Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game. Neither Michigan nor Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Navy in the AAC championship over Houston. Who would have thought?
This isn’t how everyone drew it up, but surprise participants in some of the most prestigious matchups of the year will have crowds bustling with excitement. College football playoff bids and bowl matchups are at stake, and the outcomes of this weekend will undoubtedly have major ramifications for teams all across the nation. Big name players have been working hard all year just to get to this point, and nobody wants to be left out of the postseason party.
MAC Football Championship: No. 21 Western Michigan (12-0, 8-0) vs. Ohio (8-4, 6-2)
The remaining two unbeaten teams across the nation? Those would be Alabama and the Mid-American Conference’s Western Michigan. Led by senior quarterback Zach Terrell and his top receiver, senior Corey Davis, the Broncos have averaged nearly 45 points and more than 500 yards per game on their way to what has already been a magical season under head coach P.J. Fleck. While Ohio’s defense has given up fewer than 22 points per game on its season, the health of senior quarterback Greg Windham is a big question mark heading into Friday’s matchup. Don’t expect the Bobcats to keep the game close for long.
Prediction: Western Michigan 45, Ohio 20
Pac-12 Championship: No. 9 Colorado (10-2, 8-1) vs. No. 5 Washington (11-1, 8-1)
Regardless of what bowl the Buffaloes end up playing in, head coach Mike MacIntyre should hands down win this year’s Coach of the Year award. After being picked by many to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 standings, Colorado is in position to win its first-ever Pac-12 championship game and make its first postseason appearance since 2007. It won’t be easy, though, as the streaking Buffaloes will have to face Heisman-candidate Jake Browning and the No. 5 Huskies, who are currently on the outside looking in at a potential college football playoff berth. The trio of Browning, tailback Myles Gaskin and receiver John Ross have been the core of one of college football’s most efficient offenses, which will put Colorado’s stifling defense up to its biggest task yet. It should be a close, tense shootout between two rising football programs.
Prediction: Washington 38, Colorado 31
American Athletic Conference Championship: Temple (9-3, 7-1) vs. No. 25 Navy (9-2, 7-1)
While this matchup doesn’t scream traditional excitement, it features two streaking teams who are currently playing some of their best football of the year. The Owls have won six straight and the Midshipmen have won six of their past seven contests, including a huge upset win over then-No. 6 Houston. Navy’s senior quarterback Will Worth is arguably the most dangerous running quarterback this side of Lamar Jackson, with 25 rushing touchdowns on the season. He’ll have to overcome a Temple defense that has allowed just 23 points in its past four contests combined, including back-to-back shutouts against UConn and Tulane. It should be a highly competitive game, highlighted by Navy’s rushing attack squaring off against a defense that has allowed just 17.8 points per game on the season.
Prediction: Navy 24, Temple 20
SEC Championship Game: No. 1 Alabama (12-0, 8-0) vs. No. 15 Florida (8-3, 6-2)
With so much speculation regarding this year’s College Football Playoff selections, at least we all know that Alabama is a lock to be in. Even if the Crimson Tide somehow fall to the Gators, who have struggled offensively in recent weeks, Alabama will all but certainly get a shot to defend its title this winter. Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has burst onto the scene with 33 offensive touchdowns on the year, while the defense has been arguably the most stingy in the country. Opponents have scored an average of 11.4 points per game against Alabama’s defense, while Hurts and the offense have put up nearly 40 per contest. Although the Gators defense — which has only surrendered 14.6 points per game on the year — may keep the Crimson Tide in check for a quarter or two, it’s hard to imagine Nick Saban’s team slipping up this late in the year.
Prediction: Alabama 41, Florida 20
ACC Championship Game: No. 4 Clemson (11-1, 7-1) vs. Virginia Tech (9-3, 6-2)
Like Colorado-Washington, this matchup features two fire power offenses led by two top-tier quarterbacks. Clemson’s DeShaun Watson, likely playing in his final year with the Tigers, has already put together one of the best careers the ACC has ever seen. But don’t count out junior Jerod Evans and the Hokies just yet. Evans is a consistent passer who can also run the ball, much like Watson. Head coach Justin Fuente has done an admirable job taking over for Frank Beamer, leading the Hokies to a 6-2 conference record and solid play on both sides of the ball. If the Hokies can generate turnovers (Watson has thrown 14 interceptions on the year) and Evans can keep the offense flowing, it wouldn’t be a shocker if the ACC Championship game ends Clemson’s playoff hopes.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Clemson 37
Big Ten Championship Game: No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2) vs. No. 7 Penn State (10-2, 8-1)
After last week’s Michigan-Ohio State double overtime thriller, the entire Big Ten is anxious to see if the matchup between the Badgers and Nittany Lions can reach last week’s level of excitement. While Wisconsin has a clear advantage defensively, surrendering only 13.7 points per game, Penn State’s offense has produced when it’s had to this year. Led by sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley and sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions have won eight consecutive games. Although the Badgers have lost just twice all year — in close games to Michigan and Ohio State — it isn’t clear yet if redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook will be ready for Saturday’s game because of a head injury. If Hornibrook is limited or unable to go, it’s expected that fifth-year senior Bart Houston will be under center for the biggest game of his career. A win would put the victor of this game on the brink of playoff consideration, while the loser will surely be left out. It should be a good one, but the Hornibrook injury will undoubtedly play a key role in Penn State’s defensive game plan.
Prediction: Penn State 24, Wisconsin 20
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