Bleacher Report Expert Predictions for College Football Conference Championships
Alabama vs. Georgia in the SEC Championship Game is the headliner of a big final weekend of college football that will determine once and for all who goes to the College Football Playoff, as well as the other 37 bowl games.
It feels like just yesterday that the season began with Wisconsin, Miami and Auburn as Top 10 teams in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. And remember when Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Kentucky were complete afterthoughts? Ah, the simpler times.
Per usual, the 2018 season had more than its share of unpredictable twists and turns. We're probably going to end up with Alabama vs. Clemson for the national championship, but that's just about the only thing that will play out the way everyone expected. (And there's still time for that scenario to be ruined.)
Our college football experts—Matt Hayes, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Ian Wharton—convened yet again to offer predictions on each of the six biggest conference championships, as well as picks for the Heisman Trophy and the College Football Playoff.
Who Wins the Rematch of Last Year's National Championship: Alabama or Georgia?
Matt Hayes (Twitter: @MattHayesCFB)
I don't know how anyone could pick against the Crimson Tide right now. They've had elite skill players all over on offense all season, and the offensive line has really improved over the last month of the season. That was an area of concern early on, but now it's an angry machine—especially in run blocking.
Georgia will clearly be the best (and most balanced) offense Alabama has seen this season, but there's a big difference between this Georgia team and the one that blew a 13-point lead in last year's national championship game: defense. The 2018 version isn't nearly as disruptive as the 2017 unit was, and that's going to be a major problem against an Alabama offense that is a country mile ahead of last year's unit.
David Kenyon (Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR)
Georgia is an excellent team, and I understand the argument to keep the Dawgs in the Top Four even with a close loss to Alabama. I don't expect that to happen, but I get it. That's the required nicety before saying Alabama wins and does so relatively painlessly. The combination of things (limiting Alabama's running backs, containing Tua Tagovailoa, throwing well on long third downs, etc.) that must go perfectly for UGA to win is improbable, at best.
Adam Kramer (Twitter: @KegsnEggs)
Alabama. And I say that with a full appreciation for Georgia, which might be the second-best team in America. This is a really good Bulldogs team, and this may be the best football game that will be played before we get to the playoff.
Translation: This won't be a blowout. Georgia is too good for that—no matter how large the point spread is. The Bulldogs should also be able to score points. Jake Fromm has quietly assembled a brilliant season in the shadow of all Tua Tagovailoa has done. But offensively, Alabama will be too much. This group is so good and so deep; that will be the difference. Alabama 45, Georgia 31.
Kerry Miller (Twitter: @kerrancejames)
As was the case before Alabama's 29-0 road win over LSU, I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to Georgia with my prediction. This Bulldogs team has been great. Outside of his performance against LSU, Fromm has been more than adequate. D'Andre Swift's late-season breakout has been fun to watch. And this defense is better than I was expecting after it all it lost from last season.
But Alabama is just too doggone good. Tagovailoa should be able to find holes in the Georgia secondary, and the front seven will be able to keep Georgia's elite run game from running wild. It'll be closer than any other Alabama game to date, though. Maybe a 34-23 type of final score here.
Brad Shepard (Twitter: @Brad_Shepard)
I love the way Georgia is playing lately. Fromm is performing as well as he did at the end of last season, and Swift has looked like the SEC's best running back over the second half of the season.
But Alabama is a different animal this year. What offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has done to unlock Tagovailoa is remarkable, and he should parlay that into a head coaching job somewhere. The Crimson Tide have weapons everywhere on offense, and the defense has risen to the occasion in big games, too. This will be Alabama's biggest test of the year, but Nick Saban's team is up for it.
Ian Wharton (Twitter: @NFLFilmStudy)
It'll be Alabama, and comfortably. Georgia has the athletes to hang with the Crimson Tide, but the Bulldogs don't have the defensive playmakers along the line to overcome the Tide's incredible passing offense. The Bulldogs ranked 120th in tackles for loss and 99th in sacks, compared to Alabama's ranks of 12th and fifth in those categories, respectively. Georgia doesn't fit the profile of the team to finally get Tagovailoa out of his comfort zone.
