2017 College Football Championship Weekend Previews and Picks Part 1

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Pour one out for the 2017 college football season, which nears its conclusion with the arrival of Championship Weekend. Since this is the last dance of the campaign, the Six-Pack is splitting into a pair of special edition Championship Packs. Up first: the Pac-12 kicking things off Friday, leading into a Group of Five triple-header on Saturday morning. 

2017 has been a remarkable, fun, memorable season — and rest assured, a more detailed breakdown of the many great moments that shaped this campaign is coming. Will a foursome of rematches decided by double digits in the regular season bring the chaos in a manner befitting 2017? 

I would certainly raise a toast to that. 

2017 RECORD

Last Week: 5-7, 3-9 ATS

Overall: 51-44, 45-47 ATS (early-season FCS games without lines not included ATS.)

CHAMPIONSHIP SIX-PACK (and a Friday Bonus Bomber): Ballast Point Victory at Sea Vanilla Imperial Porter

Championship Weekend features a trio of noon ET kickoffs, and a 12:30 ET Big 12 Championship (to be spotlighted in the next Six-Pack), so what more fitting toast to the day than with a smooth porter? 

Porters are the best breakfast brew, and the Ballast Point Victory at Sea Vanilla Imperial combines the richness of a typical porter with a slight sweetness, ideal for a Championship Saturday round of kegs-and-eggs. 

And, since the weekend opens with a standalone Friday night feature, pop open this bonus bomber: Green Flash Le Freak. 

Green Flash ranks among my favorite of the San Diego County-based independent breweries, and this strong Belgian Style Ale might be the best of its offerings. The West Coast style is a fitting pair with the California clash kicking off Championship Weekend. 

PAC-12: No. 10 USC vs. No. 12 STANFORD

at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 1; 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN

Line: USC -3.5

There’s modest debate in some circles of the Football Interwebs whether USC and Stanford is indeed a rivalry. I asked no less an authority than head coaches David Shaw and Clay Helton earlier this season, and both gave the rivalry label an endorsement. Doesn’t get much more decisive than that.

A decade of intense games has transformed the Pac-12’s oldest series into its most intriguing, and the addition of a championship game pitting evenly matched teams against each other only heightens the drama.

Although USC dominated the meeting on Sept. 9, 42-24 — and frankly, the game was not as close as the final score — Stanford is a much different team than it was early in the season. The emergence of K.J. Costello at quarterback prevents defenses from loading the box against Bryce Love, something USC executed successfully after Love’s initial, 75-yard touchdown rush last time they met.

Coupled with USC building an 11-point halftime lead, bullying Stanford’s defense at the point of attack, Keller Chryst was forced to throw 28 passes to just 17 Love carries. USC needs to establish a similar pace early, gaining a lead with a multifaceted rushing attack to make the Cardinal play catch-up. By failing to build a lead any larger than a field goal last week, Notre Dame crumbled in the fourth quarter.

Such is the M.O. of a Stanford team that wins through wars of attrition. Washington experienced a similar fate on Nov. 10. If the Cardinal can drag USC into a similar style of game, that would be three Top 10 wins for this team in less than a month.

Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr both went over 100 yards rushing on the Cardinal last time out — which, not coincidentally, was one of the last games in which USC had its entire offensive line in tact. Conversely, Stanford’s outstanding secondary got two interceptions on Sam Darnold. Both factors come down to how the Harrison Phillips-led defensive line can attack USC up front.

The Trojans are not nearly as banged up on the front five as they were midway through the campaign. Viane Talamaivao is sidelined, as he has been the entire back half of the campaign, but youngsters like Andrew Voorhees have had more opportunity to get acclimated to the workload, and Jones is thriving as a result. USC’s early pace, specifically its establishment of Jones and the run game, will decide Saturday’s contest.

PREDICTION: USC 35, STANFORD 31

AMERICAN ATHLETIC: No. 20 MEMPHIS at No. 14 UCF

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2; Noon ET/9 a.m. PT

TV: ABC

Line: UCF -7

Well, you can’t spell UCF without “F-U,” which precisely the message the College Football Playoff committee sent to one of the only two undefeated teams left this season. The Knights’ inability to ascend any higher than No. 14 in the Playoff rankings invites conspiracy theories: For example, why was USF never ranked, but 9-3 Fresno State sits at No. 25? Given the committee’s treatment of Group of Five teams, and Fresno State’s ranking benefiting Alabama (as well as four-loss Mississippi State), one might suspect foul play.

Some things UCF cannot control. Closing out the regular season undefeated is very much within the Knights’ control, and precedent suggests they’ll do just that. They dominated a Sept. 30 meeting with American Athletic West division champion Memphis, 40-13, in which Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson was intercepted three times.

