by Ian Boyd
There has been a good deal of discussion about whether the addition of a Big 12 Championship Game is going to help or hurt the conference. In its inaugural season, it's going to force the No. 3 Oklahoma to risk everything in a showdown with TCU, a team they already whipped just a few weeks ago in Norman but now must take down again. However, there's no question the addition of this game will add to the drama and intrigue of Championship Week, as every single spot in the playoffs seems to be vulnerable depending on how things break in these games.
The SEC title match between Georgia and Auburn is effectively a play-in game. The Bulldogs are ranked sixth just behind Alabama, and would figure to jump them in the event that they defeated Auburn head to head. There's a ton of debate over whether the Big 10 title game between Wisconsin and Ohio State should be a de facto play-in game as well, with a great deal of uncertainty over whether beating Wisconsin should allow two-loss Ohio State to jump Alabama. Behind all of this is the quiet fact that Alabama doesn't have a particularly strong resume this season, partly because their opening victory over Florida State hasn't carried the weight we expected at the time since the Seminoles have collapsed this season.
The Miami vs. Clemson contest might be another play-in game, with Clemson currently ranked No. 1 and Miami sitting at No. 7 behind Alabama and Georgia, but poised to leapfrog them off the strength of a victory.
It doesn't appear that a Pac-12 title game victory over Stanford can catapult USC to the playoff. Another quiet factor on the sideline are the Central Florida Knights, who are undefeated and facing a worthy foe in Memphis, whom they already defeated handily earlier in the season. The Knights don't face the weekly grind of an SEC schedule, but when viewed in terms of their record against top-25 teams, their resume is no less impressive than Alabama's or some other squads up for consideration.
Here's a look into the factors going into these contests. All times are listed as Eastern.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Stanford vs USC (-3) at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California -- 8 p.m. Friday (ESPN)
USC would probably have to slaughter Stanford and see several other games fall perfectly into place to have a shot at making the playoff this year, but the Trojans have not won the Pac-12 championship since 2008, so a victory here would still be a big deal for the program. That's particularly true after the brutal stretch of injuries that USC has had this season along both their offensive and defensive lines, sapping them of a normal advantage they would bring into a given contest within the conference.
Stanford has won the Pac-12 three times this decade, but would love to add another championship and get another selling point on the recruiting trail. They are building a national reach as THE school for big-time players with post-football aspirations in the tech industry located nearby in Silicon Valley.
The matchup here is a challenging one for each team. The Stanford defense has struggled all year and will be hard pressed to stop USC's potent rushing attack, which has seen lead running back Ronald Jones II run for 1,346 rushing yards at 6.3 yards per carry with 16 rushing touchdowns. Sam Darnold's struggles with turnovers have been well covered by the media, but he has also thrown for 3,462 yards at 8.4 yards per attempt with 29 total touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The Trojans are a potent and very balanced offense. They can regularly put four dangerous receivers on the field with Jones in the backfield and spray the ball around the field wherever an opponent shows weakness.
Stanford has lacked the linebacker play of late to really match up well with this Trojans offense. Senior inside linebacker Bobby Okereke has been good and second on the team in tackles behind safety Justin Reid, but they have not been able to pair him with another stud inside linebacker or a true difference maker at outside linebacker, and their 3-4 defense has consequently not been as stout.
The battle between the Stanford offense and the USC defense is similarly lopsided, perhaps moreso. The Trojans have fought hard through injuries all year, but they'll be up against it trying to hold up versus the Stanford running game. In Stanford's last three games, all wins, running back Bryce Love has run for 392 yards and four touchdowns. When he gets loose, he can score from anywhere on the field. Opponents regularly find it difficult to stop him from springing loose because of the way Stanford forcse them to commit numbers down into the box, leaving fewer safeties deep to clean up mistakes.
The USC defense is designed to force the ball inside with a 5-2 defensive structure that plays the ball outside-in. Linebacker Cameron Smith leads the team with 95 tackles. He has been good all year at beating blocks and shutting down inside rushing lanes for the Trojans defense. After Smith, they have a pair of average-sized safeties in Marvell Tell III and Chris Hawkins who will have to be responsible for preventing Love from breaking free for long runs. Tell and Hawkins are both fast and can cover ground, but bad leverage or a missed tackle could be the difference between a 7-yard gain and a 70-yard gain against Love. If USC is losing their battles with Love in the open field, they may struggle to limit the Stanford offense.
This game could easily prove to be a shootout, in which case the edge probably goes to Darnold and the Trojans.
- Sam Darnold has had a better than advertised year, and this could be his final game with the Trojans.
- Can USC keep Bryce Love under wraps with their beat-up defensive line and small defensive backfield?
- Could USC win this game decisively enough to make a difference in their playoff standing?
