Friday night under the lights of Levi's Stadium, the top two teams from the 'Conference of Champions' each look to prove something to the college football world. The Washington Huskies need to maintain their College Football Playoff appeal, while the Colorado Buffaloes look to continue to prove that their rise is very real.
This year’s championship game features a defensive clash that would make the SEC weep, and far different from prior years, which have highlighted explosive offensive play. There may not be a Christian McCaffrey in this year’s game, but between athletic quarterback shenanigans, tough, short-yardage backs, and staunch line play, it’s fair to say that no fan will be leaving Levi's disappointed.
The Buffs posted their first 10-win season since 2001 and they finished their regular season with six straight victories. Colorado leads the conference in total defense (323.8 yards per game) and rank second in scoring defense (18.8 points).
The 11-1 Huskies finished the season first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (17.8 points) and second in total defense (328.9 yards per game).
It will be race to the end zone for these two teams, with the firm belief that the team that scores first, will win it all. Whether it ends up being the Buffaloes that smell roses or the Huskies who command some CFP respect, here are five players to watch under the Friday night Pac-12 lights.
Washington Quarterback Jake Browning
Everything in this game starts and ends with quarterback play. In what is sure to be a defensive struggle, being perfect in the pocket and making big plays count will be key. Big plays and deep balls - that’s what Jake Browning does best. Browning finished the season with 40 touchdown passes and 3,162 yards, while completing 65 percent of his throws. Washington edges Colorado slightly on offense, with more weapons both on the ground and in the air and Browning leading the way. When the Huskies' signal-caller is on, he is a Heisman-caliber player. Case-in-point: Browning went 21-29 for 292 yards and three touchdowns against Washington State last week.
Colorado Quarterback Sefo Liufau
If Browning is the favored heavyweight prizefighter, then Colorado QB Sefo Liufau is the scrappy underdog challenger.
“Sefo is a dog, and you have to be a dog in this game,” running back Phillip Lindsay told the Los Angeles Times. “That man, he puts his body on the line day in and day out.”
Sacrificing his body by racking up 483 rushing yards and running for seven touchdowns this season is what helped the Buffaloes achieve their Cinderella season. His 140.8 efficiency rating doesn’t hurt, either. In fact, it puts him in good company with some of the best college quarterbacks in the country, like Houston's Greg Ward Jr. and Alabama's Jalen Hurts. Liufau and his team will need to continue to play loose and fearless if they want a shot at beating Washington.
Colorado Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie
While line play will be important, as in any football game, the secondary will be experiencing the most pressure. Washington and Colorado combined for 6,581 passing yards this season, with Washington averaging 279.6 passing yards per game. So the Colorado cornerbacks and safeties have their work cut out for them. Luckily, Chidobe Awuzie is back there to maintain some order. Awuzie is part of a CU secondary that ranked fourth in the FBS in pass efficiency defense and 22nd in passing defense, both categories that the Buffs topped in the Pac-12. Awuzie finished regular season with 54 tackles (44 solo), four sacks and two forced fumbles. His 11 pass breakups tied for the fourth-most among all Pac-12 defenders. He also had one interception and 17 third-down stops. #BrowningBeware.
Washington Running Back Lavon Coleman
While the Santa Clara air will be filled with more than just tension, a sneaky good ground game could be the difference maker. We already know what’s coming from Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay, but the Huskies have a go-to ground guy of their own in freshman tailback Lavon Coleman. He may be No. 2 on the depth chart, but he proved his worth, particularly in the Huskies last game against rival Washington State when he scored two touchdowns. Coleman also made two touchdown-saving tackles in that game and has become one of the Huskies best special teams players, contributing on all four of Washington’s kickoff and punt teams. He also leads the Pac-12 with 8.3 yards-per-carry, making him so much more than just Myles Gaskin’s backup.
Washington Wide Receiver John Ross
When Jake Browning, well, Jake Brownings, he needs someone to connect with. That person would be John Ross, who leads the Huskies with 72 catches (23 more than the next receiver, Dante Pettis), for 1,071 yards and 16 touchdowns. Ross is averaging 14.9 yards-per-catch and 89.2 yards per game. It would appear no one in the Pac-12 has figured out a way to stop the dynamic Husky duo. Watching Ross versus the Colorado secondary is going to be worth price of admission alone. But if Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre can figure out a way to neutralize Ross, Colorado will be Pasadena-bound.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.