It's championship week and Ohio State is blessed to be back in the mix for its first conference championship since 2014.
Respective losses for Alabama and Miami last week mean the composition of the playoff is less clear now than it was a week ago. Alabama dropped to the playoff No. 5 spot after that loss and Miami's inexplicable loss at Pittsburgh means a playoff spot is still within reach for the Canes. However, the ACC is certainly not getting two bids this year. This year's ACC Championship Game becomes a de facto quarterfinal with the winner advancing to the "semis."
There's a lot at stake, certainly in the Big Ten and the SEC, but this year's spate of conference championship games is unique from previous years. Almost all are rematches, sans the ACC and Big Ten championship games. Stanford played USC in its second game this season. Memphis and UCF met near the beginning of the season as well. Auburn and Georgia played three weeks ago. Oklahoma and TCU are having a rematch because of the Big XII's cornball conference championship game and regular season format. The most conspicuous game here might even be Boise State and Fresno State, who are having a rematch in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game despite playing last week.
Let's dive into the schedule.
Stanford vs. USC [Pac-12 Championship Game] (ESPN, 8 p.m.). USC has been set for this game since it defeated Arizona almost a month ago whereas Stanford only got this bid late Saturday night. Stanford finished its Pac-12 schedule two weeks ago with a win over California and needed to wait for Washington to do it a solid and hammer Washington State in the Apple Cup.
This is a rematch from the second week this season when USC beat the Cardinal by 18 in Los Angeles. Sam Darnold had the kind of performance we thought would make him a Heisman finalist by this point, throwing for 316 yards and four touchdowns in the 42-24 win. Bryce Love, a potential Heisman finalist, had 160 rushing yards and a touchdown in the loss.
There is a unique quirk to this game that I'm surprised the Pac-12 made possible. USC had a bye last week, finishing its regular season with UCLA two weeks ago. It seems suboptimal, perhaps even unfair, to have a Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday when one side has a two-week bye and the other is playing on a shortened week. Stanford had just played Notre Dame on Saturday night.
Do yourself a favor, Ohio State fans, and watch this contest closely. Ohio State is likely getting the winner of this game in the Fiesta Bowl if Ohio State doesn't make the playoff. The Buckeyes should match up better against USC but both offenses will pose problems for Ohio State's iffy pass defense.
Memphis at UCF [American Athletic Conference Football Championship Game] (ABC, 12 p.m.). Winner of this game gets into the New Year's Six, and likely the Peach Bowl.
This is another rematch. Undefeated UCF will host the Memphis Tigers despite smashing Memphis by 27 at home earlier this season. That is Memphis' only loss the season.
UCF is favored by seven in this contest but should cover unless Scott Frost is that eager to get out of town for another payday.
Akron vs. Toledo [MAC Championship Game] (ESPN, 12 p.m.). This is another rematch. Toledo beat Akron by 27 in the Glass Bowl earlier this season. This time around, they'll be meeting in Detroit.
At the risk of editorializing, the MAC Championship Game this year is kind of a missed opportunity. 10-2 Toledo is clearly the best team in the MAC West and has the best overall record in the conference. However, Ohio is likely the best team in the MAC East but dropped a close road decision to Akron by three points. That was the tie-breaker, though Ohio didn't help its case by losing its regular season finale at Buffalo.
There is one unique quirk to this game, similar to the Pac-12 Championship Game. Akron played last Tuesday while Toledo played on Friday. Akron has three extra days of rest.
Louisiana Monroe at Florida State (ACC Network, 12 p.m.). This game was originally cancelled because of Hurricane Irma. Florida State later added it back to the schedule when 1) it was clear it was not going to the ACC Championship Game and 2) it sucked so hard through this season it still needed a sixth win to guarantee at least a .500 regular season.
Florida State is 5-6 right now. A (certain) win over Louisiana Monroe gets it to .500 just in time for Jimbo Fisher to take Texas A&M's oil money.
TCU vs. Oklahoma [Big XII Championship Game] (FOX, 12:30 p.m.). This is the first of the Big XII's new championship game format. It's also a game that's kind of dumb to play. Here's a recap of how we got here.
The Big XII lost its status as 12-team league when Colorado left for the Pac-12 and Nebraska left for the Big Ten. Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC, which the Big XII compensated by adding TCU and West Virginia. It became unique among the Power Five conferences after that as a "round-robin" league. Everyone plays everyone.