S&P+ Outright Pick: USC
American Conference Championship Game: Memphis vs Central Florida (-7.5) at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Florida -- 12 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
The tricky issue for Central Florida in this contest, as it relates to the playoff picture, is that it doesn't offer them the chance to take on a new team and prove their worthiness in a new fashion. The Knights have already clobbered Memphis this season 40-13 at home. In that game, they held Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson to 6.6 yards per attempt and one touchdown while picking him off three times, sacking him twice, and stripping and recovering the ball another time. The Knights ran the ball 49 times for 350 yards and threw it 31 times for another 253 for a grand total of 603 yards. It was just a thorough whipping, and Memphis stood little chance against them in the contest.
This game is nearly a home game for Central Florida, taking place in their own town of Orlando, and there's not much they can do to help their cause here except to whip Memphis again and hope for chaos. There's also the concern that both Central Florida's Scott Frost and Memphis' Mike Norvell may be considered for various coaching vacancies around the country thanks to their prolific offenses and overall success over the last two years in their respective locales.
Viewers of this game may just want to tune in for what might be a hotly contested and high- scoring contest. American Conference games are comparable to Big 12 football in terms of producing entertaining shootouts with high-level offensive play. Central Florida's "War on I-4" battle with South Florida last Saturday was one of the highlights of the weekend, pitting Frost's take on the Chip Kelly school of offense against South Florida's take on the Art Briles' system.
Frost has long been influenced by two great innovators of offensive football. He played for the legendary Tom Osborne at Nebraska and he worked for Chip Kelly at Oregon; he now runs something close to Kelly's offense. They run a very option-heavy scheme at Central Florida, and they do it out of spread formations with a speedy and savvy quarterback in Milton McKenzie. Whatever this game and season holds for Central Florida, it's more than a little likely that it will end with Frost leaving to try and reignite his updated version of the option offense in Lincoln, Nebraska, so everyone may want to check in for that.
- Does Central Florida deserve to be in the playoff?
- Can Memphis slow down Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton and the Knights offense?
- Central Florida's Osborne-esque option offense, which may be returning to Nebraska next season.
- Will Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson be able to avoid turnovers and duel with Milton?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Central Florida
Big 12 Championship Game: TCU vs Oklahoma (-7) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas -- 12:30 p.m. (FOX)
Much like Central Florida, Oklahoma already beat their championship game opponent this season in a home game earlier in the year. For Oklahoma and TCU, it was just three weeks ago, and it was a 38-20 Oklahoma victory that wasn't even as close as it sounds. Oklahoma had seven possessions before halftime and scored five touchdowns and a field goal to take a 38-14 lead into the locker room. The second half largely consisted of Oklahoma running the ball, running clock, and hanging on without showing more on offense out of an apparent desire to save some plays in the event of a rematch -- which is now occurring.
TCU has been defined all season by their ability to play defense at a high level despite facing Big 12 offenses, their ability to run the football, and quarterback Kenny Hill avoiding mistakes and occasionally making plays with his legs to sustain drives. In their first contest, the Sooners were fielding multiple freshman across their secondary due to injuries, but they played a pretty good game and held TCU to 155 rushing yards on 32 carries. Hill completed only 13 of 28 passes, but the completions went for 270 yards as a few slants and screens to the speedy TCU wide receiver corps hit seams and blew by Oklahoma's freshman safety Robert Barnes.
The Sooners are healthier now, which seems to be a mixed bag for them as they often embrace much more complicated game plans when their older players are on the field ... game plans that they don't always execute particularly well. For instance, in their season finale against West Virginia, they were gashed for 261 rushing yards and four touchdowns while showing very little confidence in how to fit and stop the Mountaineers run game. That may be more of a storyline to follow in the playoff, as Oklahoma has tended to reliably win shootouts these last three seasons with Baker Mayfield at the quarterback.
Assuming TCU can run the ball more effectively on Oklahoma this week, which is very plausible, the game then hinges on whether the TCU defense has figured anything out in terms of stopping the Sooners offense. In their first contest, Oklahoma running back Rodney Anderson took 23 carries for 151 yards and two scores, while Mayfield carved up the Frogs secondary, hitting 18 of 27 passes for 333 yards at 12.3 yards per pass with three touchdowns. Mayfield used his experience and savvy to suss out the TCU disguises and coverages and make the right checks and throws, while the Frogs struggled to withstand Oklahoma's physical run game with their lighter, faster defensive personnel.
The Sooners are one of the more balanced offenses that we've ever seen in history, blending a fullback and a tight end with spread formations, option tactics, a deep stable of running backs, and some explosive wide receivers. TCU tries to take away what an offense does best, but Oklahoma may just do too many things well for the Frogs to take away the run or pass without getting gashed elsewhere.
