Originally Published: December 5, 2013

Season of surprises culminates on Saturday


Two teams that went a combined 2-14 in conference play last year will meet to decide the SEC championship Saturday. And neither Auburn nor Missouri is the most surprising participant on Championship Saturday.

That honor goes to Duke. The Blue Devils' winningest season in history resulted in their first trip to the ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C.

Duke has been one of the best stories in the sport. David Cutcliffe has done an exemplary job building the program. In my judgment, he should be the national coach of the year. Not only did he tell me in the preseason he'd be disappointed if all his team did was compete for a bowl game, he also turned around an 0-2 start and won his last six ACC games.

The Devils have had exemplary senior leadership. Despite being placed in tight games time after time -- culminating in a fourth-quarter deficit to archrival North Carolina with the ACC Coastal Division on the line in the regular-season finale -- Duke never succumbed to the "that's why you're Duke" moment. Cutcliffe has instilled the mental toughness of a champion in his team.

What he can't compile in one week are the horses to match up with No. 1-ranked Florida State. The Seminoles simply have the Devils outmanned. Florida State has won every game this season by at least two touchdowns. The average margin of victory is 42.7 points per game. That is the highest margin since Army won its games by a record 52 PPG in 1944.

Seven Noles were named first-team All-ACC this week, but you know who has the second-most All-ACC players? Duke, with four. Three of those are on defense: Ross Cockrell, Jeremy Cash and Kelby Brown. Those guys will have to deal with the multitude of weapons at quarterback Jameis Winston's disposal. According to ESPN's efficiency rankings, the Seminoles have the highest-rated offense and defense in the country. You simply can't play much better than the Noles have.

The one place Duke could possibly have an advantage is if the game is tight in the fourth quarter. As 12 foes have found out, it's nearly impossible to get the Noles in that situation, but if Duke can do it, a sensational season could turn into a miraculous one.

Two breeds of Tigers clash in Atlanta's Georgia Dome for the SEC title, and potentially a spot in the Vizio BCS National Championship. Auburn and Missouri have had remarkable bounce-back seasons.

Auburn has captivated the nation with miraculous finishes against Georgia and Alabama. Chris Davis' 100-plus-yard return of a missed field goal to beat Alabama as time expired will be a play fans will relive forever. The challenge now for Gus Malzahn is to get his team to forget it. The Auburn coach said Sunday night on "BCS Countdown" that it would be one of the biggest issues his team faces while preparing for Missouri.

The sheer emotion of that moment can be draining. With a bye week before the Iron Bowl, Auburn had a week to get over the Georgia thriller, but there is no time to extend the celebration this time.

Missouri doesn't have the signature win that Auburn has, but Gary Pinkel's team remains undefeated when starting quarterback James Franklin plays.

Here are a few of things to watch.

Missouri's defense, led by tackle-for-loss machines Michael Sam, Markus Golden and Kony Ealy, hasn't allowed 200 yards rushing in a game all season. Auburn has 200 yards on the ground by the time it gets off the bus.

Nick Marshall averages 9.4 yards per rush when he keeps it on the zone-read. The quarterback run on the zone-read has vexed Pinkel's defense, allowing more than 6 yards per carry. That's an advantage for Auburn.

Mizzou leads the SEC in sacks. Auburn is one of 26 teams that hasn't allowed three sacks in a game. One reason is that Auburn really doesn't employ a lot of dropback passing. Whether Missouri's defensive line can transform from pass-rushing monsters into run-stoppers will go a long way toward revealing whose magical season will continue.

When Mizzou has the ball, the black and gold Tigers roll out some tall receivers. Alabama didn't exploit its advantage against Auburn's secondary often enough. Missouri won't make that mistake. Big-play receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington have 10 touchdowns apiece. Auburn needs to limit explosive plays from those guys.

For those waiting on Ohio State and Michigan State to finally be tested, you'll get your wish in the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes are feeling the hot breath of the SEC on their necks again. It appears that Urban Meyer's team simply needs to win to make it to the national title game. But you never know how voters will react if the SEC championship game is a thriller and Ohio State doesn't look impressive. It's not really reasonable that the Buckeyes should be held to a higher standard than just winning the game against a team the caliber of Michigan State, but that's the price both teams are paying for the Big Ten's relative mediocrity.

These two teams are legit. OSU quarterback Braxton Miller is worthy of consideration on Heisman ballots. Michigan State has guys who would be worthy of any defensive award you can imagine. Ohio State leads the nation averaging 7.1 yards per rush. Michigan State leads the nation in stopping the run. Specifically, the Spartans haven't allowed a run of longer than 12 yards by an opposing quarterback. Then again, they haven't seen Miller yet.

As good as Michigan State's defense and Ohio State's offense have been, the other side of the ball might turn out to be the story.

The Buckeyes defense has underperformed, and the Spartans offense has been inconsistent, to put it kindly. Even with its defense, Michigan State can't really expect to win without scoring in the 20s.

Ohio State is likely to try to take away Jeremy Langford on the ground. Quarterback Connor Cook might not be a Heisman candidate like Miller, but making a few plays down the field will be of the utmost importance if Sparty is going to bounce Brutus and go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1987 season.

The Pac-12 title game has no national championship implications. But the Stanford-Arizona State game could be as entertaining as any of the title games.

Stanford bullied the Sun Devils in the regular season. Arizona State fell behind 39-7 before putting up some window-dressing scores late to make the final 42-28. Those points left Stanford with an unsatisfying taste in the aftermath of a convincing win.

