Complete Preview of College Football Conference Championship Week

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2020

Complete Preview of College Football Conference Championship Week

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Ten trophies and four College Football Playoff berths are on the line during an exciting weekend of conference championships.

    Unlike most seasons, conference title games aren't the only matchups on the slate. But other than Texas A&M's trip to Tennessee, none of those contests will have a direct impact on a conference race (obviously!) or the College Football Playoff rankings.

    Most attention, then, is squarely on these nine games. While the AAC, Big 12, and Pac-12 championships are noteworthy, results in the ACC, Big Ten and SEC are most important because they might determine all four CFP teams.

    B/R has previewed each championship with broadcast info, key storylines and more. The list is organized chronologically, and all game lines are from DraftKings.

C-USA: UAB at Marshall

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    When: Friday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network

    Where: Huntington, West Virginia

    Spread: Marshall -5

    In what's perhaps the most 2020 game of 2020, Marshall will take on a UAB program that has played once in the last six weeks.

    Look, if you're confident in what to expect from the Blazers, that's awesome. It's completely ridiculous for me to sit here and suggest I have a strong idea. UAB has a good-to-great defense but lost twice in late October and clipped Rice last weekend.

    At least the latter part is more than Marshall can say? Five interceptions crushed the Herd in a shutout loss to Rice. Given the team's season-long performance, though, it's probably an outlier. Grant Wells had tossed only four picks in seven previous games.

    Besides, Marshall leads the nation in yards allowed per play (4.0) and points allowed per game (11.4). Only turnovers from the Herd's offense can minimize the impact of such a dominant unit.

MAC: Ball State vs. Buffalo

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    When: Friday, Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

    Where: Detroit, Michigan

    Spread: Buffalo -13.5

    Ball State's chances of being more than a good story are contingent on its run defense. While the unit has surrendered just 3.9 yards per carry, the Cardinals are about to face their toughest test.

    Not only is Buffalo atop the FBS at 7.5 yards per rush attempt, but no other team is averaging better than six. Sample size contributes to that fact, yes. But the Bulls have overwhelmed defenses with Jaret Patterson, Kevin Marks Jr. and their 23 combined touchdowns in five games. Patterson has 1,025 yards, and Marks has 510.

    In fairness, Ball State has faced a more difficult schedule in the West division than Buffalo in the East. Yet against their two common opponents, Buffalo beat Northern Illinois by 19 and defeated Miami (Ohio) by 32 while Ball State won by six against the former and lost to the latter.

    The transitive property is never a perfect indicator of what to expect. Nevertheless, that's a concerning fact for Ball State.

    Winning the turnover battle is paramount for the Cardinals, who are plus-six in the last three contests. Buffalo, though, has only three giveaways this season.

Pac-12: Oregon at USC

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    When: Friday, Dec. 18, at 8 p.m. ET on Fox

    Where: Los Angeles, California

    Spread: USC -3.5

    The Pac-12 announced Monday that Washington doesn't have enough scholarship players to appear in the conference's title game. As a result, Oregon will represent the North division.

    Either way, though, USC would be the favorite.

    That's not meant as a ringing endorsement of the Trojans, who are 5-0 but needed late comebacks to knock off Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA. The offensive line is mediocre at best, and USC has ceded 5.5 yards per snap defensively.

    Still, the Trojans have the Pac-12's most productive passing attack. Kedon Slovis is averaging 320.2 yards per game, and his key targets are Amon-Ra St. Brown, Drake London and Tyler Vaughns. Oregon matches up relatively well in the secondary, but USC has routinely surpassed 30 points this season.

    On the opposite side, Oregon can be highly efficient yet ineffective. While the Ducks lead the Pac-12 in gains of 30-plus yards, only UCLA and Arizona have more turnovers.

Big Ten: Northwestern vs. Ohio State

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Dec. 19, at Noon ET on Fox

    Where: Indianapolis, Indiana

    Spread: Ohio State -21

    The lopsided spread is more a reflection of doubt about Northwestern's offense than disregard for its defense. So far, the Wildcats have allowed 4.4 yards per play and 14.6 points per game. They will absolutely frustrate Justin Fields and the Ohio State attack.

    But at some point, the Buckeyes will break through. The concern is that Northwestern can't match Ohio State's offensive pace.

    Northwestern torched Maryland and Illinois, yes. However, the toughest opponentsIowa, Wisconsin and Michigan Stateheld the Wildcats to 3.6 yards per snap. Ohio State's defense isn't great but is strong enough against the run to make Northwestern a one-dimensional offense. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey is an improvement at quarterback, yet he's averaging only 5.8 yards per pass.

    While the Wildcats desperately need to force a few turnovers, the good news is the defense has 16 takeaways. But the bad news is Northwestern has 12 giveaways, and Ohio State has finished all five games with a positive turnover margin.

    Ohio State will likely be headed to the CFP with a win.

Big 12: Oklahoma vs. Iowa State

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Dec. 19, at Noon ET on ABC

    Where: Arlington, Texas

    Spread: Oklahoma -5.5

    During the October clash, Iowa State earned a 37-30 upset win. The Cyclones held the Sooners to 3.5 yards per carry and sealed the victory with a late interception.

    But the biggest change since then is OU's defense.

    Long maligned as ineffectiveand rightfully sothe unit has quietly had an excellent run following the ISU loss. They've allowed 4.5 yards per snap, tallied 54 tackles for loss and forced 11 turnovers during a six-game winning streak.

