December 14, 2020

Picking the Winners of Every CFB Conference Championship Game

It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for the 2020 college football season with dozens of games being either postponed or canceled because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

We also saw several conferences start the season late and play an abbreviated schedule. However, we’ve made it to the end of the regular season and all 10 FBS conferences are scheduled to play their conference championship game this weekend. That alone should be considered a win.

Now for the fun part when we get to talk about the games and predict the conference champions for 2020.

While these aren’t the only games being played this week, let’s take a look at the 10 conference title games and pick a winner for each.

Conference USA: UAB vs Marshall

With a 3-1 conference record amid multiple cancellations, UAB squeaked past Texas-San Antonio to win the Conference USA West Division. As a result, the Blazers are in the conference title game for the third straight season. Don't forget that the program itself was canceled in 2015 and 2016, yet Bill Clark has literally brought the Blazers back from the dead. But Marshall presents a serious challenge for UAB.

Outside of a puzzling 20-0 loss to Rice a couple of weeks ago, the Thundering Herd has been the best team in Conference USA this season. Marshall’s problem is that last week’s game with Charlotte was canceled, so haven’t been able to fully put that loss behind them. Also, the Herd continues to deal with COVID complications.

At full strength, Marshall is outstanding defensively and has a balanced offense behind redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells. The Blazers will give them a test because they can run the ball and play good defense. But Wells and Doc Holliday’s defense should be the difference in the end.

Pick: Marshall

MAC: Buffalo vs Ball State

Ball State put together an incredible fourth-quarter comeback against Western Michigan and then survived a “the band is on the field” moment to reach the MAC Championship Game. However, their reward is facing a Buffalo team that has steamrolled everyone.

The Bulls are averaging more than 50 points per game over their past five games, scoring a minimum of 42 points in every contest. Running back Jaret Patterson has 1,025 rushing yards in just five games, and he didn’t come close to playing the whole game last week against Akron.

The Cardinals, to their credit, have won five in a row since dropping their season opener. But they’ve struggled against the run and are solid but far from dynamic on offense.

This is Buffalo’s game to lose, and everybody knows it.

Pick: Buffalo

Pac-12: USC vs Oregon

Only in 2020 would the participants of a conference title game change on a Monday with the game scheduled for Friday. Alas, that is what the Pac-12 has done, as Washington isn't going to have enough healthy bodies because of COVID-related protocol and contact tracing. As a result, the Huskies are out after technically winning the North Division and Oregon is set to take on USC.For what it's worth, Oregon is probably better than Washington, at least when the Ducks are playing their best even though they suffered disappointing losses to Oregon State and Cal late in the season. Nevertheless, Oregon has two quality running backs in Travis Dye and CJ Verdell while quarterback Tyler Slough looked good early in the season. The question for the Ducks is if they'll show up defensively, especially the pass rush that had just eight sacks in five games.

Meanwhile, the Trojans head to the conference title game 5-0, although on three separate occasions, USC scored the game-winning touchdown in the final minute. For the most part, the Trojans have relied on quarterback Kedon Slovis to bail them out late in games. Slovis had 1,601 passing yards and 15 touchdowns in five games and would be a serious Heisman contender if he had played a full season.While the Ducks are good enough to make this a competitive game, it's hard to trust them to beat a quality team. If nothing else, Slovis should step up in the clutch and carry the Trojans to the Pac-12 title.

Pick: USC

Big Ten: Northwestern vs Ohio State

The Buckeyes beat the Wildcats 52-3 last season. But to be fair, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats have come a long way since then. And outside of one slip-up against Michigan State, the Wildcats have played well this season and earned their trip to the conference title game.

The loss to Michigan State was the only time Northwestern conceded more than 20 points in a game, creating a compelling matchup with an Ohio State team that’s averaging 46 points per game.

The X-factor in this game is the Ohio State defense, which has allowed at least 25 points in three of five games. The secondary could be vulnerable against an experienced quarterback like Peyton Ramsey. But the Wildcats will surely need to make a stand defensively if they want to pull the upset.

Pick: Ohio State

Big 12: Oklahoma vs Iowa State

It’s been two and a half months since the Cyclones scored 14 unanswered points in the final eight minutes of the game to beat Oklahoma 37-30. At that time, the Sooners were 0-2 inside the Big 12 and had a narrow path to the title game.

But Spencer Rattler and the offense have turned things up a notch while the Oklahoma defense has also played its part, giving up 14 points or less in four of their last five games.

Of course, the Cyclones have also improved since that meeting. The ISU defense has allowed just 26 total points in their last three games, including a road win over Texas. More importantly, quarterback Brock Purdy has come on strong. Iowa State has arguably the best running back in the Big 12 in Breece Hall, and with Purdy’s confidence as high as it’s been in 2020, this could be the toughest test the Sooners face this season.

The Cyclones won the first meeting with Purdy completing just 50% of his passes, and they’ll be even more difficult this time around as the Sooners look to win their sixth straight conference championship.

