Power 5 Players to Watch During Conference Championship Week.

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by Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor

**NOTE**: All times of games listed are Eastern Standard Time. Top 25 rankings reflect those of this week’s College Football Playoff poll. All PS #’s of players mentioned can be found in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. All statistics, pass efficiency defense ratings, and power ratings can be found on PhilSteele.com as a subscriber to Phil Steele Plus. Subscribe to Phil Steele Plus right now for just $44.00 through the Super Bowl on the PhilSteele.com Store. Follow Phil Steele on Twitter to receive all of Phil’s insight and analysis for this week’s upcoming games and all college football news @philsteele042.

As of last Saturday, college football’s regular season is officially over. Twenty FBS teams have earned the right to play the first week in December for a chance to earn a coveted conference championship. For teams like Baylor, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah the stakes cannot be higher as all four teams are vying for that highly competitive fourth spot in the College Football Playoff. Other teams like Ohio State, LSU, and Clemson are all looking to secure dominant victories that could catch the eye of the playoff committee and catapult one team to the number one seed in the playoff. Lastly, there are teams like Virginia who are representing the ACC Coastal Division in the conference championship game this weekend for the first time in school history. The Hoos enter this game as a little more than four touchdown underdogs to defending national champion Clemson, but Bronco Mendenhall’s team will look to give the No. 3 Tigers everything they can handle Saturday night in Charlotte.

Since conference championship week carries the biggest implications and most often the best teams, it should come as no surprise that some of the best players in the country this season will be on display, looking to provide a game changing performance that will lead their team to a conference championship. Some of college football’s greatest players have cemented their legacies in the conference championship. In 1997, Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning led one of the greatest comebacks in SEC Championship game history, helping the Volunteers overcome a 20-7 deficit to prevail as SEC champions, 30-29. Manning was given MVP honors after his remarkable day through the air, passing for 373 yards and four touchdowns.

In the 2003 Big 12 Championship, Bill Snyder’s Kansas State team entered as a two-touchdown underdog to No. 1 Oklahoma. The Sooners got out to a fast start behind 2003 Heisman winning quarterback Jason White, but that would be all the Sooners could manage. Kansas State running back Darren Sproles would gouge the Oklahoma defense for 235 yards on the ground while Wildcats signal caller Eli Roberson would go 10-17 passing with four touchdowns to shock the nation and take down the top ranked Sooners 35-7.

Last year, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa entered the SEC title game against Georgia as the favorite to win the Heisman, but that fortune would soon turn sour as he struggled against the Bulldogs defense, going 10-25 passing for only 164 yards and a touchdown while throwing two uncharacteristic and costly interceptions. In the fourth quarter Tagovailoa went down with an ankle injury, and coach Nick Saban would call upon 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year and one-time starter Jalen Hurts to keep Alabama’s perfect season and playoff hopes alive trailing 28-21 with 11:15 left in the final quarter. A 27-2 record as a starter under center for Saban, Hurts went out and did what he had done the previous two seasons at Alabama: win. The junior came off the bench to go 7-9 passing for 82 yards and a touchdown. Hurts would also rush into the endzone for the game-winning score on a 15-yard run with 1:04 left to accomplish the unthinkable and lift the Tide to a 35-28 victory. Hurts will always be remembered in Tuscaloosa as one of the winningest quarterbacks in Alabama history, but his performance off the bench last year in Atlanta forever cemented his legacy with Tide fans.

This year’s conference championship games feature multiple Top 25 matchups that boast tons of talents on both sides of the ball. Highlighted below are the top players to watch from all ten Power 5 teams vying for a conference championship this weekend.

 

SEC Championship Game

 

WHO: No. 2 LSU vs. No. 4 Georgia

WHEN: Saturday, December 7 4:00 PM

WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA

HOW TO WATCH: CBS

  

LSU Player to Watch:

 

JA’MARR CHASE, WR

Sophomore, Metairie, LA

SEASON STATS: 70 receptions, 1,457 yards, 17 TD’s, 20.8 YPC

LSU passing coordinator Joe Brady has no doubt been a game changer for the LSU offense and in particular senior quarterback Joe Burrow, who is the current Heisman frontrunner. However, many seem to overlook or forget that Brady is also the Tigers wideouts coach, and he is the man responsible for the explosion of production from this unit and Chase in particular. Last year was a disappointing year for the LSU receiving unit, as they were labeled as inconsistent, poor route runners, inexperienced, and underperforming. When Brady arrived from the New Orleans Saints in January, he set out to change the narrative surrounding this position group.

