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  • These conference championship game participants without a simple way into the final four can still mess things up for their league with a win.
By Joan Niesen
November 29, 2017

Championship weekend starts Friday night, with the Pac-12 title game kicking off at 8 p.m. ET, and I can’t remember a 30-hour span with a better lineup of conference championship games than this one. Of the six major title games—let’s lump the American in here—three have “winner gets in” stakes for the College Football Playoff. Whoever captures the SEC and ACC titles is almost certainly guaranteed a berth, and the American’s champion, be it Memphis or UCF, will get a New Year’s Six bowl bid—the closest a Group of Five team is going to get to the playoff for now.

In the other three games, though, only one team involved has a simple path to the final four. In the Big Ten, that’s undefeated Wisconsin. In the Big 12, it’s Oklahoma. And while USC faces extremely long odds, the Trojans can at least put themselves in the top eight conversation with a Pac-12 title. Which brings us to their opponents, three teams that can only play spoiler this weekend and secured a coveted conference crown in the process. We’ll dig into each’s chances of a win, from the most likely to the least likely.

Ohio State

Why won’t the Buckeyes get in with a win? The only other current two-loss team with a shot at the playoff is Auburn—which has beaten Alabama and Georgia and lost to Clemson and LSU. That resume tops the Buckeyes’, and Auburn has won its last five games. To get in, it’ll have to win a sixth straight. No other team even has a chance of getting in with two losses. Also, I can’t imagine a two-loss Ohio State team getting in ahead of one-loss Alabama.

The Buckeyes are six-point favorites to beat Wisconsin in Indianapolis on Saturday night, so to call this prediction an upset would be a stretch. The Badgers go into the game ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll (their highest mark since 1963) and No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and the Big Ten title game will be their first game this season in which they aren’t favored. Vegas clearly knows something, and it’s not hard to see why the Buckeyes have the best chance of any to play spoiler this weekend. For one, Ohio State is the only team playing in a title game—or ranked among the top 25—that features both a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense. That fact hasn’t gotten nearly enough play this season, in large part due to Ohio State’s two losses; one came early to a top-10 team and the other was downright inexplicable.

Everyone knows the rap on Wisconsin: It hasn’t played anyone. But in recent weeks, the Badgers have been able to somewhat correct for their easy schedule with wins over Iowa and Michigan, which were ranked No. 25 and No. 19, respectively, at the time of the games. (Meanwhile, Ohio State has lost to a No. 5 and beaten a No. 2 and a No. 13.) The Badgers, though, are allowing just 236.9 yards per game to opponents, the fewest in college football. Ohio State has one of the most balanced offenses in college football,but the Badgers’ defense also doesn’t have much of a weak spot, ranking No. 1 against the run and No. 2 against the pass. More than likely, this is going to come down to a matter of whether Wisconsin can score. The Badgers can run the ball—freshman Jonathan Taylor has been a delight this season, averaging 150.5 yards per game—but their passing game under quarterback Alex Hornibrook can be inconsistent. If Hornibrook is accurate and protects the football, the Badgers are hard to beat, but if the Buckeyes’ defense generates a few turnovers, Urban Meyer has a solid chance of spoiling Wisconsin’s—and likely the Big Ten’s—playoff dreams.

TCU

Why won’t the Horned Frogs get in with a win? The argument above about two-loss teams applies here too. Plus, the committee has had Ohio State ranked ahead of TCU every week except the one immediately after the Buckeyes’ loss to Iowa, so it’s hard to see a two-win TCU getting in if a two-win Ohio State won’t. The Big 12’s only shot—in any rational scenario—is a one-win Oklahoma.

In a game that’s essentially a home field for both teams—Norman is just three hours north of Dallas, and Oklahoma fans travel—the Big 12 championship kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. The Sooners are seven-point favorites against a TCU team it beat 38–20 on Nov. 11. In the first year of the resurrected Big 12 title game, there’s a new wrinkle: because the 10-team league has no divisions and plays a round-robin schedule, the game is a rematch between the conference’s two best teams. What Oklahoma did in Norman against the Horned Frogs offers a good preview of what may be to come Saturday. That day, the two teams combined for 957 yards of total offense and leaned on the passing game—a format that will likely be replicated on Saturday. TCU was sloppy at times in the first matchup, committing seven penalties for 60 yards, and if it can show a bit more discipline, it’ll have a better shot.

Still, to me this game comes down to each team’s best players, and Baker Mayfield is better than every player in purple on the field. It’s been an emotional few weeks for the senior, but he finished last Saturday’s game against West Virginia on a high note, logging his second-highest passer rating of the season. (His best mark came in Week 1 against UTEP.) If Mayfield is himself, this one will go to Oklahoma, but if TCU can find a way to stop the Heisman front-runner, it’ll have a chance to play spoiler.

Stanford

Why won’t the Cardinal get in with a win? Stanford has three losses. Fin.

It’s O.K. if you’ve forgotten about USC. Plenty of people have, thanks to the expectations that the Trojans carried into this year; because they haven’t lived up to preseason hype, they must be a disappointment. Quietly, they have won four straight games since a blowout loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, with an average margin of victory of more than two scores over that stretch. Like the Big 12 championship, this game is a rematch of a regular season meeting decided by 18 points; Stanford lost 42–24 to USC back in Week 2.

That game showcased the Trojans at their best: Quarterback Sam Darnold posted the best passer rating of his season, and the USC offense racked up 623 total yards. Stanford running back Bryce Love still hadn’t quite burst onto the scene as a legitimate Heisman candidate, although he did put up 160 yards that day, and the Trojans’ defense posted a better-than-average day, holding the Cardinal to 362 yards of total offense. It wasn’t Stanford at its worst—that would come the following week against San Diego State—but it certainly wasn’t the team’s best performance of the year.

Now, USC will be catching the Cardinal on a roll, coming off a win over Notre Dame—a team that accounts for one of USC’s two losses. USC is a four-point favorite this week, and if Darnold plays like he has over the past six games—in which he’s tossed 12 touchdown passes and just three interceptions—I think USC should get the nod in a game that will almost certainly be much closer than the two teams’ first matchup.

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