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Published: December 14, 2008
Posted by: Chris Courtney
(12) TCU Horned Frogs [10-2] – Mountain West at-large at (5) USC Trojans [11-1] – Pac-10 Champions
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – Los Angeles, California
Few teams stormed out of the gates stronger than USC did this season. After pummelling Virginia 52-7 in Charlottesville and dismantling then No. 5 Ohio State, 35-3, a week later in the Coliseum, USC appeared primed and ready to roll through their remaining schedule unscathed. Then came the catastrophe in Corvallis. Outplayed and seemingly outmatched, the vaunted Trojans fell hard to Oregon State, losing 27-21, and leaving many to wonder whether or not USC was for real or simply just a paper tiger. Though they won out in their nine remaining games, the Trojans seemed to have a lost a bit of their swagger, looking rusty and out-of-sync in many of their victories (see wins vs. Arizona State, at Arizona, vs. Cal, and at UCLA). Junior quarterback Mark Sanchez is the catalyst for a multi-faceted offense that features three rushers who have gained over 600 yards on the season, in sophomores Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable, along with junior Stafon Johnson. The Trojan defense is arguably its most dominant ever, with future NFL prospects at virtually every position, most notably in the secondary and front seven, where junior safety Taylor Mays and senior linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing spearhead a formidable unit. TCU, on the other hand, has seemingly flown under-the-radar this season. Despite finishing 11th in the final BCS standings and ending the season with a 10-2 record — including a blowout victory to then No. 9 BYU and a narrow defeat to No. 6 Utah — the Horned Frogs have managed to avoid the spotlight. After getting out to a 4-0 start, TCU went to Norman and lost to Oklahoma, 35-10. An honorable loss, considering the fact that 35 points is lowest output the Sooners have been held to all season. Known for their exceptional play on the defensive side of the ball (currently ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense behind USC), TCU is led by senior linebacker Jason Phillips and first team All-American defensive end, junior Jerry Hughes, and his 14 sacks.
In order for TCU to be successful, they must be able to withstand the wave of fresh, capable athletes that USC is able to roll out on to the field at any given time. Depth is probably USC’s greatest strength and they are arguably deeper than any team in the country (including Oklahoma and Florida), particularly at running back, where the Trojans can easily go six or seven deep without the offense batting an eye. The key is limiting USC’s explosion plays and getting them off the field as soon as possible without them scoring touchdowns. Make no mistake, TCU can slug it out with anyone on defense, but they don’t possess an offense that can stay stride for stride, blow for blow with the Trojans. Ball control will be paramount when the TCU offense takes the field. Conversely, USC must stay composed and poised if and when the TCU defense begins to present problems for Sanchez and the offense. In the Trojans loss to Oregon State in late September, USC got away from it’s game plan and appeared to panic when the Beavers proved the willingness and ability to attack USC head-on. Sanchez seemed to take on too much responsibility and forced the issue with many of his throws, leading to either turnovers or truncated drives that forced the Trojans out of their element. Defensively, USC can’t let TCU establish a consistent ground game. The Horned Frogs possess two running backs in junior Joseph Turner and senior Aaron Brown who are rugged, tough runners who are capable of grounding it out if necessary. Forcing TCU sophomore quarterback Andy Dalton to beat you through the air will play directly in to your hands if you’re USC Head Coach Pete Carroll, especially considering the Trojans have the nation’s best pass defense, statistically. Ultimately, the Trojans are victorious in this contest. While it’s a little closer than most people think, USC, overall, is much better equipped to sustain and overcome whatever problems that TCU will pose. Though TCU will succeed in slowing the pace of the game, it won’t be enough to succeed on the scoreboard. USC 28, TCU 17.
Player of the Game: USC quarterback Mark Sanchez
(13) Virginia Tech Hokies [9-4] – ACC Champions at (4) Alabama Crimson Tide [12-1] – SEC at-large
Bryant-Denny Stadium – Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Maybe the most pleasant surprise of the season has been the team from Tuscaloosa. In only his second season as Alabama Head Coach, Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide exceeded everyone’s expectations by ascending to the nation’s No. 1 ranking in early November and remaining there for five consecutive weeks until their loss against Florida, 31-20, in the SEC Championship game in the final week of the regular season. In what was though to be somewhat of a transition year for the Tide due to the plethora of freshman and sophomores starting at key positions, Alabama started the year sending shock waves through college football. After soundly beating then No. 9 Clemson, 34-10, in week one before a capacity crowd at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Tide continued to roll, answering challenge after challenge in the form of wins on the road at No. 3 Georgia in September and at No. 16 LSU in mid-November. This season, Alabama mixes youth with experience, on both offense and defense, better than any team in the country. Offensively, the Tide is driven by their outstanding two-headed monster at running back in junior Glen Coffee and freshman Mark Ingram. The tandem has combined for over 2000 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground (Coffee with 1347 yds; 10 TD’s and Ingram with 702 yds; 12 TD’s) this season. Defensively, Alabama is at it’s dominanting best. Headlined by sophomore linebacker Rolando McClain, senior safety Rashad Johnson, and mammoth 6’5” 365 lb. junior defensive tackle, Terrence “Mount” Cody, Alabama ranks sixth nationally in total defense. Likewise, Virginia Tech is similarly infused with youth, though they haven’t enjoyed the marked success compared to Alabama this season. In fact, the Hokies’ season has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster; getting off to a rough start as they were upset by unranked East Carolina, 27-22, in Charlotte on August 30. After stringing together five consecutive victories following their loss to East Carolina, the Hokies dropped two straight (Boston College and Florida State) before closing out the season winning four of their last five, including a vengeful victory in the ACC Championship over Boston College. Freshman running back Darren Evans paces the Hokies on offense with his 1112 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. On defense, it’s a highly skilled group with plenty of experience, led up front by the bookends at defensive end in sophomore Jason Worilds and senior Orion Martin, as well as in the secondary, with senior corner Victor “Macho” Harris and junior corner Stephan Virgil combining for 11 interceptions on the season.
This game will be as physical as it gets at the collegiate level. Both teams, on both sides of the ball, possess a smashmouth style of play that is effective at testing the manhood of opposing teams. For Alabama, their punishing ground attack sets up senior quarterback John Parker Wilson and the Tide passing game. The key for the Hokies will be to shut down the Alabama ground game and not allow Coffee and Ingram to wear on the defense deep into the fourth quarter. Another intriguing match-up is the absolute dogfight taking place out on the perimeter between Virginia Tech’s Harris and Alabama super freshman, wide receiver, Julio Jones. In fact, this might be best individual match-up between two opposing players throughout the whole tournament, as both players exhibit the kind of freakish athleticism and ability that the NFL covets. When Tech takes the field on offense, their primary goal must be ball control. Evans plays a key role to be sure, but the play of sophomore quarterback Tyrod Taylor will be the difference in a Hokie victory or defeat. While Taylor possesses unparalled athleticism and escapability at the quarterback position, he threw three times as many interceptions (6) as he did touchdowns (2) during the regular season. That ratio must be reversed if Virginia Tech is to have a prayer in this game. Unfortunately for Tech, it doesn’t happen. Alabama takes advantage of costly turnovers from Taylor and the Tech offense, and turns it into points. Wilson is flawless in engineering the Crimson Tide on offense and Coffee and Ingram each find paydirt once, with Alabama cruising to a 31-10 victory.
Player of the Game: Alabama running back Glen Coffee