The passing game coordinator and wideouts coach instituted the “Summer of 10,000 catches,” where it was a requirement for the group to catch 10,000 balls during the Summer before the season kicked off. The tactic was unusual and odd to many around college football, where players sometimes wore Batman-like masks and the doors of the indoor practice facility swung open and close as footballs from coaches and Juggs machines were rifled at the unit.

While most definitely unusual and odd, the tactic has paid huge dividends, especially for players like Chase, who has seen his production triple since 2018. Last year was a big learning curve for Chase as a true freshman, where he caught 23 passes for 313 yards and three scores, a respectable year. But much like the rest of the unit, drops and sloppy route running plagued Chase. Midway through this season Chase became the clear deep threat for Burrow and he has continued to torch defenses, averaging an incredible 20.8 yards per catch. With the emergence of junior receiver Justin Jefferson and sophomore Terrace Marshall as well as running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire as threats in the passing game, teams have not been able to double team Chase or provide support to the defensive back covering him by playing a safety over the top.

Ranked the PS#49 receiver in the class of 2018, Chase has finally lived up to his hype in Baton Rouge. He is feeling very confident heading into the SEC title game, as Chase was recently named as one of the three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the top receiver in college football each year. The Georgia defense will look to limit some of Chase’s big plays early, but that will be a large task. LSU’s offense has gained 187 yards more than their opponents defenses are allowing on average this year, good for second best in the country. Look for Chase to run a lot of deep routes and get open down the sideline as he will look to cement his case for the Biletnikoff and Burrow’s for the Heisman on Saturday in Atlanta.

 

GEORGIA PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

JR REED, RS

Redshirt Senior, Frisco, TX

SEASON STATS: 48 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1.5 TFL’s, 1 INT, 7 PBU’s

 

Last year the Georgia secondary was led by 2018 Thorpe Award winner DeAndre Baker (#1DC NYG) who consistently shut down the top receivers in the SEC on a week-to-week basis. His loss was a big one for Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs, but much like during his time as the defensive coordinator at Alabama, Smart has been able to get experienced and talented players to step up and fill a void in leadership and All-SEC caliber play for the Dawgs defense. Safety JR Reed has been that veteran contributor for the defense this year, as he has emerged as one of the premier secondary players in the country. A finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award which is given to the top defensive back in college football annualy, Reed has finally began to receive the recognition he has waited for.

Reed and junior Richard LeCounte returned as the starting safeties for the Bulldogs this season after they finished 2018 as the number one (LeCounte) and two (Reed) tacklers. The Georgia defense has been among the country’s best this season, holding opposing offenses to 138 yards below their season averages and entering conference championship week at No. 15 in our Pass Efficiency Defense rankings.

Joe Burrow will look to take shots downfield early and often this Saturday, but Tagovailoa and Alabama looked to do the same against Reed last year and found little success. Reed was outstanding last year for the ‘Dawgs in the SEC title game, tallying eight tackles and an interception. The Georgia front seven is one of the best in the nation and if they can get pressure to Burrow and force him to scramble and make inaccurate throws, Reed could come up with another key pick like he did last year. Watch out for Reed and his impressive coverage skills on LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase downfield as well as his great tackling in open space.

 

BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

 

WHO: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Wisconsin

WHEN: Saturday, December 7 8:00 PM

WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN

HOW TO WATCH: FOX

 

OHIO STATE PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

CHASE YOUNG, DE

Junior, Upper Marlboro, MD

SEASON STATS: 38 tackles, 16.5 sacks, 3 TFL’s, 6 FF’s, 4 QBH’s

It should come as no surprise that Young is the player to watch during this Week 9 rematch. The reasoning for Young as the player to watch this week however does come as a bit of surprise. Last week during “The Game” against rival Michigan, Young was slowed down mightily by the Michigan offensive line and in particular tackles Jon Runyan and Jalen Mayfield. In fact, slowed down might even be a bit mild to describe how Michigan prevented Young from making an impact. Young was THWARTED last week, not registering a single sack or tackle for loss, let alone tackle, a first for the Buckeyes star this year. He was credited however with two quarterback hurries of Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson.

A PS#4 defensive lineman from the class of 2017, Young has been one of the most dominant defensive players college football has seen since former South Carolina Gamecocks edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney who was drafted number one overall in 2014. Young’s combination of speed, power, and athleticism makes him the most feared edge rusher in the country, and the top draft eligible defensive end in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview.

