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December 1, 2008

Monday with Mike: Breaking down the title games

RELATED: Week 14: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 14 Awards

Well, the regular season is all but over, which is a sobering thought. Still, conference title games await, and each of the five has at least a little bit of intrigue.

The SEC title game, of course, has a ton of intrigue. This season marks just the second time that two top-five teams will square off; the other was in 2003, when No. 3 LSU trounced No. 5 Georgia.

This is only the second time in the game's history that a No. 1 team has been involved in the game. The other was 1998, when top-ranked Tennessee eased past Mississippi State.

Here's a look at all five league title games:

Boston College vs. Virginia Tech in Tampa, Saturday, 1 p.m., ABC.

This will be the fourth meeting in two seasons. These teams met in last season's title game, with Virginia Tech prevailing after BC had won in the regular season. BC again won the regular-season matchup this season, 28-23 on Oct. 18 at home. BC turned it over five times but still won, thanks to a solid defensive effort that saw the Hokies finish with just 240 yards of offense.

BC played with fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Crane that day. Saturday, it will be redshirt freshman Dominique Davis making his second career start for the Eagles.

The running games are huge for both schools because neither coach will be comfortable putting the game in the hands of his quarterback. The Hokies are egregiously bad throwing the ball, averaging just 131.9 passing yards per game, with six TD passes and 10 interceptions. BC has run the ball better of late - as true freshman tailback Montel Harris has emerged. Harris has three 100-yard games in his past four outings.

The teams are first and second in the league against the run, with BC ranking seventh nationally and Tech 19th. BC comes in having won four in a row, while Tech comes in having lost three in a row away from home.

THE KEY: Watch Evans and Harris. The winner of their individual battle will determine who wins the game.

BIG 12
Missouri vs. Oklahoma in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC.

Missouri came into the season with high hopes, thanks to a powerful offense. Well, that offense has been good all season. But the defense has been problematic, and it's hard to see how the Tigers can slow down the juggernaut that is Oklahoma. The Sooners have scored at least 60 points in four consecutive games and have scored at least 52 eight times this season.

Missouri has given up at least 400 yards in six games, and the Tigers have allowed 24 touchdown passes. Also troublesome: The Tigers haven't beaten a team with a winning record since they beat Nebraska on Oct. 4.

Missouri has a puncher's chance because Oklahoma's defense isn't exactly stout, either. OU also has given up at least 400 yards in six games. In quarterback Chase Daniel, tight end Chase Coffman and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Tigers have the personnel to light up the Sooners' secondary.

The flipside, of course, is that OU has knockout ability, as well.

THE KEY: As long as Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford doesn't throw three or four interceptions, OU should cruise to Miami for the national title game.

East Carolina at Tulsa, Saturday, noon, ESPN2.

Tulsa backed its way into the game when Rice upset Houston a team that beat Tulsa by 40 on Saturday.

Tulsa hasn't been the same since losing to Arkansas 30-23 on Nov. 1. That ruined the Golden Hurricane's shot at an unbeaten season, and they fell to Houston the next week before rebounding to beat Tulane by 49 and Marshall by three.

Tulsa leads the nation in total offense and is second in scoring offense, but the Golden Hurricane's pass defense is one of the worst in the nation.

East Carolina was a media darling after opening the season with upsets of Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but the Pirates finished 8-4 - including a 17-point home loss to Houston and three-point OT victories over UCF and Marshall.

The Pirates are strong defensively, especially up front, but their offense is mediocre. They've scored more than 20 points just twice in the past seven games and that's while playing in C-USA, which has some atrocious defenses. But in the regular-season finale, ECU put up a season-high 53 points on UTEP. Thing is, Tulsa scored 77 on the Miners.

