Two NCAA championships will be handed out this weekend, so for today’s edition of What We’re Watching we’ll start with Division III and work our way up.
Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl – Mount Union (Ohio) vs. St. Thomas (Minn.) (7 p.m. ET Friday, ESPNU): This weekend’s only match-up of undefeated teams pits Mount Union against St. Thomas in Salem, Va., for the Division III national championship. Mount Union has won 10 national titles under Larry Kehres and makes its eighth straight Stagg Bowl appearance. This year marks the first time since 2004 that someone other than Mount Union and Wisconsin – Whitewater squares off in the Stagg Bowl as Glenn Caruso looks to bring St. Thomas its first national title. Mary Hardin-Baylor was able to victimize the Mount Union defense for 162 rushing yards and four touchdowns in last week’s semifinal, but the Purple Raiders still sit atop Division III’s scoring offense and scoring defense rankings. St. Thomas will need a duplicate of last week’s first quarter, when the Tommies jumped out to a 21-0 lead in its semifinal win over Wisconsin – Oshkosh.
Division II National Championship – Winston-Salem (N.C.) vs. Valdosta State (Ga.) (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2): Winston-Salem, the last team alphabetically in Division II, is also D2’s only undefeated team left standing as the top-ranked Rams square off with Valdosta State in Florence, Ala. Winston-Salem, however, makes its Division II national title game debut, while Valdosta State will play in its fourth national championship game, with titles won in 2004 and 2007. Valdosta State (11-2) has won nine straight games and scored 35 points or more in six straight outings. Winston-Salem ranks in Division II’s top eight in scoring offense and total defense and has played only three of its 14 games within one score.
FCS Semifinals – Georgia Southern at North Dakota State (8 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN2): This is a rematch of last year’s semifinal match-up when North Dakota State ran over the Eagles 35-7 en route to the national championship. Georgia Southern finished the 2011 season ranked second nationally in rushing offense and were outrushed 314-186 by the Bison. Jeff Monken’s team this year leads FCS in rushing (409.2 yards per game, 6.69 yards per carry, 53 touchdowns) back to the Fargo Dome to face a North Dakota State team that ranks second nationally in rushing defense (78.6 ypg, 2.68 ypc, three TDs), first in total defense (207.4 ypg, 3.97 ypp) and first in scoring defense (10.8 ppg).
FCS Semifinals – Sam Houston State at Eastern Washington (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU): Here’s your trivia nugget of the weekend, and possibly the year: On Saturday, Sam Houston State will become the first team in college football to play on the blue turf at Boise State, the purple and gray striped turf at Central Arkansas and the bright red turf at Eastern Washington. The Bearkats may not see much of the red surface as snow is in the Cheney, Wash., forecast all weekend. Nevertheless, Eastern Washington is 7-0 at home this fall, including two playoff games. Quarterback Kyle Padron threw for 358 yards and six touchdowns in last week’s 51-35 win over Illinois State, but Sam Houston State’s boasts FCS’s 12th-ranked scoring defense as well as the Southland Conference’s leading rusher Tim Flanders (1,358 yards and 17 touchdowns) and pass efficiency leader Brian Bell (2,167 yards with 20 TDs and 6 INTs).
New Mexico Bowl – Nevada vs. Arizona (1 p.m. ET, ESPN): The bowl season kicks off with a border clash that has only occurred three times previously, most recently in 1941. Arizona has scored 34 or more in seven of its last eight games and features the Pac-12’s best offense south of Eugene, ranking with college football’s top 17 in rushing offense, total offense and scoring offense. On the other side of the ball, Nevada’s seventh-ranked rushing offense will attempt to run through a Wildcats defense that ranks 116th nationally. Nevada has topped 30 points in all but one game this season. Expect an old fashion, Wild West shootout, Nevada ranks 94th nationally in scoring defense while Arizona is 101st in the country.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Toledo vs. Utah State (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): This is the first of a handful of bowls pitting non-AQ teams that won five or more conference games in 2012. After an overtime defeat at Arizona to open the season, Matt Campbell’s team ripped off eight straight wins to play itself into MAC championship contention but consecutive losses to Ball State and Northern Illinois sent the Rockets to Boise. Utah State will poise the best challenge Toledo’s offense has faced this season, ranking in the top 15 nationally in five defensive categories. The defense is keyed by an excellent secondary, led by the FootballScoop Defensive Backs Coaches of the Year in Bill Busch and Kendrick Shaver. Utah State won the final WAC championship, set a school record with 10 wins (its only defeats came 16-14 to Wisconsin and 6-3 to BYU) and made its first appearance in the AP poll in more than 50 years.