Connor Cook vs. Iowa's secondary and more matchups that could determine the key conference championship games that will impact the College Football Playoff.

By Chris Johnson
December 04, 2015

With the College Football Playoff field set to be revealed Sunday, teams’ postseason fates and conference titles hang in the balance in conference championship games on Saturday. Below is one key matchup to watch in the title games for four of the five Power 5 leagues (the Big 12 doesn’t play one), as well as the American Athletic Conference, whose title game will almost definitely determine which Group of Five team earns a New Year’s Six bowl berth.

AAC: No. 22 Temple at No. 19 Houston
Cougars QB Greg Ward Jr. vs. Temple’s defense

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It’s not surprising the Owls feature one of the nation’s top defenses given that they returned all 11 starters from a unit that ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense last season. Temple leads the American in points allowed per game (18.8) and ranks in the nation’s top 25 in Football Outsiders’ rushing and passing defensive S&P+ statistics. A two-game stretch last month in which the Owls yielded 84 points combined to Southern Methodist and South Florida sounded alarm bells, but Temple rebounded by shutting down Memphis and UConn to clinch a spot in the conference title game.

On Saturday, Temple will face perhaps its toughest individual defensive assignment yet. Ward Jr. is the engine powering an offense that’s averaging 42.0 points per game and ranks 31st in the country in S&P+. The junior quarterback is a savvy playmaker who can extend drives through the air and rip off long gains with his legs. Among AAC players this season, he ranks in the top five in passing and rushing yards and trails only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds, the FBS’s all-time leader in career rushing touchdowns, with 17 scores to Reynolds’s 19.

Setting aside Ward Jr.’s numbers, he possesses a rare ability to not only elude defenders intent on bringing him down in the pocket, but also to maneuver through remarkably tight spaces. In the second quarter of last week’s game against Navy, he dropped back, lurched to his left and then placed his hand on the ground while spinning out of a would-be sack before brushing off a tackler and waltzing into the end zone. Tyler Matakevich and Co. have their work cut out for them.

ACC: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 10 North Carolina
North Carolina’s secondary vs. Clemson’s secondary

This isn’t a matchup in the traditional sense, but this game could well turn on which of these two teams’ secondaries performs better. Yes, expect a lot of points.

The Tigers have short circuited opposing passing attacks by both getting after the quarterback (they rank second nationally in sack percentage) and ensuring the throws quarterbacks do get off are futile (only Michigan has held opposing passers to a lower completion percentage).

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The Tar Heels are more susceptible to being picked apart through the air (they rank 66th in passing S&P+) but do a good job preventing big plays (they rank fourth in passing IsoPPP).

Keep in mind that these numbers were accrued against a range of offenses led by quarterbacks of varying potency. They may not matter if one of the quarterbacks playing Saturday goes off. One, Watson, is a Heisman Trophy candidate who can burn defenses with his arm and on the ground, and the other is a dual-threat dynamo (Williams) who is smashing school records and roasted Duke for more than 400 passing yards in the first half of a 35-point win last month.

Clemson would seem to have the edge, but don’t expect Watson to carve up North Carolina without breaking a sweat. Few assistant hires have yielded larger benefits this season than new North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, and ProFootballFocus wrote this week that the Tar Heels’ secondary grades out as one of the top 10 in the country.

Big Ten: Iowa vs. Michigan State
Michigan State QB Connor Cook vs. Iowa’s secondary

Cook completed 73% of his passes and tossed three touchdowns against zero interceptions in a blowout win over Penn State last week after missing Michigan State’s previous game—a three-point win over Ohio State that put the Spartans in poll position to win the Big Ten East—with a shoulder injury. As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly noted this week, Michigan State is committed to running the ball (it ranks 19th in the country in run rate on standard downs) but hasn’t had much success doing so (it ranks 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per attempt). Don’t expect that to change against Iowa, which checks in at 11th nationally in defensive rushing S&P+.

If the Hawkeyes can slow Michigan State on the ground, the Spartans will have no choice but to turn to Cook, who ranks second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency rating and is tied for first with 24 touchdown passes. The back end of Iowa’s defense is vulnerable (the Hawkeyes rank 56th in the nation in passing S&P+) but it doesn’t give up a lot of big plays (the Hawkeyes rank 12th in passing IsoPPP). It’s up to Cook and Michigan State’s receivers to unhinge the Hawkeyes by hitting on shorter and intermediate throws.

One one-on-one battle to focus on is Spartans wideout Aaron Burbridge against Iowa defensive back Desmond King. King was rated the fifth best corner in the Power 5 conferences by ProFootballFocus last week, and Burbridge leads the Big Ten with 96.5 receiving yards per game.

Pac-12: USC vs. Stanford
USC’s defensive line vs. Stanford’s offensive line

When Stanford beat USC in Los Angeles in September, Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan delivered one of the best games of his career—an 18-of-23, 279-yard, two-touchdown, zero-interception gem—despite battling an ankle injury in the second half. The Trojans are probably toast if Hogan comes even close to replicating that performance, but they can make life more difficult for the senior by holding their own at the line of scrimmage and forcing the Cardinal to convert on passing downs.

Stanford likes to run the ball (it ranks 18th in the country in run rate on standard downs), and it’s particularly effective at picking up short chunks of yards to either move the chains or cross the goal line (it ranks fourth in the country in power success rate). Those gains can be demoralizing for a defense, but they also could compel USC to try to load up to stop Christian McCaffrey, Remound Wright and the rest of the Cardinal’s backs. The problem is USC hasn’t shown it can stop ballcarriers in their tracks at or before they reach the line of scrimmage (it ranks 95th in the country in stuff rate), nor has it demonstrated the capacity to prevent opponents from picking up first downs on the ground (it ranks 52nd nationally in allowing 8.3 rushing first downs per game).

And sorry to pile on here, Trojans fans, but even if USC can stifle Stanford’s rushing attack—and with this guy toting the rock, good luck—Hogan has already proven he can exploit holes in USC’s coverages. One big difference, though, is that USC has a new coach now.

SEC: Alabama vs. Florida
Alabama RB Derrick Henry vs. Florida’s front seven

I debated filling out this section by writing “LOL” and moving on. Kidding … kind of. The Gators are clearly overmatched in this game. They needed overtime to beat Florida Atlantic two weeks ago and got smashed at home by Florida State last week. If Florida wins, it will go down as one of the biggest upsets of the season (the Gators were listed as 18-point underdogs to the Tide on Thursday night). It also would likely lead to the SEC being excluded from the playoff. Does Florida have a chance? Only if it can limit Henry.

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The Heisman front-runner leads the country with 1,797 rushing yards and has registered at least 200 in three of his last four games. The Gators may not be able to bottle up Henry the way the Crimson Tide did another star running back from the SEC earlier this year. But Henry could have to work a little harder Saturday than he has over the past month. Under new coordinator Geoff Collins, Florida has been stingy against the run for most of this season, yielding only 3.30 yards per carry (10th in the country) and ranking fourth in rushing S&P+ and seventh in stuff rate. Still, it’s hard to muster much optimism for the Gators after they allowed Seminoles star Dalvin Cook to ring up 183 yards and two touchdowns on 7.0 yards per carry.

The key for Florida will be to avoid breakdowns that could result in big plays (it ranks 79th in rushing IsoPPP.) If Henry gets free for a few long runs, this game could quickly turn into an exclamation point for his Heisman campaign. If the Gators can contain him, they may be able to keep things interesting into the fourth quarter. That’s probably the best Jim McElwain and his team can hope for Saturday.

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