Championships pit unlikely teams in title games

Updated: November 30, 2006, 10:03 AM ET
By Jim Donnan |

As impressive as USC's 44-24 victory over Notre Dame was, Saturday's game (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET) might be an even bigger challenge for the Trojans. USC will be going up against a rested UCLA team that has a lot of burrs under its saddle. USC has dominated this series, winning the last seven games. The Trojans have already wrapped up an unprecedented fifth consecutive Pac-10 title and a berth to the Rose Bowl, but can make a third consecutive trip to the national championship game with a win against UCLA.

AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
Pete Carroll's Trojans are one win away from the national title game.
The game is hardly a given, however. As Georgia and Texas A&M demonstrated in defeating ranked Georgia Tech and Texas, respectively, teams that have been on the losing end of a rivalry series can rise up. As long as USC quarterback John David Booty continues to play at the level he has been playing at, it is going to be hard for anyone to stop the Trojans. USC's defense is beginning to look like the type of unit we've come to expect from Pete Carroll's teams. The defense is pressuring people and creating turnovers and could cause problems for UCLA.

One of the biggest questions is who will start under center for the Bruins. Ben Olson led UCLA to a 4-1 start before tearing a ligament in his knee Oct. 7 against Arizona. Sophomore Patrick Cowan has started in his stead, compiling a 2-4 record and completing 53.9 percent of his passes (9 touchdowns, 7 interceptions). Coach Karl Dorrell has yet to announce a starter for Saturday's game, but whoever starts will get little help from the Bruins' running game. Running back Chris Markey has racked up 912 yards on 188 carries, but has rushed for more than 100 yards in just three games (versus Rice, Washington and Cal). The Bruins will have to contend with an improved USC defense that did a good job of containing Notre Dame's high-powered attack.

UCLA does a good job of stopping the run, but should be overmatched in this game. As Oregon State proved, the best way to beat the Trojans is to let them beat themselves. Although there is a lot on the line for USC, games against lesser opponents are often more difficult because it's easy to look past the other team. Carroll does a good job of getting his team to focus on the task at hand, which could spell trouble for the Bruins.

Wake GT
ACC: No. 16 Wake Forest vs.
No. 23 Georgia Tech

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ABC

This is a game no one could have predicted before the season. Both teams have won with good defense and by protecting the ball on offense. Wake Forest is sixth in the nation in turnover margin; Georgia Tech is 24th. Both teams are in the top 25 in scoring defense as well. Teams that keep opponents to under 20 points a game have a chance to win a lot of games.

The big question for both teams is whether their quarterbacks can step up against very good run defenses. Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball has had a good year, but his performance in Saturday's loss to Georgia (6-of-22 passes for 42 yards and 2 interceptions) certainly sticks out. Ball was able to get the ball to star wide receiver Calvin Johnson just twice. The Yellow Jackets' running game has been impressive, with Tashard Choice tallying 10 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards on 249 carries so far this season. Georgia Tech cannot afford to be one-dimensional against Wake Forest, however. The Demon Deacons will exploit any weaknesses in the Georgia Tech offense.

Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner hasn't been asked to throw with a lot of regularity, but Georgia Tech's defense will force that. In all but three of their 12 games, the Yellow Jackets have held their opponents to under 100 yards rushing. Georgia Tech lost two of those three games (Notre Dame, Clemson). This should be a tight matchup pitting two running offenses against two solid run defenses. I give the edge to Georgia Tech because of Johnson's playmaking abilities.

Arkansas Florida

SEC: No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 4 Florida
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, CBS

Arkansas running back Darren McFadden is playing as well as anyone in America -- but for Arkansas to win, he'll need help from quarterback Casey Dick. Dick hasn't been asked to do much but manage games, but Florida's stout defense will force him to hit some passes. The Gators' front seven is similar in strength to LSU's. Florida's offense is starting to make big plays, including three touchdowns against rival Florida State on Saturday. Florida won't consistently lose the ball, but it doesn't have a real running game, either. Coach Urban Meyer is now 6-0 against Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State in his first two years in Gainesville. That's an amazing accomplishment -- particularly because of the way he did it, by relying on his defense and not the explosive offense he had at Utah.

This game will feature a great collection of athletic, speedy players. I give the edge to Florida, as Chris Leak has the advantage at quarterback, but McFadden is such an X factor in every phase of the game -- from kick returns to running to throwing. Momentum-wise, Arkansas' loss at home to LSU hurt. Florida enters the contest knowing that a win (and a USC loss) would give it a greater chance to reach the national championship game.

