It's a fitting last stand for a player who has given so much to his program and who went from being a breakout player in 2011 to injured in 2012.
"It's pretty exciting to me to be able to be at this point and be able to come back this season and to have some success," Franklin said. "I'm just really thankful for it. I'm glad that I did go through the things that I did, and it's helped me out a lot with my perspective and perception on some things. I'm just thankful that I've gotten to come back after this year of getting hurt and my teammates have welcomed me back."
And they should have with open arms. Franklin has been one of the most selfless players around since arriving at Missouri. He's taken heat for not being "tough enough," as if his laundry list of injuries were simply overlooked, but didn't publicly pout. He supported his team when he couldn't be on the field and led them valiantly on the field (mostly in pain).
Last year, Franklin, who was coming off a 2011 season in which he threw for 2,865 yards, rushed for 981 and had 36 total touchdowns, suffered multiple shoulder injuries (starting in spring practice) a knee injury, and a concussion. He played in just nine games and totaled 1,684 yards and 10 scores.
With a young, talented Maty Mauk waiting in the wings, many wondered if Franklin's days as the Tigers' quarterback was coming to an end. Those thoughts only intensified when coach Gary Pinkel opened the quarterback competition this spring.
Despite a very strong push from Mauk, Franklin won the starting job before the season and immediately went back to being his old self, passing for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and rushing for 290 yards and three touchdowns before suffering yet another shoulder injury against Georgia on Oct. 12.
Franklin was sidelined for a month and had to hear about and watch Mauk perform masterfully in his place.
"It was definitely frustrating having to watch on the sidelines because I wanted to be out there and playing to help my team win," Franklin said. "At the same time, it was good to see them winning and knowing that they could still go in there and make plays, especially on the opposite side of the ball, put up points and do a good job and be successful with Maty in there."
While receiver L'Damian Washington stood strong behind starting Mauk, it was hard for him to see Franklin on the sideline.
"It's tough because that's my brother," Washington said. "You always feel for your brother whenever they're going through a trying time in their lives."
Two drives into Franklin's return to the football field on Nov. 23, he felt the sting of college football wash over him when he was stopped for no gain on a scamper and then sacked by Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry.
Having James [Franklin] back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole. I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is.
-- Missouri WR L'Damian Washington
Because of his past, the sight of Franklin being hit was cringe-worthy. But he didn't fret. He didn't hesitate, and he didn't linger on the turf inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. He popped up and kept playing. His nerves weren't shot, as pain finally wasn't shooting through a shoulder that had been to hell and back since the spring of 2012.
"It felt good [to take contact]," Franklin said after Missouri's 24-10 win over the Rebels. "Thankfully, I didn't take too many hits. When I did, I wasn't really thinking about it. To be able to come out and pass and run, it felt good."
Franklin finished that game with 142 passing yards and 42 rushing yards. Nothing flashy on paper, but mentally, it was a major step forward for a quarterback who has been so banged up in his two seasons in the SEC.
In last week's SEC East-clinching win over Texas A&M, Franklin threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another 80 yards. The hits have kept coming, but Franklin has kept chugging.
In two seasons, Franklin has seen his game, body and image take hits. In 2012, he dealt with the controversy surrounding his decision to refuse to take a Cortisone shot in his shoulder. He heard grumblings from fans about his toughness and no one was quite sure how he'd handle his 2013 return.
Some weren't even sure if he'd be the starter, but the return of Franklin has clearly made this team better. He's blocked out pain and distractions to lead this team through a special season. Mizzou won with Mauk, but it's 11-1 record (9-0 with Franklin as the starter), No. 5 BCS ranking and East crown were earned in large part by what Franklin has done.
"Having James back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole," Washington said. "I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is.
"He's going to lead this team, and right now we wouldn't have gotten this far without James. He's definitely our hero, our team leader right now. We're just going to follow him and continue to follow his lead."
We complete our look, from the opposing-coach perspective, at the Big Ten championship game with second-ranked Ohio State.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wrapped our report on Michigan State, so let’s give him the floor to open the discussion about the Buckeyes, who beat Iowa 34-24 on Oct. 19 -- Ohio State’s second-closest game of the year before its one-point escape last week at Michigan.
While the Buckeyes’ opponent Saturday night relies on its defense to carry the load, coach Urban Meyer’s team leans on an offense that leads the Big Ten in most statistical categories and tops the nation in yards per rush and red-zone efficiency.
“There's really not a weakness,” Ferentz said. “Their line is veteran, they've got four seniors up front. They're very good, very well coordinated. The whole scheme and concept is well-coordinated.
“The thing that makes them a challenge offensively is they've got a good receiving corps. They've got, if not the best back, one of the best backs in our conference, and they've got a quarterback who can run and throw. It's like a team that has 12 guys."
And with that, here are excerpts from our conversations with Big Ten coordinators and assistant coaches who played -- and lost to -- the Buckeyes this year. As with the Michigan State report, we granted anonymity to the coaches to ensure the most candid responses.
