As the calendar flips to December, it brings what college football fans know as championship weekend along with it. The 2016 season is almost done, and conference championships are on the line all across college football.
Even in the Big 12, which doesn’t host a championship game, this weekend’s Bedlam contest between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will determine the winner of the “Conference of Champions.”
To add to the intrigue of this weekend, spots in the College Football Playoff are still up for grabs and invites to prestigious bowl games are still pending. This is essentially the biggest weekend of the college football schedule. Champions will be crowned and playoff contenders will be found.
These five players from top conferences will be the biggest X-factors of championship weekend. Their play will likely decide the title holders in their respective conference championships.
Pac-12: Sefo Liufau, quarterback, Colorado
For as good as No. 8 Colorado’s defense has been this season, the Buffaloes are still going to have a hard time slowing down Washington. The Huskies are scoring 44.8 points per game compared to Colorado’s 34.8.
Colorado’s defense has given up only 18.8 points per game this season, but the unit may struggle to find a way to slow down the Washington trio of quarterback Jake Browning (3,162 yards and 40 touchdowns), running back Myles Gaskin (1,180 yards and 10 touchdowns) and wide receiver John Ross (1,071 yards and 16 touchdowns).
There’s a reason Washington is ranked No. 4 heading into this game, and the Huskies’ offense is a big part of it.
Perhaps Colorado’s best chance of winning is in a shootout, and that means senior quarterback Sefo Liufau is going to have to be on top of his game. And so far this season, he has been, which is great news for Colorado heading into the Pac-12 title clash.
Liufau has thrown for 2,150 yards and 11 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions in 2016. He’s had two three-touchdown games, and has thrown for over 300 yards twice on the season as well.
Washington may be able to slow Liufau down through the air, but the Huskies will have to stop him on the ground, which is easier said than done. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback, rushing for 483 yards and seven touchdowns so far this season. He scored a rushing touchdown in all three of Colorado’s final regular season games, including three in a 38-24 win over Washington State.
Big 12: Dede Westbrook, wide receiver, Oklahoma
In terms of pure production, there are few wide receivers better than No. 9 Oklahoma’s senior wideout Dede Westbrook, who has been stellar for the Sooners ever since the season hit in September.
After posting no touchdowns in Oklahoma’s first three games of the season, Westbrook has caught 15 since, including a stretch that saw him catch two against TCU, three against both Texas and Kansas State, and then two against Texas Tech.
That’s 10 touchdowns in three games.
Westbrook has put up 1,354 yards to boot. And against a high-flying offense on the other sideline in No. 10 Oklahoma State, Bedlam could very well come down to Westbrook’s production and big-play ability.
SEC: Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Alabama
Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has been the X-factor for No. 1 Alabama’s offense all season long, so why should it be any different against No. 15 Florida in the SEC championship game?
Hurts, as a dual-threat quarterback, has consistently kept defenses on their toes all season. He’s thrown for 2,454 yards and 21 touchdowns (nine interceptions), but has also rushed for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
With poise beyond his years, Hurts has a legitimate shot at the Heisman Trophy. A big game in the SEC championship is the next step towards that goal.
ACC: Jerod Evans, quarterback, Virginia Tech
A lot of attention will be given to Clemson quarterback Deshuan Watson when the No. 3 Tigers meet up with the No. 23 Hokies in the ACC title game, but Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans will play just as big of a role.
In fact, Virginia Tech is going to need him to have a huge game if it wants to keep up with Watson and a Clemson offense that’s putting up 40 points and 507.8 yards per game.
The good news for Virginia Tech is that Evans has the firepower to help the Hokies beat Clemson.
In fact, he could beat the Tigers single-handedly.
He’s thrown for 3,045 yards and 26 touchdowns this season compared to just five interceptions. He’s also Virginia Tech’s leading rusher, posting 713 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
Evans is the real deal.
Big Ten: Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State
The biggest thing to watch with Barkley is his health. The Big Ten offensive player of the year was injured in the second half of No. 7 Penn State’s game against Michigan State last weekend. Though, he is expected to play in the Big Ten Title game against No. 6 Wisconsin.
The Badgers have one of the best defenses in college football and it’s very stout up front, so James Franklin and the Nittany Lions are going to need every bit of Barkley they can get in order to leave Indianapolis with both the Big Ten Championship and an outside shot at being a CFP team.
Barkley has been stellar for Penn State this season, rushing for 1,219 yards and 15 touchdowns.
He has the second-highest yardage among Big Ten running backs — only behind Northwestern’s Justin Jackson — and he’s tied at the top of the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with Minnesota’s Rodney Smith.
While he’s definitely a running back by trade, Barkley has what it takes to get it done through the air as a receiver out of the backfield.
He’s caught 21 passes for 327 yard and two touchdowns.
If Barkley is good to go, Penn State will be feeling good about its chances of beating Wisconsin.