Young had a career day in Week 9 against Wisconsin in Columbus. The Maryland native racked up four sacks and two forced fumbles. While it appears that Joe Burrow has the Heisman all but wrapped up, Young will look to make another push for college football’s most prestigious individual award. Watch out for the 6’5 255 lb. edge rusher to have a big game against the Badgers as the Bednarik, Nagurski, and Maxwell finalist will look to help the Buckeyes hold onto their No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff.

 

WISCONSIN PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

TYLER BIADASZ, C

Junior, Amherst, WI

SEASON STATS: 12 Starts, 86.7 rating (rating according to Pro Football Focus)

Wisconsin has a storied history of producing NFL offensive lineman, and junior center Tyler Biadasz is just another talented lineman to come through the Badgers system. Biadasz has started every game at center since 2017 and he has been among the nation’s best interior lineman, earning a nod as a finalist for the Outland Trophy, which is presented to the best interior lineman in college football.

Biadasz is among the country’s most efficient when snapping the ball, rarely making a bad snap or pre-snap penalty. He is excellent in pass protection and is often the lead blocker on outside tosses to running back Jonathan Taylor. When Taylor runs inside, Biadasz helps create a large hole for Taylor to plow through, and a lot of his explosive runs come as a result of Biadasz’s physical and excellent run blocking.

A PS#192 offensive lineman from the class of 2016, Biadasz was not a highly talented recruit coming out of high school. However, Badgers head coach Paul Chryst does an excellent job of recruiting in-state lineman to join his system, and the development throughout their career in Madison is a pleasant sight. The Wisconsin offensive line is experienced, disciplined, and they play tough Midwest football.

The Ohio State game was a major disappointment for Wisconsin, and the offensive line in particular. For a unit that held such high regard nationally and were viewed by many experts as the only unit that could slow down Chase Young, they were dominated by Young and the Ohio State front seven. Taylor rushed for 52 yards on 20 carries while quarterback Jack Coan threw for 108 yards and a touchdown despite being sacked five times.

Biadasz and company will certainly look to redeem themselves this time around against the Buckeyes. Taylor is off a two-touchdown performance last week against rival Minnesota, and Biadasz will be the key to create those big holes he is notorious for creating in the middle of the field. Coan had nice game last week as well, throwing for 280 yards and a pair of scores. While it is not likely Chase Young will line up against Biadasz, he will be tasked with Ohio State defensive tackle Robert Landers who has a reputation for stifling opposing teams running games and batting down passes. Wisconsin will need a strong performance from their line to avenge their previous loss to Ohio State, and Biadasz will be the key man in the middle looking to provide opportunities for the Badger offense to produce.

 

ACC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

 

WHO: No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 23 Virginia

WHEN: Saturday, December 7 7:30 PM

WHERE: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC

HOW TO WATCH: ABC

CLEMSON PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

TRAVIS ETIENNE, RB

Junior, Jennings, LA

SEASON STATS: RUSH: 1,386 yards, 16 TD’s, 8.3 YPC

                                 REC: 28 receptions, 289 yards, 2 TD’s

 

Clemson’s offense is obviously highlighted by sophomore signal caller Trevor Lawrence and star wideouts Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, and Tee Higgins, but it sometimes seems that Etienne’s production and talent is overshadowed by Lawrence and the other figures on the Tigers offense. Since arriving on campus in 2017, Etienne has been a workhorse for head coach Dabo Swinney and always delivers when called upon. Last year was a breakout year for Etienne like many expected it would be, as he rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns while adding 12 catches for 78 yards and two more scores through the air.

Since he took over as Clemson’s starting quarterback last year against Georgia Tech, Lawrence has received a lot of the praise and high regards that is directed towards the Tigers offense. Lawrence however has come out and said many times how great of a compliment it is to have Etienne in the backfield and how much of an asset he is as a pass blocker. Etienne earning the 2019 ACC Player of the Year is a great representation of just how good he really is. While many fans and experts have directed their praise and attention to Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins this season, Etienne has grinded away while continuing to solidify his great career at Clemson.

The PS#35 Etienne is always dangerous and can bust off a big run at any given moment, as evident this season and last year in the ACC Championship against Pittsburgh and in the Cotton Bowl semifinal against Notre Dame. Etienne is indeed the big playmaker for Clemson that could produce a big play by plowing his way through the Virginia defense. While all eyes will once again be fixed upon Trevor Lawrence, look for Etienne to get going in December much like he did last year.

