ability to get the ball to several playmakers. Behind center for the North Carolina offense is Bryn Renner. A sophomore from West Springfield, VA, Renner has been more than solid for a first year starter. Renner has been extremely accurate, completing 76% of his passes for 1,593 yards. He’s found the endzone numerous times, completing 14 touchdown tosses in seven games, which is good enough to be tied for 23rd most in the nation. Although it may appear that Renner has trouble protecting the football with six interceptions thus far, those stats are actually skewed with five of the six coming in two games. Also, two of the six came against Georgia Tech, who rank 15th in the nation against the pass.
At running back, the Tarheels have an unlikely star in freshman Giovani Bernard. Bernard, the Davie, FL native, is second in the ACC in rushing yardage, with 767 yards. His 5.9 yard per carry average is third best in the conference for running backs with 80 or more carries. His 130 carries is also the third highest in the conference, showing how much of a workhorse he’s been. In addition, he has scored nine rushing touchdowns in seven games, which leads all Atlantic Coast Conference running backs. Bernard has been a valuable asset in the passing game as well, and his 28 receptions is the second highest on the team. But the Tarheels don’t just have one running back, they also have a monster to hand the ball to inside the ten yard line in senior Ryan Houston. Houston, has been able to take advantage of his prominent role as the goal line back with three touchdowns so far.
The Tarheels also have one of the ACC’s best wide receivers in senior, Dwight Jones. Jones, the Burlington, NC native, is a physical specimen at 6’4 and 225 pounds. But Jones isn’t just a big chain mover, he possesses a rare combination of speed and size, demonstrated by his 14.9 yard per reception average (fourth in the ACC among receivers with 30 receptions or more). Jones has also been a favorite target for Renner, and his eight touchdown catches on the year is tied with Clemson’s fantastic freshman, Sammy Watkins. Behind Jones though, the depth of the receiving corps becomes an issue. In fact, Erik Highsmith, a junior from Vanceboro, NC is the only other Tarheel receiver with over six catches. Highsmith has 23 receptions for 343 yards and one touchdown. Past Highsmith, the only receiver worth mentioning is fellow junior, Jheraine Boyd. Boyd, a speed demon from Gastonia, has just six catches for 78 yards this season, but two of them have been for touchdowns.
On defense, the Tarheels have been one of the best at stopping the run. Led by a pair of NFL caliber linebackers in Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick, the Tarheels find themselves as the 26th best defense against the run, allowing just 108 yards per game. Brown, who leads the Tarheels defense with 27 tackles, is an undersized, speedy linebacker whose quick lateral movement allows him to close on ball carriers in a hurry. The North Carolina secondary has also been exceptional in run support, with safety Matt Merletti and corners Charles Brown and Tre Boston all providing significant contributions in run defense. The Tarheels also find themselves in the top half of the nation in sacks, tied for 31st in the country with 15. Although they have been able to get to the quarterback, the back end of the defense has been susceptible to the big play, allowing just under 250 yards through the air per game.
For Clemson, it has been all about offense, and the Tigers have one of the most prolific and balanced offenses in the country. As with most teams, success starts with a strong quarterback and that’s certainly the case for the Clemson Tigers. If Renner’s play has been “more than solid” this season, then the play of fellow sophomore Tajh Boyd has been out of this world. Boyd ranks seventh in the nation in passing yardage, with 2,012 yards. He’s also 15th in yards per attempt, at 8.7 ypa. Where Boyd really shines though, is his ability to put the ball in playmakers hands in the endzone. Boyd, is the fourth best in the country in this aspect, with 19 touchdowns this season, and he’s done a remarkable job of protecting the ball, with just three interceptions. Boyd has also been a playmaker with his legs, with three rushing touchdowns this season.
At running back, the Tigers duo of Andre Ellington and Mike Bellamy can be described as lightning and even more lightning. Ellington, a 190 pound junior from Moncks Corner, SC, has been the main horse in the stable, with 139 of Clemson’s 298 rushing attempts. Ellington’s 740 rushing yards this season falls just behind Bernards and ranks him third in the ACC. He also trails the North Carolina standout in touchdowns too, with seven compared to Bernard’s eight. However, Ellington has been on fire the last two weeks, averaging 164 yards rushing per game and scoring three touchdowns in the two contests. Behind Ellington, is one of Clemson’s many freshman playmakers in Mike Bellamy. Bellamy, a speedster from Nocatee, FL only has 32 carries this season, but he’s made the most of them with 218 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow freshman D.J. Howard leads the team in yard per carry average with 7.9 yards per rush and has contributed 142 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries.