Will Oklahoma Avenge Its Loss to Texas by Winning the Big 12 Championship?
If I'm Oklahoma, this game scares the heck out of me. Texas was patient enough in the first meeting to run the ball and control tempo and cut down on Oklahoma possessions. That meant the Sooners—with their awful defense—had to be nearly perfect on offense. And they weren't.
Everyone else in the Big 12 has tried to play a pickup basketball game with Oklahoma, and it hasn't worked. Texas will do the same thing this weekend that it did the first time, and it will beat the Sooners again behind a strong run game and the vastly underrated dual threat of quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
First, let me say I'm completely here for the Kyler Murray/Ehlinger "nontroversy"/beef/whatever you want to call it. If Texas wins, I hope everyone on the team is wearing "OK. Cool. Hook 'em!" shirts underneath the pads. But even as much as Oklahoma's sieve of a defense has struggled lately, the Sooners are winning a fourth straight Big 12 crown unless they lose the turnover battle again.
Yes, but offense won't come as easily as it did last week for the Sooners. While the Texas defense is still building, it will present a much stiffer challenge for Oklahoma than we saw out of West Virginia—which I believe just missed another tackle.
The issue, however, is controlling the pace and scoring enough. Texas outlasted Oklahoma in the previous game, although it took a quick, abrupt turn in the second half. While Texas should once again be able to score, I'm not sure it will be able to keep up. I don't read a ton into the Longhorns' squeaking by Kansas last week. Texas will be good. But Oklahoma will be better.
How healthy is Ehlinger? The Texas QB has dealt with multiple injuries to his throwing shoulder this season, and he did not look right against Kansas last Friday. He threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for three more scores in Texas' regular-season win over Oklahoma, and the Longhorns need him to be at least that good. In fact, they probably need him to be even better unless they plan on replicating their plus-three turnover margin from that game.
All things considered, I'm picking the Sooners by double digits.
Yes. How about that Sooners defense last week, grabbing a couple of important touchdowns against West Virginia? Sure, they gave up 56 points, but that's typical for that side of the ball for OU. And Lincoln Riley is going to have to basically design plays to outscore everybody they play. It may not be anywhere near a championship-caliber defense, but the offense more than makes up for it. It seems like every game this year has been a one-score affair, but OU is going to come into this one with extra motivation and win by double digits.
I'll stray from the popular path and say Texas wins, even though beating a team twice in one season has been said to be one of the hardest challenges in football. The Sooners have been living on the edge for much of the season. Army nearly derailed them. Texas upset them. And each of the last four games has been proof of how bad this defense is. The Longhorns will need to catch some breaks on defense to slow Murray down, but they'll also have no issues scoring at will.
Clemson Is Favored by 28, but What Actually Happens in the ACC Championship?
Pitt gets destroyed. Clemson can't afford to make a mistake now, and the Tigers defense has spent the final six weeks making up for the first half of the season when the unit looked disinterested. Pitt must consistently run the ball to win games, and that's not going to happen here. These are the games when Trevor Lawrence will become a national name. Somehow, he has been relatively ignored despite a TD-INT ratio of 22-4 and completing 66 percent of his passes—in his true freshman season. He is college football's next bright star.
This is such a bizarre program. Pitt's trend of giving top-ranked teams a four-quarter fight (and often pulling the upset) is remarkable. Although expecting a blowout seems like a foolish thing to do, I also cannot imagine the Panthers will move the ball. Clemson's run defense is spectacular, and the Panthers went 2-4 when averaging fewer than five yards per carry. It'll be weird for a while, but Clemson pulls away in the second half.
Well, Clemson is probably gonna win by around 28 points, for starters. Shall we move on? OK, fine. A few notes.
