Breaking down college football’s 2020 conference championships

By Amy Daughters -

Welcome to the most meaningful two days in college football. With nine actual titles on the line in just over 24 hours, conference championship weekend is as good as it gets.

The action begins on Friday night with three title games kicking off within a single hour. Conference USA goes first (7pm EST, CBSSN), followed by the MAC (7:30pm EST, ESPN) and then the Pac-12 gets its turn (8pm EST, FOX). It’s absolutely the best Friday night of the season, and you shouldn’t miss it.

Saturday is an all-day, six-championship marathon that kicks off with a pair of contests at noon EST: The Big Ten Championship on FOX and the Big 12 title game on ABC.

In the mid-afternoon slot it’s a pair of title hunts starting within 15 minutes of one another: the ACC Championship (4pm EST, ABC) and the Mountain West title game (4:15pm EST, FOX). The Sun Belt Championship was slated to air at 3:30pm EST but was canceled due to a “positive COVID-19 test.”

Primetime features two title games, both of which are scheduled to start at 8pm EST – the SEC Championship on CBS and the American Athletic title game on ABC.

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. It pairs well with a frosty mug of PBR.

As a note, there are also a handful of regular-season games on tap for what’s technically Week 16. Contests worth adding to your playlist on Saturday are (5) Texas A&M (which needs a big win to keep its CFP aspirations alive) at Tennessee (Noon EST, ESPN) and Air Force at Army (3pm EST, CBSSN) – the winner earns the Commander in Chief’s Trophy.

Friday, Dec. 18

THE CONFERENCE USA CHAMPIONSHIP

UAB (5-3) at MARSHALL (7-1) – Joan C. Edwards Stadium, Huntington, W.Va. – 7pm EST – CBSSN

The Teams

UAB captured its one and only conference title in 2018, edging Middle Tennessee State 27-25 in the C-USA title game.

Marshall has earned one C-USA title since joining the league in 2005, nipping Louisiana Tech 26-23 in the 2014 championship game.

The Matchup

These two have met ten times previously but not since 2014. Marshall leads the all-time series 8-2 and is a perfect 5-0 vs. the Blazers at home in Huntington. This is the first postseason meeting.

Line: Marshall -5

This one will likely come down to whether UAB’s offense can score points on Marshall’s elite defense. The Thundering Herd are ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring (allowing only 11.4 points per game), are No. 2 vs. the run and No. 14 vs. the pass. The most points they gave up all season – 20 – came in their only loss this season – a 20-0 shutout vs. Rice. The other major contributing factor in the defeat (and therefore a key to winning the C-USA crown) is turnovers – freshman QB Grant Wells (#8) threw only four picks in his first seven outings in 2020 only to toss five in the loss to the Owls.

Players to Watch

UAB: junior OLB Jordan Smith (#22) (No. 4 in the FBS in tackles for a loss and tied for No. 6 in sacks), senior RB Spencer Brown (#4) (tied for No. 17 in the FBS in rushing TDs)

Marshall: junior RB Brenden Knox (#20) (tied for No. 22 in the FBS in rushing yards per game), junior DL Darius Hodge (#2) (No. 2 in the C-USA in sacks and tied for No. 7 in tackles for a loss)

THE MAC CHAMPIONSHIP

BALL STATE (5-1) vs. BUFFALO (5-0) – Ford Field, Detroit, Mich. – 7:30pm EST – ESPN

The Teams

Ball State has won five MAC titles since joining the conference in 1975 but hasn’t won it all since 1996.

Buffalo has only won one conference crown in program history bringing home the MAC title in 2008.

The Matchup

A rematch of the 2008 MAC title game (a 42-24 upset win for Buffalo), these two haven’t met since the 2017 regular season. Ball State leads 9-2 but hasn’t scored a win since 2016.

Line: Buffalo -13.5

Buffalo’s ground game has been the best of the best, literally, in 2020. The Bulls are currently ranked No. 1 nationally in both scoring and rushing yards per game. It sets up as a stiff test for Ball State’s defense which is No. 4 in the MAC and No. 41 in the FBS vs. the run. The most productive ground games the Cardinals faced this season came in their last two appearances – at Central Michigan (No. 20 in the FBS in rushing offense) and vs. Western Michigan (No. 37). They gave up 154 to a Chippewa team averaging 218 yards per game and 213 to a Bronco unit averaging 193. Buffalo is cranking out 344 rushing yards per game.

