Top storylines for college football’s championship weekend

By Jesse Reed
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

With 10 major college football conference championship games on the slate, it’s no wonder Week 14 is casually dubbed championship weekend.

Starting on Friday night when Stanford and USC battle for the Pac-12 championship title and ending Saturday night with a trio of title games during prime time, it’s going to be a ton of fun for serious and casual fans alike.

In addition to the prestige of winning a conference title, many teams are still technically in the running for the College Football Playoff heading into this pivotal weekend.

These are the top storylines heading into championship weekend.

Pac-12: Stanford looks to exact some revenge

The first time Stanford and USC met this year, the Trojans dominated the Cardinal, beating them at their own game. They racked up 623 yards of offense, which was the most given up by Stanford since David Shaw has been the head coach. They also gained 307 yards on the ground, which was eye-opening, to say the least.

On defense, USC’s front seven failed to bottle up Bryce Love, who had 194 yards and a touchdown (including this 75-yard bolt of lighting). Yet the end result was a 42-24 blowout the Cardinal will be looking to avenge.

Stanford’s defense needs to step up big time. If the Trojans get their run game going like they did before, it might not matter how well Stanford’s offense plays. The Cardinal are one of the best in the nation at creating turnovers, and we know Sam Darnold is susceptible.

The X-factor in this game is young Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, who didn’t play the last time these teams met. Since Week 11, he’s been a revelation, propelling his offense to new heights while throwing five touchdowns and just one interception.

Neither team has a shot at making the playoff, but that doesn’t mean this game won’t be a blast to watch.

AAC: Can UCF finish undefeated, and does it matter?

UCF Knights celebrate win over South Florida on Black Friday

These two teams played already once this year, and it wasn’t very close. UCF absolutely blew Memphis out of the building, winning 40-13 as the defense forced four turnovers and the offense did its normal thing, racking up 600-plus yards.

Memphis has been hot lately, coming into the game with seven straight victories and four in a row that were won in blowout fashion. However, the Tigers don’t have the type of defense that can slow down a juggernaut.

With that in mind, we fully expect the Knights to win, and win big. They are undefeated at this point and have the added motivation of being continually scorned by the CFP committee. Scott Frost will have his guys extra pumped to put a big hurt on their rival, much like we saw last Friday against USF.

But in reality, even if the Knights win in blowout fashion to claim the American Athletic Conference title and finish undefeated, we don’t expect the committee to reverse course. Obviously the Group of Five isn’t seen as competitive enough to hang with the Power Five, so the best thing UCF can get out of this is a prominent New Year’s Six Bowl bid.

C-USA: Lane Kiffin’s Owls are soaring toward ninth straight win

Since starting the season with one win in their first four games, the Florida Atlantic Owls have rattled off eight straight wins. They finished with an unbeaten record in the Conference USA and are heavy favorites to win the title game Saturday.

North Texas has a potent offense that scored nearly as many points per game as FAU. However, Mean Green also gave up a ton of points, allowing almost as many as they scored.

We fully expect Lane Kiffin’s offense to continue running at full speed in this one, as a result. In particular, look out for underrated running back Devin Singletary to have a monster game. He’s already gone for 1,630 yards and 26 touchdowns this year and should have a field day against North Texas’ porous defense.

Assuming the Owls stay on the winning path, they’ll land a very nice bowl bid out of this season, which has been a rousing success for the Twitter savant in his first year at the helm.

SWAC: Grambling State and Alcorn State close out chapter in conference history

This will be the final SWAC title game for the foreseeable future. The SWAC has held a championship game after each season since 1999, but before the 2017 season the conference announced this year’s would be the last.

Going forward, the top team in the conference will receive an automatic bid to the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, where it will play against the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion annually.

So with that in mind, this is a special game for both schools. Grambling State has won the conference title seven times since 1999. Alcorn State won it twice, in 2014 and in 2015.

Grambling comes into the game on a 10-game winning streak and should close out the campaign with yet another conference title barring a surprising turn of events.

MAC: Logan Woodside should be salivating for Round 2 against Zips

Senior Rockets quarterback Logan Woodside has just 24 touchdowns this year. He’s passed for five or more twice, while throwing no touchdowns four times. One of the two monster games he had came the first time Akron and Toledo met this year.

In that first meeting, Woodside went 17-of-24 passing for 304 yards and five touchdowns, sparking a blowout 48-21 win for the Rockets over the Zips. Needless to say, he should be excited to get back to it on Saturday at Ford Field when the two rivals go head-to-head.

Objectively speaking, it’s going to take quite a big showing by Akron’s defense to pull off the upset win. The Zips don’t feature a very potent offense themselves, so we fully expect the Rockets to cruise in this game.

Big 12: Kenny Hill must be perfect to lead TCU to victory

TCU quarterback Kenny Hill

Baker Mayfield is on another level this year compared to every other quarterback in the nation when it comes to passing the ball. Oklahoma’s defense isn’t all that hot, and the offense is the biggest reason the Sooners are a one-loss team with a shot at the playoff.