THE KEY: Tulsa's mind-set is big. The Golden Hurricane placed a lot of eggs in the "can we go unbeaten?" basket, but have gotten a reprieve. Tulsa is 6-0 at home this season, scoring at least 49 points in all six games and scoring at least 56 in five of them. ECU has to have big performances from running backs Brandon Simmons and Norman Whitley if this is to remain close. An aside: Under the NCAA's strength-of-schedule rankings, Tulsa has played the nation's weakest schedule.

Ball State vs. Buffalo in Detroit, Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN.

Ball State is one of just four unbeaten teams nationally, and the Cardinals' high-powered offense should be too much for Buffalo's pedestrian defense.

That Buffalo is in the championship game is incredible enough. Third-year coach Turner Gill has done a superb job turning around the Bulls' fortunes. With quarterback Drew Willy, running back James Starks and wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt, Gill has a trio of players who will put a ton of pressure on Ball State's defense.

The problem for Buffalo is that its offense isn't going to be able to score enough points to keep up with the Cardinals, who have a powerful duo of their own in quarterback Nate Davis and tailback MiQuale Lewis. There's also a deep and productive group of receivers.

THE KEY: Buffalo needs a huge game from Starks, who is sixth nationally in rushing at 122.6 yards per game. The Bulls need to control the ball - and the clock - and convert their opportunities into touchdowns, not field goals. Buffalo has lost five games, and in each of the losses the Bulls scored less than 30 points. Ball State has allowed 112.2 rushing yards per game in its past five outings.

Alabama vs. Florida in Atlanta, Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS.

It doesn't get much better than this. These are, by far, the two best teams in the league, and they're meeting for the league title for the sixth time in the game's 17-season history. Florida has won three of the five previous meetings, including a one-point win in 1994 over an unbeaten Alabama team.

Florida has scored at least 42 points in seven consecutive games, which is a league record. But the Tide lead the league in rush defense, total defense and scoring defense, and they've allowed more than 21 points once this season (Georgia scored 31). In addition, Alabama has allowed just 37 total points in its past five games.

Alabama has allowed more than 100 rushing yards in a game just twice, and the Tide has given up just three rushing touchdowns all season. Florida has rushed for at least three touchdowns in nine consecutive games.

The Gators lead the league in rush offense, total offense and scoring offense and are third in rush defense and total defense and second in scoring defense. The biggest difference between the teams has been offensive production. Alabama is sixth in the league in total offense because of a pedestrian passing attack (eighth in the league at 169.3 yards per game).

Florida leads the nation with a plus-21 turnover margin, thanks to 23 interceptions. Alabama is second in the league with a plus-9 margin.

THE KEY: This one comes down to Alabama's running game. If the Tide can control the line of scrimmage behind an offensive line considered the league's best, they will be in good shape. Florida has injury problems at defensive tackle, and Tide tailbacks Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram have combined to rush for 1,916 yards and 20 TDs. Florida needs big games from its linebackers, and look for safeties Ahmad Black and Major Wright to be more important than usual in run support. Alabama doesn't want to get into a score-fest with the Gators, who may be without Percy Harvin (ankle). The Tide certainly don't want quarterback John Parker Wilson to have to win the game with his arm.

The Big 12 tiebreaker

I don't have a problem with Oklahoma representing the Big 12 South in the league championship game.

While the idea that Texas is not being rewarded for its victory over OU is somewhat bothersome, the BCS standings the computers and the polls are supposed to take an entire season into account. A season is 12 (or 13) weeks long; it's not just boiled down to a head-to-head matchup. It's not just boiled down to Texas beating OU or Texas Tech beating Texas or OU beating Texas Tech.

When you take the entire season into account, the Sooners' non-conference victories over TCU and Cincinnati teams that are 11th and 13th, respectively, in the BCS standings this week trump anything Texas did out of conference. And that almost certainly is what pushed OU past Texas in the computers.

What is more troublesome is that the BCS standings are being used to determine a conference champ. The BCS standings were meant to be used to determine who plays in the national title game. The Big 12 needs to revise its rules this offseason. Worth noting: Four other leagues have divisional play; Texas would've won the division tiebreaker in each of those leagues.