Players to Watch

Ball State: senior QB Drew Plitt (#9) (No. 17 in the FBS in passing yards per game), senior WR Justin Hall (#11) (No. 18 in the FBS in receiving yards per game)

Buffalo: junior RB Jaret Patterson (#26) (No. 1 in the FBS in rushing yards per game and No. 3 in rushing TDs)

THE PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP

OREGON (3-2) at (13) USC (5-0) – Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, Calif. – 8pm EST – FOX

The Teams

Oregon has won 12 conference titles, four as members of the Pacific Coast Conference and eight in the Pac-10/12, most recently last season, a 37-15 win over then (5) Utah.

USC has 39 total conference titles, most recently winning the Pac-12 in 2017, edging then (14) Stanford 31-28.

The Matchup

Oregon and USC have met 61 times previously, the Trojans lead 38-21-2 but the Ducks have won three of the last four. This is the first-ever postseason meeting between the two.

Line: USC -3

This matchup features two solid passing attacks (the Ducks are ranked No. 26 nationally/No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass offense while the Trojans are No. 13/No. 1) taking on defenses that, while not tragic, haven’t been great vs. the pass. Oregon coughed up a season-high 263 air yards in its loss to Oregon State – a team ranked No. 83 nationally in pass offense (averaging 209 yards per game). As for USC, it allowed a season-high 364 passing yards in its narrow win at UCLA last weekend – the Bruins are ranked No. 63 in passing yards (averaging 230 yards per game). The defense that struggles the least wins this one.

Players to Watch

Oregon: sophomore QB Tyler Shough (#12) (No. 18 in the FBS in passing yards per game)

USC: sophomore QB Kedon Slovis (#9) (No. 7 in the FBS in passing yards per game), junior S Talanoa Hufanga (#15) (tied for the second most interceptions in the FBS)

Saturday, Dec. 19

THE BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP

(14) NORTHWESTERN (6-1) vs. (4) OHIO STATE (5-0) – Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind. – Noon EST – FOX

The Teams

Northwestern has won eight Big Ten titles but hasn’t won it all since 2000. The Wildcats are 0-1 in the championship game, falling to then (6) Ohio State 45-24 in 2018.

Ohio State has captured the Big Ten title 38 times and has won three-straight, beating then (8) Wisconsin 34-21 in last season’s title game.

The Matchup

A rematch of the 2018 Big Ten championship, Ohio State holds a commanding 63-14-1 lead in the all-time series and has won eight straight and 32 of the last 33. Northwestern’s last win came in 2004 in Evanston.

Line: Ohio State -20

On paper, this is a stellar matchup between Ohio State’s No. 4 nationally ranked scoring offense and Northwestern’s No. 4 ranked scoring D. In one corner, it’s a Buckeye offense averaging 47 points per game while in the other it’s a Wildcat defense allowing a mere 14.6. While we understand – and the oddsmakers in Vegas have stamped their seal of approval – that OSU has a clear advantage in five-star talent and depth, did you know that the Bucks are ranked an awful No. 111 nationally (and dead last in the Big Ten) vs. the pass? It’s a dirty little secret that may not be exposed – yet – by a Northwestern offense ranked an unfortunate No. 106 in the FBS/No. 12 in the Big Ten in passing yards per game.

Players to Watch

Northwestern: freshman DB Brandon Joseph (#16) (tied for the most interceptions in the FBS), senior LB Blake Gallagher (#51) (No. 3 in the Big Ten in tackles for a loss)

Ohio State: junior QB Justin Fields (#1) (No. 2 in the FBS in passer rating), sophomore WR Garrett Wilson (#5) (No. 8 in the FBS in receiving yards per game), junior WR Chris Olave (#2) (No. 12 in the FBS in receiving yards per game)

THE BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP

(10) OKLAHOMA (7-2) vs. (6) IOWA STATE (8-2) – AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas – Noon EST – ABC

The Teams

Oklahoma has 49 total conference championships and has won 13 titles since the Big 12 was formed in 1996 including winning the last five consecutive crowns.

Iowa State hasn’t won a conference championship since capturing back-to-back Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MVIAA) titles in 1911 and 1912. This is the Cyclones first-ever appearance in the Big 12 Championship game.

