Alabama, Auburn prepared for monumental Iron Bowl

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Is this the biggest Iron Bowl in the history of Alabama and Auburn football? It may be, at least in the past 40 years. A trip to Atlanta is on the line in this year’s Iron Bowl. For the first time since the SEC split in to two divisions and introduced a conference championship game, the SEC West representative will be determined solely by the outcome of the Iron Bowl, the annual match-up between Alabama and Auburn. The stakes could not be any higher, not when the winner will also have a legitimate shot at advancing to the BCS Championship in Pasadena in addition to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Something is going to have to give on the field this weekend too. Auburn has the SEC’s top rushing offense, averaging 320.27 yards per game this season. Only one time this season has Auburn been held under 200 yards on the ground (Mississippi State). The Tigers have also rushed for 37 touchdowns this season. Tre Mason leads the charge with 1,153 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Quarterback Nick Marshall compliments the running game with 823 yards and nine touchdowns. Auburn has had their way with opponents with their running game, but this weekend the Tigers will go up against the SEC’s best rushing defense.

Alabama’s defense has stymied opposing offenses to just 91.27 yards per game and just five times has an opponent scored a touchdown on the ground against the Crimson Tide, and no team has done so more than once in a game at all this season. Auburn has rushed for at least four touchdowns in each of their previous six games.

Alabama has been following a path to Pasadena since wrapping up a BCS championship victory over Notre Dame in Miami last season. Auburn, on the other hand, has appeared out of nowhere in the rear view mirror in the last few weeks and now is signaling to pass. Of course, Alabama’s running game has been pretty solid this year as well, averaging 211.4 yards per game and recording 25 rushing touchdowns. the sophomore duo of T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake has accounted for over 1,600 yards and 20 of those touchdowns.

The running games of both teams should take center stage in this year’s Iron Bowl, but many eyes will be on Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. In recent weeks a number of Heisman candidates have stumbled down the stretch btu McCarron continues to be a steady player, if not impressive. Is McCarron a worthy Heisman candidate? It is a tough sell to hop entirely on that ship, but if McCarron can go in to Auburn and put together the kind of numbers he had earlier in the season against Texas A&M in leading Alabama to a win, perhaps it will be easier to believe McCarron is a legitimate candidate. There is nothing wrong with being the kind of trusty and dependable and proven winner McCarron has become, but there is still something to prove before getting firmly behind the McCarron for Heisman bandwagon that seems to have developed over the last week or so.

As mentioned before, the winner of this game will be crowned SEC East champion and move on to Atlanta next week to face Missouri or South Carolina. A Missouri win against Texas A&M will send Missouri to the conference championship game, while a loss to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies will send South Carolina back to Atlanta for the first time in three seasons. The winner will also remain in contention for a BCS championship shot. The Crimson Tide would be a lock as the top-team team in the country from the beginning of the year through now if they manage to win this weekend and again in the SEC championship game. Auburn, ranked fourth in the BCS standings, could put together a solid case for jumping over an undefeated Ohio State team. It would be quite the debate, at least.

The way things are lining up though, it may be possible both Alabama and Auburn are playing in BCS bowl games in January. That is a feat that has not happened in the BCS era.

Division II, Division III and NAIA title games set while FCS heads into semifinals

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Outside of a thrilling Army-Navy game and the Heisman ceremony, it was an empty Saturday at the highest level of college football.

But no so at the lower levels.

The divisional playoffs are cranked into high gear. Let’s take a brief look at where everything stands in each division.

FCS

Top-seeded and defending champion James Madison needed a last-second field goal to survive visiting Weber State, 31-28, on Friday night, while No. 5 seed South Dakota State routed New Hampshire, 55-14.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 seed and winner of five of the last six national titles North Dakota State walloped Wofford, 42-10 in Fargo. No. 6 seed Sam Houston State outlasted upstart Kennesaw State, 34-27, to send the Bearkats into their fifth semifinal game in the last seven years.

Semifinals: No. 5 South Dakota State at No. 1 James Madison — 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPNU; No. 6 Sam Houston State at No. 2 North Dakota State — 8 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN2.

Division II

No. 4 seed West Florida traveled north and upset top-seeded Indiana (Pa.), 27-17 on Saturday, to send the Argonauts into their first championship game. No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Commerce fended off the option attack of No. 3 Harding (Ark.), 31-17, putting the Lions in their first title game as well.