Pitt just lost to a Miami quarterback who completed six of 24 passes for a grand total of 52 yards. And Pitt didn't just lose; it lost by three touchdowns. Sure, the game didn't mean a great deal with a spot in the ACC Championship Game already locked up, but that result is hard to ignore.
It has been a nice season for the Panthers, and it wouldn't shock me if they put up some points against a Clemson defense that just gave up plenty to South Carolina. But Clemson will be too much offensively, and the 28-point spread really does tell us the kind of game we're going to have. Never say never, but an upset here would be the most shocking of the year.
In each of Clemson's last three games, it only led by a one-possession margin at halftime. The Tigers eventually ran away with each of those games, but they have gotten out to some slow starts as of late. And against South Carolina last week, this defense showed serious flaws for the first time in about two months.
However, Clemson has the best run defense in the nation, and I cannot bring myself to believe there's a scenario in which Pitt QB Kenny Pickett keeps this one interesting with his arm. This one might look interesting until we get close to halftime, but Clemson will eventually win by five touchdowns.
Forget the career game South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley had against Clemson last week, because that isn't Pittsburgh's game. The Panthers have to run the ball to have success, and it's going to take a career effort from Pickett for Pitt to pull a huge upset.
That isn't going to happen. Lawrence is really growing into his own, and the offense is playing at a high level. I don't know if the Tigers will cover, but they'll win with relative ease.
Clemson wins, but Pitt will cover. The Tigers are an elite team that ranks near the top of almost every important statistic thanks to explosiveness at key positions. But what the Panthers have going for them is a solid defense that can create negative plays and an offense that can effectively run the ball and eat clock. They rank 22nd in time of possession. They'll do enough to make Clemson work for a win, but ultimately the difference in playmakers will propel Clemson into the playoff.
Does Northwestern Have Enough Magic Left to Upset Ohio State?
Northwestern does have one thing going in its favor: its style of offense. For some reason, the misdirection and deception of a spread-option offense confuses the Ohio State defense. (It has all season.) Northwestern may not have elite athletes, but it runs the spread-option offense so well that it could cause problems for the Buckeyes.
Now, the problem for the Wildcats: Ohio State knows it not only has to win to reach the College Football Playoff, but it also has to win big and impressively. The Buckeyes will be zeroed in and will win big.
A team that needed a fourth-quarter comeback to topple Rutgers and lost to Akron reached the Big Ten Championship Game. So strange. Even a subpar Ohio State defense can limit this Northwestern offense. As the 'Cats have done recently, they'll stick around thanks to their own defense but won't score enough to make it matter.
I have doubted Northwestern plenty this year, and I have been wrong plenty about this team. The Wildcats are a game group that seem to get up for moments like this.
But I also wonder if Ohio State might have found something last week. You don't crush your rival and then fail to feed off the momentum of that game. The play-calling was brilliant, and the athletes were put to good use. And that's what I worry about here.
Northwestern might not be able to handle Ohio State if that is indeed the Ohio State we see. However, I cannot erase the moments throughout the year when the Buckeyes looked so discombobulated. Could that happen again? Absolutely. Ohio State will still win, although I like Northwestern to cover the 14-point spread.
Northwestern's secondary is nothing special. It has given up at least 250 passing yards in seven of 12 games this season, including three of the last four. Given the way Dwayne Haskins just obliterated Michigan's defense, there's no way I'm counting on the Wildcats to slow him down.
Considering Northwestern has yet to score more than 34 points in a game this season and has a dreadful rushing attack, the Buckeyes should win this one in blowout fashion. They know they need to make a statement to the selection committee to improve their odds of finishing ahead of Oklahoma, and they will do so in a 52-21 type of affair. (But still fall shy of that coveted No. 4 seed.)
It's hard for me to look at the Wildcats and not see the team that lost to Akron early in the year. But that's not fair, and that's not them anymore. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has played more like the one that nearly upset Michigan earlier this year.
But the Buckeyes finally had that big game everybody has been waiting for, and it came in The Game. Now, with a lot on the line, look for them to go right after Northwestern the way they did Michigan one week ago. It's going to be closer than that game, but the Buckeyes have too much speed and talent. Haskins will make more than enough plays to win going away.
