Conference championship week is upon as College Football Playoff spots are still in flux, and all of nation’s FBS conferences will determine their year end champions. Our experts Steen Kirby, Yesh Ginsburg, John Bava, and Mike Loveall are on hand to offer their previews and predictions.
PAC-12 Title Game: #8 Colorado vs. #4 Washington (Friday 9:00 P.M.)
Line: Washington by 7.5 (lines as of Monday night)
Steen: Washington’s offense has woken up and been dominant since their loss to USC, and the defense has been good too. Colorado is a program on the rise and has made huge strides this year, but I’m not sure they can stop Washington enough times to win this game. Look for the Huskies to lock up a CFB playoff berth. Washington 38, Colorado 28
Yesh: Washington looked bad against USC, which makes me very hesitant. On the other hand, Washington has looked to good all season that I’ll assume that was a fluke. Colorado will be inspired, but Jake Browning and company will be too much. Washington 31, Colorado 24
John: There weren’t many people who had these two teams winning their respective divisions in the Pac-12 before the season started. Not only have they made it this far, but both are currently in the mix for a potential College Football Playoff invite. That’s especially true for Washington who appear to have the inside track to make the semifinals with a win on Friday.
The fourth-ranked Huskies face a Colorado team that essentially came out of nowhere to win the Pac-12 South. Before this season, the Buffaloes managed just five conference wins since they joined the league in 2011. They finished the year 8-1 with their only blemish a narrow 21-17 loss to USC. Head coach Mike MacIntyre, now in his fourth year with the program, certainly deserves national coach of the year consideration.
Of course, Chris Petersen’s in the discussion as well. Washington finished the regular season ranked no worse than 21st nationally in both total offense and defense. Only two other quarterbacks in FBS have thrown for more touchdowns than Jake Browning’s 40. And running back Myles Gaskin is second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards behind just Stanford’s Christian McCaffery. UW prevails and in so doing will be in line to contend for their first national title since 1991. Washington 30, Colorado 17
Mike: Washington is the fourth-ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings. In addition to the pressure of playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Huskies have the added stress of the CFP and the worry of Michigan or the Big 10 Champion passing them up if they struggle to beat Colorado. This is especially true since Michigan beat Colorado by 17 earlier in the season. That’s a lot of pressure for Chris Petersen’s team. Mike MacIntyre, the coach of the year, doesn’t have those worries. No one expected the Buffs to be here. Sefo Liufau is an underrated passer. Expect the Buffs to play lose and confident, but the Huskies pull out a close one. Washington 31, Colorado 28
#10 Oklahoma State at #9 Oklahoma (Saturday 12:30 P.M.)
Line: Oklahoma by 11.5
Steen: Oklahoma ran the table in the BIG 12 to return to the top 10 after a 1-2 start, and the Sooners are rolling like many thought they would at the start of the year. Oklahoma State is not a bad football team at all, and might have one loss if not for bad officiating, but the Sooners are stronger on defense and will be able to put up points. Oklahoma 49, Oklahoma State 35
Yesh: This might be Bedlam, but Oklahoma has one of the best offenses in the country and Oklahoma State doesn’t have a defense that can stop them. Maybe Oklahoma State can make this into a shootout, but I think the Sooners roll. Oklahoma 42, Oklahoma State 21
John: This year’s annual Bedlam game functions as a de facto Big 12 title game for the second straight year. The ninth-ranked Sooners have a chance to complete their first unbeaten season in conference play since 2004. Standing in their way will be Oklahoma State who will be looking for their third win over their in-state rival over the past six years.
Two of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12 will be on the field. Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph is second in the conference with 3,591 passing yards with the Sooners’ Baker Mayfield not too far behind in third with 3,381. Mayfield himself boasts the nation’s best quarterback rating (194.70).
