5 Teams We Expected to Play in Conference Title Games That Blew It

Jeff Bell@@JrayBellCorrespondent IDecember 2, 2013

5 Teams We Expected to Play in Conference Title Games That Blew It

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    Alabama coach Nick Saban
    Alabama coach Nick SabanKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    After a rivalry week unlike any that college football has ever seen, we've officially arrived at conference championship week, where teams' biggest hopes and dreams are either accomplished or stepped on.

    But if someone told you what the matchups would be back in September, how would you feel? Which teams playing for a conference crown would surprise you the most?

    Or perhaps it's who isn't partaking in these games that would flat-out shock you.

    We take a look at five teams that had been expected to play for a conference championship, but will instead be watching from the couch in Week 15.

     

    All stats via ESPN.com

Boise State Broncos

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    QB Joe Southwick
    QB Joe SouthwickOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Ever since the departure of quarterback Kellen Moore, Boise State has been off the national radar in college football.

    But even without Moore, running back Doug Martin and several other players who made the Broncos such a formidable team, you could still pencil them in for the conference championship game in the Mountain West.

    After all, who could possibly challenge head coach Chris Petersen and company in the Mountain Division? Utah State is a decent team, but after that, there's Colorado State, New Mexico, Wyoming and Air Force. With apologies to the aforementioned programs, Boise State laps each in the talent department.

    After losing 38-6 to Washington to open this season, it seemed as if the Broncos would fail to regain their magic.  Then they pulled it together and made it all the way to Nov. 23 with just one conference loss, a 41-40 defeat at Fresno State.

    Along the way, they scored an 11-point victory at Utah State and controlled their own destiny for the conference title game. A 34-31 loss at San Diego State proved to be their ultimate undoing, however, as the once-mighty Broncos were left out of the battle for the Mountain West crown.

    Petersen's squad began the season No. 19 in the AP poll, so the expectation seemed to be that even if a return to the BCS was out of the question, the Broncos would still be a quality team wreaking havoc in their non-AQ conference.

    With the return of sophomore running back Jay Ajayi in 2014, don't expect the Broncos to suddenly become average. However, 2013 will always be classified as a building year that could have produced so much more.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan QB Devin Gardner
    Michigan QB Devin GardnerGregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Michigan began the season ranked No. 17, one spot ahead of Nebraska, but the Wolverines appeared to be the team to beat in the Legends Division of the Big Ten.

    After Brady Hoke's team knocked off Notre Dame, which later beat Michigan State, that notion strengthened. When you considered the fact that Nebraska was also throttled at home by UCLA, there didn't seem to be anybody that could stop quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines from reaching Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.

    Sure, there were some major questions after close wins over Akron and UConn, but Michigan responded with a 42-13 beatdown of Minnesota and seemed to regain its footing. Even after a narrow loss at Penn State, Michigan remained in good shape.

    But the wheels completely fell off from there as the Wolverines lost four of their final five games to finish with just seven wins.

    The low point had to be a 29-6 loss at Michigan State, where the Wolverines offense looked like it was playing in molasses. There were signs of life this past Saturday when Michigan took Ohio State to the limit, coming within a two-point conversion of beating the then-No. 3 Buckeyes. But calling 2013 anything other than a disappointment means you either didn't watch or you're such a glass-half-full kind of person that we'll just let you be.

    Simply put, Michigan had the kind of talent it takes to win the Legends Division. Coupled with less-than-formidable competition, the Wolverines had a major opportunity sitting in front of them.

    Unfortunately, the offense was exposed on numerous occasions and the defense often looked like the one we were used to seeing during the Rich Rodriguez era. With a number of key players returning in 2014, the Wolverines should be hopeful about their future because reflecting on this past season can't be all that much fun.

Oregon Ducks

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    QB Marcus Mariota
    QB Marcus MariotaJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The Oregon Ducks entered the 2013 season poised to achieve greatness. There was returning quarterback Marcus Mariota, a Top Five preseason ranking and a schedule that slowly ramped up in difficulty.

    Tor the first two months of the season, that narrative remained strong as the Ducks dominated every team on their schedule. There were a few bumps and bruises, but for the most part, new coach Mark Helfrich's team took care of business.

    Then came a road game at Stanford in which the Cardinal jumped out to a 26-0 lead before hanging on to win, 26-20. A week later the Ducks looked sluggish against struggling a Utah team playing without its starting quarterback.

    Still, Oregon turned on the jets in the second half against the Utes and won by 23. When Stanford fell to USC later that evening, all the Ducks had to do was win their final two games against Arizona and Oregon State to reach the Pac-12 title game.

    Instead, they laid an egg in Tuscon, Ariz., losing by 26. The team bounced back with a thrilling last-minute win over Oregon State, but there would be no conference championship game in 2013.

    You might have thought Stanford was the team all along with the best chance to emerge from the Pac-12 North, but after losing to the Utes, the Ducks were as much of a lock as a team could possibly be. But the defense fell apart and, coupled with the offense's inability to score in the red zone, the Ducks blew an opportunity to make it back to their second Rose Bowl in the past three seasons.

Georgia Bulldogs

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    QB Aaron Murray
    QB Aaron MurrayMike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    After coming up just a few yards short against Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game, the Georgia Bulldogs seemed destined to make a return trip to Atlanta in 2013.

    There was quarterback Aaron Murray returning for his senior year, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall coming off fantastic freshman campaigns and a defense, although young, still full of talent at every level.

    Mark Richt's team debuted at No. 5 in the preseason AP poll and even received a first-place vote. A week-one loss to Clemson was disheartening, but the Bulldogs responded with four straight victories, including wins over South Carolina and LSU.

    However, a number of injuries turned the athletic facilities into a hospital ward, and even with Murray playing lights-out football, the team was unable to weather the storm in losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.

    The Bulldogs still had a chance to make some noise when they took the lead at Auburn with just over a minute to go, but a prayer from Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall bounced off a pair off Georgia defenders and landed in the arms of wide receiver Ricardo Louis, who walked into the end zone.

    All things considered, it wasn't a terrible season in Athens, Ga. The team showed a lot of grit down the stretch, especially in Saturday's double-overtime victory over Georgia Tech. But it certainly wasn't the kind of season that fans expected, and even though bad luck played a role, Georgia has to be thinking it should be the team playing for the SEC title this weekend instead of Missouri.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon
    Alabama RB T.J. YeldonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The most surprising team not to make a conference championship game has to be Alabama.

    Yes, the Crimson Tide reside in a tough division in the SEC with LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M, but this is head coach Nick Saban we're talking about. This was a team coming off back-to-back national titles, a team with more 5-star talent than ever before and one that returned a number of key players on both sides of the ball.

    Up until last Saturday, Saban's team had answered every challenge. It outscored Texas A&M in a 49-42 shootout in College Station and flat-out dominated LSU, 38-17. The only remaining test was the Iron Bowl, where the one-loss Auburn Tigers suddenly had a chance to steal the division with a win.

    That's exactly what they did, leaving Alabama to watch and wait during conference championship week.

    Of any Alabama team in recent memory, this seemed like the one in the best position to make it to Atlanta. Its offensive line issues were fixed early on and the defense had given up more than 10 points on just two occasions all season.

    Quarterback AJ McCarron was as experienced and poised as any signal-caller in recent memory and the running game featured a stable of future NFL backs. Everything was in place for Alabama to make it to Atlanta and eventually, Pasadena, Calif., for the Rose Bowl.

    But the stubborn Tigers got in the way of the Tide's dreams. Instead of watching Saban in another conference title game, we're left with the mild drama of waiting to see which "other" BCS bowl his team will play in.