Where the Clemson offense really shines though is their receiving corps. The unit not only features the best wide receiver in the conference, but the depth goes four deep. True freshman Sammy Watkins had his senior prom just a couple of months ago, now he’s perhaps the nation’s most dangerous playmaker. The play of Watkins has been nothing short of spectacular, as the 6’1 Fort Myers, FL native has embarrassed opposing defensive backs all season. Watkins is second in the ACC in yards, with 728 (just 11 behind Wake Forest’s Chris Givens), and leads the conference in receiving touchdowns (eight) and receptions (46). Watkins has also been a playmaker in the rushing and return game, averaging 31 yards per kickoff return and 6.4 yards per rush. His play has taken the college football world by storm, creating Heisman buzz already.
Opposite Watkins is sophomore DeAndre Hopkins, who has 28 receptions for 353 yards and three touchdowns. Junior Jaron Brown, and freshman Martavis Bryant have also been playmakers when called upon, combining for 22 receptions for 384 yards and four touchdowns. The Tigers passing game also features one of college football’s best tight ends in junior Dwayne Allen. Allen, is third in the nation for yards by a tight end with 381 (just two behind Stanford’s Coby Fleener), and tied for fourth in touchdowns with four.
On defense, the Clemson secondary has played well, allowing just 194 yards per game. However, to say their run defense has been bad would be a compliment. The Tigers are ranked 84th against the rush, averaging 179 yards surrendered each game. The Tigers also have had trouble stopping teams in the redzone, illustrated by their 42nd ranked scoring defense.
My prediction, if this was in Chapel Hill, I would give the Tarheels a little bit more of a chance. But it’s not. It’s in Death Valley, which along with Blacksburg, VA, is about as close as you can get to an South Eastern Conference atmosphere without being in the SEC. The Tarheels will pile up some yards on the ground on Clemson, but in the end the Tigers offense is too powerful. I expect the Tarheels to have trouble stopping the Boyd to Watkins connection, and the Tigers to pull away after the half with a 47-30 victory.
#20 Auburn at #1 LSU: 3:30 p.m.
On paper, this looks like a blowout for the LSU Tigers, and it may still be that. However, there are a lot of factors that frankly, aren’t factored in on paper. For starters, suspensions that have come down in the last 24 hours will play a major role. They aren’t just backups being suspended either. In fact, LSU’s best player on defense, corner back Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and their starting running back Spencer Ware are two of the three suspended, along with heavily used reserve corner back Tharold Simon. Also, there’s a bit of surprise about what LSU will see out of Auburn’s quarterback play with sophomore Clint Moseley set to make his first collegiate start. Moseley, the Leroy, AL native, came in against Florida last week when Barrett Trotter couldn’t get it going. Moseley completed four of seven passes for 90 yards, prompting Head Coach Gene Chizik to make the change. Moseley, a dual-threat quarterback with 4.7 40 speed, looked calm and collected against Florida last week, but the LSU front seven is a whole other monster.
Luckily for Moseley, the Auburn backfield features two studs in sophomore Michael Dyer and senior Onterio McCalebb. Dyer is the workhorse, with 147 carries, compared to McCalebb’s 66. He’s averaged 5.1 yards per carry with 752 yards this season. He’s also the main weapon on the goal line, resulting in eight rushing touchdowns this year. McCalebb, Auburns change of pace back, is a speedster with sub 4.4 speed. Even though he hasn’t been able to show off his speed much this season, with just a 5.4 yard average and a long rush of 19 yards, he’s been a dangerous weapon in the passing game, with 19 receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown. Another thing to watch, is how true freshman quarterback Kiehl Frazier is used in the running game. Frazier is Auburns third leading rusher with 34 carries for 176 yards and a touchdown this season.
Due to the shaky play at quarterback, the receiving corps has suffered statistically. However, there are still several players worth mentioning. The junior Emory Blake is the standout among the wide receivers, he is tied with McCalebb for the team lead in receptions with 19 for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Fellow junior Travante Stallworth leads the Tigers with an 18.5 yard per reception average. Despite the fact that he’s only recorded 11 catches this season, he has 204 yards and a score. Freshman Travon Reed can be a playmaker, with 13 catches for 91 yards this season. However, he is 50-50 for the game Saturday with a shoulder injury. The Tigers also have one of the SEC’s best tight ends in Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Lutzenkirchen is an exceptional blocker and despite only having 11 receptions this season, the junior has 108 yards and three scores.
