The most crucial week of the college football season is upon us. Conference Championship week is the top teams’ final chance to present their case for a Playoff berth and notch a Conference title, while Group of 5 contenders look to secure their place in higher-profile bowl games and supremacy over many of their closest neighbours and rivals. It is an action-packed and high-stakes weekend sure to be full of top-quality action. With the final College Football playoff rankings revealed on Sunday at Noon Eastern Time (5 PM GMT), each and every team has a point to prove and make their final push for the committee’s consideration.
Here we preview the six top match ups of the weekend:
PAC-12 Championship: No.12 Stanford Cardinal vs No.10 USC Trojans, Levi’s Stadium
The Pac-12 will not be sending a representative to the College Football Playoff, the conference’s top teams cannibalising themselves and putting them out of contention. This Californian contest is therefore lower stakes than the rest of the Power 5 Championship games, but is nonetheless important as these teams look to secure their place in a high-profile New Year’s Six game, likely the Fiesta Bowl.
This may be USC quarterback Sam Darnold’s last college game (though rumours suggest he may return to the Trojans next year), and he will be looking to deliver on the big stage as he did in last year’s Rose Bowl against Penn State. Alongside Darnold, Ronald Jones has starred as a do-everything big play halfback, and the Trojans have a good defense led by linebacker Cameron Smith and corner Iman Marshall.
Stanford has their own do-everything big play halfback in Bryce Love: the matchup between Jones and Love will be one to watch if the game devolves into a typical Pac-12 shootout. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is garnering award consideration (including being named a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Award) and he leads a defense that has performed strongly down the stretch, holding Cal to 14 points and Notre Dame to 20. Quenton Meeks is one of my favourite defensive backs in all of college football, and he will look to corral Deontay Burnett and co.
USC won the team’s first meeting of the season in Week One relatively easily, but Stanford didn’t play quarterback K.J. Costello in that game, and his presence improves their offensive threat. However, I foresee the Trojans getting another big-time performance from Darnold on their way to a two-score triumph.
American Athletic Conference Championship: No.20 Memphis Tigers @ No.14 UCF Knights
This could be a humdinger. Memphis and UCF are the two best Group of 5 teams in the country this year, with UCF particularly criminally underrated after an undefeated regular season. These are two of the highest scoring teams in the country (No.1 and No.3 respectively), and with Memphis’ sole loss coming against UCF in a rearranged game after their original date was washed out by Hurricane Irma the Tigers will be looking for revenge.
Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller are the best QB-WR combination outside the Power 5 (and perhaps in the entire NCAA) and the pair will hope to continue their offensive explosion and continue to boost their draft stock, where both could end up as Day 2 picks. UCF meanwhile will look to sophomore McKenzie Milton, the dual-threat who has torn up defenses throughout the American on his way to 36 touchdowns. When the Knights are on defense look for one-handed linebacker Shaquem Griffin: the senior is one of the best stories in all of sports, forging a successful college career despite having his hand amputated at age four. His twin brother, Shaquill, has impressed with the Seattle Seahawks at cornerback this year.
UCF has rarely been challenged this season, but the way they dismissed Memphis earlier in the year will leave them feeling confident, particularly given they will be backed by their vocal hometown crowd. Scott Frost is an offensive mastermind who has assembled a powerhouse at Central Florida, and I think they cap an undefeated season, securing their place as the Group of 5 representative in the New Year’s Six.
Big 12 Championship: No.11 TCU Horned Frogs vs No.3 Oklahoma Sooners, AT&T Stadium
Oklahoma are win and in for the playoff, Baker Mayfield’s men serious contenders for the National Championship. First they have to get past a sneakily good TCU team, whose pair of losses came against the Sooners and Iowa State, who knocked off the Sooners too.
Between quarterback Mayfield, tight end Mark Andrews, pass-rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkowo and mammoth tackle Orlando Brown Jr. the Sooners have their fare share of star names, and Mayfield’s enigmatic personality is captivating (no matter what his staunchest critics say). TCU’s Kenny Hill may not be Mayfield, but he is a dangerous dual threat who first emerged at Texas A&M and has carried TCU offensively at times this year. Ranthony (yes, Ranthony!) Texada will be crucial in defusing Oklahoma’s high-powered attack but TCU’s defense faces one of the tougher tasks in all of football. The teams earlier meeting saw an easy Oklahoma win behind a monstrous game from tailback Rodney Anderson (290 yards from scrimmage) and if the Horned Frogs can’t control Anderson or Mayfield they don’t have a hope.
This is the Big 12’s first championship game since 2010. Oklahoma would already be assured of their place in the CFP if this game wasn’t taking place: the conference reintroduced this game after the 2014 debacle where Baylor and TCU missed out on the playoff as co-champions with conference champions elsewhere preferred. I think the Sooners prevail in a tight contest, a late Mayfield drive and big defensive stand sealing a one-score win.
SEC Championship: No.6 Georgia Bulldogs vs No.2 Auburn Tigers, Mercedes-Benz Stadium
The big one. Georgia are win and in. Auburn are win and in. The SEC Championship has turned into an Alabama playoff tune-up game the last three years but Auburn’s Iron Bowl upset left the Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes on life support and turned this game into an enormous contest for both teams.
