Top storylines for college football’s conference championship games

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

10 title games on the slate

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By and large, college football’s regular season is in the rear-view mirror as this coming weekend is all about the conference championship games.

Of course, the big one everyone’s talking about is the SEC Championship Game featuring Alabama and Georgia, which will have significant bearing on playoff seeding. As important as this game is, it’s just one of 10 title games on the slate.

Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

These are the biggest storylines we’re paying attention to during college football’s conference championship games.


MAC Championship Game: Strength-versus-strength

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Northern Illinois and Buffalo are both small schools with some big-time talent worth tuning in for on Friday night. This game is being nationally broadcast on ESPN2, and fans eager to see some NFL-caliber talent should watch.

The Huskies feature one of the best pass rushers in the nation, Sutton Smith. Smith earned All-American status last year, tallying 30 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. One year later, he has 21 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.

Smith will be chasing around Buffalo star quarterback Tyree Jackson, who has a cannon for an arm and excellent chemistry with receiver Anthony Johnson, who has a bright future in the NFL. These two have wowed during the regular season (with plays like this) and should help keep the Bulls lighting up the scoreboard.


Pac-12 Championship Game: Utah angling for first-ever Rose Bowl bid

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The Washington Huskies and Utah Utes are meeting up at Levi’s Stadium for the chance to not only win the Pac-12 crown but earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. Washington hasn’t competed in this bowl game since 2001, and Utah never has. So, despite the fact that the conference is shut out of the College Football Playoff, there’s quite a bit at stake here.

Both teams feature outstanding running backs — Zach Moss and Myles Gaskin both went over 1,000 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns on the ground — and stingy defenses. Highlight-reel-worthy plays likely will be in short demand as these two programs bludgeon one another, but fans of old-school football will appreciate this brand of play.


Big 12 Championship Game: Red River redux 

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This game should be a ton of fun for those who love watching offenses put points on the board. The last time Texas and Oklahoma met up, they combined for 1,033 yards and 93 points, with the Longhorns stunning the Sooners and handing them their only loss of the season.

Since then, these two teams have both continued to show the ability to put up points in bunches. However, the Sooners have caught a special kind of fire of late, averaging nearly 53 points per game in their last five.

Meanwhile, the Longhorns have sputtered a bit offensively, scoring just 24 points apiece in their last two games against Kansas and Iowa State. Going against Oklahoma’s porous defense should help oil the joints pretty good, however, and we’d be shocked if this didn’t turn into another barn burner.

Of course, the added allure of this matchup is that Oklahoma still has an outside shot at getting into the playoff. Another loss would be the end of those dreams.


Sun Belt Championship Game: Only one chance to be the first

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Louisiana and Appalachian State are set to meet up at Kidd Brewer Stadium Saturday afternoon for the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game. It’s a pretty big deal to be the first two teams vying to win this first conference title game, and thankfully for fans it should be entertaining as well.

The Mountaineers are heavy favorites, for good reason. They feature an offense that can pile up the yards and averages over 37 points per game, and on the other side of the ball they shut people down. Appalachian State has allowed just 11 points per game in its last five and held Louisiana to just 17 points the first time they met earlier this year.

If the Ragin’ Cajuns are going to pull off the shocking upset, then they’ll need to figure out a way to create turnovers and convert third downs a heck of a lot better than they did back in October.


Conference USA Championship Game: Familiarity breeds contempt

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The last time UAB and Middle Tennessee played against one another was…last weekend. Yeah. This is kind of weird.

If last weekend’s game was any indication of how the title game is going to do, it doesn’t bode well for the Blazers. They got ran out of the building, losing 27-3, and will now have to head right back to Floyd Stadium.

Regardless of how things play out for UAB, the real story is that the Blazers are in this game to begin with. Remember, this was a program that didn’t exist three years ago. Two years back, the university brought football back, and since then Bill Clark has created a tremendously successful program in short order.

A win by either team would bring the the first-ever Conference USA Championship to the program.