 

VIRGINIA PLAYER TO WATCH:

JORDAN MACK, LB

Senior, Lithonia, GA

SEASON STATS: 69 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 TFL, 2 FF’s, 10 QBH’s

The streak is finally over for the Hoos. Last Friday Virginia defeated rival Virginia Tech 39-30 for the first time since 2003, bringing the Commonwealth Cup back to Charlottesville. With the win over the Hokies, Virginia was crowned ACC Coastal Champions for the first time in school history. For senior linebacker Jordan Mack, the Commonwealth Cup coming home is something he has dreamed of for over four years, but he understands that he can’t relish the victory too much with No. 3 Clemson on deck this weekend in the ACC Championship.

A starter since his true freshman season, Mack is without a doubt the leader of the Hoos defense and the one who sparks their energy and physical play. Mack finished second on the team in tackles last season with 66 behind two-time All-ACC safety Juan Thornhill (#2DC KC). The expectations for Virginia this year were high around Charlottesville and many ACC media members questioned if Virginia could indeed win the Coastal with competition from rival Virginia Tech and Manny Diaz’s Miami Hurricanes. Mack has provided great leadership all year for a veteran defense that includes four seniors.

Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell likes to blitz his linebackers early and often, and Mack’s 7.5 sacks are good evidence of that. He is also a great tackler in open space and closes in on the ball carrier quickly and uses his 6’2 230 lb. frame to lay punishing hits. If Virginia wants to have any chance of shocking the country and defeating No. 3 Clemson, they will need to rely on Mack to have a big game and get pressure to Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence. The Clemson offensive line has been very good this season, but they will have their hands full with Mack and the Hoos experienced defense Saturday evening.

 

BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

 

WHO: No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Baylor

WHEN: Saturday, December 7 12:00 PM

WHERE: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX

HOW TO WATCH: ABC

 

OKLAHOMA PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

CEEDEE LAMB, WR

Junior, Richmond, TX

SEASON STATS: 50 receptions, 1,035 yards, 14 TD’s, 20.7 YPC

Lamb has been a catalyst on offense for the Sooners since he arrived on campus in 2017. In his freshman year Lamb hauled in 46 catches for 807 yards and seven touchdowns earning freshman All-American honors. Last year, Lamb increased his production with 65 catches for 1,158 yards and 11 scores. The Biletnikoff finalist has been a reliable and trustworthy target for Oklahoma Heisman quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (2017) and Kyler Murray (2018) the past two seasons, and Alabama graduate transfer and Heisman hopeful Jalen Hurts has been able to locate Lamb just like the other two did.

The Sooners have a great history of wideouts that include career receiving leaders Ryan Broyles (4,586 yds; ’08-11), Sterling Shepard (3,482 yds; ’12-15), and Mark Clayton (3,241 yds, ’01-04). The offense took a hit this offseason losing four members of their 2018 Joe Moore Award offensive line of the year as well as QB Murray (#1DC AZ) and deep threat Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (#1DC BAL) who caught 75 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Lamb has patiently waited his turn to be Oklahoma’s official No. 1 wide receiver, and he has proven why he is one of the elite wide receivers in the country. Lamb’s unique combination of size, speed, route running, and amazing agility make him a bear to tackle in the open field and nearly impossible to defend on fades in the endzone. He earned Phil Steele 2019 Preseason 3rd Team All-American honors among many other accolades.

Lamb did not play against Baylor on November 16 due to an injury, so it should be interesting to see how he matches up against the Baylor secondary. Hurts had success against the Bears in their earlier matchup as he was able to find receivers Lee Morris and Charleston Rambo for big plays as Oklahoma erased a 28-3 first half deficit to stun fans in McLane Stadium as the Sooners rallied to win 34-31. Oklahoma will look to secure their fifth straight Big 12 Championship on Saturday and you can imagine Hurts is ecstatic Lamb will be available this time around against Baylor.

 

BAYLOR PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

CHARLIE BREWER, QB

Junior, Austin, TX

SEASON STATS: PASSING: 2,935 yards, 65.5% completion %, 20-6 TD-INT ratio

                                 RUSHING: 340 yards, 10 TD’s

 

Brewer is another great quarterback to come from Lake Travis High School in Austin that has produced NFL quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Garrett Gilbert. Brewer has enjoyed a fantastic season under third year head coach Matt Rhule, but things weren’t all smooth sailing two years ago for the former PS#76 signal caller. In four starts as a freshman in 2017, Brewer completed 68% of his passes for 1,562 yards and 11 touchdowns, but Baylor finished a lowly 1-11 in year one under Rhule. Last season Brewer progressed, as did the Bears as he threw for 3,019 yards and 19 scores while leading his team to a 7-6 victory that included a 45-38 bowl victory over Vanderbilt.

