College football Championship Week: 15 players to watch
Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

College football Championship Week: 15 players to watch

Let me start off by saying this has been one of the most interesting college football seasons in a long time. I mean that in a good way and not the "2020 was wild" kind of way. Depending on what happens this weekend, none of the four playoff teams from last season will return to the final four this season. Or we could have Alabama and/or Notre Dame getting in once again.

That's what makes this championship week so special. Some years, the matchup looks so one-sided that it almost gets in the way of the inevitable final College Football Playoff rankings. Not this season. All ten championship games have their own level of intrigue. Some have huge playoff implications (SEC) while others are high-profile rematches of a regular-season battle (Big 12, Pac 12). We could have history made in the AAC title tilt and while the ACC lacks a power team, they do have an outstanding battle of great quarterbacks. Even the Conference USA and Sun Belt have fun matchups set up.

Aside from the USC-Cal game (which is being made up after a COVID postponement), everyone this week is playing for a championship. College football fans used to really embrace that and the players and coaches want to end their league season celebrating with a trophy.

So here are 15 players to watch during Championship Week.

 
1 of 15

Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh

Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt quarterback is a darkhorse Heisman candidate, will be one of the top quarterbacks taken in the 2022 draft, and will be part of the best QB vs. QB battles during championship weekend, but let's focus on his primary target: Jordan Addison. Addison has 85 receptions (2nd in the ACC) for 1,353 yards (1st) and 17 TDs (also 1st) and has been on a special run of late. Over the last month, he put 145 yards on Miami, 171 yards on Duke, 84 yards on North Carolina, 202 yards and 4 TDs on Virginia, and 81 yards and a pair of TDs on Syracuse. Wake Forest has let receivers get loose over the last several weeks so this is lining up for a big night for Addison. Pitt is trying to win its first ACC championship and their first conference title since winning the Big East in 2010.. 

 
2 of 15

Stetson Bennett, Georgia

Stetson Bennett, Georgia
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Smart's teams of late seem to find that underdog quarterback who just comes in, does the job, and wins. We saw that a few years ago as Jake Fromm fought off Jacob Eason and Justin Fields, and we are seeing it this year as Stetson Bennett has been the top guy ahead of JT Daniels. Bennett was a walk-on at Georgia in 2017 (on that Fromm-led team that went to the national championship game) before transferring to Jones County Junior College. He would come back to Georgia in 2019 after Fields transferred to Ohio State and actually appeared in the SEC championship loss to Alabama when Fromm was injured. Last season, Bennett emerged as the starter during a chaotic quarterback battle that saw Daniels still injured, Jamie Newman opting out of the season, and D'Wan Mathis' ineffectiveness. Daniels would take the starting job back when he became healthy.

This year, Stetson took over the Bulldogs and hasn't relinquished his starting gig. While he doesn't wow anyone with his arm, he just runs the offense efficiently. He doesn't turn the ball over (just five interceptions) and makes smart decisions with the ball. Knowing he has a great defense, he just moves the ball and has become better as the season rolls along. Last week against Georgia Tech, he threw four touchdowns in a 45-0 win. Up next is Alabama in the biggest game he's ever started. Can he finish the deal? 

 
3 of 15

Anthony Brown, Oregon

Anthony Brown, Oregon
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone watching the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night will undoubtedly think about Utah's utter dominance of Oregon just two weeks ago. Oregon's quarterback Anthony Brown was awful in that game. With his arm, he was 17 of 35 for 231 yards and a touchdown. With his legs: 8 yards on 9 carries. The game got out of hand quickly and was basically over by halftime. Brown cannot be that guy again and expect to beat the Utes in Las Vegas this week. He did rebound with 275 yards passing and 83 yards rushing with 3 total touchdowns against rival Oregon State last week.  

 
4 of 15

Marquez Cooper, Kent State

Marquez Cooper, Kent State
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Cooper has been on a tear of late, rushing for at least 126 yards in three of the last four weeks. That streak started with a 173 yards and 2 TD win against Northern Illinois ... their opponent in the MAC championship this week. His 126 yards over Miami-OH last week put him past the 1,000-yard mark. Look for Kent State to feed Cooper and backfield mate Xavier Williams to win their first MAC championship since 1972, when a guy named Nick Saban played for the Golden Flashes.

 
5 of 15

Jerome Ford, Cincinnati

Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Quarterback Desmond Ridder is the heart and soul of the Bearcats, but Jerome Ford is a vital part to their success. He just does his job. Simply put, the guy finds the endzone every week. He has scored at least one touchdown in the last seven games and in 10 of the 11 games he's played. While he hasn't rushed for 100 yards since a 189-yard game against UCF on October 16th, he's been able to get those tough yards and break a few big runs that have kept defenses from keying on Ridder. 

 
6 of 15

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

This will be the first time the ACC won't place a team in the College Football Playoff, but don't sleep on the two teams who will be playing for the conference championship. Hartman and Wake Forest have been one of the best stories of the season. The sophomore from Charlotte has thrown for over 3,700 yards and 34 touchdowns and has the Demon Deacons just one win away from their first ACC title since 2006. He's thrown at least three touchdowns in six of his last seven games and has actually rushed for a touchdown in seven of his last eight games. 

