Adam Kramer on College Football: Championship Week's Unspoken Superstar

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 29, 2018

FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2018, file photo, Memphis running back Darrell Henderson runs for a touchdown in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Navy, in Annapolis, Md. Henderson was named to The Associated Press Midseason All-America team, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

How many yards will college football's unspoken superstar gain this weekend? What teams will be playoff-bound? And what about college football's must-watch games during championship week? Adam Kramer explores what's happening in college football in his weekly notebook, the Thursday Tailgate.

         

Over the past two seasons, this running back has averaged more than eight yards per carry—almost a first down every time he's touched the football. In high school, he posted a 4.29 40-yard dash at a regional combine—speed rarely seen at his position. And on Saturday, this same running back will compete for a conference championship.

Not at Alabama or Clemson or Oklahoma or Texas or Ohio State. But at Memphis.

Looking back on it now, Darrell Henderson knows why he was passed over by every Power Five program in college football. "The only thing they would tell me is I didn't have the size," Henderson says.

Back then, he was a 175-pound, 3-star running back out of South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi—a town of less than 10,000 that is an hour south of Memphis. Despite rushing for nearly 6,000 yards in high school, Henderson, the 2014 Mississippi Gatorade Football Player of the Year, only had offers from Georgia State, Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee and Memphis as a senior.

"I'm just making the best of my opportunity," Henderson says. "And I'm thankful to Memphis for giving me a chance."

Despite receiving only four carries in one game because of injury, the junior, who is now 5'9" and 200 pounds, has gained 1,699 yards on only 198 carries—an average of 8.6 yards per carry. He has scored 22 touchdowns while becoming one of the most explosive offensive players in the nation.

His performance has guided Memphis to first place in the American Athletic West, setting up a rematch against Central Florida in the AAC Championship Game on Saturday. Memphis is hoping to end UCF's 24-game winning streak. In the teams' previous matchup this season, Henderson rushed for 199 yards in a loss.

While eyes will unquestionably be elsewhere this weekend, don't be surprised if a little-known running back out of Mississippi has another huge game.

"I'm out to prove to everybody that size doesn't matter," Henderson says.

     

Five Things You Need to Know About the College Football Playoff

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 22:  Head Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide on the field during a game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The Crimson Tide defeated the Aggies 45-23.  (
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

1. Alabama Is a Lock 

No matter what happens in the SEC Championship Game, Alabama is in. No drama. No suspense. No unbelievable circumstance that would force the Tide out. Nick Saban's team could lose by three touchdowns Saturday in the SEC Championship Game—it almost certainly will not—and Alabama would claim the No. 4 seed at worst.

For as much as the selection committee will say conference championships matter, there are exceptions. Alabama saw this firsthand last season when it crashed the playoff from its couch. The team has built up too much football equity to miss out. 

Speaking of which…

             

2. Georgia Is Really Good and Plenty Unlucky 

Alabama's opponent, meanwhile, most likely has to win to be in. (More on that in a second.) 

In terms of talent, there is no question Georgia is one of the country's top four programs. Aaron Kessler, the sportsbook director at Golden Nugget Las Vegas, says Georgia would be around a four-point underdog in a neutral-site game against Clemson and favored by a touchdown over Notre Dame.

But unless Georgia beats Alabama on Saturday—the second time this calendar year the Bulldogs will have played the Tide—it will need a great deal of help. An upset is possible; this team is flourishing at the right time. But this feels like a game that should be played around New Year's Eve instead of on Saturday.

While this scenario might be a bad break for the Bulldogs, not so for everyone else.

     

3. Ohio State and Oklahoma Need Alabama to Win 

Ohio State and Oklahoma will be rooting hard for Alabama to win the SEC Championship Game and eliminate Georgia as a competitor for the No. 4 spot in the playoff field. 

This isn't a complicated year for the playoff. There are only a handful of teams within striking distance. But for a discussion to even be necessary, the Buckeyes and Sooners need Alabama to prevail.

Otherwise, Ohio State and Oklahoma could be left out in the cold. But if Alabama does win…

     

4. Oklahoma Appears to Have the Upper Hand

That the selection committee ranked Oklahoma above Ohio State in the final dress-rehearsal rankings is revealing. The Sooners will play Texas, currently ranked No. 14 by the committee. The Buckeyes will play Northwestern—No. 21, according to this group.

Advantage Oklahoma (again).

That's not to say these two can't flip-flop; Ohio State leapfrogged TCU in 2014 after clobbering Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big Ten Championship Game before going on to win the national championship. But this feels different.

Ohio State needs to win and then hope.

     

5. Can We Still Get Playoff Chaos?

Unlikely, although college football works in mysterious ways. Notre Dame has already punched its ticket, so that's one spot taken. Clemson is a massive favorite over Pitt, but a loss in the ACC Championship Game could stir up conversation. But even a loss by Clemson doesn't guarantee the Tigers are out. 

