5 Bold College Football Predictions for Conference Championship Weekend
It’s finally here. After 13 weeks of regular-season play and a week’s worth of anticipation, we’ve finally arrived at college football’s 2015 championship weekend.
This weekend, eight FBS conferences will hold league title games, with the American Athletic Conference joining the fray for the first time. By noon ET or so on Sunday, we’ll know the four-team field of the second College Football Playoff.
The 11-1 Oklahoma Sooners have likely locked up one of the spots, but the other three spots are far from certain. This weekend’s results will have plenty to say about which teams face off in the national semifinals on New Year’s Eve, and some interesting things could happen.
Will Clemson lock up the ACC title and a playoff berth? Will Michigan State make the leap to a nationally elite team? Will Florida be able to hang with Alabama in the Georgia Dome? Here are five bold predictions about what will unfold on Saturday across college football.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry Cements the Heisman Trophy vs. Florida
The SEC Championship Game carries minimal suspense. Save the outlier of a 43-37 home loss to Ole Miss (influenced by five turnovers), 11-1 Alabama has looked like the best team in the SEC and one of the best in the nation. The Crimson Tide are 17.5-point favorites over Florida, per OddsShark.com, and will clinch a College Football Playoff berth with a victory.
Junior tailback Derrick Henry has been a huge driving force in Alabama’s success. In his first season as the Tide’s featured back, Henry has been sensational. He has 1,797 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He has four 200-yard rushing games in his last six outings, including last week’s workhorse 46-carry, 271-yard, one-touchdown effort in an Iron Bowl win over Auburn.
Florida’s offense just hasn’t been the same following Will Grier’s NCAA suspension connected to a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, which pushed sophomore quarterback Treon Harris into the starting lineup.
Last week, the Gators managed only a safety in a 27-2 loss to Florida State, and a week earlier, they needed overtime to escape lowly Florida Atlantic 20-14.
Alabama should have no problem beating Florida, but how will it happen? Florida is allowing only 111.4 rushing yards per game, No. 7 nationally. But expect Henry to wear down Florida’s front. He’ll go for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns, lead Alabama’s title surge and earn himself a Heisman Trophy.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson Strafes North Carolina for an ACC Title
Deshaun Watson knows how to make an entrance. Last fall, Clemson fans had great anticipation for his first collegiate start, and he delivered. The freshman quarterback torched North Carolina’s defense, passing for 435 yards, tying an ACC single-game record with six touchdowns and tossing one interception in a 50-35 victory.
Saturday night, the Tigers and Tar Heels meet again, with slightly higher stakes. No. 1 Clemson is 12-0, and a win would lock down a College Football Playoff berth. No. 10 North Carolina is 11-1, with its only loss an inexplicable 17-13 defeat to South Carolina on the very same Bank of America Stadium turf where the ACC Championship Game will be contested.
North Carolina’s defense is significantly better under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, yielding 20.8 points per game, which is tied for No. 19 nationally. But the Tar Heels haven’t faced a quarterback of Watson’s caliber. He has 3,223 yards passing with 27 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and has added 756 rushing yards with nine scores on the ground.
"Our defense was the worst in the ACC and we’ve made such significant strides,” UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer told Jonathan M. Alexander of the News and Observer. “They are a talented team. They are No. 1 in the country for a reason. (Watson’s) a hell of a player. He’s got weapons all over the field. So it’s going to be a hell of a matchup. But we’re not worried about anything that happened last year.”
Watson has three games this season with at least 250 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game. UNC’s secondary took a hit with the announcement that starting safety Sam Smiley will miss the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Expect North Carolina and Marquise Williams to put up points, but Watson will pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 more as Clemson clinches a playoff berth in a high-scoring game.
Iowa Legitimizes Itself by Beating Michigan State
If you expected Iowa to be in this position entering the regular season’s final weekend, congratulations. You knew something a lot of people didn’t. Following a lackluster 7-6 2014 season, few expected much from the Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz’s group has massively outperformed expectations, and the 12-0, No. 4 Hawkeyes would clinch an unlikely College Football Playoff berth with a Big Ten title game win over Michigan State.
That’s easier said than done, of course. National pundits still have little respect for Iowa. Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd said Iowa is “like a C student who got an A on a test,” which is only his latest attack on the Hawkeyes. There’s only one way to quiet the critics: win.
Saturday night, that’s just what happens. Iowa’s three-headed running attack of Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley grinds out yards against Michigan State’s defense, and C.J. Beathard (who has 14 touchdowns against three interceptions) continues to play mistake-free football.
Meanwhile, Iowa’s underrated defense limits talented Michigan State passer Connor Cook. Desmond King, a finalist for the Jim Thorpe and Walter Camp awards, intercepts Cook twice, and the Hawkeyes silence their doubters with a solid win over the Spartans.
Southern California Upsets Stanford for the Pac-12 Title
One of the best stories of the season’s second half has been Southern California’s surge under coach Clay Helton. The Trojans, a popular preseason College Football Playoff pick, were reeling following head coach Steve Sarkisian’s dismissal connected to alcohol-related issues, but Helton has pulled them together.
Southern Cal is 5-2 under Helton’s watch, including a 40-21 rout of crosstown rival UCLA that clinched the Pac-12 South title. Helton was rewarded with the full-time job, and he’ll get a chance to validate that choice in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford.
The Cardinal had a strong season, including a 41-31 win over the Trojans in mid-September, and they boast a strong Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey, who is the nation’s leader in all-purpose yardage.
Expect senior quarterback Cody Kessler (27 touchdowns, six interceptions) to make several key hookups with star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has 74 receptions for 1,302 yards and 10 touchdowns. Meanwhile, McCaffrey will get his yards, but the Trojans offense will be better, and Helton’s run will start with a Pac-12 title and revenge over the Cardinal and David Shaw.
Temple Upsets Houston for the AAC Title
Temple has been one of college football’s best stories. Under head coach Matt Rhule, the Owls earned an American Athletic Conference East Division title following a 10-2 season (the only losses coming to Notre Dame and South Florida), with the help of a stingy defense that is allowing 18.8 points per game—No. 16 nationally.
Saturday, an AAC title and likely a New Year’s Six bowl berth is on the line against No. 19 Houston. The Cougars have authored a turnaround story under first-year coach Tom Herman, finishing 11-1. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is one of the game’s most exciting players, passing for 2,502 yards with 16 touchdowns against five interceptions and adding 893 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.
Expect Temple’s defense, led by AAC Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Matakevich, to contain Ward just enough for the Owls to escape Houston with a win and fly away to a New Year’s Day bowl game.