The Matchup

Though Oklahoma holds a 76-7-2 advantage in the all-time series, Iowa State has won two of the last four including downing then (18) Oklahoma 37-30 earlier this season.

Line: Oklahoma -5.5

While Iowa State’s defense will certainly have to find a way to bend, but not totally snap, against Oklahoma’s No. 8 nationally ranked passing attack to win its first-ever Big 12 title, the bigger question might be on the other side of the ball. The Sooners D is currently ranked No. 4 nationally vs. the run, giving up a paltry 88 ground yards per game. It’s no surprise that two of the only three times the unit has allowed 100-plus ground yards this season were in the loss at Iowa State (135 rushing yards and three rushing TDs) and in the close victory over Texas (141 yards and four scores). If the Cyclones can limit mistakes and hang up 150-plus rushing yards on Oklahoma, they may make history.

Players to Watch

Oklahoma: freshman QB Spencer Rattler (#7) (tied for No. 8 in the FBS in TD passes), junior DL Isaiah Thomas (#95) (tied for No. 9 in the FBS in sacks)

Iowa State: sophomore RB Breece Hall (#28) (No. 1 in the FBS in total rushing yards and No. 5 in yards per game), sophomore DE Will McDonald IV (#9) (tied for No. 6 in the FBS in sacks)

THE ACC CHAMPIONSHIP

(3) CLEMSON (9-1) vs. (2) NOTRE DAME (10-0) – Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. – 4pm EST – ABC

The Teams

Clemson has won 19 ACC titles including capturing the last five, beating five different opponents along the way – North Carolina in 2015, Virginia Tech in 2016, Miami Fla. in 2017, Pitt in 2018 and Virginia last season.

Notre Dame – a football independent since it first fielded a team in 1887 – has never won a conference title.

The Matchup

A rematch of the 2018 Cotton Bowl (a 30-3 win for the Tigers), Clemson leads the all-time series 3-2 but Notre Dame outlasted the Tigers 47-40 earlier this season in South Bend.

Line: Clemson -10.5

Though much of the blame for Clemson’s Nov. 7 loss at Notre Dame is directed at the absence of Trevor Lawrence, there are three statistical anomalies from the game that aren’t related to the quarterback position. First, the Tigers coughed up a season-high 208 rushing yards in the loss – that’s almost double the season average of 105 yards allowed per game. Next, Clemson gave up 310 passing yards – another season-high and 100-plus yards more than the average of 197. Finally, on the other side of the ball, the Tigers rushed for a season-low 34 yards (that’s the fewest rushing yards Clemson has managed since posting the same number in a loss to NC State in 2011). Though simplistic, the keys to a sixth straight ACC title for Clemson are to live up to its No. 7 national rank in total defense and secondly, to hang up at least 100 rushing yards on the Irish D (which is, by the way, ranked No. 8 in the FBS vs. the run).

Players to Watch

Clemson: junior QB Trevor Lawrence (#16) (No. 11 in the FBS in passing yards per game), senior RB Travis Etienne (#9) (tied for No. 8 in the FBS in rushing TDs)

Notre Dame: sophomore RB Kyren Williams (#23) (tied for No. 8 in the FBS in rushing TDs)

THE MOUNTAIN WEST CHAMPIONSHIP

BOISE STATE (5-1) vs. (24) SAN JOSE STATE (6-0) – Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nev. – 4:15pm EST – FOX

The Teams

Boise State has earned a conference championship four times since joining the Mountain West in 2011, most recently downing Hawaii 31-10 in last season’s title game.

San Jose State has won 16 previous league titles but is suffering a 29-year dry spell, last capturing the Big West crown in 1991. This is the Spartans first appearance in the MWC championship game.

The Matchup

Boise State and San Jose State have met 14 times previously, the Broncos winning on each and every occasion. This is the first postseason clash between the two.

Line: Boise State -6.5

The compelling matchup in this one is San Jose State’s passing attack – ranked No. 29 in the FBS and No. 3 in the MWC – taking on a Boise State D ranked No. 6 nationally and No. 1 in the conference vs. the pass. What’s interesting about the Broncos’ success is the fact that they’ve faced only one offense ranked in the top 40 nationally in passing. So, while yes, they are holding opponents to, on average, 169 air yards per game, when they squared off with BYU – the No. 12 ranked passing attack in America – they blew up their own number by allowing a season-high 360 air yards.