Coach: I think Braxton Miller must have a good game for Ohio State. Quarterback run is something that Michigan State may struggle with, and obviously, Braxton is a good ace to have up your sleeve. One thing that's interesting about Ohio State is that I don't know if they're really the best technique-wise up front. There's things that Michigan State could really exploit. If you go back and watch a lot of Ohio State's big plays, it's not great execution. It's more athleticism. People freak out because of Braxton Miller, and all of a sudden Carlos Hyde has it. I feel like at times, Ohio State gets by because of their physical ability. Those kids up front are phenomenal, big athletes, but this is a team that will make them pay if Ohio State is not on their marks.
ESPN.com: We knew Hyde was good. But he’s rushed 1,164 yards in his past seven games. That’s ridiculous. What kind of an impact might he have on the players around him in this game?
Coach: He's a physical, downhill runner that will align hard and run through tackles and make a 3-yard gain into a 6-yard gain or a 3-yard gain into an 18-, 20-yard gain. We felt if we could deny that and make them earn everything, we'd be in the game. Michigan State is physical up front and they've got a chance to match up and deny some of those Hyde runs, but the key is Braxton Miller -- how much they run him and if he gets loose on a scramble.
ESPN.com: Michigan State is going to sell out to stop Hyde and Miller in the run game, but can Ohio State beat the Spartans through the air?
Coach: We felt like that was their strength, throwing it over the top. We thought [Kenny Guiton] threw the ball pretty well on the drop-back, intermediate game. Miller hit us on some deeper crossing routes, but we didn't think he was going to beat us dropping back and throwing it play after play after play. We felt like we couldn't give up the home run over our head. We felt like the receivers had good speed.
ESPN.com: Clearly, Ohio State had an off day on defense last week against Michigan. But it’s happened a few other times, too. What’s the key to moving the football against the Buckeyes?
Coach: You've got to put together a mix. You're going to have to get downhill on them and create some running lanes. Probably the one area that's not as hard to attack is the secondary. They have a really solid corner in [Bradley] Roby, but overall, you have some plays out there a little bit easier than you do against Michigan State.
ESPN.com: Despite some of the defensive issues, OSU remained stout against the run. How do you see Michigan State attacking that front seven?
Coach: The guys up front are good, solid players. I don't know if there's anyone one that stands out. The one kid inside, [Michael Bennett], he can create some things. He was a big, strong guy, got after it a little bit. [Ryan] Shazier, linebacker-wise, he's a heck of a player. That's going to be the interesting matchup, Michigan State's offense against Ohio State's defense, and how well they can run the football. The one thing that's happened with Michigan State is their quarterback's been playing really well, and they're going to run the football. That's the one strength that Ohio State has. They can defend the run, where in the passing game, they'll have a little bit more trouble. So Michigan State, how well they throw the ball, will be interesting to see.
When Duke went on the road in late October and shocked then- No. 14 Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils did so without converting a single third down. Quarterback Anthony Boone threw zero touchdown passes -- and four interceptions. And yet Duke rolled out of Blacksburg having snapped a 42-year losing streak against ranked teams on the road.
The difference? Duke was finally able to win a game with defense and special teams.
If Duke is going to have a shot at upending No. 1 Florida State on Saturday in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, it will need to be sharp in every phase of the game. It will have to rely most heavily upon what has become an opportunistic defense, and a special teams unit that has the ability to score and create good field position.
Duke has scored four times on kick returns (two punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns), and freshman safety DeVon Edwards leads the nation in kickoff return average (32.7).The defense has caused turnovers in 11 of 12 games (including three in the red zone), and enters the ACC title game with 16 interceptions, nine forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. Duke is tied for fifth in the ACC with 21 takeaways and the 16 interceptions are the most in the David Cutcliffe era.
“A lot of guys have stepped up into new roles, and our D-line is really experienced now,” Brown said. “They’re doing a great job up front of allowing the linebackers to fly around and make tackles. That’s something, just old-school, 4-3 style defense, the way Boston College has always run it, a great D-line that holds up the line and that’s been huge for us. And I think we’re the most athletic we’ve ever been in the secondary. Even though we have some young guys back there, they have speed and they can tackle. It’s all kind of clicked from the front line all the way to the back.”
Duke, a heavy underdog, knows it has no margin for error. The Blue Devils have never beaten Florida State in 18 tries, and the Noles have won every game this season by at least 14 points. In 2012, Duke’s defense was steamrolled by FSU in a 48-7 loss, and many are predicting a similar result. Of all the times these two programs have faced each other, though, only one other time has Duke been ranked -- in 1994, when it was No. 16.
The numbers prove, though, that Duke’s defense is the best it’s been in over a decade.
Duke is allowing just 23.0 points per game, which would rank as the program’s best mark since the 1994 season (22.45 points per game). Duke has 22 sacks this season, and linebackers David Helton and Kelby Brown and safety Jeremy Cash are the top three tacklers in the ACC.
We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.
-- Ross Cockrell, on how Duke's defense can find success against Florida State
Duke’s fourth-quarter defense has also been outstanding. It's allowing an average of just 9.1 points in the second half compared to 13.9 in the first half. Duke has surrendered only 3.1 points and outscored opponents 113-37 in the fourth quarter.
“Well, we run better on defense,” Cutcliffe said. “First thing you've got to be able to do is get to them to get them on the ground. You can't get them on the ground if you can't run. We run better. We'd better run better in this one because these guys have I think more weapons than anybody in the country.”
Starting with Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
“We don't have anybody that can line up and match up physically with Benjamin,” Cutcliffe said. “He's just a monster and with great skills.”
