Breaking down college football’s 2021 conference championship games

By Amy Daughters -

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

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 for a wine pairing, we suggest a Blue Nun Riesling, or, for a refreshing alternative with a complex bouquet, try a frosty mug of Miller High Life.

As a note, in addition to the ten league title games there is also one leftover regular season game on tap this Saturday – USC at Cal (11pm EST, FS1) – which was originally slated for Saturday, Nov. 13 but was postponed due to COVID-19.

Friday, Dec. 3

THE CONFERENCE USA CHAMPIONSHIP

WESTERN KENTUCKY (8-4) at UTSA (11-1) – Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas – 7pm EST – CBSSN

The Teams

WKU has won two league titles since moving up to the FBS ranks in 2009, both since joining the C-USA in 2014. The Hilltoppers also captured the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA (FCS) national championship.

UTSA didn’t field a football team until 2011, this year’s C-USA-West crown is the first-ever title in program history.

The Matchup

These two have met twice previously, both times at WKU. The Hilltoppers won the first game, in 2014, 45-7 while the Roadrunners won the most recent, outlasting WKU 52-46 this year in a Week 6 thriller.

Line: Western Kentucky -2.5

Where UTSA’s defense allowed an average of 198 passing yards to 11 of its 12 regular-season opponents it coughed up a whopping 523 in its narrow Week 6 win over WKU. For the Roadrunners to capture their first-ever conference championship, they’ll have to find a way to effectively contain a Hilltopper passing attack – which has averaged 398 air yards in its last seven outings, all wins – ranked No. 1 in the entire FBS.

Players to Watch

WKU: senior QB Bailey Zappe (#4) (No. 1 in the FBS in passing yards per game and passing TDs), junior WR Jerreth Sterns (#8) (No. 2 in the FBS in receiving yards per game), junior WR Mitchell Tinsley (#5) (No. 19 in the FBS in receiving yards per game), senior DE DeAngelo Malone (#10) (tied for the third most forced fumbles in the FBS)

UTSA: junior RB Sincere McCormick (#3) (No. 10 in the FBS in rushing yards per game)

THE PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP

(10) OREGON (10-2) vs. (17) UTAH (9-3) – Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas, Nev. – 8pm EST – ABC

The Teams

Oregon has won 13 conference titles, four as members of the Pacific Coast Conference and nine in the Pac-10/12 including the last two – a 37-15 win over then (5) Utah in 2019 and a 31-24 win over then (13) USC last season.

Utah has won 24 conference titles but despite winning the South division three previous times (2015, 2018-19) has never won a Pac-12 crown. The Utes most recently captured the 2008 Mountain West championship.

The Matchup

Oregon and Utah have met 34 times previously including this season, a 38-7 upset victory for the Utes. The Ducks lead the all-time series 23-11 but the two have split the last four.

Line: Utah -3

These two teams share similar statistical DNA – top 20 rushing attacks paired with defenses that have been effective vs. the run. Where Utah is ranked No. 13 nationally/No. 1 in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game, Oregon is No. 18/No. 3. And where the Utes are No. 30 in the FBS/No. 3 in rushing D, the Ducks are No. 26/No. 2. If their first meeting is an indicator of which defense will fare better the advantage goes to Utah, which held an Oregon ground attack that’s averaged 214 yards per game to a season-low 63.

Players to Watch

Oregon: sophomore S Verone McKinley III (#23) (tied for the most interceptions in the FBS), junior RB Travis Dye (#26) (No. 6 in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game)

Utah: junior LB Devin Lloyd (#0) (No. 2 in the FBS in tackles for a loss), junior DE Mika Tafua (#42) (tied for the ninth most sacks in the FBS), sophomore RB Tavion Thomas (#9) (No. 5 in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game)

Saturday, Dec. 4

THE BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP

(9) BAYLOR (10-2) vs. (5) OKLAHOMA STATE (11-1) – AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas – Noon EST – ABC

The Teams

Baylor has won nine total conference championships: seven in the Southwest Conference and two – back-to-back titles in 2013-14 – in the Big 12. This is the Bears’ second-ever appearance in the Big 12 title game, losing to then (6) Oklahoma in the 2009 contest.

Oklahoma State has won ten conference titles: eight in the Missouri Valley Conference, one in the Big Eight (1976) and one in the Big 12 (2011). This is the Cowboys’ first-ever appearance in the Big 12 title game.

The Matchup

These two have met 40 times previously, including this season – a 24-14 win for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys lead the series 22-18 and have won two-straight. The only other non-regular season game came in the 1983 Bluebonnet Bowl, a 24-14 win for OSU.