- Will TCU have a plan to stop Baker Mayfield and this exceptionally potent Sooners offense?
- Can Oklahoma stop TCU's running attack and shut this game down early, or will TCU be able to make it a fight?
- Does Oklahoma just need to win or to win big to guarantee a playoff berth?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma
SEC Championship Game: Georgia vs Auburn (-2.5) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia -- 4 p.m. (CBS)
It's another rematch when Auburn takes on Georgia. Three weeks ago, the Tigers beat the Bulldogs handily at home (is this sounding familiar?). That sparked Auburn into the Iron Bowl, which they also won pretty convincingly. The key is the health and stability of the Tigers offensive line, which is aiding the increasing comfort and potency of quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Stidham took Georgia apart with 214 yards, 9.3 yards per attempt, and three touchdowns without a single interception. Then against Alabama, Stidham went 21-of-28 for 237 yards at 8.5 yards per attempt and no interceptions, with another 51 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Auburn's ability to hurt teams on the perimeter with screens and down the field with play-action has taken the Tigers offense to a new level. The interesting factor in this rematch is that star running back Kerryon Johnson is questionable due to a shoulder injury suffered against Alabama, and his main backup Kamryn Pettway has been out for a few weeks now with an injury of his own. It's possible Johnson will be ready to go, but it's also possible that Auburn will have to bring their run-centric attack up against Georgia in Atlanta with a featured back who was third-string or worse to start the season.
Georgia struggled to stop Auburn's passing game the first time around though, and the Tigers may just dial it up a notch there with receivers Ryan Davis (703 receiving yards) and Darius Slayton (560), who have both been surging this season as the passing game has grown stronger.
For the Bulldogs, their hope comes from a diminished Auburn offense combined with their own offense finding ways to bring more balance into this game by giving quarterback Jake Fromm more opportunities to throw the ball. They've mostly protected their freshman quarterback this year while leaning on running the ball with star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but Fromm has taken on more as the season has progressed. Their issue in Round 1 with Auburn was an inability to block Tigers defensive end Jeff Holland, but if they can get some help to their freshman right tackle and buy Fromm some time, they may be able to do some damage throwing the ball down the field to Javon Wims against Auburn's cornerbacks.
Georgia still needs to run the ball to win. They really struggled to find any running room against Auburn whatsoever in Round 1. This time they'll need to work in more diverse formations and calls, and perhaps mix in some misdirection and tricks to keep the Tigers off the scent. For the rest of the year, Georgia has relied on lining up and blasting people out of the way or throwing it over their heads if they load the box, but Auburn just lined up and shut them down. If Georgia can't be craftier and more diverse in this game, they won't out-execute a similarly talented but older and more experienced Auburn team.
- Can Auburn still run their offense as normal with a dinged-up Kerryon Johnson questionable for this game?
- How will Georgia mix up their offense to get the run game going against Auburn's dominant defensive front?
- If Georgia wins, what does that do to the playoff race? Will Georgia and Alabama both make it in?
S&P Outright Pick: Georgia
ACC Championship Game: Miami vs Clemson (-9.5) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
Miami was briefly a favorite in the college football rankings until they met up with Pitt on the road last week and were taken down a notch in a 24-14 defeat. In that game, some of their sins they had shown throughout the year all finally came to a head. Quarterback Malik Rosier struggled to hit receivers as Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi's defense ran their customary "load the box, take away the run, and force the quarterback to beat press coverage" schemes. Miami was 15-of-36 on the day with only 187 passing yards at 5.2 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, the Miami run game managed only 45 rushing yards on 23 carries. The Pitt offense didn't really light things on fire, but they got the job done on third down, going 8-of-17 there and sustaining enough drives to put this game away.
Now Miami has to rebound in the ACC title game against Clemson with a playoff berth on the line. Clemson is a really difficult team to defeat if you can't beat aggressive coverage on your receivers, and the Tigers always know what they need to do in order to take down an offense. The Clemson defense is coached by Brent Venables, who has been producing top-10 defenses per S&P+ over each of the last two decades going back to his days at Oklahoma.
It's difficult to run the ball against this Clemson defense. They have active linebackers and they involve their safeties against the run as needed, but they are also exceptional along the defensive line. Defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are well above average in terms of size, power, and athleticism, with the former checking in at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, and the latter 6-foot-4, 340. The Tigers have already taken down similar offenses from Louisville and Auburn. It's frankly hard to see Miami making much headway against them unless they can scheme up some ways to hit throws down the field and protect Rosier well against Clemson's defensive ends and blitz packages.