Against Florida’s stingy defense last week, Benjamin single-handedly outgained the Gators’ offensive output (212 yards to 193). He scored three touchdowns, and had nine receptions. Last season against Duke, Benjamin had three catches for 77 yards.
“Yeah, we've done a great job, I think, defensively,” said Ross Cockrell, one of the top defenders in the ACC. “But one of the things that we took away from last year was that you can't give up a lot of big plays, especially in the passing game, the deep passes that we gave up. We can't give up those kinds of plays and expect to win ballgames. We know we have a very good team. We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.”
Duke’s defense and special teams have been good enough to win the Coastal Division, but they will have to be great to win it all on Saturday.
Charles Thompson remains relieved he wasn’t the Sooners quarterback who let the streak end.
And virtually everyone who saw Oklahoma survive Oklahoma State 31-28 in 1988 still marvels at Barry Sanders' Heisman-clinching performance 25 years later.
While overwhelmingly lopsided in favor of the Sooners, the Bedlam Rivalry, which will stage meeting No. 108 Saturday in Stillwater, has never been short on drama.
Just last season, Oklahoma mounted a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback before prevailing over the Pokes in overtime, 51-48. In the last 12 years, the series has been decided on the final possession five times.
“A heck of a ballgame,” said then Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones.
Going into the early-November showdown, Barry Switzer’s Sooners were ranked in the top 10 again.
But the No. 12-ranked Cowboys had their best offense in school history, led by All-American wideout Hart Lee Dykes, a quarterback named Mike Gundy who would become Oklahoma State’s head coach and a 5-foot-8 tailback who had begun to generate Heisman buzz.
Oklahoma State hadn’t defeated the Sooners in 11 years. But the Cowboys had never had a player like Sanders, either.
His first two seasons, Sanders backed up another future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, Thurman Thomas. Switzer, however, was always more concerned about Sanders.
In 1986, Switzer and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs were scouting the Cowboys on film. When Sanders subbed in for Thomas, each time the freshman carried the ball, Switzer asked Gibbs to run the play back.
“That guy is something special,” Switzer declared.
“We better hope Thurman doesn’t get hurt,” Gibbs replied.
Two years later, Sanders was still a relative unknown. But soon, the rest of the country would see what Switzer saw.
That edition of Bedlam was Oklahoma State’s first national telecast, with ESPN’s Lee Corso providing the color commentary.
Sanders entered the game with 1,141 rushing yards over his previous five games -- an NCAA record. Early on, though, it was another running back who stole the show.
On the first play from scrimmage, Oklahoma freshman Mike Gaddis reeled off a 50-yard run to set up the Sooners’ first score. Then, after the Cowboys were stuffed on fourth-and-short, Gaddis exploded up the middle untouched on the next play for a high-stepping, 44-yard touchdown. Less than five minutes into the game, the Sooners led 14-0. And Gaddis had 110 yards rushing.
“He was obviously a good player,” Jones said of Gaddis. “But the other guy, best to ever play the game.”
In the second quarter, that other guy delivered his Heisman moment to put the Cowboys back in the game.
On an option pitch from Gundy, Sanders finally found a seam. After juking Oklahoma safety Kevin Thompson, who crashed right past him, Sanders dashed 67 yards to set up a touchdown just before the half. Suddenly, the Sooners were in a dogfight.
In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys trailed just 24-21 on third-and-goal. Gundy pitched again to Sanders again, who slid his way in for another touchdown.
“We were a little bit in awe of him,” Charles Thompson said.
But while the Cowboys had Sanders, Oklahoma had Sooner Magic.
After driving inside the Oklahoma State 35-yard line, Thompson pitched to halfback Anthony Stafford, who wasn’t looking. The ball bounced off Stafford’s chest but then right back into his hands.
The next play, Thompson floated a swing pass to Gaddis, who while charging upfield had the ball popped out. But with seven Cowboys surrounding the fumble, Oklahoma lineman Mark Van Keirsbilck slid through all of them to recover it, giving the Sooners a fourth-and-1.
“Looked like we were playing basketball,” Switzer said.
The next play, Thompson stepped back to hand off to Gaddis. Instead, he crashed into Stafford, yet somehow fell forward to just barely get the first down. Three plays later, Thompson swerved around the edge 18 yards on an option keeper for Oklahoma’s go-ahead touchdown with just 2:33 to go.
And the Sooner Magic wasn’t done.
With Gundy, Sanders and Dykes clicking away, Oklahoma State drove right back down the field. Switzer became so stressed he lit up a cigarette.
But at the Oklahoma 19, Cowboys fullback Garrett Limbrick was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after getting tangled up with Sooners linebacker Richard Dillon. Instead of fourth-and-1, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-16.
“A Barry Switzer call,” Dykes said.
Corso questioned the penalty, too.
“The official that made the call was a very good official,” Jones said. “But I thought you might not make that call.”
Jones could have sent Cary Blanchard out for a 51-yard field goal try. But the Cowboys needed the win to stay in the Big Eight title race.
On a rollout, Dykes was double covered. So Gundy heaved the ball downfield to Parker, who had snuck past the Oklahoma secondary into the end zone.
“I wouldn’t have thrown it if I didn’t think he could catch it,” Gundy said.
