Kirk Herbstreit, David Pollack and Joey Galloway debate if Cincinnati or Oklahoma State would be more worthy of making the College Football Playoff if the Cowboys beat Baylor. (2:04)
For much of the past decade, Alabama has been the elephant-sized obstacle standing in Georgia‘s way of ending what is now a 41-year drought without a national title.
The 2012 SEC championship game ended with the Bulldogs catching a pass at Alabama’s 5-yard line as time expired in the Tide’s 32-28 victory. Alabama went on to crush Notre Dame in the BCS national championship.
In the CFP national championship at the end of the 2017 season, Georgia had a 13-0 lead at halftime, but lost 26-23 when freshman Tua Tagovailoa threw a touchdown to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26 in overtime.
Then, in the 2018 SEC championship game, Alabama rallied from a 14-point deficit in the second half. The Tide won 35-28, thanks in part to Georgia’s botched fake punt with 3:04 to go.
So, is this finally the year in which the No. 1 Bulldogs take down the No. 3 Crimson Tide? We’ll find out Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Handing Alabama its second loss of the season might knock it out of the playoff, which would give Georgia perhaps its clearest path to ending that frustrating national title drought.
“Do you talk about it? We talk about the opponent every week we play somebody, right?” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “But we focus on ourselves. We focus on execution. We don’t focus on history. I think every team is independent of the previous. So I mean, it is what it is. Our guys have got to go out and play well.”
Georgia, which is 12-0 for the first time since winning its last national title in 1980, is a 6½-point favorite to win, according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. Alabama had been favored in 92 straight games.
One SEC assistant coach said he likes the Bulldogs to win.
“I think it’s their year,” he said.
The coach said he didn’t put too much weight on what happened to Alabama’s offensive line in last week’s 24-22 victory in four overtimes at Auburn because it was a rivalry game. But he believes the Tide would struggle to block the Bulldogs, who are allowing only 6.9 points and 78.9 rushing yards per game.
“UGA plays so mean on defense,” he said. “Bama is going to struggle to block those guys.”
For Alabama to win, the assistant said, receivers John Metchie and Jahleel Billingsley are going to have to help Jameson Williams in the passing game.
Another SEC assistant said Tide quarterback Bryce Young will be able to make some plays against Georgia’s secondary, but the Tide’s lack of a running game, especially with Brian Robinson Jr. hampered by a hamstring injury, will make it more difficult.
“Alabama’s running game is nothing like it’s been,” the assistant said. “They’ve had a lot of injuries. They’re down to two scholarship backs and one of them, Robinson, is hurt.” — Mark Schlabach
Conference USA: Western Kentucky vs. UTSA (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, CBSSN) This game doesn’t have the same flair that it would have had if UTSA had not lost to North Texas last week and maintained a perfect season, but it’s still an intriguing matchup that should be on your viewing plate, if even it’s only a small side. UTSA comes in looking to rebound from its only loss of the season, facing a Western Kentucky team that has come on strong after a 1-4 start, winning their past seven games. The Hilltoppers offense currently ranks 10th overall in SP+, led by FBS passing leader Bailey Zappe (4,968 yards) and the nation’s second most prolific receiver in Jerreth Sterns (1,539 yards). — Harry Lyles Jr.
Pac-12: No. 10 Oregon vs. No. 17 Utah (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): In a rematch of Utah’s dominant 38-7 win against Oregon on Nov. 20, the Utes and Ducks will meet in the first-ever Pac-12 title game to be played in Las Vegas. The stakes are pretty clear: the winner will go to the Rose Bowl, while the loser will likely head to the Alamo Bowl.
Utah has now advanced to the title game in three of the past four seasons, including a loss to Oregon in 2019 when the Utes were ranked No. 5, but has yet to win. Oregon is looking for its fifth win in the Pac-12 title game in the 11 years since it debuted. — Kyle Bonagura
Big 12: No. 9 Baylor vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (Saturday, noon ET, ABC): The Big 12 championship game is exactly what everyone predicted: Oklahoma State, in its first title game appearance, vs. Baylor, in Dave Aranda’s second season, a year after a 2-7 finish.
Of course, this isn’t at all what we expected. But that’s fair, because Mike Gundy didn’t either.
