Conference Championship Previews: One Big Key to All 10 Titles Up for Grabs

With a full slate of 10 title games for the first time in FBS history, here's what you need to know about every conference crown on the line this weekend.
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And then there were 20. Teams with a chance to win a conference title, that is.

For the first time in college football history, each of the 10 FBS conferences will hold a title game to determine their 2018 top dog. There will be a rematch of last year’s national championship game (SEC) and a Red River Showdown (Big 12) and a Ragin’ Cajun/Mountaineer clash (Sun Belt), to name just a few.

All 10 matchups will take place this weekend, and each game offers its own unique storylines, matchups and postseason implications. The six teams with a realistic chance to grab one of the three remaining College Football Playoff berths—without a conference title to play for, independent and undefeated Notre Dame is all but assured a spot—are in action this weekend with one last chance to impress the committee.

The mayhem gets started with the MAC, which pits Northern Illinois against Buffalo on Friday night, and ends with the ACC and Big Ten playing side-by-side in primetime on Saturday. This weekend will be a whirlwind, so it’s best to go in with at least some background on each of the 10 matchups.

That’s where we come in. Here’s a mini-preview of all 10, We’ll go in chronological order, starting with the earliest game.

MAC: Northern Illinois vs. Buffalo (Friday, 7 p.m. ET)

Can Northern Illinois stop the bleeding and start the scoring?

Northern Illinois is making its seventh MAC championship game appearance in the last nine years, a remarkable stretch of excellence that has seen the Huskies make a bowl game in nine of the last 10 years. After starting the season 1–3, this year’s team won its first six conference games to win the MAC West title. But this roller coaster campaign has taken another turn in the wrong direction—NIU has lost its last two games, to Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan, and sits at 7–5. The Huskies held second-half leads in both games, and both finished as one-score contests, but heading into the biggest game of the season coming off two losses is far from ideal. The Huskies scored a total of just 27 points in those losses, in keeping with a year-long theme of offensive futility: Only eight teams in the FBS have scored less than NIU’s 19.9 points per game. Buffalo, on the other hand, averages better than 35 points per contest, led by the lethal duo of quarterback Tyree Jackson and wide receiver Anthony Johnson. Will NIU be able to score enough to keep this one close?

Pac-12: Utah vs. Washington (Friday, 8 p.m. ET)

Jake Browning could not be more prepared for this.

The winningest quarterback in Pac-12 history isn’t Matt Leinart or Andrew Luck or Marcus Mariota. It’s Jake Browning, who picked up his 38th win as a starter in Washington’s snowy 28–15 win over Washington State last week. It’s been a quiet-ish year for Browning—who was a legitimate Heisman candidate as he guided Washington to the playoff two years ago—but don’t expect him to be nervous come Friday night at Levi’s Stadium. He led the Huskies to a win in the Pac-12 title game two years ago in the same building. He also led the Huskies to a 21–7 road win over Utah back in September. One thing left to cross off his résumé? A Rose Bowl appearance, which would be in the cards if Browning can muster win No. 39. One other note: Washington is 11–1 all time against Utah.

Big 12: Oklahoma vs. Texas (Saturday, Noon ET)

This time around, Oklahoma will need to limit the turnovers.

The season’s first meeting between these two iconic rivals produced one of the best games of the year, as a Texas field goal in the final minute—Dicker the kicker!— saw the Longhorns survive a furious Oklahoma fourth-quarter comeback and win 48–45. Texas was able to build a 45–24 lead in that game thanks largely to two Kyle Murray turnovers, both of which led to Texas touchdowns. Murray has been fantastic all season, but he hasn’t been given much support by an OU defense that has given up an average of 47.75 points over the last four games, including 40 to Kansas(!). The Sooners managed to escape all four of those games with victories thanks to their explosive offense, but because the defense has been so putrid of late, a few turnovers could swing this one and harpoon OU’s playoff hopes.

Sun Belt: Louisiana at Appalachian State (Saturday, Noon ET)

Appalachian State’s run defense could be the difference.

The first-ever Sun Belt title game pits two teams with remarkably similar offenses against each other. Appalachian State averages 37.3 points per game; Louisiana averages 33.7. Appalachian State averages 242.5 rushing yards; ULL averages 230.2. Appalachian State averages 198.9 passing yards per games; ULL averages 218.3. So how is Appalachian State a 17.5-point favorite? Defense. The Mountaineers allow 165 fewer yards per game than the Ragin’ Cajuns, and the discrepancy is most pronounced against the run—Appalachian State has allowed just 11 rushing touchdowns to ULL’s 30. When these two teams met last month, ULL managed just 140 rushing yards in a 27–17 loss. If the Mountaineers can control ULL’s running game once again, they’ll be in a great position to get to 10 wins for the third straight season.