But as the ball sailed over Kevin Thompson’s hands, it bounced off Parker’s left bicep and to the turf.
“Mike made a great throw,” Parker said. “The safety from OU (Thompson) says he tipped it. I don’t know if he did. But nine times out of 10, I would have caught that ball.”
Instead, Oklahoma prevailed, extending its Bedlam winning streak to 12.
But Oklahoma State didn’t come away empty-handed, as Sanders’ 215 rushing yards captivated the nation.
“The game was still a giant step for us,” Jones said. “When you win the Heisman, that’s something that never goes away.”
Memories of Bedlam at its best don’t either.
2. Red zone efficiency. Florida State ranks at or near the top of the ACC in most statistical categories, including red zone efficiency (No. 1 in offense, No. 2 in defense). Duke, on the other hand, is ranked near the middle of the pack in most categories, but the Blue Devils are No. 4 in red zone defense, which does not exactly underscore just how good they have been in recent weeks when pressed inside their own 20 (six touchdowns allowed in their last five games, after surrendering 15 in their first seven). If the Blue Devils can hold the Seminoles to some field goals on what are likely to be several trips into their territory, or even force a turnover or two, they will give themselves a chance to pull off a monumental upset.
3. Special teams. What will help Duke even more? Big special-teams plays. And the Blue Devils have excelled in that department. They are No. 2 in the ACC in punt return average (13.6), yards and touchdowns (two), and they lead the conference in kickoff return average (26.2) and touchdowns (two). Can DeVon Edwards and/or Jamison Crowder come through again for Duke? It certainly would not hurt to steal a few points in the third phase of the game if the Blue Devils want to crash the BCS and help re-shape the national title picture.
1. Crowning a champion: The Big 12 didn’t need a big prime-time showdown at AT&T Stadium to end up with a marquee final weekend of conference play. The league’s schedule makers should get holiday bonuses for their work this year, pitting the Big 12’s four best teams against each other on championship weekend with a conference title on the line. Odds are Oklahoma State wraps it all up with a victory over Oklahoma, but if the Sooners pull the upset all eyes will be on Texas-Baylor to decide who gets the trophy.
3. Day of the underdog: Texas fans will be unabashedly rooting for Oklahoma on Saturday. Yep, seriously. They have to. Even Case McCoy admitted he’s pulling for a Sooners victory, even if it makes him “sick to my stomach.” The Sooners have a chance to play spoiler and knock OSU from atop the Big 12 standings. If they pull that off, can Texas notch an even more surprising victory in Waco? The Longhorns have embraced the underdog role ever since starting 1-2.
4. Finishing Baylor’s dream season: The loss to OSU knocked Baylor out of the national title hunt, damaged its hopes of playing in a BCS bowl and might’ve killed Bryce Petty’s chances of winning the Heisman. Yet the Bears still have a ton to play for this weekend. This can still go down as the best season in school history, especially if Baylor wins a share of the Big 12 title.
5. Who’s the DPOY? Good luck finding a consensus about who should win the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year honor this season, and this weekend might not change that much. Still, several candidates have a chance to make a strong final impression, including Oklahoma State linebacker Caleb Lavey and cornerback Justin Gilbert as well as Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat.
6. Oklahoma’s next BMOC: Trevor Knight is another guy who could definitely use a strong finale to help his reputation not only for 2013 but, more importantly, for the offseason and beyond. Knight is coming off nice performances against Iowa State and Kansas State. An upset win over OSU could do wonders for proving he is Oklahoma’s quarterback of the future.
7. Mack Brown: What’s on the line? Who knows what this Baylor game means for Brown’s future at Texas, other than this: If Texas wins, good luck firing a coach who brings a Big 12 trophy home after leading his team from 1-2 to 9-3. And if the Bears win a blowout, well, buckle up for another rumor-filled week in Austin.
8. December weather: Introducing the X factor in both of this weekend’s Big 12 games: Winter Storm Cleon. The high and low for Stillwater on Saturday are 28 and 17. Waco is expecting freezing rain and temperatures in the high 20s. We could be in for some very messy, conservative football.
9. Closing out The Case: It’s a historic weekend for Baylor, which plays its final home game at 63-year-old Floyd Casey Stadium on Saturday. The last time a current Big 12 school opened a brand-new stadium was 1980, when West Virginia built Milan Puskar Stadium. The Bears are breaking out retro uniforms and expect the largest crowd ever in stadium history.
10. The Sunday bowl shakeout: The bowl projections for the Big 12’s six bowl-eligible teams are somewhat obvious at this point but could be in for a big shakeup depending on how these final two games play out. You know the committees of the AT&T Cotton, Valero Alamo and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowls will be watching closely and could face difficult decisions if we see some upsets.
- Oh, what a rush: One thing we know for sure about both of these teams is they can get after the quarterback. The interesting element is they do it in very different ways. Per ESPN Stats & Info, since the start of last season, the Cardinal have an FBS-best 92 sacks. And when they are sending just four pass-rushers, they have an AQ-high 67. On the flip side, ASU leads all AQ schools with 48 sacks when sending five or more pass-rushers since the start of last year. They love to attack and blitz. This is important because of
- The Hogan factor: Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has completed 51.8 percent of his passes against the blitz this season compared to 65.3 percent when he doesn’t face extra pressure. And if ASU gets too aggressive, it’s also worth noting that he has seven passing touchdowns after play-action, six of which have come on throws of at least 15 yards downfield. Of his 19 passing touchdowns this year, 18 have been to wide receivers.