When the Cowboys opened with a seven-point win over Missouri State, it had the makings of a long season. And we’re not talking about this extra game.
“After the nonconference [games] I thought the chance was zero,” Gundy said this week about the possibility of being in this situation following the next two games, a five-point win over Tulsa and a one-point victory over Boise State. “I didn’t even think that far. I was just trying to get to where we can function to play the next game.”
All Gundy did was finish 11-1, with just a three-point loss to Iowa State in Ames on Oct. 23. That includes a 24-14 win over Baylor on Oct. 2, as well.
The Cowboys and Bears became two of the most improved teams in the country over the course of the season. With their first matchup two full months ago, both teams are treating this like they’re facing a new team.
“There was a lot of unforced errors in that [first] game,” Aranda said. “Things that, unfortunately, we could control that we didn’t do a very good job with. Credit to Oklahoma State. We played Baylor and we played them that night.”
Gundy believes the matchup will make for a really close game, but hopes the abundance of older players the Cowboys have on defense will make the difference.
“We have a number of 22- and 23-year-olds that were playing in the fourth quarter on defense [in the Cowboys’ 37-33 win over Oklahoma] and they were very productive. And then we had a true freshman jump offsides in a crucial situation. That’s just maturity and experience and age,” Gundy said. “These are two equal teams. I mean, we’re on the same level. Field position is going to be important, special teams is going to be important. We all know that effort and turnovers play a big role, and you go play. We need to control what we can control, which I think they will with the maturity that’s in that locker room.”
All that’s at stake for Oklahoma State is everything. The Cowboys would have a 49% chance to make the College Football Playoff with a win, but their chances would plummet with a loss, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor. The Cowboys could become the first Big 12 team other than Oklahoma to reach the playoff.
There’s a little mystery on Baylor’s end as to who will start at quarterback. Gerry Bohanon suffered a leg injury against Kansas State, and Blake Shapen took over, throwing two touchdown passes in two games, with no turnovers. Either way, expect Baylor’s running backs, Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner, to be the focus. The Bears rank first in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (227.4), yards per carry (5.5) and rushing touchdowns (28).
And it’s a showdown featuring two of the finalists for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coaches in the country, in OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.
Aranda said he used to call Knowles to talk defense when he was at LSU and still clearly has a lot of respect for him.
“They play with a confidence, and they play with ‘respect all, fear none,'” Aranda said. “It screams off the tape, so it’s awfully impressive.”
Both teams are in position to be frequent contenders in a new-look Big 12 following the departures of Texas and Oklahoma. Still, after making this game for the first time in his 17 years as head coach, Gundy’s not taking it for granted.
“How many more times do you get this chance?” he asked on Monday. “You don’t get this opportunity often.” — Dave Wilson
Georgia, Michigan, Alabama and Cincinnati are revealed as the top four teams in the College Football Playoff rankings.
MAC: Kent State vs. Northern Illinois (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN/ESPN app): It’s been 49 years since Kent State (7-5) won its only MAC title, and it will have a chance at its second against a team it defeated 52-47 a month ago. The Huskies (8-4), who went 0-6 last season, have been one of the better turnaround stories in college football this season with a notable win over ACC opponent Georgia Tech and seven of their eight wins coming in one-score games. If this game is anything like their last matchup — especially for NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who threw for over 500 yards — it will be one of the most entertaining games of the weekend, because everybody loves a high-scoring affair. — Lyles Jr.
Mountain West: No. 19 San Diego State vs. Utah State (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, Fox): Beyond getting another opportunity to watch punter Matt Araiza do his thing, there’s likely no other championship matchup this weekend that features two opponents with such contrasting strengths and weaknesses as this one.
San Diego State (11-1) comes into the matchup as one of the top-10 defenses in the country. The Aztecs are no Georgia (who is?) but they’ve been able to hold their opponents to 4.56 yards per play — good for 7th-best nationally. Utah State (9-3), meanwhile, ranks 90th in that stat. But what the Aggies lack in defense, they make up for on the other side of the ball. The Aggies are 17th in total offense, while the Aztecs are 110th.
