BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 2 TEXAS (11-0) VS. COLORADO (7-4)
Reliant Stadium, Houston
1 p.m. EST, ABC
AFTER WATCHING the Longhorns escape from Kyle Field with a 40-29 win over Texas A&M last Friday, you wonder if USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin might install some option in the Trojans' game plan. Texas, which with USC forms the expected matchup for the national championship in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, allowed 277 rushing yards by the Aggies, including 108 by option specialist Stephen McGee, a redshirt freshman quarterback who was making his first start.
McGee outplayed his Longhorns counterpart, Vince Young, who mustered only 162 passing yards and 19 rushing against the nation's 109th-ranked defense. None of this should provide encouragement or succor for Colorado, which has already been waxed by Texas this season, 42-17. Despite getting trounced 30-3 by Nebraska last Friday, the Buffs backed into the title game when Kansas upset Iowa State in overtime the next day.
For whatever reason the Big 12 championship game has been a friendly venue for underdogs, who have won four times in nine years. Colorado kept Texas out of the national championship game four years ago with a 39-37 win in the conference showdown--this after being thumped by the Longhorns in the regular season.
Here's why that won't happen again this year: The close call with A&M got the Texas players' attention; coach Mack Brown described it as the best thing that could've happened to his team. Look for Young, who with his play last Friday may have lost the Heisman to USC's Reggie Bush, to be focused and angry while getting a boost from a ground game led by Ramonce Taylor (above). Oh, and Colorado doesn't run much option.
THE PICK: TEXAS, 52-17
L.A. CITY CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 1 USC (11-0) VS. No. 11 UCLA (9-1)
The Coliseum, Los Angeles
4:30 p.m. EST, ABC
LAST YEAR running back Reggie Bush piled up 204 yards and scored two touchdowns on 15 carries against UCLA. If then offensive coordinator Norm Chow had given Bush more carries--Chow seemed intent on having quarterback Matt Leinart throw into the teeth of the Bruins' two-deep zone during the Trojans' 29-24 victory--Bush (below) might have run for 400 yards. Well, he may do that this Saturday. Though UCLA is having its finest season since 1998 and could secure an at-large BCS bid by springing an upset, the Bruins rank 114th in the nation against the run.
Having watched Fresno State score six touchdowns during a 50-42 loss to USC on Nov. 19, quarterback Drew Olson, tailback Maurice Drew and the rest of the UCLA offense, which averages 40 points per game, must be wondering, Why can't we be the team to snap the Trojans' 33-game winning streak?
Several reasons: 1) Coming off a bye week, USC will be rested and healthy--particularly at linebacker, where a rash of injuries forced freshmen Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing into significant playing time. What's frightening is that the two have performed exceptionally well. 2) Converted safety Josh Pinkard has shored up the left cornerback position, which opposing quarterbacks picked on during the first half of the season. 3) After an uncharacteristically stagnant month the energy and frenetic tempo have returned to USC practices. 4) The Trojans are a victory away from playing for a third consecutive national championship, and only two schools have won or shared three straight titles.
THE PICK: USC, 45-28
No. 5 VIRGINIA TECH (10-1) VS. FLORIDA STATE (7-4)
AllTel Stadium, Jacksonville
8 p.m. EST, ABC
IF COLORADO backed into its conference championship game, then Florida State fell down an elevator shaft to get into the inaugural ACC title game against Virginia Tech. The Seminoles finished the regular season with consecutive defeats to North Carolina State, Clemson and Florida, losing by a combined score of 89-36. Partly because of injuries on the line, the Florida State offense collapsed in November, as redshirt freshman Drew Weatherford threw seven interceptions during the three-game skid.
But this won't be the blowout many expect. A flashy performance by running back Cedric Humes (right)--134 rushing yards and two touchdowns--in the Hokies' 30-3 victory over North Carolina last Saturday night obscured the fact that quarterback Marcus Vick (8 of 15 passing for 61 yards, with a touchdown and an interception) still hasn't regained his confidence since committing six turnovers in an ugly 27-7 home loss to Miami on Nov. 5. Against the Tar Heels, Virginia Tech struggled to take a 6-3 lead at the half, but after intermission the Hokies' ground game was so dominant that Vick threw just twice. Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews will load up against the run and force Vick to beat the Seminoles with his arm.
It won't work: While this is a proud team that isn't as bad as it has looked lately, Florida State hasn't stopped anyone for a month. Given another chance to win its second straight ACC championship after Miami was upset by Georgia Tech on Nov. 19, the Hokies won't let this opportunity slip away.
THE PICK: VIRGINIA TECH, 27-14
No. 3 LSU (10-1) VS. No. 13 GEORGIA (9-2)
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
8 p.m. EST, CBS
YES, GEORGIA looked dominant in nailing down its third SEC East title in four years with a 45-13 win over Kentucky on Nov. 19. But who doesn't look good against the Wildcats? Don't forget that losses to Florida and Auburn in their two previous games kept the Bulldogs from clinching the division earlier.
LSU, on the other hand, suffered its only defeat of the season on Sept. 26--in overtime to Tennessee--in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In addition to being the most talented team in the SEC, the Bayou Bengals have shown the most improvement on defense. As the season has progressed, the Tigers have become more comfortable with first-year defensive coordinator Bo Pelini's schemes and terminology. When sophomore quarterback JaMarcus Russell had an off day in LSU's 19-17 win over Arkansas last Friday, the defense bailed him out with timely plays. Key among them: a late sack by tackle Melvin Oliver (above) and a last-minute, goal line interception by free safety LaRon Landry.
In his first season as a starter Georgia senior quarterback D.J. Shockley threw 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. It helped that coach Mark Richt took pressure off Shockley by running the ball more than in any of Richt's previous four seasons. The Bulldogs averaged 167.8 yards rushing a game. Oliver & Co., however, will hold Georgia to considerably less than that. Play-action passes won't work either. Forced to beat one of the nation's toughest defenses with his arm, Shockley will come up short.
THE PICK: LSU, 24-17
PETER READ MILLER (BUSH)
LEE COLEMAN/WIREIMAGE.COM (HUMES)
BILL FEIG/AP (OLIVER)