14 players who will define championship weekend

By Ethan Sears

We are barreling toward the end of college football season and this week is when the roller coaster will finally reach its crescendo.

After conference championship games, there are no moreĀ if this, then that scenarios. The resumes are built — it’s in the committee’s hands. And unless Oklahoma, Georgia, and Wisconsin all win, this will be its toughest decision yet. Every key game this weekend will be tightly contested and every one of them will have massive consequences.

Here are 14 players who will define what happens next.

Bryce Love, running back, Stanford

It feels so cheap to go with Love as our selection for the Cardinal, but the simple fact is that he is Stanford’s offense. The Cardinal barely make the top-40 in passing S&P+ and are outside the top-50 in defensive S&P+. Rushing IsoPPP — in other words, explosive plays on the ground — is the one of two advanced statistical offensive categories in which Stanford ranks in the top 10, the other being overall IsoPPP, per Football Study Hall.

When Love was out against Oregon State, the Cardinal couldn’t score more than 15 points against a horrendous defense. Love is averaging an absurd 8.6 yards per carry on 1,848 total yards. They’re going to feed him on Friday and like it or not, his performance is going to dictate whether Stanford wins.

Rasheem Green, defensive tackle, USC

We’re keeping a similar theme for the Pac-12 Championship Game in looking at Green, USC’s biggest presence on the interior. He has 10.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and six run stuffs on the year. When USC played Stanford earlier in the year, winning 42-24, Love still had a big day, but that doesn’t mean the Trojans won’t be looking to limit him this time around. Green will be key to that effort. He needs to be a force on the inside. USC has struggled to limit big plays on the ground this season, but Green is their best shot of doing so.

Mark Andrews, tight end, Oklahoma

Andrews has been Mayfield’s favorite target all year. The junior has 52 catches on 73 targets for 864 yards. That translates to a 71.2 percent catch rate, which is just absurd. Matching up with a 6-foot-5 tight end is not something most college football teams are able to do. The Horned Frogs, however, did a solid job of it in the first matchup between the two, holding Andrews to four catches for 44 yards. That was fine and good, but Oklahoma managed to put up 38 points for an easy win anyway.

Whether Andrews is putting up numbers or not, he forces defenses to make tough decisions constantly. That was the case the first time TCU played Oklahoma and it will be this time. The Horned Frogs need to find a way to stop Andrews while simultaneously stopping the Sooners’ receivers, something they couldn’t do a few weeks ago.

Ben Banogu, defensive end, TCU

Ben Banogu

TCU’s best option to slow down the Sooners is get to Baker Mayfield. The Sooners did a wonderful job of stopping that from happening in the team’s first meeting, as Baker Mayfield was sacked just once all night. But TCU is a top-15 team in havoc rate and Banogu is a game-wrecker with 7.5 sacks and 14 TFLs on the year. Oklahoma does not have a particularly great offensive line — right tackle Bobby Evans has given up two sacks and three hurries on the year, per CFB Film Room, and he’ll be going up against Banogu on Sunday. This is a matchup TCU can take advantage of. And if they have a chance of winning, it’s a matchup the Horned Frogs will win.

Jake Fromm, quarterback, Georgia

There’s no way around it: Fromm wilted when the Bulldogs played Auburn the first time around. He completed less than half of his passes — 13 of 28 — for 184 yards, an abysmal average of 4.59 per attempt. Once the Tigers got up and Georgia couldn’t win by feeding Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the Bulldogs had no chance.

If the ‘Dawgs let Auburn stack the box and stop the run again, they will get blown out again. They need to establish that Fromm is worth respecting and do it early. Nothing is more important in this game than Fromm completing some passes, and maybe even a deep play, on Georgia’s first drive. Doing so would force Auburn to adjust and allow the Bulldogs to open up their run game.

Kerryon Johnson, running back, Auburn

Johnson is dealing with a shoulder injury, the impact of which was evident in the Iron Bowl last week. Though he managed to get over 100 yards, Johnson averaged just 3.5 per carry against Alabama. The junior was a catalyst against Georgia the first time around, going for 167 yards on the ground and a receiving touchdown. To complete the gauntlet and make the playoffs, Auburn needs another Herculean performance from Johnson. It can’t beat Georgia without a run game — the ‘Dawgs’ defense is too good for Jarrett Stidham to win it by himself.