National championship: No. 2 Texas A&M-Commerce vs. No. 4 West Florida — 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2 at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.

Division III

In a similar dynamic to FCS, the defending champion is on a collision course with the traditional champion. In the first semifinal, defending champion Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) blanked Brockport (N.Y.), 24-0. The Crusaders will make their third trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, looking to win their second title.

In the other semifinal, Mount Union (Ohio) overcame a 21-10 deficit to beat Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 43-40. The Purple Raiders will play in their 20th Stagg Bowl — all of them coming since 1993, and 19 of them since ’96 — with a shot at their 13th national championship. However, Mount Union has won just — “just” — two national championships since 2009.

National championship: Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) vs. Mount Union (Ohio) — 7 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN at Salem Stadium in Salem Va.

NAIA

The NAIA was off this weekend, taking a break in between last week’s semifinals and Saturday’s national championship. Defending champion Saint Francis (Ind.) out-gunned previously-undefeated Morningside (Iowa) 43-36 in the first semifinal, while Reinhardt (Ga.) held off undefeated Southern Oregon, 37-34 in double overtime.

National championship: Saint Francis (Ind.) vs. Reinhardt (Ga.) — 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN3 at Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Minnesota lands commitment from 6-foot-8, 395-pound offensive tackle

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P.J. Fleck is going to need a bigger boat.

Minnesota has landed a commitment from the largest recruit on record, as 6-foot-8, 395-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele has committed to the Gophers. Faalele made the announcement on his Twitter page on Saturday night.

A 3-star recruit, Faalele is rated as the No. 29 offensive tackle in the country, according to 247Sports. He listed 20 offers, including from the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and LSU.

As the story goes, Faalele did not find football; football found him. He was discovered by a recruiter from Hawaii working out at a gym in his native Melbourne, Australia. He attended a Michigan satellite camp in Australia and played this season — his first season in pads — at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

In making the trip from the Land Down Under to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Faalele will be joined by a pair of IMG Academy teammates in offensive lineman Curtis Dunlap, Jr., and quarterback Zack Annexstad, who also committed to Minnesota on Saturday.

Those pledges now give Minnesota the 26th best recruiting class in the country and the sixth best in the Big Ten — but the No. 1 class in the Big Ten West — in the 247Sports Composite rankings.

Minnesota’s class may not be the best in the country, but it’s among the biggest — both in size (the Gophers have 25 pledges thus far) and stature.

Texas A&M suspends DT Zaycoven Henderson amid felony gun charges

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Texas A&M defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson was suspended amid multiple felony charges on Saturday.

As detailed by Ben Baby of the Dallas Morning News, witnesses say Henderson pointed a rifle at one person outside College Station’s Campus Village Apartments and threatened to kill two others and allegedly threw the gun out of a fleeing car as police arrived on the scene. The car was later tracked down by College Station officers, who discovered marijuana in the car.

He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, tampering with evidence and marijuana possession. The first charge is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in a prison. The second is a third-degree felony and the third is a misdemeanor.

He was booked into the Brazos County (Texas) jail at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Texas A&M has suspended Henderson indefinitely, which really only lasts one game as the senior from Longview, Texas, was set to close his Aggies career in the Belk Bowl against Wake Forest on Dec. 29 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Henderson made 35 tackles with five TFLs and 2.5 sacks in 12 starts this season. He was honored as a member of Texas A&M’s senior class at the annual team banquet earlier this weekend.

UCLA reportedly hires Paul Rhoads as defensive backs coach

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Chip Kelly has reportedly hired one of the most respected men in the business to his staff. According to a report from Sports Illustrated‘s Bruce Feldman, Paul Rhoads is on his way to Westwood to coach UCLA’s defensive backs.

Rhoads spent the past two seasons at Arkansas, the first as defensive backs coach and the second as defensive coordinator in addition to his duties with the secondary. He’s best known, of course, for his 7-year run as the head coach at Iowa State, where he took the Cyclones to three bowl games and created this viral moment before any of us knew what “going viral” went.

In addition to Arkansas, Rhoads also owns defensive experience at Auburn, Pittsburgh, Iowa State, Pacific, Ohio State and Utah State.

UCLA finished last season ranked 74th in pass efficiency defense, yielding a 57.1 percent completion rate for 7.3 yards per attempt with seven interceptions against 18 touchdowns.