Conference USA: UAB at Middle Tennessee (Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET)

Seven days later, what will be different?

Last Saturday, Middle Tennessee beat UAB at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This Saturday, Middle Tennessee will play UAB at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, Tenn. That’s right—the Conference USA title game is a rematch of a game that was played in the final week of the season. In that contest, the Blue Raiders were able to keep UAB to a season-low 89 yards en route to a comprehensive 27–3 victory. A.J. Erdely, UAB’s senior quarterback, finished 9-of-20 for 90 yards with an interception in his first game back from a three-game injury absence. He and his coaches will have had seven days to figure out a way to be more effective the second time around, a must if the Blazers are to have a shot.

AAC: Memphis at UCF (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)

How will Darriel Mack Jr. perform?

UCF’s path to the playoff is rather straightforward, if unlikely: it needs to beat Memphis, it needs Alabama to beat Georgia, it needs Texas to beat Oklahoma, it needs Northwestern to beat Ohio State. The first order of business, beating Memphis, has been made more difficult by the season-ending knee injury to starting quarterback McKenzie Milton in the second quarter of the Knights’ 38–10 victory. Darriel Mack Jr. was serviceable in relief but struggled through the air, completing just five of his 14 passing attempts. Memphis played UCF as close as possible when the two teams met in October, ultimately losing 31–30 on a late touchdown run by ... Milton, of course. The Tigers are riding a six-game win streak, and if Mack Jr. can’t function near Milton-levels of proficiency, Memphis could well be the team to end UCF’s magical unbeaten run.

SEC: Alabama vs. Georgia (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)

Georgia’s rushing attack will be key.

This historically dominant Alabama team has beaten its opponents by an average of 35.2 points per game. The Tide’s two “closest” contests came against Texas A&M (22-point win) and Mississippi State (24-point win), two teams that run the ball reasonably well. Georgia runs the ball better than both those two teams, which could bode well for the Bulldogs’ chances to pull a huge upset. The Bulldogs lost Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to the NFL, but D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield have produced at similar levels this season, combining for 1,858 and 16 touchdowns. Georgia couldn’t be playing much better, having won five straight games by an average of 23.2 points. But this Alabama team is just different. The Bulldogs will need to control the ball and the clock to give themselves a chance down the stretch. There’s no better way to do that than with the running game.

Mountain West: Fresno State at Boise State (Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET)

For Fresno State, there’s something about Boise.

Fresno State has had a number of very solid teams in the past, including back-to-back-to-back WAC champs in 1992–94 and back-to-back Mountain West titles in 2012 and ’13. That makes it that much more surprising that the Bulldogs haven’t won in Boise since 1984. Unfortunately for Fresno State, Boise will be the site of this weekend’s title game, which will mark the fourth time the two teams have played in 53 weeks. Last year, Fresno State came out on top in the last game of the regular season, 28–17, before Boise State won the conference title game one week later, 17–14. The Broncos won the first meeting this season, 24–17, as part of their current seven-game winning streak. Expect another tight game between two teams that have become all too familiar. If Fresno State is to get over the Boise hump, it’ll likely have a lot to do with star quarterback Marcus McMaryion, who has thrown for 24 touchdowns and run for another seven against just three interceptions in his senior year.

Big 10: Ohio State vs. Northwestern (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)

Which Northwestern will show up?

If (for whatever reason) you’re a fan of teams that play up or down to their competition, Northwestern is for you. The Wildcats are 0–4 against the spread as favorites and 5-1-1 as underdogs. So which iteration of Pat Fitzgerald’s team will show up in Indianapolis on Saturday: the team that won road games at Iowa and Michigan State, or the one that lost to Akron and needed late stops to beat Rutgers and Illinois? If it’s the former, the Wildcats could keep Dwayne Haskins & Co. in check with their fast defense and stay in the contest. If it’s the latter, look for Ohio State’s superior offensive talent to make this ugly. The Buckeyes are coming off their best performance of the year, by a wide margin, and can smell the playoff. That Urban Meyer fellow also has a habit of having his team ready to play in big games.

ACC: Clemson vs. Pittsburgh (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)

A 26-point spread in a conference championship game?!

Clemson is favored by 26 over Pittsburgh. On a netural field. In a conference championship game! It’s no surprise, really, given the season these two teams have had—behind true freshman QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson has found an explosive offense to complement its elite defense. Pittsburgh is coming off a 21-point loss to Miami. One thing that should give the Panthers hope is their 19–14 loss at Notre Dame; playing a playoff team that close on the road should give Pitt belief that it can at least stay with Clemson. Whether it can actually do so is another story entirely. Vegas, for what it’s worth, doesn’t see it happening. Lawrence has grown visibly more confident in recent weeks, taking complete control of the offense, and Swinney will have his defense fired up after giving up 36 to South Carolina.