Not even close. Northwestern is a limited team that doesn't beat itself with penalties or turnovers, making the Wildcats a nuisance for higher-end opponents, and it separates them from similarly talented teams. But the Buckeyes have a knack for playing their best at the end of the season. As they showed against Michigan, they still have elite speed and playmakers on offense.
The Buckeyes may need a statement win for the playoff committee to consider vaulting them over Oklahoma, although they'll know the result of the Sooners game by their own kickoff. I expect a big win for the Buckeyes.
Which Pac-12 Team Secures Its Spot in the Rose Bowl: Utah or Washington?
Washington. Look, there's no doubt the Huskies benefited greatly from a blizzard last week in Pullman, which all but eliminated Washington State's ability to run its offense. This played right into the hands of Washington's defense-first, run-the-ball-second philosophy. But the Huskies won at Utah in September when the Utes weren't playing a freshman quarterback (Jason Shelley) because of an injury to starter Tyler Huntley (broken collarbone earlier this month). The Huskies will win again.
Do you like great defense and mediocre offense? Then this is the conference championship game for you! In fairness to both teams, Washington steadied itself in November, while Utah lost two key players (QB Huntley and RB Zack Moss) to injury. Still, this will probably be a repeat of the September clash in a first-to-20 affair. Consistent with my season of picks, I'm taking the Huskies because of the defense.
The Washington we saw against Washington State probably would have sniffed the playoff if it had been that Washington all year long. As is, it will most likely have to "settle" for a Rose Bowl. Considering the many turns this season had, that's not too shabby.
Utah needed a massive, impressive comeback against BYU—seriously, I hope you watched that game—to come away with a win last Saturday. While I really like what I've seen from Shelley, Washington has more experience, depth and overall skill.
It won't help decide a playoff spot, but it's certainly worth watching. (Also, shoutout to the Friday night spot. I am here for it.) Washington 31, Utah 24.
Good thing this is one of the two Friday night games, or I wouldn't even be pretending to pay attention to this one. That said, give me Washington. Utah only managed 261 total yards and seven points earlier this season against Washington, and that was back when the Utes still had Huntley and Moss healthy. Without that QB-RB duo, I'm not sure how they plan on moving the ball against the Huskies defense. Myles Gaskin has another big day on the ground as Washington wins a 24-10 snoozer.
I went from being a big believer in Washington early in the year to selling on the Huskies because of quarterback Jake Browning's lack of progression. Then, fellow senior Gaskin comes out and has one of the best games of his career in last week's Apple Cup, and I'm back in on Washington.
Utah, meanwhile, lost Huntley and Moss for the season, and their youngsters have picked up right where the older guys left off. That's encouraging for Kyle Whittingham's team moving forward. But in this one, it's hard not to pick the veteran team, and that's U-Dub. Chris Petersen's team will get it done again.
I'll take Utah in the upset even though the Huskies have an elite coaching staff and a healthier defense than they did a few weeks ago. The Utes are one of the best defensive teams in the country because they wreak havoc in the backfield and are slightly better at winning the turnover battle than the Huskies. Browning's physical limitations have been exposed against fast, lengthy defenses, and Utah has the right ingredients to whip up a masterful recipe. The Utes get it done.
Will UCF Take Care of Business Against Memphis, Even Without McKenzie Milton?
This is a tough spot for UCF. If not for a season-ending—but hopefully not career-ending—injury to McKenzie Milton, the Knights would have an opportunity to make a statement against Memphis and possibly slip into the College Football Playoff.
You can forget about that now, even if UCF does the unthinkable and rolls Memphis with backup Darriel Mack Jr. The overriding goal now should be to simply win the game—and give yourself a chance to get matched up favorably in a New Year’s Six bowl, after which 15 bowl practices of working with the first team could help get Mack ready for another major upset for the Knights. First things first: Beat Memphis. And they will.
