Bleacher Report's Ultimate Guide to Conference Championship Weekend

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2016

Penn State and Wisconsin will play for the Big Ten championship trophy Saturday, but they'd much rather get a spot in the playoff.
Penn State and Wisconsin will play for the Big Ten championship trophy Saturday, but they'd much rather get a spot in the playoff.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Congratulations, you've made it this far.

You've survived 13 wild and exciting weekends of college football, during which there have been blowouts and nail-biters, upsets aplenty and Hail Marys on plays that shouldn't have happened. And yet so much still has to be decided before the four playoff teams are set and the rest of the massive bowl picture is complete.

That happens this weekend, when championships will be awarded. They're of the conference variety but still incredibly important in the grand scheme of things.

Since the College Football Playoff selection committee puts a great deal of significance on conference championships—when it picks a "Group of Five" team for one of the New Year's Six bowl games, it's a flat-out requirement—coming out on top this weekend is arguably more important than winning any other game on the schedule.

But it won't be easy. Every team competing for a conference title earned that right by navigating its league slate well enough to finish at the top of its division. Well, except for in the Big 12, which won't host a championship game until next season but lucked out by having its first- and second-place teams scheduled to square off on the final weekend.

Think you're properly prepared for what's at stake this weekend? Just to be safe, check out what we put together as a primer.


The Big Ones

Pac-12: No. 9 Colorado vs. No. 5 Washington
9 p.m. ET Friday in Santa Clara, California

Colorado was 5-40 in its first five years in the Pac-12 before it went 8-1 this season.
Colorado was 5-40 in its first five years in the Pac-12 before it went 8-1 this season.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Pac-12 experienced a changing of the guard this season, with recent powers like Oregon and Stanford falling by the wayside in the North Division and none of the regulars in the South finishing on top. That left us with a battle of fresh blood on the night before Championship Saturday, which will help set the stage for the weekend.

If Colorado (10-2) isn't the feel-good story of the 2016 season, it's right up there. The Buffaloes haven't been good in quite a while, and until this year their presence in the Pac-12 had been nothing more than an afterthought—they had a 5-40 mark in league play from 2011-15.

But Mike MacIntyre's veteran group is playing like it's been together for a long time and has learned from its mistakes. Most importantly, Colorado makes stops on defense, and coordinator Jim Leavitt should be the front-runner for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in college football. The Buffaloes have allowed 18.8 points per game and 4.7 yards per play—numbers that rank 13th and eighth in the nation.

It's been a while since Washington (11-1) was relevant as well. The Huskies last won the conference in 2000 and over the next 15 years reached the eight-win plateau only three times. The last of those came in Chris Petersen's first year on the job in 2014, and last season the Huskies were 4-6 before winning their final three games and carrying that over to this season.

Washington is doing it with youth, as many of its key players are sophomores or juniors. Quarterback Jake Browning is the league's best hope to get an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Though the Huskies lost some stars on defense, they're still capable of neutralizing opponents' weapons.


SEC: No. 15 Florida vs. No. 1 Alabama
4 p.m. ET Saturday in Atlanta

The SEC title tilt features a rematch of the 2015 game, which Alabama won 29-15.
The SEC title tilt features a rematch of the 2015 game, which Alabama won 29-15.John Bazemore/Associated Press

Yes, this is technically a conference title game, but the SEC championship was effectively determined when Alabama clinched the West Division on Nov. 12. That side of the league has won the conference crown seven straight years. The Crimson Tide (12-0) are favored by 21.5 points, per Odds Shark, which shows how close this game is expected to be.

Florida (8-3) won the East for the second year in a row, but you could say it was by default. The Gators blew a 21-0 lead at Tennessee and got crushed by Arkansas, the fifth-place team in the West. But because the Volunteers and everyone else in the East lost at least four times in league play, Florida claimed the division by a landslide. And the Gators' reward is getting to pit their anemic offense against Alabama's ridiculously good defense.

Consider it a variation on the immovable object/unstoppable force paradox. The Tide are immovable on defense, and the Florida offense will be lucky if it's anything more than stoppable.

Gators head coach Jim McElwain, once Alabama head coach Nick Saban's offensive coordinator, didn't mince words when he explained what his team is up against.

