Breaking down 2018’s college football conference championship games

By Amy Daughters -

With ten title games in 24 hours, conference championship weekend is the most meaningful stretch of the college football season.

The action kicks off on Friday night with the MAC title game at 7pm EST on ESPN2 followed an hour later by the Pac-12 Championship at 8pm EST on FOX.

The goodness is spread throughout the day on Saturday, starting with a pair of games at noon EST: The Big 12 Championship on ABC and the first-ever Sun Belt title game on ESPN. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the Conferene USA Championship which starts up at 1:30pm EST on CBSSN.

In the mid-afternoon slot it’s the American Athletic showdown at 3:30pm EST on ABC and the SEC Championship at 4pm EST on CBS.

Primetime features three great matchups, all worth programming your remote for: The Mountain West title game at 7:45pm EST on ESPN and then the Big Ten and ACC Championships, both at 8pm EST on FOX and ABC respectively.

What follows is a blow-by-blow guide of when to watch, what to watch for and who to watch doing it. The chef’s recommendation is that it’s consumed in small, digestible bites as needed rather than all at one sitting.

As a note, there are also six non-title games slated for what is technically Week 14 of the college football schedule.

Friday, Nov. 30

THE MAC CHAMPIONSHIP

Northern Illinois (7-5) vs. Buffalo (10-2) – Ford Field, Detroit, Mich. – 7pm EST – ESPN2

The Teams

Northern Illinois has won the MAC four times, most recently in 2014. It last represented the West in the title game in 2015, losing to Bowling Green.

Buffalo has only won a conference crown once in its history, capturing the 2008 MAC title by beating then (12) Ball State.

The Matchup

In 12 total tries, Buffalo has only managed a win over Northern Illinois once, in 1970, also the first-ever meeting. The Huskies have won 11-straight since then, all regular-season wins including a narrow one-point victory in 2017.

Line: Buffalo -4

Though Northern Illinois has picked up three more losses than Buffalo has in 2018, it started the season with losses at Iowa (33-7), vs. (17) Utah (17-6), and at Florida State (37-19). The Huskies’ biggest statistical strength is a rushing defense ranked a lofty No. 13 nationally. This sets up well vs. the Bulls best offensive trait – a ground attack ranked No. 40 in the FBS. The biggest challenge for NIU will likely be finding a way to manufacture points – its currently No. 122 in the nation in scoring (averaging 19.9 points per game).

Players to Watch

Northern Illinois: junior defensive end Sutton Smith (#15) (No. 4 in the FBS in sacks and No. 6 in tackles for a loss).

Buffalo: senior linebacker Khalil Hodge (#4) (No. 9 in the FBS in total tackles), freshman running back Jaret Patterson (#26) (tied for No. 3 in the MAC in rushing touchdowns).

THE PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP

(17) Utah (9-3) vs. (11) Washington (9-3) – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. – 8pm EST – FOX

The Teams

Utah hasn’t won a conference championship since capturing the last of its four Mountain West crowns in 2008. This is its first-ever appearance in the Pac-12 championship game. It joined the league 2011.

Washington has won the Pac-12 nine times previously, most recently in 2016 when it blasted (9) Colorado 41-10 in the title game.

The Matchup

The two programs have met 12 times previously with Utah winning only once – in Seattle in 2015. They also clashed earlier this season, on Sept. 15, when the then (10) Huskies visited Utah and won 21-7. This is the first-ever postseason meeting.

Line: Washington -3.5

While neither Utah or Washington has been especially successful offensively speaking in 2018, both have stellar defenses. The Utes are No. 17 in scoring D while the Huskies are a lofty No. 8. The only major statistical category where either defense is ranked outside of the Top 25 nationally is Utah’s No. 52 rating vs. the pass. While nowhere near a true mismatch, Washington’s aerial attack has an opportunity to be the difference maker in this one.

Players to Watch

Utah: senior linebacker Chase Hansen (#22) (No. 4 in the FBS in tackles for a loss).

Washington: senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven (#25) (tied for the most total tackles in the FBS).

Saturday, Dec. 1

THE BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP

(14) Texas (9-3) vs. (5) Oklahoma (11-1) – AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas – Noon EST – ABC

The Teams

Texas hasn’t won the Big 12 since 2009, when it edged (21) Nebraska 13-12 in the league championship game. Those Longhorns went on to fall to (1) Alabama in the BCS National Championship.

Oklahoma has won three straight Big 12 crowns, including blasting then (10) TCU 41-17 in last season’s title game.

The Matchup

Because of both schools’ alignment in the former South division of the Big 12, this is the first time Texas and Oklahoma have ever met head-to-head for a conference championship. It’s also their first-ever postseason meeting. The Longhorns lead the all-time series 62-46-5 and won memorably earlier this season, edging the Sooners 48-45 on Oct. 6.

