Folks, it’s conference championship weekend.
That’s right, the first stage of the college football postseason officially kicks off, with a handful of match-ups set to determine not just who will take home their respective conference titles… but who will hear their names called this Sunday when the College Football Playoff committee makes their final selection.
Here’s our breakdown for the Power Five conference championships, beginning out west this evening...
Pac-12 Championship Game
(5)Utah vs. (13)Oregon
Friday, December 6 | 8:00PM EST
ESPN Spread: Utah -6.5
Midway through the season, the Pac-12 appeared dead in the water.
Oregon had lost twice, Washington was stumbling, and USC was doing… well... whatever it is USC appears to be doing down there.
But all along, Utah kept winning. The team ranked 14th in the AP to start the season and projected to finish 20th in the SP+ was an afterthought when it came to the College Football Playoff. Now, they’re on the doorstep of the claiming the conference’s first bid to the biggest dance in college football since 2014 - should they win tonight and Georgia lose tomorrow (presumably).
To do it, they’ll have to get passed Justin Herbert and an Oregon program that’s been here plenty of times before - but Herbert should have his hands full with Utah’s defensive front, which has been an imposing force for the Utes all season long. Still, Utah struggles against the big play, and Oregon has plenty of playmakers to take advantage.
On the other hand, of course, Oregon’s staunch defense will put Utah’s highly efficient QB Tyler Huntley to the test. Huntley has thrown for over 75% completions this year, but he won’t have seen anything like the nation’s 17th ranked defense, who have 17 interceptions recorded on the year (2nd in the country).
And of course… if you’ve ever seen a “Pac-12 After Dark” game, you know just how wild things can get. This is one you don’t want to miss this weekend, and I’m gonna pick Oregon’s seasoned playmakers to take the victory 33-31... in a game that will come right down to the wire.
SEC Championship Game
(4)Georgia vs (2)LSU
Saturday December 7, 2019 | 4:00PM EST
ESPN Spread: LSU -7
LSU has been rolling all season, but will a date with the Dawgs in Atlanta doom the Tigers? With a loss, LSU should still be able to get a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff, but quarterback Joe Burrow and the Tigers surely want to be in control of their Playoff destiny with a win on Saturday.
The matchup between LSU’s high-powered offense and Georgia’s tough defense will be the best matchup of the entire championship weekend. LSU scores an average of 48.7 points per game, while Georgia only allows 10.2 points per game. Something’s got to give, and I think Georgia’s defense will break down in the second quarter. LSU is the best offense the Bulldogs have faced all year, and I think Burrow’s accuracy combined with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s grit will give LSU options on how to run its offense. If Georgia’s secondary is shutting down LSU’s wide receivers, a few handoffs to Edwards-Helaire may force the safeties to play the run more, opening up chances for one-on-one matchups that LSU wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson should win almost every time.
I think LSU is a special team this year, and Georgia won’t be able to stop the Tigers - I really don’t know if anyone can stop LSU right now. I have LSU winning this one comfortably 45-24.
ACC Championship Game
(23)Virginia vs (3)Clemson
Saturday December 7, 2019 | 7:30PM EST
Bank of America Stadium
ESPN Spread: Clemson -28.5
With all the hype surrounding Ohio State and LSU, don’t forget that the reigning national champions are 12-0, too. Clemson’s dominance is expected in a weak ACC, but the Tigers definitely have deserved their unblemished record with a balanced squad. Clemson scores nearly 46 points a game, while allowing just over 10 points per game. Their 541.8 yards per game are nearly evenly balanced between their run game and passing attack.
Meanwhile, Virginia is just happy to be in Charlotte. Three of the Cavaliers’ last four wins have been by nine points or fewer. Virginia’s only win over a ranked team came last week against rival Virginia Tech. Beating Clemson will be quite a challenge for head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team. If there’s one phase of the game Virginia needs to win to stay in this contest, it’s when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence drops back to pass. Virginia is sixth in the nation with 43 sacks, while Clemson’s offensive line has allowed just 11 sacks this year.
I think Clemson’s talent and experience in big games helps the Tigers dominate in Charlotte. I’ve got the Tigers 41-10.
- Betsy Goodfriend
Big Ten Championship Game
(1)Ohio State vs. (8)Wisconsin
Saturday, December 7 | 8:00PM EST
Lucas Oil Stadium
ESPN Spread: Ohio State -16.5
In sports, second chances are, at best, a rarity. Over the course of the college football season, they’re virtually non-existent. But that’s exactly what the Wisconsin Badgers have on their hands this weekend when they travel down to Indianapolis for a date with the Ohio State Buckeyes.
By now, the numbers Ohio State has been putting up have taken them from the “well are they just Big Ten good?” conversation firmly into the “can anyone in any conference beat them this season?” discussion: 534.5 yards offensively per game (5th), 232.2 yards per game defensively (1st), 49.9 points scored per game (1st) and 11.8 points allowed per game (4th). Their closest game came against Penn State this season - which they won by 11 points - and otherwise no team has come within three touchdowns of them.
But the only number Wisconsin will be paying attention to this weekend is 31 - that was how much they lost by when these two met in Madison back in October. Since then, of course, Wisconsin has gone undefeated, won back Paul Bunyon’s Ax in a decisive road win over a dangerous Minnesota team, and have done it all behind RB Jordan Taylor, who has averaged 146.75 yards per game in what could be his last season for the Badgers. Now, they just have one more chance to complete their path to redemption: a win over the Buckeyes in Indy.
I think this game ends up closer than their last meeting, but the Buckeyes still find a way to get it done. I’ll take Ohio State 35-16.
- Hank Greene
Big 12 Championship Game
(6)Oklahoma vs. (7)Baylor
Saturday, December 7 | 12:00PM EST
ESPN Spread: Oklahoma -9
Speaking of second chances, when these two teams met just a few weeks ago on November 16, they put together one of the best college football games of the year - with the Sooners coming back from a 28-3 deficit to ultimately win 34-31. It was Baylor’s first loss in a season, just two years removed from the Bears finishing 1-11… and it would be their only loss, as they took care of business over the next two weeks to earn their own shot at redemption tomorrow.
As for how much has changed in the handful of weeks since they last met? Not much.
Oklahoma is still fielding the country’s most efficient offense, averaging 564.3 yards per game and 44.3 points per game. And while their defense is still a pain point when compared to the offense, they were good enough to hold Baylor to just 99 total yards offensively in the second half when these two met in Waco.
If Baylor wants to win this game, they’ll need to play the kind of defense that forced mistakes from Jalen Hurts and this Sooners team the first time around, but more importantly, their offense will need to keep their foot on the pedal from the opening kickoff... because this Oklahoma team scores quickly.
I’ve waffled back and forth on this one, but I think ultimately the Sooners just have too much. I’m taking Oklahoma to win 42-33.
- Hank Greene