The latter portion of 2017 Championship Weekend functions as a de facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal — sort of.
Pending the results of Saturday’s conference championship games, a team sitting at home — namely Alabama — could jump into a national semifinal. It’s a weird system we have, as Penn State learned a season ago when it won the Big Ten and Ohio State moved onto the Playoff. That went well for the Buckeyes.
The College Football Playoff was touted as the savior of a sport leaving its national championship first up to voting sportswriters, then a combination of human polls and computer rankings. The Playoff has instead only wrought new annoyances and controversies. A Championship Saturday that has one-loss Oklahoma checking in at No. 3, despite wins over three of the top 19 teams, while two-loss Auburn sits at No. 2, fuels the idea that the committee has an inherent bias for the SEC — and one against the Big 12.
Perhaps that’s the case. And maybe the committee prefers a more established name such as Alabama, should undefeated Wisconsin win a close Big Ten championship. It’s not unfathomable, given the jump brand-name Ohio State made in 2014 and 2016.
Whatever. Championship Saturday’s slate isn’t exactly an Elite Eight, but it’s the closest this sport has, and it should be entertaining nonetheless.
FOR PART 1 OF THE OPEN MAN CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND PICKS AND PREVIEWS, VISIT HERE.
SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: 21st AMENDMENT FIRESIDE CHAT
Championship Saturday ushers in December and the holiday season. A fitting toast to the time of year is this Winter Warmer offering from San Francisco-based 21st Amendment. It’s a thick and subtly spiced brew.
As you bask in the glow of your holiday decorations with the glow of college football for one final* Saturday, this beer should have you in the spirit of the season. Cheers, and onto the picks.
BIG 12: No. 3 OKLAHOMA vs. No. 11 TCU
at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. ET/9:30 a.m. PT
Line: Oklahoma -7
Popular opinion from the moment the Big 12 declared its asinine intention to hold a championship game, despite playing a perfectly symmetrical round-robin conference schedule, said that the league’s regular-season champion would lose out on a Playoff spot as a result of a rematch.
Well, the day of (possible) reckoning has arrived. Oklahoma’s currently in position for a Playoff bid, but must first beat TCU for the second time in less than a month. But hey, it’s Oklahoma in a Big 12 Championship Game. What could possibly go wrong?
Ooooh…right. Well, Oklahoma’s infamous Big 12 Championship implosion has no bearing on a new-look title game. 2003 was a full decade before Baker Mayfield was balling out for the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Remember how that was a thing?
Mayfield is now an odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, taking a commanding lead in the race in part because of his performance against TCU last time around. Mayfield threw for three touchdowns, completed two-thirds of his attempts, and rushed for 50 yards.
Gary Patterson is one of the best coaches in the game, and the Horned Frogs defense is shaped by difference-makers. However, the Oklahoma offense is just too good and too multifaceted. Despite the Big 12 tempting fate, the Sooners should handle business and return to the College Football Playoff.
PREDICTION: OKLAHOMA 34, TCU 20
SEC: No. 2 AUBURN vs. No. 6 GEORGIA
at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT
Line: Auburn -2
Auburn roared back onto the national scene earlier last month with a thoroughly dominate performance against Georgia. The Bulldogs came onto the Plains having torn through every opponent after the thrilling win at Notre Dame, locked in offensively as well as on defense.
Neither worked against Auburn that day just a few weeks ago.
Kerryon Johnson pounded away at the celebrated Georgia front seven, Jarrett Stidham passed for three touchdowns and the dynamic Dawg duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel rushed for a combined 48 yards. The maturation of the Auburn defense showed that day, and will remain a key in the rematch.
The Tigers dodged a potential, serious problem on that front. Linebacker Jeff Holland’s injury scare proved to not be an issue, though questions have lingered around Johnson on the opposite side. Ball control has been critical to each of the Tigers’ marquee wins over the past month.
Still, if Auburn can force the game into the hands of freshman Jake Fromm, a second SEC title for Gus Malzahn seems imminent. Georgia should be more competitive this time, but Auburn is playing some of the best football in the nation.
PREDICTION: AUBURN 27, GEORGIA 17
SUN BELT: TROY at ARKANSAS STATE
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
Line: Pick ‘Em
So this one isn’t a conference championship game in the same mold as the rest of the Six-Pack slate. However, Troy and Arkansas State are tied atop the Sun Belt standings along with Appalachian State. Through a scheduling quirk, the Mountaineers missed both Troy and Arkansas State, so a Mountaineers win over Louisiana Saturday guarantees a split championship.
Nevertheless, this matchup is as close to a true Sun Belt Championship Game as we have in 2017.
Arkansas State is after its sixth Sun Belt championship in the past seven seasons and its third consecutive under head coach Blake Anderson. The Red Wolves overcame a dismal 0-4 start to the 2016 season and slipped into the front of the title race with a late November win over Troy. The Trojans had just one loss — a one-score decision at Clemson early in the campaign — and ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in school history.