However, the NCAA only allowed divisions and conference championship games for 12-team leagues. This barred the Big XII from having a conference championship game in 2014 when Baylor and TCU played to an indecisive outcome (nominally a Baylor win) that ultimately cost a playoff spot for both. That went to Ohio State instead and both fan bases are still smarting about that.
The NCAA "deregulated" conference championship games after some lobbying for the Big XII, who almost certainly would've sent a conference champion to the playoff in 2014 if it could have scheduled a second neutral-site game between Baylor and TCU. So, the Big XII wants a safeguard against something like that happening again by pitching itself as a "one true champion" league and also a league that "guarantees" its conference championship game is between No. 1 and No. 2.
You'll notice the problem here. Oklahoma already played TCU and beat them by 18 in Norman. We already have a "one true champion" in the Big XII; it's Oklahoma.
Oklahoma would be in the playoff right now if the season ended today. The Big XII lobbied aggressively for this cornball conference championship game format with the idea of preventing something like Baylor-TCU in 2014 from happening again. Instead, the Big XII finds itself in a different predicament this year in which we're not only getting a "guaranteed" No. 1 vs. No. 2, but also a guaranteed rematch pitting a certain playoff participant against a CFP No. 11 squad with no real hope of participating in the semifinals. No. 1 already smashed No. 2 to little bits earlier this season. A TCU upset would mean the Big XII lobbied hard for a game that would've allowed the Big XII to participate in the playoff in 2014 and could potentially allow the Big XII to play itself out the playoff in 2017.
The Big XII should rethink the value of being a round-robin league with an added conference championship game. If you already have a "one true champion" and a clear "No. 1" why give a shit about identifying a "No. 2" to provide it a shot to ruin things?
Georgia vs. Auburn [SEC Championship Game] (CBS, 4 p.m.). This seems like a certain play-in game.
Auburn, despite its two losses this season to Clemson and LSU, catapulted to the No. 2 spot in the playoff committee's rankings after beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. This provided an answer to whether a two-loss team would make the playoff at this point in the season. The playoff committee is bullish on Auburn.
Across the field, Georgia is the CFP No. 6 team behind Alabama and No. 4 Wisconsin. It stands to reason that spot in the playoff is Georgia's for the taking with a win in Atlanta.
Fans will remember Auburn handed Georgia its only loss on the season to date when it routed Georgia by 23 in Auburn three weeks ago. Should Georgia avenge that, it would be the first SEC champion from the SEC East since 2008.
That team: Urban Meyer's Florida Gators. Since then, the SEC West champion has beaten the SEC East champion by an average score of 43-19 in the last eight encounters.
Troy at Arkansas State (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.). This is not an official conference championship game; the Sun Belt doesn't have those. However, this will be the de facto Sun Belt conference championship game. Both teams are 6-1 in conference play and the top two teams in the league. Troy has the better record but Arkansas State is the one-point favorite at home.
Fresno State at Boise State [Mountain West Conference Championship Game] (ESPN, 7:45 p.m.). Here's another rematch. I get that rematches are going to be an inescapable possibility as long as there are cross-division games in the regular season, but Fresno State and Boise State just played. Fresno State beat Boise State by 11 in Fresno on Saturday. The Mountain West Conference Championship Game was even set before that game; both sides knew a rematch was on the horizon.
This is similar to what happened last year when San Diego State and Wyoming had a regular season separated by a conference championship game rematch two weeks later. It's the first rematch in consecutive weeks since Stanford and UCLA played in the first Pac-12 Championship Game in 2012.
Basically, the Mountain West is stupid to allow this to happen. There's a reason the SEC schedules most of its cross-division games of note (e.g. Auburn-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee) in the middle of the season in the event of a possible rematch in Atlanta. The Mountain West should take note.
Miami vs. Clemson [ACC Championship Game] (ABC, 8 p.m.). Good lord, Clemson is going to murder Miami in this game. The bigger game on Saturday night is happening in Indianapolis but this might be a fun game to watch between commercial breaks.
You ever watch those shows on the Discovery Channel or Nat Geo in which the predator—say, a tiger—just kinda... "picks" at the dead carcasses of their prey? You know what I'm talking about; it's the point in the hunt on those documentary-style shows in which the prey goes from source of sustenance to a toy after the hunt turned the prey into a meal? Yeah, that's going to be this game.
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin [Big Ten Championship Game] (FOX, 8 p.m.). This is your personal game of the week and Ohio State's first crack at a conference title since 2014. Stay tuned to Eleven Warriors for comprehensive coverage of this game.