- Grice on ice: Marion Grice, Arizona State’s leading rusher and third-leading receiver, is likely out because of an injury he suffered against Arizona last Saturday. Grice has been responsible for one-third of Arizona State's offensive touchdowns this season, and his 20 touchdowns (14 rushing, 6 receiving) rank second among FBS skill position players.
- Here we come: It's no surprise what Stanford wants to do offensively -- run at the heart of ASU's defensive line. Tyler Gaffney has been one of the top running backs in the country over the second half of the season. He has rushed for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns (146.1 yards per game) in the past seven games. ASU's defense is tops in the country at getting offenses off of the field. So far this season ASU's defense has 79 drives where it forced a three-and-out. Stanford converts 52 percent of its third downs, and the average distance to go is an FBS-low 5.2 yards.
- Containing Kelly: Stanford wants to pound away with Gaffney for a couple of reasons. First, he's a bruiser and it wears down the defense. But it also keeps ASU's offense off the field. ASU's Taylor Kelly has seven rushing touchdowns over the past six games. This is of note because he had only one rushing touchdown in 18 games prior to the current streak. Through 12 games, Kelly already has 3,337 passing yards and is averaging 278.1 yards per game. Worth noting, too, that ASU is 6-7 when Kelly throws an interception and 11-0 when he doesn’t.
1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?
3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.
4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.
5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday's showdown at the Georgia Dome:
Possible hangovers: One could hardly blame Auburn if it entered this game a bit flat. Gus Malzahn's Tigers are coming off consecutive miracle wins against their biggest rivals: Georgia and Alabama. Chris Davis' missed field goal return for a touchdown against the top-ranked Crimson Tide resonated outside the sports world, considering that it was a subject on conversation on “The View” and the “Today” show and not just on sports highlight shows. Likewise, an emotional win against Texas A&M prompted the home fans to empty onto the field after Missouri clinched the SEC East title last Saturday. If one of these teams starts slowly Saturday, it could easily find itself facing a big deficit early in the game.
Defending the run: If Missouri is able to slow down Auburn's powerful running game (No. 5 nationally at 318.2 YPG), it will be in a small group of defenses that has been successful in that endeavor this season. Alabama -- which entered last week's game ranked fourth nationally against the run -- couldn't do it, as Auburn ran 52 times for 296 yards. In fact, Auburn has run for at least 200 yards in all but one game this season. Tre Mason (237 carries, 1,317 yards, 18 TDs) is the league's top rusher at 109.8 yards per game and quarterback Nick Marshall (140-922, 10 TDs) is eighth at 83.8 YPG. Meanwhile, Missouri -- which is 14th nationally against the run (119.1 YPG) has yet to allow 200 yards in any game. Let's not forget about the other side of this token, however. Missouri's offense performs with more balance than Auburn's, but its running game has been extremely productive, as well. Missouri ranks second in the league in rushing offense (236.2 YPG) with Henry Josey (153-951, 13 TDs) leading the way and ranking ninth in the league with 79.2 yards per game.
Auburn secondary against Missouri's big wideouts: Auburn has done a good job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but its secondary has been erratic at best. The Tigers surrendered 277 passing yards and three touchdowns to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron last week -- including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper -- and gave up 415 yards to Georgia's Aaron Murray in the previous game. Overall, Auburn ranks second-to-last in the SEC against the pass (256.7 YPG), which is a scary sign with Missouri's big, talented receiving corps on deck. The Tigers have the No. 5 passing offense in the league (252.6 YPG), featuring L'Damian Washington (44 catches, 824 yards, 10 TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (49-686, 10 TDs), who rank seventh and 12th, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. Senior Marcus Lucas (50-596, 2 TDs) ranks 10th with 4.17 catches per game.
Defensive playmakers: Few defensive players, if any, have made a bigger impact around the SEC this season than Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam. He leads the league with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, while fellow defensive lineman Markus Golden is fourth with 13 TFLs and Kony Ealy (9.5) and Shane Ray (9.0) aren't far outside the top 10. If Auburn's typical form holds, Mizzou won't have much of a chance to add to its SEC-leading sack total, but its defensive front will be the determining factor in whether it can handle Auburn's running game. Aside from defensive end Dee Ford (eight sacks, 12 TFLs), Auburn doesn't have many defensive players whose individual stats jump off the page. But a deep defensive line and playmakers like Robenson Therezie, Ryan Smith and Davis have combined to deliver some clutch plays when the Tigers needed a boost the most.
The marquee names, at least the marquee names when the season began, will be watching from home.
Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel won’t be in Atlanta and neither will the SEC quarterback with the gaudiest collection of rings, Alabama’s AJ McCarron.
Georgia’s Aaron Murray and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger combined to throw 48 touchdown passes this season, but their college careers are over. Sadly, they both suffered ACL tears and won’t be able to play in their teams’ bowl games.
South Carolina’s Connor Shaw was easily the most underrated quarterback in the SEC this season after throwing 21 touchdown passes and just one interception. But he, too, won’t be a part of the championship game festivities.