Lopsided as the final score in Memphis’ only loss was, the entire complexion of the game changed on two second-quarter possessions. First, the Tigers forced a punt deep in UCF territory — which was subsequently muffed on the Knights’ side of the field. Another fumble in the red zone denied Memphis a scoring opportunity that would have put it ahead just before halftime. While it’s perhaps disingenuous to suggest a 27-point blowout hinged on just two plays, suggesting Memphis is much better than a four-touchdown gap to UCF is fair.

In the same vein, UCF forcing five turnovers is no fluke. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander oversees the top turnover-generating unit in college football, employing the same aggressive tactics his former colleague, Nick Aliotti, used to make Oregon especially adept at garnering takeaways. The greediness of the UCF defense fuels the potent offensive attack, making for a quicksand effect once an opponent falls behind the Knights — which is specifically what happened to Memphis last time out.

Ferguson and Anthony Miller combine to form one of the best pass-catch duos in college football, but Mike Hughes and Kyle Gibson are two of the most dangerous defensive backs against whom to throw. Memphis should score much more effectively than in the September matchup, but UCF’s defense will feed the nation’s highest-scoring offense behind quarterback McKenzie Milton.

PREDICTION: UCF 45, MEMPHIS 35

MAC: AKRON vs. TOLEDO

at Ford Field in Detroit

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2; Noon ET/9 a.m. PT

TV: ESPN

Line: Toledo -21.5

TV contracts continuously alter the landscape of college football and erode traditions both big and small. To wit: The Mid-American Championship Game moves from its traditional home on Friday night to a Saturday matinee, accommodating the Worldwide Leader’s broadcast of the Pac-12 Championship a night earlier.

I have fond memories of tuning into the MAC Championship on its Friday night home, starting with the 2001 shootout between Marshall and Toledo. I was a freshman in college, and my friends gathered to celebrate my birthday. Before a night on the town, huddled around the TV in my dorm to watch Toledo rally from a 23-0 deficit against Byron Leftwich’s Thundering Herd. This remains one of my all-time favorite college football games — and not just because I was sucking down Keystone Lights (I had bad taste as a teenager) with buddies. Toledo’s fake field goal draw play is one of the most absurd plays that actually worked I have ever witnessed.

Will Toledo have something similar in store when it faces surprise East division champion Akron on Saturday? Chances are that Jason Candle will not need to go so deep into the playbook. As is the theme of this championship preview, the MAC title game is a rematch of a regular-season contest decided by double digits. The Rockets trounced the Zips in October, 48-21, allowing 14 of Akron’s points in garbage time.

This Toledo team is quietly one of, if not the best during this program’s run of success. It’s the first Rocket bunch to reach the MAC Championship since 2004, and likely to be the first to win the conference title since that squad. Quarterback Logan Woodside, who’s thrown 24 touchdowns against just three interceptions, should pick apart the Akron secondary.

PREDICTION: TOLEDO 45, AKRON 17

C-USA: NORTH TEXAS at FAU

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2; Noon ET/5 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN2

Line: FAU -11.5

Everyone sure seems to love Lane Kiffin lately. He has FAU playing for its first Conference USA championship, which is all well and good, but he’s primarily become the object of affection for the college football hivemind for his off-field quirks. From ribbing Tennessee’s absurd coaching search, to calling out Paul Finebaum Show regular caller and nutbag Jim in Tuscaloosa, Lane Kiffin is the college football aggregator’s dream.

Oh, yeah: FAU is also pretty good.

The Owls rank No. 10 nationally in scoring offense, putting up 39.8 points per game. Running back Devin Singletary is fifth in the nation in rushing, and could join the illustrious 2,000-Yard Club with a pair of big games to close out 2017. With North Texas coming into Saturday’s C-USA Championship ranked No. 104 against the run, the prospects for a lofty performance out of Singletary are quite high.

However, the Mean Green have defied expectations all season long. And while Lane Kiffin garners headlines, Seth Litrell has done perhaps an even more commendable job at UNT. The Mean Green were among college football’s very worst just two seasons ago, parting ways with Bill McCartney midway through a 2015 campaign that hit rock bottom in a 66-7 loss to FCS opponent Portland State.

North Texas is now headed to its second bowl game in as many seasons under Litrell and sports the same 9-3 record as FAU. Of course, the Mean Green’s sole C-USA loss — and the reason they’re the road team in Saturday’s game — came against FAU. The Owls rolled, 69-31, rolling up a staggering 41-7 advantage by halftime. Singletary scored three of his 19 rushing touchdowns that afternoon in Boca Raton.

Cutting down on turnovers would certainly bolster’s UNT’s case this time around. Quarterback Mason Fine threw a couple of interceptions, and a third giveaway translated directly to 17 Owls points. But with the rushing attack rolling up 454 yards and quarterback Jason Driskell going off for 357, the Mean Green defense had zero answer for anything FAU did offensively. North Texas’ best hope is to keep pace in a track meet, which it did successfully against the triple-option attack of Army. Doing so against the more uptempo FAU should be too much.

The Lane Train rolls on.

PREDICTION: FAU 49, NORTH TEXAS 34