Line: Oklahoma State -5.5

The epic battle Royale in this one is Baylor’s ground game – ranked a lofty No. 8 in the FBS – trying to rack up yards on an Oklahoma State defense ranked No. 6 in America vs. the run. In their first meeting the Cowboy D held the Bears – which have averaged 228 rushing yards per game – to a season-low 107. On the flip side, Baylor’s defense (ranked a respectable No. 19 nationally vs. the run, giving up 121 yards per game) coughed up a season-high 219 to OSU in the Week 5 loss. The defense that shows up wins this one.

Players to Watch

Baylor: senior RB Abram Smith (#7) (No. 7 in the FBS in rushing yards per game)

Oklahoma State: senior LB Malcolm Rodriguez (#20) (tied for No. 21 in the FBS in total tackles and No. 22 in solo tackles)

THE MAC CHAMPIONSHIP

KENT STATE (7-5) vs. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (8-4) – Ford Field, Detroit, Mich. – Noon EST – ESPN

The Teams

Kent State has only won one conference crown in program history, capturing the MAC title in 1972. This is the Golden Flashes’ second-ever appearance in the MAC Championship game, falling 44-37 in double overtime to, ironically, Northern Illinois in the 2012 contest.

Northern Illinois has captured 12 conference championships, winning the Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference twice, the Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference on four occasions and the MAC five times, most recently in 2018. The Huskies are 4-4 all-time in the MAC Championship game.

The Matchup

These two have met 29 times previously, most recently this season, a 52-47 win for Kent State that snapped a 10-game losing skid. Northern Illinois leads the series 21-8 and has won 14 of the last 16.

Line: Kent State -3

This matchup features two of the best rushing attacks in the nation taking on two of the most generous rush defenses. In one corner it’s a Kent State ground game ranked No. 3 – in the entire USA – in rushing yards per game taking on a Northern Illinois D ranked No. 120 vs. the run. In the other, it’s a Huskie ground game ranked No. 5 in the FBS vs. a Golden Flash defense ranked No. 104 against the run. If recent history predicts the future the advantage goes to Kent State, who not only racked up 360 rushing yards on NIU earlier this season but held the Huskies (averaging 232 ground yards per game) to 131. That said, did you know that the Flashes gave up 532 passing yards in the same game? That to a NIU passing attack averaging 195 yards per game (No. 98 nationally). This could be the most entertaining game of the weekend.

Players to Watch

Kent State: junior CB Montre Miller (#21) (tied for the second most interceptions in the FBS), sophomore RB Marquez Cooper (#1) (No. 3 in the MAC in rushing yards per game)

Northern Illinois: freshman RB Jay Ducker (#8) (No. 4 in the MAC in rushing yards per game)

THE MOUNTAIN WEST CHAMPIONSHIP

UTAH STATE (9-3) at (19) SAN DIEGO STATE (11-1) – Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, Calif. – 3pm EST – FOX

The Teams

Utah State has won 12 conference titles but, despite winning the Mountain Division in 2013, has never won a MWC championship. The Utes most recent league title came in 2012 when they won the WAC.

San Diego State has won 19 previous league titles including capturing the MWC crown in 2012, 2015 and 2016. The Aztecs are a perfect 2-0 in the MWC Championship game.

The Matchup

Utah State and San Diego State have met 15 times previously, most recently in 2020, a 38-7 win for the Aztecs in Logan. SDSU has a commanding 13-2 lead in the series, the Aggies only wins coming in 2019 and 1967.

Line: San Diego State -6

While San Diego State’s defense has been uber successful preventing opponents from scoring (17 points per game, No. 9 in the FBS) and stopping the run (79 yards per game, No. 2 in the FBS) it hasn’t had the same level of elite-ness vs. the pass (236 yards per game, No. 79 in the FBS). And that’s precisely Utah State’s biggest statistical strength – an air attack averaging 305 yards per game, No. 15 in the FBS. The Aztecs have only faced two other top ranked passing attacks this season: Fresno State (No. 9 in the FBS), which hung up 306 passing yards on SDSU in its only loss of the season (30-20) and Nevada (No. 4 in the FBS), which passed for 350 yards in a narrow 23-21 Aztec win. This matchup is rated “I”, for Intriguing.

Players to Watch

Utah State: senior WR Deven Thompkins (#13) (No. 1 in the FBS in receiving yards per game), junior QB Logan Bonner (#1) (No. 10 in the FBS in TD passes), senior DE Nick Heninger (#42) (tied for the tenth most tackles for a loss in the FBS)

San Diego State: junior DL Cameron Thomas (#99) (No. 3 in the FBS in tackles for a loss and tied for the seventh most sacks), senior S Trenton Thompson (#18) (tied for the fourth most passes defended in the FBS)

THE SUN BELT CHAMPIONSHIP

APPALACHIAN STATE (10-2) at (24) LOUISIANA (11-1) – Cajun Field, Lafayette, La. – 3:30pm EST – ESPN

The Teams

Appalachian State has won the Sun Belt title four times – in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 – since moving up to the FBS ranks in 2014. The Mountaineers are 2-0 all time in the Sun Belt title game.