"There's only been a couple times so far that I've become violently ill watching them," he said Sunday, per Dan Mathews of


ACC: Virginia Tech vs. No. 4 Clemson
8 p.m. ET Saturday in Orlando, Florida

Virginia Tech is in the ACC title game for the first time since 2011.
Virginia Tech is in the ACC title game for the first time since 2011.Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

The ACC final has only been slightly less one-sided than the SEC championship, with the Atlantic Division winner taking the last five games. Those were all claimed by either Clemson or Florida State, one of whom has won that division every year since 2009, while the Coastal has its fourth different champion in as many years.

Virginia Tech (9-3) finished on top by virtue of successfully navigating a hurricane in early October to beat North Carolina. The Hokies had a few outlier-type losses after that, by 14 at Syracuse and by 10 at home to Georgia Tech, but overall they've looked sharp under first-year head coach Justin Fuente. He's the only first-year head coach in FBS vying for a conference title, so the transition from the Frank Beamer era has been incredibly smooth.

Defending ACC champion Clemson (11-1) hasn't looked as good as the team that reached the national title game in January and came close to knocking off Alabama. But that's in comparison to itself, not to other schools, against whom the Tigers still match up favorably.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson has better passing numbers than he did a year ago, though his rushing output is down. But with a veteran group around him, Clemson is scoring 40 points per game. And the Tigers defense, despite sending a good portion of the 2015 edition to the NFL, has the potential to be even better than it was a year ago.

Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, will host this game instead of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The ACC made the change in late September in response to a controversial law that prevents cities and counties from establishing protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.


Big Ten: No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 6 Wisconsin
8 p.m. ET Saturday in Indianapolis

Odds to Make College Football Playoff
TeamConference% Chance
Ohio StateBig Ten90
WisconsinBig Ten34
Penn StateBig Ten20
OklahomaBig 129
MichiganBig Ten2
Oklahoma StateBig 121

While the path to the playoff is clear for the favored teams in the Pac-12, SEC and ACC championship games, it's a little cloudier in the Big Ten. This is appropriate since the Midwest is most often where traditional "football weather" appears this time of year—never mind the fact Penn State (10-2) and Wisconsin (10-2) are playing in a dome.

These teams face a unique situation. Each would be worthy of a semifinal spot in the playoff if they won college football's best conference, but there's no guarantee there will be a bid available. That's because Ohio State, which tied Penn State atop the East Division but lost the tiebreaker by virtue of its head-to-head loss, looks like a pretty safe bet to make the playoff. The Buckeyes (11-1) landed second in the latest playoff rankings and just knocked off No. 3 Michigan in double overtime in what many considered a playoff quarterfinal.

Conference champions have comprised all eight playoff spots in the first two years of the system, but that trend looks like it will end unless the committee pulls a 2014 TCU and drops OSU out of the Top Four because it lacks a so-called 13th data point without a game this weekend. What's more likely, though, is that the Penn State-Wisconsin winner bumps either Clemson or Washington out if all the favorites win.

That might depend more on how the Nittany Lions or Badgers win. A tight, one-score victory isn't likely to sway the committee enough to lift the winner into the Top Four, but a curb-stomping performance could.


The De Facto One

No. 10 Oklahoma State at No. 8 Oklahoma
12:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Oklahoma State beat archrival Oklahoma 38-35 in its last trip to Norman in 2014.
Oklahoma State beat archrival Oklahoma 38-35 in its last trip to Norman in 2014.Brett Deering/Getty Images

Over the last six months, the Big 12 acted out its own version of the classic sitcom storyline "will they or won't they?" In the summer, it decided to pursue expansion from 10 to as many as 14 teams, prompting a slew of suitors from all corners of the country to express interest. It passed on the entire lot, however, choosing to stick with what it had and hope that would be good enough to remain relevant.

And then every team in the league lost at least once before the end of October, effectively knocking the Big 12 out of playoff contention. Almost.

Oklahoma (9-2) and Oklahoma State (9-2) are still in the mix, though just barely. And only because the Sooners and Cowboys scheduled their annual Bedlam game for championship weekend—next year the Big 12 will have a conference title game—and these teams happen to be first and second in the standings.

After starting the season 1-2 with losses to Houston and Ohio State, Oklahoma was declared out of the playoff race before Big 12 play even began. But eight straight wins later, the Sooners are in position to slide into the Top Four like they did a year ago.