    Iowa State has the nation's leading rusher in Breece Hall, though his efficiency has dipped lately. The bigger story for the Cyclones is whether Brock Purdy can attack OU vertically with tight end Charlie Kolar and top wideout Xavier Hutchinson. Hitting a few deep passes would help neutralize an aggressive OU front.

    Oklahoma is more reliant on the running game than usual, which is a good thing for the Cyclones. Spencer Rattler doesn't make many mistakes but isn't as explosive as his predecessors. Still, the Sooners have benefited from the return of running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who's collected 382 yards and six touchdowns in four games. He wasn't available in the October matchup.

    Neither team is likely to reach the CFP, though Iowa State has an outside chance if Clemson loses. The question is whether the committee views Clemson or even Texas A&M as a non-comparable team, which would negate the value of a Big 12 title.

ACC: Clemson vs. Notre Dame

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Dec. 19, at 4 p.m. ET on ABC

    Where: Charlotte, North Carolina

    Spread: Clemson -10.5

    Despite winning the regular-season clash, Notre Dame is a double-digit underdog for the ACC title game.

    Largely, that can be traced to the personnel Clemson will have available this time around. Junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the biggest name, but the opposite unit played without defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebackers Mike Jones Jr. and James Skalski during the double-overtime loss in South Bend.

    As we've regularly said, though, the Irish have no reason to apologize. And this defense is fully capable of facilitating a second upset.

    The major storyline on both sides is the running game.

    Excluding sack yardage, the Irish allowed a ridiculously low 48 yards on 31 carries in November. Lawrence is known for his passing but is also a productive runner. If the Irish shut him and Travis Etienne down, that's huge for their upset chances.

    Conversely, ND's offense piled up 208 rushing yards and three scores. Considering who returns for Clemson, that's unlikely to happen again. Senior quarterback Ian Book, though, is a dangerous scrambler. His ability to improvise can provide a major boost for the Irish, and eliminating that part of his skill set would make another upset improbable.

    If Clemson wins, both teams should make the CFP. But if Notre Dame does, Clemson will be hoping Alabama wins and the selection committee views the Tigers as a better team than Texas A&M.

MWC: Boise State vs. San Jose State

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Dec. 19, at 4:15 p.m. ET on Fox

    Where: Las Vegas, Nevada

    Spread: Boise State -6.5

    Boise State is headed to the Mountain West Championship Game for the fourth straight year and the fifth time in eight possible seasons. San Jose State, meanwhile, is making its first appearance.

    Perhaps that experience will be a factor, but the matchup itself is relatively even on paper.

    San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel is averaging 9.1 yards per pass attempt, and the rushing attack has 669 yards and six touchdowns in its last three games. Boise State, however, has ceded only 4.8 yards per snap and a 26.4 third-down conversion rate.

    Boise State's offense is less efficient statistically, but coronavirus-related absences and a snowy trip to Wyoming haven't helped those numbers. The Broncos have scored a touchdown on 81 percent of their red-zone trips, which is third-best nationally.

    Anything other than a tight finish would be surprising.

    Boise State has blocked five kicks and scored four touchdowns on returns. That's an absurd level of production in six games. San Jose State hasn't allowed a blocked kick or return score, but the Broncos' penchant for big plays on special teams could still be valuable.

SEC: Florida vs. Alabama

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Dec. 19, at 8 p.m. ET on CBS

    Where: Atlanta, Georgia

    Spread: Alabama -17

    When the Gators and Crimson Tide played in the 2015 and 2016 SEC Championship games, an upset never felt possible. Alabama outscored Florida 83-31 in those matchups.

    The 17-point spread suggests the Tide are headed for a comfortable win, but at least Florida has a dangerous offense in 2020. Kyle Trask has thrown for 3,717 yards and 40 touchdowns to only five interceptions, helping the Gators to 41.2 points per game. He gives Florida a legitimate chance to stick with Alabama even though the Tide have surrendered just 6.4 yards per pass in 2020.

    But the Gators must figure out a way to contain Mac Jones, Devonta Smith and a sensational Alabama passing attack.

    Jones is the Heisman Trophy front-runner, boasting a would-be FBS record of 11.7 yards per attempt. Smith leads the nation in receiving yards (1,327) and is second in touchdowns (15). John Metchie III has 40 catches for 720 yards and six scores, and Alabama has started to involve its tight ends lately.

    If Florida's defense can't slow Jones, Smith and the rest, a strong showing from Trask might not matter.

    Win or lose, Alabama is probably in the College Football Playoff. Florida, though, needs a whole lot of chaos surrounding a win. Last weekend's loss to LSU crushed the Gators.

AAC: Tulsa at Cincinnati

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, Dec. 19, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC

    Where: Cincinnati, Ohio

    Spread: Cincinnati -14

    If you love defense, this is your matchup.

    Cincinnati ranks second nationally in yards allowed per play, and Tulsa is sixth. And while both run defenses are strong, pass coverage is their dueling strength. Cincinnati has 13 interceptions to just five touchdowns, and Tulsa has ceded 5.8 yards per throw.

    The long story short: Whichever running game is more effective will likely provide a much-needed edge.

    Cincinnati is best prepared to accomplish that considering it has dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder to lead the offense. The Bearcats rank third with 5.9 yards per carry, while Tulsa is 80th at exactly 4.0 yards per attempt.

    While a CFP trip is highly unlikely, Cincinnati is the favorite to represent the Group of Five in a New Year's Six bowl.


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