Louisiana has officially won the Sun Belt just once, in 2005 when it shared the title with Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. It also captured the crown in 2013, an honor that was vacated due to NCAA violations. Last season it made it to a title game that was never played due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cajuns have represented the West division each year since the Sun Belt instituted a championship game in 2018.

The Matchup

A rematch of the 2018 and 2019 Sun Belt Championship games – both wins for App State – the Mountaineers and Ragin’ Cajuns have met 10 times previously. The first eight games were all wins for App State while the two most recent – this season and last year – were victories for Louisiana.

Line: Appalachian State -3

Appalachian State’s balanced offense averaged 35.8 points (No. 19 in the FBS) and 440 yards per game (No. 32) during the regular season. It’s no coincidence that the Mountaineers’ only two losses this year were also their lowest offensive outputs – 326 total yards in a 25-23 loss at Miami Fla. and then 211 yards in a 41-13 debacle at then (20) Louisiana. The Cajun defense – ranked No. 13 nationally in scoring (18.5 points per game) – will need a repeat performance to win the Sun Belt crown.

Players to Watch

Appalachian State: senior DB Steven Jones Jr. (#6) (No. 1 in the FBS in both interceptions and interception returns for TDs)

Louisiana: senior LB Chauncey Manac (#17) (tied for the ninth most sacks in the FBS)

THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

(1) GEORGIA (12-0) vs. (3) ALABAMA (11-1) – Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga. – 4pm EST – CBS

The Teams

Georgia has won the SEC 13 times, most recently in 2017. The Bulldogs are 3-5 in the SEC title game, their now nine appearances are the third most in the league.

Alabama has won the SEC 28 times, most recently last season. The Tide have appeared in seven of the last ten SEC Championship games and are 9-4 all-time in the title contest.

The Matchup

A rematch of the 2018 and 2012 SEC Championship games and of the 2017-18 CFP National Championship game (all wins for the Crimson Tide), Alabama leads the all-time series 41-25-4 and has won six-straight.

Line: Georgia -6.5

After averaging 171 rushing yards per game vs. its first five SEC opponents, Alabama slipped to an average of 63 against its final three – all games decided by seven points or fewer. It’s a trend that could be worsened vs. a Georgia D that’s ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring and No. 3 vs. the run. At least on paper, it’s the best rushing defense the Tide have faced this season. On the flip side, while the Bulldogs D may be ranked No. 2 in the FBS vs. the pass, they ain’t seen nothing like Alabama’s passing attack – ranked No. 7 in the USA – yet. Of Georgia’s 11 FBS opponents in 2021, only three have a pass offense currently ranked in the top half of the league – Florida (No. 39), Tennessee (No. 55) and Auburn (No. 57). The Vols – averaging 247 air yards per game – hung up a season-high 332 passing yards on the Bulldogs in Week 11. Alabama is averaging 342 air yards per game.

Players to Watch

Georgia: senior QB Stetson Bennett (#13) (No. 2 in the FBS in passer rating), senior RB James Cook (#4) (No. 4 in the SEC in yards per carry)

Alabama: sophomore QB Bryce Young (#9) (No. 5 in the FBS in passer rating, No. 7 in passing yards per game), junior WR Jameson Williams (#1) (No. 2 in the FBS in receiving TDs, No. 10 in receiving yards per game), sophomore LB Will Anderson Jr. (#31) (No. 1 in the FBS in sacks and tackles for a loss)

THE AMERICAN ATHLETIC CHAMPIONSHIP

(21) HOUSTON (11-1) at (4) CINCINNATI (12-0) – Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio – 4pm EST – ABC

The Teams

Houston has won 11 conference crowns: four in the Missouri Valley Conference, four in the Southwest Conference, two in Conference USA and one in the American Athletic (2015).

Cincinnati has won 15 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 two in the American Athletic, most recently capturing last year’s crown.

The Matchup

Houston leads the all-time series 15-12 but Cincinnati has won two-straight. The two haven’t met since last season, a 38-10 win for the Bearcats in Cincinnati.

Line: Cincinnati -10.5

Though Houston has had more success through the air than on the ground this season, running the ball effectively may be the key to an upset in this one. The common thread in Cincinnati’s three near misses (the only games decided by eight points or fewer) are rushing yards allowed. Where the Bearcat D has given up, on average, 141 rushing yards per game this season it coughed up 152 in an eight-point win over Indiana, 192 in a seven-point victory over Navy and then a season-high 297 in an eight-point decision vs. Tulsa. Also of note, the Cougars are ranked No. 6 – in the FBS – in total defense. Not only does that make Houston the very best defense Cincy will have faced this year, it’s the only unit it’s played that’s ranked in the Top 30 nationally.