Coming into the Big 12 Championship Game, Mayfield has not quite doubled up the production of Kenny Hill this season, but it’s close. Passing for 4,097 yards with 37 touchdowns and just five interceptions, he’s a juggernaut.

The first time these two teams met, Oklahoma was far too potent offensively for TCU to hang. Mayfield went for 333 yards with three touchdowns, and the Sooners also ran for 200 yards.

If the tables are going to be turned in the title game, then it’s going to be up to Kenny Hill to put on the kind of show we saw from him against SMU early in the season when he threw for 365 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Anything less than that probably won’t get the job done Saturday, because Mayfield is a blazing inferno right now.

SEC: On neutral ground, it’s anyone’s ballgame 

Jordan-Hare Stadium just hasn’t been fair to any team this year. Neither Mississippi State nor Georgia nor Alabama nor any other team has been able to beat Auburn there in 2017. So it’s not smart to look at the 41-17 win over Georgia a few weeks back and think that’s what we should expect.

Both teams come into the game with potent offenses that averaged over 35 points per game. Both teams can run the ball at will against most defenses. However, on that note the health of Kamrynn Pettway (out with ankle fracture) could be a huge key that works in Georgia’s favor.

But even more than their offenses, the two team’s defenses are nightmares up front. It’s very difficult to pass against either team due to the tremendous pressure they apply behind the line of scrimmage, and both teams have some very talented defensive backs who know how make the most out of errant passes.

With that in mind, it’s hard to look at this game and say it won’t come down to Jarrett Stidham and Georgia freshman Jake Fromm.

Because of the neutral venue, and because Pettway is out, this scribe is leaning toward the Bulldogs getting some revenge and the win. But it won’t be shocking in the least if Stidham has a big game (he’s been doing that lately) to propel the Tigers into the playoff.

MWC: Bulldogs look to take another bite out of Broncos 

Things will be a bit different this time around as Fresno State and Boise State fight for the MWC title. For starters, this game actually matters, and we’d be shocked if Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin showed his full deck last week.

Secondly, the first of two meetings between these teams was contested in Fresno, while this upcoming game will be in Idaho, where the Broncos usually have a big advantage.

Still, we cannot discount the impressive showing by Fresno State’s defense last weekend. The Bulldogs held the Broncos to just two touchdowns, and starting quarterback Brett Rypien didn’t find the end zone once.

On the other side, Bulldogs quarterback Marcus McMaryion threw for 332 yards with two touchdowns, including a tremendous 81-yard bomb to KeeSean Johnson in the fourth quarter to put the game away.

With two other monster games being contested at the same time as this one, most people likely won’t be tuning into this game. But that doesn’t mean it won’t provide those who do watch with some entertaining football.

ACC: Win and get into the playoff

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant scores against Louisville in college football Week 3

Winning the ACC Championship Game is an awesome accomplishment all by itself. But Clemson and Miami will be playing for so much more than this on Saturday night in Charlotte, NC.

With one loss apiece, the recipe to get into the playoff is simple: Win and you get in. The team that loses likely will be on the outside looking in given the other huge games being played this weekend.

We’d be lying if we didn’t see Clemson winning handily. For starters, Miami’s loss last weekend sticks out like a sore thumb, as does the fact Malik Rosier was benched at one point in the fourth quarter because he was unable to get anything going through the air. Mark Richt has since made it clear that Rosier is his starting quarterback, but Clemson’s defense will test the young man unlike any other challenge he’s seen this year.

The Tigers have the more consistent offense of the two teams. And when it comes to defense there aren’t many in the nation that can compare to the one Brent Venables runs for Dabo Swinney.

On paper, Clemson should win, and it should win by a touchdown or more. Of course, there’s a ton of pressure and anything can happen. And we cannot discount the fact that Miami has been finding ways to win close games all year.

Big Ten: How good is Wisconsin, really?

This is a question we’ve been pondering all year. The Badgers will get into the playoff with a win Saturday night against Ohio State in Indianapolis. But is that even a plausible outcome?

Jonathan Taylor will get his on the ground, but he’s no scoring machine. Wisconsin has gotten by all year because it hasn’t faced much competition and because it has a very good defense.

Really, what it boils down to is this: Can Alex Hornibrook win the game with his arm? Because, as good as Wisconsin’s defense has been all year, we don’t see Ohio State having the same kinds of issues offensively as Michigan did. Whether it’s J.T. Barrett or Dwayne Haskins under center, the Buckeyes are going to score points.

The Buckeyes also feature a very imposing front seven that can get after the quarterback. And they’re allowing just 179 passing yards per game. So unless Hornibrook goes off script — he’s throwing two interceptions for every three touchdowns he throws — the Badgers are going to lose this game.