With additional offensive weapons such as Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, Oklahoma gets the job done. Oklahoma 38, Oklahoma State 24
Mike: The Bowlsby Bowl. The final regular season game for each team serves as a de-facto Big 12 Championship Game. Unfortunately, the Big 12 will be left out of the CFP for the second time in the CFP’s three year history. This game is for a berth in the Sugar Bowl. Neither team is particularly good on defense and both have very dangerous offenses. Expect this game to be typical of its “Bedlam” moniker. Momentum shifts, high scoring, and highly emotional. The best part of this game might be the post-game press conferences with salty Bob Stoops and the mulleted Mike Gundy. Oklahoma wins by scoring last behind a more effective run game. Oklahoma 52, Oklahoma State 45
SEC Title Game: #1 Alabama vs. #15 Florida (Saturday 4:00 P.M.)
Line: Alabama by 24
Steen: Alabama had a slow start but still rolled Auburn. Florida is a banged up football that is missing defensive starters, and has a very poor offense. The Gators will hang around for at best a half, but Alabama is deeper, and better coached, their superiority will show in the end. Alabama 27, Florida 10
Yesh: This line is way too high, but it would still be a shock to see Alabama lose. Florida is the first defense this season that might really have what it takes to stop the Alabama offensive line, but Jalen Hurts is too mobile and has too many weapons at receiver for Florida to effectively stop enough to get a win. Alabama 24, Florida 10
John: Getting this far has been routine for Alabama under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide will be making their sixth appearance in the SEC Championship game during his tenure as head coach including their fourth in the past five years. And nothing less than a decisive win over Florida is expected.
For the second straight year, the Gators have taken advantage of a ridiculously weak SEC East to emerge as division champions. That’s not to say they don’t deserve to be here. UF has built an elite defense under co-defensive coordinators Geoff Collins and Randy Shannon. The unit gives up just 291.6 yards per game, good enough for sixth nationally.
But it’s been a struggle on the other side of the ball. Neither Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby have been particularly impressive at quarterback. Florida’s total offense ranks second worst in the SEC. So being able to score on Alabama’s number one total defense will be immensely difficult. Bama might make the CFP even if they suffer what would be a shocking upset here. But such a result is highly unlikely. Alabama 34, Florida 16
Mike: Party like it’s 1999? Or 1992? Or one of the other seven times that Alabama and Florida have meet in the game’s 25 year history. These two teams have been the perennial powers in the SEC since the conference split into divisions in 1992. Alabama comes in as the #1 team in the nation and the prohibitive favorite for the national title. Florida has ridden its defense to the division title for the second consecutive year. Last year, Alabama slept through the SECCG and Florida was able to keep it close. This is the most focused Alabama team of the Saban era, however. It’s awfully hard to give up 24 points in a conference championship game, but this Alabama team just seems to have no weaknesses. Alabama 34, Florida 13
ACC Title Game: #3 Clemson vs. #23 Virginia Tech (Saturday 8:00 P.M.)
Line: Clemson by 10
Steen: Clemson has stumbled a bit this season, but overall they have still earned a spot in the College Football Playoff, and look to be kings of the ACC for the second straight year. Virginia Tech suffered two conference losses and lacks any marquee wins. The Hokies are a good team, but not up to Clemson’s caliber and I don’t see this game being that close. Clemson 38, Virginia Tech 21
Yesh: This will be a very interesting game. Virginia Tech is one of the more inconsistent teams this season, but when the Hokies are on they can play with just about anyone. Clemson clearly has tremendous potential, but the Tigers have played several poor games this season and let the stress get to them. I think Justin Fuente finishes his first season in Blacksburg with a bang in a Playoff-altering upset. Virginia Tech 31, Clemson 28
John: They say it’s hardest to replace a legend. But don’t tell that to Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente. In his first year after taking over for the venerable Frank Beamer, the Hokies finished the regular season 9-3 and won the ACC Coastal Division.
They face a stern challenge against a Clemson team currently third in the latest CFP rankings and coming off a 56-7 blowout of in-state rival South Carolina. The Tigers offense is firing on all cylinders which is pretty evident considering they’re one of just 16 programs in FBS averaging over 500 yards per game. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads the ACC with 3,626 passing yards and 34 touchdown tosses.