 
7 of 15

Hassan Haskins, Michigan

Hassan Haskins, Michigan
Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last week, I mentioned that Haskins will need to be a key part of the Wolverines' game plan if they were to finally beat Ohio State. Boy, was he! All the senior from St. Louis did was carry the ball 28 times for 169 yards and 5 touchdowns and crushed the Buckeyes national championship hopes. It also vaulted Michigan's title dreams as the Wolverines are a win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship away from reaching their first College Football Playoff. Haskins has been fantastic over the last month, rushing for over 150 yards in three of his last four games (the week he didn't, he scored twice in a blowout of Maryland). The shine from Iowa's start to the season has worn off, but this is still a stout defensive team who will force the Big Ten title game to be a physical contest. If Haskins gets loose, Michigan wins its first outright conference championship since 2003.  

 
8 of 15

Rocky Lombardi, Northern Illinois

Rocky Lombardi, Northern Illinois
Jenn Finch-USA TODAY Sports

First off, is there a more midwestern college football name than "Rocky Lombardi"? And if you've heard the name before, it is because he started nine games for Michigan State over the last three years (including an upset win over Michigan last season) before transferring to Northern Illinois this year. With the Huskies, he's helped lead one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the nation -- NIU was 0-6 last season and is in the MAC championship game with an 8-4 mark. Lombardi's best game this year came against his opponent in the title game: Kent State. He threw for 532 yards and 3 TDs in a wild 52-47 loss to the Golden Flashes just a month ago. What does he have in store for the rematch?

 
9 of 15

Sincere McCormick, UTSA

Sincere McCormick, UTSA
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

McCormick has had a remarkable career at UTSA. After nearly reaching 1,000 yards in his freshman season, he piled up 1,467 yards last year and is nearing the 1,300-yard mark this year. He is coming off his worst game of the season in a loss to North Texas last week. Just 12 carries for 60 yards and no scores, which is the third straight game he's failed to reach 100 yards (he hit the century mark in six of the previous seven games). That loss to the Mean Green also ended their shot at an undefeated season, so look for an angry Roadrunners squad as they host Western Kentucky in the Conference USA title game. 

 
10 of 15

Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State

Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

With running back Jaylen Warren banged up, Oklahoma State will need to rely on quarterback Spencer Sanders' arm and legs to beat Baylor for the Cowboys' first Big 12 title since 2011 and their first Big 12 championship game win ever. Sanders showed his toughness last week against rival Oklahoma, throwing for 214 yards, rushing for 93 yards, and totaling two touchdowns in the win. He's not going to toss it all over the field, but he is tough in big situations. His 37-yard touchdown run pulled the Cowboys to within two points of the Sooners in the fourth quarter and really changed the momentum of that game. With a Big 12 championship on the line and a possible College Football Playoff berth dangling out there, Saturday's showdown with Baylor doesn't get much bigger in Stillwater. 

 
11 of 15

Abram Smith, Baylor

Abram Smith, Baylor
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

If you've read this column during the season, you'd know how big a fan of Smith I am. Remember that Smith came to Baylor as a running back, but converted to a linebacker last season. He returned to the offensive backfield this season and has been a revelation, rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. He's rushed for over 100 yards in five of his last six games and last week's 30 carries against Texas Tech was a career-high. He'll be going up against that strong Oklahoma State defense on Saturday. In their earlier meeting, Smith rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries. 

 
12 of 15

Tavion Thomas, Utah

Tavion Thomas, Utah
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

We just saw Utah thrash Oregon a couple of weeks ago so it will be interesting to see where adjustments will be made in their Pac-12 title rematch. One thing is for certain: slow down running back Tavion Thomas. Thomas romped all over the Ducks, rushing for 94 yards and three touchdowns in the 31-point win. The Cincinnati transfer has had a breakout season -- his first in Salt Lake City. He's rushed for 978 yards and his 18 TDs (5th nationally) is the same amount as Michigan's Hassan Haskins and Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III. He's gotten stronger as the season has worn along, rushing for 142 yards and a touchdown last week against Colorado. 

 
13 of 15

Clayton Tune, Houston

Clayton Tune, Houston
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Houston is very capable of ending Cincinnati's perfect season and their hopes to being the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff. Quarterback Clayton Tune can make it difficult for the Bearcats, as his Cougars enter the AAC championship game on an 11-game winning streak and Tune is equally as hot. In his last seven games, he's thrown 19 touchdowns and 2 interceptions (both against Memphis), and his chemistry with receiver Nathaniel Dell has been one of the AAC's most lethal combinations. Cincinnati has been able to shut down the conference's top offenses all year, so Tune's got a big challenge ahead of him.

 
14 of 15

Bryce Young, Alabama

Bryce Young, Alabama
Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Young enters championship week as possibly the leader in the Heisman race and a big game against top-ranked Georgia could be what seals the deal. With running back Brian Robinson dealing with a lower-body injury, Young will be needed to have a superior effort at one of the nation's best defenses. He certainly can be up for the challenge -- he's thrown for 3,901 yards and 40 touchdowns this season with just 4 interceptions ... which is remarkable for a first-year starter. Last week's Iron Bowl saw Young put the ball in the air 50 times, though his completion percentage was by far the worst of the season. What he did do was lead the Crimson Tide to an amazing fourth-quarter comeback and made key throws in the four overtimes. This SEC championship is what Heisman winners are made of. 

 
15 of 15

Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky

Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The Conference USA championship game will have a battle of contrasts. While UTSA likes to run with Sincere McCormick, Western Kentucky loves to sling it with quarterback Bailey Zappe. Zappe leads the nation in passing yards (4,968) and passing touchdowns (52). He's thrown at least three TDs in every game this season -- including throwing for 523 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 52-46 loss to UTSA on October 9th. 

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