Championship Saturday: A viewer’s guide to college football’s conference title games
Four of the league championship contests will have an effect on which four teams the selection committee will announce Sunday as playoff participants. Upsets could muddle the picture.
It’s Championship Saturday in college football. The results of four conference title games will be analyzed and debated by the College Football Playoff selection committee up until noon Sunday, when it will announce which four teams will advance to the national semifinals. This could be an easy task for the panel, or upsets could muddle the picture.
Big 12 championship
No. 9 Baylor vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (-5½) at Arlington, Texas, noon, 6abc
The Cowboys (11-1, 8-1, No. 5 CFP) last week eliminated Oklahoma, breaking the Sooners’ streak of five Big 12 championships, and are in position to make the top four of the final CFP rankings depending on what Michigan, Alabama, and Cincinnati do later in the day.
Of course, the Bears (10-2, 7-2, No. 9) will have something to say about that at AT&T Stadium. They will attempt to establish their ground game, which is eighth in FBS at 227.4 yards per game, against an Oklahoma State defense that is one of the best in the nation. Baylor’s Abram Smith is second in the conference in rushing with 1,366 yards.
Led by linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, the Cowboys are third nationally in total defense, fifth in points allowed, and sixth in rush defense. Baylor’s defense can hold its own – its 19.4-point average in points allowed is only a field goal higher than OSU – and has its own star in Jalen Pitre, who played a hybrid linebacker/safety position.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma State 24, Baylor 20
No. 1 Georgia (-6 ½) vs. No. 4 Alabama at Atlanta, 4 p.m., CBS3
The Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0, No. 1 CFP) likely receive a bid to the playoff regardless of the outcome. However, it will be interesting to see what the selection committee decides if the Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1, No. 3) should lose since no team has ever reached the playoff with two defeats.
Georgia’s defense has been a legendary unit. The Dogs lead the nation in fewest points allowed (6.9 per game) and total yards yielded (230.8 per game). The hub of the defense is 6-foot-6, 340-pound lineman Jordan Davis, who is a finalist for the Walter Camp player of the year award.
Alabama’s running game has been a mess at times this season, gaining only 6 yards against Louisiana State and 71 (in 37 carries) against Auburn. But quarterback Bryce Young, who enters the weekend as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, has shouldered the extra burden admirably – 3,901 passing yards, 40 touchdowns, four interceptions.
The question: Can Young make more than a little dent in the Georgia defense?
PREDICTION: Georgia 28, Alabama 23
Houston at Cincinnati (-6 ½), 4 p.m., 6ABC
The moment of truth has come for the Bearcats (12-0, 8-0, No. 4 CFP), looking to become the first program from a non-Power 5 conference to make it to the postseason party. But they’ll have to convince the naysayers on the CFP committee that they are worthy.
The thought is that a narrow, last-second win over the Cougars (11-1, 8-0), combined with a convincing victory by Oklahoma State over Baylor, would give the committee a reason to vault the Cowboys over Cincinnati. And let’s not forget Notre Dame, which still is out there at No. 6 although it’s skipping championship weekend and has lost its head coach.
The Bearcats have played well on both sides of the ball, with Desmond Ridder (3,000 yards, 27 TDs) leading an offense that averages 39 points per game and a defense that ranks in the top 10 of FBS in points allowed (15.8 per game) and total yards allowed (303.2). Houston quarterback Clayton Tune has passed for 3,013 yards and 26 TDs.
Look out for Cougars defensive back Marcus Jones, who had four return touchdowns (two kickoff, two punt) this season.
PREDICTION: Cincinnati 38, Houston 28
Big Ten championship
No. 2 Michigan (-10 ½) vs. No. 15 Iowa at Indianapolis, 8 p.m., Fox29
Well, Jim Harbaugh got his long-awaited victory over Ohio State after going 0-for-6 against the hated rival. Now can he lead the Wolverines (11-1, 8-1, No. 2 CFP) to their first Big Ten title since 2004 and their first-ever appearance in the playoff?
Hassan Haskins rushed for 169 yards and five touchdowns last week for Michigan, which ranks ninth in FBS in rush offense (224.9 yards per game). Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson posted three sacks last week and has 13 on the year, third in FBS, and his defense has allowed 17.2 points per game (eighth).
The Hawkeyes (10-2, 7-2, No. 13) are all about defense. They lead the nation with 22 interceptions and are third in turnovers gained (27) and turnover margin (plus-13). They allowed just 17.3 points per game. The problem is, with the Big Ten’s second-worst offense (299.1 yards per game), they can’t allow Michigan to get off to an early lead.
PREDICTION: Michigan 23 Iowa 17
No. 17 Pittsburgh (-2½) vs. No. 18 Wake Forest at Charlotte, 8 p.m., 6ABC
If you like to watch a football game with lots of offense, this is the game for you. The two teams were separated by one point after 12 games: Demon Deacons 515 (42.9 per game), Panthers 514 (42.8), and there’s nothing to suggest we won’t see that same brand of action here.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has been outstanding for Pitt (10-2, 7-1), completing 67.7% of his passes for 4,066 yards and 40 touchdowns. He ranks tied for second in TDs, fifth in yardage, and fourth in total offense (357.2 yards per game). Jordan Addison, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, has 85 catches for 1,353 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The offense of the Demon Deacons (10-2, 7-1) is piloted by Sam Hartman – 3,711 passing yards, 34 TDs, 337.8-yard total offense average (sixth). He will be facing a Panthers pass rush that ranks second in the nation with 46 sacks.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 44, Wake Forest 41