The coaching matchup in this one is intriguing in its own right. At SDSU, Brady Hoke has revived his coaching career and thrived, losing only one game this entire season. He has the Aztecs on the brink of their first Mountain West title since 2016. Utah State’s Blake Anderson, on the other hand, has turned around a program that went 8-11 the past two seasons. He’s one win away from a 10-win season in his debut. — Paolo Uggetti
Sun Belt: Appalachian State vs. No. 24 Louisiana (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): Billy Napier has an appointment to make.
On Sunday, he’s scheduled to be introduced as the new head coach at Florida. But before he does the Gator Chomp, there’s one last thing to be done on Saturday afternoon: lead Louisiana into the Sun Belt championship game against Appalachian State.
Napier isn’t getting much sleep this week as he prepares to do that. He’s devoting time early in the morning and late at night to what awaits him in Gainesville. The early signing period demands it.
In between, it’s all about the Ragin’ Cajuns.
“My schedule and the amount of time I’m going to spend on my team will not change,” Napier said, adding that he and his staff have a “singular focus” on winning a conference championship.
The good news, if there is any, is that he has plenty of familiarity with App State. During his four seasons as head coach at Louisiana, Napier has played the Mountaineers six times.
This will be the third time the two schools have met in the conference championship game. App State won both games in 2018 and 2019.
Most recently, Louisiana beat App State 41-13 at home in October. Levi Lewis threw for 209 yards and a touchdown, and the running game, led by Montrell Johnson, rushed for 246 yards and five touchdowns.
That game was a low point for the Mountaineers. Coach Shawn Clark said the coaches didn’t coach well and the players didn’t play well, plain and simple.
But they regrouped after that, he said, simplifying the defense and playing faster.
The result? In the past three games, App State has given up a combined 17 points.
“Our team speed has really shown and given us a chance to be successful,” Clark said.
But Clark was careful to note that he’s watched Louisiana and sees that it has improved as well.
If the threat of Napier leaving has had any impact on the team, it’s been hard to tell. During the month of November, when job speculation started to ramp up, Louisiana went 4-0, winning a fourth straight division title and finishing the regular season 8-0 in conference play. — Alex Scarborough
American: No. 21 Houston vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ABC): No other conference championship game this weekend features the historic implications that the American does. Beyond a second straight conference championship, Cincinnati has far more on the line, with the possibility it can become the first Group of 5 school to make the College Football Playoff.
No Group of 5 team has been ranked higher than Cincinnati and none has one been as close to shattering that ceiling as the Bearcats. Coach Luke Fickell has taken the same approach for Saturday that he has over the past month with playoff questions and conjecture. Let’s not talk about it.
“You said historic,” Fickell said in response to a question about the magnitude of the game. “I don’t know the history of the AAC, maybe somebody else has been in the championship game three years in a row. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re talking about. That’s what I continue to preach.
“But we’re also not ignorant to think they’re going to be like me and bury their head in the sand. So, we talked about, hey, we want to enjoy what it is that these seniors have created — this buzz on our campus — but we can’t allow it to change us. I’m not saying it’s easy. We all understand that everything is readily at these guys’ fingers. There’s nothing that is missed. But the challenge to each and every individual is [to] find ways to eliminate the noise and make sure you know what it is that you got to be able to do.”
This will no doubt be the most difficult matchup for Cincinnati since facing Notre Dame early in the season. Houston has reeled off 11 straight victories behind a vastly improved defense.
The Cougars rank No. 6 in the nation in total defense and No. 8 in rushing defense, and are tied for third with 43 total sacks. Plus, Houston has special teams phenom Marcus Jones, one of the best returners in the nation.
“They play fly-around, attack the ball football,” Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “That’s how we preach it here, that’s all we preach here. There’s a lot of similarities in the way they go about their games, the way they play their football. I think with their defense and our defense, it’s really just about attacking the ball and how to get the ball out as quick as we can.” — Andrea Adelson
ACC: No. 16 Wake Forest vs. No. 15 Pittsburgh (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): When Kenny Pickett announced he was returning for his 12th — wait, no, just his fifth — season at Pitt, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson was excited.
“I thought it was good for Pitt and good for college football,” Clawson said this week.
It’s been great for Pickett, too. After being told he was likely a mid-round draft pick following the 2020 season, he’s blossomed into a possible first-rounder, led Pitt to a Coastal Division title, thrown for more than 4,000 yards to go with 40 touchdowns, and it’s entirely possible he’ll be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
More importantly, Pickett will be in Charlotte on Saturday to take on Clawson’s Demon Deacons with a conference title on the line.
