Championship Weekend: Players to watch in 2023 title games

Field Level Media

November 30, 2023 at 12:32 am.

Transfer portal got you down? College Football Playoff envy striking as December arrives?

Field Level Media’s college football writers dial up the elixir for those facing the reality of missing out, with a game-by-game watchlist for conference championship matchups, the official start of the postseason on Friday night.

We’re here with the guide to the names to know in the biggest games of the weekend.

Maybe he sounds as if he’s straight out of Whoville, but we’ve trimmed the rosters to the most important names such as the guy now tasked with taking down Louisville.

Read on and get ready to take your own measurements of Florida State’s championship stock with backup quarterback Tate Rodemaker, or find out which fresh-faced SEC safety might be building the resume to signal he will flip the field in Atlanta.

–Pac-12 Championship (Oregon vs. Washington, Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Oregon QB Bo Nix
The Heisman betting favorite entering championship weekend, Nix has completed 78.6 percent of his 401 pass attempts, with 37 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Strong-armed and mobile, he’s only been getting better, with 1,569 yards and 16 touchdowns in the past four games.

Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.
The lefty spins the ball as well as any quarterback in the country. His production dipped in the second half of the season, but he still has 3,899 passing yards and 32 touchdowns … and now he should have a full complement of wideouts with Jalen McMillan having returned from injury.

Oregon RB Bucky Irving
The junior is a multi-dimensional threat in a Ducks offense that plays fast and has lots of speed. Irving already has posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, and he’s added 48 catches for 379 yards in 2023.

Washington WR Rome Odunze
He is one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver (an honor that Oregon’s Troy Franklin was deserving of, too). Odunze has 13 touchdown catches among his 73 receptions for 1,326 yards.

Washington DE Bralen Trice
Can the Huskies pressure Oregon QB Bo Nix and get him out of rhythm? Oregon has allowed only five sacks all season, but Trice (five sacks, 10 quarterback hurries) will try to make an impact in the Ducks backfield.

–Big 12 Championship (Texas vs. Oklahoma State, Saturday, Noon ET, ABC)
Texas QB Quinn Ewers
Ewers has thrown for 2,709 yards and 17 touchdowns and has also rushed for five scores. He threw for multiple touchdowns just twice in Big 12 play after throwing for eight combined in three nonconference games.

Oklahoma State RB Ollie Gordon
Gordon leads FBS with 1,580 rushing yards and is second in rushing touchdowns (20), total touchdowns (21) and all-purpose yards (1,852). He had 282 rushing yards against West Virginia, the most for any FBS player this season. Gordon is one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award.

Oklahoma State LB Nickolas Martin
The redshirt sophomore leads the Big 12 with 120 tackles and is tied for second with 16 tackles for loss. He also has six sacks. Martin has five games with at least 10 tackles, including 17 in two games.

Texas DT T’Vondre Sweat
Sweat, a finalist for the Outland Trophy, is the highest-graded interior defensive lineman by Pro Football Focus, at 91.6. Sweat has 40 tackles, eight for loss, with two sacks and seven quarterback hurries.

Texas WR Xavier Worthy
The junior has a career-high 67 catches for 883 yards and five touchdowns. Worthy had a season-high 10 catches for 137 yards against TCU on Nov. 11.

–SEC Championship (Georgia vs. Alabama, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS)
Georgia TE Brock Bowers
The best tight end in the country was dominating with 24 receptions for 410 yards and four touchdowns in a three-game span before hurting an ankle against Vanderbilt in mid-October. Bowers returned to the field four weeks later and had TD catches in both games he played in November. If healthy, Georgia certainly has some tricks in mind with the versatile player who has 31 career touchdowns (26 receiving, five rushing).

Alabama QB Jalen Milroe
He was demoted for a Week 3 game at South Florida and his sideline leadership impressed coach Nick Saban that day. Milroe regained the starting job the following day and the Crimson Tide flourished under him. He has accounted for 33 touchdowns (21 passing, 12 rushing) while adeptly running the offense.

Georgia QB Carson Beck
Two-time national champion Stetson Bennett ran out of eligibility and there certainly hasn’t even been a slight dropoff. Beck has pinpoint accuracy and has five 300-yard outings. He has displayed good leadership but the real test will be how he handles the increased pressure this Saturday and during the College Football Playoffs.

Georgia S Tykee Smith
The latest star DB for the Bulldogs, Smith stepped up to be one of the top defenders on the Bulldogs and had interceptions in three straight games early in the season. Always seems to be near the ball and ready to make an impact play. Smith is a highly experienced player as he played two seasons at West Virginia before transferring to Georgia following the 2020 season.

