Over the new few weeks, CFBHuddle.com is rolling out some predictions for the 2015 college season. The following is a projection of each conference championship game, from the inaugural American Athletic, to the one that started it all: the SEC.
Saturday, Dec. 5 | Location: High seed’s home field
This year marks the first conference championship game in league history, dating back to its lineage as the Big East. The addition of Navy this season gives the American Athletic 12 members and thus enough teams for divisions, though the geographic split is a bit unwieldy: the Midshipmen will play in the West.
Regardless, Navy promises to be in the hunt for the West’s berth into the inaugural conference championship game. With Keenan Reynolds returning for his fourth season running the show, the Mids have the best quarterback in the conference. However, Navy will be hard-pressed knocking off fast-rising Memphis, a program coming off its best season in history: 10 wins and a spot in the final Associated Press Top 25.
With quarterback Paxton Lynch and running back Jarvis Cooper returning behind an offensive line with four of last year’s five starters, the Tigers should improve upon last year’s 36 point per game yield. That Nov. 7 title between Memphis and Navy could crack 100 points combined.
If Navy’s Reynolds is the American’s best quarterback, Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel isn’t far behind. The former 5-star recruit surfaced at UC after a tumultuous few years and showed flashes of brilliance in 2014.
Cincinnati has been prone to losing some confounding decisions under Tommy Tuberville, and that trend could cost the Bearcats’ home-field advantage.
PREDICTION: CINCINNATI AT MEMPHIS
Saturday, Dec. 5 | Charlotte
Florida State has appeared in and won each of the last three ACC Championship Games, representing the conference’s Atlantic Division. Despite the Coastal Division’s volatility in that time, the Seminoles saw the same opponent, Georgia Tech, twice.
The Coastal should be a mish-mash of contenders once again, with six of its seven programs having the ability to reach Charlotte. Virginia is the only team from the Coastal I can’t envision being in the race by mid-to-late November.
Yet, despite the volatility and what could be yet another six-team race, Georgia Tech should emerge as the Coastal’s conference championship game representative yet again.
Will we get a third installment of the Florida State-Georgia Tech series? It’s certainly possible, but as of now, I like Clemson to knock off the Jameis Winston-less Seminoles in the Atlantic.
Despite losing Chad Morris to SMU, Clemson is loaded on offense. The Tigers have also shown considerable progress on defense since bringing in Brent Venables as coordinator.
Louisville and NC State will impact the Atlantic race in some fashion, with one or both scoring a pivotal upset, but neither are viable contenders to the Seminoles or Tigers.
PREDICTION: CLEMSON VS. GEORGIA TECH
Saturday, Dec. 5 | Location: Lucas Oil Field; Indianapolis
The 2014 season restored some faith in Big Ten football, and an offseason with the league’s most prominent members gaining national exposure have kept the positive momentum going.
The Big Ten will have the preseason No. 1 in defending national champion Ohio State. The race to unseat the Buckeyes is on, and while few teams can match Urban Meyer’s bunch on paper, Ohio State’s Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech last season is a reminder that anything can happen in a college football season.
That said, it will take a lot to remove the Buckeyes from their perch. They’re loaded on both sides of the ball, returning the Big Ten’s best running back (Ezekiel Elliott), top defensive player (Joey Bosa) and two of the best quarterbacks (J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones). A late-season date with Michigan State, the last Big Ten team to beat Ohio State, looms large.
Michigan State is clearly the second-best Big Ten team on paper, but the realignment of divisions last season put the Spartans in the same grouping as the Buckeyes. That leaves defending West champion Wisconsin with a favorable path back to Indianapolis, for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Badgers may lose Heisman finalist running back Melvin Gordon, but heir apparent Corey Clement is primed for stardom in his own right. Combined with an experienced defense, Wisconsin should be able to hold off Nebraska and newcomer head coach Mike Riley.
PREDICTION: OHIO STATE VS. WISCONSIN
Saturday, Dec. 5 | Location: High seed’s home field
Conference USA says goodbye to UAB (hopefully temporarily) and welcomes Charlotte in 2015. The newcomer 49ers are ineligible for the C-USA title, fulfilling their transitional season per NCAA regulations.
Not that it matters; Charlotte will not be a factor in the C-USA East, a division that is likely to be a two-team race. Defending conference champion Marshall puts its crown on the line without stud quarterback Rakeem Cato. Conversely, Western Kentucky — which ended Marshall’s hope of landing the Group of Five bid into the New Year’s Six — returns its star quarterback, Brandon Doughty.
Doughty went off for 491 yards and eight touchdowns in the Hilltoppers’ 67-66 defeat of Marshall last November. That was the signature outing for the nation’s leading passer of 2014. But not every game from the WKU quarterback was a gem.
— LA Tech Football (@LATechFB) January 28, 2015
The philosophy of defensive-minded Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz presents an interesting juxtaposition to the offense-happy styles prevalent around Conference USA. The Bulldogs complemented a steady defense with a balanced offense, paced ironically by a holdover from the Sonny Dykes era, running back Kenneth Dixon.
The nation’s leader in rushing touchdowns in 2012, Dixon finished tied for sixth in the nation with 22 end-zone scampers last season. With receiving touchdowns, Dixon matched his total freshman year output.
Admittedly, my own preferences might be bleeding into this prediction. But who wouldn’t want to see Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky tangle for the C-USA crown after the above referenced tweet, a #ShotsFired response to a CFBHuddle.com column on Doughty?