As unlikely an SEC championship game pairing as Auburn and Missouri might have been back in the summer, it would have been just as much of a stretch to predict this kind of success for Franklin and Marshall.
In Franklin’s case, it had very little to do with his talent or experience. But the wear and tear of last season would have taken its toll on any quarterback, and then Franklin was dealt yet another injury during the Georgia game this season when he separated his throwing shoulder and missed most of the next four games.
The frustrating thing for Franklin and the Tigers was that he was playing perhaps the best football of his career when he was hurt.
“His numbers were as good as anybody’s in the country.”
Even more importantly for the Tigers, their play at quarterback didn’t drop off dramatically while Franklin was out. Mauk came in and finished the Georgia win on the road and went 3-1 in the next four games while Franklin recovered.
“Honestly, for [Mauk] to be able to come in and play at that level, to keep our team going, our offense playing at a consistently high level -- not a great level, but a high level -- I think that was critical for us,” said Pinkel, whose two quarterbacks have combined to account for 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions.
“We didn’t have our starting quarterback for one-third of the season. I think for [Mauk] to go in and play, to maintain some degree of consistency, was really, really important for us.”
In returning to the starting lineup, Franklin was better last week against Texas A&M than he was the week before against Ole Miss and should be even better on Saturday. He had 313 yards of total offense and threw two touchdown passes in the 28-21 win over the Aggies and has turned it over only once since his return.
“Having James back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole,” Missouri senior receiver L’Damian Washington said. “I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is. It’s not taking anything away from Maty Mauk. Maty came in and did tremendous things. But just having James there I know it does a lot for our team.”
Marshall, who was at junior college this time a year ago and didn’t even go through spring practice at Auburn, has easily been one of the most improved players in the SEC from the beginning of the season until now.
As an athlete, he’s every bit as explosive as Manziel (probably even more so) and has improved weekly as a quarterback. He’s made big throws when he’s had to and has carved teams apart in the zone-read part of Auburn’s package.
Marshall has passed for 11 touchdowns and run for 10 touchdowns. He enters the SEC championship game with 922 rushing yards and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
But where Marshall has really sparkled is in pressure situations. His 32-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates tied the Alabama game with 32 seconds left last weekend. In the Tigers’ SEC opener back in September, Marshall led Auburn down the field on the game-winning drive against Mississippi State and won it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds to play.
There was also the game-winning, 75-yard touchdown drive to beat Texas A&M on the road and, of course, the Hail Mary to beat Georgia.
Something says Marshall won’t be fazed much by the bright lights of the SEC championship game stage. He’s delivered all season long for the Tigers.
“Without all those plays he’s made, I don’t think we’d be in the position we are,” Auburn running back Corey Grant said.
It’s a position all quarterbacks want to be in, playing for a championship, and nothing shapes a quarterback’s legacy quite like winning a championship.
They’ll remember this season as the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC, and it’s probably fitting that the two still standing weren’t on a lot of people’s radar when the season began.
(Don't even try it, Auburn and Missouri fans!)
This might not be the matchup everyone saw coming, but it's going to be great when Auburn and Missouri get together in the Georgia Dome. I'm not sure if Atlanta is ready for an invasion of Tigers.
You know who else wasn't ready? Our buddy Chris Low. He tried valiantly to make a strong comeback this season in the picks but made a critical error last week. The veteran, the pro, the certified man picked against Mizzou at home against a struggling Texas A&M team. I learned from my mistakes, but Chris showed just how stubborn he is.
Last week, we both went 7-2 and missed on Auburn's thrilling 34-28 win over No. 1 Alabama. I slipped up and picked Ole Miss over Mississippi State but picked Mizzou in order to keep my two-game lead over Chris. Heading into Saturday's SEC championship game, I'm sitting pretty at 96-17 (.850), while Chris is 94-19 (.832).
Now is the time for Chris to make up some ground before bowl season, which will decide his fate. If he takes a three-game deficit into the most wonderful time of the year, he's toast.
Chris will be in Atlanta this weekend, which means he'll be hanging with his buddy Oscar and checking in on his favorite cat, Meeko. Distractions galore reside in the ATL and Chris can only stay away from Buckhead for so long.
Here are our picks for the SEC title game:
MISSOURI vs. AUBURN
Chris Low: Between them, Auburn and Missouri won two SEC games last season, and eight of their combined 14 losses in the league were by 21 points or more. So if anybody says they had these two teams in the SEC championship game back in August, I’m not buying it. In retrospect, though, both teams were far more talented than they played a season ago. Missouri didn’t endure nearly as many injuries as it did last season -- particularly in the offensive line -- and first-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was able to come in and help that program regain its edge. Both teams are capable of lighting it up offensively, but Missouri has proven to be a little bit better on defense. Combine that with it being next to impossible for Auburn to come back down from the emotional high of upsetting Alabama last week, and it all adds up to an SEC championship for Mizzou in only its second season in the league. Missouri 31, Auburn 27
Edward Aschoff: I'm going to go out on a limb here and take the Tigers this weekend. Pretty easy one for me. OK, in all seriousness, this is a really tough pick this week. We have two high-powered offenses and two improved defenses. After AJ McCarron hit his 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper early in the fourth quarter, Auburn allowed just 53 yards and blocked a field goal before Chris Davis' magical return. As for Mizzou, these Tigers lead the SEC in sacks (37) and tackles for loss (95). We know both teams can move the ball and put points on the board, as they both rank in the top four in the SEC in total offense and scoring. The difference will be the play up front, and Auburn's running game has been ridiculous. I love what Mizzou has done up front, but Auburn can run power, triple option, read-option and loves to fool teams with formation deception. I think this one will be close, but Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and Auburn's running game will grind out another win. Auburn 31, Missouri 27
With 10 minutes to go in Morgantown, W.Va., I was sitting pretty for an undefeated week. Then Grant Rohach turned into Dan Marino, and the Cyclones rallied from 17 points down before eventually beating the Mountaineers in a third overtime.