This year, Brewer has taken off and become one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12. His play has sometimes been overshadowed by the big-name quarterbacks in the conference that includes Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, and Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman. He has earned lots of praise from Big 12 media members and his teammates for his toughness and standing in the pocket and making big plays during comeback victories against Texas Tech and TCU.

The stunning 34-31 loss to Oklahoma on November 16 at home left many Baylor fans with questions surrounding their team’s playoff aspirations, but Brewer quickly put those to rest the week after against Texas as he finished 16-25 for 221 yards and a touchdown while adding 75 yards on the ground. Brewer will be looking for redemption on Saturday and this could be the perfect game for him to put together a spectacular performance in Arlington. Baylor sits at No. 7 in this week’s playoff rankings and a victory over four-time defending Big 12 champions Oklahoma could propel Brewer and the Bears into the No. 4 spot. Brewer will look to connect with top targets Denzel Mims and Tyquan Thornton against an Oklahoma secondary that is prone to big plays.

 

PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP

 

WHO: No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Virginia

WHEN: Friday, December 6 8:00 PM

WHERE: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA

HOW TO WATCH: ABC

 

UTAH PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

ZACK MOSS, RB

Senior, Hialeah Gardens, FL

SEASON STATS: RUSHING: 1,246 yds, 15 TD’s, 6.2 YPC

                                 RECEIVING: 22 receptions, 317 yds, 1 TD

 

Moss has been the definition of what Utah football is during his four years as a Ute under coach Kyle Whittingham. The running back is Utah’s all-time leader in rushing with 3,897 yards and rushing touchdowns with 38. This year, the Phil Steele Preseason 1st Team All-PAC-12 member has been his same old reliable self for the Utah offense.

Led by Moss and a stellar defense, Utah sits at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings with a chance to grab the final spot in the four-team playoff should they defeat Oregon Friday night in Santa Clara. Rain and wind are expected in Northern California Friday night and that could be a major advantage for the Utes.

Moss is a thick, powerful back at 5’10 215 lbs. with strong legs that can easily break tackles and push a pile of defenders into the endzone for a score or past the marker for a first down. Oregon’s defense has been among some of the best in the PAC-12 this season, but they will have their hands full with Moss. Whittingham will look to pound the ball with Moss as Phil Steele’s 2019 No. 1 Surprise Team (non-top ten preseason team that has the best chance to make the College Football Playoff) hopes to secure a PAC-12 title and potential spot in the playoff!

 

OREGON PLAYER TO WATCH:

 

JUSTIN HERBERT, QB

Senior, Eugene, OR

SEASON STATS: PASSING: 3,140 YDS, 67.5% completion %, 31-5 TD-INT ratio

                                 RUSHING: 1 YD, 1 TD

 

When Herbert announced last December before the Redbox Bowl that he would not enter the NFL Draft and return for his senior year, many labeled Herbert as a Heisman favorite and Oregon as a potential team to win the national championship. Needless to say, the Eugene native has come up just shy of both of those goals, as the Ducks sit at 10-2 and No. 13 in the latest playoff rankings while Herbert most likely will not receive an invite to New York City as a Heisman finalist. However, part of his goal in the letter he wrote to fans last December announcing his return was to win a PAC-12 title, and the 2019 Phil Steele Preseason 3rd Team All-American quarterback has a chance to do just that Friday night.

A PS#25 QB from the Class of 2016, Herbert stands at a sturdy 6’6 233 lbs. and he has one of the most fluent throwing motions in the country. One thing Herbert looked to improve on this season as he returned was his deep ball, and he has accomplished that as he has done a much better job hitting his receiver’s running down the field in 2019. He has also improved his completion percentage by 8.1%. While a good chunk of Herbert’s completions are screen passes, the increase in completion percentage is a positive sign nonetheless for Herbert himself, the Ducks offense, and NFL scouts.

As mentioned previously, the weather in Santa Clara Friday night is expected to be very rainy and windy, creating sloppy conditions for Herbert to work in the pocket and complete passes. However, head coach Mario Cristobal is not afraid to throw the ball in not ideal conditions, as this is proven since Herbert has played in a few games with cold temperatures and snow. CJ Verdell is a solid running back and has had big games this year, but Herbert will look to provide a solid outing in his last chance to earn a conference championship. While the weather may prevent Herbert from being able to showcase his full display of arm talent and mobility, he may surprise some people and look to unload a few deep balls to one of his speedy wideouts down the field.