Clemson’s defense has steadily morphed into an elite bunch after losing eight starters in the offseason. The unit is giving up just 307.9 yards per game, the eighth best total in FBS. Of course, VT has always been formidable on that side of the ball under defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The Hokies themselves rank top 20 nationally. Ultimately, the Tigers talent level sees the team through to its second consecutive conference crown and CFP appearance. Clemson 40, Virginia Tech 21
Mike: Clemson, last year’s runner-up, must win the ACC Championship Game to get a chance to exact revenge on Alabama. Both of these teams share two common traits: a boatload of talent and wild inconsistency. Clemson had great wins against Louisville and Florida State, while having the worst loss of any CFP contender in N.C. State. Virginia Tech has shown signs of dominance all season, but Justin Fuente’s team hasn’t put together more than one complete game. Can they do it when it matters? Clemson 31, Virginia Tech 24
BIG 10 Title Game: #6 Wisconsin vs. #7 Penn State (Saturday 8:00 P.M.)
Line: Wisconsin by 2
Steen: Penn State started slow but has been one of the hottest teams in College Football in recent weeks, and earned their spot in a Big 10 title game that few expected they would make. Wisconsin is a very good team in their own right, and deserving of at least a New Year’s Six bowl. The Badgers have more injuries though, and Penn State’s offensive improvements should give them a slight edge. Penn State 27, Wisconsin 21
Yesh: This should be a great game. No team has improved as much this season as Penn State has. Wisconsin has been one of the country’s most consistent teams all year. The Badgers have an underrated defense and can play with anyone in the trenches. I think that Wisconsin can outmuscle Penn State en route to a Big Ten title–and possibly a Playoff berth. Wisconsin 17, Penn State 10
John: The two participants in Saturday’s Big Ten title game may be in the most precarious position with respect to a spot in the College Football Playoff. It’s quite possible that the winner may be left out in the cold at the expense of one, maybe even two, fellow conference teams who will be sitting at home this weekend. With Ohio State a virtual lock and Michigan ranked ahead of both Wisconsin and Penn State, this scenario isn’t exactly far-fetched.
Regardless of what happens, the accomplishments of the Badgers and Nittany Lions in 2016 can’t be written off. Both head coaches, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst and Penn State’s James Franklin, deserve a ton of credit for where they have these two programs. They’re part of a resurgent Big Ten with four teams in the current CFP standings.
A few key players suffered injuries in last week’s games, including Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook (concussion) and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (foot). Hornibrook’s expected to play but Barkley’s status remains uncertain. One can only hope that Barkley is able to go considering him and the Badgers Corey Clement are among the top running backs in the Big Ten. The experience factor on this stage should see Wisconsin through. Whether or not it’ll translate to a playoff appearance won’t be certain until the following Sunday. Wisconsin 27, Penn State 24
Mike: Trace McSorley has led an offensive renaissance in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions are the thorn in the CFP Committee’s side, with the best win of all of the CFP contenders (over #2 Ohio State) coupled with a 39-point loss to Michigan and an out-of-conference loss to #25 Pittsburgh. Wisconsin has been steady all season – in typical Badger fashion relying on a workman-like offense and a stout defense. Can Wisconsin finally close the deal in the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time since 2012? Penn State 24, Wisconsin 21
Other Conference Title Games
MAC: #17 Western Michigan vs. Ohio
Line: Western Michigan by 18.5
Steen: Western Michigan continues their dominance of the MAC, as one of just two undefeated teams in College Football. Despite having no losses, the Broncos have no hope of making the College Football playoff, and coach P.J. Fleck may be leaving soon. Ohio has nothing to lose and played Tennessee close early in the season. The Bobcats don’t have a great offense though, and WMU should score enough to win. Western Michigan 31, Ohio 14
Yesh: Western Michigan is not as talented as many think, but has more than enough to beat Ohio. Western Michigan 41, Ohio 24