Players to Watch

Houston: freshman RB Alton McCaskill (#22) (No. 9 in the FBS in rushing TDs), junior QB Clayton Tune (#3) (No. 12 in the FBS in passer rating), senior CB Marcus Jones (#8) (tied for the most interceptions in the FBS, tied for No. 1 in punt returns for TDs, and tied for No. 2 in kickoff returns for TDs)

Cincinnati: junior RB Jerome Ford (#24) (No. 8 in the FBS in rushing TDs), senior QB Desmond Ridder (#9) (No. 11 in the FBS in passer rating), sophomore LB Deshawn Pace (#20) (tied for the second-most interceptions in the FBS)

THE BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP

(2) MICHIGAN (11-1) vs. (13) IOWA (10-2) – Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind. – 8pm EST – FOX

The Teams

Michigan has won 42 Big Ten titles but hasn’t earned a share of the crown since 2004. This is the Wolverines’ first-ever appearance in the Big Ten Championship game.

Iowa has captured the Big Ten title 11 times but hasn’t won since sharing the title with, guess who, Michigan in 2004. The Hawkeyes are 0-1 in Big Ten Championship action, falling 16-13 to then (5) Michigan State in 2015.

The Matchup

This marks the first-ever postseason meeting between Michigan and Iowa, the Wolverines lead the all-time series 42-15-4 but the two have split the last four.

Line: Michigan -10.5

The compelling matchup in this one is Michigan’s ground game – ranked No. 9 in the FBS and fresh off hanging up 297 rushing yards and six rushing TDs on (7) Ohio State – taking on an Iowa D ranked No. 14 nationally vs. the run. The Wolverines have posted 200-plus ground yards on six occasions (eclipsing the 300-yard mark three times) while the Hawkeyes have only allowed 100-plus four times. On the minus side is Iowa’s offense, which has struggled to gain yards and/or score points this season, a weakness that will likely be further exposed by Michigan’s stifling defense. Where the Hawkeyes are ranked No. 123 nationally in total offense, the Wolverines are No. 15 in total D.

Players to Watch

Michigan: senior RB Hassan Haskins (#25) (tied for the third most rushing TDs in the FBS), senior DE Aidan Hutchinson (#97) (No. 3 in the FBS in sacks), junior LB David Ojabo (#55) (tied for the sixth most sacks in the FBS)

Iowa: junior LB Jack Campbell (#31) (tied for No. 7 in the FBS in total tackles), junior DB Dane Belton (#4) (tied for the most interceptions in the FBS), senior DB Riley Moss (#33) (tied for the second most interceptions in the FBS)

THE ACC CHAMPIONSHIP

(15) PITTSBURGH (10-2) vs. (16) WAKE FOREST (10-2) – Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. – 8pm EST – ABC

The Teams

Pitt – an independent from 1890-1990 – has only won two conference championships in its history, both shared Big East titles in 2004 and 2010. This is its second-ever ACC title game appearance, falling 42-10 to then (3) Clemson in the 2018 contest.

Wake Forest has won two league titles in its history, capturing the ACC crown in 1970 and 2006. The Demon Deacons are 1-0 in ACC Championship action, winning the second-ever title game 9-6 over then (23) Georgia Tech in 2006.

The Matchup

These two have only met once previously, during the 2018 regular season, a 34-13 win for Pitt in Winston-Salem.

Line: Pitt -3

Pitt and Wake Forest share the same offensive strength – an elite pass offense. Where the Panthers are ranked No. 6 nationally in passing yards per game, the Deacons are No. 11. What separates the two is success in stopping the pass. Where Wake Forest is a decent No. 50 overall in pass D, Pitt is a dismal No. 112. Not only did the Panthers cough up a season-high 487 air yards to Virginia (No. 2 in the FBS in passing yards per game), but they also gave up 426 to Miami Fla. (No. 10), 359 to Georgia Tech (No. 95) and 357 to Western Michigan (No. 38). Though this will rightly be an offensive-facing contest, the better pass defense wins the ACC.

Players to Watch

Pitt: senior QB Kenny Pickett (#8) (No. 2 in the FBS in passing TDs and No. 6 in passing yards per game), sophomore WR Jordan Addison (#3) (No. 1 in the FBS in receiving TDs and No. 6 in receiving yards per game)

Wake Forest: sophomore QB Sam Hartman (#10) (No. 9 in the FBS in passing yards per game), sophomore WR A.T. Perry (#9) (tied for the second most TD receptions in the FBS)

Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference-College Football. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Odds courtesy of Oddshark.com.

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