PREDICTION: LOUISIANA TECH AT WESTERN KENTUCKY
Friday, Dec. 4 | Location: Ford Field; Detroit
Star Wars. The Dark Knight. Lord of the Rings. The Mid-American Conference Championship Game.
There are plenty of great trilogies in American pop culture, and the 2015 MAC title race is poised to become one. Northern Illinois has had a stranglehold on the conference’s West Division crown each of the last five seasons, and the Huskies should make it six straight this year.
Northern Illinois’ on-going run has been defined by outstanding quarterback play. First, it was Chandler Harnish, who was among the most prolific dual-threat players in the nation. Successor Jordan Lynch took it to a new level, both leading the Huskies to the Orange Bowl and receiving an invite to the Heisman Trophy presentation.
Now, Drew Hare is the man running the Northern Illinois offense. Though NIU took a slight step back from recent seasons, the second-year progress Harnish and Lynch made before him suggests Hare should have a breakout 2015.
NIU’s two most recent MAC Championship Game encounters were played against Bowling Green, and Falcons head coach Dino Babers is primed to make it a third straight East Division championship (second for him since taking over from current Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson).
PREDICTION: NORTHERN ILLINOIS VS. BOWLING GREEN
Location: High seed’s home field
The Mountain West was among the league’s mentioned in conference championship game deregulation, a season removed from sending an overmatched, 6-6 Fresno State team to face Boise State.
While the Mountain Division again features the MWC’s cream of the crop with Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State, I expect the West to be improved. Fresno State and San Diego State should duke it out for the division’s spot in the conference championship game, but I give the Aztecs a slight edge.
SDSU has never quite gotten over the hump in big games since Brady Hoke rescued it from the basement. The Aztecs are perennial bowl participants, reaching the postseason every year since 2010, but barring finishing in a three-way tie for the 2012 MWC title, San Diego State has yet to make the leap. Lightning-bug running back Donnel Pumphrey and linebacker Calvin Munson should help SDSU take that next step with a trip to the MWC Championship Game.
Boise State hit its stride midway through its first campaign under Bryan Harsin, ending 2014 with an impressive win over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Despite losing stud running back Jay Ajayi and quarterback Grant Hedrick, the Broncos are experienced in just about every other position and more comfortable with the system than at this time a year ago.
Colorado State could be a 10-game winner again in Mike Bobo’s first season as head coach, and the Rams return the Mountain West’s best individual player in wide receiver Rashard Higgins. However, it’s Boise State’s title to lose.
PREDICTION: SAN DIEGO STATE AT BOISE STATE
Saturday, Dec. 5, | Location: Levi’s Stadium; Santa Clara, California
Last season’s was the first Pac-12 Conference Championship Game played at a neutral venue, the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. A damper was cast on what should have been a day of celebration for the conference — literally.
It rained throughout the weekend, coming down its hardest just before kickoff between Arizona and Oregon. The only thing in worse condition than the notoriously difficult Levi’s Stadium turf by night’s end was Arizona. Oregon exorcised the frustration of two straight losses to the Wildcats in a 51-13 rout, emphatically stamping the Ducks’ ticket to the first College Football Playoff.
While the conference can’t control the weather, getting away from Friday night is a decided positive. The Pac-12 Conference Championship Game is back on Saturday night and slated for air on ESPN, where it appeared in the 2013 season. Viewers tuning in to cap a long day of championship football can expect to see Oregon defending its title.
That’s not much surprise — the Ducks should be runaway, preseason favorites in the North. The South, on the other hand, is a crap-shoot. Any one of five teams that finished the 2014 season ranked could represent the division in Santa Clara.
There’s a case to be entertained for Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Utah, but expectations might have been a year ahead of schedule for the Bruins. Look for UCLA to make its third Pac-12 Championship Game in a divisional race that’s unsettled before Thanksgiving weekend.
PREDICTION: OREGON VS. UCLA
Location: Georgia Dome; Atlanta
The first conference championship game was played 23 years ago,
right in the very venue that hosts the SEC title bout to this day: the Georgia Dome.* The SEC Championship Game has produced plenty of celebrated performances and unforgettable moments.
Correction: h/t to @jayau92
.@cfbhuddle The first (and second) SEC championship game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham, not the Georgia Dome.
— Jay Glover (@jayau92) May 19, 2015
Among them, the 2012 title game might stand as the SEC’s best.
Georgia should get its shot at making up for the handful of yards that separated it from a BCS Championship Game appearance that season. The Bulldogs are prohibitive favorites in the SEC East, returning Heisman hopeful Nick Chubb at running back and featuring a stout offensive line in front of him. Georgia also features some of the premier defensive talent in the conference, playing for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in his second year with the program.
Pruitt’s championship experience — he won three rings on the staff at Alabama, and a third with Florida State — paid immediate dividends. The Bulldogs climbed from No. 79 in the nation in scoring defense in 2013, to No. 16 a season ago.
Alabama won just its second SEC title under Nick Saban in that 2012 encounter, and last year the Crimson Tide claimed their third. Despite some reasonable questions about the quality of Alabama’s secondary, and the more pressing issue of who will quarterback the offense, the Tide should rise from a challenging SEC West to play in a third SEC title game in the last four years.
PREDICTION: ALABAMA VS. GEORGIA