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Top storylines for college football’s conference championship games

Jesse Reed

After a long season, the best teams in each conference are eager to earn their crowns during conference championship weekend.

Starting Friday night when No. 5 Utah and No. 13 Oregon battle it out for the Pac-12 championship, the big final weekend until bowl season features outstanding football games for fans to enjoy.

Looking at these coming games, these are the biggest storylines we’ll be watching unfold.

Can Oregon slow down Tyler Huntley?

The Pac-12 has the national stage to itself Friday night as No. 5 Utah takes on No. 13 Oregon in Santa Clara. Funny enough, as good as Justin Herbert is, and as much as he gets all the attention due to his NFL potential, the quarterback to watch in this game is Tyler Huntley, who is as clutch as they come in college football.

The backfield duo of Huntley and running back Zack Moss is among the nation’s best. Huntley is an underrated pocket passer who has displayed outstanding toughness and leadership this year, time and time again. He comes into the game on a hot streak passing the ball, having completed 77.8% of his passes with nine touchdowns from scrimmage and just one interception in his last five games.

If Huntley comes out on fire like he has recently, the Ducks could be in trouble. Because when the Utes are putting a balanced, controlled offense out there their defense tends to smother opposing offenses.

Baylor has answer the Jalen Hurts problem

Just a few weeks ago, Baylor and Oklahoma clashed, with the Sooners dealing the Bears their first (and only) loss of the season. The X-factor in that game was, not surprisingly, Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts.

As he’s been doing to pretty much every defense this year, Hurts dominated both on the ground and through the air, totaling 411 total yards and four touchdowns. Worse still, despite some early success defensively against Hurts, Baylor could not stop him late in the game as he came from behind to win it for Oklahoma.

Needless to say, if Baylor is going to finish the season with the Big 12 title and potentially get into the College Football Playoff, the Bears have to figure out how to keep Hurts from hurting them like that.

Bearcats looking for revenge, one week after loss to Memphis

The Bearcats (No. 20) and Tigers (No. 17) will be playing against one another for the second consecutive weekend when they face off in the AAC Championship Game. Last Friday, Memphis jumped out to an early lead, let the Bearcats get back into the game in the second and third quarters, then slammed the door shut in the fourth.

The big difference between these two teams last weekend was that Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant turned the ball over three times in the second half.

Cincinnati usually is rock solid defensively but wasn’t last Friday. So if the Bearcats can get back to what won them 10 games this year and clamp down on the mistakes, potentially with Desmond Ridder under center this weekend, we’re expecting them to find a way to exact revenge Saturday.

Can Jake Fromm have the game of his life?

The No. 4-ranked Georgia Bulldogs are pretty decent defensively. And they are really good at running the ball. But if they are going to have any chance of knocking off No. 2 LSU then quarterback Jake Fromm needs to have the game of his life.

The reason this is true is that LSU quarterback Joe Burrow hasn’t met a defense he didn’t shred this year. He’s going to have the Tigers moving up and down the field and putting points on the board. Believe that.

With that in mind, the Bulldogs won’t be able to ride their rushing attack to victory like they have so often this year. It’s going to be up to Fromm to make big-time throws in key moments. If he struggles, there’s no chance the Bulldogs will upset the Tigers.

Do the Wahoos have a miracle up their sleeves?

Kudos to No. 23 Virginia for stunning Virginia Tech last weekend — snapping a 15-loss streak to the Hokies in the process — to get into the ACC Championship Game. This has already been a hugely successful season for head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who’s improved this program every season since inking his deal ahead of the 2016 campaign.

But No. 3 Clemson is a different beast altogether. This is illustrated to perfection in the betting line for this game (Clemson -28.5). Nobody expects the Wahoos to be able to shock the Tigers, who won their 12 games this year by an average score of 45-10.

So, can Bryce Perkins and Co. have the game of their lives and shock Dabo Swinney’s juggernaut into paralysis? We think not. But what a story that would be.

Badgers have to be perfect in every way

The Wisconsin Badgers (No. 8) played themselves into the Big Ten Championship Game with a strong win on the road against Minnesota last Saturday. But it’s going to take more than a “strong” performance this Saturday in Indy when they face the No. 1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes — a powerhouse that already destroyed Wisconsin, 38-7, earlier this year.

Featuring the most blue-chip talent in the nation, the Buckeyes have game-changing athletes manning every single position on every single play. Offensively, Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins are a nightmare to defend, and they’re bolstered by outstanding offensive line play. Defensively, Chase Young is an unstoppable force off the edge, and there is elite production at all three levels.

Needless to say, the Badgers must play a flawless game on both sides of the ball and on special teams to avoid getting swept by the Buckeyes this season.