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Players who will define Rivalry Week

The one week a year with the power to stir the soul of even the most apathetic college football fan is here—at long last, we’ve reached Rivalry Week. It’s thrilling when the matchups come with postseason implications, but the stakes feel high regardless. For the players, it’s a chance to perform in a way that will resonate for years to come. We’re highlighting the athletes whose names could very well be synonymous with their respective rivalries when we look back on 2018.

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

We’ll start with the obvious, cause heck, the Tide’s sophomore signal-caller seems to be defining the whole season. In a world where the Bama defense is typically the team’s calling card and the quarterback position is something of an afterthought (Jake Coker, anyone?), Tagovailoa has been busy rewriting the school record books and could become the first Alabama QB to win a Heisman trophy. Stranger things have happened in the Iron Bowl, but with an Auburn squad that’s essentially irrelevant this season, Tagovailoa appears poised to shine in his first rivalry game as starter.

TaQuon Marshall, QB, Georgia Tech

While we were all wondering what happened to Bryce Love and the Stanford ground game, the Yellow Jackets were quietly racking up enough rush yards per game to lead the nation. That’s largely thanks to the scrambling quarterback tandem of Marshall and fellow part-time starter Tobias Oliver, who are one and two, respectively, on the team in rushing. While Marshall is inconsistent as a passer, he should be able to take full advantage of Georgia’s rather porous run defense. After all, what’s a better motivator than spoiling Playoff dreams?

Devin Bush Jr., LB, Michigan

He’s the leader of the nation’s stingiest defense and will almost certainly be playing on Sundays, so if this is Bush’s last meeting with Ohio State, you can bet he’s going to take full advantage. The junior is lightning fast on the blitz, crushing against the run and has the ability to tackle in space. If anyone can keep the Buckeyes’ gaudy offensive stats in check, it’s Bush.

Gardner Minshew, QB, Washington St.

At one point, Washington’s Jake Browning was anointed the crown prince of QBs in the Pac-12. And don’t get me wrong: Browning is talented and capable. But in this year’s edition of the Apple Cup, he’s almost an afterthought. Minshew has been one of the breakout stars of the season, yet another Mike Leach-led air raid success story, who happens to lead the nation both in total passing yards and passing yards per game (a whopping 393.2). Minshew, who turned down an offer from Alabama to instead play on the Palouse, could keep WSU’s outside Playoff hopes alive and etch his name in the annals of Cougar history with a win in this rivalry matchup. 

Jachai Polite, DE, Florida

It’s as simple as this: When Polite is at his best, the Gators win. When he’s off, they struggle. The sack artist has proved he’s capable of coming through when the stage is big, as he did with his six tackles, two sacks and forced fumble against LSU earlier in the season. With a New Year’s Six bowl berth on the line and the chance to snap a five-game losing streak in the Florida State series, Polite will be a fearsome opponent to line up against on Saturday.

Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson

Speaking of sacks…let’s talk about Clelin Ferrell. There was a lot of hype surrounding Ferrell and the Tigers’ D-line, and if anything, they’ve exceeded expectations. With 10.5 sacks on the season, Ferrell leads the ACC and all the teams in the hunt for the Playoff. He’s also an emotional player who says he’s undecided about whether to leave for the NFL Draft. But his departure seems likely, and in what could be one of the final games of his Clemson career, he’ll no doubt give it his all against hated rival South Carolina.

Dexter Williams, RB, Notre Dame

Historically, it’s USC that’s known for its running backs. But this year’s edition of everyone’s favorite intersectional rivalry features an Irish player with a chance to shine out of the backfield. Williams doesn’t sit atop the nation’s statistical charts and has performed much better this season when the competition is less stiff. But perform he has, finding the end zone in all but one contest. (And the Trojan run defense this season doesn’t quite constitute stiff competition.) If the Irish are to claim the Jeweled Shillelagh for the second year in a row and finish the season undefeated, Williams needs to be a standout on the ground.  

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Saturday, 23 February 2019