On defense, the Tigers have been below average all around. The Auburn defense ranks 62nd in the nation against the pass allowing opponents 222 yards per game and 87th against the run yielding 182 yards per game.
For the other Tigers, the Louisiana ones, a 7-0 record and #1 ranking has come from a strong running game and one of the nation’s most dominating defenses. The play at the quarterback position has been hot and cold. The last three weeks it has also become more confusing with senior Jordan Jefferson returning from suspension. Jefferson, who was suspended the first four weeks of the season for his involvement in a bar fight, has made public his desire to be LSU’s starting quarterback again. The starting quarterback right now however, is fellow senior Jarrett Lee. Lee came into the season with concerns about his accuracy and worries about turning the ball over. While he’s still hot and cold with a 62% completion rate, he has answered the doubters with an 11-1 touchdown to interception ratio.
At running back, the Tigers will have to fill a huge hole left by the suspension of Spencer Ware. Ware a sophomore, leads the Tigers with 128 carries for 512 yards and six touchdowns. The Tigers will likely turn to running back by committee, using three players to fill in for Ware in sophomores Michael Ford and Alfred Blue as well as quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Ford, has carried the ball 67 times this season, and leads the Tigers running backs with 5.4 yards per carry, racking up 359 yards and six touchdowns. Blue, a 215 pound Bruiser, only averages 4.5 yards per attempt but has 235 yards and four touchdowns. Jefferson will certainly be used in key situations as well, in the last three weeks, Jefferson has carried the ball 22 times for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
The Tigers receiving unit is highlighted by two players, junior Rueben Randle and freshman Odell Beckham. Randle is the leader, with 28 receptions for 532 yards and five touchdowns. Beckham, has taken the SEC by surprise, hauling in 24 passes for 292 yards and two scores. The Tigers also have a more than capable tight end in senior Deangelo Peterson. Like Auburns Lutzenkirchen, Peterson has only caught 11 passes this season, he’s made the most of his chances though with 125 yards and a touchdown.
Where the Tigers really shine though is on defense. The LSU defense ranks in the top-20 of all four of the major statistical categories. Against the run, the LSU front has been devastating. The Tigers rank sixth in the nation, allowing just 75 yards per game. While they don’t hold opponents to such low numbers through the air, the Tigers still rank 15th against the pass with just 177 yards allowed. But it’s not enough to just limit your opponents yards, you have to stop them from scoring. Not many teams can do it better then LSU, who ranks seventh in the nation in scoring defense allowing just 11.7 points per game.
My prediction, the Tigers will have trouble figuring out Moseley early on passing downs, but will be able to stop the Auburn offense on the ground. The loss of the “Honey Badger” will hurt the LSU Tigers on the back end, but their secondary may be the most talented in the nation. The Auburn offense will try to put the game on the legs of Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, which won’t work against this front seven. Look for LSU to control the time of possession and absolutely own the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. I’m not predicting a blowout win like LSU’s last four games have been, however I am predicting a convincing LSU win. With Ware out I expect the Tigers to struggle a bit in the redzone, resulting in more FG attempts then the Mad Hatter would like. I like LSU in this one, 33-17.
#6 Wisconsin at #16 Michigan State: 8:00 p.m.
This should be the game of the weekend, Russell Wilson leads the #6 Badgers into East Lansing to face the #16 Spartans. Wilson against Cousins, Ball and White against Baker and Bell, the #3 scoring defense against the #4. But will it live up to the hype….
For the Badgers, Heisman hopeful Russell Wilson has been everything the Wisconsin faithful hoped for. He leads the nation in quarterback rating with a 210.9 and has the fifth highest completion rate of all quarterbacks at 74.2%. His 1,557 passing yards and 14 passing touchdowns lead the Big Ten, and his one interception is tied for the lowest mark in the country for quarterbacks with 80 or more passing attempts. He’s also utilized his mobility, resulting in just five sacks this season, as well as 182 yards rushing and two td runs. He even caught a 25 yard td pass last week.
