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Previewing and predicting the conference championship games

The Buckeyes aren’t playing, but their CFP hopes hinge on the outcomes of Saturday’s conference title games.

Michigan v Ohio State
Buckeyes are playing the waiting game
Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images

We didn’t expect this week to seem so empty. We expected to be gearing up for yet another Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Didn’t happen.

No, the Buckeyes are idle this week, and the only game that they’re playing is the waiting game. But if things fall right, the Bucks could still find themselves in the playoffs. And, although last Saturday’s game would tend to lower confidence of success, the playoffs would offer an opportunity for redemption. Barring the playoffs, New Year’s Day would likely bring Ohio State back to Pasadena and the Granddaddy of Them All.

Starting Friday night, the Power Five conference championship games will keep us occupied, even if we can’t help but think “what might have been.” Below, I’ll preview the five matchups, and provide my take on what to expect.

(Odds change continually, and figures here were in place at the time this column was written).

PAC-12 Championship Game

Utah (9-3) vs. Southern Cal (11-1)

[USC -3]

Friday, Dec.2 — Las Vegas, NV. — 8:00 p.m. ET

The Trojans are a point away from an undefeated season, having lost 43-42 on Oct. 15 to... you guessed it, Utah. The championship game gives USC an opportunity to avenge that loss and demonstrate their conference supremacy. If you watched them handle Notre Dame last week, you know that the balanced offense, led by Heisman frontrunner Caleb Williams, is the real thing and averages 42.5 points per game. The defense, though, is sometimes suspect and can give up yards and points – to the run particularly. Lincoln Riley has done a good job with this team, and they look strong to me.

Utah, after its narrow loss to Ohio State in last year’s Rose Bowl, was ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll. The 29-26 opening game loss to a not-very-good Florida team sent that ranking spiraling, never again reaching better than 10th. The Southern Cal win, obviously, was the Utes’ signature victory, but they also beat a very good Washington Huskies team and lost to Oregon by only three points. UCLA, on the other hand, put up 42 points in beating the Utes by 10. Like USC, Utah sports a better offense than defense, so I think that we can expect another high-scoring game between the two.

Stakes for Ohio State? Pretty high. The Bucks could edge into the playoffs with a Trojan loss.

Southern Cal is in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot, however, and I don’t expect them to let the opportunity pass them by. USC 47-41.

Big 12 Championship Game

Kansas State (9-3) vs. TCU (12-0)

[TCU -2.5]

Saturday, Dec. 3 — Arlington, TX — 12:00 p.m. ET

Chris Klieman’s Wildcats were unranked at the beginning of the season, and didn’t see the top-25 until the end of September. They’ve been pretty consistent throughout the year. Kansas State clobbered Oklahoma State (ranked No. 9 at the time) 48-0, but dropped home games to Tulane (17-10) and Texas (34-27). The Wildcats and TCU met during the regular season, and the Horned Frogs won at home, 38-28. With three losses, K-State has no playoff aspirations, but knocking off undefeated TCU and winning the Big 12 provides plenty of incentive.

TCU has surprised me all season. I kept expecting them to lose, and they didn’t. So, here they are now, one game away from the playoffs. Coach Sonny Dykes should surely be in the running for coach of the year. This kind of success wasn’t predicted. The Frogs weren’t ranked in the AP poll until they beat Oklahoma 55-24. Then folks started to take notice. They’ve had quite a few close wins – Kansas by seven, Oklahoma State by three, Baylor by one – but you get those in magical seasons. And this one has been magical.

Stakes for Ohio State? It’s hard to say if the committee would slot a one-loss TCU (it would have to be a close loss) ahead of a one-loss Buckeye team. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Cheer for the Wildcats here.

TCU won fairly handily in the first game. I really don’t expect the rematch to be much different in what is actually a home game for the Horned Frogs. I see TCU winning, 42-30.