Nebraska OU

Big 12: No. 19 Nebraska vs.
No. 8 Oklahoma

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

This matchup brings you back to the old days, when Nebraska and Oklahoma would meet annually to decide the Big 8 Championship. Both coaches have done remarkable jobs with their teams. Bill Callahan has successfully placed Nebraska back on the college football map. OU coach Bob Stoops' tribulations are well-chronicled, from having to dismiss starting quarterback Rhett Bomar to losing Heisman hopeful Adrian Peterson to season-ending injury. I talked to Stoops on Tuesday, and he said that although losing Peterson was big, his offensive line has been so good, it has allowed the other backs to make plays. Oklahoma seems to have the Denver Broncos' ability to plug in any player and find success. Credit offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson with adapting the offense to fit quarterback Paul Thompson's strengths and modifying the attack to suit his players' strengths.

The key to the game will be Oklahoma's stout defense. Facing a team with the offensive capabilities of Nebraska -- which can be explosive when quarterback Zac Taylor gets enough protection -- the Sooners' defense will be relied upon to keep Nebraska off the scoreboard. This game won't be a shootout; I expect a hard, physical game similar to the Huskers' game against Texas. I give the edge to the Sooners because of their defense. They're playing at a level that other teams cannot handle.

Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.

Rutgers Saturday's Big East showdown between Rutgers and West Virginia (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) has lost some of its interest, but it should still be a great game. West Virginia must be sick about its two losses. You have to give credit to Louisville and South Florida, who deserved the wins, but when you turn the ball over nine times, it's hard to win against anyone.

WVU Going into this game, it will be important for the Mountaineers to regain their confidence, particularly on offense. I'm sure running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White will bounce back, but it won't be easy against Rutgers' aggressive defense. The Scarlet Knights have speed on defense and are capable of keeping up with West Virginia's offense. The key for the Mountaineers will be to stop running backs Ray Rice and Brian Leonard and force quarterback Mike Teel to beat them. Teel bounced back after completing just 50 percent of his passes and tossing four interceptions in Rutgers' lone loss of the season to Cincinnati. Against Syracuse, Teel completed 10 of 15 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns.

The key for Rutgers will be protecting the ball. Leonard does a good job, but has a tendency to turn the ball over. The Scarlet Knights must protect the ball in big games. They've proven that they're not a fluke and beating No. 15 West Virginia on the road would go a long way toward solidifying their national profile. Although this game isn't a conference championship, it should have that type of atmosphere. I give the edge to the Mountaineers -- it's unlikely they'll play poorly enough to lose two in a row, and as evidenced by the fact that there are just two undefeated teams left, it's not easy to win them all.

Coach spotlight: Pete Carroll
There are elements of the passing game that supplement the total passing game, allowing teams to vary the quarterback's launch points, which makes it easier to move the chains. There are several ways to do that:

1. Use of screens, draws and delays to control the pass-rush. My teams always worked 10 minutes a day offense versus defense -- the offense learned how to execute these plays in pressure situations, while the defense worked on recognition of the plays and stopping them. These plays not only help protect the quarterback, but also keep the offense out of long-yardage situations. They are relatively safe plays you can utilize when you're backed up or in long-yardage situations and need a first down.

2. The quick passing game. Most teams utilize the three-step drop because it can negate overpowering pass-rushers, as most defenders don't like when you attack their legs. Two examples are quick protection, in which the QB launches the ball without a fake, and smoke protection, which uses a fake and a quick throw to the player running the slant or a quick pop to the tight end.

3. Basic drop-back protection. Teams utilize different kinds of drop-back protection, from the base protection "big on big" (or man-to-man) to slide protection, which is more of a zone (protection is turned toward the rush). In scat protection, the quarterback throws hot off the backers if the defense blitzes. In max protection, everybody is kept in, including the tight ends and backs, and the receivers run "man-beater" routes (post, flags, crossing routes).

4. Running the play-action. Play-action is how you make the big plays; it's most effective when you utilize a fake off of your best runs because it freezes the linebackers. There are two main types of misdirection play-action passes: the bootleg (in which the quarterback fakes, pulling the guard to one side) and the naked bootleg (which fakes the entire defense and allows the QB to go out on his own). I've found that the most effective play-action is Rambo protection, in which the offense fakes its best run, but instead of the linemen using pass protection techniques, they run-block all the way. The quarterback gets a deeper pocket and throws the deep pass (with a short crossing route as a check down). Rambo protection is similar to a naked bootleg, but instead of trying to outflank the defense, the quarterback drops straight back.

All of these elements reflect a total passing game. There is an old adage my high school coach told me, and it has stuck with me ever since: Even if you have a tremendous running team and are very physical, you've got to be able to "throw something good." Teams must be able to count on some type of pass play, even if they're not a passing team.

In the last 10 years, man/zone reads have evolved tremendously in college football. When teams line up, the defense shows one scheme and after the snap, it goes to something else. Offensive plays have evolved as well, and quarterbacks and receivers have the option to break off routes against the zone, or continue running against man-to-man. It forces quarterbacks and receivers to be on the same page. This trend has been passed down from the pros and is becoming a big part of college football.

Podcast Jim Donnan and Michael Kim break down all the week's top matchups every Friday on ESPNU's College Football Insider. PodCenter

Jim Donnan

College Football
Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.