Driving for college conference titles
Travis Etienne and Clemson can punch their Playoff ticket with a win over Pittsburgh in the ACC title game.
Previewing the Football Bowl Subdivision conference championship games:
Pac-12 Championship in Santa Clara, Calif.
No. 11 Washington vs. No. 17 Utah
Nov. 30, 8 p.m. ET, Fox Danny Sheridan’s line: Washington by 5
Since its champion is guaranteed to have three losses, the league is officially out of the playoff discussion. Even so, a trip to the Rose Bowl will provide plenty of incentive. The Utes are representing the South Division for the first time in the title game since joining the conference. The Huskies were expected to be back here, though their path took unexpected detours.
Utah made it despite losing both starting QB Tyler Huntley and RB Zack Moss to seasonending injuries. The Utes flashed that resilience in their last regular-season game, overcoming a 20-point deficit to top BYU. The Utah backfield is now in the hands of QB Jason Shelley and RB Armand Shyne, but they’ll be up against the Pac-12’s stingiest defense. Huskies veteran RB Myles Gaskin has been a workhorse of late. His three TDs powered Washington to victory in a snowy Apple Cup showdown with Washington State. He’s sure to face a loaded box this week, so QB Jake Browning might have to take some shots downfield.
Prediction: The Utes are scrappy and will never be out of the game. But the deeper, more talented Huskies will prevail and make plans for Pasadena. Washington, 27-20
Big 12 Championship in Arlington, Texas
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Texas
Dec. 1, noon ET, ABC Danny Sheridan’s line: Oklahoma by 71⁄2
Sooners QB Kyler Murray, a dual threat, looks to make a strong closing argument for Heisman Trophy voters, in addition to avenging the team’s lone loss. He likely will need to put up big numbers to compensate for Oklahoma’s defensive deficiencies, especially in the secondary. Texas QB Sam Ehlinger has been playing through a shoulder sprain that might limit his downfield range, but he has shifty targets like WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey who can turn short throws into big gainers.
Prediction: The Sooners were in comeback mode the first time around against Texas. This time they won’t dig themselves a hole with those early mistakes. Look for Oklahoma to reverse the result in another highscoring affair. Oklahoma, 45-31
Memphis at No. 7 Central Florida
Dec. 1, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Danny Sheridan’s line: Central Florida by 5
Central Florida kept its quest for a second consecutive undefeated campaign intact but lost QB McKenzie Milton to a horrific leg injury. If the Knights can get past the Tigers in a rematch of last year’s American Athletic Conference title game, they are guaranteed at least another major bowl berth. Memphis has overcome a slow start and would love to cap off the season with a conference crown.
The UCF defense has shown much improvement in its last two games, limiting Cincinnati and South Florida to 23 points total. That unit must be at its best to slow the Tigers’ one-two RB punch of Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. Knights QB Darriel Mack has some game experience, but it’s asking too much to expect the team to approach its season average of 43.1 points without Milton.
Prediction: It won’t be last year’s 62-55 double-OT thriller, but it should again be close throughout with both teams relying heavily on the ground game. UCF, 34-28
SEC Championship in Atlanta
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Georgia Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS Danny Sheridan’s line: Alabama by 131⁄2
Last season’s College Football Playoff finalists have been on a collision course. Tide QB Tua Tagovailoa was introduced to the world in the second half of that title game and showed flashes of what the offense would become with him as this season’s regular starter. He’s faced stronger pass rushes over the last month, but Georgia’s front line has struggled to mount pressure. The Bulldogs boast the Southeastern Conference’s most potent ground attack, averaging a shade under 260 yards per game. Alabama is well equipped to stop a one-dimensional game plan, however, so QB Jake Fromm will have to do enough through the air to give his outstanding running backs room.
Prediction: Georgia fans have to hope that the lone loss at LSU wasn’t a precursor, but that might just be the reality if the offense bogs down. The Bulldogs secondary isn’t bad, but it
can’t keep Tagovailoa & Co. down for an entire game. The Tide will roll on to yet another playoff appearance. Alabama, 35-17
Mountain West Championship
No. 23 Fresno State at No. 20 Boise State Dec. 1, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN Danny Sheridan’s line: Boise State by 21⁄2
The winner here could be in a position for a New Year’s Six bowl should Central Florida come up short in the AAC finale. These programs are getting to be familiar foes. Besides last year’s encounter for the championship, the Broncos also handed the Bulldogs their only league loss this season, 24-17, three weeks ago. This one figures to be close as well with both squads helmed by veteran QBs who don’t make many mistakes. The Bulldogs’ Marcus McMaryion has 24 TD throws with just three picks, while BSU senior Brett Rypien has a ratio of 29 TDs to seven INTs. BSU gets plenty of ground support from RB Alexander Mattison, while the Bulldogs make ample use of the sophomore backfield duo of Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims.
Prediction: This stadium has been the source of much frustration for Bulldogs fans. This might be the one in which FSU gets over the hump, but it’s hard to pick against the Broncos at home. Boise State, 30-24
ACC Championship in Charlotte, N.C.
No. 2 Clemson vs. Pittsburgh
Dec. 1, 8 p.m. ET, ABC Danny Sheridan’s line: Clemson by 25
The Tigers face their last obstacle in their bid for yet another playoff invitation, and it looks a lot less formidable as the Coastal Division champion Panthers were throttled at Miami in their regular-season finale. Pitt must regroup quickly.
During the Panthers’ fourgame conference winning streak that allowed them to seal the Coastal Division, RBs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall were running wild, allowing QB Kenny Pickett to make easy throws. The whole unit ground to a halt last week, which doesn’t bode well against the Tigers’ formidable defensive front. Clemson gave up more points than it would have liked against South Carolina and will be out to prove itself playoff ready. QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne can produce an explosive play at any time.
Prediction: Pitt won a shootout with Syracuse earlier in the season, but the Panthers won’t have the firepower to keep pace if the Tigers put up a big score. Clemson figures to do just that and be off to the playoff. Clemson, 45-20 Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 21 Northwestern Dec. 1, 8 p.m. ET, Fox Danny Sheridan’s line: Ohio State by 14
The Buckeyes picked a good time to author their most complete performance of the season in last week’s dismantling of archrival Michigan, clinching the East Division and putting themselves in the playoff mix. But any regression to the inconsistency they’ve shown at times could spell trouble against the Wildcats, who won their last seven conference games.
Which OSU team will show up? The defense that nearly let Maryland beat it two weeks ago looked like a different group against the Wolverines. Northwestern’s running game has been inconsistent at best, but gritty QB Clayton Thorson rarely gives up on a play. But Buckeyes QB Dwayne Haskins, who has 42 TD passes this season, should have another big night.
Prediction: The Wildcats tend to play up or down to their competition. They lost to Akron and barely got out with a win at hapless Rutgers but hung tough with Notre Dame and shut down Iowa and Wisconsin. They’ll probably make Buckeyes fans nervous for a stretch, but OSU has too many weapons. Then the playoff debates will commence. Ohio State, 33-24
Quarterback Kyler Murray (1) accounted for four touchdowns, including one on a run, to help Oklahoma erase four West Virginia leads and defeat the Mountaineers to earn a berth in the Big 12 championship game.