As the college football season nears the home stretch, true BCS title contenders are starting to emerge. But at the same time, eight teams remain without a loss in major college football, and the possibility exists that we might have more than two undefeated programs at season's end.
So which players hold the keys to these programs' chances of actually claiming a BCS title? Which players can't afford to stumble if their teams hope to remain in the championship conversation?
Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman break down the keys to the unbeatens in this week's Read-Option:
Zac Ellis: Right now college football features eight unbeaten teams, which seems like a fitting scenario for the final year of the much-maligned BCS. We know Miami or Florida State will lose this weekend, but there still stands a chance that more than two of these teams will finish the season undefeated. Obviously there are key players on each roster that must perform well down the stretch for this to happen. Who do you see as the most important player on each roster for that program's BCS title hopes? Let's start with everybody's favorite dynasty, No. 1 Alabama.
Martin Rickman: For Alabama, it's easy to look on the offensive side of the ball with a guy like AJ McCarron or TJ Yeldon, but we know what we're going to get from them. If the Tide are going to make it through the rest of the year unbeaten, they need the defense to keep humming. With the loss of Vinnie Sunseri, it's even more important that HaHa Clinton-Dix play at a high level after returning from his suspension. He's the center of that unit, and it's critical he keep the rest of that talented bunch together for the stretch run.
ZE: I'm inclined to agree. Clinton-Dix is right up there, and I'd add C.J. Mosley to that list. Mosley's sort of the heart of that defense in the middle, and the defense is where Alabama is going to have to succeed against LSU in particular later in the year. I tend to have the same feeling about Ohio State. Bradley Roby, after he returned from his suspension, has been one of the main pieces for that defense, too. That defense will be key for Ohio State the rest of the year, much like it will be for Alabama.
MR: The issue for Roby is consistency. At times this year he's been torched, and one of these games the offense isn't going to be able to carry the team. It hasn't bit the Buckeyes yet during their lengthy winning streak, but teams have been able to move the ball on OSU a bit more than Urban Meyer would like. With the talent and potential to be a high draft pick, Roby needs to start playing like one. Let's take a look at Florida State, the ACC's lone unbeaten. Who's the most important player there?
ZE: Obviously Jameis Winston can't have much of a drop-off, but I'd say Lamarcus Joyner in the defensive backfield might be just as important. We saw what he could do in a huge game against Clemson, where he basically toyed with Tajh Boyd for much of the night. That 'Noles defense doesn't get as much hype as the offense, but I think it can be just as dominating with a star like Joyner back there.
MR: The thing about that defense is everybody across the field was basically a five-star recruit in high school. If Joyner doesn't have a good game, Jalen Ramsey or Terrence Brooks will. If the secondary struggles, Timmy Jernigan or Mario Edwards will bring it with the rush. For me, the most important player is Winston, and it might be a cop-out to say it. But he hasn't played like a freshman yet. He hasn't had a letdown game. If he continues to play at a high level, I don't know if FSU can lose. He's the most important factor on that team.
ZE: What about Miami? Perhaps this is a cop-out, too, but I think Duke Johnson needs to really break out for the 'Canes to stand any chance of staying unbeaten, especially this weekend against Florida State. Johnson has been a little banged up, but the fact is he hasn't been the game-changer many expected. Heck, I even picked him as a darkhorse Heisman candidate, yet he's only surpassed 100 yards on three occasions this season.
MR: Stephen Morris is the key to that Miami team. The better teams are going to key in on Johnson, and they'll dare the 'Canes to beat them through the air. The past few games in money time, Miami has taken the ball out of Morris's hands and left it to its talented running back. But the 'Canes did this against UNC and Wake Forest, which aren't elite defenses. And in the fourth quarter, those teams wear down. Morris has gamebreaking potential, but he's incredibly inconsistent. Let's go out west. Obviously Marcus Mariota is a big deal for the Ducks, but do you see anyone else needing to step up for Oregon to stay undefeated through the rest of the Pac-12 slate, especially with that Stanford game looming large next Thursday?
ZE: I think Oregon's situation is not unlike Florida State's: The offense gets the headlines, but the defense can deserve just as much praise. Guys like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Avery Patterson have stepped up in big games. much like last weekend against UCLA, where the defense might have been the story of that victory. Those are the guys that could define the final stretch for the Ducks, especially with teams like Oregon State and Arizona still on the slate.
MR: So no love for De'Anthony Thomas, who has been injured thus far this year but could be a shot in the arm for the Ducks as we get through the last few weeks? Thomas had 47 total yards against UCLA last week in his return, but he is still one of the most explosive players in football when he's healthy and has the ball in his hands.
ZE: But we've watched Oregon run through teams all season without Thomas -- not just from Marcus Mariota, but from Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. I just don't think Thomas is the end-all, be-all for the team's success.
MR: So he's a bonus at this point.
ZE: A bonus for a team that frankly doesn't need any more offensive weapons. Speaking of offense, what about Baylor? I'll shine the spotlight on the entire offensive line, since the Bears' attack has been the defining characteristic of their season so far. Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk need that line to keep paving the way for 700 or more yards of offense each game, and so far the big boys up front have being doing a bang-up job.
MR: For me, it's the product of that line. We know Bryce Petty can spread it around to Antwan Goodley, Tevin Reese and others, but Seastrunk is the guy who is going to carry them through these tough games if the Bears are going to win the Big 12. That leaves us with the two non-AQ candidates, Fresno State and NIU. Let's start with the Bulldogs. Who is the most important player there?
ZE: You obviously have to mention both quarterbacks. I'm not sure where Fresno State and NIU would be sitting if not for Derek Carr and Jordan Lynch, respectively. I think for NIU, another serviceable rushing option needs to step up to help out Lynch on the ground. Lynch has 300 more yards than any other rusher on that roster. For Fresno, Davante Adams is kind of the headliner among the receivers and has six more touchdowns than any other wideout. Isaiah Burse or Josh Harper could come on strong and give Carr another strong option on the edge late in the year.
MR: In watching Fresno State's game against Boise State a few weeks back, I was taken aback with how little success the running game was having. Too much was on Carr's shoulders. Once the Bulldogs got into MWC play, things didn't change at all. Against San Diego State, albeit in overtime, Carr threw it 57 times. Even though the league is down a bit due to injury problems, it's just not a bad plan to put so much on your quarterback late in the season. For NIU, it's the play of safety Jimmie Ward. A possible All-America candidate, Ward is leading the NIU defense by a large margin. He's prone to making plays when the Huskies need it most, and the defense needs to be at its best in that two-game stretch against Ball State and Toledo coming up that could make or break NIU's season. ZE: Good choices. I think you could realistically point to areas on both teams' defenses that could define the rest of their seasons, since offense is where those programs have success. But one thing is for sure, the big-time players on all these programs must step up right now if any BCS hopes are to remain alive.