On the other side of the ball, things look more favorable. Miami has played great defense this year and made "the turnover chain" which defenders will wear and flaunt on the sidelines after forcing takeaways a national topic. The Hurricanes are tied with Central Florida nationally in turnover margin with a +17 mark on the season, and even came out ahead there against Pittsburgh. Conversely, Clemson has made some gains on offense this year and may have a key to a strong playoff run in young running back Travis Etienne, if he's ready to handle a fuller workload. Quarterback Kelly Bryant is the leading rusher on the year, just ahead of running back Tavien Feaster, and he has been sharper of late throwing the ball despite only hitting 12 touchdowns to six interceptions on the year.
Miami will probably follow the typical game plan of looking to make Clemson beat them running the ball with Bryant on first and second down and then bringing pressure on third down. The Tigers just don't have the precision with their passing attack to punish teams who can pull that off like Deshaun Watson did over the past two years. A Miami upset in this game is one in which we see a lot of the turnover chain after miscues for the Tigers on passing downs.
- The Miami turnover chain if they can force Clemson into third-and-long regularly.
- Can Miami make any headway running the ball on Clemson's aggressive and talented defensive front?
- Does the winner look like a team that can win the playoff?
S&P Outright Pick: Clemson
Big Ten Championship Game: Ohio State (-6) vs Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana -- 8 p.m. (FOX)
The last time that Ohio State faced Wisconsin with a beat-up J.T. Barrett, they had to turn to the less mobile but stronger-armed Cardale Jones -- and ended up whipping the Badgers and sneaking into the playoff, which they then dominated behind Jones and star running back Ezekiel Elliott. The parallels here are rather striking, as Barrett is questionable for this game after hurting his knee on the sideline against Michigan, and his back-up Dwayne Haskins is less mobile but might push the Buckeyes to rely more on running the ball with star running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, or throwing to their explosive receivers.
Barrett's running has always made the Buckeyes difficult to stop on third down, but they are more explosive as an offense when they get the ball to Dobbins (1,190 rushing yards at 7.3 ypc), Weber (602 yards at 6.5 ypc), or a deep wide receiver corps with five different guys who have broken 300 receiving yards on the year. If Ohio State is forced to turn to Haskins and game-plan to start him, that could have unexpected results in terms of moving the focus of the Buckeyes offense to more dangerous players.
Either way this will be a fascinating battle to watch. Wisconsin has a phenomenal defense that will be ready for the Ohio State run game whether they are led by Barrett or not. The Wisconsin defense is led in tackles by inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, while defensive linemen Alec James, Conor Sheehy, and Olive Sagopolu tend to keep them clean. Outside linebackers Garrett Dooley, Andrew Van Ginkel, and Leon Jacobs have combined for 27.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks as the tip of the spear in the Badgers attack. Wisconsin can bring a variety of different blitzes that move each linebacker all over the field. Their 2-4-5 nickel package is a fearsome unit to face in passing situations.
The crossing routes that Ohio State has used throughout the year could get them into trouble against Wisconsin's 2-4-5 nickel that regularly drops linebackers in unexpected places, which is why T.J. Edwards has four interceptions and six passes defensed on the year. Ohio State will have to run the ball effectively and keep their third downs manageable so they don't have to win this game by consistently picking up Wisconsin's blitzes and keeping good tabs on their linebackers in coverage.
The other prime-time battle in this game is between the big, mauling Wisconsin offensive line and the ultra-deep and athletic Ohio State defensive line. For their own part, Wisconsin probably can't hold up consistently against Ohio State's base pass-rush from their rotation of star defensive ends, but if they can run the ball with star running back Jonathan Taylor (a true freshman), then that may not matter. Taylor has 1,806 rushing yards at 7.0 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns this season. He has been explosive running behind a veteran and massive Wisconsin offensive line.
When the Badgers have to convert a passing down, they tend to flex tight end Troy Fumagalli out to the slot and have him run option routes in the seams with quarterback Alex Hornibrook throwing elsewhere if opponents try to double-team Fumagalli. The Ohio State linebackers have not been up to their normal standards this season. The Buckeyes have moved senior Chris Worley around to a few different positions trying to get the right lineup on the field. If they aren't ready to bring their hard hats against a wide variety of run schemes and lead blocks before consistently finding and matching Fumagalli on third down, they may struggle to keep the Badgers from chugging along and shortening this game.
- Is J.T. Barrett healthy, and is Ohio State better once again when getting the ball elsewhere?
- How well does Wisconsin handle Ohio State's overall athleticism?
- Can Ohio State's linebackers sort out and match up against the Badgers' bruising offense?
- Is Ohio State in the playoff if they win this game?
S&P Outright Pick: Ohio State
S&P+ PICKS: CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread||Ian's Pick against the spread|
|Central Florida||7.5||Memphis||Central Florida||Memphis||Central Florida|
|Ohio State||6||Wisconsin||Ohio State||Wisconsin||Wisconsin|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 43-35
Ian Picks against the spread last week: 3-3
Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 34-44