Georgia’s strengths are the bastions of the SEC: a strong running game and ferocious defense. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are an outstanding backfield tandem, while Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and the rest command maybe the best defense in the NCAA. Five-star quarterback recruit Jacob Eason’s Week One injury opened the door for five-star quarterback recruit Jake Fromm to take the helm, and the freshman has never looked back, leaving the sophomore Eason exploring transfer option for the next few seasons. Fromm is smart with the football and moves the offense well, but Michel and Chubb are the stars. Michel is the chisel and Chubb the hammer, and either can make the defense pay on every single touch.
The Bulldogs won the SEC East easily, but their otherwise undefeated season was ended by the Tigers just three weeks ago. Auburn has had an odd season: early struggles saw a loss to Clemson and a tight victory over FCS Mercer, and a loss to LSU looked to have perhaps condemned them to another average season. However, their triumphs over both Georgia and Alabama came when both were ranked as the top-team in the country, and this has catapulted them to a Number 2 ranking despite having two losses. Jarrett Stidham has proved an excellent addition after transferring from Baylor, managing Gus Malzahn’s offense well alongside Kerryon Johnson, the running back with a little Leveon Bell about his game with nimble footwork and a patient style despite a sizeable frame.
A cruel twist of fate for Auburn sees this game occurring in Georgia, with Mercedes-Benz stadium hosting its first SEC Championship game as part of a ten-year deal – it will also host the National Championship in January, where the winner of this contest could find themselves. The stadium (opened earlier in the year) will likely be packed full of vocal Bulldog fans on Saturday afternoon, and that may be enough for Georgia to secure their first Playoff berth behind a lockdown defensive performance.
ACC Championship: No.7 Miami Hurricanes vs No.1 Clemson Tigers, Bank of America Stadium
Miami’s streaky undefeated run finally came to an end last week, Pitt giving the U their first loss and changing the dynamic of this game considerably. The Hurricanes could still be win-and-in for the playoff, but they will be without three of their best offensive playmakers with tight end Christopher Herndon and wideout Ahmmon Richards joining tailback Mark Walton on the sideline after suffering injuries. Thus sophomore signal-caller Malik Rosier will have to be at his very best against Clemson’s stout defensive front, or this could devolve into a blowout quickly. Miami’s defense has captured the nation’s attention with the “Turnover Chain”, and you feel a few defenders will have to wear the accessory if the Hurricanes are to prevail.
Clemson’s baffling loss to Syracuse is the sole blemish on another strong season, as they look to go to their third successive National Championship game. The defending champs have missed Deshaun Watson, but Kelly Bryant has been plenty good enough in his stead most of the time, particularly excelling as a runner from the quarterback position. The usual slew of skill position stars supplant Bryant, with Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster capable runners and Deon Cain leads a receiving corps packed full of talent. Hunter Renfrow often steps up on the biggest stage; the reliable slot receiver has some of the best hands at the college level.
The fearsome front four leads the defense, and Messrs. Lawrence, Wilkins, Bryant and Ferrell will look to wreak havoc once more against Miami, and the Tigers should have far too much for the injury-stricken Hurricanes as they secure their place as the top seed for the playoff.
Big Ten Championship: No.8 Ohio State Buckeyes vs No.4 Wisconsin Badgers, Lucas Oil Stadium
To Indianapolis, and the Big Ten’s climax. Wisconsin are the only undefeated Power 5 team in the country, and for them the equation is simple: win and in. How high they go is an interesting decision for the committee; their soft schedule says not very, but a conference title and a strong win in the Big Ten Championship over a very good Ohio State would help their cause. If chaos reigns and the three teams above them fail to win their conference titles, the Badgers are probably the Number 1 team in the country.
For Ohio State the equation is less simple. A win here would leave them at 11-2, but that includes a sizeable defeat to unranked Iowa and home loss to Oklahoma. If the Buckeyes, Clemson, Auburn and Oklahoma win, the committee will have a tough decision: Big Ten Champions Ohio State at 11-2 or Alabama at 11-1 for the fourth spot. Alabama’s recent showings have been poor, a lacklustre last-second victory over an okay Mississippi State and loss to Auburn. It is therefore crucial Ohio State wins well and puts on a good showing to collect some recency bias: if they barely squeak past Wisconsin (who have not been perceived well for most of the season) the committee may ignore the Buckeyes in favour of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, particularly if their sole loss ends up being against the second-best team in the nation.
J.T. Barrett will look to notch his second Big Ten Championship, his ability with his legs complimented well by a strong offensive line and J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber as options at running back. Defensively Ohio State are typically strong, be it Joey Bosa’s similarly prodigiously talented younger brother Nick or Denzel Ward, who might be the best cornerback in the 2018 NFL Draft. When Barrett is cooking there is no better team in college football, and a signature performance may be required from the quarterback if Urban Meyer’s men are to emerge victorious.
The Badgers freshman freak Jonathan Taylor is the third most prolific runner in the country, provided he holds onto the football and his fumbling issues don’t handicap Wisconsin too much. Alex Hornibrook is a rare left-handed quarterback who will target nine-fingered Troy Fumigalli often when the Badgers look to throw, but expect a heavy dose of ground-and-pound offense. Paul Chryst coaches the Badgers well, and as a former student and native of Madison understands how important football is to the city’s people.
Wisconsin lost to Penn State in last year’s Big Ten Championship, and I fear they suffer a similar fate at the hands of the Buckeyes. Expect J.T. Barrett to lead from the front with a four touchdown performance, muddying the waters for the playoff committee ahead of the final rankings being revealed on Sunday.
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College Conference Championship Preview.