A bleak landscape

Sylvester Croom's resignation at Mississippi State leaves three black head coaches in FBS (i.e., Division I-A) and just one (Miami's Randy Shannon) in the "Big Six" conferences.

That's weak.

I'm not advocating the hiring of a black coach just to hire a black coach. I just find it incredibly difficult to believe that assistants such as Florida's Charlie Strong, UCLA's DeWayne Walker and Illinois' Mike Locksley aren't better than some guys who already have head-coaching jobs or some who will get jobs this offseason.

Grid Bits

All in all, it was a rather bizarre scene at the end of Tennessee's victory over Kentucky in Vols coach Phillip Fulmer's final game. Fulmer was fired in early November, yet Saturday was "Phillip Fulmer Appreciation Day" and news broke Friday that Lane Kiffin would be the Vols' new coach. A bad season ended with a 5-7 record but also with a triumphant Fulmer being carried off on the shoulders of some of his offensive linemen. If not for an inexplicable home loss to a horrible Wyoming team the first game in the aftermath of Fulmer's dismissal the Vols would be bowl-bound.

Two things to take from Kansas' upset of Missouri: Mizzou's defense is weak and the field at Arrowhead Stadium looked pitiful. Will it be in any better condition for the Big 12 Championship Game?

One offshoot of playing for a bad team is having the opportunity to return a lot of kickoffs, and SMU senior wide receiver Jessie Henderson took advantage. He set the NCAA career record for kickoff-return yardage in Saturday's loss to Southern Miss. He has 2,945 career yards, 23 more than the previous mark held by Tulane's Jeff Liggon (1993-96). Henderson returned two kicks for touchdowns in his career, one as a redshirt freshman and one as a sophomore, and averaged 24.1 yards per kickoff return.

There were two upsets in the first round of the FCS (i.e., Division I-AA) playoffs on Saturday, with Weber State winning at Cal Poly and New Hampshire winning at Southern Illinois. Weber State's victory basically was the No. 12 seed beating the No. 5 seed, while New Hampshire's win was a No. 11 beating a No. 6. Top-seeded James Madison escaped with a 38-35 victory over Wofford, and No. 2 Appalachian State ousted South Carolina State for its record 13th consecutive FCS playoff victory.

In the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs, each of the top four regional seeds lost at home. California (IPa.) beat Bloomsburg (Pa.), Minnesota-Duluth beat Grand Valley State (Mich.), North Alabama beat Delta State (Miss.) and Northwest Missouri beat Abilene Christian (Texas). The winning teams were the No. 2 seeds in each regional.

Some numbers from the weekend: Arkansas' one-point win over LSU means the past four meetings in the series have been decided by a combined 10 points. After its demolition of Fresno State, Boise State is 32-0 all-time at home in WAC games and has won 49 consecutive regular-season games at home. Southern Miss heads into the postseason having allowed just 35 points in its past four games. This comes on the heels of a four-game stretch in which the Golden Eagles surrendered 145 points. Florida has won five in a row over Florida State, its longest streak in the series since it won six in a row from 1981-86. The Gators have won three in a row in Tallahassee for the first time since 1982, '84 and '86. Since Urban Meyer arrived in Gainesville, the Gators are 11-1 against their three biggest rivals: Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee. Alabama's victory over Auburn was the Tide's first-ever over the Tigers in Tuscaloosa; the Tide had been 0-6 at home against the Tigers. North Carolina has won 18 of the past 19 meetings with Duke, including 10 in a row in Durham. Tennessee won for the 24th time over Kentucky, the nation's longest current winning streak against one school. No. 2 is Florida's 22 in a row over UK. USC has won seven in a row over Notre Dame and 10 of the past 13. The past two have been by a combined 76-3.

RELATED: Week 14: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 14 Awards

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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