Like Oliver Luck with Dana Holgorsen, ESPN management had to issue a vote-of-confidence statement on my behalf. But I’m feeling the heat. And time is running out.
This week’s guest picker is Jason Hanzel, a student at Oklahoma State. I actually selected Jason a couple of weeks ago. But when he didn’t respond immediately, I went with another picker. Turned out, Jason was in class all day. Because I respect education, I gave him another chance.
To the Week 15 picks:
Trotter last week: 2-1 (.667)
Guest picker (Red Raider Shelley) last week: 2-1 (.667)
Trotter overall: 54-19 (.740)
Guest picker overall: 42-14 (.750)
Baylor 35, Texas 31: The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Texas has no shot in this game. I disagree. If the Longhorns can do anything, it’s rush the passer, and since losing left tackle Spencer Drango, the Bears have not protected quarterback Bryce Petty all that well. Without Drango and speedy wideout Tevin Reese, "America's Top Offense" hasn't quite been the same. And if Texas can have success controlling the clock with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron between the tackles, as I expect it will, the Longhorns are capable of making this a fourth-quarter game. That said, Baylor has Lache Seastrunk and its fourth-quarter closer, Glasco Martin, back at running back. As a result, the Bears are able to grind out enough first downs late to hold off Texas and send Floyd Casey Stadium out in style.
Jason’s pick: Baylor these past two weeks has not been the same Baylor, but I do believe this team is completely different at home. Jackson Jeffcoat will get to Petty, but Case McCoy will be in the Case, meaning I've got to go with the Bears in Waco. Baylor, 38-28
Oklahoma State 40, Oklahoma 23: The Sooners are coming off their most impressive conference performance of the season in a win over Kansas State, and the best game of freshman QB Trevor Knight's young career. But on Saturday they face the top defense in the Big 12, a defense that clobbered Texas and Baylor in dominating back-to-back performances. Even though OU has won nine of the past 10 in the series, the Sooners have usually had to win shootouts against the Cowboys, as Oklahoma State has put up at least 40 points in four of the last five Bedlam meetings. This run-oriented OU offense is hardly equipped to score in the 40s, especially in the cold, on the road, against a veteran OSU defense that has proven to be one of the toughest in the country.
Jason’s pick: This game has the feel of 2011. If I was a betting man, I'd be taking my scholarship money to Vegas. Pokes in a rout! OSU, 42-20
AA put some distance between herself and HD with the picks last week. HD admits she choked with the vaunted predictions trophy on the line, going 4-5 in Week 14. AA kept chugging, going 7-2 to open up a four-game lead on HD in the overall standings. AA stands at 85-23 as we head into the postseason. Seems like a pretty insurmountable lead at this point.
No headway to be made this week, either -- not when the easy choice to win the ACC championship game is Florida State. Here is how we both see the game playing out.
AA picks: Exactly zero media prognosticators had Florida State playing Duke in the ACC championship game when the season began. Of the 120 ballots tabulated, only 15 declared the Seminoles their preseason choice to win the ACC. That handful of voters will turn out to be right after Saturday comes to a close. Florida State is too talented and too deep to have much of a problem with the Blue Devils. Duke has been such a terrific story to watch unfold throughout the course of the season, and the Blue Devils do have some rising stars in Jamison Crowder, Kelby Brown, DeVon Edwards and Jeremy Cash. They deserve an inordinate amount of credit for turning around a moribund program. But they still have a ways to go to match the upper echelon not just in the ACC, but in the nation. Florida State lost 11 NFL draft picks off last season's team; Duke has had eight players drafted in the last 20 years. So you see the talent disparity. Duke has never beaten Florida State and has lost by an average margin of 34.5 points per game. The Blue Devils are a much better team than they were the last time these teams played last season. But the problem for Duke? Florida State is a much better team, too. Florida State 48, Duke 10.
HD picks: The magic ends here, where good meets great. Duke will play better than many expect, as it has an opportunistic defense and the ACC’s coach of the year, but it won’t be enough to overcome the matchup problems the Noles’ elite talent will create. This won’t be as ugly as it was last year during the regular season, but it won’t be pretty, either. Duke has recruited talent and speed, but not enough to match the likes of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin or quarterback Jameis Winston. Florida State will win the turnover battle, and Duke’s defense will give up too may big plays and struggle to get FSU off the field on third down. FSU has given up more than 17 points just once this season (to Boston College). Duke’s preparation, discipline and determination will get it to 20, but it will only be good enough for a moral victory. Florida State 45, Duke 20.
We've got a bona fide heavyweight tilt in the Big Ten championship game, with national title implications at stake. It's time to crown a champion, and we need to be in championship form with these predictions ...