Players to Watch

Boise State: junior WR Khalil Shakir (#2) (No. 11 in the FBS in receiving yards per game)

San Jose State: senior QB Nick Starkel (#17) (No. 14 in the FBS in passer rating), senior WR Bailey Gaither (#84) (No. 14 in the FBS in receiving yards per game)

THE AMERICAN ATHLETIC CHAMPIONSHIP

(23) TULSA (6-1) at (9) CINCINNATI (8-0) – Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio – 8pm EST – ABC

The Teams

Tulsa has won two conference crowns at the FBS level, capturing the C-USA title in 2005 and 2012. This is the first time it has played in the AAC title game.

Cincinnati has won 14 league titles – two in the Buckeye Athletic Association, four in the MAC, two in the Missouri Valley, one in C-USA, four in the Big East and one in the American Athletic (shared, 2014). It fell to Memphis 29-24 in last season’s AAC title game.

The Matchup

Tulsa leads the all-time series 17-15-2 but Cincinnati has won six of the last seven, including scoring a 24-13 win last season.

Line: Cincinnati -14.5

While it’s easy to get caught up in (9) Cincinnati’s lofty place as the highest ranked non-Power team in the land, don’t forget that the only misstep that 6-1 Tulsa made this season was a 16-7 loss at Oklahoma State in the opener. The mistake would be to think that the AAC title game is a forgone conclusion. For the Golden Hurricane to score an upset it will have to find a way to shut down Cincinnati’s ground game which is currently ranked No. 12 in the FBS. That’s exactly what UCF did in its 36-33 near miss vs. the Bearcats on Nov. 21 – holding a unit that has averaged 234 rushing yards per game to 144. The next step will be finding a way to score points on Cincinnati’s blistering defense which is, on average, allowing a mere 15 points per game (No. 5 in the FBS). It’ll be no small task for a Tulsa offense that’s ranked No. 70 in the nation in scoring.

Players to Watch

Tulsa: junior LB Zaven Collins (#23) (tied for the second-most interceptions in the FBS)

Cincinnati: junior QB Desmond Ridder (#9) (No. 19 in the FBS in passer rating)

THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

(1) ALABAMA (10-0) vs. (7) FLORIDA (8-2) – Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga. – 8pm EST – CBS

The Teams

Alabama has won the SEC 27 times, most recently in 2018, it’s fourth title in five tries. Overall, the Tide are 8-4 in the SEC championship game.

Florida has won the SEC eight times but not since 2008. The Gators are 7-5 in the SEC title game, their 13 appearances tying them with Alabama for the most in the conference.

The Matchup

A rematch of nine separate SEC championship games (1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2008, 2009, 2015 and 2016), Alabama leads the all-time series 25-14, has won six straight and holds a 5-4 advantage vs. Florida in the SEC title game.

Line: Alabama -15.5

Tune in to this one to see two of the best passing attacks in the land – Florida is No. 1 in the FBS in passing yards per game while Alabama is just a few rungs down at No. 6. The difference is defensively – where the Gators D is giving up, on average, 26.3 points per game (No. 48 nationally), the Tide are allowing 16.8 (No. 11). Florida has only faced two defenses ranked in the Top 30 in scoring in 2020 – Texas A&M (No. 30) which resulted in a 41-38 loss and Georgia (No. 21) which ended in a 44-28 win for Florida. It’s tough to bet against Alabama – which has gained momentum all season – in this one. The ray of hope for Gator fans is that the nearest miss for the Tide in 2020 (the 63-48 win at Ole Miss) was also the best passing attack they’ve had to cope with this year (the Rebels are No. 4 in the FBS in passing). Alabama coughed up a season-high 379 air yards in that one – and – they were playing an opponent that doesn’t have the defensive chops of the Gators (Ole Miss is giving up 39 points per game, No. 119 in the nation).

Players to Watch

Alabama: junior QB Mac Jones (#10) (No. 1 in the FBS in passer rating and No. 5 in passing yards per game), senior RB Najee Harris (#22) (No. 1 in the FBS in rushing TDs), senior WR DeVonta Smith (#6) (No. 2 in the FBS in receiving yards per game)

Florida: senior QB Kyle Trask (#11) (No. 2 in the FBS in passing yards per game and No. 6 in passer rating)

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

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