Alabama SS Caleb Downs
The freshman stepped right in and quickly made a name for himself. Downs leads the Crimson Tide with 95 tackles and also has two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He also had an 85-yard punt return for touchdown against Chattanooga.

–American Athletic Championship (Tulane vs. SMU, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ABC)
SMU QB Kevin Jennings
Jennings is filling in for injured Preston Stone, the AAC’s second-most efficient and third-most productive passer in 2023. He has seen limited action in two seasons with productive moments. Surrounded by a bevy of talented skill players and the conference’s top scoring defense, Jennings doesn’t have to do it all.

SMU DE Elijah Robert
Tied for second in the conference with 8.5 sacks, Robert will be counted on to disrupt Michael Pratt, the top-rated passer in the conference. Pratt is also an effective runner so Robert and his teammates will have to contain him when the pressure forces Pratt to move.

Tulane QB Michael Pratt
He’s not only No. 10 in the country in passing efficiency and an effective runner, but Pratt also is a winner. In the last two seasons, the Green Wave is 21-2 in games he has started and generally he has found ways to produce points when necessary to salvage victory in tight games.

Tulane RB Makhi Hughes
He emerged from an early-season competition to become the featured back and has been a tone-setter for the offense since game five when he broke out with 123 rushing yards and two touchdowns against UAB. That started a stretch of
seven 100-yard performances in the last eight games, including a season-high 166 yards and a touchdown against Texas-San Antonio last week.

Tulane DB Lance Robinson
He leads the conference’s best team at making interceptions. Robinson is tied for the individual lead in the conference with four interceptions and the Green Wave have a conference-leading 15 interceptions as a team. Robinson and friends figure to be ball hawking even more than usual as they face a relatively inexperienced backup QB in Jennings.

–ACC Championship (Florida State vs. Louisville, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Florida State QB Tate Rodemaker
The redshirt junior was thrust into the starting role after Jordan Travis suffered a season-ending leg injury on Nov. 18. A former three-star recruit, he’s been Travis’ backup for years, knows the system and was praised by coach Mike Norvell for his mental toughness. One solid game and Rodemaker could be playing in the CFP.

Florida State WR Keon Coleman
It would help Rodemaker tremendously to establish an early connection with Coleman, a projected first-round draft pick with 11 touchdowns this season. Coleman caught just one pass for 24 yards against Florida. He’s a big target at 6-foot-4 and has a reputation for making difficult catches.

Florida State DE Jared Verse
Like Coleman, Verse could hear his name called on the first night of the draft this April. He’s coming off a season-high 2.5 sacks against Florida to get to seven on the season, but his production has been hot and cold. He’s had three multi-sack games and a half-sack across the other nine.

Louisville QB Jack Plummer
No relation to Jake the Snake, this Plummer is making his own name. He arrived at Louisville after four seasons at Purdue and one at Cal, and he’s completed two-thirds of his passes, including 70 percent against AP-ranked opponents. He’s never played in a game quite this important.

Louisville RB Jawhar Jordan
Second in the ACC with 1,076 rushing yards and third with 13 touchdowns, Jordan is a critical piece of the Louisville offense. Florida State ranks 10th in the nation in pass defense, so the Cardinals may look to establish themselves on the ground. Jordan averaged 5.4 yards per carry against the Seminoles in last year’s regular-season meeting.

–Big Ten Championship (Michigan vs. Iowa, Saturday, 8 p.m., FOX)
Michigan RB Blake Corum
Sidelined during the postseason last year by a left knee injury, Corum came back better than ever in his senior year. Corum leads Division I with 22 rushing touchdowns and has been a workhorse down the stretch, averaging 25.3 carries in the last three games.

Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy
A two-year starter, McCarthy has a big and accurate arm, completing 74.3 percent of his attempts this season. He wasn’t asked to do too much in four November games, throwing just one touchdown, but is capable of carrying his team if the running game stalls.

Michigan DB Mike Sainristil
If the Wolverines need a big play from their secondary, Sainristil is usually the player who makes it. The senior has picked off five passes, including a pair in a seven-point win over Maryland. He returned interceptions for touchdowns against Michigan State and Rutgers.

Iowa LB Jay Higgins
The Hawkeyes’ stout defense is spearheaded by Higgins, whose 60 solo tackles are 27 more than any of his teammates. The senior has recorded double-digit total tackles in eight games while also forcing a fumble and recovering two more.

Iowa QB Deacon Hill
Thrust into a starting role after ex-Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara suffered a season-ending knee injury, Hill has served as a game manager. He’s passed for fewer than 1,000 yards despite eight starts and 11 appearances. Hill will have to come up with his best outing of the season for Iowa to pull an upset.

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