John: The Broncos completed the first undefeated regular season in school history with a 55-35 win over Toledo. They now look to upend what appears to be an overmatched Ohio team in the MAC title game to put themselves in position for a New Year’s Six bowl appearance. Expect quarterback Zach Terrell to put up some big numbers against the Bobcats’ 97th ranked pass defense. Western Michigan 45, Ohio 17
Mike: The Broncos can earn a place in the New Year’s Six Bowls with the big boys with a win against Ohio. P.J. Fleck may be the coach everyone is talking about, but don’t overlook Frank Solich on the Ohio sideline. Solich’s teams are always disciplined and focused. That pays off in big time games. Look for Ohio to threaten, but fall a bit short. Western Michigan 41, Ohio 34
AAC: Temple at #19 Navy
Line: Navy by 3
Steen: Navy has narrow odds at a New Year’s Six Bowl berth, they would need a WMU loss, or to blow out Temple. The Midshipmen score a lot of points with their option attack, while Temple has won six straight and is an improving squad in their own right. The Owls have a defense, but Navy has a slight edge in this one given the home field advantage. Navy 38, Temple 34
Yesh: This line is close for a reason. Temple has one of the best defenses in the country and should be able to keep Navy in check a bit. Navy’s defense is one of the worst in the country. I smell an upset. Temple 45, Navy 35
John: Temple may have the remedy to slow down Navy’s vaunted triple option offense. The Owls boast the AAC’s second best run defense, giving up 127.67 rush yards per game. But the Midshipmen are hosting this one and are on quite a roll, averaging 61 points in their last three contests. Navy prevails, giving them an outside shot at getting the Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl invite. Navy 41, Temple 31
Mike: The triple option is tough to defend, we all know that. But Navy has scored a ridiculous 183 points in their last three games (61/game). Temple is almost as hot, having won their last five games by no less than 16 points. Matt Rhule and Ken Niumatalolo are two of the best coaches in college football. Expect this to be close. Temple 42, Navy 41
C-USA: Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
Line: Western Kentucky by 9.5
Steen: LA Tech started a miserable 1-3, and has dropped two C-USA games, including their tilt last week. Western Kentucky has the innovative and tough as nails Jeff Brohm as their coach, and hasn’t lost since falling to Louisiana Tech by a field goal on the road in the middle of the season. Look for the Hilltoppers to get their revenge at home. Western Kentucky 45, Louisiana Tech 28
Yesh: Western Kentuck has been the best team in Conference-USA this year and will avenge its only regular-season conference loss. Western Kentucky 41, Louisiana Tech 28
John: Two of Conference USA’s top quarterbacks will be taking the field for this one. LA Tech’s Ryan Higgins leads the league in both pass yards (3,706) and touchdown throws (34). Just behind him is Hilltopper signal caller Mike White at 3,606 yards passing and 31 tosses for scores. Both teams average 44 points per game which is tied for fifth best nationally. This one will be a shootout. Louisiana Tech 48, Western Kentucky 45
Mike: Jeff Brohm is one of the best offensive minds in college football. His Western Kentucky Hilltoppers can put a lot of points on the board. Louisiana Tech is no different, and pushed Arkansas and Texas Tech to the limit. The first game was Louisiana Tech win. Western Kentucky 48, Louisiana Tech 45
MWC: San Diego State at Wyoming
Line: San Diego State by 6.5
Steen: Wyoming has lost two of their last three, but playing in Laramie is a big advantage, and theey beat SDSU at home a couple of weeks ago. The Aztecs looked awful against Colorado State, after Wyoming snapped their MWC winning streak. SDSU has more star power, but Craig Bohl is building a winner in Laramie. Wyoming 38, San Diego State 28
Yesh: San Diego State’s defense has been awful the last two weeks and Wyoming held Donnel Pumphrey in check two weeks ago in Laramie. I think Craig Bohl completes Wyoming’s miracle turnaround with a conference title. Wyoming 49, San Diego State 31
John: Just two weeks ago, these teams played each other in Laramie with the Cowboys pulling off a 34-33 upset. They meet again on the same field Saturday with Wyoming having an opportunity to win its first Mountain West title since joining the conference in 1999. This time, running back Donnel Pumphrey and the Aztecs won’t be surprised. San Diego State 30, Wyoming 24
Mike: The Aztecs look to avenge one of their only three losses this season against Wyoming. Both teams come in having lost two of their last three. Who doesn’t want it the least? San Diego State 31, Wyoming 30