Taylor Kelly has been brilliant since that loss, but the Sun Devils will be without leading rusher Marion Grice as they try to make it to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1996 season. It feels as if the Sun Devils are the hot team. But it's hard to get that regular-season spanking out of your mind.

The Bedlam game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is taking an undercard role, but what if the unexpected happens and both Florida State and Ohio State lose? One-loss Oklahoma State would deserve to be considered for a spot in the title game if it beats its in-state rival. Sure, the rivalry with the Sooners, the Big 12 title and a spot in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is enough motivation. But if this Championship Saturday shows us anything, it's that the distance from off the radar to middle of the stage is much shorter than we could've imagined.

Rece Davis

College Basketball and Football studio host; SportsCenter anchor/reporter
Rece Davis joined ESPN in March 1995 and currently serves as studio host for college football and college basketball, including his duties as host of the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship and the college basketball version of College GameDay.

Five things to watch in Week 15

By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Five things we'll be watching in college football Saturday:

1. Can Ohio State's offense move the ball against Michigan State's stout defense?

The No. 2 Buckeyes have won 24 games in a row after wrapping up their second consecutive undefeated regular season with last week's 42-41 victory over Michigan. If OSU can defeat No. 10 Michigan State in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, it probably will earn a spot in the last Vizio BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6.

OSU's offense has to find a way to move the ball against MSU's defense, which has been as good as any unit in the country. The Spartans rank No. 1 among FBS teams in total defense (237.7 yards per game) and run defense (64.8 YPG) and they're No. 4 in scoring defense (11.8 points per game). In fact, MSU has allowed six points or fewer in five of its past six games.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde have been a potent one-two punch when running the ball. The Buckeyes lead the country in yards per rushing attempt (7.05) and they're No. 2 in rushing offense (321.3 YPG). But Miller has passed for more than 200 yards in only four of 10 games in which he played and hasn't thrown for more than 160 yards in any of the past three contests, when OSU relied heavily on its running game. Can Miller throw it effectively if MSU slows down the running game?

"It's a little bit of a concern, especially when you see who's coming," said coach Urban Meyer, who still hasn't lost a game as OSU's coach.

2. Which defense will make enough stops to win the SEC championship game?

No. 3 Auburn might still be in the BCS championship mix if Michigan State beats Ohio State or Duke upsets No. 1 Florida State in the ACC championship game. But the Tigers will have to find a way to slow down No. 5 Missouri's balanced offense in Saturday's SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Missouri is averaging 252.6 passing yards and 236.9 rushing yards per game, while scoring 38.8 points per game. Quarterback James Franklin has played well since returning from a shoulder injury, throwing for 233 yards with two touchdowns and running for 80 yards in last week's 28-21 win over Texas A&M. Auburn's pass defense ranks next-to-last in the SEC (255.7 YPG) and its secondary will be tested by Missouri's trio of big receivers. L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas are all 6-foot-4 or taller and each has 44 receptions or more this season.

The SEC championship game figures to be a shootout, especially if Missouri's defense doesn't slow down Auburn's potent running game. Auburn is No. 5 in the country in rushing offense (318.25 YPG) but Missouri is No. 2 in the SEC in run defense, allowing only 119.1 rushing yards per game.

3. Does No. 20 Duke have any chance against Florida State?

Las Vegas oddsmakers certainly don't think so, as they pegged the Blue Devils as 28.5-point underdogs against FSU in Saturday night's ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C. FSU has never lost to Duke in 18 previous meetings, scoring 40 points or more in all but two of the contests. FSU has outscored Duke 901-279 in their previous meetings, averaging slightly more than 50 points per game, while Duke averaged 15.5. None of the previous meetings were decided by fewer than 19 points.

Then again, Duke has never been this good. Coach David Cutcliffe has produced one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, guiding the Blue Devils to their first 10-win season and back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Duke has won eight games in a row and won the ACC Coastal Division after being picked to finish last in the division in the preseason.

4. Will No. 17 Oklahoma spoil No. 6 Oklahoma State's BCS dreams?

The Sooners have defeated the Cowboys in nine of the previous 10 seasons, so they don't like being called "spoilers" in the Bedlam series. But if OU upsets the Pokes in Stillwater, Okla., the winner of Saturday's game between No. 9 Baylor and No. 25 Texas in Waco, Texas, would win a Big 12 championship and automatic BCS berth to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl that comes with it. Oklahoma State would go to the Fiesta Bowl if it beats Oklahoma because it already has defeated Baylor and UT.

"We're OU and they're OSU, so I wouldn't call it a spoiler role," Sooners safety Gabe Lynn said. "They're a good team and they're having a great season. We always want to win that game. They're just another good team we have to beat."

The Bears and Longhorns should know the outcome of Oklahoma State's game before they kick off Saturday. The winner earns at least a share of the Big 12 championship, but wouldn't go to the Fiesta Bowl unless OSU loses.

"What we told the guys is if you win the game on Saturday, you will be champs," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "The game before us is something that's out of our control. Let's worry about how we play."

5. What did Arizona State learn in its regular-season loss to Stanford?

The No. 11 Sun Devils will host the No. 7 Cardinal in Saturday night's Pac-12 championship game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. Stanford beat Arizona State rather easily in their Pac-12 opener, taking a 29-0 lead at the half and 39-7 advantage after three quarters, before holding on for a 42-28 victory.

But the Sun Devils have won seven consecutive games and they're 7-0 at home this season. The Sun Devils will likely be without leading scorer and rusher Marion Grice for the second consecutive week because of a leg injury. ASU had only 50 rushing yards in the regular-season meeting, and quarterback Taylor Kelly passed for 367 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.


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