Line: Oklahoma -6

Though Oklahoma has one of the most potent offenses in the FBS (No. 1 in scoring, No. 8 in rushing, and No. 8 in passing), it also has one of the most questionable defenses (No. 99 in scoring, No. 63 vs. the run, and No. 127 vs. the pass). This one will come down to whether the Sooners’ super-sonic scoring machine can make up for its defense. As for Texas, while it’s improved from six-regular-season wins a year ago to nine in 2018, it isn’t statistically dominant. The Longhorns are ranked No. 51 nationally in scoring defense and No. 46 in offensive scoring. Their biggest big-category strengths are a No. 36 mark vs. the run and a No. 37 rated passing attack.

Players to Watch

Texas: freshman defensive back Caden Sterns (#7) (tied for the fourth-most interceptions in the FBS), junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey (#84) (No. 25 in the FBS in receiving yards per game).

Oklahoma: junior quarterback Kyler Murray (#1) (No. 2 in the FBS in passer rating), junior wide receiver Marquise Brown (#5) (No. 8 in the FBS in receiving yards per game), sophomore linebacker Kenneth Murray (#9) (No. 5 in the FBS in total tackles).

THE SUN BELT CHAMPIONSHIP

Louisiana (7-5) at Appalachian State (9-2) – Kidd Brewer Stadium, Boone, N.C. – Noon EST – ESPN

The Teams

Louisiana has officially won the Sun Belt just once, in 2005, when it closed out the regular season with five straight wins and shared the title with Arkansas State and ULM. It also captured the crown in 2013, an honor that was vacated due to NCAA violations.

Appalachian State moved up from the FCS to the FBS level in 2014 via the Sun Belt. Since then it’s already managed two shared league titles, coming back-to-back in 2016 and 2017.

The Matchup

The Ragin’ Cajuns and Mountaineers have played five total times, each game taking place in the regular season since 2014. App State won all five contests, including this season’s 27-17 win in Boone on Oct. 20th.

Line: Appalachian State -19

Offensively speaking, these two are almost mirror images of each other, both with top ranked rushing attacks (Louisiana is ranked No. 14 in the FBS in rushing while App State is No. 18) paired with passing games that are less potent (ULL is No. 77 while ASU in No. 96). But that’s where the similarities end. The Mountaineers’ defense is currently No. 5 in the nation in scoring, allowing a paltry 15.4 points per game. That puts them just behind (1) Alabama and (2) Clemson who come in at third and fourth respectively in the same category. Compare that to the Ragin Cajuns’ D, ranked No. 104 in scoring, giving up a cool 34 points per game.

Players to Watch

Louisiana: junior running back Raymond Calais (#4) (No. 3 in the FBS in yards per carry).

Appalachian State: junior defensive back Desmond Franklin (#6) (tied for the fourth-most interceptions in the FBS), junior defensive back Clifton Duck (#4) (No. 12 in the FBS in average yards per punt return), sophomore running back Darrynton Evans (#3) (No. 2 in the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game).

THE CONFERENCE USA CHAMPIONSHIP

UAB (9-3) at Middle Tennessee (8-4) – Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, Tenn. – 1:30pm EST – CBSSN

The Teams

UAB has never won a conference title. At 9-3, this is first time it’s won more than eight games as an FBS program.

Middle Tennessee has won two league crowns, sharing Sun Belt titles in 2001 and 2006. It has never been to the C-USA championship game.

The Matchup

UAB and Middle Tennessee have met seven times previously, all since 1995. The two clashed just last weekend in the same venue, the Blue Raiders winning 27-3. MTSU leads the all-time series 4-3 and has never lost to the Blazers in Murfreesboro.

Line: Middle Tennessee -1.5

UAB has one of the best defenses in the nation – ranked No. 9 in scoring, No. 19 vs. the run, and No. 7 vs. the pass. It makes the fact that it coughed up 394 total yards (100-plus more yards than the average of 287.2) in the Week 13 loss to Middle Tennessee surprising. Even more shocking was that the Blazers managed to gain only 89 total offensive yards (90 passing and minus-one rushing) in the loss, a far cry from the 403.3-yard average it’s earned in 2018. Middle Tennessee is a middle-of-the-road team on paper (No. 62 in scoring offense and No. 51 in scoring D), meaning it’s realistic for UAB to hope to make major improvements this week and capture its first-ever league title.

Players to Watch

UAB: sophomore running back Spencer Brown (#28) (tied for the fifth-most rushing TDs in the FBS).