SEC Championship Game

LSU (9-3) vs. Georgia (12-0)

[Georgia -17.5]

Saturday, Dec. 3 — Atlanta, GA — 4:00 p.m. ET

LSU’s 15-point loss this past week to Texas A&M was a real stinker. So bad that it made the wins over Bama and Ole Miss look like flukes. Maybe they were. LSU’s other losses were to Florida State (24-23) and Tennessee (40-13). Obviously, Brian Kelly’s team has a bit of a consistency problem. The Tigers’ scoring offense and scoring defense both rank in the 30s nationally. Not bad. but not good enough.

Georgia, the defending national champions, haven’t been ranked worse than No. 3 all year, and that was the preseason ranking before they trounced Oregon 49-3 in the season opener. The only close call the Dawgs had all year was (surprisingly) at Missouri on Oct. 1, a game in which they finally pulled out a four-point win. Scoring offense and defense rankings? No. 3 and No. 1, respectively. I’ve said many times that Georgia is the country’s best team.

Stakes for Ohio State? None. Georgia is in. LSU can’t make the playoffs, even with a miraculous upset.

Georgia is still on the mission that they accomplished last year. Georgia, fairly easily, 38-17.

Big Ten Championship Game

Purdue (8-4) vs. Michigan (12-0)

[Michigan -16]

Saturday, Dec. 3 — Indianapolis, IN — 8:00 p.m. ET

The Big Ten West was a messy race all year. When the dust finally cleared on Saturday night, Purdue was the last team standing. While the Boilermakers deserve our congratulations, the fact remains that they have the worst resumé of any of these conference championship contenders.

Close losses to Penn State and Syracuse started their season. Later losses at Wisconsin (by 11) and at home to Iowa (by 21) and mediocre wins against Florida Atlantic (by two) and Maryland (by two) tell us what we need to know about this team. They’re in the game because of victories over Illinois and Minnesota. Purdue has a decent passing game, but I don’t see them stopping Michigan.

Michigan, too, is on a mission – one that might well give them the rematch with Georgia for all the marbles. Weak schedule. Lucky against the Illini. But all that grumbling stopped after the Wolverines humbled Ohio State in the Shoe. TTUN may not cover the spread, but I don’t see them stumbling in this one.

Stakes for Ohio State? Really none. Even if Michigan loses, it will get the nod over the Buckeyes.

I don’t expect a repeat of all of those big plays to give Michigan quick touchdowns, but they’ll dominate, nonetheless. Michigan 35-17.

ACC Championship Game

Clemson (10-2) vs. North Carolina (9-3)

[Clemson -7.5]

Saturday, Dec. 3 — Charlotte, NC — 8:00 p.m. ET

Other than Tiger and Tar Heel fans, will anyone be watching this game? The winner – whichever team that it is – doesn’t have a chance of a playoff bid. As I’ve said, Georgia and Michigan are in. If USC and TCU both fall, Alabama and Ohio State are there to grab their spots.

Clemson struggled all year. Neither the offense nor defense is any longer elite. The narrow home loss to in-state rival South Carolina tells us that Dabo’s boys are good, but not really good enough. The loss to Notre Dame was outright ugly, and Clemson squeaked by on several of their wins. They’re no longer in the top echelon of teams nationally.

UNC? They’re averaging 37 points a game, an offense that makes them competitive in all contests. But they’re giving up 30.3 points a game, a defense that puts every game in jeopardy. It’s hard to gauge this team. The Tar Heels struggled to beat two Sun Belt teams – App. State and Georgia State — and lost their last two games, both at home, to Georgia Tech and NC State. So, neither team finished strongly, and both come into this one limping.

Stakes for Ohio State? Absolutely none.

Someone will have to win. Clemson is favored and would like to salvage something from this season. But UNC has nothing to lose, and I see Mack Brown pulling out all the stops. UNC 38-35.

So, there they are. This weekend’s viewing menu. Buckeye fans should cheer for Utah on Friday night and for Kansas State in the early game Saturday. Come 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, we should know where things stand. Both Nick Saban and Ryan Day are lobbying for their teams to be the next one in after Georgia, Michigan, TCU, and Southern Cal.

The Buckeyes should hope that both the Trojans and Horned Frogs lose, then try to regroup for a championship run if things break their way.