No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE (11-1, 8-0) versus No. 2 OHIO STATE (12-0, 8-0)
Brian Bennett: What a matchup this is, with the unstoppable force that is the Buckeyes' offense colliding with the immovable object of the Spartans' defense. I expect Ohio State to put up its lowest point total of the season as the "No-Fly Zone" led by Darqueze Dennard keeps the Buckeyes' air attack mostly grounded. And I expect the Spartans to make some plays on offense with Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford as they exploit some of the weaknesses of Urban Meyer's defense.
To me, this game comes down to one guy: Braxton Miller. He always seems to rise to the occasion in big spots, and this is the biggest game of his career. As good as Michigan State's defense is, it will have a hard time containing Miller and Carlos Hyde for 60 minutes, and Miller can flummox the best of defenses with his open-field running ability.
The Spartans take the lead into halftime as Cook is sharp early on, but Miller gets loose for a 60-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to give Ohio State the lead. Then he and Hyde grind out first downs in the fourth quarter to protect it. Still, both teams can bite down on some roses, because they're both headed to Pasadena. ... Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24
Adam Rittenberg: This is the matchup we've been waiting to see, and I can't wait for kickoff Saturday night. As I often do, I've changed my mind several times during the week. Michigan State should handle Ohio State's offense better than any defense has all season. Then again, Big Ten championship games are high scoring since teams no longer have to deal with the weather. Cook has never been on a stage like this and could show his inexperience. Then again, he has answered every challenge to date. And Miller hasn't played in a game of this magnitude, either.
I keep thinking back to last year's title game, where Nebraska came in as a favorite but clearly looked intimidated by the setting and the stakes. Wisconsin was the much looser team, played like it and spanked the Huskers. These are two different teams -- I think Michigan State will be the looser one, as the Spartans are likely headed to the Rose Bowl either way. Ohio State finally has the national title game in its sights. How will the Buckeyes hold up against the best team they've faced since 2011?
Ohio State jumps ahead early, as it almost always does, but the Spartans settle down and force two turnovers midway through the game. Cook attacks the secondary with the play-action and fires touchdown passes to Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Miller puts Ohio State in front midway through the fourth quarter with a touchdown run, but the Spartans answer behind Cook and Jeremy Langford, who finds some running room late. Michigan State ends this title game on the right side of a special-teams play, as Michael Geiger kicks his third field goal for the win. And the SEC rejoices. ... Michigan State 30, Ohio State 28
As you probably know, we've selected a guest picker each week this season to compete with us. For a game this big, we thought we needed to do something special. So we reached out to a couple of celebrity guest pickers from each side who have ties to Indianapolis as well.
First up is former Ohio State running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, who's now with the Indianapolis Colts. Herron picks the Buckeyes to win 31-17, saying, "I have confidence in my team and coaching staff. I haven't really watched [Michigan State], but I don't think they can stop our offense, and our defense will get the job done."
Our second guest picker is former Michigan State center Jason Strayhorn, an Indianapolis native who's now an analyst for the Spartans' radio network. Strayhorn says, "I think the game will come down to not only red zone defense, but also whose weakness is stronger: Michigan State's passing game versus Ohio State's pass defense. I say Connor Cook throws for 270 yards and Michigan State wins 28-24. I say that because that was the score we had when we went to Columbus and beat the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in 1998."
Thanks to Boom and Jason for their picks. We'll find out who's right Saturday night.
Brian Bennett: 80-16
Adam Rittenberg: 79-17
Guest pickers: 75-21
Just one game on tap, but it's a biggie.
Saturday: Pac-12 championship game
STANFORD at ARIZONA STATE
Kevin Gemmell: That this game is being played in Tempe is scary. I don't have a great history picking road dogs this season. ASU, riding a seven-game home winning streak, is a much stronger team in the desert and both of Stanford’s losses have come on the road. The defense has been on a tear since the Notre Dame loss and QB Taylor Kelly’s increased production in the run game has given the offense a boost. The question is whether the offense can be as potent without Marion Grice. Having Grice and D.J. Foster on the field at the same time allows the Sun Devils to do a lot of different things. That element is missing. I see Tyler Gaffney breaking 40 carries again as the Cardinal control the clock and keep ASU’s offense off the field. Stanford 31, Arizona State 28.
Ted Miller: In the Sept. 21 game -- a 42-28 Stanford blowout that wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicates -- Arizona State gave the Cardinal two interceptions and two blocked punts. It was a messy performance from an ASU team that was learning who it was. Over the past seven games -- all wins -- the Sun Devils have matured. They won't be the sloppy team they were at Stanford. They are 7-0 at home this year with an average margin of victory of 28 points. They won't reach that margin against the rugged Cardinal, but they are going to do enough to earn the school its first Rose Bowl berth since the 1996 season. Arizona State 28, Stanford 24.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
8:00 PM ET 20 Duke 1 Florida State 8:17 PM ET 2 Ohio State 10 Michigan State 4:00 PM ET 5 Missouri 3 Auburn 12:00 PM ET 17 Oklahoma 6 Oklahoma State 7:45 PM ET 7 Stanford 11 Arizona State 3:30 PM ET 25 Texas 9 Baylor 12:00 PM ET 16 UCF Southern Methodist 10:00 PM ET Utah State 23 Fresno State