Championship Saturday storylines
SEC Championship Game
No. 1 LSU vs. No. 12 Georgia: After the grisly spectacle of the Pac-12 title game elicits repeated groans from the masses, will there be any undamaged vocal chords left to complain about the other "one-sided" championship matchup of the weekend? Let's find out! Georgia hasn't lost since Week 2, turning an 0-2 start and more tiresome calls for the tanned and fluffy head of Mark Richt into a 10-2 regular season and assurances of a reasonably prestigious bowl bid. The Dawgs did have the advantage of getting their two most fearsome opponents out of the way early, and easily handled remaining ranked foes Auburn and Georgia Tech in November. They also emerged victorious from the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. You might have heard. And while South Carolina edged out Georgia in September, the Gamecocks' two subsequent conference losses boosted UGA back into the Dome.
LSU is ... LSU, but without the two regular-season losses that were once the hallmark of even the best Bayou Bengals teams under Les Miles. The Tigers have played seven ranked opponents to Georgia's four, beginning with that Arlington showdown against Oregon over Labor Day weekend, which they won by two touchdowns. Since then, they've dispatched two more top five opponents (Alabama and Arkansas), blown some formerly well-regarded teams out of the water and ground out the requisite low-scoring slugfests.
Speaking of which: Expect another one of those. Some of the most respected names in God's green conference will be everywhere you look Saturday evening, on both sides of the ball: Aaron Murray, Tyrann Mathieu, Jarvis Jones, Rueben Randle. But though both teams have recorded blowout wins in 2011, they've leaned on their defenses to stick it to opponents.
And while it's a conference championship game brimming with BCS implications and replete with the potential to tip the entire bowl system into December anarchy, don't expect either squad to come out jittery. These are two teams both very much at home in the environs of Atlanta; in fact, the game will look like a home stand for both teams, with LSU in the white jerseys it typically dons in Death Valley and Georgia in its classic reds.
Big Ten Championship Game
No. 11 Michigan State vs. No. 15 Wisconsin: Now here's a rematch with undeniable appeal. State's 37-31 October upset victory was one of the most jaw-dropping tilts of the season, and the first-ever B1G Championship Game will reunite the Badgers and Spartans under the lights in Indianapolis. Their last meeting tuckered both teams right out -- the Spartans lost to Nebraska the week following, while Wisconsin fell somewhat inexplicably to Ohio State -- but each holds a four-game win streak since and will arrive at Week 14 fat, sassy and relatively unscathed. (Please don't tell Mark Dantonio I called his team fat. Or sassy. Which do you think he'd hate more?)
Matchups to watch Saturday night: Russell Wilson versus State's secondary, which seemed to have his number last time around. Wisconsin's pass defense, ranked just behind Michigan State's, versus a Kirk Cousins offense that trails Wilson and friends in hype but leads them in statistics. Montee Ball versus Willie Gholston, who was absent from Spartans-Badgers I. (Also, Ball versus Heisman voters and Barry Sanders' single-season rushing touchdown record.)
ACC Championship Game
No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. No. 21 Clemson: The second major-conference rematch pits the Hokies against the one team that got the better of them this season -- in a big way. Clemson dropped Virginia Tech 23-3 way back in Week 5, and just to make things interesting, the Hokies haven't lost since, while the Tigers have gone on a bit of a skid. Frank Beamer's boys vanquished ranked Georgia Tech and Regular Virginia teams, and as they were out making the case for a deserved place in rankings nobody seemed all that eager to drop them in anyway, the Tigers went and lost three of their last four, including a horrifying pantsing by NC State that gave them that indignity of all message board indignities: the transitive loss to Boston College.
An eye-popping defensive stand gave Clemson the win the first time around. Three of the Hokies' four closest wins have been relatively low-octane affairs. And while the Tigers' three losses have involved them allowing points above their defensive average, their offense was also held below 23 points in each. Less than three touchdowns and change this season, and Clemson's going home with an L.
Possible tweakers of Saturday's outcome: Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, who was playing on a hurt shoulder the last time these two teams met, and ACC offensive rookie of the year Sammy Watkins, who's been battling a shoulder injury of his own through two of the team's three defeats. The Tigers won practically without him the last time, as the Hokies held Watkins to 38 receiving yards, but look at the numbers, and know Clemson's going to need all the scoring opportunities it can get.
Conference USA Championship Game
No. 24 Southern Miss @ No. 7 Houston: I have real and tangible concerns about the true quality of the Golden Eagles, who lost twice this season to very bad teams, beat Virginia, but didn't have to play Tulsa. That said, they're fielding what's statistically the best defense the Cougars will have had to face this season. (Of course, you could just as easily argue that Houston's got by far the best offense to stare down Southern Miss all year.)
Where the Eagles may give UH bigger fits: On offense, where they trail only the Cougars in production behind the passing prowess of Austin Davis, and on special teams, where they hover in the conference's upper echelons in all major categories.
Conference Championship Game-Like Substances
• No. 13 Oklahoma @ No. 3 Oklahoma State: Stewart Mandel will be on the scene in Stillwater to watch the Big 12 standings shake out, and George Schroeder has a full column up devoted to Bedlam, but just a few notes and numbers to get you started: Mike Gundy's Cowboys have never beaten OU. But is it irredeemably crazy to pick State here? Not really. The Weeden-and-Blackmon-led Pokes offense is operating at full Gatling rattle, and the Sooners' attack is not as potent as it might have been after sustaining season-ending injuries to Dominique Whaley and Ryan Broyles.
• Connecticut @ Cincinnati: It's not a conference title game, but the first game of Saturday afternoon will determine the team the Big East sends to the Orange Bowl -- only it won't be either of the teams on the field. A Bearcats win sends West Virginia south; a Connecticut victory will break the tie atop the standings in favor of Louisville.
Reduce your football footprint
• Iowa State @ No. 16 Kansas State: The Wildcats will have to win to earn one-third of whatever segmented trophy the Big 12 is intent on distributing, and as we've all seen this season, the Cyclones can pull off a nasty upset when they feel like it. (Of course, the Wildcats have upended a couple apple carts themselves this year.) I-State will have a fun afternoon trying to contain both Collin Klein and John Hubert, while K-State's middling defense must stifle the new kid, dual-threat freshman 'Clones quarterback Jared Barnett.
• Texas @ No. 19 Baylor: Got another too-perfect storyline here, featuring the Big 12's No. 1 offense versus the No. 1 defense. Robert Griffin is coming off the bench after being sidelined for a chunk of last week's game with concussion symptoms, but he's been vocally gunning for the 'Horns all week. Thanks to his feet, Griffin actually leads both Landry Jones and Brandon Weeden in total offense, and he's not the Bears' only weapon on the ground. Terrance Ganaway is a top 20 rusher who had a monstrous 247-yard outing against Texas Tech just last week. 'Horns defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has carried on the recent Will Muschamp tradition of the stout Texas defense; his is a statistical top 10 unit, and that's after facing teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. On offense, meanwhile, Texas has finally seemed to settle on a permanent starting quarterback, and Case McCoy's bound to look good against this lackadaisical Bears D. • UNLV @ No. 18 TCU and New Mexico @ No. 9 Boise State: Listed here because they've got ranked teams playing in what are technically going to be called football contests, despite pitting two teams with three combined wins agains the Horned Frogs and Broncos. It'll get ugly early, and stay ugly. Last chance to see Kellen Moore play pitch-and-catch on the blue turf, though, if you're sentimental about these things.