Middle Tennessee: senior quarterback Brent Stockstill (#12) (No. 2 in the FBS in completion percentage), senior defensive back Wesley Bush (#23) (tied for third-most interceptions in the FBS).

THE AMERICAN ATHLETIC CHAMPIONSHIP

Memphis (8-4) at (8) UCF (11-0) – Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, Fla. – 3:30pm EST – ABC

The Teams

Memphis has won one conference crown at the FBS level, sharing the AAC title with UCF and Cincinnati in 2014, the year before the league began showcasing a championship game.

UCF has won five league titles – twice in Conference USA (2007 and 2010) and three times in the AAC (2013, 2014, and 2017).

The Matchup

A rematch of last season’s AAC Championship – when then (12) UCF outlasted (16) Memphis 62-55 in double overtime – this is the 13th all-time meeting between the two schools. The Tigers have bested the Knights just once in history, winning 37-28 in the very first meeting in Memphis. The two also met earlier this season, on Oct. 13, a UCF win.

Line: UCF -7

Both teams have elite ground attacks (Memphis is No. 5 nationally in rushing while UCF is No. 6), platforms from which they’ve managed to rack up a lot of points (the Tigers are No. 6 in scoring offense while the Knights are No. 8). The difference comes down to defense where UCF, despite its undefeated record, has struggled against the run where Memphis has been decent. The Knights are currently ranked No. 109 nationally vs. the run while the Tigers are No. 53. The bigger truth is, UCF has faced five opponents this season that are currently ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards. The two closest calls – the 31-30 win at Memphis (No. 5) and the 35-24 victory over Navy (No. 3) – came against the best of these attacks. The Tigers are the perfect team, statistically speaking, to test the Knight’s perfection.

Players to Watch

Memphis: junior running back Darrell Henderson (#8) (No. 2 in the FBS in rushing yards per game and rushing TDs), junior linebacker Bryce Huff (#55) (No. 13 in the FBS in sacks and tackles for a loss).

UCF: sophomore running back Greg McCrae (#30) (No. 4 in the FBS in yards per carry), sophomore defensive back Richie Grant (#27) (tied for the third-most interceptions in the FBS).

THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

(1) Alabama (12-0) vs. (4) Georgia (11-1) – Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga. – 4pm EST – CBS

The Teams

Alabama has won the SEC 26 times, including earning three straight titles from 2014-16. It’s 7-4 all-time in the title game, which was first played in 1992.

Georgia is the defending SEC champion, downing then (4) Auburn 28-7 in last year’s title game. It has won the conference 13 times total and is 3-3 in the championship game.

The Matchup

A rematch of the 2012 SEC Championship and last season’s CFP National Championship (both wins for Alabama), these two have met 68 times since their initial clash in 1895. The Tide lead the all-time series 39-25-4 and have won four-straight and seven of the last ten.

Line: Alabama -10.5

Neither Alabama nor Georgia have any significant flaws. While not a blaring weakness, the Bulldogs’ D is ranked No. 27 vs. the run as opposed to No. 13 vs. the pass and No. 10 in scoring. This was exposed in the loss to (10) LSU, which managed to rack up a season-high 275 rushing yards, almost 150 more than the season average (128.42). On the flip side, the Tigers’ D held Georgia – ranked No. 11 in rushing offense – to a season-low 113 ground yards, a far cry from the season average of 259.83. These facts look foreboding coming into the game vs. the Crimson Tide, which are ranked higher in rushing offense (Alabama at No. 32 vs. LSU at No. 59) and rushing defense (Alabama No. 15 vs. LSU No. 38) than the Bulldogs’ only vanquisher this season. The other intriguing matchup is how Georgia’s No. 13 ranked pass D will hold up vs. the Tide’s No. 6 ranked passing attack.

Players to Watch

Alabama: sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (#13) (No. 1 in the FBS in passer rating), sophomore defensive lineman Quinnen Williams (#92) (No. 2 in the SEC in tackles for a loss).

Georgia: sophomore running back D’Andre Swift (#7) (No. 2 in the SEC in yards per carry), junior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship (#98) (No. 11 in the FBS in field goal percentage).

THE MOUNTAIN WEST CHAMPIONSHIP

(25) Fresno State (10-2) at (22) Boise State (10-2) – Albertson’s Stadium, Boise, Idaho – 7:45pm EST – ESPN

The Teams

Fresno State has won the Mountain West twice since becoming a member in 2011, earning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.

Boise State has also captured a Mountain West crown two times, posting 7-1 league records in both 2014 and 2017.

The Matchup

A rematch of both the 2014 and 2017 Mountain West Championships (both wins for Boise State), the Broncos and Bulldogs have met 21 times. Not only does Boise State hold a 15-6 advantage in the series, it’s won 15 of the last 18. The two met earlier this season, on Nov. 9 in Boise, a Bronco victory.