When I spoke to Trojans quarterback Brandon Silvers in August, that Arkansas State loss very much lingered with him. He said a Sun Belt Conference championship was his primary motivation — he’s got that opportunity.
This should be a defensive struggle, with Arkansas State featuring an NFL caliber talent in defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Troy, which boasts the No. 10-ranked scoring defense in the nation, counters with a dynamite one-two pass-rush punch in Hunter Reese and Marcus Webb.
Troy’s multifaceted rushing attack should gain the Trojans an edge against an Arkansas State offense that has relied heavily on the pass. Red Wolves quarterback Justice Hansen has been great — 3,193 yards passing with 32 touchdowns and another five scores on the run — but Troy’s stifling defense should set the one.
Not necessarily the style one would expect of a Neal Brown-coached team, but here we are.
PREDICTION: TROY 24, ARKANSAS STATE 21
MOUNTAIN WEST: No. 25 FRESNO STATE at BOISE STATE
Kickoff: 7:45 p.m. ET/4:45 p.m. PT
Line: Boise State -9.5
Boise State had presumably already sealed home-field advantage for the Mountain West Championship heading into last week’s rivalry game with Fresno State. Therefore, the Broncos looked rather vanilla offensively in a loss to the West division champion Bulldogs.
Indeed, Boise State’s more favorable ranking granted the MW Championship to the Smurf Turf, a distinct edge for the Broncos in the rematch.
Now, whether Fresno State’s victory last week was a byproduct of Bryan Harsin playing things close to the vest, or the Bulldogs defense — which has been outstanding all season long — we’ll see on Saturday. Boise State has struggled some with offensive consistency, albeit mostly in the early half of the season when Brett Rypien was coming off injury.
That stint with Rypien sidelined actually proved critical to developing explosive Montell Cozart, who still factors prominently into the game plan. Cozart rushed for a touchdown last week against Fresno State.
Defense will ultimately shape this contest, however, and Boise State’s is simply too talented and tested. Leighton Vander Esch is poised for a big game, and the tenacious Broncos pass-rush should limit Marcus McMaryion and the Bulldogs offense.
PREDICTION: BOISE STATE 28, FRESNO STATE 21
ACC: No. 1 CLEMSON vs. No. 7 MIAMI
at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Clemson -9.5
Much like the SEC Championship earlier in the day, consider the ACC Championship a full-fledged College Football Playoff quarterfinal. The winner is bound for the title tournament, while the loser falls out of the race. Clean, simple, exciting.
Clemson’s aiming for its third Playoff appearance and a repeat national championship. With a title game run, the Tigers would be the first to play in three consecutive since Florida State in the 1998 through 2000 seasons (despite winning back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, and playing for a third in 2005, USC was not in the official 2003 national championship game).
Of course, Dabo Swinney’s squad needs a pair of wins to get to that point — first of which comes against a Miami program playing in its first ACC Championship.
It’s quite remarkable, given the buzz at the time, that it’s taken more than a decade for the Hurricanes to reach this point. The U’s return to relevance has been long and difficult, including this season. Miami played with fire repeatedly, against opponents like Florida State, North Carolina and Syracuse. Against Pitt, it finally burned the ‘Canes.
Malik Rosier’s struggles in the regular-season finale have to have an excellent Clemson defensive front licking its chops. Since having issues against Dino Babers and Syracuse’s uptempo offense, the Tigers have allowed just 14 points in four of five games. A defensive front featuring Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins should wreak havoc on The U. — so even if the Hurricanes have the defensive speed to keep Clemson in check for a half or longer, they won’t be able to break through on the opposite end.
PREDICTION: CLEMSON 31, MIAMI 14
BIG TEN: No. 4 WISCONSIN vs. No. 8 OHIO STATE
at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Ohio State -5.5
The two most consistent participants in the Big Ten Championship since its introduction in 2011, Ohio State and Wisconsin have played in this title round six times combined — yet faced just once. That’s a game Badgers fans would probably rather forget. For Ohio State, it was a launching pad to the first College Football Playoff championship.
Three years have elapsed, and not many of the players in significant roles remain from those rosters. Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett led Ohio State to that point, but an injury forced Cardale Jones into the lineup. The rest is history.
Despite an injury scare last week vs. Michigan, Barrett should quarterback the Buckeyes this time around. Barrett and the multi-dimensional Ohio State offense presents a contrast of styles to Wisconsin. The Badgers want, need to bring the tempo down, breaking off big chunks of yardage in the run game with Jonathan Taylor, while getting the defense off the field quickly with turnovers and three-and-outs.
Despite losing talented linebacker Jack Cichy to injury, the Badgers persist with the best scoring defense in college football. Credit Joe Ferguson and T.J. Edwards, whose eight combined interceptions make Wisconsin one of the top turnover-creating defenses in the nation — much like Iowa, which gave Ohio State fits.
And with the Badgers’ excellent run-stopping, Wisconsin muscle has what it takes to shock (and upset) the college football world by punching its ticket to the Playoff.
PREDICTION: WISCONSIN 27, OHIO STATE 24