UCF will likely focus on simplicity for Mack, who's more of a runner than a passer right now. Reads, draws and screens figure to be staples of the game plan. Memphis is usually decent against the run, but the secondary is vulnerable to big plays. Throw in UCF's penchant for takeaways and terrific red-zone defense, and Memphis' margin for error is slim. UCF wins at home.
Get well, McKenzie Milton. That was hard to watch, harder to process and an absolutely horrendous way for your season to end. Get well, man.
But there will be a football game played, and a potentially great one. Milton's absence is impossible not to factor in. He's too good of a player for it not to. While UCF's score against USF was lopsided last weekend, it will be much tougher this week.
I like Memphis. Heck, the Tigers nearly beat UCF the first time they played, and running back Darrell Henderson was fabulous. He'll be fabulous again. I hate that we have to handicap what UCF will do without Milton, but that is the case. Memphis wins a thriller.
Not only do I expect UCF to lose, but it's also going to be ugly. Memphis should have won the regular-season matchup between these teams, and things are going to be a lot different with Milton out of the picture.
Mack is every bit the rushing threat that Milton is, but there's no reason for Memphis to respect his arm until proven otherwise. In 43 career pass attempts, Mack has only had one completion of more than 13 yards. The Tigers will crowd the box on defense, and Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. will run amok against this porous UCF defense. Memphis wins by multiple touchdowns.
The winning streak comes to a close this week. I know that's against the grain, but the Knights barely beat Memphis, 31-30, earlier this year. The way Mike Norvell's team puts up points, they're going to put a ton of pressure on Mack to match them score for score. I'm not sure he can do that, even after Josh Heupel gives him a full week of preparation.
Never underestimate a good team that is rallying behind a fallen leader, and UCF will be playing for Milton. But Memphis is going to shock a lot of people this week by getting the win.
Not without Milton. UCF should have earned a spot in the playoff had Milton been healthy and won this game. But without him, its margin for error is zero. Memphis is going to come out smelling blood against freshman quarterback Mack.
Mack could pull off a "Cardale Jones" by leading his team to a national title. But he's shown no reason to believe he's ready for the starting job to this point. Memphis' big-play offense will generate enough points while its defense sells out to slow the Knights' terrific rushing attack.
Who Wins the Heisman Trophy?
A month ago, I would've said it's a lock for Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. But Kyler Murray has gotten better (and more prolific) with each passing week, and now we're staring at two games that will determine both the CFP and the Heisman race.
If Oklahoma avenges its only loss of the season to Texas—and Murray has a huge game in the process—there might be enough of a movement in the race where there’s a legitimate unknown heading into next Saturday's Heisman ceremony. For now, I'll stick with Tagovailoa, but I reserve the right to change that after this weekend.
Tagovailoa. His production is even more ridiculous when you consider he has attempted just three passes in the fourth quarter all season. I understand the counterargument: Murray is scoring so much that Oklahoma can overcome a shoddy defense. This is one of those discussions that "embrace debate" ruined. They're both really, really good. We just have to pick one and don't need to get emotional about it.
It will be Tua, and it should be Tua. That is no knock on Murray. He has been brilliant and a statistical monster. I have loved watching him play this season, and I am anxious to see how Oklahoma's season wraps up. But unless something drastically changes this week, Tagovailoa will win.
From start to finish, he has been close to perfect when he has been asked to play, which might work against him, considering how few passes he has thrown in the fourth quarter. But that won't matter barring some last-minute misdirection. He will win, Murray will be the runaway runner-up and the rest is very much up for grabs.
Who will win the Heisman? Tagovailoa. Who should win the Heisman? Murray. The lazy and factually incorrect argument here is that Tagovailoa has done his damage against much tougher SEC defenses. In reality, he has avoided the tough defenses of Florida, Kentucky and (until now) Georgia and has only played two games against defenses that rank top-40 in passer efficiency rating—and he wasn't anything special in those games against LSU and Mississippi State.
