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Forde-Yard Dash: Which College Football Teams Can Overthrow The Usual Champions?

Fresh faces are making plays to earn spots in their conference championship games. Who is breaking the status quo?
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where “last place in the SEC West” and “LSU” make for a strange pairing in the same sentence:

MORE DASH: Quick Triggers | Big 12 Karma | Best Coaches

THIRD QUARTER: CHANGE AT THE TOP

As we charge into the stretch of this season, there are a lot of fresh faces making bids to play in their conference championship games. That’s a good thing, in a sport that so often seems stuck on status quo. A Dash breakdown of which teams are in position to potentially overthrow the usual suspects, in order from the most upheaval to the least:

ACC (21): After winning another shootout, this time over North Carolina State, Wake Forest can clinch the ACC Atlantic by winning either of its final two games—at Clemson Saturday or at Boson College Nov. 27. That would dethrone the Tigers, who have won the last six ACC championships. Last time Wake played in the ACC title game: 2006.

In the Coastal Division, Pittsburgh and Virginia will go a long way toward deciding that champion Saturday when they meet at Heinz Field. The Panthers lead the division at 5–1, with the Cavaliers 4–2. The Coastal title changes hands constantly, so it hasn’t been too long since either won it—Pitt last in 2018 and Virginia in ’19. But Pitt has never won the entire ACC, and Virginia hasn’t won it since 1995.

Big 12 (22): Oklahoma State is tied for first place at 6–1 with the ultimate usual suspect, Oklahoma. Baylor is a game back at 5–2. But the Sooners, who have won six straight Big 12 titles, have the toughest remaining schedule of the three with Iowa State Saturday and a trip to Oklahoma State Nov. 27. The Cowboys are at Texas Tech Saturday before hosting the Bedlam game. Baylor has Kansas State in Manhattan Saturday and Texas Tech in Waco Nov. 27.

The Cowboys have never played in the Big 12 title game and last won the league in 2011, when the championship game was on hiatus. Baylor, which owns the head-to-head matchup over the Sooners but lost to the Cowboys, last played in the title game against Oklahoma in 2019. If there is the potential for some more Baylor-Oklahoma sportsmanship posturing in Jerry World, The Dash wouldn’t be opposed. (Hat tip to Matt Mosley for unearthing this tidbit that undermines Lincoln Riley’s wounded reaction to Baylor’s late field goal Saturday.)

Big Ten (23): Well what do we have here in the East? Michigan, which has never played in the Big Ten title game, is in the running. The Wolverines (6–1) need to win out and need someone to knock off Michigan State to make it. The Spartans (6–1), who last played in the title game in 2016, control their own destiny. But both need to go through Ohio State (7–0) to get to Indianapolis. The Buckeyes remain the favorite to win the East for the sixth straight year.

Wisconsin (5–2) controls all West Division tiebreakers at the moment but still has a game at Minnesota (4–3). Iowa is also 5–2 but has losses to the Badgers and Purdue (4–3) and a win over the Gophers. Wisconsin winning the division would hardly be anything original, having played in six of the 10 Big Ten championship games. Iowa hasn’t been to Indy since 2015. Minnesota and Purdue have never been.

Mountain West (24): Utah State (8–2, 5–1) is in position to earn its first MWC title-game appearance since 2013 with two more wins, or one win and a Boise State loss. (The Aggies have never won the league title.) The competition the final two weeks is entirely manageable: Wyoming (5–5) and New Mexico (3–7).

In the West Division, San Diego State (9–1, 5–1) controls its own destiny in search of its first MWC championship game appearance since 2016. Fresno State (last appearance in 2018) can peak in if it beats San Jose State and the Aztecs slip up against either UNLV or Boise State. Nevada, which has never played in the MWC title game and never won the league title, remains in the mix as well but needs a lot of losing from SDSU and Fresno.

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Conference USA (25): The West Division will be decided Saturday in San Antonio, when undefeated UTSA hosts UAB. The Roadrunners have never won anything in their brief FBS existence, so that would be big. The Blazers have played for the last three C-USA titles, winning two of them.

In the East, Western Kentucky (5–1) and Marshall (4–2) are in position to play for the division crown Nov. 27 in Huntington, W.Va., but things could get complicated with other scenarios if both lose this weekend. The Hilltoppers haven’t played for the C-USA title since Jeff Brohm was the coach in 2016; Marshall was in the championship game last year.

MAC (26): The midweek MACtion reaches a crescendo now, with Northern Illinois (5–1) trying to complete a worst-to-first journey in the West. If NIU wins one of its remaining two games, it clinches the division. If it loses both, Central Michigan could slip in or things could get really weird with a multi-team logjam at the top. Northern Illinois last played in the title game in 2018, but before that was in six straight from 2010 to '15.

In the East, Miami (Ohio) and Kent State (both 4–2) could play for the division on Nov. 27. But Ohio (3–3) is lurking if they slip up. The Redhawks have played once in the MAC title game since 2010; the Golden Flashes just once in program history (2012); and the Bobcats’ last appearance was 2016.

American (27): Cincinnati certainly is the status quo, having played in the last two title games. The Bearcats need to win just one of two remaining games (SMU Saturday, at East Carolina Nov. 27) to secure a spot. But it’s been a while for Houston, which already has locked up its spot. The Cougars’ last appearance was the last year under Tom Herman, in 2015—two coaches ago.

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Pac-12 (28): Not every conference is ready for major change. Oregon and Utah will play Saturday and then are on track to play again in December for the league championship. The Ducks have played in the last two title games, and the Utes in two of the last three. If the Ducks lose twice and other things happen, Oregon State and Washington State are still in play to win the North and make their first appearance in the championship. In the South, Arizona State needs to win two while Utah loses two. The Sun Devils haven’t been to the championship game since 2013.

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SEC (29): This is another league where the status is rather quo. Georgia has won the East for the fourth time in the last five years. Alabama needs one win to capture the West for the sixth time in the last eight years. (There actually have been more schools win the West than the East in the last seven seasons, with Auburn and LSU each taking a West title from Bama while Florida and Georgia have dominated the East.)

Sun Belt (30): The season-ending injury to Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall has all but scuttled the Chanticleers’ hopes for a repeat, which already were on the ropes after losing to Appalachian State. The Mountaineers now are in the driver’s seat to win the East, while Louisiana already has wrapped up the West for the fourth straight year. Those two met in the championship game in 2018 and ’19, with App winning both.

MORE DASH: Quick Triggers | Big 12 Karma | Best Coaches

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