For those unable to curb their hunger for BCS bowls to cap off the 2012 FBS college football season, a lesser-known but extremely exciting matchup is on tap for the Division II national championship.
The undefeated Winston-Salem Rams will take on the Valdosta State Blazers at Braley Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala., on Saturday night in what should be an intriguing showdown.
Both teams were No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Division II bracket, and everything went according to plan after each had a first-round bye.
West Texas A&M proved no match for the unblemished Rams in the semifinals, falling by a decisive score of 41-18. But the Blazers aren't strangers to spoiling teams' storybook seasons, as they did in their own semifinal triumph over previously 13-0 Minnesota State-Mankato by a score of 35-19.
Here is a look at the information you need to know as kickoff approaches for what should be an epic clash.
When: Saturday, Dec. 15, at 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: Braley Municipal Stadium, Florence, Ala.
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Betting Line (h/t Sport Bet): Winston-Salem (-1.5)
Road to the Championship
Winston Salem State
|Semifinal||West Texas A&M||41-18|
Key Storyline: A Battle of Prolific Offenses
Both teams are more well known for their explosive offenses, which can put up points with the best of them.
Winston-Salem QB Kameron Smith is second in the nation in Division II with 9.42 yards per pass attempt and has thrown 42 touchdowns to just nine interceptions on the year (h/t WSSURams.com). The Rams' vertical passing game sets up the multifaceted ground attack, keyed by Smith's capability as a runner.
Not to be overlooked, RB Maurice Lewis has had a stellar year himself, rushing for 13 touchdowns and 969 yards on just 185 carries. Smith has scampered for over 503 yards, but 181 of those have been wiped out, primarily by sack yardage.
The Rams' 85 touchdowns as a team tops Division II (h/t NCAA.com).
For the Blazers, two 1,000-yard rushers headline: running backs Cedric O'Neal and Austin Scott. The dynamic duo has combined for 22 touchdowns, and quarterback Cayden Cochran has accounted for nine scores himself on the ground.
Cochran is similarly athletic and efficient to the Rams' Smith, throwing just eight interceptions, countered by 25 touchdowns.
With two dual-threat QBs squaring off backed by solid running games, the high-scoring potential should make for the most exciting aspect of this matchup, as Smith and Cochran are indicators of where the future of the game's most important position is headed.
This is uncharted territory for the program, as the Rams are recent arrivals to the Division II scene (2010). It is clearly a different team this time around, but a significant amount of history hangs in the balance.
It will be interesting to see how the Rams handle their shot at an historic year in the elevated level of competition, while Valdosta State has had experience winning championships, in 2004 and 2007.
The hiring of Connell Maynor in 2009 has keyed the emergence of the Winston-Salem program within Division II—and resulted in the exceptional offense the team now sports.
Valdosta State ranks tied for 17th in turnover margin, while the Rams are more of an opportunistic defense, forcing 43 on the season, the most in Division II.
Cochran has to be judicious with the football, since the sixth-ranked rush defense of the Rams is sure to game-plan to stuff the run and force the QB to put the ball in the air.
Don't underestimate the signal-caller's resolve, as he and his family have had to endure two destroyed houses in the past 18 months, according to a report by the AP. Cochran's father, Chris, discussed how his son has dealt with the situation and how Cayden was glad his family survived the destruction of both homes (h/t Salisbury Post):
I’m thinking [Cochran will] use it as motivation. That’s just the way he is. He thinks things happen for a reason and he’s just happy we weren’t there.
I bet he has a great game. That’s just what he does. He’s always been that kind of kid. He’s just a great leader and when other things are falling apart, people have always looked to him.
There's always the potential for parental bias, but Cochran's story and obvious mental fortitude are rather amazing.
Prediction: Winston-Salem State 42, Valdosta State 35
As Ed Hooper of The Valdosta Daily Times points out, the Rams played in a weaker Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, whose teams were a combined 38-44 in 2012.
Despite their perceived lack of stern regular-season contests, there is plenty of reason to believe that Maynor's bunch will get it done against the Gulf South Conference runners-up.
The ground attack of the Blazers will eat up clock, but the Rams have the stout run defense capable of forcing the Blazers to become one dimensional. That will help them win the turnover battle—and ultimately the game.
Smith and company will also prove to be too much for the Valdosta State defense, as Jahuann Butler and Jameze Massey both average over 20 yards per catch and have 26 combined touchdowns.
Their threat for the big play is much greater and will prove to be the difference for the Rams, who will become the fifth team to go undefeated en route to a Division II national championship.