For Oklahoma State, the situation is a little more dire. First, the Cowboys have to win in Norman for the second straight time, which they last did in 1997, and hope the selection committee gives them a pass for their 30-27 loss to Central Michigan, which came about after the officials erroneously gave the Chippewas an untimed down they used to pull off a miraculous Hail Mary hook-and-lateral play.


The Rest of the Lot

KALAMAZOO, MI - NOVEMBER 25:  Donnie Ernsberger #85 of the Western Michigan Broncos leaps over a Toledo Rockets defender in the second quarter at Waldo Stadium on November 25, 2016 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Mid-American: Ohio vs. No. 21 Western Michigan
7 p.m. ET Friday in Detroit

Western Michigan (12-0) began its season with wins at Big Ten programs Northwestern and Illinois and just kept on winning. The Broncos dominated the MAC and are probably going to be in the market for a new coach since P.J. Fleck is likely to get snatched up by a power-conference program, but it may all be worth it if they can take care of business one more time.

With Boise State and Houston ineligible to claim the Group of Five bid to a New Year's Six bowl game since neither can win its conference championship, a trip to the Cotton Bowl is Western Michigan's to lose. Considering the Broncos beat their eight league opponents by an average of 26.9 points per game, fans should start looking up flights to Dallas.


TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 28: Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo walks along the sidelines during the second quarter of their game with South Florida at Raymond James Stadium on October 28, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr. /Getty Ima
Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images

American Athletic: Temple at No. 25 Navy
12 p.m. ET Saturday

Forever an independent program, and quite happy to be one, Navy (9-2) made a business decision last year to join a conference for the first time. Smart move by the Midshipmen, who are 14-2 in league play in those two seasons and this fall won their first-ever division title. Now they get to host the AAC title game—and have an outside shot to get into a major bowl game if they win and Western Michigan slips up in the Mid-American final.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo passed on the open BYU job in the offseason, opting to stick with the program he's been with for all but three years since 1995. Assuming his team, with its potent option run game, can get past two-time defending East Division champ Temple (9-3) at home, where Navy has won 15 straight, Niumatalolo will get to hoist the program's first-ever conference championship trophy as well.


Conference USA: Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
12 p.m. ET Saturday

BOWLING GREEN, KY - DECEMBER 5:  Taywan Taylor #2 of the WKU Hilltoppers in the first half of a game against the Souther Miss Golden Eagle at Houchens-Smith Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

With seven of its 13 schools finishing below .500, Conference USA is arguably the worst league in FBS. But it's not all bad, as the top of the conference features some of the best offenses in the country.

Louisiana Tech (8-4) and Western Kentucky (9-3) rank first and second in FBS in yards per play. The Bulldogs average 7.7 yards per snap, and the Hilltoppers aren't far behind at 7.5, and they both average 44 points per game, which is the fifth-best mark in the nation.

This is a rematch of an Oct. 6 meeting in Ruston, Louisiana, which epitomized the teams' firepower. Louisiana Tech won 55-52 in a game that featured 988 yards of offense.


Mountain West: San Diego State at Wyoming
7:45 p.m. ET Saturday

SAN DIEGO, CA - OCTOBER 21:  Donnel Pumphrey #19 of the San Diego State Aztecs runs past Jermaine Kelly #3 of the San Jose State Spartans for a touchdown during the first half of a game  at Qualcomm Stadium on October 21, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Defending league champion San Diego State (9-3) is on a two-game skid that started with a 34-33 loss at Wyoming on Nov. 19. The Aztecs scored on a 23-yard Hail Mary as time expired but couldn't convert when they went for two and the win.

The Cowboys (8-4) won the Mountain Division thanks in part to a 30-28 victory over Boise State on Oct. 29. It's their first title since they won the Pacific Division in the Western Athletic Conference in 1996. Not bad for a team that was 2-10 a year ago.

The winner gets to play in the Las Vegas Bowl. SDSU last appeared there in 1998, and Wyoming was last involved in 2004.

Look for plenty of rushing yards in this one, as two of the top four running backs in FBS are on display. Cowboys junior Brian Hill has run for 1,674 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Aztecs senior Donnel Pumphrey has gained 1,908 yards and scored 15 times. Pumphrey, who has 6,180 career yards, needs 218 yards to surpass Wisconsin's Ron Dayne for the FBS career record.


All recruiting information courtesy of unless otherwise noted. All statistics provided by CFBStats unless otherwise noted.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.


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