The Badger backfield is equally as talented, with the two headed monster of Montee Ball and James White. Ball, a junior, is the “starter” with 107 carries compared to White’s 69. Ball is second in the Big Ten with 653 rushing yards and leads the conference by a huge margin in touchdowns with 16. White, a sophomore, has added 416 yards and four scores. While Ball and White are certainly the featured weapons in the backfield, the Badgers also have a freshman who has been turning heads. Jeffrey Lewis, has provided great depth for the Badgers, contributing 160 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries to the Wisconsin ground game.
At receiver, the arrival of Russell Wilson has allowed several players to stand out. Senior Nick Toon has been the star 25 catches for 447 yards and six touchdowns. Although Toon missed the Badgers game against Indiana last week, he appears good-to-go for Saturday night’s contest. Opposite Toon, is sophomore Jared Abbrederis. The 6’2 receiver from Wautoma, WI has been solid for the Badgers, already surpassing his 2010 numbers with 24 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns this season. At tight end, the Badgers have the Big Ten’s best in Jacob Pedersen. Pedersen, a 6’4 sophomore, leads all tight ends in the conference with 239 yards and five touchdowns on 17 receptions.
On defense, the Badgers have struggled against the run, allowing 123 yards per game. Against the pass though, the Wisconsin secondary has been exceptional, ranking fourth in the nation, and yielding just 145 yards per game. The Badgers have also been stellar in the redzone, allowing opponents just 9.7 points per game, good enough for third in the nation.
On the other side of the field is a team that is every bit the Badgers equal in the Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans are led by their own senior signal caller in Kirk Cousins. Cousins has been very good this season, completing 66% of his passes for 1,317 yards and eight touchdowns. His play has even gotten the attention of NFL scouts, who now rate him as a potential first round pick in April’s draft.
Much like the Badgers, the Spartans talent doesn’t stop at quarterback. They also feature a star powered backfield, with the duo of Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell. Baker, a junior, leads the Spartans with 88 carries for 419 yards. His success hasn’t resulted in scores though, with just two rushing touchdowns this season. The sophomore Bell, has been equally impressive, carrying the ball 59 times for 287 yards. Bell, a 6’2 237 pound monster, has been the primary goal line back, and he’s capitalized with six rushing touchdowns this season.
The Spartans also feature a trio of capable senior receivers, as well as one of the conferences better tight ends. The star of the unit is B.J. Cunningham. The 6’2 Westerville, OH native is second in the Big Ten in receptions with 42 and yards 621. Cunningham has also added two scores this season. Keshawn Martin has 20 less receptions then Cunningham, however has been productive with 208 yards and a pair of scores. Keith Nichol has tallied just 11 receptions, but is averaging 14.4 yards per catch. Tight end Dion Sims, may not be near the top of the conference in receptions with just 10, or yards with 87, but he’s tied for third among Big Ten tight ends with three touchdown catches.
On defense, the Spartans unit can be summed up in one word…..elite. The Spartans defense is the only defensive unit in the nation that ranks in the top four in every major category. Against the run, the Spartans place third, allowing just 67 yards per game. The Spartans fall just behind the Badgers in scoring defense ranking fourth in the nation at 10.8 points per game. Against the pass, nobody does it better, with Michigan State leading the country at just 119 yards per game given up. All together, the Spartans rank as the second best defense in the nation, falling fractions behind Alabama’s 3.2 yards per play, with a 3.3 yard per play average.
My prediction, this game will not disappoint. It’s being billed as the game of the week and it will live up to the hype. If you like tough, physical football that is low scoring and full of big hits you will definitely want to tune in. Against each other’s defenses, both offenses will struggle to maintain consistency. In a game like this, home field advantage could be critical, which is why I’m giving the win (and the slight upset) to the Spartans 23-20.
Here’s a couple more picks just because!
Cincinnati at South Florida: Give me the Bearcats and their 18th ranked rushing offense against the Bulls 42nd ranked rushing defense, 31-27.
#22 Georgia Tech at Miami: We have the second best rushing game in Georgia Tech’s triple option against the 94th best rushing defense in Miami. Give me Georgia Tech, 34-20.
USC at Notre Dame: In what should be a back and forth affair with two teams that can’t stop the pass I’ll take USC in a shootout, 41-38. Also another reason to watch, will be the wide receiver play, as two of the best are on display in the Trojans’ Robert Woods and Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd.
#25 Washington at #8 Stanford: Give me the home team Cardinal to get it done, and for Andrew Luck to have a performance that leapfrogs him over Trent Richardson in my Heisman list…44-31.
Check back next Friday for another in depth look at the three games that intrigue me the most!