Aside from that misleading "But SEC defenses are so much better than Big 12 defenses!" argument, I'm not sure what case can be made against Murray. He has had to be basically perfect all season long because of how awful Oklahoma's D is, and he has risen to that challenge time and again. I don't have a Heisman vote, but I can promise you I would vote for Murray if I could.
I've said all year that Tagovailoa is going to go home with the award, and I'm not changing that now. Kudos to Murray for his steady, spectacular play to close the gap, and it's great that Dwayne Haskins' rebound game for Ohio State last weekend put him right back in the conversation. But Tagovailoa has taken college football's best team and put it on a completely different level. He can make every pass and beat you with his legs, and he has put up exceptional numbers despite a banged-up knee and playing three quarters a game. It's hard to imagine voters go another direction.
It'll be Tagovailoa. His presence on Alabama has had the same effect as Kevin Durant on the Golden State Warriors, elevating an already great team to new heights. The Crimson Tide appear invincible with not only a competent passing quarterback, but also one with truly rare touch and accuracy.
That isn't meant to take away from the tremendous efforts of others. Haskins is nearing 50 total touchdowns, and Murray has been even more dangerous than Baker Mayfield was last year. But Tagovailoa has been as close to flawless as one can be.
The Pairings for the College Football Playoff Semifinals Will Be...
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame.
This matchup is playing it safe; it's chalk. That means Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State win this weekend just how everyone believes it will happen (even though it never happens that way). But if OU barely holds off Texas—like it has in nearly every other big win this season—and Ohio State routs Northwestern, Ohio State will jump Oklahoma (and Georgia) for the fourth spot.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma. Alabama, because duh. And Oklahoma checked in at No. 5 in the latest CFP rankings, and I don't understand how the Sooners would fall behind No. 6 Ohio State when a victory over Texas should be considered more impressive than an OSU win over Northwestern. Then, No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame. Pretty self-explanatory, but worth mentioning Clemson retains its No. 2 slot.
OK, let's try to figure this thing out. Alabama will beat Georgia and will be the No. 1 seed. Clemson will handle its business and be No. 2. Notre Dame will sit on its couch and lock up the No. 3. So that means Clemson vs. Notre Dame in one game.
Alabama's opponent is where things get moderately interesting, but I will go with Oklahoma. The Sooners just have the upper hand. They are ranked higher than Ohio State, they don't have a blowout loss and they play a better team this weekend. Although Ohio State could make it interesting with style points, Oklahoma gets in.
Given my picks for the various conference championship games, it's got to be 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson and 3. Notre Dame, followed by a tough call between Oklahoma and Ohio State for the final spot. I believe it will go to Oklahoma, though. Its loss was more acceptable—both in terms of the margin of defeat and the quality of the opponent—and its play was much better throughout the course of the season.
Ohio State's win over Michigan was phenomenal, but it came after six consecutive weeks of not-great football against opponents who all finished 7-5 or worse. If the full body of work counts for more than just the most impressive victory, we'll see the Sooners in the playoff.
Alabama vs. Oklahoma and Clemson vs. Notre Dame. I believe Georgia is one of the nation's four best teams, but the Bulldogs won't get in with a loss to Alabama so long as either the Sooners or the Buckeyes win. And I think both will.
Also, it's hard to see the Buckeyes' leapfrogging Oklahoma if both win. Texas has had a breakout season in Year No. 2 under Tom Herman, but it won't beat Oklahoma twice. Thus, the Sooners will sneak in over UGA and OSU in a controversial decision. It's going to be fun watching the nation's two best offenses go against one another, and Clemson-ND would be a defensive donnybrook.
Alabama-Ohio State and Clemson-Notre Dame. Since I chose Oklahoma to lose to Texas, that makes my pairings pretty easy. Should both Oklahoma and Ohio State win, the committee already showed it values Oklahoma's narrow loss to Texas over Ohio State's blowout loss to Purdue. But these debates tend to be settled on the field as upsets happen on the grandest stage and make the arguments a moot point.
Odds provided by OddsShark.