Pick: Iowa State

Sun Belt: Louisiana vs Coastal Carolina

Admit it, even in the craziness that is 2020, you never expected the Sun Belt Championship Game to feature two ranked teams. But that’s where we are, and honestly, this has a chance to be one of the best games of the weekend.

The Ragin’ Cajuns hosted the Chanticleers in mid-October with Coastal Carolina winning 30-27 on a late field goal. At the time, Louisiana was a 9-point favorite and now the No. 13 Chanticleers are 4-point home favorites against the No. 19 Ragin’ Cajuns.

Louisiana shouldn’t be overlooked just because Coastal is getting national attention. The Ragin’ Cajuns have scored road wins over Iowa State, UAB and Appalachian State this season with that home loss to the Chanticleers being their only loss of the season.

Despite Grayson McCall’s brilliance as a redshirt freshman and the contributions of the CCU defense, Louisiana has a more experienced quarterback and a better rushing attack.

Sadly, the dream season for the Chanticleers won’t have a perfect ending.

Pick: Louisiana

Mountain West: San Jose State vs Boise State

If you weren’t watching the abbreviated Mountain West season, you missed out on a lot of compelling football. The end result is a showdown between perennial contender Boise State and upstart San Jose State.

This will be the fourth straight season that the Broncos are in the Mountain West Championship Game, winning twice in the last three years. However, they haven’t necessarily been tested much this year outside of a 51-17 loss to BYU. Even in their wins, Boise State hasn’t always looked too impressive, although they’ve gotten the job done.

On the other side, San Jose State is one of the best stories in college football that nobody is talking about. The Spartans haven’t won a conference title since 1991 when they were members of the Big West. Just two years ago, they were 1-11, and now Brent Brennan has them sitting at 6-0. Wins over San Diego State, Hawaii and Nevada (in a de-facto play-in game) prove that the Spartans are legit.

The San Jose State defense has been outstanding while former Arkansas and Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel has been a revelation.

This is a classic old guard vs new guard matchup, and look for the new guard to surprise some people.

Pick: San Jose State

AAC: Cincinnati vs Tulsa

These teams were supposed to play in last week’s regular-season finale and then meet again in the title game regardless of the outcome. As long as both teams are cleared to play on Saturday night, this game should be worth the wait.

While the Bearcats are favored by more than two touchdowns, the 6-1 Golden Hurricanes won’t be a pushover. Tulsa’s lone loss was a 16-7 defeat to Oklahoma State in the season opener, so the Golden Hurricanes know they can play with anyone. Defensively, Tulsa may be capable of making this game more interesting than the spread suggests. Linebacker Zaven Collins is a next-level player you will want to check out.

Offensively, the Golden Hurricanes aren’t explosive enough to keep up in a track meet with Desmond Ridder. But Tulsa’s offense has good balance and will put some points on the board.

The Bearcats also have to worry about a little rust because they haven’t played since before Thanksgiving. But if Cincinnati plays anywhere near its best, the Bearcats should win.

The question is whether they can look good enough doing it to catch the eye of the Playoff committee.

Pick: Cincinnati

SEC: Alabama vs Florida

Let’s be honest, this game is a little less appealing after Florida lost to LSU last week. That surely played a role in the Crimson Tide opening as 17-point favorites.

The Gators have had defensive problems all season, and the loss to LSU didn’t exactly answer any of those questions. Even if the Gators were looking ahead to Alabama, it’s not an excuse for allowing the LSU offense to score 30 points (plus a pick-six by the LSU defense).

With the way Mac Jones has thrown the ball and the running abilities of Najee Harris, it could be a long day for the Florida defense.

Of course, Kyle Trask remains a serious Heisman contender, so it’ll be fascinating to see how he plays against the Alabama defense. Since halftime of their game against Georgia, the Crimson Tide has dominated one opponent after another. They’ve given up just 43 points total in their last six and a half games.

Even a quarterback like Trask could have a tough time keeping his team in the game against the Alabama defense.

Pick: Alabama

ACC: Clemson vs Notre Dame

Oddly enough, the ACC might have the best chance of getting two teams into the College Football Playoff. That is likely to happen if Clemson can avenge an earlier loss to Notre Dame. Despite the Fighting Irish winning in South Bend, the Tigers are more than 10-point favorites in Charlotte this weekend.

Keep in mind that Trevor Lawrence didn’t play in the first meeting. While D.J. Uiagalelei did a fine job in his place. Lawrence brings far more experience to the table, not to mention some intangibles that the true freshman still lacks. However, the key to this game might be running back Travis Etienne.

Once a potential Heisman contender, Etienne has rushed for 66 yards or less in three straight games. That includes just 28 yards on 18 carries last month against the Irish. If Notre Dame can continue to keep Etienne bottled up, they’ll have a chance to beat the Tigers for a second time.

On the other hand, it’ll be interesting to see if Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has learned anything about stopping the Notre Dame offense over the past month.

Ultimately, beating Clemson once is tough, but beating them a second time doesn’t seem possible. Fortunately, the Fighting Irish can afford a close loss and still remain in the top-4.

Pick: Clemson

Photo: Getty Images