And because Alabama has already delivered a playoff-worthy season, the possibilities for last-minute entries are limited.

If Oklahoma and Ohio State both lose, things could get interesting. The committee would then have to decide between UCF, which seems an unlikely if not impossible option given the unfortunate injury to quarterback McKenzie Milton, and perhaps a two-loss Georgia team if the Bulldogs lose to Alabama.

In that instance, Alabama and Georgia could meet again for the second consecutive game and the third time in 12 months in the CFP semifinals. It'll need some help to happen, but it's by no means out of the question.

     

Bonus! What Will the Final Bracket Look Like?

Chalky. Sorry about that. But hey, the two semifinals would be a great deal of fun. 

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Notre Dame

4. Oklahoma

     

Five Games to Watch This Weekend

MORGANTOWN, WV - NOVEMBER 23:  Kyler Murray #1 of the Oklahoma Sooners in action against the West Virginia Mountaineers on November 23, 2018 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Ah, championship weekend. Conferences will be won. The playoff bracket will be filled. A Heisman will be decided. A rivalry will be replayed.

What a glorious few days it will be. (All game times Eastern, and all rankings courtesy of the College Football Playoff selection committee).

SEC Championship Game: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Georgia (Saturday, 4 p.m.): For a moment, distance yourself from the stakes. Instead, focus on two of the nation's most gifted football teams led by two coaches who are very familiar with one another. From purely a football standpoint, it doesn't get much better than this.

Big 12 Championship Game: No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Texas (Saturday, noon): That we have been blessed with a Red River Rivalry rematch on championship weekend is a luxury. While the Longhorns won't crash the playoff, nothing would make Tom Herman happier than to spoil the opportunity for his rival. (Ohio State wouldn't mind, either.)

Big Ten Championship Game: No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 21 Northwestern (Saturday, 8 p.m.): One team lost to Akron. The other looked lost throughout the season despite only losing one game. Ohio State seems to be on top of its game after dismantling Michigan, and Northwestern is certain to be a royal football pain, as it often is. Unlikely matchup but still plenty welcomed.

ACC Championship Game: No. 2 Clemson vs. Pittsburgh (Saturday, 8 p.m.): Let's assume Pitt was looking ahead. Perhaps that's the only way to explain how the Panthers lost 24-3 to Miami last Saturday despite the Hurricanes completing only six passes for 52 yards. Clemson, meanwhile, just gained roughly 8,956 yards of offense last weekend in beating archrival South Carolina. 

Pac-12 Championship Game: No. 11 Washington vs. No. 17 Utah (Friday, 8 p.m.): The good news is this game will enjoy a Friday night spotlight. The bad news is neither team will sniff the College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 is sidelined once again. Still, championship football on a Friday is delightful and worth staying in for.

    

What Else to Watch This Weekend

Butch Dill/Associated Press

First, UAB's Quest to Complete an Unthinkable Season

The Blazers didn't have a football team two years ago. Now, UAB can close out its second season back from the dead with a Conference USA championship.

For many, that might not be as exciting as playoff mania. But what a year, regardless of what happens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Making the moment more interesting is the fact the Blazers will play Middle Tennessee for the second week in a row.

Last week, with a spot in the conference championship already locked up, UAB lost 27-3. Do not be surprised if this week brings a much more competitive score or even a different result. (Hint: Be sure to check out this week's Locks.)

     

Second, Boise State-Fresno State Part 2

On the topic of rematches, the Broncos and the Bulldogs will compete for the Mountain West championship (7:45 p.m. Saturday). Less than a month ago, these two played an outstanding game that Boise State won, although Fresno State is more than capable of squaring things up.

Again, it's not all about the playoff this week. Plenty of other good games will be played, and this is one of them.

     

Gambling Locks of the Week

PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 20: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald of the Northwestern Wildcats coaches during the second quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on October 20, 2018 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Northwestern won 18-15. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty
Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Last week: 5-2

Season to date: 42-34-2

The goal last week was to go 7-0, and it was almost realized. (It's worth noting both losing picks, West Virginia and Texas A&M, lost in somewhat maniacal, spectacular fashion. If I am going to lose, I want to lose like that.)

However, there is still more football to bet on and holiday gift money to acquire. Even though this is an abbreviated slate, winners are still there to be picked.

Here are this week's picks, using lines provided by OddsShark.

Washington (-5.5) vs. Utah: The Huskies close strong with a double-digit victory here.

Northwestern (+14) vs. Ohio State: The Wildcats are scrappy. And while Ohio State wins, Northwestern keeps it close-ish.

UAB (+2) vs. Middle Tennessee: The Blazers just got blasted by this same team and are a short dog? Oh, I am feeling a bounce-back.

Boise State (-2.5) vs. Fresno State: On the Boise bandwagon once more, with feeling.

Cal (+3) vs. Stanford: Don't forget about this one. Not a lot of points but a Cal win. 

    

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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