AAC Championship Game: Darriel Mack Jr. carries heavy burden

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The UCF Knights come into the title game this year on a 24-game win streak, but their hearts are heavy. Star quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a gruesome knee injury last weekend against South Florida and was lost for the rest of the season. In his stead, Darriel Mack Jr. helped keep the Knights undefeated but struggled through the air completing just 5-of-14 passes.

This is a significant development as the Knights attempt to continue their winning streak going against Memphis. The Tigers gave them all they could handle in October, and it took some John Elway-esque heroics from Milton to eke out a one-point win over their rival.

Needless to say, Mack needs to play well this Saturday, and so does UCF’s defense, in order for the Knights to remain on the winning path.


SEC Championship Game: Kirby Smart looking to make history

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No former Nick Saban assistant has ever beaten him as a head coach of their own program. Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs have a shot to do it this Saturday in Atlanta, and in the process they’d knock the champs off their perch as the undisputed top team in the nation.

Easier said than done. No team has come remotely close to beating ‘Bama this year. Thanks to an explosive offense led by Tua Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide have blown opposing teams out weekly since the start of the season to last weekend’s Iron Bowl.

The Bulldogs might have a chance to flip the script. They’re playing their best ball of the season at just the right time to potentially pull off the upset. They have the kind of balance on offense that can sustain drives and keep Tagovailoa off the field. They have a defense that’s very good against the pass.

Despite all that, the Crimson Tide are still favored to win by nearly two touchdowns. And it’s hard to argue against that.


Mountain West Championship Game: Playing to get into NY6

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Let’s assume for a moment that Memphis overcomes UCF and finally snaps the program’s winning streak. If that were to happen, then it would likely fall to either Boise State or Fresno State to represent the Group of Five in the New Year’s Six. Such an outcome would be a huge feather in the cap of either program.

Even if UCF wins, these teams will have plenty to play for, as the winner will enter bowl season with just two losses and a chance to land a prestigious bowl game, regardless.

It was just a few weeks back that Boise State hosted Fresno State at Albertsons Stadium and beat the Bulldogs by a touchdown. Likely, this coming battle will be just as competitive and fierce as the first. Will Fresno State’s defense get some revenge, or will Brett Rypien and Alexander Mattison once again prove too potent on their home turf?


ACC Championship Game: Clemson just needs to stay the course

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Of all the conference championship games this weekend, this one holds the least amount of intrigue. Clemson is favored to win by nearly four touchdowns, and that might be kind. The Panthers come into the title game with a limp after being destroyed by Miami last weekend, and the Tigers are on an unbelievable roll.

Clemson features one of the most potent, balanced offenses in the nation. Trevor Lawrence is gaining some serious confidence and swagger, and he’s backed up by a rushing attack that ranks among the nation’s best. Of course, Clemson’s defense is really what sets this team apart. It is nearly as dominant as ‘Bama’s and will absolutely smother Pitt’s mediocre offense.

The main thing the Tigers need in this game is good health. If they can avoid the big injuries, then they’ll be poised to take a serious run at winning their second national title in three years.


Big Ten Championship Game: Can Ohio State make another statement?

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If Ohio State is going to influence the selection committee into moving it up into the top four for the playoff, another huge statement is needed this Saturday. The Buckeyes certainly made one last weekend in their blowout win over Michigan. But that might not be enough by itself, assuming they do win Saturday in Indianapolis against Northwestern.

Really, if the Buckeyes show up the way they did at home against the Wolverines, then the Wildcats are doomed. Sure, Northwestern lost just a single conference game all year, but we’re still talking about a team that averages just two more points than it allows this year.

Assuming Ohio State doesn’t lay a rotten egg at Lucas Oil Stadium, it will finish the year with just one loss. But at this point it sure feels like the Buckeyes need a repeat of the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, which they won 59-0 over Wisconsin to secure their berth in the first College Football Playoff, to get into this year’s edition.


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