Each week, Athlon Sports will highlight some of the best one-on-one matchups to watch in college football. Here are the most important games within the game to watch this weekend:
Max Bullough, LB vs. Ameer Abdullah, RB (Michigan State at Nebraska)
Sparty gets after the quarterback and will shut down the running game, so it falls to the Nebraska front line to protect an inexperienced quarterback and generate running lanes for Ameer Abdullah. The Big Ten’s leading rusher has come up big in huge spots over the last two weeks for the Huskers and this will be his toughest test to date in 2013. Bullough leads a Michigan State defense that gives up 43.4 yards rushing, 210.2 yards of total offense and 11.6 points per game.
Trent Murphy, LB vs. Chad Wheeler, OT (Stanford at USC)
The Trojans haven’t been able to protect the quarterback this year, ranking 83rd nationally in sacks allowed per game (2.3 spg). Wheeler is a 6-foot-7, 280-pound redshirt freshman who will be charged with protecting Cody Kessler’s blindside against the Stanford rush. Murphy leads a loaded Cardinal front seven that is surging right now, ranking fourth nationally in sacks per game (3.3 spg). Stanford has allowed just 153 combined rushing yards to UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon the last three weeks, so the Trojans' offensive line will have to play its best game of the season to 1) protect the quarterback and 2) run the football effectively.
Todd Gurley, RB vs. Cassanova McKinzy, LB (Georgia at Auburn)
We’re not breaking news here, but Gurley — when healthy — is one of the elite offensive players in college football. He missed three games with a ankle injury; Georgia lost two and won the other in overtime. He returned two weeks ago against Florida and keyed the Bulldogs’ win, rushing for 100 yards on 17 carries and catching three passes for 87 yards and a score. It’s pretty simple: Georgia is much more explosive when Gurley is in the lineup. McKinzy is the Tigers' leading tackler and has 17 total stops in his last two games. He and the rest of his young front seven will have their hands full with Gurley.
Desmond Roland, RB vs. Steve Edmond, LB (Oklahoma St at Texas)
The Pokes' tailback has started to take over in the running game for Oklahoma State. He has carried 73 times for 359 yards and eight touchdowns over his last three. Edmond is the physical leader and top tackler for the Longhorns' defense. He posted 12 tackles last week in the overtime win over West Virginia as well as the game-clinching interception. Both play with a hard-nosed attitude and they should meet head-to-head in the hole many times this weekend. With injuries along the front for Texas, Edmond becomes even more important this weekend with a shot at the Big 12 title on the line.
Shaq Thompson, LB vs. Brett Hundley, QB (Washington at UCLA)
Thompson, Princeton Fuimaono and John Timu are the top three tacklers for the Huskies this season. They have faced Marcus Mariota, Taylor Kelly, Nathan Scheelhaase, B.J. Denker and Kevin Hogan and UCLA’s Brett Hundley is as good as any of them. Hundley has scored seven total touchdowns over the last two games and reading run-pass quickly and effectively will be huge for U of W this weekend against a team lacking in skill position talent.
Stephen Morris, QB vs. Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
With running back Duke Johnson sidelined, Miami struggled to run the ball in last week’s loss to Virginia Tech. Without their top rusher for the rest of the year, the Hurricanes could ask more of Morris. The senior averaged 20.3 yards per completion against the Hokies last week and threw for 324 yards and two scores. Cockrell is one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks, recording 33 stops and two interceptions in 2013. Expect Cockrell to be matched up against wide receiver Allen Hurns or Stacy Coley most of the game, and it’s up to the Blue Devils' senior leader to keep those two receivers in check, as well as force Morris into a few bad throws.
Georgia Linebackers vs. Nick Marshall, QB (Georgia at Auburn)
It’s not often that a player has the opportunity to play against his former school. It’s even more rare — if it’s ever happened at all —when that player is a quarterback after playing a different position at his previous school. Well, that’s Marshall’s story. The former defensive back at Georgia is now running the show for Auburn, the most improved team in the nation. He is coming off of a brilliant performance at Tennessee, when he rushed for 214 yards and two scores on only 14 carries. Marshall hasn’t been asked to throw the ball a ton, but he did throw for 339 yards against Mississippi State and 200-plus against LSU and Texas A&M. Georgia coach Mark Richt compared Auburn’s rushing attack to Georgia Tech’s triple-option. The alignment isn’t the same, but the plan of attack is similar — the offense is “accounting for just about every single guy on your team,” Richt said, because the quarterback has the ability to run the ball. When Marshall initiates the action, a defender has to account for him and another defender has to account for the running back. What does this have to do with Georgia’s linebackers? A lot. This group will have to play with discipline and be able to tackle in space.