Malik Rosier, quarterback, Miami

The Hurricanes need Rosier to play the game of his life the week after he stunk up the joint against Pitt. Rosier was a terrible 15-of-34 for just 187 yards against the Panthers. Even more alarming, that was the fourth game this year in which his completion rate has been under 50 percent. That will not fly against Clemson. The Tigers will pummel Miami if the Hurricanes beat themselves. Miami has survived a lot of games this year in which it hasn’t played its best. It needs to play its best to even compete against Clemson.

Austin Bryant, defensive end, Clemson

Bryant is capable of making Rosier’s life hell, perhaps more than anyone else in Clemson’s vaunted pass rush. The junior has 7.5 sacks, three hits, and 12 hurries on the year, per CFB Film Room. That’s along with 14.5 TFLs and 10 run stuffs, per Football Study Hall. Miami’s offensive line has been shaky at times this year. It has to be rock solid on Saturday. Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dorian O’Daniel, and are capable of wrecking this game if the Hurricanes’ offensive line isn’t playing perfectly.

Jamarco Jones, left tackle, Ohio State

Jones has been rock solid this season, with a 99.1 pass blocking percentage, per CFB Film Room. If he’s as good as that this week, the Buckeyes will blow out Wisconsin just like in 2014. The Badgers’ calling card is their pass rush. They lead the nation with a 24.7 percent havoc rate. And outside linebacker Garret Dooley is perhaps their best pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks and 11 TFLs. He’ll be primarily matching up against Jones on Saturday. If the senior left tackle can stop Dooley, it will cripple Wisconsin’s pass rush. The Badgers have other weapons and the Buckeyes will need to win across the line, but this matchup is the biggest.

Alex Hornibrook, quarterback, Wisconsin

This is the game where Hornibrook has to make throws if the Badgers have a chance of winning. Wisconsin will not win this game with defense and running the ball alone. Ohio State can score against any team in the country and can slow down Jonathan Taylor. Hornibrook is not a reliable passer by any means, but this has to be a sink-or-swim game for him. If Wisconsin can’t throw the ball, the game is easy for the Buckeyes’ defense. Just load up the box and play the run. Hornibrook doesn’t have to be Lamar Jackson, but he has to be capable. Anything less and this will end embarrassingly for Wisconsin.

Riley Ferguson, quarterback, Memphis

Ferguson had one of his worst performances of the year the first time Memphis played UCF, getting picked off three times for a 104.6 passer efficiency rating. The Knights are vulnerable after South Florida came close to knocking them off last week, but not if Memphis doesn’t get better play out of Ferguson. UCF’s defense is not impenetrable — it ranks 66th in defensive S&P+. Offense is Central Florida’s calling card, as it’s averaging nearly 50 points per game. If the Tigers can’t score enough to keep up with the Knights, they can’t win.

Mike Hughes, defensive back, Central Florida

Likewise, if UCF slows down Memphis’ passing game, this game will be just as easy as its 40-13 victory over the Tigers was in September. Hughes is Central Florida’s best defensive back. He’s got four interceptions and 11 pass breakups, along with a 63.2 percent success rate, per Football Study Hall. The AAC Championship Game functions as a playoff with the winner getting a New Year’s Six bid, and Hughes will have a huge role to play. He defensed three passes and had six tackles the first time the two met. A similar performance will put UCF in a New Year’s Six game.

Cedrick Wilson, wide receiver, Boise State

The Mountain West title game is weird because not only has Boise State played Fresno State this year, the two faced off last week. The Bulldogs won 28-17, but Wilson was the Broncos’ best source of offense. He had 134 yards on seven catches, but just a 31 percent success rate. Given that he averaged 19.1 yards per catch, that number feels like an anomaly, but Brett Rypien has to find Wilson in more beneficial situations nonetheless. If he can put up a similar performance, this time at home, Boise State could exit as Mountain West champs.

Jordan Mims, running back, Fresno State

Mims struggled to get going against the Broncos last week, putting up just 43 yards on 11 carries. The freshman hasn’t been a star — he’s averaging just 4.3 yards per carry on the year — but when he’s going, it’s tough to slow down the Bulldogs. Boise State has a strong run defense, but if Mims improves on last week’s performance, it’s tough to imagine Fresno State losing. That would give Fresno a multi-faceted offense to work with. Even on the road, it’s hard to think that wouldn’t push the Bulldogs over the top.