“Now, I’m not as excited about him coming back,” Clawson joked.
Of course, Clawson has his own star QB, too. Sam Hartman has posted a stat line to rival Pickett’s in 2021 — 3,711 passing yards, 44 total TDs — in leading Wake to its first division title since 2006.
Indeed, just three ACC QBs have ever posted 44 total touchdowns and 4,000 total yards in the regular season before. The first was Lamar Jackson. The other two are Pickett and Hartman.
No wonder then that points figure to be plentiful in the ACC championship game, and the two defenses — both of which have had their low moments this season — could decide who wins by simply making one or two critical stops.
For Wake, Clawson said he’s seen moments of genuine brilliance this season — but It often has been mirrored a week later with complete flubs. He noted the strong performance in the regular-season finale against Boston College, which followed on the heels of a thrashing at the hands of Clemson.
“We really haven’t had an average game yet,” he said.
That might be for the best this week, as Wake likely needs to approach exceptional to shut down a Pitt offense that has topped 40 points seven times this season. Pickett has multiple TD passes in every game.
On the flip side, Wake’s run-pass option has frustrated its share of opponents, and linebacker Phil Campbell said it looks all too familiar to what Western Michigan ran with much success in a 44-41 win over Pitt in September.
“We learned a lot from that game,” Campbell said. “We’re incorporating a lot of those things into this week, and we have a good game plan.”
Of course, plenty of defenses thought they had a good game plan for Hartman — and for Pickett, too. Few have actually approached anything close to success on game day.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that the ACC’s championship then comes down to two QBs who’ve been among the best in the country, and two defenses desperate to show they can hold their own.
“Everything we’ve worked for is right in front of us,” Pickett said. “I’m excited to have one more chance in a championship game.” — David Hale
Big Ten: No. 13 Iowa vs. No. 2 Michigan (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox): Michigan linebacker Josh Ross said he felt like he was in a movie after the win against Ohio State. Having never beaten the Buckeyes, Ross and many of the veterans on the team were relishing in the celebration and their accomplishment.
That wasn’t the final goal, though, and they now face a difficult test in the Big Ten championship game against Iowa. It can be difficult to turn around and play in another important game after such an emotional drain that they experienced against Ohio State, but Ross says this team is prepared.
“We haven’t won a Big 10 championship since 2004,” Ross said. “This is huge for our program, this is huge for our team and let’s get it, let’s ride. There’s nothing too much more to be said. It’s a great opportunity in front of us and we’re ready to go get it.”
Offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis said the team has a strict 24-hour rule and while it was a fun 24 hours, they’ve moved forward and the sole focus is now on Iowa.
“I think top down, and I’ll speak from a player’s perspective, just guys are locked in,” Vastardis said. “They’re dialed in and they’re eager to start working together to get back to work. And I know that’s really big for me and it’s really nice to see the mindset and the maturity of this team is showing through that.”
Michigan’s offense will need to be prepared for Iowa’s defense which has the most interceptions of any team this season with 22. Iowa has also caused problems for opponents on special teams, something Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has noted as something the team needs to prep for.
“I don’t know if every team spends as much time as every other team does in the special teams phase, but you can tell Iowa does,” Harbaugh said. “And they’re really good and they win games from it. Case in point, their last game.”
Iowa’s secondary has a ton of takeaways this season, but the challenge will be Michigan’s ground game. The Wolverines ran for 297 yards and six touchdowns against Ohio State, getting five touchdowns from Hassan Haskins.
The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 14 in rush yards allowed per game, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows they have a challenge in store with Michigan’s offensive line and the three backs the Wolverines utilize in Haskins, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards.
Ferentz said he doesn’t know as much about Edwards, but the tape he has seen on Haskins and Corum has stood out.
“They both present different challenges and they’re not the only two guys,” Ferentz said. “I mean, there’s other guys involved, obviously, but they’re getting good play certainly from the running backs. The guys, as I mentioned a minute ago, up front, I think they’re really doing a nice job, all five guys coordinated.
“Good tight ends, quarterback’s playing well, they got good skill guys outside. So I know they’ve run the ball effectively, but they’re not a one dimensional football team.” — Tom VanHaaren