Line: Boise State -2.5

Fresno State is ranked No. 2 – in the nation – in scoring defense, allowing a mere 13.5 points per game. Boise State is one of only two teams who’ve managed to score more than two touchdowns on the Bulldogs this season, reaching the end zone three times in a 24-17 win in Week 11. This one will likely come down to whether Fresno State’s stellar D (ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West in yards allowed) can adjust and more successfully shut down Boise State’s pass-dominant offense (No. 2 in scoring and pass offense in the Mountain West).

Players to Watch

Fresno State: senior wide receiver KeeSean Johnson (#3) (No. 7 in the FBS in receiving yards per game), senior quarterback Marcus McMaryion (#6) (No. 16 in the FBS in passing yards per game).

Boise State: senior quarterback Brett Rypien (#4) (No. 10 in the FBS in passing yards per game).

THE BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP

(21) Northwestern (8-4) vs. (6) Ohio State (11-1) – Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind. – 8pm EST – FOX

The Teams

Northwestern won the Big Ten as recently as 2000 but hasn’t won an outright title since 1995 when it went 8-0 in conference play and finished ranked No. 8 in the AP after falling to (17) USC in the Rose Bowl.

Ohio State is the defending Big Ten champion, downing (3) Wisconsin 27-21 in last year’s title game. The Buckeyes are 2-1 in the conference championship game, which first kicked off in 2011.

The Matchup

Ohio State has owned Northwestern in their 76-game series, holding a 61-14-1 advantage and winning 30 of the last 31. This is only the second time in history the two schools have met at a neutral site – the first dating to 1991, a 34-3 win for the Buckeyes in Cleveland.

Line: Ohio State -13

Tune in to this one to see if Northwestern’s secondary – ranked No. 79 in the nation and No. 10 in the Big Ten – can manage to shut down an Ohio State passing attack ranked No. 2 in the nation. Only (13) Washington State has been more successful through the air this year. The Wildcats’ offense is ranked No. 108 in scoring, No. 120 in rushing and No. 62 in passing – so if there is to be any shocking of the world, the Buckeyes will have to make some major, costly mistakes.

Players to Watch

Northwestern: sophomore linebacker Blake Gallagher (#51) (No. 2 in the Big Ten in total tackles), senior linebacker Nate Hall (#32) (tied for the third-most interceptions in the Big Ten).

Ohio State: sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins (#7) (No. 3 in the FBS in passing yards per game), junior defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones (#86) (No. 6 in the Big Ten in sacks and No. 10 in tackles for a loss).

THE ACC CHAMPIONSHIP

(2) Clemson (12-0) vs. Pittsburgh (7-5) – Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. – 8pm EST – ABC

The Teams

Clemson has won three-straight ACC titles, beating three different Coastal division opponents along the way – North Carolina in 2015, Virginia Tech in 2016, and Miami Fla. last season.

Pitt hasn’t won a league crown since earning a piece of the Big East championship in 2010. This is its first division title since joining the ACC in 2013.

The Matchup

This is only the third time in history that Clemson and Pitt have squared off on the gridiron. The Panthers hold a 2-0 advantage, triumphing 34-3 in the 1977 Gator Bowl and then engineering a thrilling 43-42 upset over the then (3) Tigers during the 2016 regular season.

Line: Clemson -20

Pittsburgh’s so-so defense (ranked No. 71 in scoring, No. 80 vs. the run and No. 61 vs. the pass) will have to find a way to shut down Clemson’s prolific offense (No. 5 in scoring, No. 12 in rushing and No. 23 through the air) if its got a chance in this one. The most intriguing matchup on the flip side is the Panthers’ ground game – ranked No. 17 in the FBS – trying to do its thing vs. a Tigers’ D ranked No. 2 – again that’s a national number – vs. the run.

Players to Watch

Clemson: sophomore running back Travis Etienne (#9) (No. 2 in the FBS in rushing touchdowns), junior defensive end Clelin Ferrell (#99) (No. 8 in the FBS in sacks and No. 21 in tackles for a loss).

Pitt: senior running back Qadree Ollison (#30) (No. 3 in the ACC in rushing yards per game), sophomore defensive lineman Rashad Weaver (#17) (No. 12 in the ACC in tackles for a loss and No. 14 in sacks).

Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Lines courtesy of OddsShark.

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Comment (1)

I know this is off topic but what about a football version of the ACC – Big Ten Basketball series that just ended. ACC – SEC – or Big 10 all have 14 teams, just leave a game on the schedule, maybe 3rd week of the season and decide the game matchups in late January. Each team would get a home game every other year but other than that, try to put together the best games!